A Dose of Pragmatism to Counter Extremism?


What divides the world

The recent terror attacks in Europe have collapsed questions on public policy, strategic affairs and social integration to a rare common standstill: how to curb dogmatic religious influence and yet protect civil liberties? It is evident that today’s is a confrontational world. Newer and bolder forms of violent fundamentalism tear across both the Muslim and non-Muslim societies. In response, backlash from civil society has also been intense. When I was walking through the Christmas markets of Brussels the past December, it was like walking into a war-zone. After Paris terror attacks in November and Charlie Hebdo massacre in early 2015, there was heightened security to guard against potential threats in all major European capitals, especially Brussels. Yet, it was attacked. Will tightening security, imposing stricter border controls and deporting migrants solve the problems? Can political extremism counter religious extremism? I would disagree, unless an important distinction is made: what divides the world of ‘rationality’ and that of ‘beliefs’?

This was a central theme in the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism, especially the branch led by William James in late 19th and early 20th century. James saw the worlds of science and beliefs as a ‘clash of human temperaments’ between the ‘tough minded empiricist’ and the ‘tender minded religionist’. While the loyalty of the tough-minded is to facts, the tender-minded places more confidence in human values; while the tough-minded is more suited to skepticism, the tender-minded is more prone to romanticism. Pragmatism conceded that society like a human body is not only made up of a mind but also thrives on a heart; that there is a need to accommodate both the temperaments and not to necessarily see science, religion and morality in competition. A favorite example of William James was the syllogism of a human trying to get sight of a squirrel running around a tree which runs just fast enough to always keep the tree between itself and the human witness. The answer to the metaphysical question of ‘does the man go around the squirrel or not’, according to James depends on what is ‘practically’ meant by ‘going around’. So if it means passing from north of it to east to south and then to west, then the answer would be ‘yes’ the man goes around the squirrel. If it means going in front of it, to behind it and then coming back to its front, then it is ‘no’. This is a typical pragmatic resolution of disputes.

Modernity and Co-existence

Modernity, unfortunately, in its over-enthusiasm to overcome the thick clouds of religious oppression in medieval-Europe marginalized, if not ignored, this need of the society. What this has led to today is another form of social inequality where control over information, social opinion and public policy are concentrated with a small proportion of the tough-minded creating a sense of mainstream alienation by the tender-minded. If we have to move forward, those who wield power over information cannot afford to be victims of a modernistic fallacy that scientific temper is the only way to design the contours of public space. It has to acknowledge that there is no ‘ruling’ epistemology and real liberalism is to find the reconciliation between these temperaments. What such a pragmatic approach will do is to bring believers that ‘reason’ into the mainstream. In other words, it will increase the critical mass of liberals in public and intellectual space. This will go a long distance in not only reducing the feeling of alienation and mortification  by the tender-minded but also make them responsible for detecting spiteful elements who only wear the mask of tenderness and victimhood. Unless mutual respect and reconciliation becomes the grain of new thinking, liberalism founded on science and rationality will remain elitist and religions will tend towards fanaticism. For a pragmatist, more than hysteria, this would counter extremism more effectively.

About Author

Dr. Ranjan Ghosh

Dr. Ranjan Ghosh is an economist with a keen interest in the philosophy of science and dharma. He earned his Ph.D. from Humboldt University Berlin, Germany and conducting part of his work at the Nobel Prize winning Elinor Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. He currently works and teaches at the Department of Economics, SLU Uppsala, Sweden

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