Pragmatic Churches and Pastoral Ministry Students, Pragmatism as a Philosophy

For context, be sure and read the first three articles listed here.

Considering that pragmatism, as a worldview and lifestyle was already in full effect long before James and Dewey began to write, one might argue that the only contribution James and Dewey really brought to the discussion was clarification and application. They clarified the pragmatic position in the realms of philosophy (the study of wisdom) and epistemology (the study of knowledge), and demonstrated how it might be applied in matters of religion, ethics, and education.

Pragmatism Proper. William James is famous for turning pragmatism into an epistemological system, asking, “What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”[1] In James’ epistemological system, if a propositional truth statement yields a beneficial result, it has earned for itself the right to be properly deemed true. If it does not yield the expected result, it is assumed to be demonstrably false. James’ Pragmatism was “an attempt to find meaning by tracing the practical consequences of a concept or notion.”[2] Ultimately, according to James, there can be no intrinsic or absolute truth. As James explains, “Truth happens to an idea.”[3] The truth of an idea cannot be discovered, then, until an idea has already been employed and its consequences measured.

The means by which this truth is discovered is that of experience. Enter John Dewey. Dewey carried the banner for James’ particular brand of Pragmatism, and sought specifically to apply it in his own field of expertise: education. Dewey was so committed to the Pragmatic notion of discovering the truth of an idea by observing its consequences, that he sought to exclude anything from the educational process that might stand between the student and the idea itself. The role of the teacher, then, became that of facilitator. Dewey argued:

“When education is based upon experience and educative experience is seen to be a social process, the situation changes radically. The teacher loses the position of external boss or dictator but takes on that of leader of group activities.”[4]

Dewey did not believe there was any “such thing as educational value in the abstract.”[5] That is to say that there is no good and proper result of education except that which results from a good and proper education. Considering that “traditional” education operates from the foundation of absolute truth and abstract universals, it will always guide its students toward its preconceived conclusions. The goal of an experience-based education (a pragmatic education) is to allow the students to arrive at their own conclusions, though in a safe environment, apart from any possible bias influencing their assessment of the data provided. The idea is to provide the student community with plenty of data and rewarding enough results at the end of each experiment to keep them trekking ever forward toward newer and better experiences all the time, the only satisfactory goal of any proper education, according to Dewey.

The problem of Pragmatism. Such a system ultimately leads its subjects into a perpetual cycle of searching for the truth with the presupposition that such truth is only as true as the one experiencing it. Thus, each subsequent generation must artificially be provided with similar experiences in order that the ‘truths’ of the previous generations might be handed down. Otherwise, each generation’s search for truth will have ended with the truths they supposedly discovered through their experiences being lost to the passing of time through subsequent generations who have not benefitted from the same experiences.

The pragmatist must either artificially recreate situations that he believes came to him by chance in order to propagate the truth that he supposedly discovered through said process or in the end suffer the loss of all that came to him by way of the pragmatic method of discovering truth. At the end of the day, the core tenant of Pragmatism is the idea that previous generations offer nothing to the current one, except perhaps some hypocritical assertion that certain situations lead to proper truth, while others do not. Of course, the assertion that those situations are more optimal for the discovery of truth will only be proven by way of the testing of the generations to follow. Such reasoning dies the death of a thousand deaths.

The end of Pragmatism. Ultimately, this insistence upon experience as the basis for any proper acquiescence of true knowledge leads to a recognition, on the part of pragmatists, of many of their own limitations. Recognition of personal limitations, subsequently, leads to a certain natural dependency upon an expert class: those who have had better or more accredited experiences in the field in question. In a nation like America where there is no aristocracy or ruling class, these few intellectuals quickly become the ruling class by way of monopoly of expertise, and they often go largely unquestioned. After all, they are the experts. Who are the masses to question their experience?

Observing the era that witnessed the rise of men like James and Dewey, Hofstadter boasted, “The most abstracted of scholars could derive a sense of importance from belonging to a learned community which the larger world was compelled to consult in its quest for adequate means of social control.”[6] Hofstadter was interested in seeing the rise of an elite intellectual class that would rule over society with their superior intellect and expertise. However, Christian intellectualism, as propagated by such thinkers as Harry Blamires and Mark Noll, seeks to incite intellectual interest in every member of the Christian community, and to encourage them to seek answers in the unchanging, unfailing truth that finds its source in the Trinitarian God of the Christian Bible. Hofstadter’s intellectualism feeds off of American Pragmatism, whereas true Christian intellectualism can find no greater enemy.

[1]William James, Pragmatism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), 92.

[2]Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2008).

[3]James, Pragmatism, 92.

[4]John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 59.

[5]Ibid., 46.

[6]Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Vintage Books (New York: Random House, 1963), 205.


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