Whales, Bitumen, Fidel Castro, Pragmatism & the Death of Philosophy

Alex, April 20 1961, Austin, Texas — Photograph Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C.

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that began in the United States around 1870. Charles Sanders Peirce, generally considered to be its founder, later described it in his pragmatic maxim:

Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.

Pragmatism rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Instead, pragmatists consider thought an instrument or tool for prediction, problem solving and action. Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics — such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science — are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes. The philosophy of pragmatism “emphasizes the practical application of ideas by acting on them to actually test them in human experiences”. Pragmatism focuses on a “changing universe rather than an unchanging one as the Idealists, Realists and Thomists had claimed”.


Nora Patrich & Justin Trudeau, Buenos Aires November 2016

I look at social media (Facebook and Twitter) and notice how people go at each other’s throats over politics, environmental issues and animal rights.

These people are either on one side or the other. There seems to be no middle ground. It would seem that US political polarization happens in other countries and in all things.

I remember exactly what I was doing during the Kennedy/Nixon debates and I remember, too the day after the ill-fated Bay of Pigs. I wrote about it here.

It was at St. Edward’s High School in Austin Teas in the late 50s that I learned first about Thomism (read the above excerpt on pragmatism from Wikipedia). St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine were the two most important scholars not only of doctrine but of philosophy in the Roman Catholic Church.

Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C. (MAs in music and mathematics) taught us religion (better if I use the more formal and wider term theology). Reggio taught us ethics (mentioning the Greeks in the process) logic (also the Greeks) and taught us stuff that I now recognize as philosophy.

Even though he knew we were wasting time on purpose he played along when we would ask him when a venial sin became a mortal sin or delving into civics when a misdemeanour became a felony. We asked him if dogs had souls and at what point could an animal think. Our favourite time-waster was how much money you had to steal from an old lady before the venial sin became a mortal sin.

Because of his math background he would explain to us the concept of (without us knowing that it was basic calculus) of infinitesimals and that at one point something became something else entirely somewhere in a mathematical infinity.

You might at this point reject the idea of my having had a Roman Catholic education. But the fact is that Brother Edwin taught us how to think.

It was when I was 21 that I so much enjoyed a basic philosophy class with professor Ramón Xirau at Mexico City College that I took many more courses. From Xirau I learned the philosophy of the Pre-Socratics to the man now ignored or reviled as he backed Hitler, Martin Heidegger. Xirau put special emphasis on the philosophy of Hegel and Kierkegaard so that a few years later I read more Hegel while in a Buenos Aires Argentine Navy brig (for insubordination). On my trip back after the navy to Mexico I read some Spengler.

No I am no expert on philosophy. Most of it went in one side of me and out the other. But if anything it taught me to be pragmatic.

Consider the people who justifiably (in Vancouver) do not want our Vancouver Aquarium to keep any more whales. The last beluga died a week ago. It would be difficult to be against this. But there is something that I might call (others have coined it I am sure) Creeping Ethics.

I broke my rule of not ranting or participating in a discussion on animal rights. I simply said (using our Brother Edwin waste/time tactics) if whales are seen as sentient beings we must first agree on what that definition is. Is an octopus (not as pretty as a beluga or a killer whale) a sentient being? It is very intelligent. How about those cute sea otters? Are they sentient? And I could go on and on with this silly logic. I was immediately rebuffed as those who read my points did not understand the purpose of it.

And let’s now go to Castro. Some as my very good Argentine artist friend Nora Patrich,(who uses the very strong Spanish word militante to describe her left-wing philosophy which she has had for many years) thinks that Fidel Castro Rus (we in Argentina like to use Castro’s mother’s name too. Are we early feminists?) is next to God. She mentions Cuba’s excellent health system and boasts how Cuban children are all in school and never in the street.

And then there are the folks on the other side who stress Fidel’s authoritarian methods and the fact that he was a very (very) rich man. And they also point out his jailing and systematic elimination (death perhaps?) of any who disagreed with his policies.

We Canadians (many of us, anyway) have been lambasting Justin Trudeu for his eulogy on Fidel Castro.

Any Argentine would recognize the post-Tito style and method of being a gadfly to the horse that is the United States of America.

I would never post here my political views or opinions on the above but I would draw the line when my friend Patrich posts a photograph of Fidel Castro facing the then President of Argentina Néstor Kirchner as two great men of the century. As far as I could tell the only resemblance is that one of them was richer than the other.

But enough of this and on to the other topic that could do well with a pragmatic approach. And this is oil.

Few know that unless a bottle of vanilla has a label that says it is 100% vanilla that most vanilla (particularly in ice cream) is a petroleum bi-product. The amount of plastic in a green Prius or Volt is alarmingly high and that too is a petroleum bi-product. The same can be said for many of the synthetic clothing materials and the plastic shoes so popular in third world countries.

The very panels to convert solar energy into electricity contain a lot of plastic.

There must be a middle ground somewhere. And it is called pragmatism. But pragmatism now is a bidproduct of the death of philosophy in this 21st century.

And how many people either pro or against Castro know of the delights of Ernesto Lecuona, Nicolás Guillén & Alejo Carpentier? The latter, one of the formost novelists of Latin America in the past century, was a music critic who coined the term magic realism and was the Cuban Cultural Minister in Paris for you know who’s regime. And thanks to the loosening of relations between the US and Cuba (we in Canada got to see him live first) there is that tremendous jazz pianist Ernesto Rubalcava, who perhaps due to the isolation of his country from the world developed a style as original as that of Thelonious Monk.

Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.

Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at:http://t.co/yf6BbOIQ alexwh@telus.net

Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at:http://t.co/yf6BbOIQ alexwh@telus.net