Saturday, July 5, 2008

Fundamentalism vs Pragmatism?

In a comment below, Kirby wrote:

You still need some axioms that you take on faith in order to think at all, so I think I prefer fundamentalists to Nietzscheans.

(Not clear who the Nietzscheans are here -- surely not me!)

I'd like to make one minor point and one major one. The minor point is that I object to the use of "axioms" here -- it seems to me that inquiry begins from lived situations which are found to be problematic. To call these problematic situations "axioms" is to put far too 'logicized' a gloss on our cognitive process.

The major point is what really matters isn't whether one has presuppositions and prejudices from which one sets sail -- since it is incontestable that such are always and already at work -- rather, what really counts is whether the presuppositions and prejudices are themselves subjected to criticism based on subsequent inquiry.

The error of fundamentalism, like that of rationalism in general, is that certain premises are held a priori and so immune to criticism, whatever the results of inquiry turn out to be.

Now, I realize that I've just made a sudden shift in my position from my previous post, and that shift deserves emphasis. Below, I fell for the standard line that there is something "irrational" or even "stupid" about fundamentalism. Now I want to shift positions here -- and perhaps pick a fight with WW in the process.

In rough, what strikes me about fundamentalism (whether "religious" or not -- there is also Marxist fundamentalism, Freudian fundamentalism, feminist fundamentalism, etc.) is how basically rationalistic it is. By which I mean, that there are certain assumptions from which one begins, and the consequences of these assumptions are drawn with admirable rigor and acumen, whether those consequences concern the decadence of the West or the foolishness of teaching evolution in public schools.

I want to contrast this rationalism with a different attitude which I identify as pragmatism. The pragmatist attitude is one in which presuppositions and prejudices are revised in light of the results of inquiry. Thus, nothing is a priori in any firm or absolute sense. What is held as stable at a time is just whatever makes possible fruitful inquiry, and any inquiry might allow for rejection or revision in what has previously been held as stable. (And of course the criteria according to which inquiry is evaluated as "fruitful" are themselves revisable!)

In that light, the problem I find with fundamentalism is not a deficiency of rationality but -- if anything -- an excess, a hypertrophy, of rationalism at the expense of correction by experience (scientific, historical, artistic, religious, or otherwise).