On Pragmatism and Principles

Ever since reading James Livingston and Louis Menand some years back, I’ve enjoyed some sympathy with the ideas of pragmatism.[1] In short, the philosophy articulated by Charles Pierce and William James posits that ideas cannot be separated from the contexts in which they operate. There is no objective truth; what is true is whatever is most useful or functional in a given time or place.

I’ve just begun reading Kim Phillips-Fein’s history of the anti-New Deal movement among businessmen, and I never cease to be struck by how at the nadir of the Great Depression, free market advocates adhered to certain truths, or principles, in their discourse. When Roosevelt sought to create the Securities and Exchange Commission, the du Ponts of the Du Pont corporation were horrified, understanding such an institution to threaten, as Phillips-Fein puts it, the “inevitable risks at the heart of life.”[2] As a quarter of Americans were out of work, the du Ponts were concerned about an imagined future where Americans would be too safe and comfortable.

Such is the power of principle. Pragmatism tells us to be weary of universal truths, and of truths posed as self-evident. And that’s just what principles are. Certainly we all hold to principles, and they operate within ideologies, from which none of us are free. Principles, like ideologies, can function as shortcuts, providing us with rules for living and acting. But occasionally taking a pragmatic approach — that is, thinking about truths in terms of their effect and the efficacy on and within the reality of the present — might reveal the limits of principles as they operate in one or two contemporary fora.

Consider the present discourse around guns. The principle is, of course, the Second Amendment, or to be more specific, the particular understanding of the Second Amendment that exists today. We know that countless gun deaths occur in the United States each year, we know that common sense reforms are possible, practical, and would not likely inconvenience most Americans all that much, and we know that there is strong evidence showing a causative association between the number of guns in a country and the number of violent injuries and deaths. And yet, gun advocates stand on principle. The Second Amendment is a truth that justifies itself. And if there were a small chance that reform might undo our principle, such a possibility is far more egregious than the certain possibility that good would come out of changing our intellectual and material relationship with guns in this country.

In such an example, the problem of principle over pragmatism is clear. But here’s a trickier one: that of the limits of free speech. As I’ve written before on this blog, and in a recent piece for In These Times, I’m no fan of civil liberties fetishism. There have been some very good responses in various journalism circles to the problem of free speech over the last month or two, including a couple of New Yorker essays. But I think it’s hard to articulate exactly what I find problematic with the ways in which any political movement, on a campus or otherwise, can be delegitimized by making paeans to the principle of free speech. But one way to look at it is to see it as a failure of pragmatism. The voices that sought to turn away Condoleeza Rice from speaking at their college had heard enough; the former Secretary of State had already spoken for eight years, her voice had been amplified with tremendous power, and she spoke in not only words, but in the bombs that destroyed cities, economies, institutions, and ways of life. The truth — that is that which is governed by context and utility — was that other voices were sorely needed.

Now that last statement is undoubtedly subjective, and so is arguably any thought that stems from pragmatism. The point isn’t that we can derive a new rule book, a new Constitution or Bill of Rights, that determines when and how people can own or buy guns or be permitted to speak in public or semi-public spaces. Laws are necessary and important, and I’m not sure if such an act would necessarily be a re-inscription of principle, but it would certainly be if it were understood and designed as a means to its own end.

Ultimately, I would wager that there most likely are principles that can function pragmatically; truths that in contexts that we can imagine and dream, might function broadly and timelessly in ways functional and useful. Even then, we would still have to do the pragmatic thing: to constantly question and re-evaluate those principles that appear to naturally justify themselves.


[1] James Livingston, Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (New York: Routledge, 2001); Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

[2] Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 3.