30. Pragmatism and Tragic Conflict, Part 2

In the last post, I defined tragic conflict and suggested three reasons why we should take it seriously. Now, let us ask:

How Can We Address Tragic Conflict?

In 1960 Sidney Hook wrote an essay entitled “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life”. Hook’s twenty-two page essay argues that American pragmatism is consistent with a sense of the tragic. Here is his summary:

“I am more interested here in stating a position than establishing it. As I understand the pragmatic perspective on life, it is an attempt to make it possible for men to live in a world of inescapable tragedy—a tragedy that flows from the conflict of moral ideals—without lamentation, defiance, or make-believe. According to this perspective even in the best of human worlds there will be tragedy—tragedy perhaps without bloodshed, but certainly not without tears. It focuses its analysis on problems of normative social inquiry in order to reduce the costs of tragedy. Its view of man is therefore melioristic, not optimistic.” Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life. (New York: Basic, 1974), p. 22.

Hook argues that the best way to approach tragic conflict is with a melioristic attitude and intelligent social inquiry.  But what do these terms mean?


Meliorism is essentially an attitude that sees improvement as neither necessary (optimism) nor impossible (pessimism). We do more justice to the facts of experience when we assert that some conditions of the world’s improvement exist and that progress becomes more probable as preventing conditions become less probable. In the face of tragic conflict, the pessimist may not try hard enough and the optimist may not face the facts. Of course, this means we may fail and that there may be no power waiting to catch us if we fall.  But this is exactly what allows meliorists to be heroic in the face of tragedy.  According to William James, heroism implies effort, risk, and some ideal worth fighting for. Meliorists want to improve conditions in order to reduce the costs of tragic conflict so they have an ideal. But attached to the realization of this ideal will be effort and the risk of failure.


John Dewey argued that intelligence is essentially a certain type of inquiry with a certain type of pattern. He defines this pattern as follows:

“Observation of the detailed makeup of the situation; analysis into its diverse factors; clarification of what is obscure; discounting of the more insistent and vivid traits; tracing the consequences of the various modes of action that present themselves; regarding the decision reached as hypothetical and tentative until the supposed consequences which led to its adoption have been squared with actual consequences. This inquiry is intelligence.” (The Middle Works of John Dewey, Vol. 12, p. 173)

The purpose of intelligent inquiry is to liberate us from certain habits:

“The pragmatic theory of intelligence means that the function of mind is to project new and more complex ends—to free experience from routine and caprice. Not the use of thought to accomplish purposes already given either in the mechanism of the body or in that of the existent state of society, but the use of intelligence to liberate and liberalize action—that is the pragmatic lesson.” (The Middle Works of John Dewey, Vol. 12, p. 45)

Unfortunately, it is not enough to understand the pattern conceptually. For one also needs certain habits or virtues if it is to be actualized. Dewey describes these virtues with subtle differences and similarities. There are, however, a core set which he discusses quite often:

  • Being conscientious or being interested in finding out what the actual good of a certain situation is
  • Maintaining a bias toward fairness and objectivity when judging and evaluating conflicting values and opinions
  • Seeking the good of a situation in a community of inquiry if possible
  • Being emotionally sensitive and especially sympathetic to the values and feelings of those in the situation
  • Carefully reflecting upon the relevant aspects of the situation
  • Exercising one’s imagination to see new possibilities and have a sense of the situation as a whole
  • Being willing to change our beliefs in light of consequences and learn from the past

It would be a serious mistake to believe that these virtues function in isolation from one another. In fact, it is just the reverse: they work together in an indefinite number of ways and in doing so make moral deliberation more insightful and productive. But how exactly can these virtues help us reduce the necessary costs of tragic conflict? In the next two posts I will take each of these virtues and discuss them in some detail. Once we understand them we will be in a better position to make more intelligent judgments in tragic conflict and, in doing so, we may (not necessarily) reduce the costs of the necessary sacrifices that such conflict inevitably entails.

Go here for part three.

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