The United States has a lengthy history of pragmatism in both philosophy and action, a long tradition that may have helped the nation grow but may also have inspired, or at least prefigured, the serious political conflicts of the second decade of the second millennium. Pragmatism, or at least a practical mindset, seems to have begun at the beginning. Alexis de Toqueville made a note of it. He thought that it was the result of the lack of hereditary class distinctions and pre-arranged social levels, but it could just as well have been a consequence of frontier attitudes and the necessity of creating an integrated functioning economy out of a collection of isolated coastal outposts.
It does seem that scientific methods and factual analysis were very much in vogue at the time of the American revolution, a reasonable extension of the Scientific Enlightenment in Europe. But there were some distinct contrasts to the old world, too, attitudes that were mentioned by de Toqueville in his classic study Democracy in America; he noted that the people of what was then a new nation were noticeably, perhaps defiantly, practical in their statements and their actions. At times he expressed this reality in fairly limited terms, as when he wrote, “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” The reality of this observation was later reflected in William James’ metaphorical (and controversial) question, “What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” It also more commonly surfaces in such disdainful American constructs as, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”
More broadly, de Toqueville noted that American preferences were given to the concrete rather than the abstract or the theoretical, and to the utilitarian more than the aesthetic. Returning to an emphasis on monetary measures, he attributed this practical tendency to one national characteristic, the relative equality of individuals: “The prestige that attached to old things having disappeared, birth, condition, and profession no longer distinguish men or hardly distinguish them; there remains scarcely anything but money that creates very visible differences between them and that can set off some from their peers. The distinction that arises from wealth is increased by the disappearance and diminution of all the others.”
But the practical emphasis in the new country was not simply pecuniary. Such influential leaders as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin distinguished themselves by being less concerned bout money and more devoted to politics and diplomacy, and to science that was potentially useful but still unconnected to direct commercial applications. Franklin was a founder and first secretary of the American Philosophical Society, a group devoted to the advancement of what was then known as “natural philosophy,” terminology that at that time referred to science in general, not to the abstract academic pursuits that de Toqueville had in mind when he wrote, “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”
When the practical mindset began to develop into a modern philosophic movement, in the 1870s, the leading proponents were all prominent United States citizens. Charles Sanders Pierce is considered as the originator, but he is less well known than his followers William James and John Dewey. James introduced his arguments in a small 1907 book titled Pragmatism, with the modest subtitle “a new name for an old way of thinking,” perhaps recognizing that he was building on long-standing American tendencies. He repeatedly included among his cognitive progenitors both Pierce and Walt Whitman.
At the heart of the philosophy of pragmatism is the idea that scientific concepts should be evaluated according to how well they explain and predict phenomena rather than how well they describe reality. There is, in this view, more than one way to visualize the world, and the “truth” of a statement depends on how useful it is. In some of his statements, James sounded almost like a 20th-century self-help guru: “Thoughts become perception, perception becomes reality. Alter your thoughts, alter your reality.”
There are a number of possibilities that can result from such a pragmatic worldview, outcomes that differ based on the goals or results desired by an individual. In U.S. history it was all well and good with individuals such as James and Dewey, the progressive educators who believed in knowledge-based democracy; James even had a number of students who became well-known positive influences on society, including W.E.B. DuBois and Walter Lippman. There was also at least one, Theodore Roosevelt, who achieved a position of significant power from which he could impose his reality on others, leading one to wonder in what ways the concepts of Jamesian pragmatism encouraged and directed early twentieth-century American imperialism. Roosevelt certainly created his own version of reality when he dispatched the Great White Fleet on an around-the-world voyage despite congressional concerns about funding.
In recognition of observed reality, unfortunately, there is always the potential for the dark side to emerge in the evolution of any philosophy in which truth and facts are seen as relative or conditional or where, as Dewey noted, “immutable truth is dead and buried.” What we have been forced to recognize at the start of the 21st century is that there can be a serious downside to allowing influential persons to select or create their own facts and their own truth. The prime example of this is the movement that led to the presidency of Donald Trump, a coordinated and cross-reinforcing propaganda system combining both traditional and social media. Such possibilities may have been anticipated by James when he noted, “There is nothing so absurd that it cannot be believed as truth if repeated often enough.” Combine this potential with the pragmatic desire of like-minded politicians to craft new facts and truths to suit their own purposes and we find ourselves in what many commentators have called a fact-free era. There is no consensus about when this era began in the states; it could be traced back to the expansion of cable television and the internet or to the many Tea party misrepresentations in the campaign against the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). This recent wave of obfuscation included the manufactured justifications in the 2003 buildup to the second war in Iraq, although this is hardly a new tendency. The War in Vietnam was also sustained on lies, and it was Aeschylus, after all, who stated that “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
None of those older campaigns compare in scale to the pattern of fabrications inspired by candidate Trump and expanded during his presidency. The birther lie, the Qanon conspiracy complex, the promotion of the border wall as the sole solution to immigration, the unending multilevel election fraud lies; all of those “alternative facts” were created and sustained with the pragmatic purpose of putting a Republican in the most powerful position in the United States and keeping him there even after he lost the 2020 election. Donald Trump himself is by nature the ultimate negative pragmatist, in that he simply refuses to recognize any reality or facts that do not benefit him. He has no interest in other goals or ideals. His acolytes and supporters are equally opportunistic and they have made every effort to promote the many false narratives whether they believe in them or not. There should be no doubt that applied pragmatic philosophy in the hands of a potential despot and his avid minions almost brought an end to 230 years of successful democratic governance in the United States. Since then, the Trump program was repeated by Jair Balsonaro during his reign and loss of the presidency in Brazil, inspiring a 2023 destructive riot in Brasilia’s government complex, similar to the attack two years earlier on the capitol building in Washington, D.C.
This is not to blame the early pragmatists or their philosophy for the excesses of the recent truth-free era, just as it was wrong when conservative leaders blamed Foucault and deconstructionism for the narratives of modern leftists and their social protests. It is simply a recognition that pragmatism must be tempered by objective reality, communitarian reviews, and inclusive ideals.