Monday, April 16, 2007

Pragmatism and Tragedy

A common criticism of pragmatism is that it doesn't adequately account for the tragic. I don't have references at hand, but I'm reasonably sure that Cornel West has made this point and I've heard other versions over the years. Generally, the criticism comes down to this: that pragmatism, with its "let's roll up our sleeves and get to work" attitude can't really do justice to truly tragic events.

Oddly, every time I've heard this criticism the author brings forward a fictional event to illustrate tragedy. So maybe its Hamlet or Anna Karenina or whatever. And maybe it is true that being a better pragmatist wouldn't have helped Hamlet or Anna Karenina. But a pragmatist should, I think, shrug at this: after all, these are fictional events and pragmatists are interested in the real world. So how does pragmatism deal with real-life tragedy?

I've been thinking about this for two reasons. One is that we've been reading a book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer that tells the story of a young 9 year old boy dealing with his father's death on 9/11. It's a really fine book, I've convinced myself, and one of the reasons it's so fine is that it personalizes this tragedy by refocusing our attention away from well known images of collapsing towers and toward the simple fact that a boy has lost his dad. It's a fictional case, again, but it is grounded in real life events.

Another reason I've been thinking about this has to do with something that strikes closer to home: a friend who lost his 14 year old son last week.

I'm still not sure how pragmatism can address real-life tragedy but I think part of it has to do with recognizing the real concrete losses. In the case of Foer's book again, the tragedy is not that the Dad died a horrific death in a horrendous event. The tragedy, instead, is that a young boy will never know his father, never have a chance to grow old with him.

Somehow we do seem capable of overcoming incredible tragedy. There's a well known survey which shows that people who have lost limbs aren't that much unhappier a year after their loss; likewise, people who win the lottery aren't that much happier a year later, either.

That may be, but I also wonder about the effect on loved ones. That is, an amputee may get over the loss of her limb, but what about her mother or father? Are they able to return to normal as easily?


Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks John. JJ

7:40 PM  

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