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Searching for Truth-Force in Pragmatism

Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club was a happy discovery for $1.50 at the otherwise frustrating Salvation Army at Bedford and North 7th in Brooklyn. As my bedtime reading for the last few weeks, for better or worse, it has been more thought-provoking than sleep-inducing. It tells the early story of pragmatism as a distinctly American philosophy, built out of the remains of the Civil War and, perhaps, ended by the self-certainty of the Cold War. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey are the characters. For me, well-fed on his Varieties and a book of his essays I once pilfered from my father, James is the star.

Meanwhile, my head has of course been rapt in theories of nonviolence, inevitably summarized in Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha—truth-force—as well as in American adaptations. The overlap between this classic pragmatism and satyagraha are considerable. And indeed, both played central roles in the making of 20th century American progressive politics, in progressivism and the civil rights movement, respectively. Both, furthermore, play a part in the politics promised by the Obama administration. Think, for instance, of Obama’s well-acknowledged debt to the nonviolent legacy of civil rights and his pragmatist penchant for constructing public truths out of performance.

The connection between these systems breaks down—and for roughly this reason a friend recently described pragmatism to me as “demonic.” Menand puts the problem this way:

Pragmatism explains everything about ideas except why a person would be willing to die for one. (p. 375)

In the brand new book Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy, Joseph Kip Kosek adds:

The radical Christian pacifists found the pragmatist view incomplete, despite their alliances with Dewey and other pragmatists on specific issues. They held that the method of weighing relative moral goods and reserving absolute commitment provided a shaky foundation during crises, namely crises of violence. (p. 9)

There is, at the heart of the pragmatist philosophical program, a fatal flaw of nihilism. In the end, it offers nothing to which we can hitch our lives. But can truth-force save pragmatism? Should we bother trying?

To begin, I’ve been assembling a list of common patches of ground shared by pragmatism and nonviolence.

  • Means cannot be subjugated to ends; see my earlier discussion of this for nonviolence and, for pragmatism, I’ll quote Menand:

    The [pragmatist] solution has been to shift the totem of legitimacy from premises to procedures. We know an outcome is right not because it was derived from immutable principles, but because it was reached by following the correct procedures. (p. 432)

  • The imperative of freedom of ideas and the longing for openness to possibility
  • One’s own beliefs must be treated as provisional and incomplete; particularly in James’s “pluralist” pragmatism, one must paradoxically respect the truth held by those one disagrees with
  • A tendency toward radical pacifism (Jane Addams, William James, sometimes Dewey, among pragmatists)
  • Truth can arise through performative acts—often it must
  • We arrive at truth through a process of experimentation, trial and error, lending opportunity for analogies with Darwinism—though satyagraha alone lends it a deeper sacredness, even divinity

The way I’m thinking, it is this last point that is the crux of the difference, and of what satyagraha can lend to American pragmatism. In a limited sense, it already did, through the Christian nonviolence tradition that Kosek chronicles in Acts of Conscience (more on that to come). What it means is the conviction that there is a truth above all, within all, pervading all. Pragmatism is the story of our grasp of it. Satyagraha is the story of its grasp on us. The love of that truth is the best love out there. It’s a love you can hitch your life to. And because it’s truth, it’s true.

So what, then, might pragmatism have to offer in return? A language, one that is deeply resonant with American modernity, in all the places that a Gandhian primitivism doesn’t fit.

Thanks for your patience with these scattered notes. Next, I’m on to Rorty, to see what archaeology can be done there.

5 comments on “Searching for Truth-Force in Pragmatism

  1. You’d love Cornel West’s history of pragmatism, The Evasion of American Philosophy. West is a “deep democratic” pragmatist who believes pragmatism demands that we be willing to die for not ideas but the stuff behind them.

  2. That’s great, thank you Jeff. I’ll get it. It’s no accident, I’m sure, that I’ve been thinking about these issues (particularly as they impact Obama and the current political discourse) under the tutelage of my boss at the SSRC, David Kim, who studied under West.

  3. I love your website. And thank you for sharing the review! What a wonderful blast from college-boy Tom’s past.

    This could of course be a summary of the foundationalist critique of the whole pragmatist project:

    Because of Menand’s focus on effect rather than content

    And this is something I found with The Metaphysical Club as well:

    the William James piece flounders because it doesn’t bother to explain exactly what James thought.

    And this just plain makes my creationism nerve tickled:

    Before opening this book I had never heard of James Conant or Christopher Lasch, and I had confused William Paley with Richard Leakey.

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