“Interesting Paradox, but How Useful Is It?”

1. a pragmatic attitude or policy.”ideology was tempered with pragmatism”

2. PHILOSOPHY an approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. (How well does it work?)

I like pragmatism. Back in my philosophy studying days (ages 18 and 19) pragmatism (as a philosophy) had almost NO appeal because I was an ARTIST and ROMANTIC and YOUNG and had IDEALS, but that didn’t really matter because, as a person, I had already learned the double-fisted skill of imagination and practical action (if your dad falls getting from the sofa to the wheelchair, pick him up, put him where he wants to be. If he wants to be in the wheel chair, be sure to strap him in so he won’t slide out if he has a spasm). The question, “Should my dad have MS?” might have been interesting, but it was totally irrelevant because he DID have MS.

Beyond that? Reading the Pragmatists wasn’t very interesting compared to some of the more high-flying philosophers whose thinking and maybe writing verged on something that required a Rosetta Stone, guys like, I dunno’, guys like Heidegger who is (IMO) almost unreadable. I “liked” Kant and I “liked” Spinoza, and I “liked” the Greeks, and, of course, guys like Emerson and Thoreau, but those who wrote about the idea of ideas?

Still, I maintained a problematic relationship with the study of philosophy, and the tension between idealistic and pragmatic thought played out in a philosophy class I attempted to take later. The prof said, “If you’re a woman or a Jew you will not pass this class.” I got up and walked out (idealistic) but forgot to actually DROP the class so I got an F thereby proving the professor right (in my case) — a failure of pragmatism there. “It’s fine to walk out, Sweet Cheeks, but remember to DROP the class, OK?” The guy was WRONG but I still had to follow certain rules or I’d hurt myself.

Being a dreamy yet down-to-earth person makes it seem I am, as my mom always said, “straddling a fence,” but being all or nothing doesn’t avail anything. The phrase, “Supposed to” and the other one “Shouldn’t be/Should be like that” are now just kind of annoying. How things are supposed to be vs. how they are? We live here, where things are as they are. Even if we think they could be better, we have to start here. And “shouldn’t be like that?” A lot of things shouldn’t be the way they are, but they ARE that way. It’s already difficult enough to see things as they are. I’m never 100% sure I have succeeded in that.

The question is, “What is a person going to do about it?” That’s a very pragmatic question. If there is nothing to do other than accept it and move forward, that’s what you do. If there are remedies in one’s power, that’s another story.

Still, it took a few years — and a major depressive crisis occasioned by the question, “What’s real, anyway?” — for me to grow into my own essential philosophy, which, it turns out is “I have no fucking clue.” As my personal pragmatic philosophy evolved, I found it here, in a seldom (if ever) quoted part of Ecclesiastes 3, that “to everything there is a season” bit, but verses 9 – 13:

What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. I know that there is no good in them (any of this), but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.  And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God... (KJV)


I think that pragmatism is summed up in the Alcoholic Anonymous prayer. in fact, if there’s a pragmatic definition anywhere of pragmatism it’s, “…God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Since there came a moment when I walked away from the study of philosophy (what was the point?) I only know what any “Intro to Western Philosophy” student knows about this stuff and, maybe, a little more having read the enormous biography of William James written by my thesis advisor, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. It’s an amazing book.

I remember the day I went to my philosophy teacher — Dr. Ria Stavrides — and said, “I’m changing my major. I don’t see much point in a philosophy major. I’ve thought a lot of this stuff already on my own.” An eminently pragmatic reason for changing majors…

“I understand, Martha,” she said in her Bavarian accent. “You’re an artist, not a philosopher.”

She was pretty pragmatic, too.



*The title of this post is a quotation of something my one-time boyfriend said. Clearly, I never forgot it.

** The featured photo is the pragmatic solution I have found for walking my very large, very powerful dog. I can’t control her completely. If something charges us I will let go, but mostly… Though now she understands the limits of her range and she wants to be with me. The halter is “just in case” because, you know, people.



13 thoughts on ““Interesting Paradox, but How Useful Is It?”

  1. When I was in school we spent a lot of time learning about “Frames of Reference”, which were to guide us in our practice. Later, when I was working one-on-one training a student (as her Clinical Instructor), she asked what Frame of Reference I was using. Conscious thought about frames of reference had pretty much fallen by the wayside once I started working. I told her my frame of reference is “what works”. Maybe I could expand that to “try stuff and see what works, then keep doing that.” Fifteen years later, that is still my primary frame of reference. I don’t think anyone has published a scholarly article articulating that. There aren’t enough big words there.

  2. I have that AA prayer carved in a black stone sign of some kind. It used to hang in my in-laws’ house and was something that we held onto. It hangs right next to the front door, so I see it when I leave the condo. My in-laws didn’t go to AA and either do we. But it speaks to me. Perhaps more so that I am older and really, what is the point of questioning everything. So much “is what it is” that acceptance is much less exhausting…unless, as you say, there is something that CAN be done. So I may have evolved into more of a pragmatic person than I used to be. Maybe it’s an aging thing. I was raised under a “should be/do” umbrella; never mind who I actually was. It took years to get out from under that.
    I took one Philosophy course (called “Explanation”) in college. What a disaster as I had no idea what was going on (maybe I was too logical). My father was a Philosophy major at an Ivy League college and he was terrible at personal communication. So there you go.
    Sweet photo of Bear 🙂

  3. I find that philosophy is easier to digest in a fictional form, like reading Herman Hesse or Cervantes. I like to trick myself all the time to make things more palatable–for example, I did it today when my girlfriend dragged me to the swap meet. I said, “this is great.” Wait….what were we talking about again?

    • Ha ha ha ha ha! Many are the Sundays I spent at the swap meet, the one in El Cajon. No philosophy served to redeem those lost mornings. And a resounding “Yes!” to fiction.

  4. I am a realist and have become more pragmatic with age (it seems the normal progression). I was once a dreamer and very idealistic but life has a way of winding you up and spinning you around until you have to accept what is and decide what to do about it!!

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