Category Errors and Sustainability


E. J. Dionne, blogging for the Washington Post takes the President to task for using pragmatism as a shield against any claim that he is resting on some ideological pillow.

President Obama regularly speaks disdainfully of “ideology,” says he is focused only on “what works” and loves to be described as “pragmatic.”

Well, sure. No one ever admits to being an ideologue, and as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed many years ago, democratic government should be about “the search for remedy.”

But there comes a time when first principles need to be articulated. The economic crisis has let loose a furious philosophical debate over the meltdown, its causes and its cures. Conservatives have entered this fight with guns blazing while Democrats, including at times the president, often want to retreat behind a Maginot Line armed only with the word “pragmatism.”

It’s true of course that Obama has answered many of the conservative arguments, particularly in his address to Congress last month. But he never wants to acknowledge that in doing so he is actually joining the ideological debate, and he always goes out of his way — as in his repeated insistence that he never intended to increase the size of government — to dull the philosophical edges.

Dionne makes a category error in this criticism when he implies that pragmatism is not a principle. Being “pragmatic” is frequently used to disguise the lack of some model or principle to follow when faced with a big or small problem that demands attention. But that is not its real meaning. Pragmatism is as much a principle as is the golden rule. What Dionne refers to as “principles” are statements based on some truth derived from science or simply by authority. Smaller government is better than bigger government is a principle by virtue of the authority of the speaker. It cannot be traced back to any fundamental law of nature or first principle.

Behind all principles such as these is another idea: both natural and human systems can be modeled by laws that describe how the system works and principles that show us how to get what we want from it. Philosophers call these positive rules—rules that we can prove to be true methodologically. Positivism is our society’s master or dominant ideology, and, as ideologies go, hides neatly from view.

Pragmatism is another distinct master ideology. It is not just an excuse for muddling through. It argues that positivism cannot unearth all truths because the system under the microscope cannot be described by neat principles. However, truth, that is, a description that does work in practice, can be found by repeated experiments continuing until one turns out exactly as predicted or intended.

Counterposing pragmatism against any [positive] principled argument is not a case of weaseling out. It is simply a claim that the problem at hand is not reducible to some mechanistic system that some social or technical engineer can fix. Dionne is correct when he points out that the rhetorical use of pragmatism may be putting the President on the defensive. The way to fix this is not to pick up any old principle and start a food fight with the opponents. The odds are that they will only dig a deeper hole. Dionne would be more constructive by pointing out the category error and help replace rhetoric with reason.

Almost all, maybe all, of our big societal problems—financial social, geopolitical—persist and often worsen because of this categorical error. Unsustainable conditions arise when we use models to fix problems that fail to capture the whole “truth” of the situation. Sustainability becomes a possibility when problems solvers and governors trade in their “principled” frameworks for pragmatic approaches. Pragmatism is not a blind system where anything goes. It needs both smart and wise people, and works best when those in charge combine both traits.