The nature of pragmatism and its possible future pt. 1

by Dave Maier

MalachowskiAs a philosophical term of art, pragmatism is a uniquely difficult to define. This is because pragmatists don’t care about essences or definitions, and when presented with apparent problems with this or that definition of pragmatism, they (we) are likely to shrug. Who cares what something is called, when what matters is what good it is? But surely “pragmatism” has a meaning like any other word – or, if we don’t want to bring meaning into it, we can appeal to pragmatist sympathies in this matter by noting that the concept can be useful, but only if we are clear on how to use it best. This can be tricky, as pragmatists don’t like to be pinned down on anything, semantic or otherwise, without knowing how the issue has come up and why we care, and of course there’s a wide variety of potential answers to those questions.

I mention all this because I have been reading Alan Malachowski’s 2010 book The New Pragmatism, by which, at least in this brief introduction to the subject, he mainly means Richard Rorty and/or Hilary Putnam (whose death a year ago (at 89) I am ashamed to admit I did not notice. One of the book’s epigraphs is from Rorty himself, who tells us, typically, that “I do not think that pragmatism has a True Self.” Throughout the book, Malachowski is pretty consistently a staunch defender of Rorty’s thought, but I wonder here if he has chosen this particular Rortyan formulation to motivate our sense that for all its virtuous resistance to metaphysical sin, it still leaves something important yet undone. Who said anything about a True Self? We just want to know what we’re talking about.

We might naturally start by distinguishing pragmatism from one of its neighbors. In contemporary parlance, in philosophy and in general, while “pragmatism” is generally neutral in tone, the term “postmodernism” is mainly used dismissively. So used, it picks out a (thankfully) short-lived intellectual and cultural movement characterized by trendy nihilism, radical skepticism and relativism, and naive, tendentious, sanctimonious identity politics of the primarily left-wing variety. In linguistic matters at least, vox populi, vox Dei, so I can’t really complain; but it does leave us with some work to do if we are to avoid confusion – which is what we’re here for, so let’s get to it.

For example, we cannot infer from people simply using the term that the thing they use it to denote actually falls into that reprehensible category. Realists, for example, will often tar all their various opponents with the name of the most despised among them, so pragmatists are used to being called “postmodernist”. Even Rorty sometimes applied the term to himself, as in the phrase “postmodern bourgeois liberalism”, by which use he of course did not mean to dismiss himself as a trendy nihilist. Even if we decide that this means Rorty is thereby using the word wrongly, he’s still using it to mean something different, and we will misinterpret him if we fail to recognize this. Specifically, if someone makes an argument rejecting some or all forms of “realism,” and does in fact call his own position “postmodernist”, we cannot dismiss the argument simply because he called it “postmodernist” rather than (solely) “pragmatist” or something else.

So far, so good; but the flip side of that point is that you cannot save a failing argumentative strategy simply by calling it something new. We need something substantive to grasp onto. Malachowski’s attempt is as good as any, at least to get us started. While allowing a great deal of shared goals, values, and beliefs between postmodernism and pragmatism (following Bernd Magnus, he shares a list of no fewer than 17 items of possible overlap), Malachowski sees an important distinction, which he makes in terms of motivation rather than content. Let me put his point like this: postmodernists want to slay the Cartesian dragon (e.g. of the “metaphysics of presence”), while pragmatists simply want to get past it on the way to greener pastures. Why bother slaying it if that takes resources better spent doing what we wanted to do once it’s gone? Let’s just put it (together with its postmodern opponent for that matter) in our rear-view mirror.

RortyThis is indeed a breath of fresh air. Who could object to a plan for philosophy that turns away from stale academic debates and (back) toward the enrichment of actual human lives? Rorty for one sounds this note loudly and often. However, it turns out to be hard to make this idea stick. Naturally traditional philosophers ganged up on what they perceived as wholesale abandonment of philosophy in favor of, for example, mere utopian and/or progressive politics. (Some of this criticism, collected in anthologies in the wake of Rorty’s 1979 book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, was truly shameful; but we’re not going there today.)

But even more sympathetic critics found much to complain about. Malachowski spends a good deal of his book discussing Putnam’s long-running debate with Rorty, which he describes as possibly surprisingly asymmetrical: Putnam is generally on the attack, pressing Rorty to show that he is not after all a relativist or anti-realist, while Rorty responds with good-natured peace-making gestures, trying to show that it is only the objectionable senses of (say) truth and objectivity that he is rejecting. Putnam never makes the point in terms of postmodernism in particular that I recall; but since those are the terms we’ve been using, let’s continue.

Postmodernism and pragmatism share a deflationary aim: no transcendent metaphysics, aimed at, or even making a place for, an unintelligible Absolute. But they go about it in different ways. Postmodernists want to show once and for all that such metaphysics is incoherent, and the constructive philosophical task impossible. But as critics have noted, it’s hard to show at the same time both that a particular aim is impossible and that its object is unintelligible. In order to get the impossibility to stick, you have to give more credit to its intelligibility than is convenient; but on the other hand, once the target view is intelligible enough to be false, then proving that it is has tended to be disappointingly ungeneralizable to the degree we were looking for – that is, it may work against specific opponents, but then what happened to the idea that we would kill such projects as a whole, once and for all? Without this result, postmodernism can justify neither its scorched-earth rhetoric nor its thick tangle of self-consciously revolutionary verbiage.

PutnamAgain, as Malachowski tells us, this is a late version of Putnam’s charge against Rorty. Rorty had advertised his views as in contrast with the rigorous refutation of realism by philosophy, a project naturally termed “anti-realism”, and instead promised to leave that “stale” debate behind. (It is worth noting that “anti-realist” projects were pursued not only on the Continent but also within analytic philosophy, as in the work of Michael Dummett.) This was the point of Rorty’s “anti-representationalism”: if, reflecting the pragmatist focus on utility, we abandon as fruitless the idea that the point of language and belief is to represent an objective reality (in the relevant philosophically loaded senses of those terms), something assumed by both realist and anti-realist (where the former believes it possible and the latter not), then we pull the rug out from both of them and may then move on to greener pastures. Problem solved!

But as Putnam notes, Rorty couldn’t leave well enough alone. He didn’t simply abandon the debate; he felt obliged, in much the same way as the anti-realist he is trying to distance himself from, to argue philosophically for the falsity of the disputed premise (here, the representationalist assumption rather than the realist doctrines it underlies). On Putnam’s view, this sucks him back into the very debate he is trying to overcome. As Malachowski notes, Rorty doesn’t object (as critics including Putnam sometimes charge) to ordinary uses of the idea (i.e. that language represents reality). But he steadfastly rejected the idea (following Davidson, as he believes) that language has normative relations to the world instead of “merely descriptive” ones, and this amounts to the same thing. If we don’t see ourselves as trying to get the world right (as opposed to, again “merely” describing it for our own pragmatic purposes), then it seems like a stretch to say that we are even “describing” the world at all.

To show this would take us farther into Davidson than I want to get today. The point is not that Putnam and others are right that Rorty is a closet metaphysician (in this context, as it turns out, just about any disagreement with another anti-metaphysician can take that form), but instead that he gets himself into this sort of hot water precisely by insisting on, as I like to put it, wearing his pragmatism on his sleeve: every main substantive commitment in his philosophy is an explicit endorsement of a humble, results-oriented focus on particular everyday tasks (albeit sometimes everyday philosophical tasks) and/or an ambitious, future-oriented focus on meliorism or romantic utopianism, where each is contrasted with the time-honored but stale philosophical fantasy of transcendent metaphysics (or, again, self-deluded not-quite-escape from same).

Malachowski notes that the long-running Rorty-Putnam debate shows that “the New Pragmatism can tolerate a variety of views without collapsing into mush”, which is true; but failure to collapse into mush when presented with a variety of views is a far cry from the sort of expertise with a variety of conceptual tools that would really show pragmatism to advantage. Such expertise would involve an ability to reach for this or that tool as needed, rather than simply the ability to keep them both in the tool chest at the same time without it bursting into flames.

In other words, as I see it the point of a pragmatist appeal to utility (over this or that manifestation of interest-transcendent “metaphysics”) is not to subordinate traditional philosophical goals (broadly construed so as to be unobjectionable) to more utilitarian ones. This would indeed be a sort of philosophical nihilism, as advocated by the contemporary sophists with whom pragmatists are often conflated (no thanks to sophists themselves, like Stanley Fish – see my post here for more on him). Instead, the point of such an appeal is to emphasize the importance of the concept of using a tool. Philosophy counts as pragmatism, should it so desire, when it makes the proper use of this idea in the service of characteristically philosophical goals, in particular those of the pragmatist tradition generally construed. Ideally, this will allow fruitful interface with, if not actual membership for, postmoderns of sound mind, phenomenologists, Wittgensteinians, hermeneutics types, scholars of German idealism and romanticism, and other potentially like-minded souls, including of course other analytically-trained philosophers in the pragmatist orbit like Brandom and McDowell.

Naturally I have not shown any of this last. That’s for next time.