Shades of [Alice in] Wonderland

mad hatter

David Brooks did me another favor today in writing a column so far off the mark that I could not pass by the opportunity to comment. I checked the several hundred comments already pouring in and saw that adding another there would be contribute very little that was not already said. But since the topic he presented, pragmatism, is one of my central themes I feel compelled to write something here.

He pulled a column written by Lewis Mumford for the out of the dustbin and treated it as if it were written yesterday. Here’s Brooks:

For example, The New Republic, which turns 100 this year, made a series of superficially contradictory demands on its readers. To be a well-rounded person, the magazine implied, it is necessary to be both practical and philosophical, both politically engaged and artistically cultivated. The magazine offered, and still offers, short practical articles on politics and policy in the front of the book and long literary essays on philosophy and culture in the back.

In 1940, the magazine published a stunning critique of those who refuse to embrace both kinds of knowledge. The essay, called “The Corruption of Liberalism,” was written by the unjustly forgotten writer Lewis Mumford. It’s been revived by the magazine’s current editor, Franklin Foer, in “Insurrections of the Mind,” a collection of essays from the magazine’s first century.

He makes several serious mistakes. First, he takes what Mumford wrote at face value. Mumford was condemning liberals for an overly passive response to totalitarianism, but the biggest liberal of all, FDR, was quietly pulling the nation into confronting this threat. I just finished watching the NPR series on the Roosevelt families (a must see). He also dissed the same group for lack of pragmatic action.

A core problem with pragmatists, Mumford argues, is that they [liberals] attach themselves so closely to science and social science that they have forgotten the modes of insight offered by theology and literature. This leads to a shallow, amputated worldview.

Roosevelt was pragmatic at heart, not relying on theory to drive his policies and programs. The usage of the term, liberal, has changed over time, but I believe Mumford meant about the same thing as we do in using liberal today. Both Brooks and Mumford have it upside down. If there is a dichotomy to be made, it is better to contrast theory and practice, rather than philosophy and practice. Every actor is at heart a philosopher without knowing it, most of the time. Every action that they are able to explain has a philosophical basis. If they say they are merely acting rationally, that can be traced back to the Greek philosophers’ notion of human nature. If they invoke scientific knowledge as the basis, they are merely recalling Descartes and his view of an objective reality out there. If they say they are acting out of the heart and cannot put it into some rational framework, they are merely resting on many philosophers who saw human nature as split between reason and passion or some other form of irrationalism. All of these argue that they access “truth” and that truth is what counts in legitimating action.

Pragmatism is unusual in that it conflates theory and practice. John Dewey who wove the philosophy of pragmatism into the political sphere argued that it was the best way to address complexity by leaving theory behind. Theory, no matter on what philosophical basis it rests, is always a reduction of the complexity and concreteness of the world out there to fit the bounds of the theory. Dewey claimed that the best way to proceed was to establish an action-intended inquiry, manned by a democratically organized group of concerned citizens. His form of pragmatism which was put forth in the same time as Mumford wrote presumed action as the end. It is implicit that those involved had some sort of moral imperative driving them. The polar opposite would have been a group of technocrats using scientifically based theories to underpin action. Hardly the foundation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. This runs opposite to Brooks cut:

Pragmatists also have trouble rousing themselves to action. They try to get rid of emotions when making decisions because emotions might lead them astray. But, in making themselves passionless, they always make themselves tepid and anesthetized. That leads to passivity. Everything is too little too late.

Today the call for science is the domain of the conservatives. In matters like climate change, complete clarity is impossible given the fundamentally complex nature of the situation. By demanding a certain outcome through science, conservatives hope to continue an eternal stalemate. Similar strategies have been employed for a long time in opposing regulations of all sorts. Committed pragmatists would seek the best path available after a careful inquiry and move. Pragmatism and action are married within the philosophy itself.

His next statement is almost ludicrous. Pragmatists eschew theory as a rule! That’s what makes them pragmatists in the first place. If they applied theories, they would be technocrats.

Pragmatists often fail because they try to apply economic remedies to noneconomic actors. Those who threaten civilization — Stalin then, Putin and ISIS now — are driven by moral zealotry and animal imperatives. Economic sanctions won’t work.

Pragmatists do often fail because even the most rigorous inquiry by the most morally dedicated group lacks the certain power to make the problem disappear. But dedicated pragmatists go back to work again with the additional understanding of the situation they lacked the first time around. Those who would have used some theory that failed now have to cast about to find a whole new theory and start all over. They lack the understanding that pragmatism adds through both failure and success.

Pragmatism involves a method, based on the philosophical belief that the real, concrete world is not reducible to abstract theories, certainly, in the messy situations that the leaders Brooks either mentions or implies face. Pragmatists explicitly strive to avoid what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Whenever a messy problem is reduced to fit some theory, Whitehead’s fallacy is at work. Most refractory problems are messy or as, Rittel and Webber called them, wicked.

In the last paragraph quoted above, Brooks seems to be criticizing Obama for combatting Putin’s encroachment in the Ukraine with mere economic sanctions. Sanctions are not aimed at the leaders, but at the people who arguably will take out their unhappiness by deposing or otherwise controlling the leaders. It’s much easier to write a column than stop a war.

Then he closes with an almost laughable depiction of pragmatists:

Pragmatists also have trouble rousing themselves to action. They try to get rid of emotions when making decisions because emotions might lead them astray. But, in making themselves passionless, they always make themselves tepid and anesthetized. That leads to passivity. Everything is too little too late.

Again, he is completely, not just a little, wrong. Pragmatists dive into the fray expressly because they care about the situation being faced. There is nothing in pragmatism that argues that those in the game should be or must be objective. They must be rigorous, or the understanding they seek may be fleeting. Again he should look at FDR. It is the technocrats that carry the flag of objectivity and moral neutrality, and they are spread among virtually all partisan flavors. It’s the ideologues who carry the banner of truth without recourse to any method at all.

I could go on and on here because he has done a great disservice to those who care about the state of the world, and those who believe that pragmatism is a far more effective “philosophy” to pursue than the mindless ideology so present in the political scene in the US today. Ideology of any sort gets in the way of finding truth in the world itself; and that’s always where the problems rest. What he did not say anything about is the difference between philosophy and theology. When the latter is the basis for political action as it is becoming, philosophy or pragmatism or any other system for seeking “truth” as a basis for action goes out of the front door. I would love a shot at countering this column in the same pages of the New York Times. I’ll see if I can slip an oped in.

(Image: Arthur Rackham illustration)