In the Vedic system, the eternal spiritual principles are often contextualized according to time, place, situation, and the people involved to assist their realization. This contextualization is often mischaracterized as pragmatism where the potential for successes (measured by the number of people who start following such contextualized principles) seems to naturally justify the adaptation of eternal principles. This post discusses the differences between contextualization and pragmatism and refutes their equivalence.
Table of Contents
Greek Philosophy Prelude
To understand pragmatism, we have to begin in Greek times where, starting with Socrates, there was an attempt to define the meaning of words such as truth, goodness, beauty, etc. Socrates would challenge younger people to articulate their ideas of truth, good, right, beauty, etc. and as they presented their definitions, he would oppugn them through counterexamples showing why their ideas would not work in all situations, circumstances, or contexts. Over time, through numerous such debates, Socrates became convinced that there was no universal definition of truth, beauty, good, right, etc. because every definition had some problem. His life comprehensively indicted universalism: He started out by saying “an unexamined life is not worth living” and he died by saying “if there is one thing I know for sure, it is that I know nothing”. What did he mean by “know nothing”? Surely, he knew far more than most of his contemporaries. He meant that he could not give a universal definition to any word. All his attempts at examination had failed.
His successor, Plato then formulated the idea that perfect definitions of truth, right, and good applied to “another world”, which came to be known as the Platonic world. Those ideals were imperfectly reflected in this world, so whatever we called beauty or justice or truth involved the innate understanding of the other world, and by comparing this inner world to the outer world we could say whether something was relatively truer, better, righteous, beautiful, etc. This was a remarkable shift because it required us to grasp the “other world” in order to speak of the “present world”.
But there were problems. How is the other world reflected in the present world? Moreover, if we allow everyone to define their ideals by introspection, then everyone could insist that their idea is the ideal. To address these problems, Aristotle created a philosophy called hylomorphism, where ‘hyle’ means substance and morph means a ‘form’, and the world we see is a combination of forms and substances. There were four substances—Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—while there were innumerable forms. But Aristotle’s forms are not to be confused with Platonic forms; in Aristotle’s philosophy, “form” simply means geometrical shape—square, triangle, circle, etc.
Roman Modifications to Greek Ideas
Aristotle drew a distinction between ‘truth’, which involved worldly facts that could be measured, while other things like good, beauty, justice, etc., were “practical matters”. The basic principle of such practical matters was happiness, to be achieved through democratic processes. That essentially means that if we don’t agree on the definition of beauty, then philosophy cannot help us. We will just vote to decide what we mean by “beauty”. Democracy was already prevalent in Greek city-states, even at the time of Socrates. While Socrates was trying to convert people’s personal opinions into a solid philosophical foundation for goodness, beauty, justice, righteousness, etc. through debate and discussion, and Plato said that these are other-worldly ideas that had to be grasped intuitively, Aristotle left it to democracy.
Roman emperors were not too thrilled about democracy. What will happen to our power, if we allow people’s choices to unseat our choices? However, they also had to contend with the Greek legacy, which meant that (a) we cannot find the universal good, beauty, justice, etc. by discussion and debate, and (b) we cannot allow people to intuit these things in the other world mentally.
So, they charted a path in which Aristotle’s ideas about form and substance were accepted while his democratic approach to all “practical matters” was rejected. The other-worldly ideas like good, justice, beauty, righteousness, now had to come through a scripture—given by God—and for that they needed one religion, with one God, one book, one messiah, one revelation, and one emperor to enforce its principles, completely ending democracy. Now, there was objective truth pertaining to substance and form, and then there were all these other ideas such a good, beauty, justice, and righteousness, which had to be understood through scripture. If there was any confusion regarding what these things meant, then the emperor will decide it for you.
In the medieval ages, a new genre of philosophy emerged stating that God’s idea of good, beauty, right, and justice must also be rational. So, they set about doing something similar to what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were doing, although in the domain that had been overtaken by the scripture.
Modern Modifications of Roman Ideas
The modern era decidedly went against Roman ideologies, and for the most part, back to Greek times in terms of political thinking. It reinstated the belief that all “practical matters” had to be decided by a democratic process, rejecting the role of the emperors. Even when Protestants accepted the scripture as the sole definition of good, right, justice, etc. they did not like Roman emperors or even Catholic priests. So, they “privatized” religion as one’s belief, agreeing with “practical matters” to be decided by democracy. Thereby, some people would vote based on scriptural ideals, and others in whatever way they thought was the best way to attain happiness.
The starkest difference with Greek times was the rejection of the distinction between substance and form. In Cartesian philosophy, there is a substance but it is just form because matter is defined as res extensa, which has only one property—length—studied by geometry. All ideas about earth, water, fire, and air from Greek times (carried forward by the Romans) were rejected.
However, soon new problems about the modern study of the world emerged.
First, when we reject substances, we must substitute them with physical properties like pressure and temperature. How do we define pressure and temperature? Does that require a Socratic debate? Or an intuition into a Platonic world? And the answer was: Let’s not define it; let’s just measure it. We can pick an arbitrary standard to measure, and that standard defines the meaning of “pressure”. That allowed people to define arbitrary properties using an arbitrarily chosen measuring instrument. You could come with any instrument and call it anything you like, as that would be a new property.
Second, a debate soon arose: We are creating all these arbitrary properties called by arbitrary names in science, so how do we know that science is even about the truth or reality? Isn’t it just our creation, such that we are inventing the nature of the truth rather than discovering it? And the answer was: What is truth after all? Anything that works—i.e., gives us material success—is the only definition of truth. In practical terms, it entailed the freedom to create technological products, to be used for economic transactions, by which we get many enjoyable things, resulting in the happiness that we want.
This idea is called Pragmatism. It is the final nail in the coffin of whatever could be called “truth”—two millennia after Aristotle had rejected universal notions of good, justice, beauty, etc. In fact, Pragmatism could also be applied to good, justice, beauty, etc. It is whatever works, which means that if you can invent a new idea of beauty, transform your idea into a successful business, then there is no need to worry about what true beauty actually means.
Pragmatism rejects all essences—truth, beauty, justice, righteousness, goodness, and even knowledge. A scientific theory is just a model that works to help us build useful technologies for the time being. But don’t call it “truth” and don’t confuse it with “knowledge of reality”. We can change the model tomorrow if there is consensus among many people. Then, we will pragmatically use that model until the time a new consensus emerges.
Contrasts to Contextualization
Now, let us contrast these ideas to contextualization, where we never reject the existence of pure essences. Rather, we accept that there is ideal truth, beauty, knowledge, justice, righteousness, happiness, goodness, etc. However, in a given situation, that ideal may not be achievable. So, we try to approach that ideal to the extent possible, and while the result may not be ideal, it is still perfect for that situation. Thereby, a subtle distinction between the ideal and the perfect is created. The ideal is universal, and when we reach the upper limit to attaining that ideal in a given context or situation, it is perfect.
Let’s take an example. Suppose you are walking on a street and you meet a hungry man, who asks you for $20. You, however, only have $10 in your pocket, and your hunger is completely satiated. You also have more money than you need elsewhere, so you can easily part with what you have in your pocket.
In this case, giving $20 is the ideal action; however, even the act of giving $10 is perfect. Just because you could not meet the ideal doesn’t mean that it is not perfect, because it is all that was feasible within the limits of the time, place, and circumstances. If at a later time something better is feasible, then attaining that limit of feasibility at that time is perfection. If instead, you choose to give only $5, then not only is it not ideal, it is also not perfect. Thereby, there can be millions of perfect actions that are not ideal.
A contrast between perfect and ideal is presented in the Vedānta Sūtra when it permits the killing of animals when one’s life is in danger. Such killing is not ideal, but it is perfect. Likewise, wars can be waged in order to protect oneself, or a “greater good”. Even though that war is not ideal, it is perfect. Many people have to be punished in society to uphold a moral standard. Even though such punishment is not ideal, it is perfect. We can go on like this.
The difference between contextualization of the ideal and the pragmatic rejection of all ideals is stark. In the former case, we are aspiring to attain the ideal, but we are constrained by time, place, situation, ability, and opportunity. In that case, we make a compromise, to attain the best possible scenario within the constraints. In the latter case, we are not even trying to attain the best possible scenario; instead, we have completely rejected the existence of the ideal, and we are just seeking our happiness.
Notably, while trying to attain the best possible scenario, many things have to be sacrificed, including our happiness. But we make those sacrifices in order to attain the greatest possible ideal. Under the pragmatic approach, we minimize sacrifices, pain, suffering, etc., and choose the easiest path.
Why Pragmatism is a Really Bad Idea
Pragmatism has its roots in two millennia of failed attempts to find universal truth, right, good, beauty, justice, etc. because there is no Universal Truth—i.e., something that is true in all places, times, circumstances, for all individuals in those contexts. There are however universally applicable ideals. Although they may not be contextually realizable, we should still aspire to reach them. Then, there is an Absolute Truth, which is the combination of both good and bad, truth and deceit, morality and immorality. That Absolute Truth reveals itself in various ways depending on our attitudes, which then creates a world that often seems immoral, deceitful, and bad. That deceitful, immoral, and bad world is not ideal and yet it is perfect—as we have done things due to which we deserve such deceit, ugliness, suffering, and delusion.
Now, if we want to get out of such a world, we have to act perfectly even in a bad situation. That will gradually elevate us to a better situation, whereby, we can seek the most perfect thing possible to obtain something more ideal. By practicing perfection, we gradually get to the pure ideal. Until then, even non-ideal things are perfect, because they are the best possible things.
Pragmatism overturns that quest for perfection and idealism on its head and says: There is no such thing as perfection or ideals. Pragmatism is that disgraceful ideology that is defined by its opposition to the quest for ideals and perfection because the search for these things failed in Western thinking.
Pragmatic successes arrive due to the results of previous karma. If we have done good deeds, then we will also be successful for the time being even if we perform misdeeds right now. Likewise, if we have done bad deeds, we will fail for the time being even if we do the perfect thing. So, success and failure do not imply truth, beauty, justice, goodness, righteousness, etc. They are still related in the sense that if we practice perfection, then over time we will reach the ideal. Until then, we must aspire for the best possible thing.
The Nature of Spiritual Contextualization
Many people today mistake the freedom to contextualize the ideal as the freedom to do whatever they think would be successful in a given situation, contrary to the basic principle that “truth can always work, but what works is not always true”. Spiritual contextualization is instead meant to find the most perfect thing in a given situation. Successes or failures have little to do with that, which means that we should do the most perfect thing even if there is no success. In short, if by doing the perfect thing, nobody accepts spiritual knowledge, then we should keep doing the perfect thing, rather than change the perfect thing to do the imperfect thing just because it is successful. Never trade off perfection for success, but find the best possible perfection.
The general principle is that if someone follows this perfection, then over time, success will also follow. That time may be long or short; it might happen in our lifetimes or it may not happen for centuries. And yet, by following that perfect path, we will become perfect, even if others are not accepting our path. The focus is therefore not on the external successes, the number of followers, prestige, fame, prosperity, popularity, acceptance by the broader society, etc. Focus is always on practicing perfection, because by such practice can we perfect ourselves, regardless of whether we are externally successful.
Contextualization vs. Pragmatism Example
A good example of the dilemma between success and perfection is seen in the scientific presentation of Vedic knowledge. This science requires the rejection of modern scientific theories, the ideas of space, time, matter, and causality, the notion of quantities and arithmetic, and finally, the use of conventional either-or logic to embrace simultaneous oneness and difference.
If we can reject all these things, to embrace a worldview of qualities, that would be ideal, and since we can do that, therefore, such perfection is possible, and hence it is the most perfect thing to be done.
In some cases, we might present these principles within the context of atomic theory, modern cosmology, economic and sociological theories, the nature of the mind, intellect, or computing theory, because people may not read Vedic scriptures directly. That is certainly not ideal, and yet, it is perfect.
Ideally, people could try to understand oneness and difference through the descriptions of the relation between the soul and God, between matter and God, etc. But since they will not, therefore, oneness and difference can also be presented through “quantum entanglement”, because that is the most perfect thing possible at the present. By that, we have contextualized the ideal through a mundane subject, and while it is not ideal, it is perfect.
Conversely, rejecting logic, arithmetic, and quantitative models of science is not just perfect but also ideal. And yet, we can say with near certainty, that such a path is not going to be successful in the near term.
Pragmatic success demands that we be polite to the falsities in modern science, and try to incrementally add some ideas without changing the basic structure of science. A good example of such incremental additions is the “Intelligent Design Argument” which tries to introduce God into science, without rejecting either-or logic, use of quantities, or the theories of space, time, and matter. This false idea is highly likely to succeed in the short run, and yet, it is neither ideal nor perfect, because God did not set precise values for Planck’s constant, Boltzmann’s constant, Gravitational constant, etc., and to say that He did so, is to ratify the speculative theories and their concocted constants as God’s activities. The Intelligent Design Argument is a classic example of “all that is successful is not necessarily true”.
The Non-Linearity of Value
At this juncture, many people will say: Something is better than nothing. So, even if the Intelligent Design Argument is not true, it is better than no argument. Yes, it is better. But ask yourself: How much better? Will you pay half price for half a chair? Or, will you say that since it is only half a chair, it is not worth more than firewood and we can stop using the word “chair”?
If you have been to a Factory Outlet, you will find products that are nearly identical to the products in the main stores. They have minor faults, that most of us cannot even notice. And yet, they are priced low compared to the main stores. The “quality control” department devalues them significantly.
Quality thinking requires such non-linearity. Half a chair equals no chair; it is just wood. A shirt with one wrong stitch is a fraction of the price of the perfect shirt. This is sometimes called the Law of Diminishing Returns, in which exponentially greater effort is required to convert a “good enough” thing into a “perfect thing”. However, then that perfect thing is also priced exponentially higher. The reason this is called the law of diminishing returns is that nobody wants to pay such a high price. But if we apply such restrictions to truth, then the high price for attaining the truth would leave us with falsities.
This is not an empty argument. We have to ask: Is spiritual perfection something “good enough”? Or is it actually perfect? When we strive for perfection, the value is exponentially more than when we strive for “good enough”. However, that also requires an exponentially higher effort and sacrifice compared to good enough. For example, a single name of God chanted perfectly is hugely more valuable than millions of names chanted by millions of people imperfectly. Quantity and utility are actually damned.
The human body has 60 trillion bacteria and 600 trillion viruses. But one human soul is more valuable than 660 trillion other souls. Similarly, the material creation has trillions of universes with trillions of souls in them. One pure devotee of God is more valuable than all the other living entities. This is how non-linear value is, and it is always the result of qualities.
Measuring the Truth by the Results
The truth that causes the results can be measured from the results. However, to do that, we must give up quantitative and utilitarian thinking. We must rather think qualitatively. The quantitative results of the work we have done don’t matter on their own. Underlying them is a quality, which—if significantly different than the qualities underlying other activities—is valuable.
If the result is defined qualitatively, then we know that only a superior quality can produce a superior result. Then, it is correct to say that if you see a great quality result, then it has to be produced by a great quality cause. Quite simply, the existence of a great effect implies a great cause. However, if the result is defined quantitatively, then a bad quality can produce a big quantity, good quality may produce a small quantity, and such possibilities lead to many confusions. All such confusions are the results of quantitative thinking.
If the result is viewed quantitatively, then success means quantity, and compromises are valid means to get success. Such compromises do not produce our purification or better quality, which means that we can add millions of such individuals, and they will never equal in value to a single perfect individual. This is the result of non-linearity in the qualitative way of thinking. By increasing quantity and compromising quality, a religion can have billions of imperfect followers, who are not going to the spiritual world, and the popularity of the religion doesn’t equate to transcendence.
There are many good-enough spiritualists who compare themselves to the perfect transcendentalists owing to quantitative comparisons and neglect of qualitative differences. The journey from good enough to perfection is exponentially harder than the journey from nothing to good enough. If we understand how qualitative perfection is exponentially greater than either good enough or quantitative progress, then instead of trying to trade off perfection for quantitative success, we would trade off quantitative success for perfection, if that was the best thing feasible in the current situation. Otherwise, quantitative success can coexist with qualitative betterment.