What is Pragmaticism?
Pragmaticism1 is a methodology for “reaching a clearness of thought of a far higher grade than the ‘distinctness’ of the logicians”2. It makes a number of ontological claims such as:
“Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy that we have any other we deceive ourselves, and mistake a mere sensation accompanying the thought for a part of the thought itself."3
“Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."4
“The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise. If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs, any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes."5
In other words, our understanding of what an object is (in the ontological sense), is solely related to the sense perceptions created by the object and the possible differences these sense perceptions would have on our lives6. In one of the foundational essays describing Pragmaticism7, C. S. Peirce uses the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation as an instance where confused logic is elucidated by Pragmaticism:
“Thus our action has exclusive reference to what affects the senses, our habit has the same bearing as our action, our belief the same as our habit, our conception the same as our belief; and we can consequently mean nothing by wine but what has certain effects, direct or indirect, upon our senses; and to talk of something as having all the sensible characters of wine, yet being in reality blood, is senseless jargon."8
“I only desire to point out how impossible it is that we should have an idea in our minds which relates to anything but conceived sensible effects of things. Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy that we have any other we deceive ourselves, and mistake a mere sensation accompanying the thought for a part of the thought itself. It is absurd to say that thought has any meaning unrelated to its only function. It is foolish for Catholics and Protestants to fancy themselves in disagreement about the elements of the sacrament, if they agree in regard to all their sensible effects…"8
Thus, according to Pragmaticism, two ideas are the same if they produce the same results.
While a technical, philosophical understanding of Pragmaticism is not common, the foundational tenets of this methodology are prevalent in American culture (I’m told they are not as common in Europe). We, as Christians, must be wary of this worldview in culture around us, within the Church, and in our own thinking. For the remainder of this essay, I will endeavor to show why Pragmaticism is such a dangerous and insidious worldview through a couple of examples. A more thorough, philosophical response to Pragmaticism will have to wait.
The Dangers of Pragmaticism
To show the dangers of Pragmaticism, I will show two areas where, if we were to adopt premises set forth by Pragmaticism, we would have to reject a Biblical worldview. The first is regarding a Biblical view of what a human being is and the second is regarding the Notitia (propositional content - see 10) of the Gospel.
Pragmaticism and the Essence of a Human Being
For one who accepts Pragmaticism, there is no inherent and essential value in a human being; the essence (if we can even use that term) of every human being is solely determined by the practical effects he or she can produce. According to this worldview, the elderly and those with physical and mental disabilities are essentially (I could also say ontologically) less valuable because they do not produce and contribute the same value to society as someone who is younger or healthier. This is an extraordinarily dangerous and contrabiblical assertion. The Bible states that every human being is made in the “image of God”9 and, therefore, has inherent, essential dignity regardless of what the person produces. This applies even to the disabled, elderly, and those who do not appear to contribute anything practical to society. Accepting Pragmaticism would contradict a Biblical view of what a human being is (put us in a position where it would be easy to justify atrocities in the name of Pragmaticism).
Pragmaticism and the Notitia of the Gospel
A second doctrine that would suffer harm at the hands of Pragmaticism is the Gospel itself. When I say “Gospel”, I am referring to the historic, propositional claims of the Bible regarding the birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ10. Because Pragmaticism claims “our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects”3, two beliefs are the same if they produce the same perceivable effects. In other words, the object and content of a belief are only important as far as they produce practical effects. If this were true, the details of the Gospel would not matter; at least not as long as believing those details produced the same results as not believing those details or visa-versa11.
Consider a man who affirms the resurrection but lives the same way as a person who denies the resurrection. According to Pragmaticism, there is no difference between this man and one denying the resurrection. From a Christian perspective, however, there is a massive difference which is evidenced in how we would evangelize/disciple each person. For the man who affirms the resurrection but lives like someone who does not, we would discuss the implications of Jesus' resurrection in God’s cosmic plan to help him understand how he ought to live in light of Jesus' resurrection. For one who denies the resurrection entirely, we would clearly communicate the claims of scripture that Jesus actually resurrected and that he/she needs to repent and trust Christ. The content and object of belief are very important; beliefs have consequences and establish habits, but the Christian worldview does not allow use to say that the “essence of belief is the establishment of habit”5 (emphasis added).
I have a more philosophical response to Pragmaticism here, but for the time being, I wanted to provide an introduction to this idea (which seems to permeate modern, American culture, yet without diagnosis) and show you the dangers of adopting this view.
As always, if you have questions, comments, feedback, or concerns, please contact me.