The Greatest Confidence Trick of the Age
Pragmatism is one of the great intellectual cons of the modern world. The fact that it can still fool lots of “educated” people is testament to the paucity of modern education, which pragmatism has largely shaped. The idea that all dogma and received wisdom can and should be discarded as useless and should be replaced by a study of “what works” might appeal to an engineer in a superficial kind of sense. If, however, it is to be taken seriously, pragmatism consigns an individual and a culture to perpetual ignorance and the crassly superficial.
Here is Jonah Goldberg’s summation of pragmatism:
Taken on its own terms, pragmatism’s folly is that it separates intelligence from wisdom. Its greatest sins are arrogance and deceit, including self-deceit. It is arrogant because it assumes the individual–particularly the expert–can know everything he needs to know without reference to received wisdom, historical precedent, tradition, dogma, etc. The pragmatists particularly loathed history, because it was a storehouse of old thinking with no relevance for the new age of science, slide rules, and data. Tricked by what they saw out their windows, they assumed that human nature had an expiration date–and that date was yesterday.
“I speak in dispraise of dusty learning, and in disparagement of the historical technique,” boasted Stuart Chase, the brain truster who reportedly gave the New Deal its name and yearned for an “economic dictatorship” in the United States, “Are our plans wrong? Who knows? Can we tell from reading history? Hardly.” Pragmatism’s deceit comes in the form of actually believing this nonsense. [Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas (New York: Sentinel/Penguin, 2012), p.53.]
One is put in mind of George Santayana’s tart bon mot: those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. But the pragmatist will have none of it: the lust for the new is where truth and success lies.
Whilst there have been more influences on modern government educational philosophy than pragmatism, the latter has surely been amongst the most influential. John Dewey is still revered in teacher training colleges throughout the country. Is it any wonder that the government education system is struggling so much? One of the most scathing criticisms these ideologues can hurl at anything less than full throated applied pragmatism in education is that a particular technique or a syllabus or an a pedagogical approach is old-fashioned. The old is always bad; new, modern, progressive educational ideas are vastly superior and successful. It’s a pure fabrication, of course–but believed in passionately nonetheless.
The two areas where pragmatism has had the most influence on thought and human action have been education and economics. Both have also been playgrounds for government intervention, rules, regulations, and control. There is a reason for this: the pragmatist always ends up looking to take control of the powers of the state to experiment upon the world, shaping it to its own deluded vision of what will work–and, of course, it never does.
Goldberg goes on, turning to pragmatism’s approach to economics:
There is a book screaming to be written on how the twentieth–and now twenty-first–century can be understood as a world-historical struggle not between Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes, as is often claimed, but between Hayek and John Dewey.
Hayek, more than anyone else, illuminated the knowledge problem. Simply put: no one person can ever know enough. Planners who think they can process all of the data from disparate sources across vast expanses of geography and culture are, quite simply, educated fools. The planners of the New Deal had convinced themselves that they were smart enough to grind out any problem so long as they had enough data. Worse, in their contempt for the “disorganized” character of capitalism, they were deeply hostile to markets and the informational power of prices. When prices went in the wrong direction the New Dealers took it upon themselves to out think the market. Hence the great pig slaughter of September 1933, when the government ordered the killing of six million pigs in a time of deprivation. (Ibid., p. 54.)
Technological advances in computing power have extended this charade far longer than otherwise would have been the case. Computing power and ever increasing computational speeds have kept alive the hope that processing more and more data will perfect the “science” of economics and investing and controlling capital markets. But more data and faster computational speeds merely serve to distort reality, not reflect it, let alone control it.
The pragmatists view of human existence and culture is two dimensional at best. Life is like a chess board, with a fixed number of pieces and set rules. Every problem of human existence can be potentially solved by moving pieces in new configurations. This is not just the zenith of ignorance and oversimplification, it is childish. Yet it remains one of the most influential philosophies today in the West.
How can this be? How could our modern culture fall for this nonsense? One reason is that advanced by G. K. Chesterton: when men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. Rather, they fall for anything and everything. Credulity increases exponentially.
A second reason for pragmatism’s influence is its success in conning people that it is not an ideology. Goldberg finds this the most objectionable aspect of Dewey’s position:
Which brings me to my primary objection to Dewey. It is not his ideology but his profoundly successful campaign to claim that he, along with his disciples and colleagues, had no ideology at all. He was an intellectual con man. Over the course of a very long, hugely influential career in education, philosophy, and political journalism, in which he served as a weather vane for leftist fads of all sorts, he always pretended to be free of cant, dogma, and ideology, when in fact he was weighted down by all three. He railed against “isms” and mocked the “stupidity of habit bound minds” in his opponents. All the while he did everything he could to advance a thoroughly socialist agenda–in kindergarten classrooms and college lecture halls–that was violently at odds with the American. . . .
And it worked. Dewey and his cohorts pulled off one of the great intellectual cons of the twentieth–and now twenty-first–century. Like the old saw about how the greatest trick the devil played is convincing the world he didn’t exist, American liberalism from the time of Dewey until the early 1960’s managed to convince vast swaths of America there was nothing ideological whatsoever to their world view. (Ibid., p. 55f.)
People have been conned. Willingly, no doubt but conned nonetheless. They remain conned to this day.
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