[Outlook]Pragmatism’s pitfalls

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[Outlook]Pragmatism’s pitfalls

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who is often considered the primary creator of modern semiotics, can be called also the religious founder of pragmatism, if it is compared to a religion. Peirce, in a paper published in 1878, described pragmatism as “An ideology a person has in mind that has tangible effects in the form of behavior.”
It was William James (1842-1910) who expanded the scope of pragmatism’s religious influence and that secured its unchallenged place as the essence of the American spirit. James, who can be called the second father of pragmatism, gave one of his most famous lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1898.
The lecture fascinated one politician in Korea one century later and greatly contributed to paving a new avenue for Korean politics. However, it does not matter how many times President-elect Lee Myung-bak has read writings related to pragmatism.
Let us take a closer look at the core elements of pragmatism as described by James in his lecture and in his book, “Pragmatism.” Put simply, pragmatism rejects abstraction and absoluteness, and accepts fact, behavior and power. It also refuses dogmatism and artificiality, and adopts open air and nature.
Morris Dickstein, who edited the book, “The Revival of Pragmatism,” in 1999, said that James’s thoughts could be understood as typical Americanism, which prefers action to meditation, fact to theory and, above all, outcome to process.
Activities in the outdoors rather than indoors, adventures that suit male tastes, practical principles and consequence-oriented thoughts rule the day rather than armchair theories.
How correctly they represent the essence of Lee Myung-bak. The president-elect has been raised to prioritize pragmatism since he studied under adverse conditions. His life is a symbol of pragmatism -- he has lived according to pragmatic principles. For instance, he complained that a 10-page report submitted by the presidential transition team on government reform and the basic policy stance of the incoming government was too long.
This explains clearly how devotedly he applies pragmatic principles to his life. Responding to the question, “What would you do if the world was going to end tomorrow?” he answered that he would pick an apple and eat. This is a natural response for Lee, as he is infatuated with pragmatism.
We know the more common answer to the question is “I would plant an apple tree today.” This answer can frequently be found in ethics textbooks. It can also be interpreted as nostalgia, which pragmatists dislike most.
Pragmatists have no absolute principle on what is true or right. What yields tangible results for human lives and makes us happier are the right things to do. The criterion for discriminating between right and wrong is actual cash value.
Here, we can find the reason pragmatism was criticized as snobbery and methodology with no ethical compass. For example, when John Dewy (1859-1952), pragmatism’s third champion, supported America’s entry into the First World War for the sake of pragmatic national interests, he was the target of criticism. People said he was an aimless opportunist sacrificing values in pursuit of a means.
It is certain that the pragmatism of the Lee Myung-bak government will yield many results. National reconciliation, which has been the keynote of Korea’s policies toward North Korea and the United States during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments, will be replaced by utility as a guiding principle.
The egalitarian policies of the past two governments will vanish in the face of the free market competition.
President-elect Lee should learn valuable lessons from history namely, that American pragmatism was criticized by leftists as supporting an immoral corporate culture and was misunderstood as moral relativism by those on the right.
Dewy’s pragmatism was deeply influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest can be used as a way to justify the capitalist system, focusing on the idea that nature has no eternal moral essence in and of itself. This theory is called social Darwinism.
If the power of pragmatism persists longer than expected, the ethos of Korean society will change. Valuing efficiency and tangible benefits will even further stir up the desire for wealth in Korean society. Some have already warned that Korea should be cautious of falling into the hands of ignoble capitalism. If the new government is retrograded toward neo-liberalism focusing on free competition and the survival of the fittest, a Korean society that enjoyed egalitarian values during the past decade will be in turmoil once again.
A socially conscious market economy will emerge as a realistic alternative because it can complement the market’s defects and show consideration for the weak and oppressed.
A belief that no judgment is absolutely right is the essence of pragmatism. President-elect Lee should bear this in mind and take a pragmatic stance that suits the characteristics of contemporary Korea.
This is the only way to prevent the evils that come with excessive pragmatism.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie
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