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Pragmatism endures

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From Aeon and written by:

Cheryl Misak, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Cambridge Pragmatism: From Peirce and James to Ramsey and Wittgenstein(2016). Her biography Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers will be published by Oxford University Press in 2020; and

Robert B Talisse, W Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Philosophy Department at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He is the author of, most recently, Engaging Political Philosophy (2015); Pragmatism, Pluralism, and the Nature of Philosophy (2017), co-authored with Scott Aikin; and Overdoing Democracy (2019).

They write:

At the dawn of the 20th century, there emerged in the United States a distinctive philosophical movement known as pragmatism. Although the term is often used today to denote the blunt desire to get results, the founders of pragmatism – Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), John Dewey (1859-1952), Chauncey Wright (1830-75) and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr (1841-1935) – were subtle thinkers. Each made significant contributions in areas ranging from logic, epistemology, philosophy of language, legal philosophy, philosophy of science, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of religion and political philosophy. Despite their differences, they were animated by a common interpretation of philosophical empiricism that emphasises the role of action in our thinking, from the habitual and mundane to the experimental and creative. The core of pragmatism is Peirce’s ‘pragmatic maxim’, which proposes to analyse the meaning of our concepts by looking to how they guide action.

It is fitting that one of the earliest books about the development of pragmatism should be titled Meaning and Action (1968). In that work, the American philosopher H S Thayer presented a view of pragmatism’s founding that has become standard:

Pragmatism is a method of philosophising often identified as a theory of meaning first stated by Charles Peirce in the 1870s; revived primarily as a theory of truth in 1898 by William James; and further developed, expanded, and disseminated by John Dewey.

There are two tightly related ideas at play here. First, there is the view that Peirce and James formulated versions of pragmatism that are partial precursors to the systematic pragmatism of Dewey. Second, there is the notion that the story of pragmatism’s founding is the story of philosophical differences withering away, unifying in Dewey’s philosophy. This developmental view of the history of pragmatism is wrong.

One needn’t scour pragmatism’s initiating documents in order to identify points of substantive disagreement among Peirce, James and Dewey. Pragmatism was founded amid a well-known dispute between Peirce and James over its central idea, the ‘pragmatic maxim’. Peirce proposed the pragmatic maxim as a tool for dispensing with metaphysical nonsense; for him, pragmatism was strictly a ‘method of ascertaining the meanings of hard words and abstract concepts’. The core of this method is the idea that we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them.

To get a sense of how the pragmatic maxim operates, consider one of Peirce’s own applications: the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. This is the view that in the Mass, bread and wine are metaphysically transformed into the body and blood of Christ, despite there being no change at all in their sensible properties. In what, Peirce asks, could this transformation consist? His answer is that the very idea of something being blood but in every conceivable way being empirically indistinguishable from wine is nonsense, ‘senseless jargon’. By insisting that words and statements be analysed according to ‘what is tangible and conceivably practical’, Peirce aspired to ‘dismiss make-believes’ from philosophy, and thereby set upon the path of proper enquiry.

James was dissatisfied with Peirce’s formulation of the maxim. Instead, he proposed a broader rendition according to which the point of pragmatism is not to dispel metaphysical nonsense, as Peirce had alleged, but rather to settle metaphysical disputes. James proposed that one should include among the practical effects of a statement the psychological impacts of believing it. Whereas Peirce argued that the pragmatic maxim exposes the meaninglessness of the doctrine of transubstantiation, James thought that pragmatism afforded a decisive case in favour of it. The idea that one can ‘feed upon the very substance of divinity’ has ‘tremendous effect’ and thus is the ‘only pragmatic application’ of the idea of a substance. For James, the pragmatic maxim serves to resolve rather than dissolve longstanding philosophical debates.

This difference regarding the pragmatic maxim underlies a monumental dispute between Peirce and James over truth. Peirce argued that a belief is true if it would be ‘indefeasible’; or perfectly satisfactory; or would not be improved upon; or would never lead to disappointment; or would forever meet the challenges of reasons, argument and evidence. James meanwhile set out his view on truth and objectivity thus:

Any idea upon which we can ride … any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labour, is … true instrumentally.

‘Satisfactorily,’ for James, ‘means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasise their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.’ Peirce did not think that truth was plastic. He told James: ‘I thought your Will to Believe was a very exaggerated utterance, such as injures a serious man very much.’ He scorned what he took to be James’s view: ‘Oh, I could not believe so-and-so, because I should be wretched if I did.’

When Dewey is brought into the picture, the story of pragmatism is shown to be anything but straightforwardly developmental, where one philosopher’s thought naturally leads to the next one’s. According to Dewey, pragmatism was neither in the business of dismissing nonsense nor of settling metaphysical disputes. He sought a way of doing philosophy that was unhindered by the traditional puzzles and problematics. He resisted the Peircean strategy of proposing a test of meaning and, instead, socialised philosophy, arguing that the traditional philosophical problems naturally arose out of the social and intellectual conditions of a pre-Darwinian age.

Dewey contended that, since these conditions no longer obtain, the traditional philosophical problems should be simply abandoned as ‘chaff’, replaced by new difficulties arising from Darwinian science. In Dewey’s view, Darwinism shows that the world contains no fixed essences or immutable natures. This realisation sets the problem of revising our philosophical and moral ideas so that they are better suited to serve as tools for directing change. According to Dewey, the leading philosophical problem for a post-Darwin epoch is that of keeping our values in step with our technological power, so that they might guide society towards greater freedom.

In this respect, Dewey breaks decisively with James: his pragmatism is not aimed at resolving disputes, but rather at showing that nonpragmatic philosophical programmes are nonviable. Here, Dewey might at first seem allied with Peirce, but Dewey’s stance towards the philosophical tradition is more extreme. To be sure, Peirce’s maxim would have it that many traditional metaphysical statements are nonsense; however, it also leaves a great number of philosophical debates standing. For example, Peirce thought that the dispute between nominalism and realism (does reality consist only of concrete particulars or is generality real as well?) was a real and important philosophical dispute. He proposed his maxim as a way to ensure that such legitimate philosophical debates could proceed profitably. Metaphysics, ‘in its present condition’, is a ‘puny, rickety, and scrofulous science’, but it need not remain so. The pragmatic maxim will sweep ‘all metaphysical rubbish out of one’s house. Each abstraction is either pronounced gibberish or is provided with a plain, practical definition.’

Dewey, by contrast, aimed his criticisms not at specific statements, but at entire philosophical programmes. He dismissed Cartesianism, Kantianism, Humeanism, Platonism, Aristotelianism and nearly every other philosophical school as instantiations of the common defect of employing some or other archaic dualism. Again, Dewey’s charge is that all such approaches are obsolete: not meaningless, but unfit and useless tendencies to be gotten over. Whereas Peirce saw pragmatism as a rule for conducting philosophical enquiry, Dewey saw pragmatism as a philosophical programme for restructuring philosophy and society.

These philosophical differences were well recognised by the classical pragmatists themselves. The work of James and those he influenced led Peirce in 1905 to officially renounce the term pragmatism; he rebaptised his philosophy pragmaticism, a name he hoped was ‘ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers’, which it certainly was. Dewey also strenuously distanced himself from James’s theory of truth. In personal correspondence with Dewey, Peirce complained that Dewey’s philosophy was ‘too loose’ and employed too many ‘slipshod arguments’.

To be clear, the account we have just offered leaves aside many crucial details. However, what has been registered is enough to show that it is an error to present pragmatism as a doctrine initially proposed by Peirce, refined by James, and culminating in Dewey’s writings. Rather, what one finds in the classical pragmatists is a series of substantive disputes about enduring philosophical topics, including meaning, truth, knowledge, value, experience and the nature of philosophy itself.

There is another common misunderstanding about the history of pragmatism that is best articulated by the more recent pragmatist Richard Rorty:

Along about 1945, American philosophers were, for better or worse, bored with Dewey, and thus with pragmatism. They were sick of being told that pragmatism was the philosophy of American democracy, that Dewey was the great American intellectual figure of their century, and the like. They wanted something new, something they could get their philosophical teeth into. What showed up, thanks to Hitler and various other historical contingencies, was logical empiricism, an early version of what we now call ‘analytic philosophy’.

In other words, his popular ‘eclipse narrative’ (as we’ll call it) holds that pragmatism dominated professional philosophy in America throughout Dewey’s heyday, from the early 1900s until the early ’40s. Then, largely due to the war in Europe and the resulting influx of academics to the US, professional philosophy in the US took a ‘linguistic turn’ and began fixating on the technical and methodological issues that today are associated with ‘analytic philosophy’, a tradition originating in the work of Gottlob Frege in Germany; Bertrand Russell, G E Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein in England; and Rudolf Carnap and Moritz Schlick in Austria.

Rorty took the new analytic philosophy to have been a malignant force in American philosophy departments, an invasion that displaced pragmatism. Crucially, the displacement is said to have been achieved not by way of a critical engagement with the pragmatists’ arguments and commitments, but instead simply by declaring pragmatism soft and insufficiently rigorous. Pragmatism was, in this telling, eclipsed as philosophers in the US began taking their intellectual cues from the analytic philosophers. Having gained strongholds in nearly all the elite PhD-granting universities in the US, the analytics swiftly trained the next several generations of professional philosophers. Pragmatism, America’s homegrown philosophy, thus was driven underground, where the remaining loyalists built scholarly networks devoted to keeping the classical idiom alive.

Yet there is also a resurrection in the eclipse narrative. It goes on to say that analytic philosophy eventually proved itself too self-absorbed and socially irrelevant to be sustainable. Recovering from the analytic fad, philosophers in the US, notably Rorty, Hilary Putnam and Cornel West, rediscovered pragmatism in their landmark works of the 1970s and ’80s. Hence ‘neo-pragmatism’ came to the fore as a leading ‘post-analytic’ development in professional philosophy. The eclipse seems to have been undone.

Well, not quite. The resurrection story is tinged with resentment. It is alleged that neo-pragmatism is too analytic and not closely tied to the classical texts. It has drifted off course, not authentically pragmatist. Pragmatism’s resurrection occasioned a second eclipse: although the philosophical mainstream is now once again attuned to some of the vocabulary and ideas of pragmatism, it has received them in the corrupted form promoted by the neo-pragmatists. On this view, classical pragmatism remains unjustifiably occluded.

Consequently, there is a growing literature devoted to repackaging Dewey’s pragmatism. Work in this genre embraces the tacit assumption that nonpragmatists are simply ignorant of pragmatism; accordingly, a recurring theme is that Dewey’s philosophy must be rediscovered so that it can ‘revitalise’ mainstream philosophy. The steady production of volumes devoted to establishing Dewey’s ‘continuing relevance’, ‘discovering’ his ideas and recapturing his ‘lessons’ is suggestive.

The upshot, tragic for the prospects of pragmatism, is that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2019 at 9:18 am

Posted in Books

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