Posts Tagged ‘European pragmatism’

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 2)

October 15, 2012

The Nietzschean pragmatism is based on this will-to-power; it gives me my goals, and then those goals create the structures by which I construct my reality.  In contrast, the Wittgensteinian approach eliminates this psychological theory, but keeps the idea that the categories by which we construct reality are themselves the creations of human goals and practices.  In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, all language evolves from human practices.  “True” words are those that make sense within a particular practice, in that they allow a person to achieve a goal or communicate/coordinate with others.  In Philosophical Investigations, he presents a very simple example as a thought experiment.  Suppose a group of people were building.  If I want a large, flat rock, I call out “Slab!”  and everyone knows what I want.  If I get the sort of rock I need, that is all the “truth” I need.  So the “language-game” necessary for this simple practice needs a few words such as “slab,” “pillar,” and perhaps a few other basic shapes, together with some prepositions (Slab here!  Pillar there!).  Wittgenstein hypothesizes that all language arises as part of this sort of language-game, where we learn certain words to convey what we mean in order to interact together.  Some of these words may spring from purely private experiences, such as pain.  Strictly speaking, I don’t know if you feel the same thing I feel when I sprain my ankle.  However, when you see me roll around on the ground with tears streaming from my eyes and profanity streaming from my mouth, you act as if you understand.  You ask, “Where does it hurt?” and I tell you or point, you bandage or do something like that, and it reduces my pain.  Taken together, this is “pain behavior,” some instinctual and involuntary and some socially structured; and “pain language” is part of this overall activity.  We don’t know whether we feel the same things, but we know we both act the same ways and respond to the same sorts of assistance, so we both call what we feel “pain.”

Instead of concepts, then, Wittgenstein is more inclined to speak of “language-games” and “the grammar” of an activity.  What are the words used by people who engage in a particular activity, and what are the rules whereby they use those words?  How well do they understand and coordinate with one another?  Some may engage in different language-games, and experience reality differently than others.  And the words, concepts and grammar that one employs can structure how one experiences reality.  To illustrate this, Wittgenstein presents this example:

 

What is this?  You might say, “It’s a rabbit; see its long ears and the little mouth?” I might say, “It’s a duck; see its bill?”  Depending how you look at it, it could be either.  It is a duck-rabbit.  If you had no word for “duck” and had never seen one, you would only see the rabbit; and likewise, if you’d never seen a rabbit you’d have no idea that this duck might be anything else.  The concept you employ shapes your experience; and you cannot see both simultaneously.[1]  You probably are able to switch between seeing it as one or the other animal; if one is particularly close-minded, one might be unable to see it as the other at all.              Like Kant, both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are interested in how we use our concepts to construct our world.  We filter our reality through our concepts.  Unlike Kant, both these philosophers see our concepts as rooted in our language, not in universal human concepts.  Nietzsche sees our concepts as themselves rooted in the will to power; Wittgenstein largely moots inner psychological considerations and focuses on shared human activities and behavior.  Nietzsche is more deductive; his theory flows from his conception of will, which of course is largely invisible.  Wittgenstein’s theory seeks to be more observational and inductive.

James shares elements of both of these philosophers.  Like Nietzsche, William James was an early pioneer in psychology, and based much of his philosophy on psychological theories and concerns.  Like Wittgenstein, James was more inclined to look to observation, and less judgmental of the different options others might choose.

It is clear that the European pragmatism of both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, as different as they are in many ways, do have at least one thing in common:  they both follow Kant’s “Copernican Revolution.”  Both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein agree that the object of knowledge must conform to the structure of knowledge, rather than knowledge being determined by the object.  The mind creates useful categories, concepts and connections that serve pragmatic purposes; it then shapes its world and the objects of experience according to those categories.  For Nietzsche, these purposes flow from individual psychological needs, and are (or ought to be) the tools of personal projects.  For Wittgenstein, concepts flow from human activities and the need of humans to communicate with one another; therefore, there are no private concepts.  But whether the concepts are the spawn of individual projects or social projects, both agree that concepts are created by human interests and activity and are “true” insofar as they are useful.  The actual world is little more than the raw material to be shaped by human concepts, interests and projects, and is not really an object of philosophical consideration at all.  How does the American pragmatism of William James compare to these?

To be continued…..


[1] The closest you can come (which I don’t recall Wittgenstein mentioning) is that if you’re a student of Wittgenstein you might see a figure like this and identify it as neither one of those, but as a “duck-rabbit.” When I see it I see an ambiguous figure.  I think I experience this figure as a figure and must make a slight effort to see it as either animal in particular.  That is, I have three concepts and structure the experience in three different ways.

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

October 8, 2012

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