Bulls, Deniers, and Pragmatism

william james

I am just back from this trimester’s last intensive weekend of the Marlboro College Graduate MBA in Managing for Sustainability. I had an opportunity to spend a long, pleasant evening with Ron Nahser, who came to deliver one of the classes. Ron was formerly Provost or some other senior official at the Presidio MBA program, one of the few like ours. We spent much of the time talking about pragmatism, a favorite subject of his, and a new and active interest of mine. I have been thinking about the importance of pragmatism to sustainability. I believe it is central and essential. I also have been reading in anticipation that I will give a course on pragmatism, maybe next year, at my Institute for Learning in Retirement.

Its criticality to sustainability arises first from the understanding that flourishing (the normative goal to be sustained) is an emergent property of the complex planetary system we inhabit and are an integral part of. One cause for the present unsustainable state of the world is the failure to recognize the complex nature of this world and act accordingly. Complexity demands a different belief for reality than the current objective view of a world out there that we discover through scientific investigations and extend through theorizing. Truth is manifest only in the findings of the method, by proving hypotheses through experiments, which truth holds until it doesn’t and the process starts up again. These truths are then applied to the design of the artifacts and institutional rules and are the basis of our claims made in everyday, normal conversations with each other.

There’s a serious problem here. This kind of knowledge is always partial and limited to the interior of the system. Flourishing and other similar qualities arise from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be related to it by any determinate set of rules. Try as hard as we can to operate with these rules, we are still not going to produce flourishing, except by accident. As the world turns lately, our rules are leading only to bigger and bigger failures. The objective world with the accompanying reductionist way of knowing is not the only way to think about finding truth, that is some set of statements we can agree on and use as the basis of coordinated action. I have been writing about this dilemma for some time in this blog and in my book.

In the last couple years I have discovered that much of what I have written is closely connected with pragmatism, both its basis in philosophy and its important application to the governance of our societies. Let me start in this post with the philosophical. I have been reading about the subject in Pragmatism: A Reader, complied and edited by Louis Menand. Menand writes in the introduction, “Pragmatism is an account of the way people think.” More central for my own inquiry is the way pragmatism constructs “truth,” which is different from that of the objective realists.” Both schools believe in the existence of a material world and both have a foundation of observation. The big difference is that pragmatism accepts the experience of everyday activities as the basis of truth in place of methodologically bound objective facts. Pragmatists do not deny that these facts are valid descriptions of some piece of the world out there, but they are not truthful. They simply are.

William James (pictured above), who first, popularized the idea, defined truth in several ways, but the one that I find clearest is, “The true is the name for whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite and assignable reasons.” In other words, what is true is what works effectively in practice, not in theory. James brought the thinking of C. S. Pierce, who originated the idea, from obscurity. Pierce said that our conception of something had to be “clear” if it were to have any practical value. He referred to qualities like “hardness.” I would add others like flourishing, or beauty. Pornography was defined in this sense by Justice Potter Stewart when he wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [‘hard-core pornography’]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it… (my emphasis)”

Pragmatists are continually asking, “Is this a good place to be.” If the answer is yes, they move on to the next question hanging in the background. If the answer is no, the pragmatist continues to inquire and to act until the answer is affirmative. There is a strange reciprocity in the inquiry. The actor’s actions always come from some domain of care; there is always some meaningful intention at play. My friend, Ron Nahser, surprised me by asserting that the object or world at the other end of my inquiry cares about me, the actor. If the inquiry eventually gets to a place that is satisfying to the actor, an observer might say the system is caring for the actor and vice versa. When the inquiry begins to capture one’s inner center, some might say that the seeker has found a calling.

The concept of sustainability demands a pragmatic stance since it is always a possibility, therefore one can never stop acting and inquiring. The complexity of the universe and even our world (that part of the cosmos that enters our consciousness) makes complete comprehension impossible. If flourishing—the thing that concatenates all of our care, not in some psychological sense of the energy we place in our pursuits, but in the existential centrality of care to our being—is always ephemeral or even, if present, could vanish in a moment (the essence of possibility), then the only ways we can act with some directedness (intentionality) lie within a pragmatic framing of the world and ourselves.

A central feature and barrier in the search for sustainability today is the dominance of the objective, positivist framework. This has produced much “progress” compared to the state of well-being that existed at the time of the Enlightenment, but always in a compartmentalized context. There is no escape from this state of affairs because positivism rests on a reductionist view of the world: how we come to know it, how we act to realize our intentions, and how we explain why we acted as we did.

I often draw from the work of Humberto Maturana. Maturana, the biologist, who comes very close to realizing the early pragmatists’, (also natural scientists [very interesting]), claim that pragmatism is an account of the way we really “think.” So pragmatism is at its roots a model of individual cognition and action. Insofar as collective action is nothing more than a sequence of individual actions, the model can be extended to all levels of organization.

Maturana’s notion of autopoiesis (self-organization and continuous reproduction) is a fundamentally pragmatic model of human consciousness. It rests on a foundation of continuing inquiry, but not in the usual sense of inquiry as asking questions by using language. Maturana’s notion of structural coupling and self-organizing conceives of life, especially human life, as a continuous interaction (why not call it an inquiry?) with the world where responses to the momentary, meaningless signals from the world are ordered or shaped by the then present structure of the cognitive/nervous system. In a sense we respond in a “trying” way, based, not on some absolute “truth” that resides in our mind, but by way of the truth, defined as whatever the historical structure allows us to do. In the next moment our structure changes as a result of the interaction. If the result is puts us in a good place in James’s terms, we move on to the next encounter with the world and repeat the process. If not, we may continue to act in response to the first perturbation.

Even if the world were not complex and if we could reduce it to a set of known rules, we would still need pragmatism to guide us toward our normative goals, simply because the world is always changing and we would have to simultaneously change the initial conditions of the models. Neither human minds nor supercomputers are capable to handling this basic problem. Menand writes, “All our decisions are bets on what the universe is today and what it will do tomorrow.” When we admit from the start that the world is complex and cannot be reduced to a set of rules, we eliminate, a priori, the positivistic, objective stance. And when we add that the complexity allows for strange, unpredictable, behavior, beyond the generally continuous patterns of simple linear system, the urgency of a pragmatic frame for collective action intensifies. Unfortunately, few people today are pragmatists. It’s often mistaken for relativism and worse isms. Pierce wrote this wonderful prescient sentence that applies to the market bulls and the climate change deniers, “When hope is unchecked by experience it is likely that our optimism is extravagant.” And remember Greenspan’s phrase “irrational exuberance.” Pierce and the pragmatists would see nothing irrational there, just the failure to be pragmatic.

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David M Carter said:


Thanks for this piece. I'm a fan of William James. Pragmatism is also a good theoretical approach to dealing with mind/body separation perspectives, often inculcated in cultural philosophy. A mind/body separation perspective is, at least, as responsible as economic theory for our current predicament, particularly as it purports to man's dominance over the natural world. If we had a more pragmatic view of our mind and body as one interacting within our environment, we would be much less apt to act in ways that damage our bodies and natural world. Much of modern culture inspires both at the same time. And, we (i.e. our intellect) allow it to happen because of this perceived separation.