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Pragmatism and the Presidency


The essay diagnoses a prevailing philosophy of pragmatism that has dominated the thinking and influenced many areas of American society. In the current presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, pragmatism has found its perfect exemplar. The perfect philosophical marriage between this administration and the American public is as harmonious as Astarte and Marduk. It can be explained in the nature of William James’, John Dewey’s and C. S. Peirce’s redefinition of truth. The pragmatic language frame of Bill Clinton and the cognitive epithelium of a tolerant and accepting public are the tragic consequences of this carcinogenic philosophy. Within the framework of pragmatism, William Clinton would be classed as truthful, religious and faithful in word and deed.


Lawrence Hilliard

 Author Notes

Lawrence Hilliard has been an educator and lecturer for over 25 years within private institutions, colleges, conferences, and churches. He has a Masters Degree in History from the University of Southern California and teaches philosophy, ethics, theology, and contemporary political philosophy. Mr. Hilliard is presently authoring a book on the nexus of Orthodox Jewish Theology and historic Christianity. He maintains a web site at which others of his ideas can be explored.

 Essay - 9/1/1998

"Nowadays falsehood stands erect and truth lies prostrate on the ground."

--Zohar II, 188

Irrespective of gender, race, culture or age, everyone lives by a philosophy. Our minds are predisposed, our wills inclined, and our motivations are grounded in a particular school of philosophical thought. Everyone adheres to a corpus of thought, either consciously or subliminally that characterizes their present life and future. Yet only a knowledgeable few can identify the body of philosophic orientation or the philosopher that animates their life.

Since the turn of the century the prevailing philosophy in America has been pragmatism. As the brainchild of C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey, it is the only philosophy from "Thales to Dewey" that is made in the U.S.A. This philosophy has infused most facets of American life and culture. It has become the raison d’etre of late 20th century America, and the teleos of American eschatology.

Pragmatism is a theory of truth that rejects any axiomatic norms of immutable, unalterable certainty as having any objective reality. Pragmatism empties truth of any ultimate, transcendent or metaphysical meaning. Pragmatism redefines truth as any belief, opinion, or action which has a beneficial, workable, practical consequence to an individual or society, issuing from a subjective matrix. The usefulness of a given proposition or action that benefits the individual is categorized functionally as the definition of truth. "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the objects." (C. S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear, 1878). "...In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception, one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception." (C. S. Peirce, Collected Papers, Vol. 5, pg. 9). "The true is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving." (William James, The Meaning of Truth, pg. 7).

Within the philosophy of pragmatism, ideas and actions have no intrinsic value of right and wrong, no ultimacy, but are only instrumental in producing for the individual the value of their present payoff. Ideas and actions have meaning only if they produce beneficial consequences to the individual. Truth has become only the beneficial functionality of an act, it is whatever works. The philosophy of pragmatism rejects the nature of truth as transcendent or metaphysical, but solely defines truth as experiential and expedient. "...the main principle of pragmatism (is) that the full cash value of any concept is exhausted in the changes it has in my experience." (Gordon Clark, From Thales to Dewey, pg. 506). Truth defined by pragmatism is devoid of any objective reality, it is divorced from having an enduring, immutable, nature of permanence. In this constricted, myopic mindset the only test for truth becomes what works best for the individual. The solitary becomes the measure of all things.

The American educational system is founded on the bedrock of pragmatism. The emphasis is upon the methodology of acquiring the skills of gaining knowledge but not in the acquisition of knowledge itself. Thus, for instance, what was evident to Alexis de Tocqueville 200 years ago, regarding the essential characteristics that constitute a civil society founded on democratic principles, is now obscured because those values no longer constitute truths as pragmatism defines them. "Among the things Dewey believed was the proposition that students should be taught the skills of how to gain knowledge rather than the knowledge itself. The result is a generation of students who may know the methodology of matters but who have lost the knowledge which makes the culture distinctive. ...students in an entire generation have lost touch with their past." (Pat Apel, Nine Great American Myths, pg. 107). The pragmatic man or woman is the individual who can get things done, notwithstanding whether the inherent nature of the action or decision is right or wrong, which is considered irrelevant to the net result. An educational system founded on such a philosophy has produced a generation that can efficiently accomplish certain specific tasks, within the narrow confines of the computer epoch but are ignorant of the nature of truth. A society that can "perform" but can’t "discern perceptibly" outside the parameter of the day-to-day functionality of their lives.

Pragmatism, intravenously fed by our educational system, obliterates the need to ask questions of ultimacy and transcendence. For such questions are arrogantly dismissed as being irrelevant and unrelated to a well-designed functioning society where each individual performs in drone-like fashion, to contribute to the pragmatic goal, i.e., the workability of the state.

At the core of this destructive mindset is an inherent falsification, pragmatism’s Achilles Heel; for the most pragmatic act of functional consequence is the lie. If the determination of truth is whatever works functionally and beneficially, then a lie may be the best truth in operation. The lie works and works repeatedly as our politicians daily manifest, though camouflaged in the promised, practical consequences it will bring forth. A lie can produce results for centuries as the original temptation attests, "...and you will be like God..." (Genesis 3:5). Millions of lives have gone to the grave pinning all on that transcendent lie. The resultant consequences of a pragmatic lie, because of its functional benefits, is to define truth as the outworking of the pragmatic lie. Within this lie-oriented philosophy, all statements and values are considered as valid or invalid, contingent upon their end result. If a centuries-old value is perceived as not producing current desired results, then it can easily be dismissed by the pragmatist as antiquated; to be replaced by the novel popular idea. Even though it may have been discredited in the past, it is now seen as capable of producing desirable results. Thus history is demeaned as a dust-laden classroom of the ever-diminishing traditionalist while the next nanosecond is exalted by the pragmatic secularist as the new laboratory for change. Thus pragmatism produces a society of macularepithelists madly following the next faint glimpse before their noses. As a result, all of life is divorced from any continuum with the past. The lacuna of "now" holds nothing but the lie that there is a new truth superseding the old.

We are presently witnessing, in the verbal contortions of William Jefferson Clinton, a prime exemplar of pragmatism’s metamorphosis. The President engages in strained morphology to describe centuries’ old known behavior that is axiomatic to most of the world, certainly inclusive of the Western. Lying, deception, adultery, obstruction, truth, repentance have all been extracted from the lexicons of the English speaking world and even from early New Testament usage, and redefined to produce an expedient, pragmatic result. The President abridges and redefines the continuum of truth that is revealed through our language frame of certitude, which he so flagrantly recasts.

To Bill Clinton, there are no fixed standards of ethics. Values, truth, and character are always in flux because the canon of measurement is always mutating. John Dewey described this condition of fluidity, "We institute standards of justice, truth, aesthetic quality, etc. ... exactly as we set up a platinum bar as a standard measurer of lengths. The standard is just as much subject to modification and revision in the one case as in the other on the basis of the consequences of its operational application." (John Dewey, Logic, the Theory of Inquiry, pg. 216).

The nature of language is dianoetic, it reveals the mind of the communicator, but from a master pragmatist as William Clinton, language is used in an Orwellian sense to obscure objective maxims by substituting relative solipsisms. The pragmatist will eventually reach a stage of cognitive epithelium in which they actually believe that the pragmatic lie is truth, because the lie has produced beneficial results (witness the President’s four-hour grand jury testimony, and the imbecilic waltz "It depends on what is is"). Beneficial results are the essential definition of pragmatic truth. Remember, pragmatism’s enduring motto is, "Truth is whatever works."

The redefining of the lexicon of axiomatic truth will be the legacy of the Clinton Administration, for it perceives language only as a means to an end, the pragmatic payoff. After 25 years of such expedient public and private behavior, there is no evidence that a repudiation is on the horizon, notwithstanding the President’s pragmatic faith he so readily espouses at scripted prayer breakfasts. Within the framework of pragmatism, William Clinton achieves the honors of being classed as truthful, religious and faithful in word and deed. Such is the evaluation from a school of thought that rejects inherently the presuppositional axiom of an absolute canon that law and conduct are judged by. In an azoetic culture where materialistic eudaemonism prevails, the marriage to Clinton’s pragmatic agenda is as harmonious as Astarte to Marduk. Public opinion polls only illustrate the success of the syncretism proclaimed so shamelessly by the Elmer Gantry in the Oval Office.

Neither of the principal American political parties are immune to this philosophic virus. They are in essence cast from the same bedrock of pragmatic expediency. Some conservatives have forgotten their philosophic moorings in Edmund Burke, and gladly expound the expedient principle. Political power is won, whether on a local, state, or federal level, by the annunciation of a utilitarian principle: what will bring forth the perceived greatest good to the constituency. But the good is invariably defined as pragmatic practicality devoid of any moral content or moral obligation. Within the political process, consideration of the inherent truthfulness or falsity of any given proposition has been eclipsed by pragmatic utilitarianism. The question is no longer, "Is it true?" but, "Will it work?" Expediency thus governs the decision-making process. "If a moral philosophy is formulated entirely in terms of ends and means, it is utilitarian or pragmatic. It is an ethics without duties or moral obligations." (Mortimer J. Adler, Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary, pg. 82).

Pragmatism is structured and perpetuated by the pragmatic lie. But a lie will not be the last word written over our society. A lie conceals but truth reveals. In every segment of American society the myopic and deceptive nature of pragmatism is being brought to light. Each decision we make in rejecting short-term payoffs in favor of ultimate truth weakens the grip of this myopic mindset. Pragmatism for over 100 years has buffeted the edifice of immutable, stable, enduring truth. But it will ultimately collapse against the precedential truth of the ages, objective reality.

We are presently at a kairos point in American history. Either we will return to the truths that have sustained every preceding generation or we will continue on a mad rush down the slope of popular novelty of permutated pragmatism. A young student at Yale in the early 50s wrote of pragmatism’s effect and its antidote. "The teachings of John Dewey and his predecessors have borne fruit. And there is surely not a department at Yale that is uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths. The acceptance of these notions, which emerge in courses in history and economics, in sociology and political science, in psychology and literature, makes impossible any intelligent conception of an omnipotent, purposeful, and benign Supreme Being who has laid down immutable laws, endowed his creatures with inalienable rights, and posited unchangeable rules of human conduct." (William F. Buckley, Jr. , God and Man at Yale, p. 25-26).

Like a raging carcinogenic, the virus of this pragmatic religion of man has entered the system of American society, infecting the organs of its public, private, educational, religious, economic and political life. Nothing but a regeneration of spirit and mind brought about by truth from a Transcendent God can save the individual or state. "Forever, O Lord, thy Word stands firm in Heaven." (Ps. 119:89).

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