[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate,” that there is no such thing as a distinction between an external world and a consciousness (between the perceived and the perceiver), there is only an undifferentiated package-deal labeled “experience,” and whatever one wishes to be true, is true, whatever one wishes to exist, does exist, provided it works or makes one feel better.

A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism—that knowledge is to be gained by means of public polls among special elites of “competent investigators” who can “predict and control” reality—that whatever people wish to be true, is true, whatever people wish to exist, does exist, and anyone who holds any firm convictions of his own is an arbitrary, mystic dogmatist, since reality is indeterminate and people determine its actual nature.

In the whirling Heraclitean flux which is the pragmatist’s universe, there are no absolutes. There are no facts, no fixed laws of logic, no certainty, no objectivity.

There are no facts, only provisional “hypotheses” which for the moment facilitate human action. There are no fixed laws of logic, only mutable “conventions,” without any basis in reality. (Aristotle’s logic, Dewey remarks, worked so well for earlier cultures that it is now overdue for a replacement.) There is no certainty—the very quest for it, says Dewey, is a fundamental aberration, a “perversion.” There is no objectivity—the object is created by the thought and action of the subject.

Epistemologically, their dogmatic agnosticism holds, as an absolute, that a principle is false because it is a principle—that conceptual integration (i.e., thinking) is impractical or “simplistic”—that an idea which is clear and simple is necessarily “extreme and unworkable.” Along with Kant, their philosophic forefather, the pragmatists claim, in effect: “If you perceive it, it cannot be real,” and: “If you conceive of it, it cannot be true.”

What, then, is left to man? The sensation, the wish, the whim, the range and the concrete of the moment. Since no solution to any problem is possible, anyone’s suggestion, guess or edict is as valid as anyone else’s—provided it is narrow enough.

To give you an example: if a building were threatened with collapse and you declared that the crumbling foundation has to be rebuilt, a pragmatist would answer that your solution is too abstract, extreme, unprovable, and that immediate priority must be given to the need of putting ornaments on the balcony railings, because it would make the tenants feel better.

There was a time when a man would not utter arguments of this sort, for fear of being rightly considered a fool. Today, Pragmatism has not merely given him permission to do it and liberated him from the necessity of thought, but has elevated his mental default into an intellectual virtue, has given him the right to dismiss thinkers (or construction engineers) as naive, and has endowed him with that typically modern quality: the arrogance of the concrete-bound, who takes pride in not seeing the forest fire, or the forest, or the trees, while he is studying one inch of bark on a rotted tree stump.

The two points central to the pragmatist ethics are: a formal rejection of all fixed standards—and an unquestioning absorption of the prevailing standards. The same two points constitute the pragmatist approach to politics, which, developed most influentially by Dewey, became the philosophy of the Progressive movement in this country (and of most of its liberal descendants down to the present day).

By itself, as a distinctive theory, the pragmatist ethics is contentless. It urges men to pursue “practicality,” but refrains from specifying any “rigid” set of values that could serve to define the concept. As a result, pragmatists—despite their repudiation of all systems of morality—are compelled, if they are to implement their ethical approach at all, to rely on value codes formulated by other, non-pragmatist moralists. As a rule the pragmatist appropriates these codes without acknowledging them; he accepts them by a process of osmosis, eclectically absorbing the cultural deposits left by the moral theories of his predecessors—and protesting all the while the futility of these theories.

The dominant, virtually the only, moral code advocated by modern intellectuals in Europe and in America is some variant of altruism. This, accordingly, is what most American pragmatists routinely preach . . .

In politics, also, pragmatism presents itself as opposed to “rigidity,” to “dogma,” to “extremes” of any kind (whether capitalist or socialist); it avows that it is relativist, “moderate,” “experimental.” As in ethics, however, so here: the pragmatist is compelled to employ some kind of standard to evaluate the results of his social experiments, a standard which, given his own self-imposed default, he necessarily absorbs from other, non-pragmatist trend-setters . . . When Dewey wrote, the political principle imported from Germany and proliferating in all directions, was collectivism.

Pragmatism is the only twentieth-century philosophy to gain broad, national acceptance in the United States.

The American people were led to embrace the pragmatist philosophy not because of its actual, theoretical content (of which they were and remain largely ignorant), but because of the method by which that content was presented to them. In its terminology and promises, pragmatism is a philosophy calculated to appeal specifically to an American audience . . . .

The pragmatists present themselves as the exponents of a distinctively “American” approach, which consists in enshrining the basic premises of [German philosophy] while rejecting every fundamental idea, from metaphysics to politics, on which this country was founded. Most important of all, the Americans wanted ideas to be good for something on earth, to have tangible, practical significance; and, insistently, the pragmatists stress “practicality,” which, according to their teachings, consists in action divorced from thought and reality.

The pragmatists stress the “cash value” of ideas. But the Americans did not know the “cash value” of the pragmatist ideas they were buying. They did not know that pragmatism could not deliver on its promise of this-worldly success because, at root, it is a philosophy which does not believe in this, or any, world.

When the Americans flocked to pragmatism, they believed that they were joining a battle to advance their essential view of reality and of life. They did not know that they were being marched in the opposite direction, that the battle had been calculated for a diametrically opposite purpose, or that the enemy they were being pushed to destroy was: themselves.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.