What Pragmatism Ain't
Philip Nobel
July 2001

from Metropolis ©

Architectural theorists do a number on William James's all-American philosophy.

In 1906 William James gave a lecture entitled "What Pragmatism Means." His talk, delivered in the plain language that still suits his subject, would be published the following year in his book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. There James returned to an idea he had first developed years earlier, a stone-simple idea that, then as now, seemed peculiarly susceptible to abuse.

In James's conception, which has suffered through and survived a century of complication, big-p philosophical Pragmatism is nothing more or less than a method for testing ideas by challenging them to make a difference in our experience of the world. Any concerted intellectual project--be it philosophy or law, architecture or criticism--should not bypass what James called "the rich thicket of reality" by incanting magic "solving names"; he cited "God," "Matter," "Reason," "the Absolute," and "Energy," but we might recognize "authorship," "sign," "transgression," "space," and "the virtual" as well. To James, ideas, however lofty, prove themselves to be true only when they are carried all the way back down to Earth, examined in the clear light of human doubt, and are shown to perform.

Even as James rolled out his pragmatism at the turn of the last century, there was an unfortunate tendency to collapse it with practicality. In 1909 he lamented the fact that the practical was "almost unanimously held to mean opposed to the theoretical or genuinely cognitive," a canard that persists to this day. True, the words share a distant root--the Greek prattein, to experience, to act--but they take off in different directions from it. Pragmatic emerges via pragma (deed); practical comes to us allied with practice, the state of doing repeatedly. Everyone, except perhaps our most gifted solipsists, does something; practical can be an epithet only in a world turned totally upside down, where inaction is valued over results, where stasis triumphs over change. Indeed, for the spiritually minded--and James was never one to object to a useful metaphysics--pragmatism might be thought of as a method for exalting the practical, for practicality serves as the generous but short-tempered guardian angel in this common-sense faith.

Another easy out, then as now, has been to tar pragmatism with the handy brush of its baser, Main Street meaning: expedience in the service of commerce. James did not shy away from commerce and its metaphors. For him, only the "cash value" of an idea mattered in the end and truth lived "on credit," passing like a banknote only as long as it went unchallenged. But pragmatism is more than making do in the marketplace.

So maybe we're using the wrong name for this old way of thinking. The logician Charles Peirce, whom James credited with codifying the pragmatic method, preferred pragmaticism, in part because he hoped that ugly duckling would discourage overuse. As James returned to pragmatism at the end of his career (he died in 1910), he too was concerned that popularity would breed confusion. "On all hands," he wrote, "we find the 'pragmatic movement' spoken of, sometimes with respect, sometimes with contumely, seldom with clear understanding."

The same could be said of the term in architecture circles today. For years, it's true, there has been some low-grade ferment, idle talk on bar stools, whispers in the back of the lecture hall: Is there something there? Something more useful than last year's collection of tender-minded star-system whimsies? Something that can help me make real things? This ambient buzz was given its first public airing last November in a symposium organized by Joan Ockman and Terry Riley at the Museum of Modern Art. There, to the delight of those of us who had participated in the sub-rosa chatter that preceded this debut, possible commerce between architecture and pragmatism was at last explored. Could it in fact, to hijack a phrase from Vincent Scully, "offer the most promising way out of academicism for the younger men"? It was an added bonus that each day of the proceedings ended with a debate between a philosophical architect and a pragmatist philosopher--Peter Eisenman vs. Richard Rorty; Rem Koolhaas vs. Cornel West--and that in both cases, by general assent of those in the large audience, the architect got trumped. A defining moment came when Eisenman, at length, endeavored to explain why big-p Philosophy (read: big-t Theory) should occupy a special place among the many, many earthly things that might kick start the mysterious act of architectural invention. Rorty, walking the pragmatist walk, returned several times to this refrain: "That's fine, Peter. You do what you need to do to do your work."

Here the story moves to a strange aside in an article defending paper architecture that Herbert Muschamp wrote on March 11 in the New York Times. Responding to a short piece by Jayne Merkel in the February Oculus--and, one assumes, to the hopeful, harmless hum of interest in pragmatism--Muschamp served up a quickie dismissal of the "pragmatic movement" (now, as in James's day, a phantom), the MoMA conference (to which he stated he did not go), and Merkel's innocent editorial on "The New Practicality" (that old confusion, again). He described pragmatism as "architecture's latest intellectual hoax," and, aiming to wound, he defined a pragmatist in architecture as "anyone with a license who has successfully pursued a career putting up buildings."

To explain why Muschamp belittled a license, a successful career, and buildings--versus big-a Architecture--would require a fuller examination of his aesthetics. What is of interest here, however, is that in the course of setting up pragmatism as a straw man against which he could oppose a case for "the reemergence in recent years of an architecture of ideas," Muschamp published what may be the first application to architecture of the term "New Pragmatism." (It has been used in legal scholarship and literature for decades.) His coinage is quaint: confronted with novelty, he tried to make sense of it by creating another of the solving "isms" that often serve as pigeonholes for the unknown. This is itself a very Jamesian operation; he believed that we construct reality pragmatically, testing new ideas as they come at us and fitting them in with the old where they "work" best--usually where they do the least damage to our preconceptions. Pragmatism is not hostile to "ideas," it just threatens those that exist for their own sake.

And the "New Pragmatism"? If only it were so! I can confidently say that if there were such a thing, the able trend-spotting machine of New York architecture culture would have taken it up, and if a critical mass of suitable practitioners could be found--I can think of two--a show would have been put together, a manifesto written, and a catalog published (Two Architects?), if only to ease the popular frustration with our reigning luftmenschen and to sate the hunger--in many students now it is a craving--for a new class of ideas in architecture. Could pragmatism be that relief? It depends what you make of it. As a shortcut to a new style, it offers little; it will be a sad day when we see "pragmatism" used to put a glamorous gloss on pipe rails or exposed steel. But as a method to reinforce skepticism, to erase credulity, to verify through action new ideas that work, it may be just what architecture needs.