How do you judge a system of thought?
Do you judge it by how well it mirrors reality, or by how well it helps you solve problems and take action?
Most of the Western philosophical tradition treats philosophy as, in the words of Richard Rorty, a “mirror of nature”—a system dedicated to reflecting the world as it is. But language makes an imperfect mirror, and attempts to map reality through it can lead to fuzzy thinking. John Dewey helped found the tradition of American pragmatism, which maintains that philosophy is simply a tool to solve practical problems—one whose answers are good or bad insofar as they’re useful, not insofar as they mirror the world.
A refreshing absence of theory
There’s a lot to like about pragmatism. Most of today’s philosophy privileges theory: postmodern readings of classic texts, for example, use it to draw out arguments that the authors never intended to make. (Plato wrote the Phaedrus about love and rhetoric; Derrida, the postmodern godfather, read it about “play,” “trace,” and “différance.”) But Dewey’s pragmatism leaves no room for theory—all that matters is inquiry and, based on its results, the decision whether a given hypothesis is “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” Objective and results-oriented, pragmatism amounts to a wholesale alternative to postmodernism—one that predates it by more than 50 years.
But what about absolute truth?
Though pragmatism departs from postmodernism in its rejection of theory, it parallels it in one extremely interesting area: its treatment of absolute truth. You’ll notice that Dewey is concerned with satisfactory and unsatisfactory outcomes, not right and wrong ones. Bertrand Russell draws out the distinction:
“Truth, as conceived by most professional philosophers, is static and final, perfect and eternal; in religious terminology, it may be identified with God’s thoughts, and with those thoughts which, as rational beings, we share with God. . . . [But] Dewey makes inquiry the essence of logic, not truth or knowledge. . . . Dewey, like everyone else, divides beliefs into two classes, of which one is good and the other bad. He holds, however, that a belief may be good at one time and bad at another . . . . Thus a belief about some event in the past is to be classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ not according to whether the event took place, but according to the future effects of the belief.”
What, then, to make of pragmatism—so clear-headed in its lack of theoretical pretense, yet so dismissive of absolute truth?
“Dewey’s divergence from what has hitherto been regarded as common sense is his refusal to admit ‘facts’ into his metaphysic, in the sense in which ‘facts’ are stubborn and cannot be manipulated. In this it may be that common sense is changing, and that his view will not seem contrary to what common sense is becoming. . . . It has seemed to me that [Dewey’s] belief in human power [as arbiter of truth], and the unwillingness to admit ‘stubborn facts,’ were connected with the hopefulness engendered by machine production and the scientific manipulation of our physical environment.”
That is, pragmatism is, in its emphasis on the human, uniquely of our time. Russell argued the point in 1945, and his conclusions continue to ring true. That makes understanding pragmatism singularly important.
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Or keep reading—what does math have to do with culture?