Posts Tagged ‘william james pragmatism’

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4)

October 29, 2012

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4) 

 

Although “coherence theory” of truth is more commonly associated with rationalism than with empiricism, James’ rejection of the “correspondence theory” is not enough to justify his claim that pragmatism can be a mediating position between “tough-minded” empiricism and “tender-minded” rationalism.  Instead, it is in his last two lectures that he most thoroughly breaks with empiricism, and with the idea that all our knowledge ultimately rests on empirical pillars.  In Lecture VII, James argues in support of what fellow pragmatist F. C. S. Schiller calls “humanism:”

 

Mr. Schiller… proposes the name of ‘Humanism’ for the doctrine that to an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products too. Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist. This element is so inextricable in the products that Mr. Schiller sometimes seems almost to leave it an open question whether there be anything else. “The world,” he says, “is essentially …what we make of it. It is fruitless to define it by what it originally was or by what it is apart from us; it IS what is made of it. Hence … the world is PLASTIC.”[1]

Clearly, this is not what we normally call “humanism.”  It almost seems like Nietzsche’s claim in “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” where he argues that the individual’s psychological needs and personal projects shape that individual’s world.  Instead of basing our categories on our encounter with the world, Schiller seems to base our encounter with the world on our categories, which are themselves based on our own natures.  James defends this position, while also qualifying what he means by it.  True, he does admit that we shape our experience of the physical world; we attend to this fact rather than that, we value this more than that, we interpret.  The word “Waterloo” means something different to a Frenchman than it does to an Englishman.  But James is not particularly interested in this, and admits that our “truths” are beliefs about reality, and our first and primary source for these are sensations.  We cannot prevent or control the flux of our sensations.  Nor can we willy-nilly shape the relations between our ideas concerning these sensations.  I experience the light to come on after I feel the switch click, not before.  However, even though the fact that some aspects of our truths are simply given, and even though our later truths must usually find some accommodation with our previous truths, there is still a lot each one of us does to shape his or her world.  We never encounter the world as it is in itself, but only as shaped by our minds.  James even admits this has a certain resemblance to Kant’s view, though he points out that Kant saw these categories as inborn while pragmatism takes them to be based on experience; as he writes, “Superficially this sounds like Kant’s view; but between categories fulminated before nature began, and categories gradually forming themselves in nature’s presence, the whole chasm between rationalism and empiricism yawns.”

So even to this point, James cannot claim to really mediate between empiricism and rationalism.  Even in his most Kantian moments, he is still conceding that experience shapes our categories at least as much as our categories shape our experience.  It is in his motivation for raising this whole “humanist” argument that James really takes on his appointed task as mediator.  James describes the empiricist position as “tough-minded,” and the rationalist as “tender-minded.”[2]  The rationalist, he says, is motivated by principles, by an optimistic belief that the universe is ultimately united and meaningful, and ultimately by a religious or spiritual faith.  The empiricist inclines towards facts, observations, and materialism.  As an archetype of this and an example of where it leads, consider David Hume’s theory of language.  For Hume, all meaning is based on sensation.  Any word that cannot be traced to a sensation is meaningless.[3]  Hence the “tough-minded” verdict he offers:

 

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[4]

 

It is not surprising then that James takes empiricism as essentially atheistic, while equating both rationalism and religion as “tender-minded.”  And while much of his epistemology is founded on empirical principles, he has a good deal of sympathy for the religious impulse.  For William James, pragmatism is not only a theory of meaning; it is also a philosophy of life.  A person should believe what allows him or her to function well; and that means that one has every right to religious faith, where this can be sufficiently integrated with one’s other beliefs.  As he writes:

 

At the close of the last lecture I reminded you of the first one, in which I had opposed tough-mindedness to tender-mindedness and recommended pragmatism as their mediator. Tough-mindedness positively rejects tender-mindedness’s hypothesis of an eternal perfect edition of the universe coexisting with our finite experience.

On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses.

Well, the use of the Absolute is proved by the whole course of men’s religious history. The eternal arms are then beneath. Remember Vivekananda’s use of the Atman: it is indeed not a scientific use, for we can make no particular deductions from it. It is emotional and spiritual altogether.[5]

 

If I try to use my religious belief to draw scientific claims, then my beliefs will inevitably collide and I will end up with a schizophrenia of the intellect:  following cause and effect and scientific reasoning almost all the time and particularly when I rely on any aspect of technology, medicine, or scholarship of any sort, but willfully ignoring reason when it conflicts with some pseudoscientific claim based on my perception of my faith.  But if I use it to give me a reason to keep living, as an organizing or justifying principle for my experiences, or as an ideal to strive towards, etc. then it need not conflict with any useful empirical claim.  Thus James recommends pragmatism as a middle ground between the fatalistic, materialist and pessimistic elements of the “tough-minded” and the free-willst, optimistic, and idealistic aspects of the “tender-minded.”  Because he believes that we create our reality, he can say that we do in fact have a right to hold beliefs that have a pragmatic use contributing to one’s psychological and spiritual health; and because he believes that ultimately our minds and our categories are rooted in our experiences of reality, he says we should not simply embrace the “tender-minded” rationalism wholeheartedly, but consider how these two sides can be reconciled.

To be continued…..


[1] Pragmatism, lecture VII, “Pragmatism and Humanism.”

[2] Pragmatism, lecture I

[3] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, chapter II, “Of the Origin of Ideas.”

[4] Enquiry, chapter XII, “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy,” part III

[5] Pragmatism, lecture VIII, “Pragmatism and Religion.”

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 3)

October 22, 2012

First, we see that James dedicates his Pragmatism to J. S. Mill, so it would seem he leans towards the empiricist position.  He writes that the difference between the empiricist and the rationalist is that, “’empiricist’ meaning your lover of facts in all their crude variety, ‘rationalist’ meaning your devotee to abstract and eternal principles.”[1]  He then defines the pragmatic approach as “THE ATTITUDE OF LOOKING AWAY FROM FIRST THINGS, PRINCIPLES, ‘CATEGORIES,’ SUPPOSED NECESSITIES; AND OF LOOKING TOWARDS LAST THINGS, FRUITS, CONSEQUENCES, FACTS.”  This would seem to make pragmatism either synonymous for “empiricism,” or at most a variation of it.  However, James offers his theory as not just one form of empiricism to oppose rationalism, but as a mediating position between the two.  How can this be?

The first six of James’ eight lectures seem to tilt far to the empiricist side.  He agrees that knowledge starts with the senses and that the rationalist impulse for “absolute unity” or “monism” can be understood as an aspirational horizon at most, but not an established truth.  Instead, he defends the pluralistic “truths” of empiricism over the absolute and universal “truth” of rationalism.  He writes:

 

Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side. Some day, she admits, even total union, with one knower, one origin, and a universe consolidated in every conceivable way, may turn out to be the most acceptable of all hypotheses. Meanwhile the opposite hypothesis, of a world imperfectly unified still, and perhaps always to remain so, must be sincerely entertained. This latter hypothesis is pluralism’s doctrine. Since absolute monism forbids its being even considered seriously, branding it as irrational from the start, it is clear that pragmatism must turn its back on absolute monism, and follow pluralism’s more empirical path.  This leaves us with the common-sense world, in which we find things partly joined and partly disjoined. [2]

 

 

So pragmatism follows “pluralism’s more empirical path.”  It is inductive, a posteriori, drawing from human experience rather than deducing from a priori principles as the rationalist does; the rationalist’s claim that logically everything is One must yield to the experience of reality as at least partly disunited.  For the empiricist, generally (since general inductive truths are the only truths for empiricists, they would be the only ones true about empiricists too), “truth” means “reflects factual reality.”  A true statement is one that corresponds to the state of the world.  James identifies this with the “common sense,” “popular” and “dictionary” understanding of truth:  “Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ “[3]  James writes that pragmatism has several problems with this definition.  For one, what if there is no precise “object” to be copied?  Perhaps, for example, you have only an imperfect understanding of your object.  I say “there is a clock on the wall,” without knowing how the thing looks on the inside; it looks like a clock and tracks the time and that is enough for me.  Also, some words and statements refer to abstract concepts.  In that case, what exactly is being copied by our knowledge?  How do we judge whether they are “true”?  James gives this answer:

 

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. [4]

 

To the empiricist and the rationalist alike, says James, “When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter.”  You pursue truth in order to know it; once you know it, you’re done.  Pragmatism is intentional.  Truth must be relevant to a particular situation.  It must be useful.  While intellectualists claim there is a “categorical imperative” to pursue truth, James writes:

 

A truth must always be preferred to a falsehood when both relate to the situation; but when neither does, truth is as little of a duty as falsehood. If you ask me what o’clock it is and I tell you that I live at 95 Irving Street, my answer may indeed be true, but you don’t see why it is my duty to give it. A false address would be as much to the purpose.

 

So James cannot wholeheartedly adopt the copy-theory of truth.  He begins with experience, but he does not end with it.  As James puts it, “…all our theories are INSTRUMENTAL, are mental modes of ADAPTATION to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma.”[5]  All knowledge begins with some person or persons encountering reality and trying to achieve some purpose.  We invent categories and rules to help us better handle reality.  By “we,” I mean some particular person or persons initially makes some discovery that treating reality in a particular way will be particularly useful.  If that way is indeed useful, it spreads among humanity and through time.  Eventually, this truth-claim becomes so universally accepted that it seems as if everyone has always believed it.  At that point, we label it “common sense.”  And as long as these categories serve us to solve the problems we face, we do not challenge them.  When a new, novel fact comes along that does threaten to undermine our store of established categories and rules, we attempt to assimilate it into our established understanding with as little alteration to the rest of our beliefs as possible.  My new belief must not only be useful; it must also be consistent with my other beliefs. My other beliefs have their own benefits; to give them up would be to lose the benefits of those beliefs.  Therefore, my new beliefs must be reconcilable with old beliefs.   As he writes, “In other words, the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths. Truths have once for all this desperate instinct of self-preservation and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them.”[6]   It is a pragmatic version of the coherence theory of truth.  To the rationalist like Descartes, there were certain truths that were indubitable; other truth claims have to be derivable from or at least consistent with those bedrock truths. To the pragmatist, there are no utterly fixed, immutable truths; every truth is tested for its “cash value,” and those that have real use are adopted.  But according to James, those truths must not only be useful; they must also learn to live together.  Thus, the new truths I accept will be as compatible as possible with the old truths that still serve me well and which I hold dear.  They must be coherent, perhaps requiring some adjustment but not wholesale jettisoning of the body of truth by which I live my life.

To be continued….


[1] William James, Pragmatism:  A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking; 1907; The Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5116/pg5116.txt   accessed 10/1/12; lecture 1, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy.”

 

[2] Pragmatism, lecture IV, “The One and the Many.”

[3] Pragmatism, lecture VI, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.”

[4] Pragmatism, lecture VI

[5] Pragmatism, lecture V, “Pragmatism and Common Sense.”

[6] Pragmatism, Lecture II, “What Pragmatism Means.”