by Madeleine Kando
Ever since my oldest daughter’s visit last week,I have been obsessed with the concept of ‘pragmatism’. If I had to choose one word in the English language to describe her personality, that would be it. My husband likes to describe her personality as ‘Dutch’, as if she was a piece of cheese, but that does not do justice to her OR Dutch cheese. There are hundreds of types of Dutch cheeses, just as there are many flavors of pragmatism and calling someone pragmatic is just as vague as calling someone 'Dutch', but for lack of a better word I will stick to that description.
The word pragmatic comes from the Latin word ‘pragmaticus’ (being skilled in law or business) and the Greek root ‘pragma’, which means a thing done, a fact. There is a wonderful interview on NPR with historian Robert Richardson, author of ‘The Heart of William James’, which describes some of the ins and outs of Pragmatism as a philosophy.
I personally like the following definition of a pragmatist: ‘One who acts in response to particular situations rather than upon abstract ideals; one who is willing to ignore their ideals to accomplish goals.’
Well, in that sense, aren’t we all pragmatists by default? The question is not whether you are willing to ignore your ideals in the face of reality, but how far you are willing to go.
It is often said that the American character is quintessentially pragmatic. American inventors like Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell epitomize Pragmatism and the Yankee spirit of tinkering. Pragmatism says: Try something and see if it works. Pragmatism means that you experiment, and you find out the results. America itself was a (successful) experiment. Pragmatism judges whether something is good by its consequences. Pragmatism means = practical. Science is pragmatic. Pragmatism says that there are no absolute truths. Nothing is sacred.
For example, is it pragmatic to steal a car so you won’t have to walk to work? Well, according to one of the founders of pragmatism, William James, pragmatism is what works for the majority of people. If everyone started to steal cars, it wouldn't be good for the people whose cars got stolen (or for the car thieves who go to jail), so in the long run, stealing a car to go to work is not pragmatic.
If pragmatism is so American, how come we have so many 'principled' politicians in government? The current grid-lock is a direct result of falsely-interpreted idealism on both sides of the isle. From the Republicans' 'no raising taxes' pledge and anti-abortion zealots to the unwillingness to compromise on the Democratic side. It's all very non-American, if you ask me. The only pragmatist in the entire political body is Barack Obama.
Did Americans forget their own philosophical tradition? Even though William James was talking about religion when he said that values should be judged 'by their fruits…not by their roots', it does apply to politics as well.
But I won't venture further into the murky world of Pragmatism as a philosophy because I am not knowledgeable enough and it would be more pragmatic to avoid being called an 'ignoramus'.
I know what my husband was trying to say when he said that my daughter is 'Dutch'. She is what they call 'nuchter', translated as 'solid', 'sober' and sometimes even 'passionless'. Yes, the Dutch are ‘nuchter’. In fact, the Dutch are the world’s designated drivers according to this World map of drunk and sober.
My daughter is certainly solid, not always sober (living in San Francisco is bound to make you intoxicated some of the time since it probably has the most bars per capita in the entire country) but she is definitely not passionless. You might get a better idea of what 'nuchter' means by looking at its opposite: someone who is floating on a cloud, wishy washy, airy-fairy or full of hot air.
I see my daughter as a symbol of what is good and strong in America. It is still a country where idealism and pragmatism can co-exist. Just like I, the idealistic, airy-fairy mother can learn from my pragmatic, 'nuchter' daughter, so can she, hopefully, get inspired by my idealistic view of the world. leave comment here
Monday, January 2, 2012
by Madeleine Kando