InDebate: Donald Trump and Pragmatism









Recently, „The Washington Post“, „Le Monde“ as well as „Die Süddeutsche Zeitung“ published articles claiming a close connection between the rise of Donald Trump and philosophical pragmatism. Post-truth politics is said to be a product of pragmatist thinkers like John Dewey or William James. When three major newspapers across three countries heap reproaches so far-fetched, a philosophical reply is needed. Dr. Harvey Cormier (Stony Brook University, NY), Dr. Roberto Frega (CNRS, Paris), and Dr. Ana Honnacker (FIPH, Hannover) elaborated on why it is misguided to pose a justificatory link between pragmatist ideas and Trumpism.

Trump and Pragmatism

Harvey Cormier

William James begins his story of the ways we think with political examples. Early in his 1907 Pragmatism lectures, he cites the anarchist pamphleteer Morrison I. Swift, who recounts grim stories about workers who committed suicide when they became superfluous to what James calls sarcastically “our civilized régime.” Rationalist philosophical thinkers ignore harsh events like these in the lives of individuals; instead they deduce that the world is necessarily a sunny, rational whole governed by God. But Swift and James reply that the world in which these workers died is, instead, a pandemonium of particularities. If we want the world to be rational we will have to make it rational, and to do that we will need to spend less time divining fanciful a priori necessities and more time looking in a science-like way at the hard facts.

Fixing the world by attending to happiness and pain: this sounds like utilitarianism. But James directs us to observe empirically not only how happiness is distributed but also what makes people happy. We will see then that different people want different things. Moreover, peculiar brand-new desires occasionally appear, and the people who develop them sometimes end up spreading their preferences among their fellow human beings. Thus the good we should aim at, or the goods in the plural, may wind up changing again and again in unforeseeable ways.

This experimentalist pragmatic approach to the good, right, and true is the American philosophy. Pragmatic politicians like Barack Obama do not assume that there is any single thing that Americans want from their government above all, except for help achieving well-being—which is not one thing for all citizens. Therefore Obama-types are not driven by “ideology,” or fixed principles ordaining a pre-specified summum bonum. They try instead to fill an evolving shopping list of goods for the people of the nation, and in their efforts they will use regulations, deregulation, tax penalties, tax credits, Keynesian stimulus packages, moral appeals, military action including bombing with drones, domestic espionage, unprecedented deportations, and other devices of which left- and right-wing ideologues will approve or disapprove.

However, the American philosophy has critics even in America. Glenn Greenwald observes:

Presumably, there are instances where [for example] a proposed war might be very pragmatically beneficial in promoting our national self-interest, but is still something that we ought not to do. Why? Because as a matter of principle—of ideology—we believe that it is not just to do it, no matter how many benefits we might reap, no matter how much it might advance our “national self-interest.”

In short, maybe pragmatic flexibility is really just old-fashioned amorality. (Surely justice is in our national self-interest, so it is not a thing valued by ideologues alone, but never mind.) And Christopher Scalia argues that, regarding the new 45th president, whom Obama himself has tentatively called pragmatic,

there’s nothing in the Pragmatist’s Playbook that forbids mocking a rival’s face, height, footwear, eating habits, energy level or spouse, or even encouraging supporters to physically assault protesters. And although it’s certainly reprehensible to promote absurd conspiracy theories  . . . it’s not necessarily unpragmatic.

So if the pragmatic and the reprehensible can overlap, maybe pragmatism per se is no virtue, and ideology per se is no vice.

But criticizing pragmatism for its potential to lead us to bad actions is like criticizing empirical science for its potential to lead us to bad thoughts. Over history, scientists have of course been led many times to believe false hypotheses, but in the end those hypotheses produced bad experiences that got them discarded. By contrast, a priori thinking has nothing to correct it. While metaphysicians have no trouble reaching rationally justified conclusions about what the world is like, each one reaches a different conclusion. So scientific thinking is worth the risk of error. And, analogously, though a pragmatist president might use either a Twitter account or the national security apparatus deplorably, we can count on resulting national dissatisfaction to show the deplorableness and to steer the ship of state back to a better course. (What else could do this job? What else should do it in a democracy?) By contrast, ideologues look past the observable satisfactions and dissatisfactions of the people. Thus they have no trouble pronouncing with certainty on the absolute wrongness of this or that presidential action; but, alas, a set of endlessly dueling ideologues can be found that will take every side in any given controversy. So pragmatism, too, with its self-correcting observations, is worth the risk of making a mistake.

Ideology produces the politics of the filibuster, the shutdown, and endless investigative hearings. Ideologues “vote their conscience” when they know they can’t possibly repeal Obamacare or elect Jill Stein. By contrast, pragmatism does not promise perfect government but it at least promises government, or a real effort to give people what they want.

Many of the Republicans and Democrats who supported Trump or didn’t bother to vote doubtless thought that, if nothing else, Trump would “shake things up” in Washington and get some activity started. This was not the wisest political decision any voters ever made, but it reflected many voters’ pragmatism and the widespread perception that Trump had pragmatic tendencies.

But is Trump really a pragmatist? Pragmatism challenges us to do what the metaphysician and the political ideologue will not do—namely, look at the facts. This is our first step toward truth, or the ideas we can use as instruments to identify and solve our problems. But while Trump is not a metaphysician or an ideologue, he is not a pragmatist either. It’s not that he’ll do just any awful thing in the national interest, it’s that his own self-interest is evidently all that really motivates him. He is likely what both his Republican and Democratic opponents have called him: a con man. This “greedy greedy greedy” snake oil salesman is beyond facts, and certainly beyond fact-checking. He is “post-truth” entirely. And this makes him post-pragmatism, too.

Dr. Harvey Cormier is Associate Professor at the Departement of Philosophy at Stony Brook University, NY.


Trump, pragmatism, and the vagaries of truth

Roberto Frega

The article published by Le Monde on November17th 2016[1] echoes the two articles appeared in the Washington Post[2] and in the Süddeutsche Zeitung[3] and commented in this blog in positing a theoretical link between Donald Trump’s vision of politics and the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism. The articles are similar also for their argumentative strategy, as in all three cases the contextualist, historicist, and anti-ideological features of pragmatism are transformed into a generalized denial of principles, be they epistemic, moral, or political. Through this move, pragmatism is reduced to the sloppy claim that “whatever works is the unofficial slogan of pragmatists” (Christopher Scalia, The Washington Post), that pragmatism implies that “each thought must immediately be tested through its application to reality” (Andrian Kreye, Süddeutsche Zeitung), or that pragmatism “asks others to believe not the true but the useful” (Pascal Engel, Le Monde).

Pascal Engel’s alleged alliance between Trump’s politics and pragmatism is based on an epistemic argument: he contends that pragmatism and Trumpism are united by their shared contempt for truth. This argument entitles him to state that pragmatism is an “intellectual pest” that legitimates “political pests” – these outrageous words are his – such as Trumpism and Fascism. Taking as cue a caricatured version of William James’s theory of truth, the author argues that politicians such as Trump and Mussolini are pragmatists insofar as they replace the idea of truth as what is responsive to reality, with the idea of truth as what someone wants it to be. This epistemic account of politics, Engel contends, justifies the reject of pragmatism as a sound basis for politics, and the definition of Trump’s politics as “vulgar pragmatism”.

Any reader barely aware of the debates in the field knows that this caricatured reconstruction of James’s theory of truth has no real relation to James’s views. Engel replaces the classical pragmatist argument according to which the meaning of terms depends upon their use, with the sophistic or Nietzschean claim that truth is what the powerful says it is.

Indeed, every pragmatist — even James — affirms exactly the opposite of what Engel makes him say. As much as Peirce — in this at least the two agreed — James, who besides being a philosopher was a trained scientist, believes that the impact of reality is what gives shape to our concepts. Pragmatism is above all a form of realism, although of an epistemological rather than a political stripe. Indeed, as every minimally averted reader knows, James espouses a kind of enriched epistemic realism. As he himself explains to those who take the patience to read him, when (and only when) existing evidence is inconclusive for the purposes of action, and when circumstances asks us to act anyway, we are then entitled to introduce a supplementary hypothesis, which he suggests to calls “faith” or “will to believe”[4].

The urgency of action and the lack of reliable knowledge severely restrict the conditions under which recourse to an epistemic supplement in the public domain is a legitimate move. What a Jamesian says is not, therefore, as Engel claims, “believe in me rather than in truth”. What he says is instead: make the hypothesis that a better world is possible (i.e. believe in the hypothetical truth of this proposition) to be able to act in view of its construction: if you succeed, your proposition may be made true by the changes produced in the world, this last proposition being subjected to empirical confirmation. As one can see, at the epistemological core of pragmatism the status of truth is never called into question[5].

Faith understood as the belief in a proposition whose truth-value is not known yet, is invoked by James as a regulating principle of experience, one that must allow us to act in contexts of strong epistemic uncertainty, when we cannot establish what is true or what is false, either because the proposition concerns a future too uncertain, which cannot be known in advance, or because even the state of the present world is in fact impossible to determine. When these causes happen to make action impossible, then James contends that we are entitled to introduce an epistemic supplement.

Engel’s misunderstanding of pragmatism does not end here, as he happens to ignore also the broader philosophical framework within which the pragmatist theory of truth deploys its political consequences. As it has been uncontroversially established by several decades of scholarship, the political vision of classical pragmatism presupposes the acceptance of a democratic postulate that constrains the use of what I have called the “epistemic supplement”. Indeed, the recourse to an epistemic supplement is legitimate if and only if (1) it anticipates a possible future verification and (2) it is accomplished for the good of the greater number, or of the community, and not for the satisfaction of the interests of the few.

It should also be reminded that for pragmatists democracy refers to an experimentalist framework encompassing larger societal processes than the mere institutions of representative government. The experimental commitment to truth is here inextricably intertwined with the three principles of (a) relational parity, (b) inclusive authority, and (c) social involvement[6]. The upshot of this entanglement between epistemic and normative factors in the concept of democracy is that equating pragmatism with Trumpism or fascism merely contradicts the normative core of political pragmatism.

The reduction of pragmatism to “Trumpism” is possible only if these basic assumptions are ignored or violated. First, the theory of epistemic supplement is transformed into its opposite, a theory of epistemic subtraction, according to which there is no difference between truth and falsehood. Second, the democratic normative framework is replaced by a form of vulgar cynicism.

Only at these conditions it is indeed possible to state that Trump is a pragmatist. One sees, however, the theoretical costs of this operation, costs that any reader with a minimal knowledge of this philosophical tradition would refuse to bear.

Dr. Engel concludes his article stating that the only strategy that can help us fight Fascism and Trumpism consists in never deflecting from the ideal of truth. I cannot but agree, and would recommend an appropriate strategy to make this commitment to truth real: to read at least something of what has been written after Bertrand Russell’ jeremiads against the pragmatists, now nearly a century old, and that generations of scholars have proven to be false, misguided, and motivated by ideological concerns. If we, university professors, believe that truth is the norm of discourse, we have a demanding and yet simple way to behave consistently: write good book and articles, be faithful to texts, fix our beliefs only after having read the best existing publications on the subject.

Dr. Roberto Frega is permanent researcher at the Institut Marcel Mauss at the French National Scientific Research Center (CNRS), Paris.




[4] W. James, The Will to Believe, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Ma., 1979.

[5] Here a simple distinction between epistemic and semantic theories of truth would have sufficed to clarify what Engel fails to grasp. Pragmatists have criticized correspondentist theories of truth at the epistemic level. This is all what their fallibilism is about. Specifically, rather than rejecting truth as the epistemic standard of discourse, they add a supplement to it. What they propose is not to replace knowledge with faith, but rather to supplement knowledge with fallible hypotheses. See R. Frega, “Moral inquiry and the pragmatic basis of objectivity”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 51 (1), pp. 1-23, 2013.

[6] R. Frega, “The Normativity of Democracy”, The European Journal of Political Theory, forth.


Sicher kein Schüler, und gewiss auch nicht das Produkt des Pragmatismus

Ana Honnacker

Die Suche nach Erklärungen für den Erfolg Donald Trumps und seiner populistischen Politik treibt bereits kurz nach der Wahl seltsame Blüten. Der schwarze Peter der Verursachung dieses politischen Erdbebens mit noch unabsehbaren Folgen wird in alle Richtungen ausgeteilt (die Vernachlässigung der unteren Mittelschicht und ihrer Sorgen, die Globalisierungsverlierer, die Arroganz des „linken Establishments“, …). So wichtig die Analyse der Ursachen ist, gerade angesichts des auch in Europa ungemütlich erfolgreichen Populismus und der anstehenden Wahlen, so sehr kann einen der Verdacht beschleichen, dass nicht selten in diesem Zuge Strohmänner bezichtigt oder alte Vorurteile nur allzu gern aufgewärmt werden. Nun hat es den philosophischen Pragmatismus getroffen. Andrian Kreye bietet in seinem Artikel „Warum Trump jedes Mittel recht ist“ (SZ vom 18.11.16) eine Erklärung sowohl für die ideologiefreie Haltung Trumps als auch den Erfolg der durch und durch ideologisch agierenden zukünftigen Kabinettsmitglieder an: Trump sei „vielleicht kein Schüler, auf jeden Fall aber das Produkt“ der pragmatistischen Denkungsart. Nun wäre es zwar erleichternd, im Besitz einer solchen Herleitung zu sein, die nicht nur die Erklärungsnot mildert, sondern auch noch das Problem zu einem rundweg amerikanischen erklärt. Leider aber greift Kreye nicht nur zu kurz, sondern völlig daneben. Das beginnt mit einer Reihe von inhaltlichen Fehlern: Niemand nannte sich „The Pragmatists“ (und auch von den „Pragmatikern“ spricht im Deutschen in diesem Zusammenhang niemand), Peirce war gewiss nicht nur und vor allem nicht vor allem Mathematiker und er taugt auch nur bedingt als Gewährsmann für das Ideal der teilnehmenden Demokratie – das ließe sich fortsetzen. Schwerer aber noch wiegt die äußerst verzerrte Fehldarstellung der Kernideen des Pragmatismus. Kreyne wiederholt dabei Vorurteile und Verkürzungen auf eine Weise, die sich beinahe nur noch als mutwillige Karikatur auffassen lassen kann. Beim philosophischen Pragmatismus geht es mitnichten um ein philosophisch manifestiertes Nützlichkeitsdenken, das Ideen und Theorien allein anhand ihrer unmittelbaren Wirkungen bewertet. Weder werden Überzeugungen vollkommen aus ihrem theoretischen Kontext herausgelöst betrachtet, noch aus ihrer Verantwortung gegenüber der Wirklichkeit entlassen. Letzteres ist in diesem Zusammenhang wohl das Entscheidende: Dem Pragmatismus geht es wesentlich um Ideologiekritik, und zwar genau da, wo sich Ideologien und Systeme über den Menschen und seine (Leid-)Erfahrungen stellen. Die Behauptung, radikale Ideologen wie Palin und Christie hätten sich „im Sinne des Pragmatismus […] bewiesen“ und seien damit „für einen Pragmatiker wie Donald Trump nur Begleitgeräusche“ ist daher deutlich zurückzuweisen. Beweisen bringt der Pragmatismus generell eine gesunde Skepsis entgegen, und selbst eine (stets unter Vorbehalt stehende) Bewährung muss sich auf mehr als kurzfristig durchschlagende Erfolgseffekte bei spezifischen Gruppen stützen können – zumal, wenn diese zu Lasten anderer Gruppen gehen und daher hochgradig exklusiv sind. Der instrumentalisierende und gewissenlose Umgang mit „gefühlten Wahrheiten“, der den aktuellen Populismus charakterisiert, das Ausrufen der „postfaktischen“ Ära, das letztlich ein Türöffner für Lügen und Unwahrhaftigkeit ist, steht dem pragmatistischen Verständnis vom Umgang mit der Wirklichkeit diametral entgegen.

Wenn Trump tatsächlich ideologiefrei agiert und ihm daher jedes Mittel recht ist (was zu befürchten steht), dann ist das genau nicht die Folge der pragmatistischen Denkschule, sondern ganz im Gegenteil eine Abwendung vom kritischen und demokratischen Denken, das sie, wie vielleicht kaum eine andere philosophische Tradition, verkörpert. Die Pragmatisten warnen vor der potentiellen Intoleranz und Gewaltförmigkeit ideologischer Systeme und ihrer absoluten Wahrheitsansprüche und setzen einen ausdrücklichen Pluralismus dagegen, der allerdings keineswegs relativistisch ist. Dieser friedliche, Andersartigkeit aushaltende und gar begrüßende Pluralismus ist alles andere als visionsloses Problemlösen, sondern ein Ziel, das unser leidenschaftliches Engagement verlangt. Das bedarf auch eines schonungslosen Blicks auf die Ursachen des Erfolgs populistischer Bewegungen und den Zustand unserer demokratischen Kultur. Intellektuell unredliche Erklärungen für den Erfolg Trumps jedoch treiben den Vertrauensverlust gegenüber Medien und Wissenschaft und ihren Beitrag für die gute und gerechte Gesellschaft weiter voran.

Dr. Ana Honnacker ist wissenschaftliche Assistentin am Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover.

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