Taking pragmatism seriously - Ruth Anna Putnam

Let me say, right off the bat, that I don’t know what it means today to be a pragmatist. Richard Rorty calls himself a pragmatist, but I am inclined to think that his pragmatism is profoundly different from that of, say, John Dewey. The key words in Dewey’s philosophy as I understand it are ‘interaction’ and ‘inquiry’, the key words in Rorty’s recent philosophy are ‘conversation’ and ‘solidarity’. Not that Dewey would not approve of conversation and solidarity – both are essential to inquiry – but he would insist that what prompts the inquiry and what must be its ultimate upshot is experience, that is, interactions between a human organism and its environment. I have been puzzled for years why Rorty fails to note the role of experience in Dewey’s thinking, the word ‘experience’ occurs in the titles of several of Dewey’s most important later books. Nor is this emphasis on experience unique to Dewey; we find it as well in the philosophies of Peirce and of James. 

So, perhaps I ought to consider another contemporary philosopher, say, Hilary Putnam. He certainly does not ignore inquiry, and while I don’t recall frequent occurrences of the word ‘interaction’ in his writings, he has been emphasizing the importance of practice, or the agent’s point of view. And like Rorty, he frequently refers to the works of one or the other of the great pragmatists. But Hilary Putnam has said in recent lectures, ‘I am not a Pragmatist’. He is not a pragmatist, he says, because he rejects the pragmatist theory of truth.  So I cannot answer the question, ‘What does it mean today to be a pragmatist?’ I am not sure whether I am a pragmatist or what it would mean to say that I am one. So, I want to change the question. Let me try to say what it means to me to take pragmatism seriously.  Dewey wrote, in the introduction to Reconstruction in Philosophy.

‘Philosophy will recover itself when it ceases to deal with the problems of philosophers and addresses the problems of men’, where, of course, he meant by ‘men’ human beings. Taking pragmatism seriously means to me developing a philosophy that will enable us to deal more effectively with the great problems that confront humanity. I said, ‘a philosophy that will enable us . . .’ who are we? We are not merely philosophers but anyone whose thinking may be affected directly or indirectly by what philosophers are writing and saying. The two early articles of Charles S. Peirce that everyone remembers when they think of the founding of pragmatism were part of a series of five articles published in a journal called Popular Science Monthly. Many of James’ famous papers, for example, the notorious ‘The Will to Believe’, were addressed to general student audiences. His lectures on pragmatism were addressed to educated ladies and gentlemen, and his most widely read and most frequently reissued book, Varieties of Religious Experience is clearly accessible to a large segment of the literate public.

Similarly, many of Dewey’s books are accessible to a wide audience. The first copy I owened of his Human Nature and Conduct, a book on social philosophy, was issued on thin paper and in thin paper covers for the use of members of the United States Armed Forces in World War II.  And what are the problems that pragmatism wants us to confront more effectively? Well, whatever problems we actually have. William James testified before the Massachusetts legislature when that body considered what to do about what we now call ‘alternative medicine’. James suggested that, on the one hand, the practice of alternative medicines should be permitted – not to do so would be to block the path of inquiry – but on the other hand the practitioners of those forms of healing should not be permitted to call themselves ‘doctor’ – because the patients needed to know whether they were consulting a graduate of a medical school or a healer belonging to some alternative tradition.

Dewey comes to mind as someone who frequently entered the public arena both as an author and as an active participant. What is, of course, particularly dear to American academics is his role in founding the American Association of University Professors in order to protect academic freedom.  So, what does it mean to turn away from the problems of the philosophers? It means to me – and here I am using a phrase from David Hume rather than the pragmatists – that I seek a philosophy that I don’t have to leave behind in the study. It means, first of all, what Cornel West has called ‘the American Evasion of Philosophy’, by which he meant the evasion by American philosophers of the problematique of Cartesian scepticism.

Peirce rejected Cartesian doubts as paper doubts that could not possibly stimulate anyone to real inquiry – where real inquiry, scientific inquiry, presupposes, for Peirce, that there are real things, things that are what they are regardless of what anyone thinks they are. James pointed out that out of a multitude of private worlds not even a God could construct a public common world. And Dewey noted that the question, ‘How can we infer or construct the external world from our private and fleeting sense data?’ presupposes the very world it presumes to call into question. So, to take pragmatism seriously means to me, first of all, that I don’t question that I live in the same world with you. It means also that there is no interface, no iron curtain between me and the commonsense world of what John Austin called middle-sized dry goods. To take your problems – where you  stand as a representative of humanity – seriously, I must take it for granted that the toe I would step on were I not to take care is the toe in which you would feel pain.  What I just said suggests already the second problem of the philosophers that one evades if one takes pragmatism seriously, the problem of other minds. Here I need to interrupt myself, lest I be seriously misunderstood.

When I say that pragmatists evade the Cartesian problem of our knowledge of the external world, I am not saying that they have no philosophy of perception, I am saying that their philosophy of perception is not meant to be a response to scepticism. Similarly, I am not saying that if one takes pragmatism seriously one does not work in philosophy of mind or in philosophy of language, but, once again, one does it neither as a metaphysical realist nor as a sceptic. One does it taking our commonsense beliefs for granted; taking it for granted, for example, that we sometimes think of the same building, and that we can sometimes communicate this fact to each other, and so we sometimes succeed to meet at an appointed time in a certain place. But this is not the place to elaborate on pragmatist epistemology or pragmatist philosophy of language or of mind. For the way in which pragmatists take the existence of other people seriously – and it is, of course, significant that I say ‘other people’ rather than ‘other minds’ – is more basic.

I mentioned above that Peirce rejects Cartesian doubt. The other thing Peirce does in his seminal paper ‘The Fixation of Belief ’ is to examine what he calls ‘methods of inquiry’ and to reject three of them before he comes to the scientific method.  What interests me here about Peirce’s comments on these other methods, methods that do not fix belief as a result of experience, is that he says that they succumb to the social impulse rather than that they succumb to experience. Why does he say that? Well, to the extent that one’s beliefs are altered in the light of contrary experience one is following the scientific method. So, what Peirce is asking is, what will move someone from a dogmatically held belief, a belief which one claims to be immune to falsification, if one is not willing to count any sense experience as contrary evidence, or if the belief is such that no sense experience could count as contrary evidence. And his answer is that it will be one’s coming to see that these beliefs are not shared by others. Thus, one may have accepted the religious beliefs of one’s community until one discovers that other people have different religious beliefs, or none at all, and that will cause one to rethink these matters. Or one may have been persuaded by Descartes until one discovers other philosophers who question Cartesian assumptions. But this is not just a piece of clever psychology, for two quite distinct reasons.

On the one hand Peirce holds that we cannot defend using the scientific method to fix beliefs and using the probabilities so established to guide our conduct unless we are interested not in our own success but in the success of humanity as a whole, or as Peirce would say, the community of inquirers indefinitely prolonged.  On the other hand, and this holds whether or not one accepts Peirce’s theory of truth, all pragmatists insist on the social character of inquiry. What is wrong with the Cartesian question, ‘How do I know that there is an external world?’ is not only that it reflects an unreal doubt but that it assumes that this doubt can be laid to rest by a single individual. Of course, if one takes the Cartesian doubt seriously one would have to take the solipsism seriously as well. But even if one does not take Cartesian doubt seriously, there are times when one doubts one’s own objectivity, and only others (and thus one’s trust in these others) can lay such doubts to rest.

Finally, and commonsensically, all our knowledge is built upon foundations laid by our predecessors, and most of our new knowledge depends on the work of communities of inquirers. So, to take pragmatism seriously is to take oneself to be living in a world that one shares with others, others with whom one cooperates in inquiry, other with whom one may compete for scarce resources or with whom one may cooperate in seeking to achieve common goals. It is to see oneself not as a spectator of but as an agent in the world. And that means that one confronts often the question, ‘What is to be done?’ In other words, I have finally come to the problems of human beings. What then does it mean to take pragmatism seriously when one confronts moral and social problems.

First of all, it means that one does not see a sharp distinction between moral problems on one side and social or political problems on the other; every social or political problem is a moral problem. Second, it means that one does not see a sharp distinction between moral problems and other problems, or between moral inquiry and other inquiry. A moral problem is a problem, the same methods of inquiry apply here as in the case of, say, an engineering problem or a physics problem. In Dewey’s language it is to reject the distinction between means and ends, to replace it by a means/ends continuum. Dewey speaks of ends-in-view rather than ends simpliciter, for we may discover as we seek to realize our ends-in-view that the price we would have to pay is too high, that we must modify or even abandon our cherished goal. Or we may discover, having achieved our goal, that we now confront worse problems than before. Think, for example, of the environmental problems we have created in the process of raising our standards of living.  Dewey says, more than once, morality is social. That seems obvious – how could there be morality unless there were people interacting, having to do with each other, taking an interest, not necessarily benevolent, in each other? But consider how philosophers have approached morality since the Enlightenment, since they understood that morality is a human enterprise.

In morality more than anywhere else, we have taken seriously Kant’s injunction, ‘Für sich selber denken’ – think for yourself. Of course, taking pragmatism seriously does not mean giving up on thinking for oneself, on rejecting blind faith in an authority. But thinking for oneself does not mean ‘thinking by oneself ’. In morality as in science inquiry is a cooperative enterprise. Subjectivity in the sense of giving too much weight to one’s own interests, or in the sense of taking one’s own perspective as the only perspective, can be avoided only by engaging with others, with all relevant others. Finally, and I have hinted at this already, taking pragmatism seriously is to reject the fact/value distinction, that is, to deny that that distinction will bear any ontological or epistemological weight. I have already indicated that value inquiry is like scientific inquiry; I need only to add that there is no scientific inquiry that does not involve the making of value judgments, not only judgments of relevance and reliability, but judgments that something is interesting, is worth one’s while pursuing, etc. To gesture at just one way in which the fact/value distinction does not bear ontological weight, I might just suggest that our moral codes (or the implicit norms that guide our conduct) like our scientific theories are means by which we find our way in this complex world so full of opportunities and of dangers; they are, each in its own way, products of human ingenuity, as are our tools, from stone age choppers to the latest automated machine. We don’t question the reality of the latter, why should we question the reality (call it objectivity) of the former?  That’s what taking pragmatism seriously means to me: to try to philosophize in ways that are relevant to the real problems of real human beings.  

About Ikhbayar Urchuud

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