The Anatomy of Ideas III
Pragmatism and Progressivism
A cosmogony - or cosmogenesis - is a model that tries to explain the origin of the universe.
Fallibilism is not to be mistaken with falsifiability. The former is the belief that human knowledge is inherently flawed, while the latter is a condition to being proven false, adopted as a criteria of what constitutes scientific knowledge by Neopositivist authors such as Karl Popper. I have discussed Neopositivism in a previous article.
Peirce falls somewhere between the D1 and D2 categories that Leonard Peikoff puts forth in The DIM Hypothesis. On the one hand, the author argues in favor of the use of lower abstractions. On the other, the metaphysical chaos he takes as a premise can - and has - leave room for the argument that there is no point in abstracting at all, as one cannot predict or measure the differences between thinking and acting mindlessly.
To the extent that a set of ideas can be “from somewhere”, Objectivism is a distinctively American philosophy. It was created by Ayn Rand, who fled from Russia to the US, and fought to protect the essence of what made America such a formidable place. Since then, the country has become the intellectual home of Objectivism, and the place where it is the most influential. There is, however, another school of philosophy that originated in the United States, older than Objectivism - and its ideas shape American society to an even greater degree.
Pragmatism is a school of philosophy created in the end of the 19th century. It quickly gained immense popularity, and gave birth to common expressions that are still widely used today, such as “being pragmatic” and “holding progressive views”. The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with a rational perspective on Pragmatism, so that the full extent of its effects on our daily lives can be properly understood.
Among the many authors considered to be Pragmatists, three are noteworthy: Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 - 1914), considered by many to be the father of Pragmatism and its most prolific philosopher; John Dewey (1859 - 1952), the youngest and most politically active of all three, responsible, among other things, for reforming the American school system; and William James (1842- 1910) who, in addition to philosophy, also pioneered the teaching of psychology in the US. Like most schools of philosophy, Pragmatism is not a perfectly uniform set of ideas, but a group of authors that often disagree, albeit mostly on superficial aspects. Those disagreements will be mentioned as they become relevant throughout this article.
The only difference that is worth noting beforehand is the one between the metaphysics and epistemology of C.S. Pierce’s and those of of James and Dewey. Their differences later led Pierce to coin the term “Pragmaticism”, in an attempt to distance his ideas from those of the other two authors. I will analyze these two views separately. The remainder of their philosophy, however, converge to the point of being essentially the same and, because of that, I consider Pragmaticism to be a particular variation of Pragmatism, and will discuss their ethics, politics and esthetics as variants of the same central theme.
The goal of this article is to analyze Pragmatism as an integrated system of ideas. To achieve that goal, I will start by analyzing the school’s two distinct views on metaphysics and epistemology, and compare them with Objectivism. After that, we will take a close look at the consequences of Pragmatist epistemology in the realm of ethics - the branch at which the ideas of all three authors converge - and the consequences of their morality in politics. Lastly, I will present an analysis of Pragmatist esthetics, contrasting it with Objectivism’s philosophy of art and Ayn Rand’s Romantic Realism.
The Metaphysics and Epistemology of C.S. Peirce
Peirce’s views on the nature of reality can be boiled down to two fundamental ideas: Tycheism and interchangeability between mind and matter. Tycheism (from Tyche, the Greek goddess of fortune) is a worldview akin to that of Epicurus (340 - 270 B.C), who considered "chance", or "sudden, unpredictable change" to be essential to metaphysics. The interchangeability of mind and matter, on the other hand, is the belief that mind and matter are merely different manifestations of the same thing, based on a view of the universe as endowed with some sort of mind.
The starting point for Peirce’s philosophy is the observation that empirical research does not produce data that fits perfectly into theoretical models, but rather sets of data that approximate the predictions of these models. He then concludes, not that there are variables one cannot or did not account for in one’s model, but that the laws of nature itself aren’t laws at all, but merely habits. According to Peirce, chance is a fundamental aspect of existence and, although there are certain rules that apply to it, there are also factors that operate beyond any rules.
Metaphysical randomness is so important to Peirce that he goes so far as to put forth a cosmogony based on chance. According to him, absolute chance could eventually turn "non-being" into "being", and given enough time, develop habits - which would account for the partial regularities we observe in nature. This view leads the author to adopt a fallibilism that is even more radical than that of David Hume (1711 - 1776), asserting that human knowledge is flawed not only because of some fundamental imperfection of the human mind, but due to the nature of existence itself. To Pierce, there are no philosophical - only “practical” - reasons to accept the process of induction. One should not assume that a perceived regularity in nature will continue into the future, as the identity of existents is constantly subject to sudden change.
The interchangeability between mind and matter consists of viewing the mind, not as an exclusively human or animal property, but as something that permeates all matter. To Peirce, both matter and the rules it follows are the result of a “universal mind” that has exhausted itself and thus taken up a habit, creating actuality out of infinite potential. In more concrete terms, a specific cat exists because this universal mind exhausted its ability to think of existence as an endless potential for everything other than something with this cat in it. The law of gravity exists due to the fact that, at one point, this universal mind exhausted its ability to assign random relationships between the mass of existents and the way they attract or repel each other, thus taking up the habit of associating greater mass to a greater gravitational pull at a particular rate.
Influenced by Christian theologian Duns Scotus (1266 - 1308), Peirce saw abstractions as real entities, not in the Platonic sense of a parallel perfect reality, alien to the one we can perceive, but as a sort of percept existing in the universe's mind. This belief not only enabled, but required some sort of belief in a God - the “percept” corresponding to the highest of all abstractions, or to the universal mind itself. As we will discuss later in this article, this belief was key to Pragmatism's ability to use Christian beliefs to boost its support in the political realm.
The interchangeability of mind and matter is the bridge between Peirce’s metaphysics and his epistemology. Just as reality, endowed with a universal mind, starts out in absolute chaos and gradually picks up habits, so the human mind starts out in the sensory chaos of infancy, gradually picking up habits. Percepts are not mental equivalents of entities, but mental habits of sensory integration. According to the author, one should not conceptualize Man’s mental life as a series of voluntary decisions, but as instances of habit-induced, automatic actions, interleaved with instances in which habit itself is unable to beget behavior, prompting one to think.
In Peirce’s metaphysical and epistemological chaos, it does not make sense to think about complex and integrated systems of knowledge, as the ever-changing nature of reality and the limitations of the human mind make the creation of such a system both impossible and pointless. To him, the correct course of action was to be based precisely on the inconstant nature of consciousness. The author held that, at any given moment, some information is questionable, while some is not - and exactly what data is in each group can change randomly at any moment.
Knowledge, for Pierce, is acquired when one tests momentarily questionable hypothesis empirically, in the context of what one arbitrarily assumes to be right at the moment. That allows one to consider contradictory ideas to not be mutually exclusive, but merely two different tools for action.
The noumena-phenomena dichotomy, first established by Immanuel Kant, is the belief that reality can be divided into two distinct realms. The realm of noumena consists of things "as they really are", independent of human perception. The realm of phenomena consists of things "as they are perceived by the human consciousness" and, therefore, subject to the distortion of the senses, the subjective creations of the human mind or some other alteration depending on the specific version of the dichotomy. Some authors, like Arthur Schopenhauer and Ludwig Wittgenstein even go so far as to deny that anything can be said about noumena.
It is pointless to try to make sense of the alleged belief of a man like James in the idea of free will. Belief in free will, for a Pragmatist, does not mean the belief that it is part of human nature to choose one’s course of action, but that acting as if one were free, will bring better results - whatever the unspecified criteria for “better” may be.
Pragmatism: Lecture 2: What Pragmatism Means - William James, 1904
The purpose of concepts is to group our knowledge of certain existents, so that this knowledge can be dealt with specifically, separate from the totality of all our mental contents. It is easy to see how Dewey’s epistemology ultimately makes conceptualization impossible. If knowledge about "dogs" has to include knowledge about everything else in existence, then the concept "dog" would have to include all the knowledge one has, about everything, and not merely about dogs. Concepts are thus rendered useless.
In her ITOE, Ayn Rand mentions three common versions of the primacy of consciousness. The supernatural version is the belief that existence is created by the mind of a deity. The collective version is the belief that it is created by a collective mind, or by the sum of every individual mind. The personal version is the belief that every individual mind creates its own reality.
An axiom is a statement that identifies a self-evident truth, implied by any and every statement. Ayn Rand identifies several axiomatic truths, such as the validity of the senses and the existence of man’s volition, but she starts her philosophic inquiry with three primary axioms: the axioms of Existence, Consciousness and Identity. The Axiom of Existence is the proposition that “Existence Exists”; the Axiom of Consciousness is the proposition that “Consciousness exists, and is the faculty of perceiving that which exists”; the Axiom of Identity is the proposition that “a thing is itself”, or “A is A”.
A more precise way of putting it is that this is the excuse Kant uses to deny knowledge. The reason why he sought to do so in the first place was to preserve faith, as evidenced by his famous quote: “I had therefore to remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief.”
Illustrations to the Logic of Science - Charles Sanders Peirce; 1878, p. 116
The Virtue of Selfishness - Ayn Rand, 1964, p. 27
Objectivist epistemology subdivides consciousness into three different levels. Sensory consciousness consists of sensations - automatic reactions of a sensory organ to external stimuli. Perceptual consciousness consists of the retention and automatic integration of sensory data, so that entities can be perceived. It is also the most basic form of human perception, as we do not get access to raw sensory data after early infancy. Conceptual consciousness consists of the volitional integration of percepts or concepts into a single mental unit, through a process of abstraction.
Some authors - including several Objectivists - make the mistake of assuming that Man does not act on instinct at all. This is a wrong assumption, as evidenced by things as common as digestion.
For the reader who is not too familiar with Objectivism, egoism is not to be understood as the willingness to take - whether through violence, lies or tears - that which belongs to someone else. That would be exchanging the life of a rational being, who is able to produce his own value, for the life of a parasite who must rely on other people’s production to support his own life - that is neither a rational, or a selfish choice.
The Metaphysics and Epistemology of
James and Dewey
The works of James and Dewey in metaphysics, although superficially different, both consist of a denial of the field itself. Both authors adopt a form of the noumena-phenomena dichotomy, considering knowledge about the fundamental facts of reality to be unreachable. For both of them, the goal of metaphysics is the analysis of human experience - of phenomena - and the criteria that should be used to assess the "truth" of a statement is not how it relates to reality, but the practical consequences of the belief in those statements to the individual's life.
James adopts a looser version of this idea, stating that fundamental aspects of human experience could be discovered through an empirical study of the human psyche, but that the “truth” of these facts had to then be confirmed by the positive practical effects of the belief in them. The author holds that the observable characteristics of the human mind - which to him include the flowing nature of the mental process, the partial ability to focus, and the fact that every thought is thought of by an individual - necessarily lead to experiences that are shared by every human being, such as the perception of reality by means of concrete objects and the awareness of mathematical abstractions. These "shared experiences" are the closest we can get to fundamental facts of existence.
In The Will To Believe, James argues that, in situations where the right course of action is uncertain, speculation about reality is useless, and the individual should choose the belief that seems more useful. This is the reasoning the author uses to justify his belief in free will, as well as in the Christian god and the afterlife. In consonance with Peirce’s pragmatist maxim, according to which “the conception of an object is the conception of the practical effects of that object”, James provides us with a perfect example of his perspective on belief as he states that:
“If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for Pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged.”
Dewey adopts an even more radical version of the pragmatist worldview, according to which both metaphysical and epistemological inquiries are irrelevant to the discovery of principles. The only way to find out if a principle is true or not is by applying it and observing the practical results of its application.
In his book Knowing and The Known, Dewey attributes the problems of classical metaphysics and epistemology to the misuse of concepts, which reflect historical eras - a belief similar to that of Comte, which I discussed in a previous article. The author holds that the metaphysics-epistemology dyad begun at the stage of self-action, in which events were attributed to the intrinsic nature of entities. This stage is followed by - but still coexists with - the stage in which events are understood as an interaction between entities, conceptualized as systems that balance each other in different ways. Examples of this stage - which he calls the stage of interaction - include Newtonian physics, with its idea of action and reaction. As I will show, this view of inherent historical progress is, much like Pragmatism’s view of Christian beliefs, essential to understanding its political manifestations.
After the stages of self-action and interaction, Dewey claims that society begins to adopt a third, more advanced perspective. This last stage, called the stage of transaction, is characterized by the rejection of the idea of natures, essences or causes altogether, and the conceptualization of events as simultaneous interactions between all existents. Although conceding that existence exists - in a mangled way - and that consciousness perceives existence - in a very unreliable way - Dewey rejects the notion of identity entirely.
Despite their superficial differences, both James and Dewey abandon the search for knowledge about the nature of reality, holding it to be pointless, and seek instead merely to find regularities in nature. More importantly, the epistemology of both men, as well as Peirce’s, is based around the idea that all knowledge is temporary and merely an instrument to action, and that the usefulness of a belief is the ideal criteria to determining its truth. What criteria one should use to define “usefulness” is not a subject any of the three authors bothers to explain.
An Objective Response
Pragmatism has its merits. Its authors rejected the idealism of authors such as G. W. F. Hegel (1770 - 1831) and Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804), despite adopting the noumena-phenomena dichotomy. They also conceptualized philosophy as something practical, holding it to be an instrument for the wellbeing of man on this Earth, despite allowing for the "belief" in an afterlife - the fact that this was already part of America’s philosophic tradition since it’s inception diminishes, but does not completely erase the authors’ value. With that said, I can now present an objective critique to this movement without fear of committing any injustice - the rise of which led the United States into a cultural and political catastrophe.
To understand what is wrong with Peirce’s metaphysics, one must be familiar with the concept of primacy of consciousness. Primacy of consciousness is the metaphysical belief that existence is the product of some sort of consciousness, and one of its consequences is the use of concepts of consciousness to refer all of reality. Objectivism rejects this view in favor of the primacy of existence, i.e. the idea that existence exists, and is independent from consciousness. One can easily put that idea to the test, by trying to change a specific aspect of reality by will and thought alone - and failing every time.
Pragmatism adopts the primacy of consciousness in its supernatural version. Tycheism is nothing more than a secular version of the religious idea of miracles, although just as supernatural as its predecessor. Both come from the belief that reality has rules, but that those can be broken due to a conscious entity greater than Man. At its essence, Tycheism is nothing more that the denial of one of Objectivism’s primary axioms : the axiom of identity.
The axiom of identity is the self-evident statement that an existent is itself, and only itself, i.e. that every existent possesses a specific nature. This idea can be validated by observing that the things we see are what they are. In other words, that something cannot be simultaneously hot and cold, white and black or, in more abstract terms, A and not-A at the same time, in the same respect.
Peirce holds, like Rand, that the senses are Man’s only source of information, but denies that existents have a nature. This amounts to saying that sense perception is our primary means of acquiring knowledge, at the same time one says that the nature of reality makes the acquisition of knowledge impossible.
Despite his flaws, Peirce’s adoption of some sort of metaphysics grants his philosophy a cohesion that does not exist in the works of James and Dewey. As usually happens with thinkers that explicitly reject one of the essential branches of Philosophy, this rejection causes them to implicitly adopt the ideas of an earlier author. In the case of James and Dewey, it was the same metaphysics as the German idealists whose ideas they explicitly rejected.
As with any idea, James’s and Dewey’s denial of metaphysics does not exist “in a vacuum”, but comes from the assumption that there is an unbridgeable gap between reality "as it really is", and reality "as it is perceived by Man". This very division, however, is a form of metaphysics, as it assumes a fundamental and unchangeable characteristic of reality.
In stark contrast to both Pragmatism and German Idealism, Objectivism rejects the noumena-phenomena dichotomy in all its possible versions. As put forth by Leonard Peikoff, in his epilogue to the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE), this dichotomy consists of the belief that, because the human mind is not perfect, there is always going to be a difference between what is and what is perceived - and that means that one is ultimately unable to know anything about reality. At the same time, that line of thought ignores the fact that the very imperfections of the human mind that give rise to it are perceived by the human mind.
In her ITOE, Ayn Rand exposes the fundamental contradiction in Kant’s dichotomy in a way that is even simpler. She shows how Kant’s statement that consciousness is incapable of perceiving reality because it has an identity ignores the fact that everything that exists possesses an identity. In other words, perceiving reality is, necessarily, perceiving reality by specific means. To Rand, that is merely a fact, while Kant wrongfully sees it as a reason to get rid of knowledge altogether.
Objectivism does not hold the human mind to be perfect, or man to be able to perceive all of reality in a flawless, automatic fashion. On the contrary, Man needs to conceptualize precisely because of the limitations in his direct perception. It is precisely due to the fallibility of his conceptual faculty that Man needs a method of conceptualizing. This method is logic, defined as the non-contradictory integration of that which is perceived by the senses. In other words, being unable to know everything does not mean one is unable to know anything.
Ethics: Experimental and Altruistic
Pragmatist ethics is so intimately related to its epistemology that it is a challenge to deal with them separately. All three authors state that it is possible to conceptualize up to a certain point, and that concepts are a tool to guide the actions of the individual. In spite of that, Pragmatism denies both the ability and the need for integrating one’s most basic concepts into higher abstractions, which in turn makes it impossible for one to create broader scientific models, as well as a cohesive system of normative abstractions, be it ethical or esthetical.
Despite rejecting the idea of an integrated morality, Pragmatism does not reject the science of ethics per se. Despite all their differences in metaphysics and epistemology, all three authors argue for an experimental approach to ethics, according to which one should study all the different schools of thought, and the apply their principles in different situations, so that their practical results can be observed.
Pragmatist ethics is not only experimental, but radically relativistic. The view that knowledge - and in a way, even human personality - is something that cannot be integrated leads to the view that, at one given point, there is always knowledge that can be questioned, and knowledge that cannot; whether that is decided automatically or arbitrarily depends on the specific author. This take on epistemology leads, in the realm of ethics, to the belief that there is no ultimate, integrated purpose to the actions of an individual, but that there is only a series of unquestionable short-term goals. The correct course of action, for Pragmatism, is that which leads one to reach these goals in the most efficient way possible, even if the very value of that goal is to be rejected at a latter time.
While explicitly affirming that there are no universal values that apply to every situation, the influence of both German Idealism and Christianity on all three authors causes a common ethical principle to emerge from the murky waters of pragmatic relativism: altruism. There is no explicit, consistent defense of the principle of self-sacrifice in any of the Pragmatists’ works - there could be none, as their philosophy rejects principles. Still, in The Doctrine of Chances, Peirce states that “He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world, is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively. ”.
This passionate defense of altruism is not exclusive to Peirce. Dewey, in his Ethics, argues that the individual's adaptation to the promotion of society’s collective goals is the central question of ethics as a science. The educational reforms he led focused on adapting the child to its social environment and to the altruistic, democratic demands of social life, in detriment of what he saw as dry, pure knowledge. Even James, the pragmatist who comes closest to rejecting altruism in favor of pure moral relativism, talks about the virtues of “social solidarity” and of sacrifice in the name of country and the common good in The Moral Equivalent of War.
Despite both systems explicitly adopting the wellbeing of Man as their ultimate goal, Pragmatist ethics are entirely incompatible with Objectivism. Indeed, the study of different systems of ethics suggested by the Pragmatists is important for anyone interested in studying philosophy. Nonetheless, the idea that an individual can have a moral code made up of disintegrated parts of other philosophies, chosen at a whim, is completely absurd. To define what is useful and what is not, even in the short term, one must first define one’s standard of value.
The idea that goals simply appear automatically in an individual’s mind is not only a rejection of rational morality, but also a form of emotionalism - the idea that one’s actions should be guided by their feelings. According to Rand:
“Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss. ”
Emotions are estimates of moral valuation - they are not loose bits of information floating around in an individual’s mind, but are themselves also subject to the criteria of moral evaluation. To say emotions are estimates of valuations is not to say that people have, or should have, full conscious control of their emotions - quite the contrary. Emotions, much like percepts, are part of an automatic mechanism, and respond to the values that the individual already holds, consciously or not, at the moment the emotion is evoked. They are Man’s fail-proof mechanism, linking his particular actions to the values he holds - but they cannot tell him what values to hold.
Just like Pragmatism’s ethical relativism and emotionalism, Objectivist ethics is merely the application of its epistemology to the context of human action. Rand puts forth a rational ethics, based on the proper identification of Man’s essential characteristics, i.e. that which makes him different from all other existents. Man is a living being and, as such, must act towards specific goals for the maintenance of his life. Unlike other living beings, however, Man is volitional, which means he cannot act on instinct alone, but must choose his goals. He is also rational, which means he has the ability to integrate the perceptual data he acquires into concepts. He can, therefore, formulate abstract principles with which to guide his actions towards a productive life, in accordance with his nature.
To say that Objectivism has a rational and integrated moral code based on the nature of Man is not to say that every action an individual must take is somehow prescribed by it. Its ethics merely identifies general rules that apply to all human beings, because they are human beings. It is up to the individual to investigate his own nature - that which distinguishes him from other human beings - and choose his own path in life. Unlike most religious or otherwise totalitarian systems of philosophy, Objectivism does not make the wicked exchange of giving someone’s life meaning in return for their freedom of choice - it is a tool with which people can understand reality, and then use that understanding to give their own life meaning.
Unlike relativism and emotionalism, the ethical principle of altruism does not follow inexorably from pragmatist epistemology, but it is passionately defended by its philosophers nonetheless. Holding a diametrically opposite view, Rand argues for rational egoism, i.e. the understanding that the ultimate value for an individual, and that on which all his other values are based upon, is his own life and his own happiness, understood as the emotional state that arises from the concretization of non-contradictory values.
If Pragmatism does not provide one with a moral code with which to resolve conflicts between men, how would a Pragmatist society be organized? It is possible to imagine the effects of relativism, emotionalism and altruism in an individual’s life, but what are the consequences of adopting those principles in a larger, social scale? Fortunately for our present analysis - and unfortunately for millions of Americans - history answers our question with the rise, over the first half of the last century, of Pragmatism’s political ideology: Progressivism.
The numbers are taken from the data compiled by Lutz Kaelberg, Professor of Sociology for the University of Vermont.
Libertarian authors associated with the Austrian School of Economics, such as Murray Rothbard and Walter Block, take the Non-Agression Principle (NAP) to be an axiomatic truth. Unlike axiomatic truths, such as the fact that existence exists, the NAP cannot be derived from sense experience alone, but requires a specific interpretation of that experience, which in turn presupposes a foundation on ethics, epistemology and metaphysics.
The Virtue of Selfishness - Ayn Rand, 1964, p. 32
“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.” - The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand, 1969, p. 45
Progressivism was a large scale movement of political reform in the United States, with leaders all across the political spectrum; from Republicans like Herbert Hoover (1874 - 1964) and William Howard Taft (1857 - 1930), to Democrats like Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 - 1945). The movement was united by the Pragmatist belief that laws and institutions should not be based on moral principles - after all, principles in general are only expedient - but that, as society changes, so must its laws and public policies. The role of the government is not to protect individual rights, but to bring about the progress of society as a whole.
The belief in social engineering through public policy, that still permeates leftist thinking in modern day America, has its origins in the Progressive era. The widespread acceptance of ethical relativism allowed politicians to ignore the Constitution, while the belief in altruism and collectivism led them to reverse the entire logic of the American political system - from a system based on the idea of individual rights to the social-democratic ideal that guides the Democratic Party and strongly influences the Republican Party up to this day.
The Pragmatists’ belief in the practical utility of Christian values, and their ability to call it a "belief in God" allowed them to unite with the Social Gospel movement. Pioneered by the likes of Washington Gladden (1836 - 1918) and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861 - 1918), the Social Gospel movement sought to practice the Christian maxim of "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, and apply Christian ethics to the solution of social problems. Although Pragmatism is not a Christian ideology, its beliefs in the earthly use of christian values - and in the expediency of values in general - allowed both movements to merge into what became know as the Progressive Movement. Famous for its role in the prohibition of alcohol in 1919, and the subsequent growth of the Mafia, the movement also spearheaded a myriad of other policies aiming to “purify” society.
These “social purification” policies had, strangely enough, a positive consequence: female suffrage. One would be wrong in assuming that the female vote in America came about because of the nation's tradition of individual rights. In fact, the reason behind it was the attempt to improve the quality of the US’s political institutions by means of the female vote, considered by the Progressivists to be more “spiritually pure” than men’s. Despite this important benefit, the grim actions of the of movement absolutely dwarf any progress towards individual rights that came from it.
Echoing Dewey's idea of historical progress, and seeking to speed up the rate at which this progress happens, all Southern states and many Northern states passed laws aiming to block the black vote. The official justification was that they did not know how to vote towards the progress of society - the fact that escaping slavery might have taught the black community the value of freedom might have played a role in that assumption. The quest for progress, however, did not stop at the voting booth. Progressivist movements throughout the country came up with several attempts to sterilize “undesirables”, who in their mind ranged from the mentally ill, to criminals, to blind, deaf and poor people.
As many as 30 states passed forced sterilization laws, resulting in over 60,000 victims over span of around 40 years. Unsurprisingly, California, the state where Progressive ideas are still the most alive, was also the state with the most number of victims, with around 20,000 forced castration procedures. The sheer intensity, neuroticism, and violence of Progressivist social engineering led authors such as Jonah Goldberg (1969) to consider the movement to be the American version of Fascism era.
Apart from the ghosts of racism and state-enforced eugenics, Progressivism brought about many policies that are still in effect today - and understanding the context in which those policies were enacted is key to reversing them. Policies like Roosevelt’s New Deal, the creation of the Federal Reserve and the passing of anti-trust laws are completely alien to the original ideals of Freedom and Property upon which this country was founded. The creation of laws that forbid an individual from making business precisely because of the success of his company; grant control of the entire banking system to the government; or establish a monolithic state run health-insurance system akin to those of Latin America, could only come about because of the belief that no principle - even those protected by the Constitution - is absolute. The economic consequences of these changes, such as the breaking down of great American companies, the over-pricing and under-delivery of the market for medical services, and the cyclical financial crises of the past 100 years are enough to fill up whole new articles.
On the opposite direction of Progressivism and its numerous collectivistic reforms, which also include the empowerment of labor unions, the creation of environmental protection agencies and the anti-academic reform of public education, Objectivism argues in favor of America’s original political principles: freedom, property and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are not to be understood as separate existents, coexisting independently and, at times, conflicting with each other; but as different facets of the same essential right: the right of an individual to his own life.
To have the right to one's own life means having ownership of one’s own body, and being left alone to pursue any course of action that does not entail the initiation of violence against someone else - this is freedom. To have the right to one’s life entails the ability to own that which one creates, and that which one gets by means of trade with other free individuals - this is property. To have a right to one’s life means having the right to use one’s effort to pursue one’s own long term goals, with the assurance that one’s integrity will not be violated in the meantime - that is the pursuit of happiness.
Unlike the Founding Fathers, Rand does not take these rights to be self-evident, or gifts bestowed upon Man by a god. She understands that forsaking the reasoning behind those rights and assigning them to the will a Creator was the Achilles' heel of the of the American Constitution. It allowed these rights to be relativized and, at times, entirely ignored. If our rights come from a god, then they can be reinterpreted to further accommodate his will - that is often the root of the authoritarian policies of the "right". If our rights come from a god, than they can be ignored if one no longer believes in gods - that is often the root of the totalitarian policies of the "left".
Instead of holding them to be self-evident or divine in origin, Objectivism argues that rights come from the nature of Man as a productive being. If an individual is rational and volitional and, therefore, able to create value for himself, the only external factor that can stop him from doing so is the initiation - or threat - of physical violence from others. Based on that, Rand proposes the Non-Aggression principle as the proper basis for a system of rights.
The Non-Aggression Principle (not to be confused with the Non-Aggression Axiom ) is the moral principle at the base of Objectivist politics, and states that:
“No man—or group or society or government—has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man. Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its
It opposes, at the same time, both the idea that one may force others to work for a "common good", and the idea of pacifism, i.e. that violence itself, no matter what the context, is deplorable. The initiation of violence against peaceful people is deplorable - it's retaliatory use against a criminal is necessary, and abstaining from it is immoral.
On one side, a philosophy of altruism, aiming at the “welfare of society”, that unavoidably resulted in the abolition of rights, laws and principles for the sake of a “greater good”. On the other, a philosophy of egoism, aiming at nothing more than the wellbeing of the individual, arguing for a society in which every individual has a right to what is his. The political results of the adoption of those two American philosophies seem to be quite clear at this point, but what about its results in the realm of art?
Art: Common and Collective
The only one of the three authors discussed in this article to write extensively on art was John Dewey. In the theory he puts forth in Art as Experience, a book based on a series of lectures by William James, Dewey questions the traditional concept of “high culture”, choosing the ubiquity of the a work’s appreciation as the standard with which to measure its quality. In other words, Dewey saw good art as that which can be enjoyed by the highest number of people. According to him, art is a collective construct that should reflect, not the heroic, the beautiful or the sublime; but that which is common and mundane. In practice, that would mean that the work of artists such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Victor Hugo is inferior to that of Lil Pump, Twilight or whatever the latest pop trend is, as the latter are more “accessible” to the “common man”.
Dewey also worries about the effects of art, not on the individual, but in society. To him, art is the means through which a society can express its common values, its everyday shared experiences, and thus create a sense of communion between its members. By exposing collectively held values, art can also be used as a critical tool, through which society can observe its beliefs in concrete form, analyze them, and use the subsequent knowledge for the sake of progress.
Objectivist esthetics, in clear opposition to Pragmatism, is profoundly individualistic. According to Rand, a work of art is not made for the sake of society, and not even for the artist’s audience, but for the artist himself. Defining art as a selective recreation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgements, i.e. his deepest, most important values, she argues that the goal of art is to bring the artist’s highest abstractions into perceptual awareness.
In stark contrast with the pragmatist exultation of the common, Objectivism holds the heroic to be the ideal in art. The focus of art should not be on that which is common to all people, but that which could be, if they were act to the full extent of their rational potential. The main goal of art to create a sense of communion between people - although good art does that to an extent - but to instill in them a sense of greatness by portraying the ideal of what Man can and should be.
It is counterintuitive to imagine that two philosophies born into the same country, with the same explicit goal of improving Man’s life on Earth, can turn out to be so different. While Pragmatism starts with the immutable flawed nature of Man’s mind, and goes on to defend emotive action devoid of values or principles, Objectivism starts with Man’s capacity for success, and the knowledge that he can make mistakes, and goes on to argue in favor of rational action towards the maintenance of life. While the first school argues for the progress of society and the sacrifice of the individual towards the common good, the other argues precisely in defense of the individual against the whimsical excesses of the collective. While the first school promotes admiration for what is common and mundane, the latter argues that we should admire the best that Man has to offer.
I sincerely hope that the reader can think back to this article next time they hear that they should be “more pragmatic”, which actually means abandoning one’s principles for the sake of expediency. The people who say that do not believe in principles at all, because they don’t believe that things are what they are. I hope that you can remember this article next time someone tells you that your views are not “progressive”. The progress they seek is the destruction of individuality, for the sake of whatever the latest fad in progressivist circles is, be it the purification of society or the death of “the patriarchy”. Most of all, I hope the reader can think back to this article and remember that the people who share these ideas believe that the latest noisy, drug-fuelled, animalistic mumbled rap song to be a better work of art than any of Paganini’s Violin Concertos - and that, remembering this, they give those ideas the value they deserve.