Two Casts of Mind: Ideologues and Pragmatists


Anyone who has led group discussions or facilitated conversational salon has probably discovered that there are among people two casts of mind, ideologues and pragmatists. Ideologues believe in the exclusive claims of particular assumptions, beliefs, values and commitments that tend to either subordinate or exclude other claims.

By contrast, Pragmatists believe in the procedural principle and often the philosophical claim that there may be many useful truths and values that have practical consequences for living, and that this is the primary basis upon which we should evaluate them. The tendency of Ideology is to move toward debate on the assumption that one of us, and only one of us, is right, and that the purpose of the debate is to decide upon a victor. The tendency of pragmatism is to move toward dialogue on the assumption that many of us, or even all of us, may be, if not objectively right (since truth for the pragmatist is as much constructed as discovered), than relationally relevant, with something valuable to contribute to the dialogue.

In addition to Ideologues and Pragmatists, there are Ideologue-Pragmatist hybrid types who attempt to straddle the fence between these two approaches. They may have a qualified and conditional ideological commitment, such as to traditionalism, progressivism, libertarianism or communitarianism in matters of social, economic and political theory, but they hold it relatively and with an open hand rather than absolutely and with an iron fist. They will argue and make their case for their preferred ideological point of view, but at the same time they are ready to entertain the possibility that there may be at least some relative ontological truth or existential value in other ideological perspectives.

Richard Rorty, the neo-pragmatist, offered a variation on the idea of Ideologues and Pragmatists with his notion of Metaphysicians and Ironists. Metaphysicians believe that the world exists in a certain and unequivocably way and that with our abstract ideological worlds correspond with that world or they do not.

Metaphysicans believe that the human mind is a mirror of nature, and that particular words and ideas correpond to real objective things. There is nothing ambiguous and polyvalent about them, not are they compatible with other words and ideas that affirm oppositional meanings. Language and therefore reality is implicitly assumed to be dualistic and oppositional. If one abstract word, idea or value is true and worthwhile then all others must be categorically false and worthless. This is axiomatic for the dogmatic metaphysician, no matter what the particular belief system happens to be.

Ironists, on the other hand, believe that abstract words, ideas and values are ambiguous and polyvalent human constructs that possess, at best, an indirect and proximate relation to reality; that there  are multiple abstract words, ideas and values that each constitute a different language game that exists as self-validating, creating its own final vocabulary and hermeneutical circle.

Moreover, ironists view words, ideas and values as eventually developing whole families of diverse symbolic and signal reference, and even of generating their opposite. For this reason those who use particular words in one generation or linguistic-cultural context may eventually come to be seen as meaning something quite different than those who use the same words to express their ideas and values in a later generation or linguistic-cultural context. Words and texts only have meaning with within contexts.

For example, the word “realism” means something entirely different to the philosophical Platonist, a modern  novelist, and a scientific naturalist, yet we use the same word for all of these. Likewise, the word “humanist” means something quite different to the Hellenistic Greeks, the Renaissance Catholics, and the Enlightenment Rationalists and the 20th Century Existentialists. This polysemic, ambiguous and ironic feature is characteristic of all the abstract “power words” in religion, philosophy, politics and culture. Some words simply have a surplus of meaning, can mean more than one thing, can mean many complementary things, and can even come to mean mutually exclusive things. The relation between language, especially abstract and symbolic language, is therefore an ambiguous and problematic one.

Again, there are those who attempt to straddle the fence, to hold a middle position between the absolutism of the ideologues and metaphysicians on the one side and the pragmatists and ironists on the other. But in the flow of dialogue and the fray of debate it is fascinating to watch people gradually reveal their true colors, and the degree to which their ideological loyalties are absolute and dogmatic, relative and normless, or somewhere in between, principled and pragmatic.

In addition to words having meaning only within particular contexts, there are also those who use words primarily as a “pretext”, namely, for the purpose of promoting a dogma, antigonizing others, taking sides, polarizing conflict, and picking a fight. Words have meaning not only within linguistic and cultural contexts but also by reference to the motives and agendas of those who use them. These motives and agendas are often unstated. Indeed, they are often unknown and unclear even to those who employ them. Sometimes abstract words are used to carry a grudge and to vent hostilities. This is why it is important in conversational salons and other forums for sharing various options, values, commitments and beliefs to ask such questions is: Who is speaking? Where is she coming from? What experiences, memories, hopes and fears have informed her ideas? What are her fundamental motives and intentions, whether covertly or overtly expressed. Who are her mentors and exemplars? How does she deal with difference? Is there any room in her thinking for finding common ground amidst real differences?

We will probably always have ideologues and pragmatists, metaphysicians and ironists, as well as those who attempt to build a bridge between them. This is why dialogue matters.


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