Usually when we use the word pragmatic we mean to say that something is practical, useful, or functional.
But there is another usage of the word that we are less familiar with, and that is in reference to the philosphy of pragmatism. This is a subject that I am – by no means – an expert on, but a subject I’m very excited about because, well…
…because it’s how I live my life.
The central thought experiment used to introduce pragmatism is the story of a group of hikers* who encountered a squirrel on a tree. One of the hikers thought the squirrel was cute and fuzzy, and wanted to get a glimpse of her as she hung from the side of the trunk. The hiker started circling the tree, but no matter which way he went the squirrel shifted her position to the opposite side (you’ve probably seen a squirrel do this yourself.)
Later in the evening, as the hikers were sitting around a fire talking about their day, they began to debate a philosophical question:
While it’s true the hiker was going around the tree because he was able to see all sides of it, is it also true that the hiker was going around the squirrel?
Half of the hikers argued:
Yes, the hiker is going around the squirrel (in the same way he’s going around the tree).
While the other half argued:
No, the hiker is not going around the squirrel because he is always facing it – he’s never able to position himself at the side or the back of the squirrel (like he does when he goes around the tree).
Which option do you think is the truer one?
To solve the problem, you will likely draw upon any number of different problem-solving skills you have at your disposal. You might use your imagination to picture the scenario, trying out each option in your mind in order to arrive upon one that seems more correct than the other. You might examine semantics, since going around has a slightly different meaning in each option. You might also suspend judgment at this stage of your reading in the event I have more information that will help you decide. Or maybe you feel that both options are correct—but in different ways.
Either way, the question the hikers argued about around the fire is not easy to answer at best, and unanswerable at worst.
What’s a philosophical hiker to do?
How Pragmatism Answers the Unanswerable
Instead of answering the overlying question,
- Which of the two options is the truer one?
Pragmatism asks an underlying one,
- How will one option being true over the other change the hiker’s experience with the squirrel?
Pragmatism holds that if there is no practical, experiential difference between one alternative being truer over the other, then the question is pointless—it has no meaning. Whether or not you or I or the hikers think the squirrel-loving hiker is going around the squirrel or not going around the squirrel does not change what remains the most important thing: the hiker’s experience with his world.
For a pragmatist, truth exists outside any doctrine or ideology which seeks to make sense of himself and the world—truth exists, rather, in his experience of himself and the world. Sure, a pragmatist is still curious and continues to search for answers and believes in things, but what he doesn’t do is get caught up in abstract arguments about what’s more right and what’s more wrong because doing so would take him away from what truly matters.
Life is about experiencing.
When I was younger, I was flooded with questions I couldn’t find the answers to—questions that were pulling me away from the here, the now, the people in my life, the world around me—I was crippled by them:
- Why am I the way I am?
- Is there something wrong with me?
- Why don’t I enjoy things that everyone else enjoys?
- Why do I feel like an outsider?
I’ve found a lot of pragmatic answers to these questions, and yet there are many things about myself and the world around me that remain a mystery. Maybe the answers will come to me someday, maybe they never will, or maybe there simply isn’t an answer at all.
Through pragmatism and a pragmatic approach, I’ve come to realize that, regardless of all these unanswerable questions floating around me, what remains true is that I need to get up each morning. I need to head off to work and feel okay about what I’m doing. I need to have people in my life—family, friends, colleagues, teammates.
I need to try to get a glimpse of the squirrel on the other side of the tree not for any other reason than because I think she’s fuzzy and cute, and we happen to share the same neighborhood.
The truth in my life exists in how I live it, day in and day out. It doesn’t mean I don’t still wonder about things, or seek to better understand myself and the world around me; what it means is that the way I find truth in life does not come at the expense of getting lost and separated from myself, the people in my life, and the world around.
Because that would be entirely impractical.
Of happiness, a famous pragmatist, John Dewey, said this:
“Such happiness as life is capable of comes from the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situations of experience its own full and unique meaning.”
Curious to learn more about pragmatism (I’ve really barely just scratched the surface)? Here are some links to get you started:
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Pragmatism
- Wikipedia: Pragmatism
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Pragmatism
- William James: What Pragmatism Means, Lecture II
*Note, the original thought experiment featured a group of hunters, which I have adapted to hikers—a more neighborly group, in my opinion.
Photo credit: Getty Images