Nothing would make me happier than to see the philosophies of existentialism be annihilated – and I do mean annihilated; not fading into some obscure corner of our culture, but really and actually reduced out of existence into nothing – ad nihil.
Existentialism – the idea that subjective existence has priority to objective essence – was not born in a vacuum, however. Like any system of theoretical thought, it is influenced by previous generations’ philosophies. What makes existentialism so dangerous in this regard though, is not that it borrowed from, or was influenced by, previous systems of thought, but that those systems of thought are in many cases self-defeating and outright wrong.
Because existential thought processes (as opposed to ontological thought processes) are the dominant mode of cogitation – and translating thought into action – this means our entire modern dominant philosophy is built on a foundation of sand, ready to collapse civilization as we know it catastrophically.
This is no exaggeration. The philosophy of modernism in the early 20th century was likewise built on shaky premises, with its unfettered optimism about the condition and future of mankind, and the widespread notion that man is not just basically good, but that he’s getting better. It took a decade and a half of depression and world war for humanity to realize that simply because we improve our instrumentalities does not mean we have improved our purpose.
Pragmatism was certainly a contributor to the modernists, but even though modernism itself more or less died, the ruins of its foundations remained, and a new structure was there erected.
Pragmatism has been described as a uniquely American philosophy – perhaps the only system of thought that was wholly originated and developed in the United States. Its principle authors and designers were John Dewey, Charles Pierce, and William James.
Without a lengthy discussion on the intricacies of the philosophy, one thing that sticks out is this: that “truth” has a “cash-value in experiential terms.” What that means to William James is that to ask what is true or what is not true is a meaningless question. What is a meaningful question is “what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life?”
James goes on to subjectivize truth by claiming, “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify.”
There’s only one problem with this statement, Mr. James: YOU CANNOT VERIFY, VALIDATE, NOR CORROBORATE THE TRUTH VALUE OF YOUR OWN TRUTH CLAIM!!
This is to say, by James’s own standard of truth, how in the world could we possibly verify his assertion of truth? Any attempt to do so would result in circular reasoning. Can you verify that “True ideas are those that can be verified?” Can you corroborate the statement that “True ideas are those that can be corroborated?” How do you begin to validate that “true ideas are those that can be validated?”
As an ontologist, I’m not disagreeing that when an idea has been corroborated, verified, or validated it may be true; but to reduce truth to experiential terms and experiential terms only is absolutely abhorrent. It’s this kind of crap that led brilliant thinkers like Rudolf Carnap and AJ Ayer to entertain the simpletonian notion that “the only statements that have any meaning or truth are those that can be verified;” it’s this kind of crap that led an otherwise brilliant historian, Steven Shapin, to declare “truth is a social institution;” and it’s this kind of crap that makes millions of Americans display their intellectual impotence when they say “perception is reality.” It’s what leads people to believe that because God cannot be empirically observed or tested, there is no truth or meaning in that concept.
Pragmatism needs to die. Its denial of truth-proper – that is, of ontological truth – is extremely dangerous, and its insistence that “if it works for me, it must be true” leads individuals in a society to pursue only pleasure, even at the expense of ethics.
But it’s not dead – we see its effects every day; in our modern approaches to workforce development, in our diagnostic sciences, and of course in our approach to law, politics, and justice.