concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Pragmatism is a philosophy or ideology in which practical concerns are the basis of judgement, and the justification of a belief is the effects of holding it rather than its ultimate truth. This use of practical concern as a basis of judgement also implies that philosophical ideas are inseparable from practice, and cannot be fully understood only in the abstract. In both these senses, Middle Way philosophy is a form of pragmatism. However, there are many interpretations of 'pragmatism' that need to be rejected here if one is to avoid misunderstanding.

One sense of 'pragmatism' is a political sense. A pragmatic politician puts practical requirements before abstract principles, which in itself would be praiseworthy. However, these practical requirements are often implicitly assumed to be short-termist or narrowly self-interested ones. I want to argue that this narrow view of what 'practical' means is not practical at all - in the sense of adequate to conditions. One often becomes more practical by being more philosophical, if being practical means addressing conditions and being philosophical means asking big, critical questions about the assumptions behind our policies. For example, a politician might be labelled a 'pragmatist' for denying global warming under pressure from big oil and coal interests, but actually in order to address global conditions in the longer term it is important to repose some confidence in justifiable scientific evidence rather than using selective scepticism to undermine it for narrow or short-termist motives. Denying anthropogenic global warming is neither 'practical' nor 'sceptical'.

Another misuse of 'pragmatism' is in terms of the philosophical relativism typified by the writings of Richard Rorty and other contemporary pragmatic philosophers. It is widely assumed that relativism is practical and absolutism is idealistic and principled: but both are equally dogmatic, because the denial of moral objectivity within experience is just as dogmatic as the assertion of certainty about it. The principles of provisionality and incrementality in the application of the Middle Way undermine the negative metaphysics that contemporary philosophical pragmatists employ. We cannot avoid having values, but the assumption that without absolute metaphysical ethics those values must by default be narrow self-interested or group values is just a dogma. Our experience is wider and much more varied than that. So relativists do not have a right to hijack the term 'pragmatist'.

Middle Way philosophy has rather more in common with classic American pragmatism of the early twentieth century. However, the views of the three great philosophers from this school - Pierce, James and Dewey, are quite varied, and there are a number of reservations to be made here about their compatibility with Middle Way philosophy, as well as some enthusiastic endorsements. William James' relativisation of 'truth' is a particular stumbling-block. For full details on these philosophers see section 4f of the thesis.

Links to related discussion

Relativism (introductory page)

Pragmatism (from thesis)

The Existentialists (from thesis - including postmodernism)

Truth on the Edge


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