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A Volume Against the Pragmatists

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928
The Pragmatic Revolt in Politics. By W. Y. Elliott. New York: The Mac-millan Company. $3.75.

Cassius j. Keyser has suggested that an educated man is one who reads books he can not understand. Mr. Elliott’s volume is highly recommended as a means whereby any reader not a political scientist may make a self-imposed test. Whether he understands it or not, he will find it a very, valuable work for an educated man to read. For it will set him to thinking about a variety of subjects all at once. Certainly no person who makes any pretense of keeping up with modern political thought will dare neglect this comprehensive critique. The only serious gap, as the author tells us in the preface, is the omission of Bolshevism. Mr. Elliott deals with the pluralism of Harold J. Laski, the Guild Socialism of G. D. H. Cole, the Solidarisme of Leon Duguit, Sorel’s “Myth” or emotive symbol of the General Strike, the Fascism of Mussolini, and constitutionalism, which he defends by elaborating a “co-organic” theory of the state.

Constitutionalism, says Mr. Elliott, involves the “rule of law” under a “sovereignty” conceived not as the chief attribute of a Willoughbyean State-Person nor yet as the “absorptive” control of a Mussolini, but as a unifying final point of reference in decision. It thus avoids at once the blindness of revolutionary Syndicalism, the lack of “unity” of literal political pluralism, and the “organic” fallacy, of Fascism. That Fascism is the rebuke to Syndicalism is a thesis to which the writer again and again recurs.

Mr. Elliott considers a group as more than the mere sum of its members, yet balks at calling it an organism or a person. He emphasizes what he terms community of purpose among the members. That human action is purposive seems to be an empirical fact. That a symbol to which the group members react similarly is at least a partial explanation of their “unity” (as viewed by the observer for certain purposes) is also clear. For this reason each member is made different through being a member of the group. Is it not their relations, then, that enables us for certain purposes to consider the members of a group as something more than a mere sum, because that implies what is not true, that the members do not react to each other, and yet something short of a biological organism, because these relationships differ from those found in an organism? It is essentially this, if Mr. Elliott’s meaning is understood, that he summarizes under the symbol co-organism, a term that admits of degrees of “community of purpose.” His method here seems to be essentially the denotative, non-metaphysical method of Mr. John Dewey. And it seems to the reviewer that Mr. Elliott’s insistence upon the “rule of law” through “sovereignty” is primarily based upon its pragmatic value—it works, in that it secures an end which Mr. Elliott places high in his scale of values.

In his constructive chapters Mr. Elliott does what another young man, Mr. Harold J. Laski, did in his larger Grammar of Politics: he tells us what is what about the whole business. In this his self-confidence is equalled only by his Inge-like learning and his ability to keep an even keel amidst the tempestuous waves of conflicting theories.

Needless to say, Elliott differs widely from Laski in his views. This being so, he should tell us more about the “normative program” which he feels that the Instru-mentalism of Dewey omits. Both Elliott and Laski offer us “normative programs,” but they offer different ones. Which shall we choose?

“What is necessary to determine, however, is the adequacy of a description of the way we do think if that description be taken as the sole principle by which to ascertain the logic of how we should think if we are to think truly” In words like this Mr. Elliott is constantly rebuking pragmatists. Nowhere does he tell us—nor has anybody else ever told us—how to think in such a way as to know we think truly before we put our judgments to the test of practice. Certainly nobody can hold today that Aristotelian class logic can of itself give us truth about the objective world. This does not, however, mean that pragmatists reject it as a tool of reflective thinking.

It follows that any such wholesale solution as Mr. Elliott offers, even when backed by a wealth of data and a keenness of judgment such as he brings to his task, can never be more than a means of clarifying our judgment on “principles” that those who agree consider “fundamental.” That men do evaluate, no pragmatist need deny.

That nobody’s evaluation is final is what they rather assert.

They go further, and warn us that these wholesale solutions, suggestive as all of them are which are well done, must not absorb our attention to the exclusion of specific, concrete problems with which we are faced. It would in all probability be folly to try to apply Mr. Elliott’s solution to Italy or Russia all at once. At the most, there should be only a gradual readaptation in the direction of constitutionalism in both these countries.

No doubt Mr. Elliott would himself be the first to admit this. For it must not be thought that he poses as a “pure” rationalist. “We are,” he says in one place, “both for good and ill, the creatures of the past to an extent that makes all purely rationalistic interpretations of society absurd.” But there remains in his thinking an inarticulate major premise that somehow or other there are to be discovered by the use of reason “ultimate values.” He speaks of the Aristotelian good life. But what is that except what persons in a given society at a given time conceive it to be, as that conception has been modified in the light of experience with concrete situations? He rejects what he miscalls the “impositional” theory of morals of Mr. Dewey; but nowhere in the volume has the reviewer found any clue to another. In its place we have only vague talk about “criticism of the values of ends.” How else can that criticism fruitfully proceed except in the way Mr. Dewey has described? In general the reviewer must confess that in so far as Mr. Elliott departs from the pragmatic method, he is as unintelligible as Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky or that famous syllogism that “truly” asserts:

All gostaks are doshes. All doshes are galloons. Therefore all gostaks are galloons.

Perhaps the fault is with the reviewer. He believes, however, that Mr. Elliott misinterprets Mr. Dewey. That distinguished philosopher seems chiefly to be expanding the postulate that all truth, all principles, all rules, all aims, ends and norms are relative both to the concrete physical and social context and to the thinker. Once that is admitted—and what alternative is there except absolutism?—then what Mr. Dewey says follows as a logical expansion of the major premise. Mr. Eliott seems to accept the first sort of relativity, but to stop short of the second.

Again, Mr. Elliott speaks of the pragmatic test as mere survivalism, and of Fascism’s policy he says: “It is pragmatic in the extreme, for it proposes no other tests than the palpable fruits of productivity.” Mr. Dewey has explicitly said that judging things by their consequences is not a theory of ethics. It necessarily implies criteria by which consequences are tested. But in his treatment of morals Mr. Dewey seems to apply the same method. Does he not mean to say that, to start with, our criteria are our habit patterns, but that as we go on these are adapted, through trial and error based on reflection and experiment, to fit the new situations that arise? From what other source can Mr. Elliott conjure up criteria?

He seems to believe that this means having no principles. That, we assert, is incorrect. On this point Mr. Dewey is explicit: “Choice is not between throwing away rules previously developed and sticking obstinately to them. The intelligent alternative is to revise, adapt, expand and alter them. The problem is one of continuous, vital read-aptation. . . . All principles are empirical generalizations from the ways in which previous judgments of conduct have practically worked out. When this fact is apparent, these generalizations will be seen to be not fixed rules for deciding doubtful cases, but instrumentalities for their investigation, methods by which the net value of past experience is rendered available for present scrutiny of new perplexities.” Mr. Dewey is no more to be blamed for Fascism than is Plato for the absolutist “reasoning” of the crowd, which, Mr. Everett Dean Martin tells us, lynches its victim in the name of Eternal Justice. Stimulation of efficiency and productivity need be the test only in a time when a nation like Italy seems on the verge of chaos, and values which Mr. Elliott cherishes must be temporarily subordinated. Mr. Elliott doubts whether Fascism was the only way out for Italy. That was a matter of judgment at the time of the march on Rome. Now it is the existing system, and the starting point of readjustments.

Mere survival is a negative test: if Fascism had not survived, it clearly would not have “worked.” If, as Mr. Elliott thinks, it subordinates values that will reassert themselves and cause its overthrow or modification, it will cease to work, at least in its present form. If its leaders follow Mr. Dewey’s method, they will not make rigid dogmas of their principles; but if they do, the time may come when even those outsiders who have looked with some favor on Fascism as an emergency measure of value will cease to consider its consequences good—will cease to say that it works according to their criteria. This is enough to indicate how narrow an interpretation of the pragmatic test Mr. Elliott offers in his dictum about survivalism.


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