Monday, May 04, 2015

Trying to get a grip on Pragmatism (again)

Well tomorrow's the second session on 'Pragmatism' in City Lit's tour of 20th Century Philosophy so I decided  to see if I can get any closer to capturing something of the intention ahead of class:

A useful reference

Probably useful to start again with the time line of what is known as Pragmatism but I will add this time the precursors and successors so:

Kant (precursor) 
C S Peirce (relabelled it Pragmaticism when he felt it had strayed from the earlier conception)
William James
John Dewey (Decided instrumentalism was a better term)

I kicked off with looking at a dictionary definition (the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy nonetheless) - well as you can imagine this was not an answer in itself, it did though hint at the schisms within what is known as Pragmatism and allude to the influence of Kant and reference F C S Schiller's Pragmatic credentials .
And pleased to meet you

Another book that provides an interpretation is Introducing Philosophy by Robert C Solomon, it says:

pragmatism A distinctly American philosophical movement founded by Charles Sanders Peirce at the turn of this century and popularized by William James and John Dewey. Its central the­sis is obvious in its name, that truth (etc.) is always to be determined by reference to practi­cal (pragmatic) considerations. Only those metaphysical distinctions that make some difference in practice are worth considering, and the only ultimate defense of any belief is that "it works."

and a further (perhaps easier) view of Truth within  Pragmatism is 'defined' by what William James says from  John Lewis's interpretation in 'History of Philosophy'  as:

.. the truth about God, or Freedom, or Immortality. Nor can we disprove these things of course. Yet it is important whether they are true or not. If they are true, then life is enhanced ; if they are not true, we live in doubt and may die in despair. Why not see whether we can live as if they were true? Why not bet on the most optimistic hypothesis ? We can lose nothing. If in the end we are wrong, we have lived our lives hopefully at any rate. If we are right, then we have happiness both in this world and the next. Let us not say we will only believe what can be proved to be true. (page 152)

Pragmatism seems to have been  prone to being renamed and Schiller embraced much of what James categorized as Pragmatism but he himself preferred to  called it Humanism.


Kant can be viewed as a Pragmatist starting point as  C S Peirce did and in fact there are (of course) papers extolling Kant as a pragmatist one (Kant and Pragmatism by Sami Pihlström) includes this on James

William James famously wanted to see philosophical progress as going “round” Kant instead of going “through” him. However, pragmatism – even James’s own pragmatism – shares several crucial assumptions with Kant’s critical philosophy, to the extent that Murray Murphey was justified in calling the classical Cambridge pragmatists “Kant’s children”.

C S Peirce

Pierce was an interesting character and as well as being something of a libertarian in his private life  was said to be a drug user*. he was though highly able and  something of a polymath in his academic career, one of his disciplines was Logic and his belief was that Philosophy should be 'based on Mathematical Principles'

[ from Charles Sanders Peirce -A life by Joseph Bent * "His father... regularly used ether and opium... He introduced their use as palliatives to his son, who also used them regularly, and in time added caffeine, alcohol, morphine, cocaine, and other drugs, all of which were available without prescription until 1914, the year of his death. Charles became a sophisticated multiple drug user and, by the time he was forty, if not earlier, an addict."]

William James

James was a psychologist and a  religious man, not surprisingly as the brother of Henry he was also a more than capable writer. (You can find out more about him with Melvyn Braggs' In Our Time).

Hi own ideas for Pragmatism glory in their rejection of exactitude and are perhaps stretched to permit his own religious views to survive its rigours

John Dewey 

Dewey led a long life and brought Pragmatism into the second half of the 20th century, one of the things he did was  connected 'Art' to Pragmatism - (odd that as a result of it's vintage  looking at one of the books I own he's a contemporary figure!)
Here's what it says :

Dewey has pointed out that a theory is essentially a guide to action. The object of intelligent conduct, that is to say, conduct guided by a rational view of things, is to discover forms of action by which all the values of life are extended and rendered more secure, including the diffusion of the fine arts and the cultivation of taste, the processes of education and all activities concerned with rendering human relation­ships more significant and worthy. Problem solving solu­tions, in this sense (and not meaning solutions of mere intellectual puzzles) have a claim to truth, to ' warranted assertibility '.


I found Richard Rorty ( a living Pragmatist one might say)  useful as a commentator, he says that Pragmatism is

 'Not going beyond senses'

 and that there's

'Nothing to be said about Truth (like God)'

Rorty also places the Pragmatist historically saying that at a time of progress the requirement for philosophical answers changes as we anticipate a better time for our descendants.

Bertrand  Russell and concluding 

Of course any philosophical thread of value has its detractors and Pragmatism had a powerful opponent in the British Philosopher Bertrand Russell who said..

"James is committed to the truth of ‘Santa Claus exists’ (Russell 1949: 772)"

My problem is more that Pragmatism does seem to be a big church and riddled with inconsistencies depending who you take as your reference

[Footnote 1- How lucky many of us are to have to hand things like scanners linked to OCR- I recall my first hand held scanner attached to a PC around 20 years ago when I was in France - we've made big steps forward on this - Voice recognition is still facing challenges though]

[Footnote 2 Transubstantiation- really finding this 'idea' and the split of the church it epitomises as interesting - The big question for me is how it can be accepted today and conversely how for some if you have 'faith' you might wish to deny it.]
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