Pragmatism and Democracy

November 18th, 2014

This week I finished my first term of Senior year, and a course called “American Philosophy and Postmodernism” with professor (and Knox grad), Brandon Polite.1 This class centered around a philosophy called Pragmatism, it’s creators Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, as well as the more modern practitioners of the philosophy like Hilary Putnam and Cheryl Misak.

Basically, Pragmatism takes the scientific method—hypothesizing, testing, revising—and turns it into a system of thought. The philosophy can be seen as a reaction to modern philosophy (absolute Truth, Kant and analytic/synthetic truths, the role of an individual re: the world, etc.) and is heavily influenced by Darwin and the evolutionary systems he made popular.

Both James and Dewey state that truth is built around consensus, not some dogmatism handed down by a third party. In order for consensus to happen properly, each party must be informed and able to engage in criticism of a topic. After critical discussion has occurred, the parties may come to a decision on whether or not a particular truth fits with the world, i.e., whether or not a claim is true. A claim is not true indefinitely — if it no longer fits with the world, a claim should be thrown out in favor of some truth that fits better.

Both Dewey himself and many of those philosophers that came after him argued that a functioning democracy requires its citizens be able to engage in critical dialog around any topic. Furthermore, those that participate must be tolerant, non-dogmatic individuals. Any kind of dogmatism asserts the rightness of a thing without considering its content. This all requires that individuals are not censored in their speech and willing to adapt their belief as new empirical data comes to light.

I recently read an article on Salon called “You don’t protect my freedom: Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy” which argued that by calling active members of the military and police “heroes” we justify the terrible acts they commit.2 If members of the military and police are universally “heroes,” how can they do any wrong? By applying this term, these servicepeople and their actions become impervious to argument and criticism.

Dogmatism in any form becomes dangerous to democracy by disallowing the process by which ideas are discussed, rehashed, and overturned. What was once back and forth dialog may very well become a shouting match between two parties unwilling to see eachother's unshakable beliefs.

If you’d like to learn more about Pragmatism, it’s relationship to democracy, and it’s ideas applied to society, you may be interested in the work of Alain LeRoy Locke, specifically, “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy” and “Racial Progress and Race Adjustment.” A list of further readings is provided below.3

  • John Dewey - Truth and Consequences
  • John Dewey - The Need For a Recovery of Philosophy
  • Hilary Putnam - Is There Still Anything to Say About Reality and Truth?
  • Hilary Putnam - A Reconsideration of Deweyan Democracy

  1. The plaque on his door reads B. Polite.↩︎

  2. Hopefully it’s clear to see why military actions pose a moral problem. For evidence of unjust police action, take a look at race based violence in places like Ferguson MO, Sanford FL, and elsewhere.↩︎

  3. I'm unable to provide links to these works, but you can find the material by Dewey in "John Dewey: The Middle Works" (1978), and Putnam's in "Renewing Democracy" (1992) and "The Many Faces of Realism" (1987).↩︎