Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 1)

I’ve been reading William James’ Pragmatism:  a new name for some old ways of thinking, and a few points struck me.  The first was that, even though I’ve done little reading in American pragmatism, much of what James says seems rather familiar.  I can see two reasons why this should be so.  First, pragmatism has had an enormous impact on U.S. culture.  It has influenced the American school system more than any other philosophical approach, and thus it has impacted most Americans far more than they realize.  Second, I realize that I have been exposed to some European models of pragmatism, and have read those authors extensively.  In some important ways, European and American pragmatism are similar.

The second thing that struck me was that, in other ways, the European and American pragmatic philosophies are very different.  I don’t know if anyone else will find this interesting, but I want to try to work through some of these differences for my own benefit, and I hope someone else’s.

European pragmatists are interested in how pragmatically derived categories are used to construct the world; American pragmatism, not so much.  At least, the pragmatists with whom I am familiar make this seem true.  I would start with Nietzsche, but to make what I will say clear I first have to delve a little into Kant.  Kant’s epistemology, of course, is “transcendental idealism.”  In Kant’s theory, the individual is constantly bombarded with sense data, or “intuitions.”  In themselves, these do not have a particular structure; they could be perceived in different ways by different perceivers.  A fly, a human and God might all experience the same world very differently.  The human must first organize these intuitions in terms of linear time and Euclidean three-dimensional space.  Everything I can perceive will be organized as above or below me, nearer or farther, and so on, and I perceive events as happening sequentially.  This Kant refers to as the “transcendental aesthetic.”  Here, “transcendental” refers to the rules that must a priori hold true of every experience I could have; “aesthetic” refers generally to my experience of sensation.  But humans are rational beings, so I further process my intuitions according to logical categories:  thus, the “transcendental analytic.”  For example, I not only perceive events as following one another; I perceive them in terms of causes and effects.  Again, these principles are rules I impose on my experience.  I cannot have an experience that is not structured by the limitations and the functions of my human mind.

Nietzsche, building upon Schopenhauer, starts with the notion of pure, chaotic experience as the starting point, which is then structured by the human mind.  He writes:

What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus. But the further inference from the nerve stimulus to a cause outside of us is already the result of a false and unjustifiable application of the principle of sufficient reason. If truth alone had been the deciding factor in the genesis of language, and if the standpoint of certainty had been decisive for designations, then how could we still dare to say “the stone is hard,” as if “hard” were something otherwise familiar to us, and not merely a totally subjective stimulation! We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty! We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing![1]

The initial intuition, in Nietzsche’s language, is the nerve stimulus.  In and of itself, it has no mandatory structure; my human mind imposes a structure by creating categories.  Why is a whale a mammal and not a fish?  It all depends on one’s priorities.  Once, whales were seen as fish, since they swam in the ocean; thus Jonah was swallowed by “a great fish,” when the only possible candidate would be a whale.  Later, we began grouping all sorts of creatures in greater categories, and the ability to produce milk became the defining quality.  The categories we choose are those that are subjectively useful.  Since most of us desire to be part of the herd, we learn and adopt the language of society, and use the categories and the values of those around us.  The “rational” person is the one who excels in cataloging and organizing the sense stimuli according to the categories created by language—that is, by the society.  The intuitive, artistic, “free intellect,” by contrast, rejects the conventional ways of structuring reality, and substitutes its own.  “The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by meeting his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an ‘overjoyed hero,’ counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty. “  That is, both the rationalist and the artistic temperament seek to structure and control a reality that suits that one’s particular needs and goals.

The difference between the Kantian and the Nietzschean understanding of the construction of the world is that Kant believes the categories by which humans structure their experiences is inborn and universal to all human beings, while Nietzsche believes they are essentially irrational and individual.  The fundamental driving force, he says, is not rationality but will, the will to power, expressed as power to control and power to create, and most importantly as power to assert one’s continued existence.  How one structures one’s world will depend on one’s particular will to power.  The strong, healthy will to power desires to live according to personal needs and for personal projects, and to be “true to the earth;” so that sort of person will structure experience by categories that are based on personal needs and on the needs of life and of self-expression.  The weak, “underman” will develop categories that are hostile to life and the earth (for example, Platonic idealism), and above all, categories that are shared by others and give the comfort of helping one live as part of a group.  But in either case, the categories are pragmatic; they are tools to achieve goals, whatever those goals might be.  The person who wants to feel at home on the earth will develop categories that help him or her live as an individual working projects in this life; the person who wants to feel as if he or she is escaping from this life will have categories that are otherworldly, and also those which are socially validated; this allows one to construct a world where one is sheltered in the herd in this life and expects to be freed from the pains and struggles in the future.

To be continued….


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873, (http://faculty.uml.edu/enelson/truth&lies.htm) accessed 8/27/2012

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