24 October 2008

Pragmatism and particularism

Pragmatism and particularism are complementary philosophies, close cousins if not actual siblings. Pragmatism’s focus on what works transcends the vain rivalry between different, usually opposing, creeds, whether in politics, economics or ethics. Pragmatic choices are made in the context of the particular circumstances calling for action. Point-scoring and petty games of one-upmanship are rejected as irrelevant, frivolous even, in the pursuit of tangible goals. Truth ceases to be an empty abstraction that changes chameleon-like to suit the ideological surroundings; it becomes a non-negotiable value that is only as good as the delivered results.

The pragmatist’s dedication to ‘getting the job done’ necessarily requires an awareness of the factors specific to the task or problem at hand. And the pragmatist understands that these factors will vary from one particular circumstance to another. There is no formula set in stone, applicable to every situation. The solutions are constructed anew with each problem encountered. Previous solutions that worked are referenced but only applied if they meet the demands of the current situation. No dogma, no tradition, no received wisdom or arbitrary authority is followed that does not contribute an objectively valid answer to the particular problem. Pragmatic particularism does not deny history or reject precedent; it simply holds them to scrutiny and does not take anything for granted.

The philosophy commonly known as American Pragmatism – as articulated in the late 19th century by its patriarchs Charles Peirce and William James – emphasizes the ‘primacy of practice’. Practical consequences and real effects are what determine meaning, value and truth. Concepts like ‘liberal capitalism’ and ‘authoritarian capitalism’ are not to be worshipped as idols, held sacred by their respective keepers of the faith. Such terms are simply designations for different executions of capitalist theories that are rendered true only insofar as the results prove the theory to be correct. And both versions of capitalism can contain a measure of the truth, albeit in different areas. It is the results or consequences of any tested hypothesis that demonstrates its veracity, or lack thereof. Importantly, the results manifest in a manner particular to a specific situation; they are never exactly repeated.

All living creatures are fundamentally pragmatists. A thinking organism intending to successfully navigate and interact with its environment cannot afford to value abstract concepts of dubious truth over the actual practice of living, of doing and becoming. The Pragmatist philosophers realized that it was in the struggle for life – physically and qualitatively – that concepts acquire their meaning and value. A concept has to be tested through action before any judgment as to its validity can be made. An untested theory is an oxymoron. Crucially, these tests occur in a specific context particular to the tester (such as a human agent acting on a decision). Each test brings into play a variety of factors, components that with each subsequent test are never present again in exactly that same combination, or intensity. Superficially, things may indeed look the same, but the inexorable flow of time coupled with the constantly fluid, dynamic nature of our mental state ensures that we never step in the same existential river twice. We are all pragmatists, but each in a particular way.

It is fair to say that much of the brutality, pain, death, anxiety, exploitation, loss and disillusion we have so generously gifted to one another, packaged in the form of war, conflict, political strife, financial crisis, environmental degradation or the rape and robbery of the vulnerable and disenfranchised, is mainly due to a misplaced trust in the primacy of ideas over that of actions and their consequences. We have a concept fetish that is tied to our egos. For many of us, to be a believer in a wrong, or at least inaccurate, idea is a fate worse than death; better to think that it is the non-believers who are misguided and in need of persuasion by any means necessary. In defense of an idea, one group of people will send their young men to kill those of another group of people because this is preferable to the horror of the other group’s idea being right. Of course, time eventually does reveal the correctness, the truth, of any idea by virtue of its results being consistent with the predicted outcome. These results can only be obtained after being tested through action, a process requiring time and patience. But time and patience are decadent luxuries that hot-blooded ‘men of action’ hold in contempt.

A contemporary example of ideological sacred cows being prioritized over effective results – to the detriment of many – is the current global financial meltdown. In what must have been an embarrassing face-about, the US government, standard bearer of liberal capitalism, has had to rescue their failing economy with an injection of public funds. This (practical) decision comes from an administration renowned for criticizing any form of big government in other nations, criticism that is derived more from an ideological faith in liberal capitalism than from a pragmatic perspective. Nations like China and Russia that implement an authoritarian, centralised style of capitalism and as a result took less of a beating from the current crisis are viewed with envious resentment by the American people. American politicians, economists and business folk petulantly whine, “How could they be right? How could we be wrong?” Yet this pathetic complaint misses the point; such a crisis could have been softened in its intensity, if not altogether averted, if the issues were addressed pragmatically and not ideologically. It shouldn’t be about who’s right and who’s wrong, but about what works. The American economic model, one that has been proudly extolled and exported to the rest of the world as the best and final answer, has been humbled by its flaws. Apparently it doesn’t entirely work, at least not as well as its advocates believe anyway.

Pragmatic particularism makes challenging demands on the human agent. In situations that require decisive action, pragmatic particularism calls for individuals to set aside their ego should ideology matter more to them than end results. A sensitive and receptive mind is needed to recognise the specific elements of the situation, the particular nature of the problem or issue, and what tools or methods are required to craft a solution. People who are pragmatic problem-solvers have an admirable quality; they just want to get the job done, and done well.


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