Soft-Line Ideologues Revisited: Foreign-Policy Soft-Liners are Pragmatists

by | Jan 17, 2004 | Foreign Policy, POLITICS

Last week, there was a very interesting opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by two influential neoconservatives: David Frum and Richard Perle. The title was “Beware the Soft-Line Ideologues,” and it has a good theme, but it gets completely twisted up by its misunderstanding of philosophy. The theme is: the foreign-policy soft-liners, like Colin […]

Last week, there was a very interesting opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by two influential neoconservatives: David Frum and Richard Perle.

The title was “Beware the Soft-Line Ideologues,” and it has a good theme, but it gets completely twisted up by its misunderstanding of philosophy.

The theme is: the foreign-policy soft-liners, like Colin Powell, are standardly described as realists. The hard-liners, like Paul Wolfowitz, are called “ideologues,” but:

“the truth is the opposite. It is the soft-liners who are driven by ideology, who ignore or deny inconvenient facts and advocate unworkable solutions. It is the hard-liners who are the realists . . .”

That’s the good part. And the authors do an excellent job of making their case, by pointing out that the soft-liners evade the unbroken string of failures of their “road maps” and “diplomatic solutions.”

The bad part comes after the “. . .” above. The full sentence is: “It is the hard-liners who are the realists, the pragmatists.”

Pragmatism is not realism; pragmatism is the philosophy which dispenses with reality. But, you may be thinking, perhaps Frum and Perle are using “pragmatist” not in reference to the philosophy of pragmatism, but merely as a synonym for “practical.” Nope. They write:

“When William James and Charles Peirce coined the term “pragmatism” 150 years ago, they meant something more than mere ‘practicality.’ James and Peirce were making a point about the nature of ‘truth.’ Truth, they argued, isn’t some transcendent thing that exists beyond human experience. Truth is found right here on earth. [This is an inaccurate summary of their views, but let’s pass on that.] If belief in an idea leads to positive results, then the idea is true; if belief in an idea leads to negative results, then it is false.”

This is pragmatism’s reversal of cause and effect. The right relationship is: if an idea is true, then acting upon it leads to positive results; if an idea is false then acting on it leads to negative results. Truth is, in Ayn Rand’s words, “a recognition of reality.” If you act in a way that accepts facts as they are, then you are equipped to succeed; if you act in defiance of the facts, you will fail.

But pragmatists don’t recognize such a thing as facts of reality. Their primary is “experience”–a package-deal of existence and consciousness, of facts and feelings. And experience, they tell us, is a flux of changing, unpredictable circumstances. Pragmatists deny that there are any absolutes. This is because they scorn the conceptual level–rejecting anything that gets very far above the level of sensory experience.

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. According to pragmatism, we can’t draw lessons (principles) from past experience because everything is always changing,

Dr. Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, is an professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation and is the creator of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Dr. Binswanger blogs at HBLetter.com (HBL)--an email list for Objectivists for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. A free trial is available at: HBLetter.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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