Thursday, February 10, 2011

Characterizing Pragmatism

Pragmatism is an incredibly important philosophical and intellectual movement -- "widely described as America's distinctive philosophy", or "America's one original contribution to the world of philosophy".*

Great. So what is it?

In order to clarify this for my students -- or, at least, in order to leave them confused in a much richer, more educated way -- I passed out (on the day I first began talking about pragmatism) four characterizations of pragmatism, three of which attempt to summarize its core contribution in a few words. Here they are, with a few stray comments interlaced:
Pragmatism... could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical from practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action.

-- C. I. Lewis, "Logical Positivsm and Pragmatism" (1941)
That one is a twofer as far as characterizations go, since not only is Lewis a prominent pragmatist in his own right** (yet a later one, and thus writing after Peirce and James and after most of the work of Dewey), but it's also been endorsed by one of the more prominent figures in the pragmatist revival, Cornel West, who has cited it as "the best characterization of pragmatism ever formulated".
If we strain out the differences, personal and philosophical, they had with one another, we can say that what these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea -- an idea about ideas. They all believed that ideas are not 'out there' waiting to be discovered, but are tools -- like forks and knives and microchips -- that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves. They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals -- that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability.

-- Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (2001)
I like that one in part because, right after saying that "what these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea", Menand goes on to list four different ideas. Now, it's clearly fair to say that those ideas are connected (probably logically, and certainly historically insofar as they were held by the key pragmatists***). But that's just to say that they're "a group of ideas". To avoid inconsistency here, Menand is committed to the claim that they are a single idea as opposed to a group of ideas -- which is, I think, hard to maintain. So if the Lewis is a twofer in one sense, this is a twofer -- or, more accurately, a fourfer -- in a different sense: four characterizations of the key pragmatist idea(s) for the price of one.
Indeed, from the earliest of Peirce's Pragmatist writings, Pragmatism has been characterized by antiscepticism: Pragmatists hold that doubt requires justification just as much as belief (Peirce drew a famous distinction between "real" and "philosophical" doubt); and by fallibilism: Pragmatists hold that there are not metaphysical guarantees to be had that even our most firmly-held beliefs will never need revision. That one can be both fallibilisitc and antisceptical is perhaps the basic insight of American Pragmatism.

-- Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism: An Open Question (1995)
So between the characterizations of Lewis and Putnam, and the four from Menand, we have a list of six ideas where are said by quite distinguished authorities to be central to pragmatism. Now, I don't think that all six of these (or even all four of Menand's) are "a single idea" -- I think they are quite clearly a group of ideas. In fact, I think that they are (at least on their face) "separate not merely in the sense of being discriminable, but in the sense of being logically independent, so that you may without inconsistency accept any one and reject all the others, or refute one and leave the philosophical standing of the others unimpugned." (You could make an argument against that, but I don't think it's obviously false.) Nor do I think that they are all variations on a theme; I don't think that (say) they all bear a "family resemblance" to each other. But they are clearly linked -- historically, obviously, in their adaptation by the pragmatists, but also in making up the core of a worldview -- the philosophy of pragmatism. And I think that, put altogether, they make a decent beginning at characterizing what this thing called "pragmatism" is.

Incidentally, the quote in the above paragraph is from the fourth of the quotes I handed out to my students -- a quote from a 1908 essay, meant to show, basically, that this confusion is (at least) not new. Here it is in its full glory:
In the present year of grace 1908 the term "pragmatism"--if not the doctrine--celebrates its tenth birthday. Before the controversy over the mode of philosophy designated by it enters upon a second decade, it is perhaps not too much to ask that contemporary philosophers should agree to attach some single and stable meaning to the term. ...[E]ven after we leave out of the count certain casual expressions of pragmatist writers which they probably would not wish taken too seriously, and also certain mere commonplaces from which scarcely any contemporary philosopher would dissent, there remain at least thirteen pragmatisms: a baker's dozen of contentions which are separate not merely in the sense of being discriminable, but in the sense of being logically independent, so that you may without inconsistency accept any one and reject all the others, or refute one and leave the philosophical standing of the others unimpugned. All of these have generally or frequently been labeled with the one name, and defended or attacked as if they constituted a single system of thought-sometimes even as if they were severally interchangeable.

-- A. O. Lovejoy, "The Thirteen Pragmatisms" (1908)
Plus ce change plus ce la meme chose.

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* The latter quote is from John Patrick Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority (U Chicago, 1994), p2; the former is from a book called Four Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Peirce, James, Mead and Dewey (Routledge, 1974), p. 1, written by a man named Israel Scheffler, who also happened to teach a seminar I took way back in the fall of 1990 called "Philosophy 136: The Pragmatists", which was my introduction to this particular school of thought, and which has (clearly) stood me in very good stead for lo these many years. Thanks, Professor Scheffler!

** According to most people; there isn't (in an appropriate irony) consensus on this issue. I don't think there's anyone who everyone would agree is a pragmatist, except maybe William James.

*** Who the "key pragmatists" are is, as mentioned in the previous note, a contested question. Menand's list of four thinkers are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey.

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