The problem with pragmatism as a philosophy is that it is not philosophy. One might call it a philosophical method, as it seeks to correlate known phenomena, but it is nothing more than that: a method of correlating truths, of securing Truth only as far as it is manifest in particular, ‘useful’ truths. It seeks to appropriate knowledge for purposes unrelated to the knowledge itself. James perfunctorily sets aside absolute Truth and would have us guided only by the tenets of observed phenomena.
In Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, James defines for us what he thinks it is to be a good philosopher:
A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns toward concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.
Here it is made abundantly clear that James seeks to eradicate the pursuit of abstract Truth and turn the efforts of his philosophers towards those truths that are empirically observable—a modernized approach to apprehending reality. The problem with this method of philosophy is that Truth and knowledge are two different things.
Plato addresses this directly in The Republic. Through Socrates, Plato asserts that knowledge as we know it is nothing more than a finite apprehension of what actually is. In 508a-509c, Socrates examines reality in terms of its illumination by the Good. He comes to the conclusion that the very state of being known or knowing something implies identity beyond the fact itself. Knowledge, for Plato, is not merely an observation—a useful fact or theory—but the apprehension of some greater Truth.
Knowledge is necessarily related to those things that are True. Knowledge is the perception of things as they exist, not as they are met. We do not accurately assert that we know something until our conception of that idea or thing accords with it, as it is naturally. Therefore, perfect Knowledge would correspond exactly with reality. In application, however, knowledge only approximates reality.
It is here that James runs off-course. Although most knowledge is mere approximation, this very approximation implies the existence of an absolute Truth that can validate knowledge. James argues that knowledge is validated not by correspondence to reality, but by utility, reasoning that if there is a sufficient disparity between the theory being tested and reality, it will cease to be a ‘useful’ truth and will subsequently be discarded. What James fails to realize is that by circumventing what he views as noisome abstraction, he has effectively conflated Truth and knowledge. What James puts forward as truth is nothing more than conditional theory based on finite knowledge.
What is True if truths are only valid insofar as they are useful? Why pursue Truth at all, if the only purpose of philosophy is to grease the works of your miserable little mind? We may as well ignore it at all and do as we see fit. Plato likens this kind of relativistic truth to ‘knowing’ an animal. By observation, the handler may come to know causes and effects—as Plato puts it, “how it should be approached and how taken hold of, when—and as a result of what—it becomes most difficult or most gentle.” This knowledge is flawed, however, because it apprehends mere phenomena, not Truth. The animal’s handler has learned only how to formulate convenient theories, much like a politician. Once these theories are successfully applied, they are accepted as wisdom and taught to successive leaders.
The classical philosophy that James so consciously rejects posits reality itself as guide and impetus for the pursuit of Knowledge. Realization of Truth is not a matter of utility, but of necessity. We must by our very nature seek to articulate ourselves and the world around us. For classical philosophers, our self does not exist independently of our self-perception. How we see ourselves and our world is intrinsically tied to what it is that we are: we cannot exist inarticulately.
As rational beings, we are obligated to search out what our reason tells us is true, not what we feel to be convenient. Our philosophy cannot be one of utility. If you prescribe adherence to dogmatic belief for the sake of personal and societal stability, you deny man the fulfillment of his most fundamental trait: the capacity for rational thought. Our reason was not intended to justify our behavior, but to mold it. Our nature is not one that seeks the functionality of dogma, but the guidance of Truth.
While the arguments of James and Plato may seem utterly irrelevant to current political life, they embody the disparate approaches to political thought of progressivism and conservatism, respectively.
The classical notion of permanent Truth applied to political life is one of the foundational tenets of conservatism. The Founding Fathers were steeped in classical philosophy, drawing heavily from the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and the like. True modern conservatism continues in this vein, arguing for policy from principles founded upon absolute Truths.
James, on the other hand, introduces a distinctly anti-conservative mode of thought. Deliberately parting ways with the notion of absolute Truth, James makes the case that man and reality change according to the developments of human knowledge. As our knowledge of ourselves changes the way we see the world around us, so too does it change the way we must regard truths.
While this abstraction may seem to be of little import, the implications of the two worldviews are extensive and cut to the core: after all, law is a direct reflection of how a nation views justice. What of Justice, then, when Truth is reduced to a kind of utilitarian transience? How are leaders to legislate when deprived of an objective and permanent standard by which to judge the justice of a law?
According to the classical philosophers, law and the justice of its application were determined not by men but by nature itself. Classical rulers did not define law, they conformed to and enforced it. Nature as apprehended by man’s reason was the arbiter of justice.
Contrary to this viewpoint is James, vanguard of the progressive movement, who believes solely in justified truth, not inherent Truth. For progressives, truth exists only as far as it is applicable to the issues at hand. As society changes, so does truth. Justice becomes subject not to the objective standard of principle, but the arbitration of an ever-changing, ‘enlightened’ man.
So, which will you have? Arbitration by nature or mankind? Truth itself or truth confined to utility? F