The Jazz of James, Part II: Jazz as Pragmatism

Part I is below.

In 1878 the term pragmatism was coined by Charles Sanders Pierce. The renowned William James admired the obscure Pierce’s work. They became friends; and the saintly James helped out Pierce, both personally and professionally, throughout his troubled life. James adopted his friend’s word pragmatism and popularized it as a way of describing the mind’s truth-making process. The prickly Pierce thought James’s formulation was theoretically a little inaccurate and so changed the name of his theory to pragmaticism, which he felt was “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.”

Though James’s version of pragmatism inspired major thinkers of the twentieth century (DuBois, Dewey, Whitehead, et al.) and even gave rise to Pragmatic Clubs all across Europe, the term was quickly perverted in the popular mind, which is hardly surprising. Whenever the public is touched by a philosophical school, the meaning of its name is warped. Pragmatism in its degraded sense implies something like ruthlessness in accomplishing a goal. “Be pragmatic” often simply means: “Stop worrying about your ideals and do whatever it takes to assert your will.” Business moguls and Secretaries of State in particular tend to be described as pragmatists. The point of their skewed pragmatism is to narrow their focus to the most pressing problem and find an expedient way of fixing it.

Though pragmatism does more or less mean “truth is what works,” it must work in the context of the whole buzzing, blooming, streaming mix of our consciousness with the world. The problem with our degraded “pragmatism” is basically that of someone with a flat tire who’s willing to do anything to get it fixed, including driving on it for a few miles to reach a mechanic. We “pragmatically” fix one problem by buckling the rims of the whole. G.K. Chesterton gives the poignant example of his community deciding against a war memorial on the “pragmatic” grounds that their money could be better spent on something “useful,” like a meeting hall.

If they did not approve of wasting money on a War Memorial, let us scrap the War Memorial and save the money. But to do something totally different which we wanted to do, on pretense of doing something else that we did not do, was unworthy of Homo Sapiens . . . I think that many still thought that I was not practical; though in fact I was very specially practical for those who understand what is really meant by a Pragma.

Building a war memorial is a very pragmatic way of commemorating war; and commemorating war is a perfectly pragmatic endeavor for a human community. But Chesterton’s neighbors myopically saw only one kind of practicality and so were willing to do something unpractical in the name of pragmatism. If you wish to find a wealth of examples closer to home, simply examine our various “pragmatic” attempts to fix our education system, where all sorts of crying needs are given short shrift in order to raise test scores or maximize the bottom line.

The proper understanding of pragmatism, which James calls “a new name for some old ways of thinking,” is well expressed in the New Testament: “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” James’s idea is that we’re thrown into the world with a complex system of goals and desires, which themselves can be modified, and we test our beliefs by their fitness to attain our various ends. “Truth is simply a collective name for the verification processes, just as health, wealth, strength, etc. are names for other processes connected with life. Truth is made, just as health, wealth, and strength are made, in the course of experience.” Most theories of truth wrongly assume that our consciousness sits pleasantly outside the world and looks on, like a moviegoer at a movie. They fail to appreciate just how plunged into the world we are. Not only are we in the movie, we influence where the plot goes! James’s crucial shift moves the epistemological emphasis from rules and theories to consequences and practices, from roots to fruits. As important as rules and theories are (and it would be deeply unpragmatic of us to forget their importance), they are special arcs of experience onto experience; we have to judge them ultimately by their powers and effects. Another perfect New-Testament expression of pragmatism is: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” To side with a rule over human benefit is to forget that rules, like the sabbath, were made by us for our benefit.

The arts generally are a superb example of pragmatism. Admirers of art tend to talk of art in terms of beauty, entertainment, feeling, and so on. It’s interesting that when you hear artists talk, they’re more likely to describe art as a search for truth: what they’re getting at, I think, is essentially Jamesian pragmatism. As Jacques Barzun says in his ecstatic A Walk with William James, “[W]ithin his art, the artist is the pragmatist par excellence . . . His whole effort is to realize his aims, formal and intuitive. Art is fashioned for results and is judged by them: noble intentions, fine sentiments, studious technique do not count, only success–success, that is, in making a conception real.” Artists can formulate and make use of rules (“show don’t tell,” Aristotle’s rules for tragedy, etc.) as aids in consolidating their artistic power, but ultimately the most important rule is Orwell’s: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Rightly we look back on the chastisers of the “irregular” Shakespeare as fools.

Jazz is the artistic expression of pragmatism par excellence in that it adds real-time urgency to the artistic endeavor. It’s about doing something that works now. There’s a leisureliness to classical composition: the cultural sense of having plenty of time, perhaps even infinite time, to realize a conception. Likewise, there’s a nervousness to pop music: the cultural sense of having no time but the present to make something work. Insofar as pop music never gets past simple formulas, it represents the degraded pragmatism of simply getting by, even when it buckles our rims. Jazz is pop music–i.e., democratic music–that is ennobling. So, while jazz often suggests the nervousness of pop culture in its crazy rhythms, jazz musicians try to work out something meaningful and rich in the moment of improvisation. At their frequent best, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and company are able to create their own sense of time and lay down an expansive form of existence in the pressing flow of the New World. Their music is pragmatism in action.

The essayistic art of jazz is our best musical expression, as pragmatism is the best philosophical expression, of the art of living in the New World. It channels our native nobility into something useful in the wide-open vistas of modernity. In The Conquest of America, Todorov points to the conqueror Cortes as an early practitioner:

It is remarkable to see Cortes not only constantly practicing the art of adaptation and improvisation, but also being aware of it and claiming it as the very principle of conduct: “I shall always take care to add whatever seems to me most fitting, for the great size and diversity of the lands which are being discovered each day and the many new secrets which we have learned from the discoveries make it necessary that for new circumstances there be new considerations and decisions; should it appear in anything I now say or might say to your Majesty that I contradict what I have said in the past, Your Highness may be assured that it is because a new fact elicits a new opinion.”

Pragmatism is the attitude for every immigrant who arrives here yearning to breathe free and pursue happiness; it was the flexible attitude required of all those young men and women who went West and founded households, colleges, and places of worship; it was implicit in the amendments built into our founding documents; it is what we imagine in our mythic cowboy who strikes off into the wild and establishes law through a tragic act of violence; it’s the adaptive art of inventors, entrepreneurs, explorers, scientists, handymen, newlyweds, parents, and all who come into a bewildering situation with fragments of knowledge and tradition, half-trusted and half-doubted, and put into play as much of who they are in order to make life livable and happy. If this art has a sound, it’s jazz, what Whitney Balliet memorably called “the sound of surprise,” where the individuality of the performer is put into jeopardy and has to rise heroically to the occasion.

But it’s a dangerously alluring overstatement to make jazz or America all about the violent dynamism of improvisation, a mistake similar to holding that our economic system is all about the “creative destruction” (an Austrian’s phrase) that leads to profit, or that the promise of our society lies in everybody living according to a private conception of what’s pleasing, or that our history is nothing more than a record of conquest. As conquistadorial as Louis Armstrong (to take the supreme example) can be in his improvisations, his music is also shot through with compassion for suffering, and firmly committed to the integrity of melody and song structure and ensemble and audience; likewise, James’s pragmatism is humanized by his blues-understanding. Armstrong is crystal clear about this: “I’m doing something different all the time, but I always think of them fine old cats way down in New Orleans–Joe and Bunk and Tio and Buddy Bolden–and when I play my music, that’s what I’m listening to. The way they phrased so pretty and always on the melody, and none of that out-of-the-world music, that pipedream music, that whole modern malice.”

Part III is here.

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5 Responses to The Jazz of James, Part II: Jazz as Pragmatism

  1. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part I: The Blues of the Epileptic Patient | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

  2. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part III: Jazz as Pluralism | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

  3. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part IV: The Gospel of Jazz | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

  4. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part V: The Deepest Human Life | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

  5. Pingback: The Jazz of James, Part VI: The Solid Meaning of Life | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

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