Wise is he to whom all things taste as they are.
The first time the popular use of “pragmatic” registered on me was during the campaign of 1960. Time explained that religion was not a real danger with either Kennedy or Nixon, since both were “pragmatic.” It was a new hurrah-word that has had a nonstop career ever since. No need to fear that with a Republican victory the far right would come to power, because Nixon, then Ford, then Reagan and Bush, deep down, were “pragmatic.” (In Reagan’s time, the reassurance quavered a couple of times.)
Upbeat analysts loved the word. Upset about Islamic fundamentalism and the Ayatollah? Relax, they’ve got a “pragmatic” side. In the July-August 1990 issue of Encounter Lewis Feuer reminds readers that in the summer of 1984 the comforting word on the new Socialist government in France was its conversion to a more pragmatic stance. Iranian moderates, too, wanted to behave more pragmatically,
while spokesmen for Japan’s school system asserted that “most Japanese consider themselves pragmatists [and] pragmatically speaking, [had] produced the educated, well-disciplined work force” that helped make possible the country’s economic surge.
The years since then have been repeatedly marked by “pragmatism,” for the press, too, has its positive thinkers. Every public figure we know little about—Soviet, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Arab (notably Saddam Hussein)—has been proposed, till proven otherwise (which has happened with dismal regularity), as a closet pragmatist. Among the steps and strategies that the newspapers have found to be pragmatic: Jacques Chirac’s apology to Maggie Thatcher over the use of an expletive; Gorby’s 1990 swing to the right; the advice of the President’s economists in view of the recession. Every move of the Chinese government from the opening of China down to (but excluding) the crackdown at Tiananmen Square was all but electric with pragmatism.
“Pragmatic” means not-really-and-truly-hooked-on-ideology. It is typically applied to persons, movements, and policies that we have some grounds for suspecting to be really and truly hooked on ideology. Feuer made the effort to connect the newspaper use of “pragmatic” with Charles S. Peirce’s philosophy of pragmatism, but the connection seems fanciful. What the newspaper use of the word shows is that if there is anything that recurrently gives ordinary people the willies, it is ideology.
Why not? It is no coincidence that ours has been the most violent and the most ideological century in history. Ideology—not just in the neutral sense of ideas that ground systematic thought and action, but in the negative sense of ideas that rationalize some alienation—carries the curse of extremism and thwarts the appeal to what might make for a soberly peaceful resolution of conflict. The war that ideology brought us in 1939 left a record fifty million dead. We don’t know how many lost their lives to Leninist ideology in the Soviet Union and China, but a minimum of another fifty million is a reasonable estimate. Less murderous ideologies are vibrantly alive and well, sometimes with an A-OK rating from your local university as politically correct.
Still, for most of us, ideology is bad news. To its supporters it may make alienation sound progressive and fanaticism brave, but it is what most want less of. So, we whistle in the dark about “pragmatism.”
But pragmatism—respect for the practicalities—is not enough to unmask ideology, much less to relieve the alienations that ideology rationalizes. For that we need more. Not more fire power or smarter bombs, but something subtler; more potent human resources, including philosophical resources.
Time was when philosophy was just a matter of thought. It still is, of course, but we have learned that it is also a matter of fact, including the facts about thought, decision, and action. Once we are in touch with radically unrevisable fact on how human beings function and cannot but function, we find ourselves in possession of a touchstone for the testing of thought.
To start with an observation: we are not equally open to all ideas. The human mind is not like some public plaza where all may come and go as they please. On the contrary, it is a unity, it has an exigence for unity, and it imposes unity on its contents. As Bernard Lonergan observed, every grasp of data involves a certain selection, every selection effects an initial structuring, and every structuring anticipates future judgments.
So the mind operates within some distinct horizon and field of vision. Moreover, the issue of the proper framing and right choice of horizon is finally settled on the basis of coherence or non-coherence with cognitional fact. Basic stances in accord with fact are “positions”; basic stances in discord with fact are “counterpositions.” A counterposition is a compass error, slight at the outset but rapidly magnified.
When human subjects function attentively, intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly, they are drawing on n naturally structured set of norms, “basic method.” Philosophy in its essential and foundational form is. first, an explicit retrieval of this method. Second, it is a satisfactory account of objectivity—i.e., of how it is that attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible functioning is precisely what puts us effectively in touch with reality. And third, philosophy is an account of reality.
These three inquiries (What exactly do we do when we grasp things intelligently, affirm them reasonably, and make our choices responsibly? How is it that this puts us in touch with the real order of things? And how should we understand this real order of things?) are radically interrelated. Differences among accounts of reality can be reduced to differences about objectivity and about the description of basic method. Differences about objectivity can be reduced to different descriptions of method; differences among those descriptions can be resolved by bringing to light the contradiction between spontaneous practice and mistaken theory.
Such is our basic philosophic resource for spotting ideology, discrediting it, and offering a better alternative.
Among current ideologies there is one invented in Germany (Heidegger), repackaged in France (Derrida), and marketed in the U.S. (Yale, Duke, etc.) named deconstruction. Texts have no objective content or merit (take that, Shakespeare!) and values are products of power.
The possibility of treating any text as open to meaning other than that intended by the writer is given in the nature of language. Language is a way of communicating by the use of vocal sounds conventionally associated with meanings. The sounds are few, and the meanings many; the convention that binds the meanings to the sounds is a matter of usage, and the specification among usages is a matter of verbally realized intention. There is plenty of room for diversity in construing any word-sequence. Some few “readings” will accurately reflect the intended sense of speaker or writer. Most will not. It was left to Derrida and his troops to cultivate indifference to accurate construal—not just now and then, in order to amuse, or to make a point, but systematically, in order to . . . well, to do what? Oh, lots of things—all of them lyrically dancing in the sunlight, out from under the shadow of having to function reasonably and responsibly.
The alienation that is being rationalized is grandiose. It is disengagement from aspects of the human vocation (to live with others and respond to them, taking account of their being and hoping, joining them in inheriting a past and shaping a future). And in rejecting aspects of the human vocation, there is no need to be consistent. Oh, the pleasures of caprice—or, better yet, of creativity.
It is the creativity of making up and playing a new game. This might suggest that deconstruction is not very challenging. There is challenge in danger, however, and the deconstructionist (since what he has to offer responds to no lasting need) is always in danger of losing his audience, in danger of turning into a bore. Here is where the challenge lies: to figure out ways of being, and staying, entertaining.
Part of the entertainment is flattery. You, quick-witted reader, you and I are in on the game. I already know—and you, if you keep watching, can learn—how to play it. Take a quick look at the onlookers, those puzzled outsiders, reduced to silence. And just as they start to catch on, we’ll change the rules.
As in all games, there is here a factor of fantasy, escape, relief. On the surface it is relief from the boredom and dullness bound up with the conventional daily grind. Further down, relief from being known and pigeonholed, from being weighed and found lightweight. Still further down, relief from being obliged, obliged, obliged by and to and again and still and forever . . .
The rationalization of this alienation turns on an observation about language. Language as speech resource is a world apart. It is a closed system in that relations to non-semiotic reality are irrelevant to the system as such. Now, all we need is to abstract from what happens to language when it is actually used, and we may attribute—not just to “language” but to actual texts—that irrelevance to referents that belongs to language as a closed system. So, if he wishes, the reader or interpreter may assume a new function: not finding, but inventing, meaning. The deconstructive game is born. From here it can go, has gone, and is still going in many directions at once.
But there is a cool observation that reveals how threadbare the deconstructionist’s rationalization is. In actual usage the intentions that the speaker/writer has managed to objectify verbally specify both the reference and the meaning of the words. Juliet, bewailing the ill luck that the young man she loved was “Romeo” of the enemy clan, cried: “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” That is: Why did you have to be “Romeo” rather than, say, some unrelated “Silvio’“ or “Georgio”? (Yes, that is what it means, not “Romeo, where are you hiding?”)
The first philosophical move against ideology is to debunk the rationalization. But it often happens, as here, that whereas the rationalization is shallow, the alienation it rationalizes is deep. Does philosophy have anything to offer vis-a-vis the alienation?
Yes and no. Alienation is a state of soul. To the extent that truth itself is therapeutic (and it is), philosophy heals the soul. How deeply it heals depends on the state of one’s taste for truth, that pure desire that we can never altogether expunge.
Taste is the word. The modern malady has been to taste oneself in everything. “God’s most deep decree,” said Hopkins,
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me.
A more potent therapy goes beyond philosophy. Grace alters taste. It comes on any wind, a blinding light on the road to Damascus, a boy’s singsong “Tolle, lege” wafting over the wall into Augustine’s garden.
Ben F. Meyer teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.