As a critical thinking instructor, the coronavirus pandemic has been (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe how people weigh evidence, assess risk, and make value decisions. From the micro level of daily individual habits to the macro level of our species’ global response, every scale of our lives has required some degree of adaptation to this crisis. Unfortunately, my training and profession do not guarantee that my decisions and behaviour are any better than yours. I am as fallible as anyone, but perhaps they have provided me with more tools for coping with doubt. I am especially grateful to be a scholar of American Pragmatism as their commitments to fallibilism, scientific inquiry, and meliorism have been useful during this exceptional time.
American pragmatism suffers from the misfortune of routinely being defined by its detractors rather than its adherents. Bertrand Russell sketches the most influential caricature when he accuses pragmatism of being a “power-philosophy” whose “attack on the common view of the truth is an outcome of the love of power” (Power a New Social Analysis, 1938). Likewise, Max Horkheimer claims that pragmatism is “nothing but a scheme or a plan of action and therefore truth is nothing but the successfulness of the idea” (Eclipse of Reason, 1947). This association between pragmatism, power, and expedience was not helped by Benito Mussolini’s remark that William James, one of the founders of pragmatism, “taught me that an action should be judged by its results rather than by its doctrinary basis” and “that faith in action, that ardent will to live and fight, to which Fascism owes a great part of its success” (Sunday Times (London), 4/11/1926).
Even allies often distance themselves from pragmatism, or at least certain strains. Charles Sanders Peirce who founded the movement in 1878, eventually renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism” a name “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” in 1905 to distance himself from others whom he felt misused his original label (“What Pragmatism Is,” The Monist). Arthur Lovejoy, who studied with many of the classical pragmatists at Harvard, wrote an essay titled “The Thirteen Pragmatisms” (1908) in which he distinguished and largely critiqued these varieties. Its other founders, James preferred to describe his philosophy as radical empiricism and John Dewey fluctuated between several terms for his philosophy, such as reconstruction and cultural naturalism.
Nevertheless, pragmatism has been among the most durable traditions of twentieth-century thought. Its emphasis on experience and fallibilism inspired James’s functionalist psychology. Its emphasis on behaviour not only inspired Dewey’s progressive pedagogy, but informed the thought and activism of social scientists, such as Jane Addams, George Herbert Mead, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Indeed, the latter indicates pragmatism’s impact on racial dialogue through its impact not only on Du Bois, but on other students of William James, such as Alain Locke and Horace Kallen, who developed their teacher’s radical empiricism into a robust cultural pluralism that celebrated a diversity of cultural perspectives as crucial to both a democratic society and intelligent inquiry. And while it was eclipsed throughout most of the twentieth century, it continues to enjoy periods of renewal, and promises to be a horizon in which to reconstruct our post-pandemic society.
Thus, you may ask, what is pragmatism? Peirce’s first formulation of the pragmatic maxim states that to clearly apprehend a concept we must identify the “practical bearings, we conceive our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” (“How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, 1878). Standing against centuries of philosophical tradition since Descartes, Peirce founds pragmatism on the assumption that there is no necessary separation between the mental objects of our thought and their practical manifestations through our actions. In other words, if we believe something is true, then it will affect our behaviour. Beliefs and actions are inseparable; therefore, beliefs are not private affairs but public events that have consequences.
Could there be an event that better indicates how private beliefs have public consequences than a pandemic? It continues to reveal how each of us as organisms connects to the larger information, social, economic, and political webs we previously took for granted. More importantly, it reveals what Dewey called the “reflex-arc”: how our behaviour simultaneously shapes our environment as well being shaped by it. Nothing symbolises this nexus of belief, action, and consequence more than the divide in the U.S. over wearing face masks to inhibit the spread of coronavirus. Largely, this polarisation is due to two separate concerns: are they effective and are they oppressive?
Most critical thinkers would immediately reduce these dilemmas to examples of the fact-value distinction. The former is a question of fact that can be settled objectively by science and the latter involves a value judgement that must be settled subjectively. I do not disagree, but Peirce and the pragmatists were suspicious of reducing human behaviour to convenient dualisms and were also among the first to recognise how psychology shapes our beliefs and habits rather than logic and reason.
By contrast, pragmatists contend that all inquiry begins with our experience of doubt. We ask questions because something in our environment has changed, we become irritated by this disruption, and must settle our doubts before we can continue. Thus, inquiry is the process of problem-solving, akin to experiencing foot pain while hiking, pausing to determine if it is either easily remedied, like a pebble, or something more serious, like a blister. Resolving a pebble is simple. You toss the pebble away and lace up your boots tighter, but a blister raises new doubts that require triage. How bad is it? Do I have the first aid supplies necessary to treat it? Can I complete the route or should I return to base?
This pattern of doubt-method-belief-action is continuous throughout all types of inquiry, whether about facts (Is it raining?), values (Am I in love?), the mundane (What should I have for lunch?), the momentous (Do I get a divorce?), the practical (Why is my car not starting?), or the technical (What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow?). As John Dewey would later claim, inquiry is native and constant. Even before birth the human mind perceives the changes in our material, biological, psychological, social, and cultural environments, and transacts with those changes through the process of reflex, conceptualisation, adaptation, and accommodation until the moment of our death. We are always learning, the only things that change are what we are learning and how well are we learning it.
Most importantly, a pragmatist never fails. We either succeed or learn. When we do not achieve our objectives, we use our hard-won experiences to shape our future habits. Learning to appreciate the educational value of failure is the basis of the fallibilism that grounds pragmatism. The goal of inquiry is not certainty, but improvement. Pragmatists label this preference for improvement meliorism. As Peirce reveals, certainty is a myth or a best a strong feeling that all doubt has been settled. While I might be confident that I can finish the hike even with a bad blister, I cannot be certain, however, I can ameliorate the problem and either improve the likelihood of success or minimise the potential consequences.
Consequently, pragmatists tend to be more interested in how we think. Peirce lists and evaluates four general methods that we use to “fix our belief” when confronted by the irritation of doubt: tenacity, authority, a priori, and science. Each of these has its limitations and benefits, but as we shall see only the method of science admits the fallibilism necessary for adapting to changing circumstances and pursuing constant improvement.
Tenacity occurs when we cling to a belief even when confronted with conflicting evidence. If we are honest, most of us use the method of tenacity most of the time. When we experience the discomfort of doubt, we are usually either too busy, too tired, too confused, too proud, or too afraid to reconsider our assumptions. Psychologists call this tendency belief perseverance and most of what critical thinking instructors do is help their students to recognise this habit as well as other habits of thinking associated with it.
For example, most of us devote more time to reinforcing our beliefs or only acknowledge evidence that is consistent with our beliefs. Formally, this active version of belief perseverance is referred to as confirmation bias and is buttressed by a variety of argumentative fallacies, such as cherry-picking evidence, moving the goal post, or magical thinking. Indeed, research confirms that we also suffer from the backfire effect or the observation that we are likely to cling to a belief in proportion to the quality of the counterevidence. In other words, the better the counterargument, the less likely we are to accept it. Thus, the backfire effect is perhaps the most sobering insight to the hope that rationality will prevail against opinion and persuasion. It is also the reason why arguments on social media rarely, if ever, change a person’s belief.
Peirce admits to the power and popularity of tenacity. Not only is it the most convenient, but we often admire people who demonstrate conviction, take pride in our unshakeable faiths, and find comfort by dividing society according to our prejudices. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that our tenaciously held beliefs correspond with reality and no means for improving upon our belief and behaviour. We simply believe they are true because we believe them to be true and if we experience conflict that is “their problem” or the fault of reality, but we are not to blame.
Likewise, the method of authority is closely related to tenacity, except we surrender our doubts to an individual or institution that has demonstrated their superiority to our own decision making. Why we judge their decision making to be superior varies. Maybe we admire the tenacity they have demonstrated. Maybe we admire their intelligence, ability, or some other form of expertise. Maybe their authority derives from The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, who held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that Arthur is worthy to be the true and rightful king of Logris.
Thus, these investitures suggest those in authority might succeed where we might individually fail, and their authority is reinforced by their ability to organise our collective behaviour for greater impact. Unfortunately, neither their authority nor their power guarantees their infallibility. The most tenacious people are often malignant narcissists who are incapable of admitting error and act only according to their own egotistical needs. Likewise, professionals, experts, and legends still make mistakes; and strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.
Furthermore, in this social media age we must constantly be wary of the circular logic of the influencer where a high number of Likes and Followers substitute for more substantial proofs of relevance, credibility, and integrity. Ultimately, we all must rely on authorities, but our dependence should always be condition and we should routinely ask “Is this authority worthy of my trust?”
Which leads to Peirce’s a priori method: the method of fixing doubt according to a previously held principle or conceptual tool. On the surface, this method appears to be the most respectable. One purpose of an education is to empower the student to use critical thinking and scholarship to investigate and develop their own opinions and beliefs. But as Descartes recognises in the Meditations, no person can inventory all their beliefs or vet all possible opinions in advance. Therefore, we should spend time considering the foundational principles upon which other opinions depend. Indeed, philosophy is the discipline that specialise in inquiring about fundamental topics, like human nature, definitions of knowledge, moral values, systems of government, and the nature of reality.
However, the answer to any one of these fundamental questions implies or restricts our answers to others. Thus, philosophers organise beliefs into ideologies for the purpose of efficiency and consistency, just as authorities organise people into groups for the purpose of power and direction, and as with authorities we should routinely re-evaluate our ideologies. Otherwise, the a priori method is simply a more sophisticated and abstract version of the method of tenacity.
Ultimately, Peirce defends science as the best available method for resolving doubt, but he does not believe that science is infallible. As a laboratory scientist, Peirce realises that hypotheses and the scientific consensus demand constant revision when confronted with new experiences, experiments, and evidence. Most importantly, science recognises its fallibilism as the source of its strength. We learn as much, maybe more, when we invalidate our hypotheses as we do when we confirm them. Consequently, the method of science is the superior method for resolving doubt because it is the only one that allows for continual improvement and adaptation to our changing circumstances.
Now let us briefly summarise these methods for resolving doubts, then we shall use them to reflect on our individual and collective behaviour during the pandemic:
Tenacity is the method of continuing to believe what we already believe when we encounter doubt.
Authority is the method of submitting to the belief of another person or institution when confronted by doubt.
A Priori is the method of using principles we already possess to determine what to believe when confronted by doubt.
Science is the method of tailoring our beliefs according to the best available evidence.
We are living through a period of profound doubt. COVID-19 is a novel virus which means we have little to no prior experience with this pathogen and no long-term experience. People are deeply divided, because we all recognise the huge public consequences of returning too early or too late to our normal routines and because the risks of one option or the other might be greater for us and our loved ones. Likewise, we cannot know in advance what the correct choice should be. Every choice is an experiment and, in a pandemic, even mundane choices, like refusing to wear a mask, may have catastrophic consequences.
Furthermore, I recognise that the distinctions between these methods may be unclear at times. For example, one might ask if trusting scientists is the same as the method of authority or a priori. At times it can be, and it should be stressed that it is not always wrong to use methods other than science: “I’m a philosopher damn it, not an epidemiologist!” Therefore, I cannot claim to have an expert opinion on the current science, but it would be more scientific of me to “trust the authority” of someone who is an epidemiologist and appears to be responding to the most reliable and current evidence. Are they infallible? No, but they are more likely to be correct than individuals with no relevant expertise, obvious personal motives, or in possession of speculative evidence.
In conclusion, I would prefer to invite you to reflect on your own fixation of belief during the pandemic. How have you responded to the doubt and risks that surround us? Which of Peirce’s methods have you used to fix your belief? Are you continuing to believe your gut instinct or preferring the option that most conforms to your own hopes/fears? Are you listening to a specific person or institution on the television, radio, pulpit, or social media whom you trust? Are you filtering the situation through your political, philosophical, or religious ideology? Or are you seeking credible information from the most well-informed experts who have devoted their lives to understanding a field of knowledge relevant to the situation?
I should also finish by highlighting the connection between fallibilism and meliorism, especially when faced with radical doubt. Our most grievous public problems may be insoluble, but even insoluble problems can be ameliorated. The pandemic is no exception and while vaccines are already being distributed, we do not know when we can truly return to normal. In the meantime, we should avoid behaviours that could make the situation worse and do everything we can to help our friends, neighbours, and communities to endure those things that cannot be fixed.
Finally, we must ask a profoundly moral question: Should we return to normal? As individuals and as a species we must learn to be grateful for the ways in which the pandemic has disrupted our unhealthy personal habits, starkly revealed the inequities in our societies, and forced humanity to reconsider the patterns of consumption that make outbreaks inevitable. Otherwise, the pain, suffering, and sacrifice we have endured will be for nothing. The only true failure is the failure to learn from our mistakes. Thus, my final and most important questions: What have you learned from this exceptional experience and how has the pandemic changed you?