One recent development in the field of International Relations (IR) is the so-called pragmatic turn. But what is pragmatism?
One could say that the early roots of pragmatism lie in Ancient Greece. For instance Aristotle distinguished different kinds of knowledge. One such distinction was a division between theoretical and practical knowledge highlights the difference between universal, timeless, and scientific knowledge, and knowledge that is contextual and practical. The latter could be understood as technical knowledge, technê, or as practical wisdom or prudence, phronêsis. Clearly, though, one cannot conclude that Aristotle was a pragmatist, but his distinction between different kinds of knowledge lies behind the idea of pragmatism.
Pragmatism focuses on studying and using practical knowledge, and in a wider sense it casts attention to the role practices play in how knowledge is constituted and constructed in the sciences, in research, and in the social world. As a philosophical approach, its “home” may be said to be in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead were influential figures in advancing pragmatism. Naturally, though, there were pragmatists also elsewhere at the beginning of the twentieth century, for instance in Italy, France, and Oxford, but the American authors are at least within contemporary IR the most influential pragmatists.
Pragmatism comes in different forms and shapes, and each of the aforementioned authors has their own understanding of what may be termed “classical” pragmatism. My purpose here is not to compare and contrast these different flavors of pragmatism. Rather, my aim is to communicate a general understanding of pragmatism.
With this aim in mind, I proceed in three main steps. Next, I outline a brief history of pragmatism. In section two I offer a narrow understanding of pragmatism. Before a summary, my third step focuses on a wider understanding of pragmatism.
A Brief History of Pragmatism
Sometimes, pragmatism is called the only American philosophy given the heavy influence of American writers on its origin. Yet, it disappeared from the limelight after the beginning of the twentieth century. At least in the United States, this was partially due to the immigration of European thinkers due to the world wars. The situation changed, though, during the 1970s and thereafter, when interest in pragmatism was rediscovered.
In IR, it took a bit longer for pragmatism to be imported into the discussions. This was due to a need to first create some intellectual or “thinking” space. This work was done by a resistance to behavioralism that critiqued scientific realism, and its resources were postmodernism and post-structuralism. Feminism and social constructivism played central roles in enabling, justifying, and legitimating this thinking space. A third noteworthy element was the so-called linguistic turn in the field.
One might even say that for IR pragmatism is the next “logical” step after the linguistic turn. This is because the linguistic turn emphasized the importance of language, or linguistic practices, whereas pragmatism focuses on practices more widely. In other words, one can consider language to be a vital practice of the social world. In that sense, it is relevant also to pragmatism, which examines concepts and the meaning of concepts both in the social world and in our ways of studying it.
A Narrow Understanding of Pragmatism
It is heuristically fruitful to distinguish a narrow or thin understanding of pragmatism from pragmatism in a broader sense. Many of the early pragmatists seem to have followed the narrow understanding, but the question to which category a particular author falls is not relevant for my discussion here. My aim is to give a general sense of the two main understandings of pragmatism.
The narrow understanding of pragmatism focuses on using the pragmatic principle or maxim in order to clarify concepts and hypotheses. The idea is to examine concepts and hypotheses by considering their practical implications. In turn, scrutinizing practical implications enables, for example, one to reveal apparently irresolvable metaphysical disputes.
William James clarified this idea with the following example:
Image that you and your philosopher friends are walking in a park. You notice a squirrel on a thick tree trunk. One of you approaches the squirrel in order to see it better. But when this friend approaches the squirrel, it rounds the tree trunk. In turn, your friend also goes round, but the squirrel continues to evade him by going farther round the tree. In the end, your friend has circled the tree, but has he gone round the squirrel?
This, at least to many philosophers, poses a problematic question. In a sense, your friend has gone round the squirrel, but in another sense she has not, and it seems that the two answers are equally correct. Yet, we should examine what we mean in practice with the concept of “going round.”
If “going round” means that the friend was first on the north side of the squirrel, then in its east, followed by south and west, then yes, she has gone round the squirrel.
If “going around” means that the friend was first in front of the squirrel, then on its right side, followed by its back and left side, then no, she has not gone round the squirrel.
The point here is to show that seemingly problematic questions can be clarified by examining the practical implications of the central concepts. Once we are aware of those implications, we are in a position to decide how to “go on.”
The narrow understanding of pragmatism advises us to proceed as in the example, if we encounter problems or impasses in our research.
A Wider Understanding of Pragmatism
The wider understanding of pragmatism goes beyond using the pragmatic principle in order to examine the practical implications of concepts and hypotheses. The wider sense focuses on certain considerations regarding how to understand our knowledge and research. Which considerations are emphasized, or left out, affect the kind of wider understanding of pragmatism one holds. According to Hilary Putnam, though, there seems to be four main characteristics or philosophical themes that run across these pragmatist considerations.
These four themes are 1) leaving behind of skepticism, 2) accepting of fallibilism, 3) abandoning strict dichotomies, and 4) prioritizing practice. I go over each of these individually except for the last one, since it should be clear that practices are important for pragmatism.
Leaving behind skepticism
From pragmatism’s perspective, Cartesian skepticism led us astray. Pragmatism is suspicious of the usefulness and normalcy of skepticism.
Descartes emphasized radical doubt, and in its own way this was a remarkable move in his time. Allegedly, we should suspect and doubt everything that we have not verified to be true. This process of verification needs to go beyond our senses, because our senses may fool us, as already the Ancient Greeks knew.
Yet, who of us actually doubts everything that we have not verified to be unquestionably true? Pragmatists argue that Cartesian doubt is abnormal and perhaps even unnatural. Does this radical doubt not lead into many problems? And anyway, in practice, after all, we hold our beliefs and theories to be true until we have reason to doubt them.
The aim of Cartesian doubt is to go beyond and outside of context, but pragmatists object: we want to know or understand something particular within a particular context.
For example, we wish to know what should be done about a particular country’s economy now, not what possibilities generally exist. We want to know how democracy should be promoted in a particular state, not what universally true things we can say about democracy. We want to know what Russia’s actions in Syria mean now, not what foreign military action in another state usually means. Similarly, how could we understand for example the Cuban missile crisis without the Cold War context? Certainly, general knowledge can be useful in each of these cases, but it is subordinate to the particular and specific knowledge required in each case and context.
Thus, pragmatists argue that doubt can be useful and beneficial, when there are reasons for it. But doubt, and especially radical doubt, should not be the starting position, especially if that entails a move to leave the context of the case we study.
Acceptance of fallibilism
Numerous examples from the history of science show that we have been wrong many times. For instance a significant part of the theories that were held true during the Industrial Revolution have been abandoned meanwhile.
Pragmatists accept that we have been wrong before, and we may be wrong also now when it comes to our theories and beliefs. Given this perspective, perhaps we should not even try to reach absolute certainty. Much like agnostics, pragmatists doubt whether we even can reach absolute certainty – unless it is something trivial, such as “unmarried men are bachelors.”
Here, one should note that progress in science may not be about accumulation and getting closer to the “Truth” and absolute certainty. Instead, pragmatists might say that progress in science is about being able to ask new questions.
To explain, consider the meaning of truth in the following example. During the early days of radio, there was a theory of ether. Allegedly, radio signals moved through invisible ether, and that was why radios worked. Yet, that theory was abandoned long ago, and the question is, how could radios function even though their operation was conceptualized on the basis of an “untrue” theory?
For pragmatists, the point is not to focus on whether the theory of ether was true, because any theory might be abandoned. Rather, the point to focus on is that the theory of ether enabled us to develop radios and our understanding of radio waves, which partially led to abandoning the theory of ether. That “untrue” theory was useful in enabling us to ask new questions. The same applies to our contemporary theories and knowledge.
To emphasize, pragmatists accept that our knowledge, theories, methods, and approaches may be mistaken. Pragmatists are not aiming for absolute certainty, and they are ready to alter or change their understandings and beliefs, but not whimsically, but if required by the legitimate and reasonable answers we have for the new questions that we are able to ask.
Abandoning strict dichotomies
The issue of earlier theories that have now been abandoned illustrates the relationship pragmatists have regarding truth and its meaning. The question, whether those theories were true or untrue, is less important than whether they worked, and whether we were able to act on their basis. Even the now silly theory of ether provided us with a tool with which we were able to explain some empirical observations. We were able to develop new technology, ask new questions, and make better explanations. In a nutshell, we were able to “go on.”
Note, though, that naturally not everything that “works” is morally acceptable. A pragmatic approach is not just about what “works,” never mind the moral dimension. It is exactly because pragmatism focuses on practical implications – in plural and contextually – that morality cannot be ignored.
To return, however, to the issue of dichotomies, true/untrue is one suspicious dichotomy for pragmatists. This is an expression of the binary thinking or “logic” in science, namely that science can answer all questions with a “yes” or “no.”
Such ideas are suspicious for a number of reasons, both in the social sciences and in natural sciences. First, scientific experiments do not yield univocal results that need no interpretation. For instance whether something is “big” or “small” depends on context and its practical implications. One millimeter is a disastrous error for computer chip manufacturer, but it is completely negligible if the penthouse of a skyscraper deviates that much from the original blueprints.
Second, the division into two – a basic tenet of dichotomous thinking – simply forgets that there is a third option: “don’t know,” “can’t know,” or “uncertain.” There are many things that cannot be known to be true with Cartesian certainty. Yet, this does not mean that they would therefore be automatically wrong or untrue.
Pragmatism may be understood as an approach that emphasizes practical action as the requirement and as the aim of knowledge. Certainly other interpretations and understandings of pragmatism are possible. Personally I would highlight pragmatism’s focus on practices and on practical implications of practices, whether in science or in the everyday. Important aspects in such endeavors are the letting go of the Cartesian tradition, acceptance of fallibilism, and contextuality. Of course, I could be wrong.