In the previous article in this series, I discussed some of the flaws with paradigms that rigidly rely on things such as traditions/norms and rules as the foundational metric for good theory arguments, judging philosophies, or other choices in debate (e.g., which definitions to prefer). Although I already briefly introduced the driving idea of Pragmatism, I will devote this article to explaining in more detail what Pragmatism is—and what it isn’t. This article will also begin introducing the discussion on usage, although that will be covered primarily in the next article.
“Adaptive and plays well with others”
One of the best characteristics of Pragmatism is that it is a rather inclusive paradigm, while still being squarely framed around the criterion/concept of “whatever makes debate better.” That is to say, Pragmatism does not necessarily exclude a lot of the intuition or reasoning behind valuable paradigms/mindsets like Resolutionism and flow-purism. The result is that Pragmatism can bring together various concepts which, when taken alone and in their entirety, may not have clear connections with each other (or may even contradict each other). At the same time, Pragmatism at its generic core is incredibly bare, with almost no inherent structure: all it says is “whatever approach or decision (e.g., judging paradigm, theory, rule interpretation, definition) makes debate better is what should be preferred.” This is in contrast with something like Rule-ism and/or Resolutionism, which when taken wholesale explicitly dictate that an approach or decision should be preferred insofar as it is derived from the rules and/or how it relates to the veracity of the resolution.
An illustration: the foundation vs. the structures atop it
No analogy is perfect, but it may be helpful to conceive of Pragmatism in two parts: the foundation and the structures. The foundation can be pictured as a large slab of concrete on a plot of land, representing the broad statement “whatever approach or decision makes debate better is what should be preferred.” In contrast, your interpretations of “what approach or decision makes debate better” (which might include paradigms like Rule-ism and judging habits like flow-purism) are like structures (e.g., buildings, trees) that you can adapt and mold to fit on the foundation: you might suppose Resolutionism is an important structure but still carve a few exceptions into it to deal with the issues I mentioned in the previous article. Ultimately, don’t get too lost in the analogy; the main reasons to frame it this way are to emphasize that:
- One’s interpretation of the core concept of Pragmatism—i.e., questions at the structural level like “which paradigms are legitimate”—can easily be wrong: there is a “correct” or “ideal” set of structures/interpretations, and one’s interpretation is unlikely to perfectly match that. However, the generic core of Pragmatism (“whatever approach makes debate better is what should be preferred”) is arguably a universally true/accurate statement when it comes to all normative/prescriptive questions in debate (similar to the laws of logic for descriptive questions).
- All good approaches/paradigms/etc. ultimately rest on or otherwise stem from this foundation: they are valid/good if and only if they make debate better. That being said, sometimes the connection is not so obvious, which is addressed by the third point:
- When using Pragmatism (especially in a debate round, as opposed to in blog posts or club discussions), much of the argumentation is done at the “structural level” with pre-existing structures (e.g., by appealing to norms/traditions like prima facie). That is to say, a debate around a definition may not explicitly be about the ground-level metric “what makes debate better,” but rather hinges on whether definition X is more “common-man” than definition Y. Here, one of the potential implicit justifications could be “the common man standard relates to predictability which relates to fairness which relates to both direct enjoyment and accurate signaling.” Thus, it is possible (and in many cases preferable) to have an entire debate without explicitly linking/impacting your arguments down to the cold, bare, concrete base of Pragmatism.
- Relating back to the first main summary point, Pragmatism is highly open to interpretation at the structural level: lots of paradigms, concepts, etc. can be altered to fit onto the foundation of Pragmatism, so long as they don’t try to usurp the foundational metric of Pragmatism. In contrast, paradigms like Resolutionism (in its wholesale form) are more akin to small floating islands with their comparatively rigid structure fitted to their relatively small/shallow foundations. At best, these other paradigms might coincidentally not conflict with other approaches/views and thus can bunch together, but they will inevitably retain separate foundations until they are integrated into something broader (e.g., Rule-ism, Pragmatism).
Again, this openness is one of Pragmatism’s greatest strengths… but it is also one of its greatest stumbling blocks/difficulties in practice.
The map is not the territory, and the territory is not the path
I can definitely imagine my younger self and some others taking this analysis to heart and later thinking something like “Under Pragmatism, some of Resolutionism’s implications ought to be ignored in this round, so that’s what I’ll (explicitly) argue.” Aside from the possibility that one’s interpretation might be wrong, the broader problem is that Pragmatism’s answer to the question “how should judges evaluate the round” may be largely disconnected from the answer to the question “what arguments should I run (to win)?” Pragmatism does not even inherently (i.e., at the foundational level) explain whether/when you should explicitly reference Pragmatism in a round (as noted above). This partially touches on the idea of the is-ought fallacy/trap: just because judges ought to believe something and act in a certain way does not mean that they will.
Ultimately, Pragmatism can have bad interpretations, but the core idea/statement of Pragmatism is both extraordinarily broad and hard to refute (especially since attempts to refute it will often subtly/unwittingly rely on it, much like with the laws of logic). That core statement serves as the ultimate foundation/metric for essentially all good approaches/paradigms in debate, even if the connection is not so obvious. Yet, whether/how to use Pragmatism as part of one’s arguments in a round is a much more complicated task. This article has begun to introduce this, but the next article in the series will focus more specifically on that question of usage.