The Virtue of Muddling Through
Note: The following post was originally published almost ten years ago at http://gleamingsword.blogspot.com on August 20, 2011, soon after the birth of my son. It begins with a couple quotes:
“The major impact of this theory [pragmatism] is to shift talk about truth to talk about knowledge, and talk about knowledge to talk about the achievements of human powers and practices. . . he [William James] temporalizes knowledge and links it to human satisfaction and success.”
— Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy
“Hello, Jack? I’m Annette. You’re doing it wrong.”
— Mr. Mom
A little while back, when I was thinking about starting a new blog, I began considering a series of miniposts discussing pragmatism, mostly as portrayed by philosopher Cornel West, in light of current events. That series never happened, but I’ve found my thoughts returning to pragmatism as I grapple with being a new parent.
Last summer, as I began to familiarize myself with West’s thought through The Cornel West Reader, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism and his speeches and interviews on YouTube, I grasped something at the core of pragmatism that I hadn’t when studying William James’s book Pragmatism.
Pragmatism is often summarized as “What works is true.” Instead of seeking the grounds of absolute truth the way epistemologists since Descartes had, the pragmatists said that if a belief works in practice then it must be true, at least in some way. This simplification obfuscates as much as it explains, but it will have to do for this post.
What I realized through reading West is how pragmatism is less concerned with knowledge than action. It’s grappling toward concrete goals rather than trying to get it all right right now. Sometimes getting something right is a long, messy process of improvement, with mistakes, compromises and problems all along the way.
And this is true of being a parent. Despite the appearance of all the right answers being out there — the shelves of parenting books at Barnes & Noble; advice from friends, coworkers, pediatricians, lactation specialists, registered nurses, one’s own parents and well-meaning strangers; those parents you see in restaurants and on the street who act as if they have it all under perfect control — there are no perfect parents. We all get a lot right and a lot wrong.
An example arose this week when my wife and I took our baby for his two-month checkup at the pediatrician. While my son was lying there flopping around naked on the examination table, my wife and I noticed grime in the folds of his armpits — little rolls of the foulest stuff. Quickly, we wiped it out before the pediatrician could come in and discover what horrible parents we were. Despite nightly baths, we had missed these little crevices!
Should we have cleaned him better? Yes. Could we have? Yes. Would it have been difficult? No. Given that everyone knows babies have little folds all over that we, as adults, might easily overlook, folds that will, if neglected, sequester the foulest stuff, couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, have paid more attention and discovered this problem area sooner, or better yet ensured that the potential problem never became an actual one? Undoubtedly. Really, it’s difficult to come up with a satisfactory excuse for our negligence other than that you can’t get everything right all the time.
There is a temporal aspect to this. It’s impossible to have all the answers and do everything perfectly from the start, so it follows that there must always be a period before when you didn’t have all the answers and were getting it wrong. It is part of the nature of reality, of our being-in-time (to adopt a term from Heidegger), that we must get it wrong . . . until we get it right.
It cannot be otherwise.
I think of this as the virtue of muddling through and it is the essence of pragmatism. If you would be a good parent, you will get things wrong all the time, but you will seek to get them right and improve as much as possible. My son’s armpits got a good scrubbing during his next bath and they will never be dirty again.