To many conservative idealists, few venoms paralyze the rational soul’s pursuit of truth more than pragmatism. Such a response is not without warrant, for the terms ‘pragmatism’ and ‘conservatism’ are frequently misused. Nevertheless, a more charitable reading of the pragmatist project and a thoroughgoing understanding of its trajectory enables a deepened grasp of conservative principle. Certainly, someone emphasizing pragmatics in politics will neither be labeled an idealist, nor claim the idealist’s definition of self-evident truth, but this stance does not require the rejection of truth and its authority. For the pragmatist, truth attaches to or rejects one’s ideas based on a correlation and attentive viewing, interpreting, and assimilating perspective of reality. It is an inarbitrary construct of man, in accordance with the real world through application, not comparison to an absolute, immovable standard. Indeed, reality governs and validates the self-evidence of an idea through observation, experience, and comparison—self-evidence requires pragmatics. For this relationship, tradition must serve as the foundation for meaningful action. As one backs into the future, one sees experience lying behind and uses it to face the problems ahead.
Conservatives often fear that once truth is denied a static, impersonal status—that which is, untainted by opinion—one wanders the wilderness of moral relativism. Nevertheless, alternatives exist between these traumatic poles. The conservative and pragmatic barrier to moral relativism forms by doing providing the meaning for saying. Fundamentally, application dictates meaningful discourse, not arbitrary, capitalized words. The meaningful use of a term arises from common heritage and a cultural vocabulary inherited subsidiarily by each practitioner. Meaningful discourse relies on common, cultural, and often unspoken meaning, especially in political debate. That is, a pragmatic account of meaning is naturally conservative.
With this account in mind, consider conservatives’ revulsive reaction to William James’ blunt and oversimplified statement in “Pragmatism”: “truth is what works.” As a conservative, one immediately hears consequentialism and the vulgar utilitarianism worthy of a philistine—not the virtue practiced by a principled person and required in discovering the Good. First, in an effort to understand the foundation of such a claim one must understand how language stands at the center of knowledge in the pragmatic worldview. That is to say, a person’s “semantics must answer to pragmatics.” The early American Pragmatists lack any serious semantic account, but in the general pragmatic view, when one commits to the truth value of a claim, validation arises through application. For example, the difference between two claims concerning “Justice” is found in the application of the commitment and quality judgment of the outcome. Accordingly, terms function as tools for performing tasks; different situations require particular words that will produce better results than others. For the conservative, the best defense of ideology is not attempting to transplant an idealist political vocabulary, but rather a firm understanding of how political principles or maxims have worked in the past. When the Founding Fathers chose, within their particular political and philosophical context, to place the individual at the center of principle and policy they did so not arbitrarily, but because they believed in an ordered world where government works best as such. They committed to the principle, that man could govern himself. They certainly hoped their idea would produce the desired result—good government—but only application and observation would ease their anxieties. These commitments, upon which the nation stands, must be held dear not because of their pretty, platitudinous nature, but because for nearly two and a half centuries they have produced the most desirous government on earth. This understanding comes forth not from our semantics alone, but from our pragmatics—they return a desired result in action. However, as time drifts on, problems will certainly arise that require address, and a pragmatic account is prepared to respond.
As James puts it, “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify.” That is, while traversing the precarious landscape of history, one assimilates new information into held knowledge. This new information drawn from the real world propels new ideas and aids in problem solving. A pragmatic understanding of the world allows one to purposefully and methodically address the problems faced in society, but the methodology is crafted by (and in terms of) the culture’s trajectory. For example, even the most radical revolutionary carries with him the terms of the society he wishes to transplant or destroy. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian autocracy, their success relied on meaning from a context they sought to destroy—is it any surprise that they reverted to despotic government?
Thus, when such problems confront a given context, semantics rely on certain crafted vocabularies—on pragmatism. These vocabularies culturally and subsidiarily transmit the meaning lying behind words. As such, political discussions are guided by “public vocabularies [which] articulate the norms that govern our answering to each other.” For this pragmatic account, tradition is central to meaning in discourse, not something that falls away. When a pundit calls for “justice,” he invokes a connotation—an elementary, unspoken, and presuming meaning. This connotation conveys the power of the term within the vocabulary. In short, despite the misinterpretation inherent in differing conceptions, desires, and personal vocabularies, communication occurs within an inherited, meaningful context.
Furthermore, the pragmatist account yields for government not strictly relative principles, but rather an objective philosophy that accounts for intellectual desires and perspective. Now, it is reasonable to worry that in relying on application and our judgment of principle, all objectivity is lost. However, this feared result is not the case precisely because the objective world remains the target and standard for application in a community focused on the application of ideas. Different cultures will certainly demand different results from their ideas and agree upon different desires, but are we prepared—based on our own desires, of course—to deny the supremacy of some cultures over others? Just as it is a mistake to view America’s founding principles as static or absolute, one misplaces oneself in presuming the ability to make such a claim. One must deny one’s culture and the intellectual desires of tradition. Nevertheless, ranking a maxim as universal is not impossible—it occurs all the time—but performing what the claim requires is impossible. One must always remember, in the spirit of pragmatics, how a cultural tradition holds saying accountable to doing, in practice. This culture is particular and operates within a specific, limited reference of meaning. That is to say, one carries one’s tradition as a map for an excursion through time and space, but one cannot make judgments without relying on its past value—knowing always that amendments may be required in future swamps, valleys, or forests. At this point one might ask what happens when one gives such a map to someone who lacks the ability and vocabulary to interpret it? Would not the unfortunate alien soon become the victim of cultural and semantic disorientation? The point which must be stressed in this broad oversimplification is that from each application of ideas an implied tradition follows—one based in the real world, on the facts. If a group of individuals in a similar culture fail to see the origin of such meaning, they lose far more than culture: they lose themselves.
What, then, must a conservative do with dear principles in the face of modernity’s inevitable assault? Some might suggest a form of collectivism to preserve and guide our ideals, while others propose the abandonment of preservation altogether and recklessly pursue forward momentum. Is not the conservative pragmatist the best prepared to confront the future’s problems? Understanding meaning’s origin in the vocabulary of discourse and what is required to employ a meaningful vocabulary, the conservative pragmatist reconciles current problems through constant reference and assimilation to held knowledge. For this pragmatic understanding, tradition and free thought become not only elements, but requirements for the survival of culture.
You may reject this form of Pragmatism, but do so gently and charitably. Remember that when the guiding principles for society are removed from their moral context and given absolute status in themselves, freedom will inevitably fall to totalitarianism. The insidious attraction of idealist philosophy common in collectivist states comes not from pragmatism rightly considered, but a vulgar pragmatism cloaked as absolute, unquestionable truth—a false, static, and collective knowledge guiding all mankind towards a hopeful future and perfection. For preserving American principle, we need merely push beyond the games of debate and meaningfully rely on what works. F