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Thinking Out Loud

Just Definitions: Pragmatic

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 24, 2017

Editor’s Note: Occasionally, “Thinking Out Loud” addresses subjects of a very specific nature. In this special series, “Thinking Out Loud” readers are asked to consider the true meanings of certain terms that have recently found prevalence in the current public discourse. What are your thoughts? E-mail us.

PragmatismOne of the games I sometimes invite the faculty to play at the luncheons we host for prospective students is: "What historical person would you most enjoy having dinner with?"

Our answers vary from time to time. Recently it occurred to me that one of the people that I would like to meet, have dinner with, or just sit and listen to is William James (1842-1910), the great American philosopher and professor at Harvard College, known today as the father of American psychology.

You only have to read a few paragraphs from any of his lectures or books to get a sense of the man's original vision, the grand sweep of his intellect, his imagination and his wonderful sense of humor. James was so fully alive. And it is to James, more than to any other person, that we owe a debt for advancing the use of pragmatism as a way of determining the validity of philosophical and religious ideas.

James drew on the pioneering work of Charles Pierce to advance the idea that if one wishes to evaluate the relative truthfulness, validity or durability of an idea we should trace its "respective practical consequences."

As James once wrote, with characteristic clarity and wit:

"It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants in our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one." [John J. McDermott, editor, The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 377-379.]


What James did was to announce the death of ideologies unsupported by practical consequences. Yet, such ideologies continue to shape everything from religious practices to public policies.

In our society it seems as though the ideas which are least testable in practice tend to be the most important when it comes to testing one's orthodoxy in any field. It is as though some religious folks or adherents to a particular political perspective demand of their adherents, "Do you believe that fairies are blue or orange?"

When the adherent replies, "I don't know, I've never seen a fairy in the flesh. Have you?" the one in authority is shocked by the impertinence of the reply and pronounces the adherent unsound.

If the adherent persists in refusing to choose between blue or orange, the authority is likely finally to react with the judgment that this adherent is an apostate or a heretic because "all true believers" or "all right-thinking people" know that fairies are blue.

The very un-knowability and un-testability of the notion is essential to its importance in the ideology. The idea that the ideology will be somehow eventually beneficial, even if its efficacy retreats further and further into an imaginary and unknowable future, does not adversely affect the tenacity with which the ideology is held by true believers.

William James and his tribe live by the simple dictum: You will know the truth of an idea by examining its fruit, not its roots.

Among the most provocative practitioners of James' pragmatic method today are Steven D. Levitt (an economist) and Stephen J. Dubner (a journalist) who, together, developed "Freakonomics." Of the many resources these two have produced or inspired, one of my favorites is their recent book, Think Like a Freak (William Morrow, 2014), from which I shall quote extensively.

Levitt and Dubner, reflecting on a meeting they had with then prime minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, observed that, "whenever people, especially politicians, start making decisions based on a reading of their moral compass, facts tend to be among the first casualties." (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, p. 13) What they found was that when leaders strictly adhered to an ideology in the making of public policies and laws, facts about the consequences of these laws and policies tended to be distorted. Often policy makers tried to hammer the square pegs of their legislation into the round holes of their ideological dogma; and if that didn’t work, they would simply ignore any evidence that contradicted what they wanted to see. Most seriously, wherever ideological orthodoxy reigned supreme over pragmatic solutions to problems, the public good tended to suffered. (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, pp. 31-41)

In their praise of pragmatism over ideology, Levitt and Dubner refer to a researcher at the University of California whom readers of my regular blog will remember from years ago, Grawemeyer Award winner (2006) Philip E. Tetlock, whose book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton University Press, 2005), has become required reading among many pragmatic leaders today. Tetlock is the person who tracked the accuracy of the political experts we often see on television and found that they tended to be less accurate than chimpanzees would be randomly throwing darts at a dartboard on which were tacked various answers to political questions.

Commenting on Tetlock's findings, Levitt and Dubner write: "When asked to name the attributes of someone who is particularly bad at predicting, Tetlock needed just one word. 'Dogmatism,' he says, 'That is, an unshakable belief they know something to be true when they don't.'" Tetlock and others who track the accuracy of politicians, their expert advisors, and the pundits who comment on them have found a lethal combination having to do with what you might call the "massively overconfident" personality. It is just a disaster to combine “cocky” and “wrong." (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, p. 25)

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