What Works?December 17, 2009
My buddy Tom Yulsman got me thinking this morning about what “works.” He offers this post, in part a response to my earlier Gaia’s Fever post, querying whether the “framing” of the offending video does the trick. (Hah! There’s that word again.)
The language of “working” is funny, but I think that it deserves a bit of exploration here, as Colorado houses a fair number of pragmatists (me, Roger Pielke Jr., Dave Cherney, and so it seems, Tom). There are others too, sometimes appearing in the garb of the policy sciences, but alas, they don’t have blogs.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of pragmatism is its emphasis on “what works,” so it might be helpful to lay out what we mean by it. I suspect we differ slightly. I’d be curious also to hear from Tom and Roger on their own views. My view, effectively, is influenced heavily by people like Jürgen Habermas and those who have influenced him, so it’s a somewhat neo-Kantian, post-Hegelian, Dewey-cum-Mead-cum-Rawls sort of pragmatism. In other words, I think not that the “truth is what works,” as William James liked to say, but that we are, at best, always on a path that is “truth-, right-, and rightness-seeking” and that our unique burden is to try to sort and hash this stuff out amongst ourselves.
Lots of people find pragmatism threatening because it appears to untie truth-claims from their moorings, but I don’t think it needs to go that far. It may be best to think of truth claims as claims that help explain the world, though they can never quite get there. The view I endorse is therefore a variation on realism, though of an internal sort.
One confusion that often emerges in discussion of pragmatic theories of truth, rightness or truthfulness — validity claims, if you will — is a presumption that the claims in question are best understood in terms of their framing and not in terms of their substance. It seems to me that slipping over into framing language undermines the true insight and force of a pragmatic theory that aims at clarity and understanding. It’s not that validity claims are in place to “work,” in the sense that they trick (tee hee!) people into believing something that they otherwise ought not to believe, but that they are they are in place to “work,” in the sense that they adequately or accurately describe the world to a reciprocally-engaged set of speakers and hearers, given a somewhat amorphous set of external factors that impact the way in which those claims contextually fit.
All of that encourages me to respond to Tom’s query with this comment to Tom:
It’s interesting that you approach this from the standpoint of framing. Disciplinary differences between us, I suppose, but I don’t see why we should focus too much on the framing question. It is true, probably, that some (maybe many) people may be more moved to act by the prospect of innovation and progress in energy technology… but that’s certainly not true for all people. Lots of people are moved to act because they are scared limp, or because they anthropomorphize the earth and don’t want to hurt their mother. It’s probably fair to say that the people who made this video think that. Some people are also motivated to move because they think that God has told them that the earth needs to be stewarded. Maybe that works too.
So one question for me, I guess, is not whether this “works” — as it probably works in some contexts — but whether or not it is apt, whether or not it really tells us something that is (near to) accurate and also helpful. Maybe the God trope works very well, but I wouldn’t want to endorse it. I find it extremely problematic.
Those are my words. It’s a little strange to quote myself… but so it is.
The question, then, is how others understand “what works.” Are we bound to understand what works strictly in terms of framing, or is it plausible to be a realist and nevertheless accept that truth, rightness, or truthfulness claims are always open for revision, always a part of a larger discussion which situates and underwrites those claims.