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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"So what?"

The "So what?" question came up again this morning, and since I brought it into the conversation and then failed to make its relevance clear, here's my after-the-fact attempt at clarity. Those looking here for descriptions of Up North scenery may want to skip reading today's post: the weather is wet, dark, cold and dull.

The original issue brought forward over coffee was one of blame in a small domestic incident. Who was more blameworthy, the wife inquired, recounting her story--she or her spouse? A general opinion was solicited, and then David, sitting next to me, pressed me for a "philosophical" opinion. When I asked the original story-teller what hinged on the fixing of blame, David took this to be an evasion of the question. "But that is my philosophical opinion," I tried to explain. "If neither is angry at the other, and both are sorry, what's the point of blaming?" (I'm paraphrasing myself here, of course, and may not have made even this much sense on the spot. Susan, did I?)

I think I have already written somewhere about my friend who looked at anything happening in her life as a lesson sent to her from "the Universe" and who objected, when I said there was no pragmatic difference between our beliefs, since both of us looked for what we could learn from whatever happened, though I had no belief that the Universe had a lesson plan written out for my benefit, "But one of us has to be right, and one of us has to be wrong!" Why? Her belief in a Plan, my lack of belief in a Plan, had the same consequences. One man may try to lead a good life solely because he wants to avoid hell and get into heaven, while another man may try to lead a good life because he believes it's the only life he'll ever have. Pragmatism looks at the choices people actually make, the way they live, not what they say they believe about ultimate reality. Beliefs can be important insofar as they support us in the way we choose to live. They can have, that is to say, pragmatic value. But that's about all we can know.

For years I told my philosophy students that "So what?" was a very important philosophical question, and now I'm realizing that the esteem in which I hold this question is part and parcel of my own pragmatism. One of my graduate school professors has written on the topic, and perhaps Professor Wallace's review of Martin Benjamin will shed light on this philosophical position. Wallace uses an example to elucidate: Here is a new problem in medical ethics. Earlier medical practitioners did not face this problem, so we cannot look either to precedent or to the ideas of Truth held by previous ages to tell us what to do. What will be the consequences of resolving this problem in one way rather than another? That is how pragmatism looks at life. It looks not at life-in-a-perfect-world or life-as-we-think-it-should-be, but life as it is. That is not to say that a pragmatism must live without ideals or principles--far from it. It is, however, to say that a pragmatism looks for answers that work and will reject an ideologically-driven agenda that cannot produce results.

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The implications for politics are obvious and enormous. In the 1950's there were Communists who clung to the party line despite horrors taking place under Communist rule. There are still, here in the United States, people so wedded to the idea that the free market must brook absolutely no government interference that they would deliver us to a Hobbesian State of Nature rather than see financial markets regulated again or health care insurance provided rationally. The notion of a "mixed" economy is abhorrent to ideologues on either side. Pragmatism introduces a little common sense into these debates, cutting through ideological battle lines. The best survey I know of this history is given by Cornel West in his book, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism.

Yes, West did use the word 'evasion' in his title! I stand by pragmatism as a philosophical position. Those who define philosophy narrowly as metaphysics dealing with "eternal" things will deny that it is philosophy. (In the same vein, they will deny philosophical status to phenomenology and other views.) To that I will say only that no philosophical concept is more contensted than 'philosophy' itself. Some of us believe that philosophy is a way of thinking rather than a body of thought. Of course, that belief serves pragmatism, but find me a philosophical position that does not privilege itself. So what? Judge by their fruits.

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