The limits of pragmatism

This is a personal attempt to identify and articulate a fruitful form of pragmatism, as distinct from what seems to me the many dangerous forms. My starting point is Wikipedia and my notion that the differences it notes can sometimes matter.

Doubt, like belief, requires justification. Genuine doubt irritates and inhibits, in the sense that belief is that upon which one is prepared to act.[2] It arises from confrontation with some specific recalcitrant matter of fact (which Dewey called a “situation”), which unsettles our belief in some specific proposition. Inquiry is then the rationally self-controlled process of attempting to return to a settled state of belief about the matter. Note that anti-skepticism is a reaction to modern academic skepticism in the wake of Descartes. The pragmatist insistence that all knowledge is tentative is quite congenial to the older skeptical tradition

My own contribution to things scientific has been on some very specific issues, but which I attempt to generalise:

  • It is sometimes seems much too late to wait to act on doubt for something that pragmatic folk recognize as a ‘specific recalcitrant matter of fact’. I would rather say (with the skeptics) that we should always be in some doubt, but that our actions require justification, and should only invest in relation to that justification. Requiring ‘facts’ seems too high a hurdle to act at all.
  • Psychologically, people do seek ‘settled states of belief’, but I would rather say (with the skeptics) that the degree of settledness ought to be only in so far as is justified. Relatively settled belief but not fundamentalist dogma!
  • It is often supposed that ‘facts’ and ‘beliefs’ should concern the ‘state’ of some supposed ‘real world’. There is some evidence that it is ‘better’ in some sense to think of the world as one in which certain processes are appropriate. In this case, as in category theory, the apparent state arises as a consequence of sufficient constraints on the processes. This can make an important difference when one considers uncertainties, but in ‘small worlds’ there are no such uncertainties.

It seems to me that the notion of ‘small worlds’ is helpful. A small world would be one which could be conceived of or ‘mentally modelled’. Pragmatists (of differing varieties) seem to believe that often we can conceive of a small world representation of the actual world, and act on that representation ‘as if’ the world were really small. So far, I find this plausible, even if not my own habit of thinking. The contentious point, I think, is that in every situation we should do our best to from a small world representation and then act as if it were true unless and until we are confronted with some ‘specific recalcitrant matter of fact’. This can be too late.

But let us take the notion of  a ‘small world’ as far as we can. It is accepted that the small world might be violated. If it could be violated as a consequence of something that we might inadvertently do then it hardly seems a ‘pragmatic’ notion in terms of ordinary usage, and might reasonably said to be dangerous in so far as it lulls us into a false sense of security.

One common interpretation of ‘pragmatism’ seems to be that we may as well act on our beliefs as there seems no alternative. But I shall refute this by presenting one. Another interpretation is that there is no ‘practical’ alternative’. That is to say, whatever we do could not affect the potential violation of the small world. But if this is the case it seems to me that there must be some insulation between ourselves and the small world. Thus the small world is actually embedded in some larger closed world. But do we just suppose that we are so insulated, or do we have some specific closed world in mind?

It seems to me that doubt is more justified the less our belief in insulation is justified. Even when we have specific insulation in mind, we surely need to keep an open mind and monitor the situation for any changes, or any reduction in justification for our belief.

From this, it seems to me that (as in my own work) what matters is not having some small world belief, but in taking a view on the insulations between what you seek to change and what you seek to rely on as unchanging. And from these identifying not only a single credible world in which to anchor one’s justifications for action, but in seeking out credible possible small worlds in the hope that at least one may remain credible as things proceed.

Dave Marsay

See also my earlier thoughts on pragmatism, from a different starting point.

Addendum: Locke anticipated my 3 bullet points above, by a few centuries. Pragmatists seem to argue that we don’t have to take some of Locke’s concerns too seriously. But maybe we should. It further occurs to me that there are often situations where in the short-run ‘pragmatism pays’, but in the long-run things can go increasingly awry. Locke offers an alternative to the familiar short-term utilitarianism that seems to make more sense. Whilst it may be beneficial to keep developing theories pragmatically, in the longer term one would do well to seek more logical (if less precise) theories from which one can develop pragmatic ‘beliefs’ that are not unduly affected by beliefs that may have been pragmatic in previous situations, but which no longer are. One might say that rather than stopping being pragmtic, one’s pragmatism should -from time to time – consider the potential long-run consequences, lest the long-run eventually burst upon one, creating a crisis and a need for a challenging paradigm shift.

An alternative is to recognise the issues arising from one’s current ‘pragmatic’ beliefs, and attempt to ‘regress to progress’. But this seems harder, and may be impossible under time presssure.