Science versus Idealism
In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism

by Maurice Cornforth

Chapter 18

7. An “Idealism of Action "—Philosophy of
American Imperialism

Dewey calls pragmatism "an idealism of action." It leads, he says, to "an idealism of action that is devoted to creation of a future, instead of to staking itself upon propositions about the past." Such an idealism, he adds, "is invincible." [a1]

He also informs us that: "A genuine idealism and one compatible with science will emerge as soon as philosophy accepts the teaching of science that ideas are statements not of what is or has been but of acts to be performed. For then mankind will learn that . . . ideas are worthless except as they pass into actions which rearrange and reconstruct in some way, be it little or large, the world in which we live.” [a2]

Thus Dewey announces that pragmatism is an “idealism of action," which considers itself “invincible," and which proceeds to “rearrange and reconstruct” the world, and to “create a future," without seeking any accurate knowledge of “what is or has been" and refusing "to stake itself upon propositions about the past."

Certain prominent features of this “idealism of action” may at once be noted.

(a) It is characterised by the central point of view, expressed by William James, that the “worth” of every idea is to be judged by the “payments” it brings.

In his Pragmatism, James complained of critics who had misrepresented the pragmatists' principle that “the true is that which works" as meaning “that we are persons who think that by saying whatever you find it pleasant to say and calling it truth you fulfil every pragmatistic requirement. "And he indignantly exclaimed: "I leave it to you to judge whether this be not an impudent slander." [a3]

Of course it was a slander. James and the pragmatists never suggested that whatever one finds it pleasant to believe may be regarded as true. They said that whatever it pays to believe may be regarded as true. It is definite and tangible results that count, and results that have a “cash value." Thus the [end of p. 413] pragmatic “idealism of action” inculcates what James called “our general obligation to do what pays."

(b) In affirming this obligation, pragmatism betrays no awareness that what pays one set of people may not pay another. For example, following his “general obligation to do what pays” a capitalist may install some new machinery, with the result that a number of workers find themselves unemployed. This pays the capitalist, but it does not pay the workers. In fact, all that they secure from the transaction is a loss of payments.

Again, if we are to judge the “worth” of ideas by the way they “pass into actions which rearrange and reconstruct the world," then people with different interests—such as capitalists and workers—must often judge of their worth differently. For even on a question of reconstructing the world in a “little" way, class interests in fact diverge; and still more do they diverge on questions of reconstructing the world in a “large” way.

But this consideration never seems to occur to the pragmatists. Pragmatist philosophy always speaks from a point of view in which it is assumed that there is agreement as to what does or does not pay. When it says that “the true is that which works," it assumes agreement as to “that which works."

(c) In saying that every idea is to be regarded as a means or instrumentality for securing payments, and is to be judged by how well it works for such ends, pragmatism is extremely optimistic of the prospects for securing payments, and an indefinite continuation of payments, so long as one goes the right way about it. In this respect it stands in marked contrast to all those types of philosophy which preach the vanity of human efforts, or which represent man as facing a cosmos whose forces he cannot hope to master.

But this optimism is of a curious and irrational kind. On the one hand it is characterised by confidence that “we” can rearrange and reconstruct the world in whatever way suits “our” particular interests, and so can go on securing the kind of payments in which “we” are interested. On the other hand it is characterised by an equal assurance that to achieve this it is not necessary to trouble overmuch about “what is or has been." [414]

Thus this optimism is not based on any sober consideration of objective fact or study of the laws of historical development. It regards the objective world as something quite “indeterminate"—so much raw material waiting to be turned into cash values.

Do not stake yourself upon propositions about the past, for the past does not exist. Never mind about what is or has been. Go all out for future payments, create for yourself the conditions to secure them, and then you will be invincible. That is the message of this “idealism of action."

Such a philosophy was from the beginning peculiarly American. It was born at that period in the history of the United States which followed the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War. It arose at a late stage of the development of the capitalist mode of production, when technique was already highly developed, and when the transition to the monopoly stage was already being prepared. It well expressed the aspirations—the “idealism of action"—of the American capitalist class of that period, the eager search for maximum profits, for ousting competitors, for opening out virgin territories, for continually revolutionising production technique, for overtaking and surpassing the “old world." It expressed the spirit of individual enterprise and initiative., It expressed also the clamant optimism of a period when every citizen (except, of course, black ones) was supposed to be free and equal, and to have an equal opportunity for success and to set up and own his own business.

It was these conditions that brought it about that pragmatists could speak about “payments” and about “ideas that work” without any difficulty being felt by them or their audiences as to what was meant. A millionaire and a worker were both supposed to have the same conception of what constituted successful practice, i.e., the millionaire's conception. And if the worker's son went to a university, it was hoped that he would learn there the same ideas which helped the millionaire to be successful.

Pragmatism taught that ideas of that sort were the “true" ones, and all others were worthless. More, it taught that nothing else could be meant by “truth” than the quality of leading to success. To mean anything else was to be [415] unpractical, to adopt a contemplative philosophy instead of a practical one.

Thus William James, in his lectures on Pragmatism, poured scorn on the whole idea that truth consisted in correspondence with fact—that true ideas in some sense “copied” facts.

"I can indeed imagine what the copying might mean," he said, “but I can conjure up no motive." What difference does it make to “copy” reality? he asked; and answered, none at all. "When the Irishman's admirers ran him along to the place of banquet in a sedan chair with no bottom, he said, 'Faith, if it wasn't for the honour of the thing, I might as well have come on foot!'" So, "but for the honour of the thing," reality might just as well remain uncopied. [b1]

What was wanted was not to “copy” reality in ideas, not to look for any objective standard by which we should judge the truth of our ideas, but to assert whatever would best serve our practical ends. Ideas are to be judged in terms of their practical success.

The pragmatist philosophy played an important role in American education. Dewey is as famous for his books on educational theory as for his books on philosophy. He insisted that education begins from birth, and that its purpose is to equip the individual for his practical life as a citizen. This practical side is the important thing, not to fill the youthful mind with “dead knowledge." Another pragmatist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, applied pragmatism in law, proclaiming that law could not be founded on any principles of right but was to be framed entirely for purposes of practical social expediency. In history, the pragmatist John Fiske said that the supreme object of history must be to proclaim “the manifest destiny of the Anglo‑Saxon Race. [b2]

The cultural significance of the pragmatist idea of “success” was quite eloquently expressed by Professor Ralph Barton Perry, of Harvard University, in a contribution on Is There a North American Philosophy? at the Second Inter‑American Congress of Philosophy (December, 1947). Some European readers may think the professor was trying to be funny; but no, he was perfectly serious. He defined the conception [416] of "success" and defended it from the charge of being “materialistic."

"It is a mistake to suppose that the American idea of success is limited to material success. That which is characteristically American is not the exclusion of art, literature, science and religion by the pursuit of wealth, but the introduction into art, literature, science and religion of something of the same spirit and attitude of which the pursuit of wealth affords the most notable or notorious manifestation: not the drowning of culture by the hum of industry, but the idea of making culture hum. And so material success, yes, but any kind of success, with no prejudice whatever against cultural attainment provided it can be recognised and measured as success. The standard is not essentially sordid or commercial, but it is essentially competitive, whether that consists in beating records or in beating other competitors." [c1]

The pragmatist “idealism of action," this philosophy of success, had and continues to have the strongest appeal in the United States. It has never had the same appeal in Europe. Almost without exception the European bourgeois philosophers, whether “rationalist” or “empiricist," have found it hard to understand, unconvincing, and even shocking.

Russell, for instance, in his History of Western Philosophy, finds it decidedly shocking. Its general attitude to the universe he describes as “cosmic impiety." He calls it “a power philosophy” associated with “the age of industrialism," and even says that it expresses “an intoxication of power." “It is natural," he adds, “that its strongest appeal should be to Americans." [c2]

Lord Russell is ready enough nowadays to accept American “world leadership." But, like other members of the British ruling class, he often feels that the Americans go too far and too fast. Their “power philosophy” disturbs him. Its practical results seem dangerous, while its theory hurts his intellectual susceptibilities; he is unwilling to give up the joys of “contemplation."

In England the successful capitalists had tended to imitate the way of life of the landed gentry. As Engels once put it, there was “a compromise between the rising middle‑class and the ex‑feudal landowners. . . . What should the English bourgeois do without his aristocracy, which taught him manners, such as they were, and invented fashions for him—which furnished officers for the army which kept order at home, and the navy which conquered colonial possessions and new markets abroad?" [d1] Hence the persistent demand, still expressed at a high level in the universities, and expressed in the writings of Lord Russell and of a host of less exalted philosophers, for a philosophy adapted to the outlook of a leisure class. In England, and the same was true in other European countries, capitalist culture intermarried with the culture of the landed gentry. But in the United States there was no such marriage. There, the ideal was not leisured contemplation of the good, true and beautiful, but to “make culture hum." The American universities were financed by businessmen, run by businessmen and were intended to produce successful businessmen. Hence the origin of a truly businesslike philosophy—pragmatism. This philosophy is practical, optimistic, ready for rapid change; and its sole standard of values is that which works—which pays.

Pragmatism was, then, the intellectual product of the newest capitalist country, the U.S.A., and of the specific and new conditions of development of capitalist enterprise which obtained there.

It is just this, indeed, which gives it the advanced and go-ahead air which it assumes in comparison with most European bourgeois philosophy. Of all the philosophies of capitalist society, it is the most purely capitalist. More than any other brand of bourgeois or capitalist philosophy, it has emancipated itself from the scholasticism and mysticism dating from pre-capitalist conditions. And with that, it has emancipated itself too from every remaining scruple regarding the search for truth and fidelity to principles. It expresses a single-minded devotion to securing profits and payments, to scoring over competitors, to making good, to opening up new fields for business enterprise, to subordinating absolutely everything to that enterprise. [418]

It is a philosophy of action completely brutal, cynical and ruthless in its expression of capitalist individualism. And at the same time, as Dewey boasts, it is an “idealism of action." It succeeds in idealising as no other philosophy has done the capitalist scramble and fight for profits and competitive advantage under cover of high‑sounding doctrines about knowledge and truth and human welfare.

It denounces “materialism," treats religion and morality with the greatest respect—and at the same time succeeds in combining this with a “naturalistic” view of human affairs by which it stakes its claim to be fully scientific, down to earth, free of illusions and idealistic fancies.

If once one grasps the capitalist nature of pragmatist philosophy, and concretely that it is the “idealism of action” of American capitalism, then all its seeming confusions and inconsistencies fall into place. As a logical system it altogether lacks consistency, as a class ideology it is strikingly consistent.

The entire pragmatist theory of knowledge and truth is idealist, and its “naturalism” is nothing but a camouflage of subjective idealism. Its demand that theory shall serve the ends of practice, disguised as it often is by phrases about general “human welfare"—for the pragmatists are convinced that successful business enterprise is synonymous with human progress—amounts to the demand that theory shall serve the ends of capitalist practice, of business enterprise.

It is a subtle form of idealism in which was expressed the outlook and aspirations of the American capitalist class, their “idealism of action." And at the same time it is a system of social demagogy and deception. For the whole tendency of the spread and popularisation of pragmatist philosophy has been to help instil this same capitalist outlook in the minds of the American people. It has glorified the ways of capitalism before the people, taught those who suffer exploitation to identify their own interests with those of their exploiters and to entertain illusory hopes for their own future within the framework of the capitalist social system.

The founders of the pragmatist philosophy in the last quarter of the 19th century looked both backwards and forwards. Looking backwards, they could not but feel that the old type of theology and religious philosophy which was then being [420] widely taught in the United States was played out. They were right. For it was not adapted to serve the new conditions of rapid capitalist industrial development, either as a system of ideas satisfying to the capitalist forces themselves or as an ideological defence against the growing organised struggle of the working class. Hence the attack upon the traditional doctrines of idealism with which the pragmatists began their philosophical campaign. Looking forwards, they invented the doctrine that truth is that which works, that setting practical ends before themselves and seeking practical “fruits” and “payments," people are justified in asserting as true whatever serves those ends. Truth, principle, reason were all to be replaced by expediency.

It was in this way that while American capitalism was still moving into the monopoly stage, and while American imperialism was still in process of gestation, American philosophers produced those ideas which constituted the most perfect ideological preparation for the acceptance of imperialism, and which provided American imperialism itself with its philosophy.

The pragmatist philosophy perfectly expresses the world outlook and aspirations of those forces which have gathered to themselves and monopolised all the “fruits and payments” accruing from capitalist development—big business and the billionaire trusts.

Behind all Dewey's generalities about theory and practice, knowledge and truth, in which everything is subordinated to success measured by results and payments, lies the ruthless justification of the expansionist policy of big business, which is idealised as “the creation of the future” and “the reconstruction of the world in which we live."

Taken at its face value, as a philosophical statement, the pragmatist principle that “the true is that which works “is an extremely confused and inaccurate theory about truth—a theory that, philosophically speaking, works very badly. But this theory becomes the perfect expression of the regard for truth of all the agents and hangers‑on of the big business world. It is the “philosophy” of the sales expert, of the party boss, of the imperialist politician. All of them are purveyors of ideas who are interested in getting certain results, and the sole [421] property of ideas which concerns them is the property of helping to get those results.

At the same time, the pragmatist philosophy has a characteristically deceptive, demagogic flavour. In John Dewey's writings, for instance, this demagogy was carried to great lengths.

That is the real meaning of Dewey's extraordinary verbosity, of his way of covering up whatever he has to say with a curtain of vague, ambiguous and high‑sounding phrases—a way of writing which became more pronounced with every new book he wrote in the course of his long career as a philosopher of imperialism. Dewey's philosophy was subjective idealism, but he managed to present it as “naturalistic." Dewey's philosophy recognised no such thing as truth, but he managed to present it as a theory of truth.

Imperialism always has recourse to social demagogy. The American imperialists have nothing to learn in this respect from their junior partners, the British, or from the German fascists and Japanese militarists they have now taken under their wing. American imperialism has its own brand of demagogy, of which the pragmatist philosophy serves as one of the expressions. It calls big business monopolies “free enterprise” and their unrestricted rule “democracy." It seeks to extend its domination over other peoples under cover of opposing antiquated conceptions of nationalism and national sovereignty, and to trample on human rights in the name of the defence of individual freedom. Dewey and the pragmatists are past masters of such demagogy in the sphere of philosophy.

Lastly, the significance of the pragmatist teachings about the existence of the objective world, and of the peculiar tone of optimism pervading the pragmatist philosophy needs to be appreciated.

The pragmatist “idealism of action” says that “ideas are statements, not of what is or has been, but of acts to be performed." It is “devoted to the creation of a future, instead of staking itself upon propositions about the past." This is the same attitude as was expressed more crudely by Henry Ford, when he said that “history is bunk." He was optimistic about the “invincibility" of Ford Motors, and that such an enterprise would not suffer the fate of various other enterprises of [421] the past. Nevertheless Henry Ford was wrong, and so are the pragmatists.

Objective facts and the laws of history are inexorable. Capitalist “progress” inevitably leads to crises, poverty, wars and the destruction of the very means of production which capitalist enterprise creates. The system of business enterprise creates the conditions for its own decline and fall, and has already created them.

But such being the objective fact, pragmatism, as the philosophy of business enterprise, teaches that there is no objective fact, that the objective world is something indeterminate awaiting determination by enterprising practical men, and that we can go ahead to create a future without concern for the past.

This is a naive and illusory optimism. But it has come to constitute a perfect expression of the expansionist strivings of American big business. It expresses the blind determination to “create a future” and to stamp the pattern of that future upon any recalcitrant objective facts which get in the way. At the same time, it prepares men's minds to accept and applaud the ways of American imperialism as an “idealism of action," and to believe that such “idealism of action” is “invincible."

Pragmatism, then, particularly in the form which Dewey has given it, is the philosophy of American imperialism. It expresses the outlook and aspirations of American big business in philosophical form. That is its basis, the real content of all its doctrines.

From this source it derives its go‑ahead appearance and its opposition to various “contemplative” forms of idealism, unsuited to the practical pursuit of maximum profits. But it is impossible not to see that it is itself a form of idealism, and that its real attack is spearheaded, not against idealism, but against materialism, and against Marxist materialism in particular. The pragmatists are least of all “ivory tower” philosophers, but militant partisans of the camp of imperialism against the camp of socialism. That is the meaning of their opposition to the “contemplative” forms of idealism.

And expressing the militant, class point of view of the most reactionary and aggressive section of monopoly capitalism, the American imperialists, pragmatism is at the same time a system [end of p. 422] of demagogy and deception addressed to the American people, seeking to mould their outlook to the outlook of imperialism, to delude them with false slogans about free enterprise and democracy, about creating a future and reconstructing the world, while inciting them against whatever is anti‑imperialist and progressive.


a1  Quest for Certainty, p. 289. [—> main text]

a2  Ibid., p. 133. [—> main text]

a3  W. James: Pragmatism, p. 233. [—> main text]

b1  W. James: Pragmatism, p. 235. [—> main text]

b2  See H. K. Wells: Pragmatism, Philosophy of Imperialism. [—> main text]

c1  Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. IX, No. 3, March, 1949, p. 358. [—> main text]

c2  Russell: History of Western Philosophy, pp. 854‑6. [—> main text]

d1  Engels: Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Introduction. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice [Campbell]. Science versus Idealism: In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1975. Reprint of the 1962 ed. published by International Publishers, New York. 463 pp. Original edition 1955. Based on Science versus Idealism (1946) and In Defence of Philosophy (1950). Chapter 18: Pragmatism, section 7: "An “Idealism of Action "—Philosophy of American Imperialism," pp. 413-423. Footnotes have been converted into endnotes and renumbered for ease of reference.

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