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.


  1. So Ben, you are a pragmatist after all! No wonder my complaints of Roger’s underlying philosophy fell on deaf ears.

    I’m wondering how someone who breathes and lives (off) ethics doesn’t feel pragmatism trivializes what ethics is. As a serious philosopher your not interested as much as how effective a message is but if it is, in your own words, “apt”. That is, if it has a correspondence with truth. Is it not instrumentally effective but intrinsically true, ontologically correct? Good point. But if for pragmatist truth is what works for most people and we can only be “(near to) accurate”, then what is really apt for a pragmatist? Nothing is for you can’t have a real access to the truth-of-things. That’s why I am so surprised, and impressed, that you ask the question> Just wondering how you are going to answer…

  2. Hi Ricardo!

    I’ll disagree with this statement of yours: “you can’t have a real access to the truth-of-things” — sure you can!

    • Roger,

      I guess Ben, a fellow pragmatist, as he states below doesn’t agree with you. He says “at best, we can only ever approximate(ly) the truth”.

      Going off your own definition: “truth is what most people agree with” I don’t know how you can access the truth-of-things. When I say truth of things I mean the kind of metaphysical truth of things that Kaplan rejects.

      For example, in the 1948 Universal Declaration of human rights it was proclaimed that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” and there is no mention of homosexual rights. Today, most people think the truth is that homosexual rights should be defended and promoted. The truth according to “most people” or at least public opinion (it could mean some people with much influence) has changed upholding homosexual rights. But the truth question looms: is homosexuality morally right or wrong, beyond chronological and cultural trends? The same can be said about religious freedom being proclaimed by the Universal Declaration and the recent EU ruling to ban crucifix’s from schools in Italy. The freedom of religious expression is violated. The “truth” has changed, so do you really have access to it? The truth I’m talking about is if it is morally correct to allow crucifix’s in schools.

      I don’t think a pragmatist can speak about metaphysical, ontological truth. You need to dance around the issue.

  3. He Ricardo, we’ve spoken about this before, no?

    The idea, in effect, is that we’re never in a position to extricate ourselves completely from our position. Our conceptions of what’s true are always filtered through our perceptual apparatus and our ability to re-articulate what we take to be true. So, at best, we can only ever approximately the truth, and our business as rational agents is partly to try to approximate that truth as near as well as we can. One can be a pragmatist about truth, for instance, but nevertheless be a realist. That must be something with which you agree.

    • Ben, yes I guess you can be pragmatist and realist, you an be whatever you want, but whichever you pick you cannot ever make an “apt statement” unless you think your mind/knowledge can adequate to reality/thing.

      If I can’t have access to reality for what it actually is, how can I be a realist? OK, you mean, you believe reality and truth exist independent of you. But if I can never access it for what it is I, in the end need to be a pretend realist.

      Kant’s epistemology in the end screws us with regards to truth, you lose access to it and we can never really make a statement which is “apt”. You’ll be framing for the rest of your life.

  4. Hi, Ben: Thanks for introducing a little sophistication into the whole discussion about “framing.”

    I’d like to suggest an even tighter coupling than what you propose, between what “works” (i.e., persuades) and what is “apt.” Basically, it is often practically necessary, or at least prudent, to *make* a validity claim (undertake a commitment to veracity) in order to persuade. Here are some reasons why, using the “fear frame” for climate change as an exmple.

    1. Persuading in deliberative contexts is not a one-off transaction. If the hearer’s experience of the climate ten years out doesn’t conform to the “fear frame,” he’s likely to conclude that the speaker gulled him and take action—blaming the speaker, not listening to her again, etc. A prudent speaker will want to invest in a reputation for veracity, and as the ancient rhetorician Isocrates pointed out, the easiest way to get a reputation for veracity is to speak truthfully. (This, I think, is why we want science to have “integrity,” for another example.)

    2. If the deliberative context is set up well, no single speaker can dominate. Every speaker is going to have to face criticisms of her framing of the climate; she’s going to get called out on the implicit commitments she made when representing climate change as a legitimate grounds for fear. She’s going to look bad if she tries to evade or stonewall against these criticisms. It’ll be much more persuasive if she can meet these criticisms, by showing that fear is well justified.

    3. Prudent hearers will want to defend themselves against manipulation, so they’re likely to somewhat critical themselves of the framings they encounter. A speaker will be much better able to overcome reasonable skepticism if she can actually *avow* the persuasive means she’s using. Framing just on its own probably has to be covert; while an “apt” framing—one that can be justified–not only can be presented openly, but the openness itself increases its persuasive force. Contrast:

    “Here, consider this, because it’s carefully framed to persuade you.”

    “Here, consider this, because it’s well justified—as I’d be happy to show you in detail, if you like.”

    Isn’t the first close to a pragmatic contradiction?

    Overall: #1 seems to me a basic “pragmatist” rationale for veracity; #2 is a version of Habermas; and #3 is a Kantian publicity principle. All three point in the same direction: under decent conditions (e.g., relatively undistorted communication, among reasonably prudent citizes), the persuasive is the apt.

    Of course, people have been debating this at least since Plato’s “Gorgias,” and it’s always good to hear these old issues re-hashed.

  5. Hey Jean:

    Thanks for the comments. I (kinda, sorta) agree with you that it’s often necessary to make a claim with the objective of “persuading” another party, in the sense that I’d like to bring them around to the view that I take to be correct, but it seems to me that calling it “persuasion” is not really an accurate description of what I’m up to.

    Seems to me that there are at least two distinct ways of bringing people around to my way of seeing things: one is to use deception and duplicity to “trick” people into seeing things as I do, and the other is to allow the force of argument to bring my interlocutor to my conclusion.

    That may sound slippery to cut the distinction like that, but it makes sense to me. It may even help with the tricky ground that our CRU scientists are on, where their discussions are partly about framing their findings (to avoid external criticism) and partly about making the most compelling scientific argument (also to avoid external criticism).

    So, to get to your three points (which are nicely put, btw):

    I definitely agree with you that persuading is not a one-off transaction. It’s a dialogue. And I certainly also agree that a speaker must assume the perspective of the hearer and effectively “frame” her position to resonate with the hearer. But it seems to me that we have a minor equivocation on “framing” then. That is, much of the political discourse, and I believe the communications discourse, is about “framing” so as to (sophistically or not) bring someone around to a final conclusion…whatever works. That’s a different kind of framing: a strategic, non-communicative kind of framing. The Swiftboat campaign was a framing campaign, for instance, aimed at framing Kerry as an unpatriotic turncoat. Even though it was rife with inaccuracies, it nevertheless aimed at changing public attitudes about Kerry. I’m sure there was a debate there about whether it would work… and it’s that kind of framing that concerns me.

    I think your quoted claims are right on, and that the first quote is a pragmatic contradiction… but then I wonder why you say near the end that the “persuasive is the apt.” If we employ “persuasion” strategically, as I think we mean it here technically, then the persuasive isn’t the apt.

    • Hi, Ben: I think we agree that “framing” deserves more and closer attention than it’s getting–so it’s nice to see philosophers get involved. It’d be very useful to come up with a more careful account of what “framing” is, whether (or why) it’s inevitable, and when it is and is not “apt” (or generally, normatively good).

      On this topic of the ethics of communication: the distinction between the “force of argument” and “deception and duplicity” seems not so much slippery as a bit blunt–as I’m pretty sure you agree. Just for one example, I seem to remember someone using irony about breakfast recently…irony is not an argument, but it’s not sneaky either–in fact, irony is only successful if it’s recognized as such.

      I wasn’t actually thinking of your blog when talking about persuasion–although I would have been happy to, since it’s not a devil term for me. But I’ll remember not to accuse you of being persuasive again!

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