Column on Logic a la Obama

Logic a la Obama

Tibor R. Machan

By now few who pay attention can have missed President Obama’s enthusiastic embrace of pragmatism, especially when it comes to the administration’s economic policies. Nor is it a secret that nothing much the the President is proposing seems to be working. (To which the answer given by the Obama team is "Things could be much worse." Pretty much an unprovable proposition.)

But if one understands pragmatism at its most essential level, this all is quite easy to grasp. Not only does pragmatism include the denial of any basic principles in politics, ethics, and public policy. It goes much further than that.

Although it was the late Professor Richard Rorty, dubbed by most who knew his work a radical pragmatist, who laid out the position’s wildest elements–e.g., that there is no truth apart from what one’s community considers to be true, that what matters is solidarity and not rationality–pragmatism was wild way back when it was first invented. Among its wildest elements was the doctrine that logic itself is a mere human invention having no necessary relationship to reality. We elect to use logic but we could just as well use something else entirely. 

This position, worked out in considerable detail by the American pragmatist philosopher C. I. Lewis, had some initial impact that showed just how wild it is. For quite a while in the early 20th century there were serious attempts to come up with what was referred to as alternative logics. (The most famous of these efforts was made by a Polish logician by the name of Jan Łukasiewicz. In 1917 he made some provocative contributions to logical theory, including that of multivalued logic, a logic in which meaningful statements may be other than just true or false.)

But so far as general philosophy is concerned, it is mainly the pragmatists who spread the idea that no basic principles can be identified in any discipline so what needs to be realized that the best that can be done is to find some heuristic guidelines, to discover whatever works (which is also the philosophically pregnant name of a current Woody Allen movie!). But since what works is always related to some goal–one thing may work to achieve this goal but not that–this did not settle matters much at all. No rational consensus could come from this.

Now all this is important when one considers that our current president is a well educated man for whom being a pragmatist doesn’t simply mean being someone who "plays it by ear," the way the term is used in everyday language. No, a serious pragmatist is one who rejects the idea of basic principles in any area, so that no one can hold him or her responsible to be loyal to principles, to fundamental ideas. And this extends all the way to the most basic criterion for theoretical adequacy, namely, to logic. 

Normally if a system of thought, including a proposed public policy, is to pan out, it has to be at least logical, internally consistent and complete enough within the context of the concern to which it is address (e.g., economics, public policy, etc.). But with the pragmatic take on these matters this requirement is dispensed with. Policies need not be logical! No consistency is needed. Just see if it might pan out somehow, anyhow, perhaps.

Consider the Obama policy toward health care reform. On the one hand it is supposed to contain, even lower federal health care cost. That is the president’s first promise! But then we have the director of the COngressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, saying that no reduction in federal health spending is possibly forthcoming from the President’s plan. And then when this is pointed out to Obama point woman Kathleen Sebelius on Meet the Press by the program’s host, she waved it aside. And so she should, as a member of the Obama administration’s pragmatic team players. A little contradiction just means nothing since contradictions are human artifacts, inventions anyway; they do not point to serious problems with an idea or policy proposal.

Perhaps you are now thinking of that famous quip by Ralph Waldo Emerson about how consistencies are the hobgoblins of little minds! But what Emerson actually said had to do with "foolish" consistencies, not serious ones, so that will not help here. The bottom line is that the country is now being administered by powerful people who have no interest in any principles, be these matters of ethics, politics or even logic. This is how these folks can remain entirely immune to all criticism! 

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