Harry Binswanger has an excellent article criticizing David Frum and Richard Perle for their claim that foreign policy “hard-liners” are realists and pragmatists, while the “soft-liners” are ideologues:

Pragmatism is an anti-philosophy. It is the philosophic position that philosophy is hot air. It is concrete-boundedness, posing as philosophy.

Pragmatism holds–and has to hold, given its metaphysics and epistemology–that what was true yesterday may not be true today or tomorrow….

Pragmatism is not realism. Pragmatism is, in fact, inconsistent with realism. Realism (in the positive sense of that term) means acting in accordance with the facts of reality. To do that, one has to accept that facts are facts and to maintain a long-range, conceptual awareness of reality. That’s the level of awareness that man requires if he is to act successfully in reality. It is only a grasp of principles, which Pragmatism scorns, that makes it possible to understand how and why “negotiating” with and “dialoguing” with dictatorships is doomed to failure.

The authors are right that the soft-liners evade the historical evidence of the failure of their approach. But that is not because the soft-liners are “ideologues,” but because they are pragmatists.

Put it this way: the soft-liners are ideologues of pragmatism. They hold as their only absolute that there are no absolutes. They are rigidly fixated on the idea that everything is fluid and flexible.

They are dogmatically certain that there is no certainty.

I have always found it hard to understand why people would think that principles are impractical just because they hold that what’s true is what works in reality. But recently I came across a greeting card that expresses the pragmatist’s credo perfectly:

“No one can possibly know what is about to happen. It is happening each time, for the first time, for the only time.”–James Baldwin

How does the pragmatist get from “what’s true is what works” to “what’s true today may not be true tomorrow”? Pragmatism is a doctrine that arose after philosophers rejected the law of causality and the validity of induction. For them, reality can only be a chaotic flux, because there is no basis in reality for making generalizations.

What justifies abstract ideas, then? Pragmatism holds that theoretical knowledge is true when it works “in practice”–which means: If your theory or principle leads to certain predictions, and those predictions turn out to be true in reality, then your theory is true.

But this is just the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent, or, as Dr. Binswanger puts it, the reversal of cause and effect. If your theory says P, and P implies Q, then just because you learn that Q is true doesn’t mean that P is true–there could be many other reasons why Q is true.

That’s why the pragmatist thinks that a theory is only “tentatively” true, and what’s true today may not be true tomorrow. If one rejects the law of causality and the validity of induction, there is no way one can affirm the absolutism of principles.

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