Posts Tagged ‘William James’

Of Blood and Bullshit

January 14, 2021

Of Blood and Bullshit

            I am particularly interested by the fact that the Capitol Hill insurrectionists imagine themselves to be patriots.  One rioter was allegedly heard sobbing, “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”  Never mind that BLM never stormed the Capitol, that when rioters did attempt to storm government buildings they were met with far more force than the Capitol Hill insurrectionists faced, that BLM or Antifa never posed an existential threat to the nation, sought to overturn the normal functioning of the nation, or planned to seize and execute government officials, as the white supremacist rebels did.  It is a strange riot, a curious rebellion that, without a trace of irony, expresses outrage that its use of force is met with force.  They think they’re the heroes, that they’re the only patriots, that they are saving America. They expected the police to join them, the American people to either greet them as liberators or to slink away cowed, and Donald Trump to march up to the Capitol and reveal how their storming the enemy citadel would now insure his continued benevolent and completely successful reign for at least another four years.  Why?

            As Harry Frankfurt describes in his 1982 essay On Bullshit, there are lies, truth, and then this other sort of verbal action that is neither.  A truth-speaker says what the speaker believes to be true.   A liar finds the truth inconvenient, and instead speaks what the liar believes to be false.  And then there’s the bullshitter.  The bullshitter doesn’t care and often does not even know what is true.  Bullshit is disconnected from the entire true/false dichotomy.  The bullshitter is engaged with some other sort of activity.  Maybe it’s to impress or amuse (the “fish that got away” stories).  Maybe it’s advertising (“cats ask for it by name”).  Maybe it’s to win election (“My opponent is a socialist like they have in Venezuela who will destroy this country”), or to puff up one’s own ego or motivate one’s voters (“The only way I could lose this election is if it rigged”).  Whether the statement is true may not matter at all to the speaker; what matters is the reaction of the receiver.  The bullshitter seeks to manipulate rather than inform. 

            When everyone is sort of in on the joke, it doesn’t matter and, in fact, the BS might even be beneficial.  Imagine a coworker or friend who was always serious, who never exaggerated or speculated or dreamt; that would be pretty boring.  But if the hearer or reader mistakes BS for actual factual claims, then that receiver is deceived.

            Example:  “We’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!”  When DT said that, everyone knew it wasn’t going to happen.  Many of his supporters on TV and elsewhere actually mocked “liberals” for treating it as a factual promise.  They said, “Liberals take Trump literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously——but not literally.”  Everyone knew and at least tacitly admitted that this was bullshit, but his supporters felt it was an honest expression of their desires and values.  But later, the line between bullshit and lying became blurred, as more and more people believed it was promise, a true statement of intentions with a realistic chance of fulfillment, when in fact it was never going to happen.           

            The “fraud” claims seem to be people believing the bullshit.  It was never impossible for Trump to lose a free and fair election.  As the COVID-19 response (largely another exercise in bullshit, or in DT;s terms “cheerleading” for the nation and “being positive” rather than being providing facts and warnings) faltered, losing became more likely.  But his followers took it as a statement of fact; he can’t lose, so if he does then someone cheated.

            As to DT himself, his “power of positive thinking” approach is that if he says it and convinces himself, it will happen.  So he inevitably believes his own bullshit.  He says what will please his audience (pure bullshit, since he neither knows nor cares whether what he says is true when he is saying it).  Then, since he said it, he is convinced that if he doubles-down, it will happen, whether “it” is a business making money for his investors, a loan being repaid, or a disease disappearing as if by a miracle.  He even argued in court, when suing Forbes for allegedly understating his wealth, that he is worth as much or as little as he feels on any given day; if he feels like he’s worth 10 billion he is, but if later he feels like he’s worth only 1 billion then now he’s only worth that.  So when he’s talking to banks about getting a loan and he feels like he’s worth 10 billion, he’s not lying; but if he’s talking to the IRS and feels like he’s about to go broke, that’s not fraud either.  Whatever he says, lo, it is so.

            At this point, what was probably somewhat self-aware bullshit has become full-blown self-deception.  Donald Trump long ago took Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy to its illogical conclusion, that if he told himself something and kept positive then the world would conform to his wishes.  As he told others he couldn’t lose, he was telling himself that as well.  As the flatterers told him he couldn’t lose, he believed them; as the true believers sought to motivate themselves and others with an upbeat message, he believed them; and soon his world was echoing that message.  As to his followers, the collection of QAnon cultists, white supremacists and other far-right ideologues that swarmed into the Capitol, all the evidence and their public statements show that they too believe the bullshit.  They are not tethered to the rules of evidence or logic that restrict so many of us, but allow their minds to run free across fantastic battlefields, trampling the bodies of their enemies.  They are the Powerful, Righteous and Knowing, while those who spent their lives learning and serving are the Weak, sheeple who follow “experts” and “recognized authorities” and “science.”   But they are not sheeple; they are too smart to be deceived by people with years of research and years of public service holding them back.  Instead, they are bold and clever enough —- to believe absolutely everything they are told by The Strong Man, The Big Man, Donald Trump, whose many failures in business are never his fault, whose many divergences from reality only reveal his hidden knowledge and his subtle strategy, and whose very excesses and boorishness show that he is One Of Us even though he has lived his entire life literally isolated in a golden tower and has repeatedly stated his “racehorse theory” that he and his family are genetically superior to everyone except other authoritarian billionaires. 

That is why the putsch failed, this time.  As Harry Frankfurt said in On Truth, a society needs truth; not necessarily Eternal Truth, but practical, pragmatic truths, facts about reality and realistic plans given the limitations of reality.  You just can’t do anything unless you know what’s real and what’s reasonably plausible, what needs to be done and what you can do.  The Capitol Hill insurrection was a case of thousands of people believing the bullshit and acting on it.  The factual claims are nonsense; they’ve been refuted in over sixty court cases.  This election literally has been litigated and relitigated dozens of times, and the result is always the same.  At some point, any reasonable person has to accept reality.  But people who believe the bullshit have chosen to reject the rules of evidence and reason that they would apply to any other part of their lives.  The positive spin of Candidate Trump, engaging in a little harmless, standard trumpery that “we’re going to win this election,” metastasized into something more dangerous; from a little harmless bullshit to a major shitstorm.  Then, the bullshit that somehow storming the Capitol would “save democracy” by handing Trump the victory led them to a stupid and dangerous course of action.  There never was a realistic plan; there were just fantasies of revenge and victory.  The terrorists who attempted to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan have since argued that they were never really serious; it was all just bullshit, guys being guys and talking big among themselves about how they’d like to “get” that authority they hated.  The Capitol Hill thugs were, in some cases, apparently doing the same thing:  bullshitting among themselves, then showing up for a rally to feel good, then following the crowd into the building, but with no realistic plan as to how this was all supposed to work or how it would accomplish anything good.  In fact, investigative reports state that they just assumed that at some point Donald Trump would stride onto the scene and tell them what to do next, set wrongs to right and win the day; while instead he was simply sitting in the White House watching on television, enjoying the chaos and the adulation of himself without any solid plan to give any orders beyond blocking law enforcement from getting any reinforcements from the Pentagon.  So once Pence, Congress and the physical Electoral College ballots escaped, the insurrectionists had nothing to do but wander around, loot and vandalize, post selfies and boast on social media, then leave.  Their delusional state is fully displayed in the fact that even after every member of Congress escaped and thus there was no way Joe Biden’s victory would not be certified, they still thought they’d won, that they were the heroes, and that the only future problems they might face were where they would display their Medal of Freedom.

And because they believed the bullshit handed them by Trump, Cruz, Giuliani, Hawley, Gaetz and other opportunistic politicians looking to gain popularity, people died, people were seriously injured, tax money that could have been used to defend the nation or fight the pandemic will be spent on cleaning up the mess, and many, many people who think of themselves as patriots are facing the real possibility of lengthy prison terms. 

The insurrection of January 6, 2021 is the natural culmination of a political party drowning in bullshit, incapable of engaging with reality in any meaningful way, incapable of solving real problems but well capable of creating them, only solving bullshit problems.  For three years the Bullshitter-in-Chief, DJ Trump, built walls to stop nonexistent caravans, subsidized farmers hurt by his trade war sparked by his misunderstanding of trade deficits, sabotaged the nation’s most reliable alliances through his incapacity to recognize a good deal when he got one while selling out to enemies because he can’t recognize a con, avoided prosecution only because he was President and then thought that meant he wasn’t a criminal who would land in jail the second he was no longer President so he continued adding to his future legal troubles, and finally got himself impeached for a petty shakedown of an allied nation and was again only saved by rank partisanship—-which his bullshit-addled brain turned into a pronouncement of innocence, leading him to repeat all his past mistakes.  He demands a favor in exchange for doing his job, then says it’s not a “quid pro quo” because he said “no quid pro quo;” I want a favor for a favor but don’t call it a “quid pro quo” and then it isn’t one.  That sort of evasion of clear meaning and clear logic is the hallmark of bullshit.  For three years, a reality TV star who’s production crew largely says was playing a part they created has confused his television role with real life, and further confused the selfishness of a family business conning marks with public service to better a nation, and bullshitted his way through. 

But as they say, “money talks; bullshit walks.”  Or as the pragmatic philosopher William James said, truth is what has “cash value.”  Truth is what works, what gets things done.  What works in the long run is what is true in the practical sense.  To update and expand on James a bit, bullshit may work in the short run, but ultimately it fails.  It can’t solve problems; it can only distract from them.  Bullshit, after all, isn’t even engaged with reality; it is oblivious to truth and thus oblivious to the real problems.  When COVID-19 hit, this political party could only respond one way:  bullshitting.  They covered it up, obfuscated, tried to build a wall which was as useless as the other wall they’d built, issued contradictory directions to states and other regional authorities and then told them they were on their own so they could hide behind the confusion they’d caused, all the while lining their own pockets by investing in stocks that would do well when the dam broke.  Which it did.  The President has said he deliberately downplayed the pandemic because he likes to be positive, rather than deal with reality.  His son-in-law and nominal head of the pandemic response has said they intentionally gave contradictory directives.  All this bullshit naturally made things even worse.  At the same time, the Bullshit President encouraged well-armed, poorly-educated paramilitary loyalists to blame the people trying to carry out those directives for all their real and imagined problems.  They prepared to and, in some cases, even killed others to defend their imagined rights against imagined threats, while all the time their real problems go worse.

The bullshit was walking, walking away rather than solving problems.  And finally, the problems became DJ Trump’s problems.  The pandemic he’d ignored and bullshitted was destroying the economic recovery he’d been left by his predecessor like a squandered inheritance wasted on a foolish prodigal son too vain to repent.  Hundreds of thousands of people were dead, millions more sick and unable to work, many crippled for life..  And people who were tired of the ineffective bullshit were looking to his opponent for real answers to their real questions.  But the Republican party, its information machines and candidates and operatives and paramilitaries and wealthy donors alike, are unable to produce real answers; instead they doubled-down on the bullshit.  They started screaming about fraud and undermining democracy itself even before the voting had begun, preparing to reject any result they didn’t like no matter how clear-cut.  And the ones with the guns and the lack of information or critical judgment, the poorly-educated paramilitary militias with their conspiracy theories and bullshit dreams of racial superiority, believed the bullshit.  They launched an insurrection, which has not yet ended, to try to overthrow the freely elected government of their nation based on the bullshit assertion that it was not elected.  They pursued strategies and tactics which could not possibly achieve the goals they wanted, because bullshit knows neither facts nor logic.  The bullshitters who had encouraged them in their delusions were shocked, shocked that anyone would act to save the democracy which the bullshitters had said was being destroyed, by trying to destroy the actual democracy and kill the actual elected representatives of the actual majority of voters.  Then the bullshitters do what bullshitters do:  they tried to bullshit their way out of the problem as they saw it.  This is a public relations nightmare for Republicans; someone believed their bullshit and created real-world problems while the Republican Party was engrossed in solving phony problems only.  So they made fact-free assertions, before anyone could possibly have any facts at all, that Antifa and BLM had been behind the insurrection.  Because that is what bullshitters do:  they bullshit.  They say whatever will help in the moment, and since they are unconcerned for truth they can speak instantly without having to wait for information.  They say, “I want no violence,” the same way they say “No quid pro quo”—-I want you to do this but I want legal cover so I’ll use words that contradict my clearly expressed desires.

In the meantime, the terrorist rebellion they’d incited with their bullshit, and which they continue to incite by sticking with their bullshit claims of fraud and their bullshit endorsement of racists and paranoids, of Proud Boys and QAnon, was left angered and hate-filled (since bullshit is great at stirring up passions) but without any clear direction or realistic goals (since that would require engagement with reality).  They may do a lot of damage; they are plotting mass murder, and no one really knows who will act on those plans and who is just bullshitting.  But they have no real strategy, no actual idea what winning or losing would look like, and absolutely no idea what they would do if they won or how they would solve the nation’s problems.  They only have their bullshit-fueled rage and bullshit-fueled dreams, dreams of vengeance and power and the magical end of all their problems.  And while their bullshit machines at FOX News and talk radio and the internet produce more bullshit, and their voter base drowns in bullshit and loses all sense of reality, the Republican leaders are incapable of offering useful ideas to solve the very real problems of the pandemic, of racial justice, of a floundering economy, and of a growing white nationalist insurgency.  They can only bullshit and hope that somehow the problems go away.

The bullshit has led to bloodshed, and likely will lead to more.  The bullshitters encourage and incite and protect the bloodshed, even as they denounce it.  They cannot do otherwise at this point; it would take too much self-awareness to change course.  They believe their own bullshit, or else simply cannot conceive of any alternative to bullshitting.  Pirro and Hannity and Jones and Dobbs and the rest cannot simply come out and start dropping truth, even if they know it; they’d lose their bullshit-addicted audience without gaining any new one from those truth-lovers, and thus lose all their power.  The demagogues like Hawley and Cruz and Gaetz are in the same fix; they have power over the bullshit mob only as long as they provide more bullshit, and will be cast aside in a second if they deviate from the established party line and thus lose any influence to stop the madness they started.  So the power in the Republican Party today can only be used to stop the solution of problems and to create new ones; it is incapable of being redirected to solve real problems since it is disengaged from reality.  The only real solution is for the nation to disengage from the Republican Party.  Some new, more pragmatic center-right party will emerge to fill the void, eventually; but until then there are only two sides to American politics:  the party that attempts to engage with real problems in the real world and looks for real solutions even if sometimes it misses, versus the party that attempts to avoid reality, that ignores truth, and which if it ever finds a real solution it is only like the proverbial blind squirrel finding a nut buried under a pile of bullshit. 

“Giving the Parson his Due”

January 23, 2013

I’ve started a second project, this one looking at Kierkegaard’s different understandings of “sin.”  As part of this process, I began reading and summarizing articles I found that were helpful to me.  I thought they might be helpful to someone else as well, and in any case I want to post something as regularly as I can and this is what I have.

 

Robert L. Perkins, “Either/Or/Or:  Giving the Parson his Due;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 207-231

 

 

Argues that the Judge’s religion is based on sentimentality and an undue confidence that God blesses our particular social arrangements, inclinations etc.  once we have referred them to God.  This would agree with the claim that the Judge’s ethics is essentially religious, in a sense; but it is a stunted, complacent and unreflective religion.  By contrast, the Parson argues that “as against God we are always in the wrong.”  Every social arrangement, every institution, etc. as well as every personal stand is at best pragmatic and utilitarian, useful, as good as we can make it; but it always could have been better and should have been better.  You shall love justice, you shall do justice; but you never do justice perfectly, which means you are never just.  This is an Upbuilding thought, because the idea that we could be in the right actually would drive us from God in the same way that the thought of being “in the right” against a friend can drive a wedge between friends.  To love is to want to be in the wrong, to want to be the one who is responsible for any distance (and then to seek to do away with that distance as much as possible).  The book and sermon end with the line, “Only the truth which builds up is true for you,” as if this were a throwaway line, a simple conclusion; in fact, it is really the conclusion of the whole and, reading of Kierkegaard’s journals reveals, a real epistemic claim.

REACTION:  What would happen if we accepted this as a serious criterion of “truth”?  Until now, it has been more of an existential slogan:  I will seek that which is upbuilding for me, and will settle for no truth that is merely objectively true.  In Kierkegaard’s writings, “objectively true” usually means either tautological, or empirically (and hence merely probably) true.  Perkins points out that Kierkegaard does not deny that there are other sorts of truth; but he does claim it is literally true.  And conversely, Perkins says, any putative truth that destroys your humanity is a lie for you (p. 230).

Clearly, this is not the rationalist truth or the empiricist truth.  It is not coherence theory or correspondence theory.  The closest it comes to is pragmatic theory, as stated by James.  There are differences, however.  James states that his definition of truth is in fact the “real” one, if everyone just thought about it.  When we say something is true, we mean that it is useful for achieving some purpose:  explaining some phenomenon, connecting our other truths into a coherent whole, helping us to solve some problem or to live better lives, or something of that sort.  Unlike some pragmatists, James allows for a “will to believe” and accepts such claims as free will or the existence of God if those claims help one who accepts them to live a happier or more productive life.  At the same time, he claims that our truths should live in peace with one another; if two of our truths seem to be in conflict, we need to find a way to understand one or both of them in a way that eliminates the conflict.  For example, writing in Pragmatism about belief in God, he says that this is not to be taken in a way that conflicts with scientific thinking:  “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.”[1]  Other times, he chooses a particular religious belief on pragmatic criteria, as when he chooses “meliorism” between the extreme claims of either pessimism (the world is and always will be wretched) and optimism (the world’s salvation is inevitable).  The claim that the world could be saved (but might not, based at least in part on human actions) seems to James to agree with our own sense experience as well as the need for truths that inspire us to action.  Kierkegaard does not care to reconcile our objective truths with our subjective truths; instead, he seeks to draw a sharp line between what we can know and what is merely probable, and between that which is best left to probability versus that which demands a choice.  In James’ terms, “subjective truth” applies only to living, forced, and momentous choices. [2]   In fact, James developed his theory of truth partly in reaction to Kierkegaard, as his reference to Kierkegaard in Pragmatism reveals.[3]  James intends his theory to encompass both the insights of the empiricist tradition as these were being refined by pragmatists like Peirce and Dewey, and a notion of subjective truth similar to that offered by Kierkegaard.  However, James seems more concerned with the happiness of the individual, and considers this an important criterion for some kinds of pragmatic truth claims.  When Kierkegaard writes of the truth that “builds up,” he does not primarily mean “makes you happy.”  As Judge William points out, the esthete may be very happy, simply because life has not yet revealed the fragility and ultimate falsehood of the basis of his or her life.[4]  To be “built up” is something else, more related to becoming a full individual; Kierkegaard’s most direct statements of its meaning are that to be “built up” is to be strengthened in one’s relationship to God.  When one is more correctly related to God, one becomes less anxious, more free and autonomous, less controlled by social forces or “obscure passions within” and more of an individual.  However, it seems more true to say that these are the fruits of being correctly related to God than to say that to be “built up” is to become a certain sort of individual who will consequentially relate to God.  At times in Kierkegaard’s writings, it seems as if individuality is identical with a true God-relationship, while at other times it seems as if true individuality were the result of the God-relationship. However, given that Kierkegaard’s notions of individuality often seem to require a person with gifts for self-reflection and intellectual achievement, while we are all children of God and can choose to live in a relationship with God, it seems that (on his own criteria) it is more upbuilding to see the God-relationship as original and foundational.  We can, however, evaluate the God-relationship by asking whether it is leading towards greater selfhood, greater autonomy, greater integration of the personality, and overall better functioning; if it is destructive of the self, leads towards injustice rather than justice, hate rather than love, fear rather than faith, self-flagellation and wallowing in guilt rather than confidence in God’s love and redeeming power, then perhaps what you are related to is not actually God after all.


[1] William James, Pragmatism:  a new name for some old ways of thinking, (1907) Lecture VIII:  “Pragmatism and Religion.”

[2] William James, “The Will to Believe,” pt. I, in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Religion (NY:  Longmans, Green & Co., 1912)

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

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, pt. II; edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 191-92

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 5)

November 5, 2012

 Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 5)

           Not surprisingly, James’ pragmatism bears some resemblance to Nietzsche’s; after all, they were near contemporaries in time.  Both are interested in how the individual constructs his (or her) world, based at least in part on psychological needs and one’s personal agenda.  James does appear to put more emphasis on the empirical roots of pragmatic truth than does Nietzsche, whose emphasis on the will-to-power overshadows all other concerns.

In some ways, though, James seems to foreshadow Wittgenstein.  First, James roots his pragmatism not only in the individual’s experience, but also in the history of the race.  Today’s common sense is yesterday’s discovery, passed on through the culture and the conversation of the ages.  My new truths may be those I discover or invent to meet my own needs, but James says the new truths have to learn to live with the old ones, which are often community property.  This isn’t exactly a Wittgensteinian language-game, but it certainly is more communal than Nietzsche’s brand of pragmatism, which lauds the Superman who creates his own values by his own will alone.  Second, like Wittgenstein and unlike Nietzsche, James is tolerant and even supportive of religious belief for those who find it meaningful.  In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein writes of religion as a somewhat regretful outsider.   Religion is the live fire of passion; philosophy only poking around in the ashes to see what can be learned after the fire has burned out.  While he himself did not understand the religious language-game as an insider would, he accepted that it had meaning for believers.  Likewise, James accepted that some “tough-minded” sorts would never get the meaning of religion and never see any point in it, while some “tender-minded” would need it above all else, and many would seek a faith that had a foot on both sides of that stream.  Nietzsche, by contrast, rails against those who would embrace an other-worldly faith, urging us to “be true to the earth” and accept only material values and realities.

This may be more interesting and helpful to me as I sort through James than it is to you; but I enjoyed the exercise and I hope you gained something too.  It seems to me, then, that even such anti-Kantian thinkers as Nietzsche develop a pragmatism that owes more to transcendental idealism than to empiricism.  In Nietzsche’s case, this means his pragmatism is rooted in ontological theories about the will as both a psychological and cosmic force, theories that themselves are not really pragmatically founded.  For Wittgenstein, no such ontological assumption is necessary or even really conceivable; the structures of the mind are rooted only in human behavior, which is the real primordial reality, creator and justifier of the concepts of any particular language-game.  James dedicates his lectures on pragmatism to J.S. Mill, and his allegiance to empiricism is obvious in his philosophy.

One final observation:  as I pointed out, James relies on a form of the coherence theory of truth to rein in the wild flights of fancy that might otherwise propose any sort of “useful” fiction.  By contrast, Wittgenstein is only interested in showing how the concepts of a particular language-game follow their own grammar, their own rules, and are consistent within that language-game.  It is a subject of dispute among students of Wittgenstein just how permeable the boundaries are between language-games.  That is, some claim may make sense in the religious language-game that is simply nonsense in the science language-game.  Some would argue that there must be some overall language-game of my life that contains the others; but others would say that the language-games can be mutually independent, and a person may engage in multiple language-games that are irreconcilable.  In that sort of Wittgensteinian perspectivism, a claim could be both truth and false, depending on the context in which it was used; so long as the concept is used correctly in the particular context of the associated human activity, and everyone understands it well enough to act together according to the rules of the language-game, the concept is “true.”  Likewise, Nietzsche holds to a form of perspectivism, based even more fundamentally on a form of nihilism.  Nothing is true except the will to power, and the fact that the individual wants to live and thrive; so concepts are “true” if they are true for me and help me live a healthier, more creative and vigorous life.  My truths may not be your truths, and there is no way to reconcile them.  To James, the truth claims of another are at least a challenge to my own, and if there is a reason for me to do so I will try to reconcile them with my other beliefs; and always, I must reconcile my truths with one another.  Nietzsche would see the truth claims of another as a struggle of wills, and I should feel free to simply ignore them.  I don’t even have to try to reconcile them with each other, so long as they all help me to live:  as he writes, “the will to a system is a lack of integrity.”  If my life is integrated, I don’t have to concern myself with whether my ideas are logically consistent.  And for Wittgenstein, the idea that I should reconcile my ideas with one another is false; it is simply the decision to set one language-game over as judge of another.  If both language-games reflect human behaviors that serve a purpose for those who engage in them, there is no further reason to try to explain one in terms of another.  So both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein favor complete perspectivism and multiple, incompatible “truths.”  James holds out the possibility of one truth to which we could all agree, albeit a rather broad and vague pragmatic truth; and this final unity is more of an ultimate goal or ultimate hope rather than a present reality.  Still, even the possibility of finding a shared framework for the search for truth is more than Nietzsche or Wittgenstein think possible.

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.”