This book is an excellent portrait of post-protestant, progressive, positivism in the late 19th century. A fascinating study of disembodied faith falling into agnostic secularism.
Below are my thoughts about pragmatism.
Pragmatism: what is it really, and can it be appropriated by Christians?
Names: There are different ‘brands’ of pragmatism; for instance, William James called it pragmatism, John Dewey called it instrumentalism, and others called it humanism. Although each fellow had his own emphasis for the philosophy, there still remains a basic foundational claim common to each.
Foundational claim: At the most basic level, pragmatism purports that human beings 1) act, and only after acting 2) examine the action, determine meaning, and assess utility and/or success of the action. It is worth noting, as Louis Menand himself recognizes, that pragmatism has no logical account for desire or love. The following description is from the Catholic Encyclopedia [my emphasis]:
Pragmatism, as a tendency in philosophy, signifies the insistence on usefulness or practical consequences as a test of truth. In its negative phase, it opposes what it styles the formalism or rationalism of Intellectualistic philosophy. That is, it objects to the view that concepts, judgments, and reasoning processes are representative of reality and the processes of reality. It considers them to be merely symbols, hypotheses and schemata devised by man to facilitate or render possible the use, or experience, of reality. This use, or experience, is the true test of real existence. In its positive phase, therefore, Pragmatism sets up as the standard of truth some non-rational test, such as action, satisfaction of needs, realization in conduct, the possibility of being lived, and judges reality by this norm to the exclusion of all others.
Pragmatism as a ‘system’: Pragmatism may not be a complete philosophical system per se, but it is certainly a foundational account (logia – ideological psychology) of how humans operate – specifically the mind and decision making. This foundational account is hugely important to any direction the philosophy is taken under any name, coloring every aspect of human life: freedom, choice, truth, goodness, civil society, etc.
Assumptions: All forms of pragmatism embrace and assume the following: a) democracy is the best form of civil organization – anti-hierarchical; b) scientific positivism is the future by which man must evaluate himself and his environment – social engineering is assumed via methods such as the law of averages and the bell curve; c) man is always ‘progressing’ and becoming better/smarter; d) pragmatism is anti-institutional, especially old traditional institutions; e) pragmatism rejects all classical, Hellenistic, and scholastic methods of thinking (philosophy and theology) – it also implicitly rejects old creedal formulae (aka: De-Hellenization); f) every ‘problem’ that man now faces was once a ‘solution’ to a previous ‘problem’ (until it was subsequently deemed a ‘problem’). Looming large in the philosophy and the background context of pragmatism is Hegel’s process theology. Process theology asserts that as human history progresses and develops, God also progresses and develops and ‘comes into His being’; this implies that God is ‘mutable’ or changeable as well as ‘passable’ (can suffer). Such claims fly in the face of any orthodox Christian thinking: God is impassible, immutable, omnipotent, and omnipresent; these classic notions of God are garbaged without examining the implications. Although James was the most Christian of the pragmatists found in The Metaphysical Club, the other gentlemen, while denying God or claiming to be agnostic, still viewed ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ as always coming into being and progressing in time. Therefore, man today is automatically further and better developed than man 1,000 years ago.
Why created? The philosophy originated with Charles Pearce, but was taken up and somewhat reappropriated by William James. James intended pragmatism to be a philosophy that once again legitimized the position of God in a progressive, modern, scientific, and rational world; it was an account of reality and how men think which rationalized God in such ‘brave new world’. For the Christian observer, James is probably the one figure for whom to have sympathy, albeit his actions were based in a sort of nostalgia and he fatally sacrificed orthodoxy to make pragmatism ‘work’ (James was guilty of being pragmatic). Pragmatism was also created to legitimize philosophy in a positivistic/scientistic world; abstract thinking was no longer seen as useful or pragmatic as man liberated himself from old institutions and ways of thinking. Philosophy, as seen in pragmatism, came to be dominated by empirical data (law of averages etc.) and the new psychology, and was a hybrid of philosophy undergirded by ‘scientific’ data about human behavior. Pragmatism was also an account that proved to be more useful to control/clean up the messiness of man’s environment/life, and proved itself useful for the rising economic and industrial revolutions. The philosophy was also created as a reaction against the ante-bellum period status quo in America; this is laudable, but only resulted in replacing the former status quo with a new status quo, legitimizing new and destructive western behaviors (scientism, industrialism, abusive capitalism, materialism, Americanism- the manifest destiny of the nation, and social engineering). Pragmatism was also created to help bridge the alleged gap between fides et ratio (faith and reason); such a perceived gap can only come from a Christian fundamentalist backdrop. But such a gap between faith and reason can only be reconnected by the dynamic power of Greco-Roman abstract philosophy, not scientific positivism; ‘scientism’ is simply another form of fundamentalism and maintains the gap between faith and reason.
What are the implications of pragmatism? There are a number of serious problems with pragmatism as well as its implications for the masses. First of all, it implies that human life can be manipulated and predicted according to formulae, averages, and allegedly ‘scientific’ data; social engineering toward creating a worldly utopia is the dangerous result. According to the basic claims of pragmatism, truth is essentially developed and invented by the philosophy as a reaction to the success/failure of human action; every problem is basically the solution to problems prior to it – there is no goal that humans are attempting to reach, no truth to which we strive. Everything as a result is in-flux; there is nothing in society that man can rely upon as a constant, because reality (and/or God) is always constantly coming into being. This has obvious implications for morality: morality becomes a ‘ready, fire, aim’ process; a process that reflects upon action only after the fact. The action itself is arbitrary and subjective, and subsequently the action can be judged subjectively by terms subjectively developed by the actor - moral relativism, plain and simple. One cannot claim truth is not relative, then embrace pragmatism which essentially is creating truth on its own terms all the time; this is a contradiction. Pragmatism, as understood properly, is also deterministic and has the great potential to be oppressive and destroy human love, hope, and freedom. With human life being so predictable and determined, as well as asserting that humans act then assess action, pragmatism can be seen as anti-contemplative; the philosophy is anti-contemplative not because its founders were unintelligent or thoughtless, but because it implies that for the rest of humanity, thinking before acting is not necessary or not the case at all; in fact, it is better if man acts then determines the utility and satisfaction of action after the fact. Lastly, ideas no longer have power unless backed by empirical data; science is the new gospel of truth – yet humans clearly know that science is far from understanding everything about reality, yet it is relied upon in this philosophy to account for everything. Pragmatism is on a larger scale, what Agassiz does with God and his 'science' (it is an irrational fundamentalism): it tries to maintain the status quo of America's ‘manifest destiny’ in the post bellum period - America needs science and industry and progress - and as a result needs a 'philosophy' accounting for human thought and behavior that legitimizes such a mechanistic approach to human life: thus humans do not act before thinking (progress, industry, and the economic machine). As Agassiz is the ‘proto-intelligent design’ fundamentalist, the "Metaphysical Club" (broadly speaking) is a ‘proto-agnostic humanism’ (with some deism) based on anti-institution, democracy, anti-contemplation (as implicated for masses), and the denial human dignity (seeing men as 'averages'.).
Origins & Fruits: Looking at the origins and historical context of pragmatism (disembodied Christian world, post Christian in many ways, positivistic, industrial, progressive, and nationalistic), one can see that it originates in a troubled period. It was forged by agnostics, deists, and Hegelian disciples – this alone breaks any continuity with authentic Christian faith. Looking then at the personal lives of the founders, one can see the ‘fruits’ of such ideology. Charles Pearce is seen as the origin of pragmatism: this makes perfect sense as he was ruled by his appetites, wreaking havoc on everything he touched. James sacrificed, albeit well intentioned, orthodoxy to make pragmatism work. Dewey employed the philosophy in his educational practices: creating schools that ‘developed the child’ through social engineering; education was now about making children into ‘well adjusted’ members of society through scientific methods. Dewey called the philosophy instrumentalism, and his ‘school’ was called the laboratory. Dewey did not desire pragmatism to create individuals, but to make everyone the same – to streamline and ‘perfect’ humanity. Holmes denied human dignity, but insisted on human ‘rights’; he also replaced the language of guilt and sin with the mechanistic terms such as ‘negligence’; this fits well with pragmatism for it allows for the continued re-evaluation of what is true and good. Menand’s work portrays the majority of the ‘transcendalists’ and members of the ‘metaphysical club’ as men who lived scandalous lives, living it up in the ivory towers and high places, and using their influential positions in society to impose their ideology.
Love: Pragmatism does not account for love, and can be seen to destroy or instrumentalize it. Love is a choice; it is the proper ordering of the will (the heart, seat of emotions) by the intellect. The intellect, of course, has to assent to ideas first and be formed by ideals. Love is not based in emotions, but in the choice to give of self and choose the other despite difficulties; the pragmatist claim that man acts before thinking either does not understand this classic and true understanding of how humans operate or it flies in its face (probably the latter). To act without cognition assumes that humans are slaves of their emotions or desires; this is strange and ironic because pragmatism has no clear account of desire. One can logically ask: what then rules human action? Nothing. All is in-flux, and men and women make up truth as they see fit in the context of their existence. Dewey, as Menand asserts, was not for radical individual freedom, but sought to find harmony in the community, but this intention (albeit good) does not work in such a philosophic system. What results is simply a ‘contract society’ (John Stewart Mill – a hedonistic, materialistic society – “life is nasty, brutish, and short.”) where everyone is asserting their will, and as long as no one is bothered or offended the society ‘flourishes’. To examine this more, consider the following example: imagine an infant or toddler – this child operates off the ‘pragmatism’ method of act first, then assess the success/pleasure. The difference between and adult and such a young child is the formation of their intellect, and the process of thinking before acting. Certainly a small child can love his mommy, but if he grows up maintaining love in the same manner (a one-way street, mom does it all), he will really not be able to love another person well as an adult. Love needs to be modeled and trained to children or it will be disordered, negatively affecting the subject and the community; this seems clear ipso facto - just look at our society.
Truth & God: If truth is always in-flux, as pragmatism asserts, then can the pragmatist say that God is Logos? “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” says Christ, the Incarnate Word; “Everyone that is of the truth, heareth my voice.” Such a statement implies that truth is knowable and accessible by the human intellect. Who would deny that the Christian God is the God of Truth? Can man really not know God, nor act from any knowledge of God? What are the 10 Commandments? Is the world God created reflective of the Logos, or not? Or is the world/reality simply the manner in which man describes it, or the name subjectively given (Nominalism)? To the point, here’s what the Wiki page on pragmatism says [my emphasis]:
James and Peirce were inspired by the crucial links among belief, conduct, and disposition by saying a belief is a proposition on which a person is prepared to act. Inspiration for the pragmatists include Francis Bacon who coined the phrase "knowledge is power", David Hume for his naturalistic account of knowledge and action, Thomas Reid for his direct realism, Immanuel Kant for his idealism and from whom Peirce derives the name "pragmatism", Georg Hegel for his introduction of temporality into philosophy (Pinkard in Misak 2007), and J.S. Mill for his nominalism and empiricism.
Concept of truth
Going back to James, in pragmatism spoken truth is not ready-made, but jointly we and reality "make" truth. This idea has two senses, one which is often attributed to William James and F.C.S. Schiller, and another that is more widely accepted in pragmatism: (1) truth is mutable, and (2) truth is relative to a conceptual scheme.
(1) Mutability of truth
One major difference within pragmatism about the definition of 'truth' is the question of whether beliefs can pass from being true to being untrue and back. For James, beliefs are not true until they have been made true by verification. James believed propositions become true over the long term through proving their utility in a person's specific situation. The opposite of this process is not falsification, but rather a belief ceasing to be a "live option." F.C.S. Schiller, on the other hand, very clearly asserted that beliefs could pass into and problems. If I want to know how to return home safely, the true answer will be whatever is useful to solving that problem. Later on, when faced with a different problem, what I came to believe when faced with the earlier problem may now be false. As my problems change and as the most useful way to solve a problem shifts, so does the property of truth.
C.S. Peirce thought the idea that beliefs could be true at one time but false at another (or true for one person but false for another) was one of the "seeds of death" by which James allowed his pragmatism to become "infected." Peirce avoided this position because he took the pragmatic theory to imply that theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices (i.e. they should be subject to test), not that they should be tied to our specific problems or life needs. Truth is defined, for Peirce, as what would be the ultimate outcome (not any outcome in real time) of inquiry by a (usually scientific) community of investigators. John Dewey, while agreeing broadly with this definition, also characterized truthfulness as a species of the good: to state that something is true means stating that it is trustworthy or reliable and will remain so in every conceivable situation. Both Peirce and Dewey clearly connect the definitions of truth and warranted assertability. Hilary Putnam also developed his internal realism around the idea that a belief is true if it is ideally epistemologically justified.
The claims above are problematic on a number of levels for the Christian, most notably the idea that truth is always evolving and changing. The philosophy rejects the Trinity motto: verum, bonum, pulchrum, because man cannot arrive at truth (as Plato says); for the pragmatist, truth is no longer ‘what is’ – that which is absolute, eternal, infinite, good, and beautiful. Ultimately, there is not much of a relationship with God if God is continuously ‘coming into being’; how can man even know himself if God is perpetually in-flux as well? Also, how can man then account for the tragedy and evil of the gas chambers and gulag if history is all part of God’s realization of himself, all things coming into being with the Creator? (cf. Hart, David Bentlely. No Shadow of Turning: on Divine Impassiblility. Pro Ecclesia.) Pragmatism can thus only be seen as intellectual and moral relativism cleverly wrapped up into a positivistic psychology dubbed ‘philosophy’.
Ecumenism? Pragmatism, because of its violent rejection of institutions, hierarchies, traditional creeds, and Hellenistic/scholastic theology/philosophy, as well as its unquestioning embrace of democracy and the mutability of truth, cannot be seen as a groundwork of Christian ecumenism. It formally rejects Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism (Episcopal Church), Missouri Synod Lutheranism, Coptic Christianity, et al. that hold faith in their immutable truth claims.
Objections to the above claims: Let us assume that the founders of pragmatism are 'innocent' of any damage and/or negative intentionality; the founders’ ideas still were taken to their logical conclusions by their disciples and the cultural milieu - ideas are dangerous and have consequences (pragmatism was bankrupt, as I describe, from the foundation). Let us assume next that there is something to how humans look back on actions and events and then shape and develop new ideas (as pragmatism asserts with, for instance, the lobster and steak example); this alone cannot be seen as what pragmatism is. All the assumptions (which I addressed above) have to go with the claim. The aforementioned idea can be accounted for in any philosophical system; pragmatism cannot be boiled down to the ‘steak and lobster’ example; humans can and do think before action, even if at times they do not.
Counter Example: The stem cell controversy, I think, is a helpful example. The pragmatist would say: act, act, act. Yet the action to make something practical or useful happen does not in this case. As it turns out, embryonic stem cell research is has produced no major medical breakthroughs. On the other hand, orthodox Christianity, which contemplates first principles of human dignity before acting, has been correct, supporting only the use of adult stems cells. Adult stem cells have produced much medical fruit. This example can be seen to disprove 'pragmatism' in action: morally and practically speaking, it is illogical and bullheaded - it bears the mark of progressive 'scientism' unwilling to consult abstract philosophy and theology.
Conclusion: Based on the overwhelming evidence above, pragmatism, as an account of human thought and action, cannot be appropriated by an authentic Christian orthodoxy in any way.