Skepticism Pragmatism and Anarchism
If there is a divide in philosophy of more crucial importance than the materialists and the idealists (though whether it is or not is debatable) it is between dogmatists and those of skeptical mentality. It is hard to over-value the importance of skepticism in belief, mentality and the general temperament that rigorous skepticism induces. Skepticism is quite different than Nihilism, which should be obvious be perhaps should be made clear regardless. It is the understanding that man does not have a direct line to reality. That we use a synthesis of sense data and reasoning to reach approximations of the truth, to create models of the truth that can be replicated and have use-value, but are not the “truth” in itself. In this sense Kantian Epistemology incorporates within it a basic understanding or has within it the premise of Skepticism. I would (and will) argue that not only the Ancient Greek Skeptics (particularly those in the line of Sextus Empiricus who was agnostic even of the proposition that we can attain knowledge; unlike other Skeptics who held it as impossible and therefore made a radically positive assertion contradicting their general premise or claim) but Anarchists and Pragmatists old the mentality of Skepticism and make greater use of it than the Skeptics.
Both Anarchism and Pragmatism are empirical philosophies. Both Anarchist and Pragmatist philosophers like Dewey (who will be my main representation of Pragmatism in this essay) criticize religions for being superstitious and making unverified, if not unverifiable claims – just as all “dogmatists” do in the mind of the Skeptic. However, it is the main contribution to Skepticism that is also embraced by Anarchism and Pragmatism that I would like to focus on. Skeptics claim that driven by curiosity all philosophers (or people to various degrees who have the minds of the philosopher or scientist) wish to know the truth. However, they accept answers that satiate their curiosity or conform to their own personal wishes or psychology, and spend the rest of their career arguing for their ideas rather than pursuing the truth – this is why they are unscientific and viewed as “dogmatists.” It is the nature of the curious mind to always be seeking alternative explanations, as well as to go where the evidence and reason lead. In essence, the Skeptic is someone who encapsulates Aristotle’s definition of wisdom: it is the mark of an educated man to entertain a thought without accepting it. In Anarchism we see this in constant skepticism of all authority and holding that each individual has the right to pursue his or her own train of thought and his or her own perception of the good without the need to conform the dictates of Capitalism, Liberalism, religion, Conservatism, Monarchism or any other political ideology that binds men in chains of greed, dogma and state control, suffocating him of his freedom, happiness and very being – but I’ll elaborate on that later. In Pragmatism we see it in the Epistemology similar to Marx (but without all the grandiose predictions and talk of material necessity) that speaks of how truth needs to be verified and never be token as an absolute. This can be seen in Dewey’s focus on the temporal and recognizing a distinction between the “academic Empiricism” of Locke and Hume which focus on describing primary and secondary qualities and a form of Empiricism that is scientific and rigorous in its effects of society rather than a passive report of things as they appear to us. Once again, though we pursue more accurate and descriptive data of reality, we do not consider the data as absolute, simply as superior to simply saying that the world as it appears to us is simply that.
Also Anarchism and Pragmatism share in their perception of values. Dewey criticizes what I suppose would be considered the Empiricist idea deriving from Hume that facts cannot tell us what to value – they are simply subjective preferences and nothing more. But in both are precursors and more rich and complex versions of Harris in that all three claim that we can examine reality and using either general descriptions of human beings or of any individual’s particular nature discover the good for that person or for society. Some person uninformed with Anarchist philosopher for example, could claim “well if everyone is free to pursue their own perception of the good, how can anything be said to be better than anything else?” This of course is a very simplistic and uninformed opinion. Anarchists hold the Non-Aggression Principle in the highest regard, but allowing a individual to destroy himself with drugs is not tantamount to saying we cannot claim that drugs are harmful – simply that either (in-accord to Utilitarianism) freedom is of higher utility than a drug free society; or that (following from Deontological ethics of the Anarchist tradition) that all human beings have inviolable rights free from the dictates of God, Government, or Utilitarian Calculus, and that includes injecting poison into a individual’s blood as long as they do it of their own accord. Values can be shown scientifically as can truths, and should be held to the same degree of skepticism. In a way Dewey mirrors Nietzsche’s Transvaluation of Values, but instead of viewing all instincts as organic and merely free of moral judgment, Dewey in his views of education and corruption could be said to hold a view that human beings natural impulse of curiosity should at-all-costs be valued and a set of values and actions be set out that promote the best of Man which is understood by examining the results of such impulses or attributes of himself or the results of his values. Anarchists with their “anti-establishment” mentality also possess a type of Naturalism, but also (in-line with Dewey) understand Positive Liberty and that society must function rationally with Man’s best interests in mind if Man is going to thrive or survive for very long in any way he would wish to or at-all considering the Capitalists’ affect on our environment.
Not only do the Skeptics, (assuming they continue their thinking into values, which can be assumed based on their view that “habit” or societal practices that produce desirable effects should be believed in loosely speaking) Anarchists and Pragmatists share a view in relation to whether or not we can create a preference-free model of values but what it is we should value. Firstly for all three, there is a value in intelligence, critical thinking and independence from the leading social structures that are hazardous or are not conducive to a free and well-formed self. The latter two have far-more in common, or at-least the case is so for Dewey and the Anarchists. Dewey correctly deconstructs Liberalism, and chastises Classical Liberals (or what is essentially Right-wing Libertarians today) for creating a theoretical and legal construct of freedom without the Positive Liberty and Economic freedoms to allow material and actual freedom to come into being; this criticism is at the heart of Anarchism and Marxism. Both not only possessing a love of Democracy but Democracy as properly understood rather as a talking point by today living in Governments of Imperialist Liberal Democracies (the US and the post 9/11 “nation-building” of bringing Democracy in Iraq being the most ready example) who see it simply as a form of Government rather than as a way of life. A way of life that emphasizes the synthesis of personal freedom free from tyranny and public restraints and interdependency and the egalitarian communal model epitomized in various social conceptions held within Libertarian Socialism. Education and raising the young to be not only free but moral and intelligent is of obvious relation which Dewey in his holding significance in and his own significance to the history of education. Dewey may have been a Democratic Socialist and thought that the Government could primarily focus on Positive Liberties rather than Negative, or rather view the human animal as a caused being to be raised to act on the best of their impulses rather than a sinful creature to be indoctrinated and taught to obey. Or that in its very essence could fundamentally preserve the freedom of the individual and the working class from the capitalist class but this is only a minor critique considering his lack of authoritarian justifications (present in Bolshevism for example) and such can be the case to a certain degree in the short-term if a government (which is seldom occurring in today’s age) allies itself consistently with the working class and against the businesses that wish to control and exploit them. And with the Skeptics emphasis on relating philosophy to easily observable and pragmatic things such as medicine, and teaching people how to aspire and search for more evidence rather than accepting the current models, they too can be argued to have a more organic empirical model of education and politics divorced from the propagandizing and rationalizing Rationalism of the Church, Government and commerce. Which after speaking of their politics of how to bring about one’s ideal self brings me to Dewey’s notion of it and its relation to Kierkegaardian Existentialism.
Dewey’s notion of individuality has nothing to do with “Punk Anarchist” notions of being “radically unique” by inserting a safety pin into your nose, or being “radically free” in terms of Sartre’s thinking or even “radically independent” in regards to the absurdity of Capitalist values and demagoguery they use, eschewing the obvious reality Dewey focuses on namely that we are all interdependent beings. Instead, Dewey’s individuality simply has us be well-educated individuals that can healthily act on our individual qualities, typically for the greater good of society. Which can be seen as Kierkegaardian for its emphasis on the self being formed over time rather than solely innate and for Kierkegaard’s emphasis on a human being deciding the purpose for his or her own life just as Dewey emphasizes the role of the learner and for him or her to take an active rather than passive role in his education to discover his or her true self and the proper course following such discovery. Pragmatism can also be seen to have commonalities with Existentialism in both viewing knowledge and philosophy as something to be experienced and lived rather than simply discussed academically.
For the view of interdependency I just mentioned and for his political values in general it would be appropriate to say that John Dewey is the Anti-Ayn Rand. Also they radically differ in-terms of education. For Rand, education seems simply to be taught what she believes to be true and be taught that man has a direct conduit to reality which she believes she embodies in-relation to her values. Dewey however has a very hands-on view of education that both a skeptic and Anarchist would love deeply. Such is shown in part in the following quote: The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these. Thus the teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area. This philosophy has become an increasingly popular idea within present-day teacher preparatory programs.
Returning to their similarity in the realm of ethics, Dewey emphasizes that one cannot act on absolutist inflexible moral sentiments that take no regard for the conditions human beings live in. This is similar to Anarchists placing moral blame (if they believe in moral blame in the fundamental rather than causal sense; and even someone like myself who does not believe in fundamental moral blame can place a looser form of moral blame on the individual that has nothing to do with him being the “first-cause” of his actions and his supposed free will but instead on the results and motivations of his actions) on the Capitalist creating poverty which create poor human conditions and consequentially nature (though it creates poor nature for other reasons) which consequentially lead to crime rather than primarily blaming the individual who is simply a caused being under the weight of authority (e.g. cops, Government, Capitalist, churches, etc) which are always not only tolerated but excused to the most absurd degrees by Conservatives and other pro-force advocates such as Liberals, Marxists etc. It follows that just as we cannot have uninvolved and “preachy” interpretations in morals, so we cannot have static institutions that do not involve the average human being in the very core of the development of him or herself and the society they live in, which is another thing Pragmatism, Anarchism and arguably to some extent Skepticism have in common. The quote I read of Dewey’s highlights it wonderfully. The teacher is not “in charge” of the student’s education but instead helps facilitate it as a helpful guide or mentor rather than rigid instructor who views the child as a bucket to be filled rather than a sponge to absorb.
And finally on religion: all are considered to be anti-religious in some fashion or another. Dewey uses the word “religious” to connote communal or social values, wrongly viewing it primarily as a unifier rather than as a divider (the does the same for God as a moral ideal which he doesn’t believe in except in the most poetic sense), and yet he like Kant places emphasis on the absurdity of superstition and dogmatism in religious belief. How Skepticism and Anarchism critique religions or various common notions and themes of many religions and faith in general should be transparent to the reader. In conclusion it is astounding how all three are unified in their depiction of humans as natural learners and observers, that no knowledge is absolute (asides from moral notions for the Anarchist, but even this holds a certain Skepticism in being uncertain that one knows the right path to be the dictator instructing others how to live their lives) and that Democracy should be always highly valued, not as some corrupt system of Government that Marx correctly chastises as the Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie (speaking of Representative Democracy) but as a organic culture and way of life lived by young and old alike where all live interpedently, freely and constantly searching for higher heights, both in the realms of knowledge and in our material world where the realms of knowledge efficacy can be seen.