Pragmatism is true, but doesn’t work—a lesson for liberal, free religion to learn.

Statue representing Janus Bifrons in the Vatican Museums

 A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation


One of the things I have noticed during the course of my 33 year-long involvement with the Unitarian tradition is that many, and perhaps most, people who have joined it since the end of the Second World War turn out to be Philosophical Pragmatists of one sort or another.

In its most minimal form, Philosophical Pragmatism attempts to evaluate all theories or beliefs in terms of the success (or not) of their practical application. And so Unitarian ministers (like me) will often be heard saying things like this to people like you: “Don’t worry about whether certain religious beliefs are true or not, the point to see is that they can be, and often are, pragmatically useful.” Or, again: “Don’t worry about whether God exists and actually told us to do, or not to do x, y, or z, because these are simply actions which have shown themselves to be useful”—and so on.

This basic attitude to religion lies at the heart of the phenomenon known as cultural Christianity, of which the Unitarian movement, as a whole, is a classic expression. Not surprisingly, this same Pragmatist attitude is also present within certain forms of liberal Judaism, especially within the Reconstructionist movement which was started by Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983) between the 1920s and the 1940s, before it became a separate movement in 1955.

Given this shared attitude, I was very interested to come across an illuminating story told by the philosopher Raymond Geuss about his philosophy teacher at Columbia University during the 1970s, the brilliant and very witty, Sidney Morgenbesser (1921–2004) who, it turns out, was for a time a rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism.

[The interview with Raymond Geuss upon which I draw extensively, and gratefully, can be found at the at this link, 42’30” ff]

Geuss was responding to the question of whether he thought Morgenbesser was, himself, a Pragmatist, and, to my surprise, Geuss immediately said, “No!” But, as Geuss went on, I experienced not only an “a-ha!” moment as I suddenly better understood Morgenbesser’s philosophical position, but also as I suddenly better understood something about my own.

What was incredibly interesting to me was discovering that Morgenbesser wasn’t a Pragmatist because he thought Pragmatism is false—in fact he thought the opposite, namely, that Pragmatism is true—the problem for Morgenbesser was simply that Pragmatism doesn’t work.

He began to see this when, as a young man, following rabbinical study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, he took up the position of student rabbi at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where he also first began to teach philosophy. Morgenbesser went into that role deeply influenced by John Dewey (1859–1952), one of the most important Pragmatist philosophers. But, not surprisingly, as a rabbi, Morgenbesser was equally deeply influenced by his Reconstructionist Judaism, a faith which, in his own witty way, he once described as being 50% Dewey and 50% Moses. The trouble was that as he taught this kind of philosophically pragmatic Judaism to his congregation, he found his community simply became smaller and smaller. Geuss tells us that Morgenbesser told him that the more he talked to his congregation “about the pragmatic importance of Jewish beliefs—don’t worry about whether they’re true or not, they’re just pragmatically useful; don’t worry about whether God actually told us to do this it has just shown itself to be meaningful—the more he talked in these ways the less people were interested in bothering with it.”

What this experience taught Morgenbesser was that there was a human necessity for people actually to have deeply embedded beliefs about how the world is and their place in it that were not subject to Pragmatist redescription.

But, although Morgenbesser thought Pragmatism didn’t—and won’t—work, remember that he did think it was true. So what did he mean by that? Well, according to Geuss, Morgenbesser thought Pragmatism is true in some deep sense because our beliefs are just tools for getting us through the world. But he also thought it was “psychologically and sociologically impossible for human beings ever to live in a way that suggests that that is what their deepest beliefs are [i.e. just tools for getting through the world]. It’s true about them, but it’s absolutely impossible for us to live with that thought.” Geuss sums this up by saying, “In a way, the most important fact about Pragmatism is that it’s existentially impossible for human beings to be Pragmatists . . . thoroughgoingly.”

So, now I am in a position to say to you what it is that I want to say today, which surely needs openly to be addressed by all forms of modern, liberal religion if it is going to have a chance of surviving into the 21st century.

You see, in recent years, and especially and acutely during the period of the pandemic and as we go into this time when we realise the seriousness of the climate emergency, it’s become ever more clear to me that whilst I continue to be sure it is true that all my own religious beliefs and practices—indeed, everyone’s religious beliefs and practices—can be looked at pragmatically as simply tools for getting us through the world, that’s not how for the most part I do, in fact, get through the world, and am able to go on. I, like Morgenbesser before me, have come to realise that it’s a necessity for me actually to live by certain deeply embedded beliefs that are not always being subjected to Pragmatist redescription.

Another way of saying this is that I realise I live most fully when I do so as an existentially committed person, acting out of some deeply embedded beliefs and engaging in certain, regular religious practices—that include for me, most notably, prayer and meditation—because, to paraphrase Luther’s famous words, upon their ultimate importance to me, at least in my current context, I find I stand and can do no other.

Relatedly, looking back at certain periods of my life when I have attempted to live as a thoroughgoing Pragmatist—making my foundational belief the idea that my prayers and meditation are just and only tools for getting me through the world—I see how quickly I fell into a nihilistic mode of being and began slowly to give up my practices of prayer and meditation. Like a some members of Morgenbesser’s own congregation, I quickly found I simply couldn’t be bothered with them.

So here’s my dilemma as your minister—somewhat similar to that faced by Rabbi Morgenbesser in the 1950s.

On the one hand, as a minister of religion who is, today, existentially committed to a form of religion—in my case an inquiring, free religion of a Buddhisto-Christian flavour—I need to say to you clearly that you will only get what you are seeking from any form of religion you choose to practise in so far as you are engaging in its weekly practices and services, not just and only as pragmatic tools to get you through the world, but as things you simply believe you must do and that, upon the truth of the basic message they contain, you feel you can stand with a clean heart and full belief, and can do no other.

On the other hand, I find that, as a kind of Morgenbessian or Guessean pragmatist (if such a thing can be said to exist), I also need to say to you clearly that, despite any existential religious commitment you are able to display, it continues to be true that every form of religious belief, including your own, is a pragmatic tool for getting you through the world, and you could quite easily choose another that may well prove to be equally, or maybe even more, efficacious. Knowing this, and being open to new light and truth, means, of course, that occasionally, you’ll need to acknowledge and reflect critically upon this truth and, perhaps, articulate a revised statement of faith. For example, my own free religious hero, Shin’ichirō Imaoka (1881-1988), did this every year of his adult life right up to his death in 1988, aged 106.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, it seems to me that a liberal, free religious community, such as the one I serve here in Cambridge, can only survive in the coming century in so far as it is able to offer the world a Janus-like form of religion which, for the most part, presents a “face” to which some people can existentially fully commit with a clean heart and full belief, but which, at key, and only very occasional moments, reveals its other “face” which demands we view and reassess our religion pragmatically.

Connected with this observation, one thing seems sure to me, namely, that what won’t work is if we try to survive by simply and only offering people merely a wide variety of pragmatically useful religious tools to get through the world as if we were some religious tool & hardware store — a sort of cosmic B&Q or Lowe’s. Let’s not try that!


You can hear and see Sidney Morgenbesser being interviewed by Bryan Magee about the American Pragmatists, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey, at the following YouTube link:


Dear Anon,

Thanks for alerting me to this bit of information. Much appreciated. It's most helpful, and interesting, to know about.

All the best,

Thank you for this intriguing perspective. Speaking strictly for myself, modern religious Pragmatism might be explained as a "necessary but not sufficient condition" like that found in mathematics. By itself, Pragmatism can not create the conditions to "prove" the mathematical equation, or support religious practice. I prefer to call this the necessary and insufficient condition. We need Pragmatism; but by itself, it does not keep religious praxis alive.
Dear Marilyn,

Many thanks for your helpful and insightful comment. Much appreciated. I very much like your witty way of putting it as being a "necessary but insufficient condition"!

Your thought helped me see more clearly something else interesting. Namely, that for illiberal, doctrinal forms of religion it is a pragmatic decision NOT to engage/encourage moments when a person engages in some kind of critical reflection and reassessment of their faith/beliefs. Critical reflection and reassessment of faith/beliefs may be pragmatic for liberal religion but, for illiberal religion, this is — or so it seems to me as I write this — decidedly unpragmatic!

I need to keep thinking about this subject because, as a minister, I remain very concerned to understand how best to keep genuine religious praxis alive in the liberal religious setting. It’s never been an easy thing to do but, in the modern context (certainly since the end of World War 2), it’s got harder and harder.

I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on this, should you be minded.

Thanks again for writing.

Every best wish,

vandermude said…
As a computer professional who has worked in Artificial Intelligence since the 1970s my take on this paradox is the following: human cognition, being an embodied cognition, is based on emotions.

A pragmatic viewpoint of ethics is almost purely rational. You could almost turn it into a logical syllogism that is true up to a standard deviation.

But true intelligence is mostly emotional reasoning. Our rationality rides the elephant. Even language is fundamentally a means of expressing emotion. The ability to convey information is secondary.

So if you don't have a philosophy that expresses meaning in terms of feeling, it will not nourish the soul.

Also, as psychological experiments have shown, if a person is not in touch with their feelings, they make bad decisions, even though those decisions have a rational basis.

This also does not bode well for any chances of making an AI that truly thinks, if we are only using current techniques. Deep learning neural nets are only statistical simulations of thinking activity. But since they do not, at their core, correctly instantiate an embodied, emotional mind, they only exhibit the illusion of thought. This is not to say a true AI is impossible. But what we have now is Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring. It's not the girl.

Just like pragmatism is the illusion of a moral code.
Dear vandemude,

Thanks for making this point. I hadn't thought about this question in relation to AI but I can certainly see how it connects. Much appreciated. My only real thinking about AI (minimal though it was) was done years ago when I read Hubert Dreyfus' “What Computers Can't Do” in the middle of exploring Dreyfus' work on Heidegger—one of my own, central philosophical interests. I realize AI has developed considerably since the 1970s, and that I'm now even more painfully behind the curve than before. So, your comment is a helpful nudge encouraging me to improve that state of affairs!

Every best wish,

Myrna said…
Hi. I’m reflecting on the graveyards photos and my own reactions. Just skirting around the edges of previous thinking and experience, as one has to do round a grave. I used to seek out graveyards because I identified with melancholy places, but my tendency is now not so strong
Naturalisation of Christianity: I don’t see a graveyard as signifying Christianity. It’s more a place where relatives have buried their dead. I don’t quite see the place as representing organised religion - in the sense that religion attempts to control the space and purpose, and resents the onward creep of nature!
The present path of Christianity may be seen as in opposition to nature, but it need not be understood that way. Then, nature is correcting, or reminding this religion of the deeper and more grounded reality. It does, of course, but I feel more softly about this. The guy who turns up with the electric (?) saw, may be quite circumspect about the task he has been asked to do. It may touch him deeply to reveal the names once again, of those interred. He carries his own spiritual path as he works. We cannot be sure how he feels about it. I take on board your sincere encouragement for Christianity to respond in a grounded way to ‘life-as-it-is’ and has become - a constant revision of itself (if I have understood correctly). Sometimes, ‘chilling’ about it is more enabling, can achieve change in our relations with said religion. We become well-wishers while remaining aware of the hard edge which religions can present.
I”ll look again at Hardy’s poem.
Here is my translation of one of my favourite Brahms songs (now, I CAN identify with his melancholy compositions!)

Auf dem Kirschhofe (In the church-yard) by D. von Lilienkron

The day was heavy with rain and swept with storms.
I wandered by some forgotten graves:
weathered stone and cross, old wreaths,
the names all overgrown, and hard to read.

The day was swept by storms and heavy with rain.
On all the graves the frozen word: deceased.
The storm was silent, the coffins slumbered.
On all the graves the word, now thawed: released.

Dear Myrna,

Thanks for this comment (which, for any other reader, really belongs HERE). Much appreciated as always.

I take your point about graveyards not necessarily being Christian -- an important point, especially in municipal graveyards like Mill Road Cemetery -- but I was thinking about those graves that most certainly are expressions of Christianity, the cross being the prime example, of which there are quite a few in those photos that have become more tree than cross . . . though the connections between the cross and the wood of the tree are ancient as the etymology of the word "rood" reveals quite marvellously,

Again your point about not knowing what was in the mind of the person clearing the site is important. We don't know, and should never presume we do. But I can say that in Mill Road Cemetery they currently have a system of clearing sections of the site in rotation. The aim, I am told, is both to preserve the gravestones and yet leave lots of under- and over-growth for the wildlife. Rather a nice plan I think.

Thanks, too, for the translation of the Lilienkron poem. Today was very much that kind of day here in Cambridge . . .