Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Fifth Beatle of Pragmatism

Who is the "fifth Beatle" of pragmatism?

What does that question even mean?

Ok, it goes like this. Everyone decided (for some inexplicable reason) that the four-person musical group "The Beatles" actually had a fifth member; that person was the "fifth Beatle". But no one seems to agree who that is.* Wikipedia has (at least until some bozo decides to delete it) a fairly good list of candidates -- ten serious candidates, plus some minor candidates, and a large number of additional joke and fictional candidates.

So I decided (for some inexplicable reason) that "fifth Beatle" was a good generalized term for the following situation: pretty much everyone agrees that a particular group has X members, and pretty much everyone agrees on the identities of X-1 of them, whereas the remaining position has many plausible candidates. In these cases, the final person can be referred to as "the fifth Beatle of _____", where the blank is the name of the group.**

So: who is the fifth Beatle of the pragmatists?

The major classical pragmatists were, by broad consensus, a four-man band. And three of them everyone agrees on: the three central, core, canonical pragmatists are Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Everyone who makes such a list agrees on that. Even people like Rorty, who wants to read Peirce out, wouldn't deny his historical place on the list.

But who else?

I'm not going to answer that question; I'm just going to list some plausible candidates. In most cases, I've actually seen someone actually use that person as the fifth Beatle of the pragmatists.

1. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Holmes's big promoter as pragmatism's fifth Beatle is Louis Menand, who, in his Pulitzer-prize winning history of pragmatism, made Holmes his fourth main subject along with Peirce, James and Dewey. And there are some good arguments for him: above all, he was a member of the Metaphysical Club, the discussion group at which pragmatism was born.*** And his ideas are arguably pragmatist in spirit. On the other hand, many people have denied that Holmes was a pragmatist at all (let alone a key one), most notably Oliver Wendell Holmes himself. ("I think pragmatism an amusing humbug" Holmes wrote in a letter.)

2. George Herbert Mead

A very popular choice: I think I've seen more four-person lists with Mead as #4 than any other single candidate. Thus Israel Scheffler's introduction to the pragmatists is called Four Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Peirce, James, Mead and Dewey. And a fair number of people slip him onto lists of the 'great pragmatists' without any hint that he's not a unanimous pick. One argument for him is that he helps beef up the "Chicago" school of pragmatism (Dewey, more socially oriented) and keeps pragmatism less focused on the "Cambridge" school (of Peirce and James, and for that matter Holmes).

3. F. C. S. Schiller

The Englishman: good to stick on if you want to emphasize that pragmatism wasn't just an American movement; easy to leave off nonjudgmentally if you simply declare you're only talking about American pragmatists. Another good argument for him is that James cites him a lot in Pragmatism, along with Dewey (and more than Peirce). An argument against him is that he isn't read as much these days as Perice, James or Dewey -- or Holmes or Mead, for that matter. An early favorite, he's in decline these days.

4. Richard Rorty

Not really a good candidate -- he's simply a much later figure. (He is credited for pragmatism's recent revival, but that's another story.) Calling him the fourth pragmatist is like calling Julian Lennon the fifth Beatle of the Beatles. But I've seen him used on such lists.

5. A few other possibilities

Not as convincing as the above possibilities, but you might argue for: Chauncey Wright (a key influence, but not really a pragmatist per se); Josiah Royce (arguably pragmatist, but hardly on the classic track); Jane Addams (influenced Dewey), Ralph Waldo Emerson (not a pragmatist, but some argue for him as a precursor).


Strangely, while there seems to be no consensus on who the fifth Beatle of the pragmatists (that is, the fourth major pragmatist) is, there is a surprising level of consensus on who the fifth person (the sixth Beatle?) is, on lists which happen to include five. Even more surprisingly, he isn't one of the main candidates for the position of fifth Beatle! In lists of three, people stick to Peirce, James and Dewey; in lists of four, they add one of the candidates listed above. But in lists of five, people tend to include Peirce, James, Dewey, their choice of fifth Beatle, and C. I. Lewis, who was a later figure than Peirce, James, Dewey or any of the various fifth Beatle candidates. Lewis, in fact, was considered for a while the last pragmatist; now that there has been a major pragmatism revival in the last thirty-odd years, he's the last of the old school, or perhaps a transitional figure between the old school and the new school. (He taught some of the analytic philosophers who, while not pragmatists, were arguably pragmatic in spirit -- Quine and Wilfred Sellars -- who in turn were influences on the major promoter of the pragmatist revival, Richard Rorty.) So all the world can know: C. I. Lewis is the fifth member of the four-man band, the pragmatists.

Finally, let me close with a question about this whole notion of "fifth Beatles" as a general category. Can anyone think of any other groups which seem to have a "fifth Beatle" role? Remember, to count there have to be a (largely) agreed upon number, with all but one slot (largely) agreed upon, and that one spot fairly wide open. I think it's a fun little category, and I'd love to get more examples of it; but I don't know if there are any.**** To put the question in a pragmatist spirit: how useful an analytical category is this notion of the "fifth Beatle"?

* Personally I think the best answer is clearly George Martin: the most important thing about the Beatles was their music, and Martin clearly had an influence on the music comparable to that of the four (other) members of the group, which can be said of none of the other candidates. But lots of people -- including people like George Harrison and Paul McCartney, who one might plausibly think are in a better position to judge than I -- disagree.

** If this ever catches on, of course, it will lead to the traditional question of "who is the fifth Beatle?" being rephrased as "who is the fifth Beatle of the Beatles?" This is a feature, not a bug.

*** The Cavern Club of pragmatism, perhaps? Or should that be the Liverpool College of Art of pragmatism?

**** The closest thing I can think of is the fact that, in a lot of college catalogs, there are courses on three modernist writers, and that they always seem to be courses in "Joyce, Proust and _____", with a variety of candidates for the third slot. I believe I've heard of classes on "Joyce, Proust and Faulkner", "Joyce, Proust and Mann" and "Joyce, Proust and Kafka", and of course there are other very plausible candidates too (Virginia Woolf and Robert Musil come to mind). But I'm not quite sure that that counts, or should count -- if nothing else because there isn't a name for this category, which the fifth Beatle could be the fifth Beatle of.

¶ Although you might, at least plausibly, think they are in a worse position to judge: too biased, no historical distance, etc.

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