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Pragmatism

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Pragmatism is a school of philosophy originating in America in the late 1800s. Pragmatism is characterized by the insistence on consequences, utility and practicality as vital components of truth. Pragmatism objects to the view that human concepts and intellect alone accurately represent reality, and therefore stands in opposition to both formalist and rationalist schools of philosophy. Rather, pragmatism holds, it is only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that theories and data acquire significance. Pragmatism does not hold, however, that just anything that is useful or practical should be regarded as true, or anything that helps us to survive merely in the short-term; pragmatists argue that what should be taken as true is that which most contributes to the most human good over the longest course. In practice, this means that for pragmatists, theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices--i.e., that one should be able to make predictions and test them--and that ultimately the needs of humankind should guide the path of human inquiry.

Table of contents
1 American Philosophy
2 Pragmatism in History
3 Notable Pragmatists
4 Kant on reason
5 Peirce and making ideas clear
6 Jamesian pragmatism
7 Dewey's pragmatism/instrumentalism
8 George Herbert Mead
9 Reinhold Niebuhr
10 W.V.O. Quine
11 Wilfrid Sellars' family tradition
12 Richard Rorty reworks pragmatism
13 Cornel West and a pragmatism of discontinuity
14 External Links

American Philosophy

Pragmatism is perhaps the only peculiarly American school of philosophy. The name denotes a concern for the practical, taking human action and its consequences as the basic measure of truth, value, etc. This translates to experimentation not merely as a method of scientific investigation but as the primary way humans engage each other and the world around them. Different pragmatists have different models of experimentation—some are basically scientific (Charles Sanders Peirce), others so pluralistic and relativist (William James) as to be almost anti-scientific. However, all pragmatists embrace some process(es) of ongoing inquiry and transformation of knowledge as part of the basic task of human societies.

Pragmatism in History

A useful general account of pragmatism's origins during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club. According to Menand, pragmatism took form largely in response to the work of Charles Darwin (evolution, ongoing process, and a non-epistemological view of history), statistics (the recognition of the role of randomness in the unfolding of events, and of the presence of regularity within randomness), American democracy (values of pluralism and consensus applied to knowledge as well as politics), and in particular the American Civil War (a rejection of the sort of absolutizing or dualizing claims (i.e., to Truth) that provide the philosophical underpinnings of war).

Notable Pragmatists

Some pragmatists and related thinkers:

Kant on reason

Immanuel Kant was in his early life satisfied to work within the rationalistic philosophical approach of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. He later referred to that period as his "dogmatic slumber," and credited the Scottish skeptical/empiricist David Hume for waking him.

The awakened Kant acknowledged that human beings do not have a priori knowledge of the world. Nor, he said, do the data from the senses enter upon a blank slate. Rather, they enter into a mind with a determinate structure. Without percepts, concepts are empty and without concepts, percepts are blind.

But since the mind can't step out of its own structure, there is much it can not know, at least not within the realm of pure theoretical reason. It can't determine whether God exists or the will is free, for example.

Practical reason must take up those tasks, and it tells us that we must believe in God, in immortality, and in free will so we can lead good lives -- lives defined by duty.

Peirce and making ideas clear

James credited Peirce with introducing the word "pragmatism" into philosophy, and cited in this connection Peirce's 1879 article "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." In fact, though, that article does NOT use the word "pragmatism." James may have had in mind personal discussions between the two men and their friends in the "Metaphysical Club" in their Harvard days, and misremembered the article under the influence of those discussions.

At any rate, it is true that Peirce wrote in that article a passage that sets forth what came to be known as the pragmatic principle. "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."

We have, for example, the conception that the diamond is the hardest of objects. What does that mean? Why ... it means that when I rub a diamond against a pane of glass, I cut the glass, and the diamond itself is unmarred.

Jamesian pragmatism

In William James' view, derived from that of Peirce but with a different emphasis, pragmatism is in the first instance a theory of meaning. He asked us to imagine a man on a camping trip trying to catch a glimpse of a squirrel on the opposite side of a tree. The squirrel is clinging to the trunk, belly against the wood, so that he and the man are directly facing one another, although the tree itself keeps either from seeing the other. As the man moves around the tree to try to see the critter, it moves correspondingly, keeping the tree between them.

James asked us to imagine, further, that an argument breaks out within the camping party, whether the man was "going around" the squirrel or not. One faction contends that he was not -- the man and squirrel were face-to-face the whole time, so neither went around the other. To another faction, this seems absurd! -- the man went around the tree, the squirrel was on the tree, so the man necessarily went around the squirrel!

The point of the story was that, in the end, the campers realized they were simply confused by an ambiguity in the phrase "to go around." This ambiguity can be resolved by tracing the "practical consequences" of going around. Do we mean being to the north, east, south, and west of some central object? Then the man went around the squirrel. Do we mean being in front, to the side, in back, and to the other side of that central object? Then the man failed to go around the squirrel. Likewise with such notions as freedom or fate, materialism, pluralism, monism -- we must trace practical consequences to know what we mean by the terms we employ so as to avoid interminable confusion.

James advocated pragmatism as a means of clearing up precisely such confusions which, he believed, were ubiquitous in philosophy.

One of the words to which he applied this approach was truth. He could find no content to the ideas of truth held either by the British empiricists of his day such as Bertrand Russell or in that held by the post-Hegelian idealists such as Josiah Royce. Their interminable dispute with one another could only be settled the way the campers' dispute was settled -- by attention to practical consequences. So he offered as the content of truth the hypothesis that it is the expediant in the way of our thinking -- "expediant in almost any fashion; and expediant in the long run and on the whole of course."

James made no sharp distinction between the theory of truth and the theory of knowledge. That distinction became a canonical part of Anglo-American philosophy sometime after James' death in 1910. One might well rephrase James' theory of truth as a theory of knowledge, or of the warrant of true belief, rather than of truth itself.

Dewey's pragmatism/instrumentalism

John Dewey was a college professor, teaching for ten years at the University of Michigan, ten at the University of Chicago, and twenty-six at Columbia University, in New York. He was also something of an organizer within the academic world, serving as president of the American Philosophical Association (1905-06), and soon thereafter helping to found the American Association of University Professors, of which he became the first president in 1915.

As a philosopher, one of Dewey's key conceptions was dualism. His texts consist largely of the hunt for and the demolition of dichotomies, such as the ancient dichotomy between fixed realities and transient illusions.

In a 1919 essay, Dewey wrote that Plato and Aristotle came to believe in "a higher realm of fixed reality of which alone true science is possible and an inferior world of changing things with which experience and practical matters are concerned" because they were frightened by the dangers of the world, and they hoped to escape from those dangers into an impregnable fortress of the mind. He called that essay "Escape from Peril." His own ideal, then, was the contrary one of a naturalistic philosophy (even, one might say, monistically so) that would face peril and persevere in its midst.

If philosophy must work among perils, then theory can't be severed from practice, and ideas, however exalted their claims, are but instruments for the organisms that live in this transient world -- hence, "instrumentalism," as Dewey baptized his version of pragmatism.

George Herbert Mead

Mead studied at Harvard University, as well as the Universities of Leipzig and Berlin. While at Harvard, although he was never a student of William James, he did live in James' home as tutor to his children. It was at Leipzig that he became strongly interested in Darwinism, and his later development of pragmatism was to have a biological flavor.

Mead taught at Michigan, 1891-94, and at Chicago, from 1894 until his death in 1931. He never published a book, but four books appeared in his name after his death, edited by his students from stenographic records of his social psychology course at the University of Chicago and from numerous unpublished papers. Those four books are: The Philosophy of the Present (1932), edited by Arthur E. Murphy; Mind, Self, and Society (1934), edited by Charles W. Morris; Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936), edited by Merritt H. Moore; and The Philosophy of the Act (1938), Mead's Carus Lectures of 1930, edited by Charles W. Morris.

Mead devoted much of his thought to a theory of communication, i.e. a theory of how "significant symbols" arise from mere gestures. One of his illustrations involved two dogs, circling each other and growling in a hostile manner. Each is gesturing, there is even a "conversation of gestures," but this is not yet language, because the dogs do not know that they are communicating. There is a continuum of possibilities from this encounter to the most complicated and subtle human exchanges.

From such analyses, Mead was led to a theory of mind that is a variant of behaviorism. He believed that there is no mind or thought without language, and language is a development and product of social behavior.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Niebuhr introduced the pragmatic spirit to Christian (Protestant) theology. One of the fruits of this cross-breeding was "The Nature and Destiny of Man" (1941, 1943) a two volume publication containing his Gifford Lectures of 1939.

Niebuhr taught at Union Theological Seminary, New York, from 1928 to 1960, when he retired. He edited The Christian Century (1922-1940), Radical Religion (renamed Christianity and Society) (1935), Nation (1938-1950), Christianity and Crisis (1941), and New Leader (1954-1970).

W.V.O. Quine

The pragmatic tradition seemed to be fading in the Anglo-American world of the 1930s and '40s, as logical positivism, an Austrian import, reigned supreme. After Mead's death, and after Dewey had moved from epistemological to social and educational arguments, pragmatism seemed a museum piece.

But to Quine goes the credit of its restoration -- accomplished in a single stroke, the 1951 article "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." The two dogmas Quine had in mind were not, in fact, universal in empiricism -- but they were endemic to its positivistic variant. One dogma was "a belief in a fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact, and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience." Quine's arguments against both of those dogmas proved very powerful.

Indeed, in 1970 philosopher Alan Donagan called this essay of Quine's "probably the most influential philosophical paper written since the end of the Second World War."

Quine is also credited with the process of producing a sentence by repeating a phrase, once inside quotation marks and once without, a process that can have surprising logical repercussions. Author Douglas Hofstadter popularized this aspect of Quine's work in Gödel, Escher, Bach (1980), calling it "'to quine a phrase,' to quine a phrase."

For example, if one quines the phrase "preceded by its own quotation, yield a falsehood," one creates not only a sentence, but a version of the liar paradox.

"Preceded by its own quotation yields a falsehood," preceded by its own quotation, yields a falsehood.

Wilfrid Sellars' family tradition

Philosophy, even specifically epistemology ran in the family for Sellars. His father was Roy Sellars, who taught the subject at the University of Michigan from 1905 until 1950. The elder Sellars was no pragmatist. He was part of a group of philosophers in his day advocating what they called critical realism, and their influence helped pave the way for the dominance of positivism thereafter. Roy Sellars was also an outspoken materialist and atheist.

In many respects Wilfrid Sellars echoed his father. He called himself a "second-generation atheist" who believed the "mind as that which thinks is identical with the brain." But in works such as "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind," delivered as a series of lectures in 1956, the younger Sellars attacked "the myth of the given," giving an account of knowledge that is in some respects more pragmatic that critical-realist. He described knowledge as an inherently social affair that consists in certain practices, such as the practice of giving one's own reasons.

His topic, the "myth of the given," refers to the view, phenomenalism that the data of the senses provide a foundation for knowledge. The whole project of beginning from "red here now," as a given, then constructing an object, an "apple," from such data, then constructing knowledge about apples and various other subjects on top of this first-order knowledge of objects seemed to Wilfrid Sellars incoherent. Philosophers who work in that style delude themselves if they believe they are tracing the path of human knowledge.

Richard Rorty reworks pragmatism

Rorty has written "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" (1980), "Consequences of Pragmatism" (1982), "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity" (1989) and other works.

In "Consequences," he calls pragmatism a "vague, ambitious, and overworked word" but offers three characterizations of it that he endorses. First, pragmatism is "simply anti-essentialism applied to notions like 'truth,' 'knowledge,' 'language,' 'morality,' and similar objects of philosophical theorizing." Second, pragmatism is the denial of any metaphysical difference between what is and what ought to be -- physics and ethics. The pattern of all inquiry under either of those arbitrary headings must be the same, "deliberation concerning the relative attractions of various concrete alternatives." Third, pragmatism treats objectivity as inter-subjectivity, the convergence of differing minds upon common conclusions.

Rorty has (at least) two sorts of critics: those who think his 'neopragmatism' is all too faithful to the original, and those who think it a travesty.

Cornel West and a pragmatism of discontinuity

Cornel West is the author of "The American Evasion of Philosophy" (1989) and "The Ethical Dimension of Marxist Thought" (1991).

In the 1989 work, he prophesies the development of "a sophisticated neo-pragmatism," a view that thinks "genealogically about specific measures in light of the best available social theories, cultural critiques, and historiographic insights," and acts politically "to achieve certain moral consequences in light of effective strategies and tactics."

He defined his own 'neo-' in contrast to William James paleo-pragmatism, which was insufficiently revolutionary. West cites a passage in James "Pragmatism" in which James discusses the inherently conservative character of the human mind, which works to preserve "the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty."

A more sophisticated pragmatism, West believes, will do a lot more stretching than the minimum necessary, because its adherents will be free of James' predisposition to continuity.

See also

External Links