We are all philosophers. At least, we all have some philosophy that informs the way we live. Most of us go throughout life without examining the principles that guide our thinking and how those thoughts are often shaped by the society in which we live. Adrienne Kather is the author of this week's blog article and she invites us to challenge our philosophy by first helping us understand where to start. Here is what she has to say:

I don’t know about you, but I had never really given much thought to the philosophy of pragmatism or how it effects the way we (especially we Americans) think. In fact, if someone would have asked me about pragmatism I probably wouldn’t even had known it was a philosophy. The only thing I would have known is that I associated being pragmatic with being practical. Over the last year I’ve learned quite a bit about pragmatism and how it effects the way we think. Although I am not a philosopher by any means, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned and its application to topics that come up in counseling sessions.

According to Stephen Hicks, PhD., pragmatism is America’s contribution to philosophy, whereas idealism and realism come from European philosophers. There are three main aspects to the philosophy of pragmatism. I’m going to only tell the very basics here, if you’d like to hear more detail you can watch the videos by Stephen Hicks, PhD. referenced at the end of this article. First, pragmatists believe that the world and everything in the world is continually changing. Second, pragmatists are skeptical about obtaining absolute knowledge. This makes sense since they believe that everything is constantly changing, because of this experience is most important in obtaining information. Third, compared to the other main philosophies, pragmatism is more concerned with and democratic in determining societal values.

If everything is changing and absolute knowledge cannot be obtained, the question is then “what is truth?” Well, in a system where absolute knowledge cannot be obtained and experience is paramount in knowing, truth has to be functional. Therefore, truth has to be what works. Then the question is “what works?” What works is what achieves/satisfies our desires. Yet, our desires are subjective – they are both subject to change and subjective in individual experience. Therefore, truth is subjective. The problem with this is what does one say then about those in society who are clearly hurting others and hurting society. The 2nd generation of pragmatists answered that question by adding the word society to the formula – what works for society and what satisfies societal desires. Then one can say that something that what our society has decided is harmful to others is unacceptable; however, one still cannot determine what is acceptable in other societies. This is where pragmatism is more social – society determines through debate and discussion what the values will be for their society.

Out of the three basic tenants, the three aspects that surface as the most important influencers of how we think are emphasis on what works, emphasis on experience, emphasis on truth being subjective. Now, there are times when placing an emphasis on what works is important and necessary. There are times when relying on or at least considering experience is important. There are even times when applicable truth on a matter is subjective. The problem is that we often (probably usually) emphasize these elements when there are other, and sometimes more significant, questions that need to be asked to determine how we will think and act.

Because essentially any topic effecting one’s life can be a topic in counseling, the topics brought to counseling where the influence of pragmatism is evident are innumerable. So, I will just highlight a few that stand out to me.

The first is when a person in counseling thinks that the counseling isn’t working because they aren’t feeling better or the problem isn’t instantaneously solved. Pragmatic influence has caused us to believe that something is only working if it works right away, and because what works is based on our desires (and we desire the problem to be solved right away), we think it isn’t working because it isn’t solved quickly. The problem is that rarely are topics in counseling resolved in entirety quickly. Counseling is more like changing your diet or working out – results usually happen (and are longer lasting) when they happen slowly over time. Of course, even in a change of diet or working out we still desire to see quick results. The other factor to take into consideration is that when you are working on an issue that requires healing (rather than only learning management techniques), sometimes you might even feel worse before you start to feel better…which wouldn’t fit into pragmatic thinking at all!

The second is the idea that if someone has not experienced the exact problem you are experiencing, they cannot understand or help you. Therefore, if the counselor has not had your experience, the counselor cannot understand or help you. If the counselor is not married, how could he or she help a married couple? If the counselor is not a parent, how can the counselor help with parenting? If the counselor doesn’t have a history of addiction, how can he or she help those with addiction? And the list goes on and on. The emphasis on experience in this example needs to be called into question. Despite what the pragmatic influence has engrained in us to believe, experience is not the only way to knowledge. In fact, sometimes experience is deceiving and not the best way to accurate knowledge at all. Let’s just look at one of these examples a little deeper. Let’s look at a counselor who is not a parent. When looking at the experience it is clear that there are some things that counselor wouldn’t know in an experiential way, such as what it’s like to wake up to a crying baby. However, they do have training in emotional and psychological development and many other things related to parenting that will help the parent raise a child to an adult who is a healthy, responsible, contributing member of society.

Along the same lines as the last idea is when we won’t receive knowledge because we’ve swallowed that all knowledge is subjective. Of course, some knowledge is subjective. For example, my sister’s baby overheats and therefore becomes overstimulated easily, so she doesn’t have to bundle him up too heavily, but people criticize her thinking that she has not sufficiently bundled him. However, not all knowledge is subjective. For example, defaulting to the use of emotional consequences with your child (shaming, yelling, etc.) has a negative impact on emotional and psychological development even if it may work in the moment to get compliance. The more important question is whether it is teaching what they need to know for life about themselves, relationships, God and the world around them. That is not subjective.

How is pragmatic philosophy negatively effecting areas in your life? It’s not that we shouldn’t look to see if something is working, shouldn’t take experience into consideration, and shouldn’t accept the subjective experience of others. It is that we should not overly or only be relying on those things especially when there are other significant things to also take into consideration. If it is true it will work (eventually), but just because it works doesn’t mean it is true. Experience is important, but can be clouded by misperception and past experiences. Relying on our subjective knowledge hinders us from seeing the truth outside of ourselves.

By Adrienne Kather, LPC

Hicks, S. (2010, May). Philosophy of Education, Part 9: Pragmatism. Pragmatic Philosophy, Clips 1 – 14. CEE Video Channel. Retrieved from the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkOZ4IyAbNA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ug271VCMaDY, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFRbaAYJ8vo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YZiK7NbEj0, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-qDzJza2Zc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=talfsQ3Pq98, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZWip5kQZKs, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pin3BhNX-s, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_mVbidBk18, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RubeW3Htn2Q, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSIvKcLaJyc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z56IxrIZ0BA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgoqqwOJKgg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQwDRVym1I0