Pragmatism & Belief

Before we inflict our writing on the world, it might be nice if we examined our ideas and opinions. Where’d they come from, exactly—our beliefs?  Some people are locked-in on and even obsessed with their own point of view, positions, and dispositions. As if they can’t be wrong and you can’t be right. Maybe, just sometimes anyway, we’re both right or wrong, or partially so at least.


Pragmatism is a pretty cool philosophy—especially if you like to keep morality and questions of right and wrong out of the way you look at things. If you have a strict moral code and look at things through right-vs.-wrong lenses, then you likely despise pragmatism. Don’t get me wrong: morality’s a good thing. But various religions conflict so radically on some issues of moral behavior that it aids communication to leave morality aside when first analyzing certain subjects. You can always overlay a moral analysis once the terms have been defined and the perspectives understood, if not aligned.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

So, how do people get and keep their ideas or beliefs? One of the two Fathers of Pragmatism—if you will—is Charles Sanders Pierce (the other is William James, brother of Henry, Daisy Miller’s creator). He noted that people affect a “settlement of opinion” or a “fixation of belief”. Great phrases! People settle on opinions—like settlers or homesteaders building their thought-houses and moving in for a lifetime. They fixate on their beliefs, seeing little else through the haze of their own thoughts but their own dim reflections. One whose own fixated beliefs so easily please him is easily pleased indeed.

Four Ways of Settling & Fixating

People perform this settling and fixating in four basic ways:

1)      Sheer tenacity: they just have that opinion and cling to it, rigidly and stubbornly, like a bulldog clamping down on a pants’ leg, or a drunk shouting in a bar. You can’t talk to them. Can’t reason with them. They’re beyond hope.

2)      Because some authority figure sold them on it. Their parents, their pastor or rabbi, their teacher, their favorite celebrity, or someone they “looked up to” said to them “This is a fact” and they’ve carried that opinion with them ever since, unblinking, unquestioning. They can be swayed, but only if they accept that there are, indeed, other viewpoints that just might have some credence if only given a chance.

3)      A priori, from Latin, meaning “existing in the mind prior to experience.” Essentially, a priori means that some belief just seems right or natural or true. We look at a situation or issue and decide what to think about it based on common sense or how we feel, not on experience, evidence, or facts. It works pretty well if you’re fairly smart, informed, and well-balanced. If you’re a bit dim, uninformed, or treading a thin bipolar line, forget it.

4)      Evidence derived from experience, investigation, or scientific study. The first three ways for having opinions are touchy-feely and may be enough for some people, but they’re not solid methods upon which to construct a convincing argument, let alone communicate effectively with your fellow human. Going by the facts of life, by what really takes place and what has been “proven”—to some quantifiable and/or qualifiable degree, anyway—is profoundly more defensible and supportable than the alternative ways and means.

What we all need is a good brain editing service: cutting the crap and cleaning up our thought processes. Guess what? We can be both pragmatic and ethical by deconstructing our own ideas before presuming to judge those of others.