Monday, October 19, 2009

Pragmatism, Part I

America has invented only one new philosophy: Pragmatism. In the latter part of the Nineteenth Century and the early part of the last century, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey articulated a new and particularly American philosophy known as Pragmatism. William James described Pragmatism as holding that:

“Ideas become true just so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.”

The philosophy of pragmatism is much more subtle than the idea that what works is true—probably a closer approximation would be to say that truth has to be verified by empirical experience (maybe something like Ronald Reagan’s statement that we should “Trust, but verify.”).

I plan to discuss pragmatism at more length (as soon as I understand it!), but right now I’m more interested in the traditional American approach to the world, which I’m afraid we are losing.

One of the hallmarks of American thought has always been our willingness to question authority. It has seemed that, unlike European thinkers, Americans start fresh, without preconceptions, and that start has made America the preeminent scientific nation in the world. Look at the recent award of Nobel Prizes for science.

Medicine went to three Americans: Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak. Physics went to three Americans: Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith. The award for chemistry went to Americans Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz and Israel's Ada Yonath. Finally, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences went to Americans Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson.

That’s 10 out of 11 (or eight out of nine if you don’t want to count economics as a science—I have my personal doubts). Pragmatism as a philosophy originally appealed to Americans because it was more “scientific” than most philosophies. I think, at our best, American thought is distinctive because we are willing to take reality on its own terms. If we lose this ability then I think we have lost more than we imagine. I don’t want to think that in a decade Americans will win one out of 11, rather than 10 out of 11, Nobel Prizes for science, but I fear we are on that path.

“According to legend, when John Maynard Keynes was challenged about a change in his views on something economic, he responded along the lines that when the facts warranted a change in view, he changed his view. He then queried the rival: "What do you do?"

On occasion I have been asked about one idea or another that we want to try and whether it will work. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances and my mood, I give a long, convoluted answer that explains why we think the idea should be successful—but in truth amounts to “Maybe." But sometimes I simply say that I don’t know, the idea hasn’t been tested yet, but at a minimum the effort will show us one more way that doesn’t work.

“Thomas Alva Edison, a prolific inventor, and his team (yes, he did not work alone!) experimented with thousands of different filaments to find just the right materials to glow well and be long-lasting.”

When we try to deal with difficult problems in society—and I’m concerned mostly with ideas related to poverty and homelessness, because that’s my life’s work—everyone seems to want to prejudge the results of an idea before it has received a trial. The truth is that it may take many, many different efforts to find the best way to solve a problem. Edison persisted through thousands of unsuccessful tries before perfecting a practical electric light bulb. We don’t try ideas that we think will fail, but anybody that promises you that a new idea is sure to work is somebody you shouldn’t trust.

Success in developing new approaches to solving problems is going to require at least two theoretical efforts. First, we must be willing to try a variety of new approaches. Second, we must be ruthless in our analysis of whether any particular effort is successful.

We must not try to pass a failure off as a success. Instead, like a scientist, we must be willing to understand that a failure adds almost as much to our knowledge as a success. Now we know one more way that doesn’t work—one more filament that doesn’t burn as long as we would like. When we’ve eliminated enough unsuccessful approaches, then we will eventually find the right way of doing things. We need to put aside our fear of failure and instead be afraid of repeating failed ideas.

Thirty-five years ago I graduated from college with a minor in philosophy without ever reading a word from the American philosophers of pragmatism, and this year my daughter will do the same. I think this is a major loss of our heritage, and I intend to make it good over the next several months. If you want to join me on this effort, here’s an easy starting place to look into pragmatism:

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