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A Primer on Pragmatism: Truth

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

Method

In Part 1 I described Charles S. Peirce’s view of the pragmatic method. William James championed Peirce, and elaborated on his ideas in a series of lectures in 1906-7, published in a book titled Pragmatism: A New Name For Some Old Ways Of Thinking, available online here. In Lecture 2, James describes Peirce’s insights.

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can BE no difference any-where that doesn’t MAKE a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. Emphasis in original.

As an example, consider the notions of appearance and reality. The issue is raised by a question: “How can people know the nature of reality when all that people have immediate access to are appearances?” The idea is like Plato’s cave wall. We don’t see reality itself, just the shadows cast on the walls of the cave we inhabit.* The linked article offers a number of replies to this dilemma. The pragmatist rejects it. What difference does this distinction make to any human being? What different behavior would a decision cause? Scientists have done wonders without worrying about the distinction. There isn’t a test to distinguish appearance from reality. No useful information comes from considering the question. True, it’s fun, and it’s interesting to understand the problem it presented to our ancestors. But contemplating this distinction will never produce anything that will make our lives better, or even different.**

The problem with this view is that it suggests some fixed and eternal reality outside human experience but that we can somehow grasp.

Truth

In Lecture VI, James defines truth as a property of our ideas: whether they agree with reality. Both pragmatists and others agree with this. James describes the dominant view of truth as the copy or correspondence theory. Our ideas are true if they copy or correspond with reality. But that raises two questions: what does copy or correspond mean in this sense? What exactly is the reality we are trying to copy?

Here’s my example: what does it mean for our ideas to agree with gravity? At one point in our history, it meant nothing. Gravity existed and we defied it at our peril, and there was nothing else to say about it. Was that true? Then Newton explained gravity with an equation that included a constant that was hard to measure. Was that true? Then Einstein showed us his equations of general relativity. Are those equations true? Does that mean Newton’s theory was false? That can’t be right, because Newton explains everything we need to function in our day to day lives, without the complexity of Einstein’s theory. And we still defy gravity at our peril.

James says that people who hold to the external reality view have a static view of truth. They think there is some objective truth out there somehow separate from and beyond our senses. Once they find that truth, they can construct a theory that would account for everything. It might be Marx, it might be some form of religion, it might be some economic theory. But it is static and cannot be affected by the growth of human understanding or anything else. They have the truth, and we must all accept it.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (Emphasis in original.)

For pragmatists, truth

… means, {Dewey and Schiller] say, nothing but this, THAT IDEAS (WHICH THEMSELVES ARE BUT PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE) BECOME TRUE JUST IN SO FAR AS THEY HELP US TO GET INTO SATISFACTORY RELATION WITH OTHER PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true INSTRUMENTALLY. This is the ‘instrumental’ view of truth taught so successfully at Chicago, the view that truth in our ideas means their power to ‘work,’ promulgated so brilliantly at Oxford.*** Emphasis in original.

Truth is located in the ability of an opinion to work in the real world. In taking this view, James and other pragmatists are following along in the scientific consensus on truth. We take Newton’s theory of gravity as true because it works. Einstein’s theory of gravity adds more, without taking away the truth of Newton’s ideas under most circumstances. We take Darwin’s ideas as true because they explain our experiences of the real world. Darwin’s ideas enable us to make predictions we could not otherwise make and solve problems we didn’t even know existed. As problems arise, we modify our opinionx, but only as far as necessary to accommodate the new facts, the new opinions or the failure of our opinions to work. Thus, we follow a very conservative path from our current state to the next state.

The cash value, as James calls it, is obvious. We benefit from having opinions that work. They help us predict the future. They are tools to uncover things and processes we can manipulate to make our lives better. They dispel ideas that might cause us harm.

One more thing. James says that all of our oldest beliefs were formed in the same way, as opinions based on the impressions we get through our senses from reality.

Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to generalize this observation and to apply it to the most ancient parts of truth. … They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they ARE true, for ‘to be true’ MEANS only to perform this marriage-function. Emphasis in original.

In Part 3 I will offer some thoughts on these ideas.
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* This is the image behind Marcy’s occasional references to the Twitter cave wall, an image I really like.

** Roman Catholic theology is grounded in Plato and neo-Platonism, including Plato’s distinction between appearance and reality. The application of pragmatism to religion is far beyond the scope of this primer. James takes it up in Lecture VIII, but there is much more to be said. See also this comment by Drew on the previous post.

*** In this quote “they” refers to John Dewey and F.C.S. Schiller, described in the introduction to the book. Chicago refers to the University of Chicago, where Dewey taught. Schiller taught at Oxford.

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: Conclusion

Posts in this series:

The Green New Deal Challenges The Domination of Capital

Part 1 on Labor

The Politics of the Green New Deal: Part 2 on Capital

The Politics of The Green New Deal: The Opposition Of The Rich

The Green New Deal: OMG It’s Socialism!

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: We Can’t Pay For That

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: More Democracy

The Politics of the Green New Deal: The Conventional Wisdom

The premise of this series is that climate change is going to impose enormous costs on society, whether we do nothing and try to cope with the changes, or whether we try to ameliorate it. In our current version of unrestrained capitalism, those costs will be imposed on the working class*, and the capitalists will enjoy all the profits to be gained whatever we do. The Green New Deal promises to spread the costs and burdens fairly across society, meaning the capitalists will pay more and get less. This is fair, because the capitalists accumulated their wealth by underpaying the working class and by externalizing as much of their costs as possible onto the working class.

I slightly regret using the word politics in the title of this series because I’m no politician, and don’t have much to contribute beyond personal opinion and unlimited optimism about my fellow citizens; think of me as a John Dewey democrat**. (This 2011 post at FDL explains the term, and it holds up really well.) I planned to conclude by saying something like: So everyone has a good reason to support the Green New Deal, even on the off-chance that we have overestimated its effects on the planet and therefore the economy.

Sadly, in the weeks since it was first announced the Trump-led Republicans have poisoned the atmosphere with their unsurpassed and uncontroverted media. Here’s a good discussion of the attack and the results by David Roberts (@DrVox) writing at Vox. And here’s a nice piece on the Climate Change Communication website that shows changes in responses to a number of climate change questions over time and by different segments of the population.

Progressives have nothing like the right-wing media complex, and have utterly failed at reaching the broad public with their rationale for the Green New Deal and its benefits. The media is distracted by the shiny objects Trump skims over our heads daily. Liberals have dozens of critical issues that divide their attention. The Democratic Party lacks any focus at all, other than getting rid of Trump. That leaves huge numbers of people unable to formulate a coherent response to the right-wing media and its capitalist supporters. Far too many of us are unsure about the potential problem or the costs that that will come due as our climate changes.

I’ve read several analyses of the problem by people who know more about politics than I do. This is from the Roosevelt Institute. This is by Ezra Klein at Vox, responding to the Roosevelt Institute’s recommendations.
This one is by the indispensable Eric Levitz at New York Magazine; and there’s lots more on his author page. You won’t have trouble finding more.

I do have two thoughts.

1. I largely agree with this by Thomas Piketty. He writes about the disparity between the views of “voters with the lowest incomes, personal wealth or qualifications” (the “working classes” in his article) and their prosperous fellow citizens as shown in EU elections. The working classes mostly vote against the EU while the prosperous mostly vote for it.

The reason for this, according to those who are better off, is that the working classes are nationalist and xenophobic, perhaps even backwards.

But there’s a better explanation according to Piketty: the current structure of the EU unfairly favors the prosperous at the expense of the working classes, and the latter know this, resent it, and vote to change it.

In the US, many people respond to the obvious fact that their votes don’t change anything by refusing to vote at all. In the 2016 election turnout was about 58% of the voting age population. If the Democrats could get another 10% to the polls, raising turnout to 68%, they wouldn’t need swing voters and nervous Republicans, and they’d likely take the Senate and the House.

In my simple-minded approach, the failure of the Democrats is their absurd unwillingness to act like a political party. To take an obvious example, when Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal, some Democrats immediately indicated support. But the centrists just had to weigh in, whining about how radical it is and how much trouble it would be, and it might affect my chances of reelection and we can’t afford that. They just couldn’t keep silent, or say how much they were looking forward to working with their colleagues on this critical issue.

In my simple-minded approach, the Democrats act like a real party, where all of them are on the same team, and assert that they will pass legislation that will benefit non-voters, and will protect them from the depredations of the rich and their corporations. With control of the House, they can prove they will do so by passing legislation now.

2. Movies on TV have really long commercial breaks, three or four minutes or even more. Climate activists could make mini-movies for those breaks, 3-4 minutes long, that would basically be educational, with a very light touch of activism. As I see it, the right wing relies on fear, hatred, nationalism, and other highly emotional triggers. The viewers I would try to reach aren’t hooked on those emotional charges. They either are apathetic, or are turned off by those appeals. And those emotional triggers don’t work well late at night, they interfere with sleeping.

The idea is to show the problem directly, but keep the commentary to a minimum and keep it low-key. So, we could show the heavy rain, ice and floods in Nebraska, interview people who were damaged, like maybe a shot of farmer walking through a muddy field explaining he can’t plant and the financial effect on his business. We could interview the water treatment officials in Omaha whose system was flooded and poured raw sewage into streams and rivers. The commercials would be so long that people would look up during them even while playing with their phones, and the footage would be riveting.

The talk would be short, and focused on the people damaged. There would be large easy to read captions, because I think a lot of viewers mute commercials. There would be two or three open-ended questions in caption format from time to time. Can we afford to take the risk of more climate change? What happens to the price of food if we have wide-spread flooding in the Mid-west? How can we protect ourselves from the increased number of dangerous storms? Maybe we should talk about this with our friends and neighbors. And so on. Non-threatening, easy to understand, and non-judgmental, not didactic or pedantic. A soft approach might have an impact on people’s willingness to consider decarbonization.

The idea is easily expanded to teaching about other issues, including, for example, financial problems facing the 40% of us who can’t pay an unexpected $400 bill without borrowing, or people facing medical problems without decent insurance, people forced to move to chase jobs and so on, all problems addressed by the Green New Deal.

I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, but I know we have to do something new, because whatever we think we are doing now isn’t working.
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* I define the terms working class and capitalists in the first post in this series.
**Also, I generally agree with the views this post attributes to Sophie de Grouchy and others.

Networks or Newspapers; Dewey or Lippmann?

I’m grateful for Eric Alterman’s long meditation on the future of newspapers, if only because he correctly balances a discussion of Walter Lippmann–who has rather bizarrely been adopted as the patron saint of American journalism–with John Dewey–who would in that formulation be the patron saint of blogging.

Lippmann likened the average American—or “outsider,” as he tellingly named him—to a “deaf spectator in the back row” at a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” In a description that may strike a familiar chord with anyone who watches cable news or listens to talk radio today, Lippmann assumed a public that “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted . . . and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.” A committed élitist, Lippmann did not see why anyone should find these conclusions shocking. Average citizens are hardly expected to master particle physics or post-structuralism. Why should we expect them to understand the politics of Congress, much less that of the Middle East?

Lippmann’s preferred solution was, in essence, to junk democracy entirely. He justified this by arguing that the results were what mattered. Even “if there were a prospect” that people could become sufficiently well-informed to govern themselves wisely, he wrote, “it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered.” In his first attempt to consider the issue, in “Liberty and the News” (1920), Lippmann suggested addressing the problem by raising the status of journalism to that of more respected professions. Two years later, in “Public Opinion,” he concluded that journalism could never solve the problem merely by “acting upon everybody for thirty minutes in twenty-four hours.” Instead, in one of the oddest formulations of his long career, Lippmann proposed the creation of “intelligence bureaus,” which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government’s actions without concerning themselves much with democratic preferences or public debate. Just what, if any, role the public would play in this process Lippmann never explained.

John Dewey termed “Public Opinion” “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned,” and he spent much of the next five years countering it. Read more