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1.9.03

Bush the pragmatist?

Matthew Yglesias makes a more philosophical version of the "my opponents live in a fantasy world that reinforces their own preconceptions" argument:

My own take is that Bushian metaphysics have more in common with the naive pragmatism of William James' "Will to Believe" than with anything more properly postmodern. The idea is not that truth is indeterminate, or infinitely flexible, but rather that it's determined by an overall assessment of the belief's utility to the believer.


Though I haven't read "Will To Believe" (though I've read about it, and read other pragmatist literature including James' Pragmatism and Varieties of Religious Experience), I think the idea of Bushian* conceptions of Iraq illustrate the failures of vulgar pragmatism as compared to full-fledged pragmatism.

Vulgar pragmatism concerns the psychological utility of a belief -- a belief is justified if you want to believe it, or if it makes you happy to believe it. Full-fledged pragmatism, on the other hand, concerns the practical utility of a belief -- a belief is justified if it enables you to successfully interact with the world around you. There is a psychological element to full-fledged pragmatism, of course -- a belief isn't very useful if it's too complicated to understand, for example. But psychology is not the only element, whereas it is in vulgar pragmatism.

By the prevailing liberal take on the situation in Iraq (I'm hedging because I'm still not up to speed on the situation after my summer quasi-hiatus, so I'm relying on the judgement of bloggers I trust), the Bush administration has been engaging in some vulgar pragmatism. They want to believe that Saddam was a grave threat to the world, that Iraqis want to be liberated by American soldiers, that the reconstruction of Iraq is proceeding successfully, and so forth. So they selectively use information, trust exiles who tell them what they want to hear, ignore or hand-wave setbacks, and so forth. They alter their assessment of reality to the one most congenial to their (short-term) psychological satisfaction.

However, one of the key points made by full-fledged pragmatists is that if your beliefs get too far out of whack, reality will bite you in the rear (a sort of optimistically Darwinian idea of truth, in which holders of erroneous beliefs are weeded out by their failure to act successfully within the world). And that seems to be happening in Iraq -- the problems of the Bushian belief have led the administration to fail to accomplish its stated goals in Iraq. For example, the belief that Iraqis would welcome America with open arms led them to neglect planning for the postwar phase, and to alienate allies who could provide much-needed resources for the reconstruction. Soldiers in Iraq with Bushian views must be finding it harder and harder to maintain them as those views prove themselves not to be conducive to successful action within the Iraqi environment.

But the original pragmatists underestimated the human capacity for convincing oneself that one hasn't been bitten by reality. This is especially true for the administration's leaders, who are sheltered from reality's bite by their distance from the battlefield. (This point was essentially the point of my undergrad senior thesis on the failure of Soviet agriculture. In hindsight, my thesis was basically an attempt to create pragmatism and structuration theory from scratch, since I hadn't yet encountered John Dewey or Anthony Giddens.) What's more likely to bite Bush is the domestic political failure of his beliefs. He can fool himself about how well his views have allowed him to rebuild Iraq, but it's much harder to pretend that they enabled him to win reelection if the failure of his Iraq policy turns voters against him.

*Or would it more properly be "Bushist"? This is like the "Marxist" vs. "Marxian" distinction that I've never been able to make head or tails of -- at best it seems some of Marx's followers prefer "-ian" because "-ist" suggests a quasi-religious rigid ideology.

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