Friday, June 10, 2011

Deciphering Paul Krugman

Tibor R. Machan

It is hardly ever explicit in Paul Krugman’s columns except that he has made it clear that he is a pragmatist and finds all ideologues off base. But what is an ideologue to Krugman? Someone who invokes principles as he or she thinks and copes with the real world. That’s, however, infantilism for any serious or radical pragmatist.

Both President Obama and Professor Krugman have made it abundantly clear that they consider ideological thinking misguided. Serious, radical pragmatists regard such thinking as unfounded—a species of foundationalism, something to be avoided since it involves imposing on the messy world an order it doesn’t have.

The foremost architect of this radical pragmatism was Harvard philosopher C. I. Lewis. In his massive work, Mind and The World Order (Dover 1941), he lays out the case for the view that even logic is something we invent and do not learn from studying reality. (Another famous proponent of this line of thinking was Columbia University philosopher Ernest Nagel—he made out this position in his famous paper, “Logic Without Ontology,” reprinted in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, edited by Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars. [New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts, 1949]. More recently the late Richard Rorty, a very famous academic philosopher from Princeton University and several other prominent places, defended radically unprincipled thinking. I don’t know if Krugman and Rorty had been philosophical pals but it would not come as a surprise to learn that they had.)

One thing all this implies is that when one reads Paul Krugman one cannot criticize him tellingly by pointing out that he is inconsistent—e.g., that his serious scholarly work doesn’t jive with what he writes in his columns, or that last week’s column contradicts this week’s or last year’s this morning’s.

That Krugman does not announce this to the readers of his columns in The New York Times and articles in other publications, such as The New York Review of Books, is perfectly understandable. Most readers tend to have respect for logic—it is one way people tend to judge others, trip up prevaricators in law courts and criticize the scientific and scholarly work of those who write and speak out on vital topics. On innumerable occasions many will find a political candidate, president, or international figure criticized for being inconsistent. But that assumes, for Krugman, an ideology of consistency which radical pragmatists see as entirely artificial.

From very early on in the history of human thought it was accepted that logic is the first device to be used in aiming for understanding and in offering criticism—all of Plato’s Socratic dialogues adhere to this. Students at colleges and universities are constantly chided for being inconsistent. Everyone is, in fact. Except by serious pragmatists, at least the radical variety of them. And the reason isn’t very complicated to grasp.

Pragmatism grew out of a disenchantment many philosophers had with principled thinking. Indeed, throughout most of the history of philosophy the effort to come up with a solid, principled viewpoint hasn’t always met with welcome reception. Reasons for this vary but the result is that at least for the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries many philosophers not only gave up the idea that logic is a good guide to thinking about the world but they went on to develop what they called alternative logics. This was a big debate back then and many pragmatists took the side of those who rejected classical logic except as a kind of human invention, like the rules of chess or baseball.

When one understand this—and the story is, of course, more complicated in its details—one can also understand Professor Paul Krugman’s way of thinking about public affairs: The ideologues are clueless, thinking that their well thought out theories will help with that task. They will not, or so Krugman & Co., including our president, believe. And at the level of punditry they will not bother to explain this, try to defend it, but merely dish it out in whatever forum will feature them.

Yes, of course, pragmatism is not all that prominent, especially in the West, since most of Western thinking is influenced by Socrates, Plato and, especially, Aristotle, all firm proponents of the importance of a solidly grounded science of logic. Many others throughout human history have followed suite, one or another way, except for a few such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. But even these at least had respect for logical thinking, as they understood it.

Not so with the serious pragmatist Paul Krugman. And readers of him need to keep this in mind.

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