Wednesday, October 27, 2010

America vs. Pragmatism

To follow up today's earlier posting, I'd like to provide a brief intellectual narrative of the United States of America.

The United States of America were founded upon an absolutism and radicalism expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Its chief author, Thomas Jefferson, was an uncompromising advocate of reason as against unreason - including opposition to the use of physical force as a reason-negating activity, as a matter of principle. His moral groundings were in Lockean natural law (with some Jesus-inspired other-oriented benevolence thrown in to complement the rights- and self-preservation angles covered in natural-law theory). The Founders, Jefferson included, grounded their statements on things like "self-evidence" and "the Creator" and some abstract "Divine Providence." The religious overtones of it notwithstanding, the radically libertarian idea - then as well as now - was one of religious toleration and freedom, hence the broadly abstract and not-specifically-defined statements concerning "Divine Providence."

The early decades of the United States of America were defined by the height of Enlightenment-era philosophy, and Thomas Jefferson (not Germany's Immanuel Kant) best represents those heights. There's not just the reverence for natural law, or the uncompromising commitment to reason intermixed with a people-respecting religious tolerance, or the recognition of the secular value of Jesus's teachings in isolation from the magical-mystical bullshit of his non-philosophical adherents, but also the commitment to a very central American value: common sense. In addition to being President of the United States of America, he was, at the same time, president of the American Philosophical Society. If you read through some of his letters concerning philosophy, he shows he is well-versed in the ancient Greek philosophers, notably and positively Epicurus. His statement that Epicurus represents the height of secular and Greek philosophy is incomprehensible except in light of the evident fact that he wasn't aware of Aristotle. Can you just fucking imagine how robust America would be had Thomas Jefferson known about Aristotle? Would Ayn Rand's philosophical writings have even been necessary to restore America to its intellectual origins? Ayn Rand was correct on one point: Aristotle, via Aquinas, via John Locke, was the intellectual father of America, without the Founders even knowing it. Nevertheless, Jefferson represents one heck of a standard for America to follow; the basic sensibility is all the same as with Aristotle.

Aristotle, Jefferson, Rand - they all represent an approach to philosophizing that is empirical and yet absolutist, reality-oriented without being authoritarian, judgmental and pro-virtue and non-libertine while remaining libertarian, eudaemonistic and perfectionistic with emphasis on personal well-being and happiness (incorporating other-related virtues - most importantly, justice) as the aim of life, unapologetically capitalistic, and marked at all times by a respect for common sense. It's as American as it gets.

So, how did pragmatism come about and begin to consume the American ethos from within? For the first 100 or so years of America, there was a classically Jeffersonian ethos that ruled. It's ultimately what led to the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. Being very practical and productive, the American people had little time or patience for the wankers who often pass for philosophers. The main focus of life in the American mindset is to live this life well, and philosophy is only of value, cash-value if you will, if it is of aid in advancing the life well lived. Until the pragmatist movement came along in the late 19th century, after the Civil War, American intellectual life was radically individualistic, optimistic, and perfectionistic. The abolition of slavery, for instance, was a moral necessity to America's leading intellectual lights. Any visions of future utopias - be they Josiah Warren's hippie-communes or Spoonerite-Tuckerian private-property arrangements - were all based on a vision of voluntary participation rather than state-enforced regimentation. Those utopian-perfectionist voluntaristic visions remain as true now as they did then; only the American intellectual context has changed since that time.

The Pragmatist movement was borne of a concern about relating ideals to practice. One thing that has to be emphasized here is that when the Pragmatist movement was at its height - ca. 1900 - Aristotle had only begun being translated for an English-speaking audience. So it was really just a matter of timing and place, essential factors in analyzing the history of ideas. If Epicureanism (or whatever the top English-speaking philosophers like Hume, Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill had to say) was the best philosophy known to Americans at the time, something better had to be erected in order to deal with the emerging problems and challenges that Epicurean or British philosophy just can't deal with. You need intellectuals who aren't wankers who can usefully guide us through these challenges.

Pragmatism is not defined by specific commitments but by a certain way of dealing with challenges, and the method here is rather minimalistic: piecemeal adjustment with empirical weighing of hopefully-well-defined and well-measured costs and benefits (short-term as well as long-term, with priority given to the short term, ceteris paribus, given Keynes's dictum about the long term).

Compare America's intellectual state ca. 1930 vs. that of the European states. By 1930, Europe had been bombarded with bad philosophy for centuries, was under the spell of Kant's disastrous "Copernican" subjectivism, under the spell of unsurprisingly mystical interpretations of Hegel's Absolute and historical necessity, or under the spell of Schopenhauerian metaphysics of Will, or Nietzschean subjectivism, or under the spell of non-Aristotelian, Humean-Millian empiricism, or under the spell of Marxian socialism, or under spell of Millian progressive-socialism, and the spell of Hegel-inspired Nationalism. With that kind of intellectual bombardment, it's no surprise that Germany embraced National Socialism, that Britain was not far behind in the push for socialism, that France was filled with ennui and existential angst about it all, that the Soviet experiment (with millions of people's lives, against their will, it must be pointed out) was being embraced and/or taken seriously as an alternative model of organization of "the resources." It wasn't a matter of Ludwig von Mises having or not having compelling arguments against socialism; it was a matter of a condition of intellectual dysfunction/insanity whereby the vast majority of his contemporaries were heavily invested in the nationalist-socialist mentality. The history of ideas is such that the kind of intellectual revolution Mises initiated requires time to unfold; had Mises been writing around at the time of Marx's heyday, things would very likely have been quite different. (It's also worth mentioning that by ca. 1900, the intellectual center of Europe had migrated from Germany to Austria, given the failings of German philosophy and the relative promise offered by the Vienna intellectuals.)

In America ca. 1930, the intellectual context was one of Jeffersonian individualism combined with home-grown Pragmatism. The Pragmatic mindset was that our Constitution didn't embody such abstract ideals as those set forth in Herbert Spencer's radically libertarian Social Statics. That famous pronouncement by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was taken as received wisdom rather than as an easily-challenged - and false - understanding of constitutional jurisprudence. Wouldn't it just be mind-blowing if the Fourteenth Amendment did indeed enact Mr. Spencer's Social Statics? The very mind-blowingness of such a notion is enough to send any good Pragmatist running in fear. It's un-pragmatic to blow people's minds, now, so let's play it safe. . . . Do you begin to see the insidious unintended effects of a pragmatist mindset? Could the American Revolution, or the slave-freeing Civil War, have happened on a pragmatist base?

One bad but understandable interpretation of American-grown pragmatism is that it saved the United States of America from pursuing the same path that the Marx-infused European nations pursued. Going full-out socialist would have been unpragmatic, as it represented too drastic, too idealistic and too radical a shift from . . . from whatever American ideals at the time were. As a pragmatism-infused mindset is not defined so much by specific commitments but rather a means of dealing with conflicts amongst commitments, the radically individualistic and Jeffersonian ideals America was built on were incidental to the pragmatist analysis. The main objectionable thing to a swift departure from these ideals is not that it is a departure, but that it's swift and - get this - overly idealistic. And, we have discovered (via empiricistic observation - so there's always a pervasive uncertainty and "maybe" about it all) that capitalism "works" well enough to satisfy competing mainstream (the mainstream being defined - how?) ideological demands.

We can see an influential home-grown theory of justice - John Rawls's A Theory of Justice - as an exercise in American-style pragmatism. We have two competing ideals - libertarianism and egalitarianism - that need to be reconciled via a please-everybody Synthesis. Only - as with pretty much anything pragmatistic - it satisfies no one except for the compulsively pragmatistic (like many academic philosophers). What we don't get in Rawls is anything "mind-blowing" or "too radical." What we do get is a kindly and well-intentioned (the road to hell, etc.) attempt to fuse (evil) egalitarianism with (good) libertarianism. The reason that Rawls's theory even gives so much weight to liberty is because of its being American. Leaving everything in the hands of the Euro intellectuals, what would we get? Given the European context, the best we get in reaction to socialistic egalitarianism is Mises and Hayek, and neither of them offered their pro-capitalistic visions as moral visions. What we get with them is a classical liberalism little distinguished from that of Hume and Mill. With Hume we get chronic uncertainty; with Mill we get a consequentialist defense of liberty based on its social benefits. And in a pragmatistic mindset, these get thrown into the mix as ideas that need to be reconciled with the others. Hey, I'm as ecumenical in my sensibilities as they come, but it's more like Aristotle's ecumenism: recognizing what's right in a view will tossing out the weak stuff. Pragmatism doesn't acknowledge the strong and the weak in this sense; rather, there is a Primacy of Reconciliation that has ideas and conflicts amongst them, rather than an absolute and independent reality, as the primary focus and orientation. (How on earth can Rawls's theory of justice have truly lasting impact when it steadfastly abstains from deep ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical commitments? Are Rawls's genuflecting-wankers this intellectually puny? The notion is mind-blowing, I know. That's why the Prevailing Academic Model of Doing Philosophy is going to fall on its face. Mind-blowing, I know....)

Here's what Ayn Rand said in the most succinct and biting terms about pragmatism as the intellectual malady that it is: "Someone wants to bash your skull in, reach a livable compromise: Tell him to break one leg." (Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, p. 7)

After some 50 years of pragmatism making its way through American culture, America was broken intellectually in the mid-20th century. Broken, dysfunctional, directionless, proudly anti-philosophical (philosophy having been dispensed with as an impractical failure). Ayn Rand was proclaiming this fact like it should have been as obvious to everyone in her day as it was to her. But just keep in mind: in a pragmatist mindset, someone making the sweeping and absolutist and idealistic (and unacceptably mind-blowing) proclamations that Ayn Rand made is not to be trusted. Rand simply was far ahead ("out of place") of her time, thrown into a world of anti-philosophical intellectual disintegration. But taking a long-run view of these things, all that Rand was doing was initiating an intellectual revolution, in the midst of a sea of pragmatism, to get America back to its roots. In short, the pragmatist movement was a diversion from America's (and the world's) true course, an intellectual stumbling block borne of a lack of Aristotle. Aristotle alone whacks Pragmatism upside the head; Rand puts Pragmatism to shame; historical experience will be the ultimate proof of its anti-practical failings.

Now, here's what's gonna happen. (Only someone perceptive enough to run a blog like this one knows how these blog postings are "for the ages," and there is a special satisfaction of knowing how subsequent generations will look back and say, "Yes, indeed, those ideas were mind-blowing for the time, but he turned out to be right, of course.") The big one-two punch that, on its own, would, in time, restore America to its founding ideals, is the introduction to America of Aristotle's English-translated works, and Ayn Rand's Objectivism. One amazing thing about Rand's early philosophy - summed up in her most perfect novel, The Fountainhead - is how much of it is simply Americanism, discovered and discoverable quite independently of Aristotle. (This is just how commonsensical Jeffersonian-American ideals really are; they aren't beyond the reach of the "man on the street," even; all we need is the right kind of intellectual leadership, like we had in Jefferson's day, and not wankers who eschew common sense.) The best evidence indicates that Rand did not start into a hardcore study of Aristotle and the history of philosophy until the early- to mid-1940s. Random Houses's Basic Works of Aristotle, a compiled volume of translations edited by Richard McKeon, was first published in 1941. Rand mentions in a 1940s letter having bought a copy of "the complete works" of Aristotle, presumably referring to this volume. Anyway, the basic point here is that Aristotle was just being introduced to America in the early 1900s, and Ayn Rand was independently developing American-common-sensical ideas in a radical, integrated, and systematic way after taking from Nietzsche what needed to be taken and integrated into a rational individualism (namely, a heroic sense of man's greatness and potential). With founding ideals represented by Jefferson, and bold echoes of those very ideals in the world-historic philosophers Aristotle and Ayn Rand, what will happen "as if by necessity" is a second Renaissance centered right here in America. America's potential hasn't even come close to being fulfilled.

The problem with Pragmatism? It simply couldn't offer a moral vision like this, and therefore simply can't work to bring about the desired result (widespread human flourishing-perfection).

No comments:

Post a Comment