MortalCoilHumans are infinitely concerned about the infinity to which they belong, from which they are separated, and for which they are longing.  –Paul Tillich (Paraphrase)

I recently listened to Ryan Bell’s enjoyable interview with LeRon Shults. I really like listening to both Ryan and LeRon converse; they’re both super smart and interesting people and I’m looking forward to their spin-off podcast. Both Ryan and LeRon are self-proclaimed atheists, which is fine because, although I wouldn’t claim the title myself, their particular brand of atheism is the kind I like; it’s thoughtful, intelligent, doesn’t want to get caught up in fruitless debates about “proving” empirically the existence of any god/gods/God, and they both try hard not to dismiss, reduce or denigrate religion as if it were some monolithic thing that could even be attacked in that way. Come to think of it now, I might consider myself a Derridian type of atheist, actually, in the sense that according to most people’s understanding of “God,” I would quite rightly pass for one.

All that being said, one thing that came up in the conversation between LeRon and Ryan (which I’ve heard before from non-theists and which has also been applied to the ((mostly young)) “nones” in the U.S., and other similar people in heavily secularized nations) is this notion that at the end of the day, to many people (pragmatically speaking), the idea of God, or belief in God, or the practice of religion, doesn’t really matter to them. All of this God stuff seems very irrelevant to their everyday lives. These sorts of people, according to Ryan and Leron, get along fine without religious beliefs and/or practice and can find meaning in life, work out problems, and get through their days just fine without contemplating or relying on the existence of any god/gods/God.

OK. Fair enough.


I do have a couple of concerns.

The first concern is specifically geared toward those who would put forth a pragmatic argument against religious practice and/or reflection on god/gods/God. The second concern is related but—all pragmatist arguments aside—seeks to address those non-philosophical folks who would say they’re just not interested in religious life or in talking or thinking about god/gods/God.

I love pragmatism as much as the next person; in fact I probably like it more than most people. As a process-relational thinker, William James, John Dewey, Charles Peirce et al, have been HUGE influences on me. This notion that beliefs/concepts/theories/ideas/truths should be used as tools to address life problems is fantastic. For instance, one reason I like the pragmatist approach so much is because it can be a great way to settle metaphysical disputes that are otherwise limitless, i.e. pragmatism is wonderful for disambiguating problems (or showing that they’re not necessarily there at all!). Thinking of beliefs/concepts/theories/ideas/truths as practical tools is also helpful in the sense that it may allow one to maintain a certain type of skeptical detachment which, when compared to say an entrenched, fundamental, ideological perspective, is preferred.

Conversely, however, there are problems with treating beliefs/concepts/theories/ideas/truths etc. as mere expediency.

Very simply (and generally), pragmatism is the claim that truth should be defined on the basis of its producing desirable results. In other words, it’s true if it works. William James, for example (according to some interpretations of his work anyway), made the pragmatic effects the very meaning or essence of truth. James famously argued in favor of religious belief from a pragmatist perspective claiming that “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word work, it is true.” In other words, if belief in god/gods/God has beneficial effects for the believer, why couldn’t it be thought of as true? Further, why couldn’t multiple religious claims be true for multiple types of religious believers who are all making religious truth-claims at the same time? Obviously this leads to a very pluralistic metaphysic (one that I sort of adhere to myself), but it’s worth noting Bertrand Russel’s pushback here.

Bertrand Russel, of logical positivism fame (who I’m not necessarily a huge fan of), heavily criticized Williams James’s pragmatism from a number of angles. One of those criticisms (which I find to be the most compelling, along with the basic observations that a pragmatic view of truth requires one to know what is “good” and what the effects of this or that belief must be ahead of time) was to suggest the possibility that there could indeed be something true but not, necessarily, useful. For example consider the following statements:

– The number of breaths I took on June 8, 1998.
– The number of hairs on my head at noon on February 19, 1979.

Now, if truth is defined by the desirable results it produces, the two statements above would probably be false from a pragmatist perspective, considering the truth of these two statements could hardly be found  useful in any substantive way. Any possible use in believing either of the two statements above is incidental to their truth; it would not define them as true.

Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating for a foundationalist epistemology here, or any type of narrow reductionistic, materialist, scientific realist perspective, or even indicating that the pragmatist approach is all wrong. Quite the contrary, as I have said, I admire the pragmatist approach quite a bit, BUT it does have it’s limits/problems. Some things may not be “useful” in a strictly utilitarian, capitalistic, kill or be killed, survival of the fittest sort of way, but that doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful and/or truthful. Art and play are two other things that could very well fit into this category of being completely useless. I could get by in life just fine without playing games or looking at/enjoying any sort of art.

Additionally, it should be said that holding too closely to this notion of something only being “true” if it works might come up short in the face of injustice or oppression. Here is Casey Nelson Blake discussing this:

“On the left, starting with the years 1910–19, and particularly during World War I, a reaction against pragmatism set in among some of its most ardent believers, who felt that the doctrine came up short at moments of great political and international military crisis. This is not the time to talk about the debate surrounding World War I, a debate in which Dewey figured so prominently, but it’s fair to say that his student and follower, Randolph Bourne, the brilliant cultural critic and Columbia graduate who had studied with Dewey, was the first of a whole series of radical critics of pragmatism who argued that pragmatists, in their insistence that what is true is what works, had essentially paralyzed the imagination; they had disabled the creativity of human beings in the face of an unjust order. Sometimes, Bourne and other leftist critics argued, what is true is what doesn’t work, what stands at odds with the existing state of affairs, and one must stay loyal to that truth in the face of a hostile environment.”

I find this criticism particularly important. It’s critical to note that for keeping the status quo in order, pragmatism works really well, and thus can be very dangerous.

On Those Who Aren’t Interested
Now I’d like to very briefly reflect on what the famous Pew Research Center has called the “nones.” When I hear about this research, and the dramatic increase in people who claim to have no religious affiliation, I naturally ask myself two questions:

1) Are these “nones” actually very sophisticated, nuanced, existential, post-modern philosophers/thinkers who don’t want to be labeled and negated (in the Kierkegaardian sense), or categorized and associated with a flavor of religion that they don’t necessarily jibe with for well thought out metaphysical reasons?


2) Are these “nones” so comfortable and secure in their modern, post-industrial, oppressive, secular society that they simply have no interest or need to think about deep questions and issues of ultimate concern?

As much as I would love to think that most of these “nones” fall into the first category, I’m sad to say that my doubts are high. If it’s true that most “nones” fall into the second category, I see this as being MUCH more problematic than thoughtful, intelligent atheists/non-theists making pragmatist arguments; at least they’ve thought about these things and examined them a bit for crying out loud!!

Going along with my assumption that most “nones” fall into the second category, this might shed some light on why voter turnout in my city last Tuesday for a local election was embarrassingly low (28.7% turnout).

Here is what I mean.

I am inclined to think that some conception of God (even an atheistic, non-theistic, or post-theistic one) is as vital to being human as is some concept of “the real.” And look, if one doesn’t care about, or have any interest in what is “real” then why should one care about anything at all? Going back to the leftist criticism of pragmatism for a second, if one is satisfied with the status quo, if it is “working” for you, why should one waste time even thinking about it? It’s pointless. Is this not an example, as Bourne points out, of the human imagination becoming paralyzed?

One of the ways I have tended to think about religion is that it is the  result of the intrinsic human proclivity to make something an ultimate concern. In other words, what is the ultimate good that informs and directs a people’s living and organizing? That is religion.

I would suggest that (and I’m obviously not the first) the “nones” are anything but irreligious. To the contrary, they’re deeply, deeply religious because, as Marx and others have pointed out, secularism is indeed a religion like all others. Carl Schmitt makes this very clear:

“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.”

Politics, like it or not, is a matter of ultimate concern, much akin to religion; in fact it seems to me that theology/philosophy/politics are intimately intertwined. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as interest in religion and religious participation goes down, so too does interest in politics and political participation go down.

To go further with this criticism of the “nones,” I’d be willing to bet that when taking this religious affiliation survey, most of these (I’m assuming younger people) have no clue (or a very superficial understanding) about how the various denominations in Protestant Christianity came about or how their various theological doctrines differ from one another, let alone any type of historical account of Judaism and it’s wide array of beliefs/doctrines. It doesn’t matter to them. They’re not “religious” and therefore are not interested. Adam Kotsko says what I want to say here very succinctly when he writes that “The use for theology in a secular society is to understand our cultural heritage and diagnose its often unexpected influence.”

Ultimately, it’s understandable that we would want to run from our past, and claim to be “religiously unaffiliated,” but unfortunately we can’t hide from what we are. Attempting to do so is the equivalent, in my opinion, of ignorantly burying our heads in the sand. I hope I’m wrong about all of this, though. I hope that most of these “nones” do fall into my first category, and are more like Ryan and LeRon: thoughtful, intelligent people who understand that thinking deeply about matters of ultimate concern is something that we must never stop doing.

Painting above by Donna McGee


  1. AJ Turner November 8, 2015 at 1:28 am


    Hey Jesse – I don’t believe we’ve met, but we apparently have several (Facebook) friends in common. I really appreciate this post and your articulation of criticisms of pragmatism (and citations, some of which I didn’t know!). I’m hoping that with this comment I could dialogue a bit with you about that. To be honest, the articulation of the criticism is something I’ve never really understood (for reasons I’ll detail below), so I’m hoping that with your critical appreciation perhaps we can puzzle it out together a bit (if you feel so inclined to respond, which, hey, we’re all busy so I don’t blame you if you don’t!). I’m interested mostly in hearing more about what it is about Casey Nelson Blakes’s critique that you find compelling, and, consequently, how pragmatism has impacted you if you tend to agree with that basic criticism.

    Where I am puzzled is that there are a great many folk I run into that, like you, appreciate the pragmatic heritage and claim to be greatly impacted by it but nevertheless recapitulate or find compelling this basic criticism (that pragmatism identifies truth with “mere expediency” or “that truth should be defined on the basis of its producing desirable results”). As I understand it, the strictly utilitarian reading of pragmatism, while in some ways can be understood as recapitulated through Rorty, is nevertheless a gross misunderstanding (and something James worked hard to correct because of Russell and his reception in Germany). It is of course nothing new, as James’ 1907 lectures on Pragmatism were translated into German within a year and then roundly ridiculed and dismissed on just this point. (Consequently, this has also contributed to the Teutonic-centrism and elitism enfolded within supposedly radical or “anti-bourgeouis” philosophies that marginalized pragmatism for Continental-type thinkers. Cf. Hans Joas’ _Pragmatism and Social Theory_)

    So, below I’ve written up a bit on how I understand pragmatism (particularly James), but really the heart of my comment is that I’m wondering in what ways pragmatists have been influential to you while you still seem to have a reserve about it, particularly its relation to the status quo, and find the “utilitarian” or “mere expediency” critique compelling. The reason I’ve added it as a kind of appendix explaining my understanding is because I didn’t wanna lead with a defense and thereby communicate that I’m “on the defense” or on some sort of inquisition. Quite the opposite, really. Since I don’t know you, I realize I’m especially at peril of coming off antagonistically, and I’d rather avoid that. I also realize that by using strong language above of “gross misunderstanding”, that I would need to explain myself a bit. Hence, the heart of my comment is above, its justification below. Thanks!


    If the pragmatic method were to only mean “mere” expediency then the critics would certainly be right about its limitations. However, the criticism in part derives its strength from the very approach to which pragmatism is designed to be an alternative. Truth performs a “marriage function” that connects means to ends. Wherever a truth claim is made, it is NOT, contrary to other theories, purely a correspondence, or coherence, or revealing (albeit the Heideggerian formulation came after James). It is, rather, the simple yet radical recognition that there is no “merely there” truth or “absolute” order of things to which our ideas correspond that grants them the privileged superlative of the capital “T”. Truth is not an inert property residing “out there” (that we must either unconceal or build the perfect mind-picture) or mysteriously grafted in the special “solving names” (as James called them). Theories and truths are thus not answers to aboriginal enigmas but connect us with the flow of experience. ” The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events,” wrote James in his lectures on Pragmatism.

    In this way, pragmatism pulls a quick double-move in one simple step: it both criticizes virtually the whole of Western philosophy (on the basis of creatureliness and finitude of ALL knowledge) as well as constructively provides an alternative. Further, this does NOT support the status quo so much as can be used a method of explaining it. Pragmatism examines truth claims and sniffs out the bases upon which they are supposedly founded. It rejects any supernatural or “just the way it is” arguments. Truth has its reasons, even if those are “habit” or domination or verification through inquiry. Truth is a way of making sense of things, and politics is crucially dependent on them (hence formations of status quos in the first place), but they are always partial and perspectival, in need of corroboration and re-examination. They are always based on embodied, finite, and creaturely conditions, not timeless and eternal absolutes. (Of course, we can’t test all our beliefs at all times, so we often only do so when one isn’t working.) Thus, there is nothing, save perhaps the very real political limits of education, stopping anyone, be they pro-status quo or seeking revolution, from using it to examine the nature of any particular claim or the meaning of any specific word. (Hence why Dewey was the champion of ((socialist)) democracy and education.) It is in fact more likely that the slumber of the status quo blinds people from the kind of agitation that would set about pragmatic inquiry to investigate the ways in which a particular social arrangement is upheld or even defended despite its failures. For whatever is, there had better be really good reasons why it is that way.

    “Expediency” is certainly a word that James used, but in a qualified sense (and hence the gross misunderstanding). Expediency is not meant in a one-dimensional, utilitarian, capitalistic, efficient-productive, fashion. Rather, James (and Dewey) had a person-centered, holistic vision of the human creature, and were the first ones to take evolutionary theory seriously (something that certain thriving traditions still have yet to do). Expediency is thus shorthand for “whatever works for the creature in whatever way it works.” And the reasons why something can “work” for the individual – let alone the whole society – can be manifold: hunger, anger, jouissance, sexual desire, aesthetic pleasure, and most certainly habit, safety, and social well-being. When they claim truth is what “works”, they are certainly not claiming that this is an exclusive or inquiry-stopping description. Rather, such a claim must connect us with the flow of experience, investigate other, rivaling truth claims, and see what bases they are similarly founded upon. We had better inquire *why* something is true, because all truths see something in a certain way at the cost of not seeing it another way (hence finitude). The status quo may rest on the facade of rationality while nevertheless suppressing all dissenting views. In this case, the status quo works through brute force. There is nothing in the pragmatic method as such that wouldn’t take this seriously. Just because something is “working” doesn’t mean it is magically THE singular or inevitable “Truth”. It may be true under a very limited set of conditions – such as the systemic marginalization of a people group and failure to consider them as full members with credible input.

    That pragmatists have failed to use their own methods is undeniable. Yet to say that it is pragmatism itself that created these blind spots is a little off, I think, and certainly not a claim that couldn’t be made with equal validity about really any other philosophical movement/school. If “truth” can only be what “works” in a limited sense, then by all means dismiss pragmatism quickly. And indeed we must stay loyal to truths that go against the existing state of affairs, especially in hostile environments. But even here we will find the pragmatic method asking questions about why the existing state of affairs *isn’t* working. Pragmatists are inveterately pluralists, and truth is never a singular term. At least in James’ universe, there is no magical incantation to cast conceptual a net over the whole universe and assemble it all in perfect harmony. Pragmatism never will claim an all-inclusive singular truth that would then ideologically blind defenders of the status quo to the multiple competing perspectives that go into the production and maintenance of any particular political order. The foibles of pragmatists are human foibles. This means also that pragmatists should be realists about the fact that all systems, by sheer fact of their existence, cannot possibly to justice to the “aboriginal muchness” out of which its very limited and perspectival bureaucracies are built. In this way, pragmatism can be a prophetic injunction to interrogate our inevitably biased political products.

    • jturri November 9, 2015 at 2:53 pm


      Hi A.J., thanks for the thoughtful comment. Wow. Great stuff!

      Your illuminating perspective of pragmatism is very welcomed. I have no doubt that what I’m criticizing in this post is a gross misunderstanding of James’ pragmatism, like you say. I’m not an Jamesian scholar (obviously); I did make a few parenthetical notes along the way in this post which I hoped would communicate that I was looking at only one interpretation of his thought (perhaps the most general, common interpretation, I suppose… but which obviously, according to you, is a mistaken one), and I attempted to make clear that I was being explicitly general in my explanation, and subsequent criticism, of pragmatism. So, take it all with a grain of salt!

      Along these lines, though, I do think that despite your nuanced explanation (which, to be clear, I love and I think is right on!) what I am criticizing in this post is the most general understanding of pragmatism, and unfortunately I think if one does find something that works, in whatever way it works, more often than not folks are not compelled to inquire *why* it works at all, or *why* something else might work for someone else. So, to your ultimate question of why I like pragmatism but still find some of the criticisms compelling, it would be because (to paraphrase McLuhan) ‘we become what we behold.’

      For example, in the case of the audio interview I detailed above involving two non-theists, the essential argument that was made was: ‘at the end of the day, the idea of/belief in god/gods/God is not useful to me in my everyday life, therefore, it’s not true that god/gods/God exists in reality.’ I still do think that somethings can be true, and exist in reality (if only merely in the form of something connecting someone to the flow of experience) and not be useful at all for the person doing the negating. Again, we become what we behold, imo.

      Anyway, like I said in the post, I appreciate pragmatism for many reasons; for one I am a very big fan of William James, and psychology, so I like his clinical approach to theory. I’m also a fan of integral philosophy, so this eclectic approach of using the best parts theories/ideas etc. to “get the job done” is compelling (e.g. this is so very helpful when talking to folks who may be at different levels of awareness/development, for instance: when talking to a conservative neo-calvanist I can switch into Arminian mode ((even though I wouldn’t call myself Arminian)), helping them to see that there are other theological options out there). It also keeps one grounded, focused, and like I also indicated, pragmatism is really helpful for settling metaphysical disputes that are otherwise limitless. James was also a major influence on the thinking of Alfred North Whitehead who I’m a huge fan of. James’ pluralistic ontology (which you addressed in your comment) is something I’m currently very keen on.

      So yeah, I think you’re completely right. If I’m criticizing anything in this post it is the most general, grossly mistaken, understanding of pragmatism. But this gross misunderstanding is, I’m afraid, rampant and needs to be criticized. Thanks for setting the record straight though, I appreciate you chiming in, man. 🙂

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