Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that has dominated philosophy in America from the early 1900s to the present day, argues the philosopher and political theorist. He chooses the best books on pragmatism.
It’s a difficult question because the earliest philosophers in America who we associate with pragmatism as a philosophical tradition disagreed fairly fundamentally about important philosophical issues. So I think any attempt to say what pragmatism is in terms of a philosophical doctrine is bound to fail in a certain way.
Can you say something about it generally though? In most people’s opinion of pragmatism it has something to do with practical results.
Pragmatism is a version of naturalist empiricism which thinks that some account of human activity or practice or behaviour has to be a part of the account of experience. To elaborate: Unlike the British empiricists — who tend to understand experience in terms of sense perception, the passive receptivity of sensory data, “impressions and ideas,” as Hume puts it — the pragmatist thinks experience a matter of controlled behaviour. Experience is, as John Dewey put it, a circuit: successive episodes of doing and undergoing, of getting your hands dirty with the world and letting the world kick back in a certain way. So it is a humanistic kind of empiricism in that it thinks that behaviour and human practices are central to what experience is. Let me put that more impressionistically. The pragmatist wants to define empiricism in the way a wanted ad uses the word ‘experience’. If you’re looking for a job and it says “hairdresser wanted, five years of experience needed,” that’s the concept of experience that the pragmatist thinks is at the heart of a proper empiricism. An experienced hairdresser, or an experienced mechanic, is not somebody who has seen a lot of hairdos or seen a lot of engines, it’s somebody who has worked on hair and worked on engines.
So it’s a philosophy of action?
Yes, and it’s concerned with giving an empiricist and naturalist account of action. It wants to try and understand all of the philosophical concepts that we think are important for explaining action — like belief, truth, meaning — in naturalistic terms rather than through an appeal to something either transcendental or mental in some non-naturalistic sense, or a Cartesian sense. It tries to naturalize all these concepts by explaining them in terms of human activity and action.
Your first book is C.S. Peirce’s Philosophical Writings. Peirce, like many of the pragmatists, was an American philosopher. Why did you choose this particular book?
Peirce is cited and recognized as the founder of pragmatism. He’s the one who coins the term and spends his career, in a way, trying to give a proof of pragmatism. But he’s also a tragic and very intriguing figure as a man. He never secured a regular academic position. He was, by many estimations, America’s brightest mind. He writes about an impressive array of topics and you don’t have to look too hard or scratch the surface away in many of the areas of 20th century philosophy — philosophy of language, philosophy of logic, metaphysics, semiotics, aesthetics even — to find some innovation that traces back to Peirce. For example, he was the first person to draw the distinction between types and tokens.
Can you give an example of that distinction?
The word ‘good’ has four letters in the token sense, g-o-o-d, but in the type sense it has only three letters, because there are two letters of the same type (‘o’). It seems like an obvious logical distinction that would be important in all kinds of areas of enquiry and Peirce is the first one to give that distinction the name that all philosophers now recognize.
The reason I chose Peirce is not only because he’s the founder of pragmatism, but he is the author of two essays, published in 1877 and 1878 respectively, that are by almost all accounts the two documents that found the pragmatist lineage, tradition, trajectory or whatever it shall be called. Interestingly, these two papers — the first of which is called “The Fixation of Belief” and the second of which is called “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” — don’t contain the word ‘pragmatism’ in them. They were published originally in an odd venue, Popular Science Monthly, but they are generally taken as the inaugurating documents.
What is the essence of Peirce’s pragmatism then?
These two essays outline two central themes in pragmatism that get traced out in all subsequent versions of the view. It’s a behaviouristic, humanistic, practice-based conception of epistemology, what Peirce called a theory of enquiry and a theory of meaning.
In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Peirce develops and promotes a conception of meaning which has come to be called “the pragmatic maxim” or sometimes just “Peirce’s principle” or “the pragmatist conception of meaning.” That conception of meaning says this: if we want to understand the meaning of a sentence, or a statement, we look to see what impact on experience and behaviour it would have if we were to act on it. So if I say, “this knife is sharp” what I am doing is predicating the sharpness of that object. I’m saying it will cut things, you should be careful rubbing it against your skin; if you want to see blood, run it across your arm. The pragmatic maxim says the meaning of a sentence ultimately has to be cashed out in terms of a series of behaviouristic proposals. What would happen if you interacted with things in certain ways? If you do a particular kind of act, or perform a particular kind of action, what will be the result? Note that this is a conception of meaning that is fully naturalistic, it’s not talking about the property of sharpness somehow attaching to this particular instantiation of knifehood…
You’re alluding to the Aristotelian view about the properties of things. That’s one kind of approach to describing the world and our place in it that Peirce is rejecting here.
Yes, the Aristotelian conception, and many conceptions are like this. They are metaphysical: you start talking about properties and the objects in which they inhere. Once you start talking in that way, all kinds of metaphysical challenges and questions start developing, about “What does it mean for a property to inhere?” and so on and so forth. Pragmatists are very suspicious of metaphysics. That’s part of the naturalism. This is why pragmatism is a kind of empiricism that is a close cousin to logical empiricism and logical positivism with an anti-metaphysical bent. So one branch of pragmatism we get in Peirce is this conception of meaning. But it’s connected to his view about enquiry…
This is the epistemological point — about how we get to know things?
Yes. Pragmatism rejects the thought that epistemology is, centrally, the analysis of knowledge. The pragmatist thinks that epistemology is a normative enquiry: it’s interested in how something should be, how we should form beliefs. This is a very, very interesting development, and a unique feature of pragmatism. Epistemology is understood by the pragmatist as part of the theory of right, rational, self-controlled conduct.
That links nicely to the next book in that it seems to be describing an approach to the world that is very sympathetic to scientific enquiry, with an emphasis on the correct way of going about discovering things about the world. It’s called Pragmatism and it’s by William James, best known as an early psychologist, and as brother of Henry James.
Interestingly, both James and Peirce were trained scientists. Peirce was a chemist and James studied anatomy and to be a physician. James is the one who popularizes the term ‘pragmatism’, and credits Peirce with having coined it. Jamesian pragmatism is, on the one hand, a theory of meaning — the pragmatic maxim that he picks up from Peirce — and, on the other hand, a theory of truth. He’s picking up from Peirce that pragmatism is a two-pronged idea, a conception of meaning and an epistemic conception. It’s intended to be a scientific conception of meaning, it’s supposed to be pulled out of a laboratory, to give one a sense of the understanding of meaning that scientists employ when they do their experiments. James thinks that meaning is to be cashed out in terms of the implications of believing a proposition or a statement for your behaviour or conduct. James thinks that part of the meaning of a statement might even be — and this is one of James’s own innovations, something that Peirce gets very cross about — its implications for your psychological wellbeing.
This is where pragmatism goes a bit odd, because doesn’t William James use that style of thinking to suggest that when somebody says they believe in God that is really a statement about the psychological effects of that belief?
Yes, this is the way the view starts moving in James’s hands. What’s really important to understanding what motivates James to say that kind of thing is that he is biographically deeply torn. There is his scientific training: he is still regarded as the father of modern experimental psychology, he knows how to run a lab and do experiments. When one reads his The Principles of Psychology it’s very sophisticated measurement of difficult things to measure. He’s really good at the science. But temperamentally he is drawn to various kinds of spiritualism. He’s a religious guy. He believes, in parts of his life, in ghosts and spirits. In fact, towards the end of his life, he started trying to investigate, in scientific ways, parapsychological and paranormal things. So he’s got an almost spooky side to him, and he sees pragmatism as a kind of empiricism which — unlike the logical empiricism of the logical positivists — is going to be more hospitable to religion, spirituality, and values, in a very broad sense of that term. James is constantly talking about “feeling at home in the universe.” Part of what motivates his pragmatism is the attempt to reconcile a scientific, hard-nosed view of the world with a spiritualistic, religious conception of our place in it, these two drives that he personally felt quite strongly.
So the way it works is that we’re supposed to understand the meanings of propositions in terms of their implications for our behaviour — our behaviour very broadly defined to include our psychological moods and comportments and attitudes. We understand what the proposition means by how it would lead us to act. Then, there’s the conception of the truth, and a proposition is true in so far as it leads us to act in a way that is successful, or a way that is good for us to act. It’s a very puzzling conception of truth, philosophically speaking. It’s also very difficult to formulate it in a way that makes it sound anything but silly. When James says things that are not as cautious as they should be like, “Truth is what works,” he invites — unnecessarily I should say — a lot of well-placed criticism. Truth is what works? If I believe that I’m a very handsome guy, that could work for all kinds of purposes. It might not be true. These are the kinds of statements that earlier in the 1900s people like Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore had a field day with. It seemed like a crazy conception of truth. But I think it’s a more nuanced view than James sometimes suggests. It’s a view that says, we have beliefs for purposes. Beliefs are tools. A belief is like a hammer or a pair of scissors. It’s supposed to do things, behaviourally, it’s supposed to guide our actions. James thinks that the truth of a belief is to be understood in terms of the success it brings to our action when it serves as our guide. When you put it that way, there are still all kinds of objections and problems that can be raised, but it’s not so obviously the easily dismissible, silly idea that one gets when one leaves it at “the truth is what works” formulation.
And one of the ways that William James’s writing works, pragmatically, is that he’s a superb writer at the sentence level, like his brother.
Absolutely. If anybody ever wants to read a book of philosophy that’s about truth and meaning and religion and metaphysics that is a breeze — that you could almost read at the poolside — James’s Pragmatism is a brilliantly written piece of philosophy. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that William was a better writer than his brother.
Let’s move on to John Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy which is not a book I know. Tell me a bit about it and why you chose it.
In Dewey we get what we might think of as a philosophical system of pragmatism. He is the first one who is a fulltime philosopher. He cites philosophy, he gets his PhD in philosophy, he spends his career in philosophy departments. He’s the most systematic of the three we’ve discussed so far. Peirce has a broad-reaching philosophical mind and made several attempts to put together a philosophical system, but because of his inability to find a steady academic job or steady work, the writing is not systematic. James is off doing all kinds of different things in philosophy and in psychology. Reconstruction in Philosophy is, I think, Dewey’s best single book articulation of the whole view. One gets the whole picture, or at least as good a picture of the whole as one can get, given how big the whole is. Dewey is born in 1859 and he dies in 1952. He’s a prolific philosopher, and his full corpus fills 37 very large volumes. He’s also a social activist and an education reformer so he’s a busy, busy guy.
Here’s the way the book works: Dewey is, among pragmatists, again committed to these two strands: it’s a conception of meaning and it’s an epistemology. Dewey is most overt, though, in bringing into the foreground a commitment that had been doing a lot of work but had not been a central focus of discussion for pragmatism before him, which is that this is a book that’s about what philosophy is, as much as it’s a book about philosophy. Just look at the title, Reconstruction in Philosophy. This book takes, as one of its central objectives, to bring under philosophical scrutiny the standing conception of what philosophy is, or what philosophers do, or what philosophers are aiming for. Dewey thinks that pragmatism is a challenge to traditional conceptions of philosophy from within philosophy. He thinks it’s a philosophical challenge to traditional conceptions of philosophizing.
He’s undermining the view that, for instance, a philosopher’s aim is to describe our relation to the world?
That’s a perfect way to articulate what Dewey sees as the target. Dewey is opposed to any conception of philosophy that begins from a conception of human beings as separate or standing apart from the world. Oftentimes when we talk about describing the world, we’ve already committed to a conception of the person giving the description as somehow a spectator.
The classic phrase in philosophy here is “the external world.”
That’s right: a lot of philosophical problems replicate this conception, that there’s a thing inside and there’s a thing outside and the problem is to hook these things up in the right way. Think about Plato: there’s a whole other world that’s somewhere else, that our world is somehow connected to, and it’s not clear how it’s connected to the real world and the philosopher’s job is to figure that out. But the pragmatist is concerned with human activity and human practices, and the Deweyan pragmatist in particular is going to say, “No, no, no. Philosophy is and always has been, whether it has realized it or not, a social endeavour. It is the project, ultimately, of together, communally, solving our problems here and now, or conducting ourselves cooperatively and rationally here and now.” Reconstruction and Philosophy is an indictment of standard conceptions of philosophy and the indictment says the following: Traditional modes of philosophy have understood themselves in this detached, spectator, sense, when in fact what they’ve been doing is performing a very distinct social service, which is providing an intellectual cover for inherited hierarchy and for oppression.
This sounds like Karl Marx now…
It’s a deeply subversive book. It’s got a social agenda that we would at the very least today recognize as deeply social democratic. It’s also in line with Marx’s comment about changing the world [“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”] – proper philosophy has, as its mission, reconstructing the way the world is. One of the discussions one gets in this book, especially about knowledge and science, is that our culture is pervaded with, for example in America, the distinction between white collar and blue collar. In philosophy, we draw a distinction between ‘episteme’ and ‘techne,’ with episteme being the theoretical kind of knowledge which traditionally is what philosophy is interested in, and techne being the mechanics’ knowledge. Dewey thinks traditional philosophy has tried to exalt theoretical knowledge and downplay technical knowledge. Dewey thinks that’s backwards. All knowledge begins with dirty hands, with doing things, with getting dirt under your nails. The theory stuff comes later. That’s the message of the book.
Pragmatically, I should change my behaviour and go out and buy this book. It sounds absolutely fascinating, and your portrayal of it has convinced me that action is necessary at this point…
But we’ve got two more books to discuss. Let’s go on to Quine. So far we’ve talked about the triumvirate of American pragmatism — Peirce, James and Dewey. Quine is a major philosopher of the 20th century, but not usually described as a pragmatist. You’ve chosen his book From a Logical Point of View. Why have you chosen that in relation to pragmatism?
Although Quine doesn’t often describe himself as a pragmatist, he is, in my view, a fully-fledged pragmatist and any attempt to call him a pragmatist in a deeply qualified sense is a mistake. The standard, popular story about the development and founding of pragmatism that gets told is that Dewey dies in 1952, and pragmatism comes to an end a little bit before his death. Pragmatism is America’s philosophy, it is the dominant philosophical orientation in America and elsewhere from the early 1900s up until the end of the World War II, and that’s mainly credited to Dewey and the influence of Dewey’s work. Then, somehow, around the end of the war, for all kinds of interesting reasons, philosophers lose interest in Dewey and become fascinated by some British imports, such as logical empiricism. Pragmatism gets marginalized or dismissed or eclipsed by linguistic analysis, and ordinary language philosophy and the things that are associated with Russell and Moore and Wittgenstein. Pragmatism then lies dormant until the 1980s, when it’s revived by Richard Rorty — notice Rorty, it might seem peculiar to some people, is not on my list.
I happen to think that that’s a mistaken understanding of the history and development and fortunes of pragmatism. I think that pragmatism is a philosophical movement that dominates philosophy in America from the early 1900s to the present day, and that Quine sits very prominently in the story. If you understand pragmatism as always having been a set of philosophical disputes among roughly naturalist, empiricist, humanistic philosophers in America, about meaning and value and truth and knowledge and science and enquiry, if you understand that pragmatism has always been a kind of fight, or argument, then I don’t think this kind of Dewey-centric story of how pragmatism developed can quite stand.
What’s unusual about Quine is that he thought philosophy was almost a kind of science, or a part of science: it’s part of the same enterprise of discovering things, of going about a certain kind of enquiry.
Yes, that’s a pragmatist or a deeply anti-metaphysical programme. The very thought that there is a separate discipline called metaphysics that somehow underwrites or provides the foundation for empirical knowledge Quine disposes of as James, Peirce and Dewey did. They’re all anti-metaphysicians.
In this book, there’s an essay that’s right on that topic, isn’t there?
Yes, I chose the book particularly for Quine’s two most famous articles. One is called “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” and the other is called “On What There Is.” “On What There Is” is a deeply anti-metaphysical essay. In it, Quine is like a guy who is worried about gateway drugs into metaphysics, about metaphysical temptation. He’s concerned with a kind of gateway into metaphysical thinking where one starts puzzling over the kind of sentence that we sometimes call ‘negative existentials,’ for example, “Pegasus does not exist.” Going back to Parmenides and throughout the history of philosophy people have thought a sentence of the sort “Pegasus does not exist” is very, very peculiar because it looks as if it picks out something — Pegasus — and then attributes to that thing the property of non-existence. But how can something that does not exist have any properties? How can you pick out something that doesn’t exist? A lot of philosophers get drawn into metaphysical topics…
By ‘metaphysical’ here you mean a commitment to the nature of the sorts of things that exist in the world, it’s ontology we’re talking about here?
It’s thinking that there could be things that could not be empirically investigatable, that are not subject to scientific confirmation — like Pegasus. You can’t run an experiment to find out how much Pegasus weighs. Sentences which deny the existence of things commit you, in a funny way, to saying that they do exist, because how else could you talk about them? It’s a standing gateway into metaphysics that Quine wants to put the brakes on. He says, “No. no, no! We’re not going to get messed up with thinking that statements that deny the existence of things commit us to there being those kinds of entities.” What he winds up doing, in a way, is deflating or taking the metaphysical fuel out of our language. In a way, that is the Quinean project, to allow us to speak scientifically in ways that don’t invite metaphysical speculation.
How do you do that with Pegasus?
So Quine says, “Look, we’re driven to thinking that sentences about Pegasus are strange because we are driven to thinking that the name ‘Pegasus’ has to pick out an entity.” But ‘Pegasus’ is just shorthand for a thing that behaves in a certain way, for the Pegasizer. This is fully in line with the pragmatic maxim, the Peircean idea that the way to understand sentences is to talk about behaviour and activity and action. According to Quine the sentence, “Pegasus does not exist,” is a kind of idiomatic way of expressing the following thought: “Nothing behaves like that, nothing is the Pegasizer, nothing performs those activities, nothing satisfies that description.” Now, when you say the sentence, “Pegasus does not exist” is just a shorthand or colloquial way of saying, “Nothing Pegasizes” the sentence “Nothing Pegasizes” does not seem to invite you, or trick you into thinking you’ve picked out something and then attributed a property to it. It seems to block the metaphysical invitation of the former sentence. And then Quine says, “And by the way, this is what we mean by existence. This is what we mean when we say that things are. What we mean is that we are willing to say that we recognize something as satisfying that description.”
In terms of action or behaviour or change in the world?
Or as Quine emphasizes, in terms of playing a role in our best theories of things. Quine thinks that, “To be is to be the value of a bound variable.”
That starts to get technical doesn’t it?
Let me put it another way. Quine thinks that all there is to say about what there is, is to talk about what kinds of things our best theories of the world say there is. If our best theory of the world says that there are atoms, that’s what it means for there to be atoms. If it says there are electrons, that’s all it means for there to be electrons.
That has the pragmatic implication that it’s about the effects of the belief. It’s not a theory about things that exist independently of human beings, as it were, in the sense of removed from us, that are really, really there. To say “atoms exist,” means the atoms play a role in our theorizing in our best available theory. So that’s constantly revisable, which is consistent with the development of science, obviously.
That’s right, this is a fully pragmatist doctrine. It’s denying that there’s a special area of philosophy called metaphysics that stands above or lords over the sciences. The Quinean view says our philosophical theorizing has to begin with our humanistic activities. Science is one of the really important things that we do, it’s our best tool for understanding who we are and where we are in the world, and whatever metaphysics is — in fact he doesn’t think that there is any reason to call what remains metaphysics — it can’t be understood as something separate from, or that gives marching orders to, science. It’s the other way around. Science, human practices, the practices of human enquiry are where we start and whatever we say under the guise of talking about what there is, that’s always going to take its marching orders from the science. That’s why I think Quine is a fully-fledged, bona fide pragmatist. These are things Peirce could have said.
Let’s move on to your last book, another one I haven’t read, Cheryl Misak’s Truth, Politics, Morality.
One of the features in the development of pragmatism is that pragmatists are constantly faced with the challenge of taking science seriously, but not losing sight of evaluative questions, moral questions, social and political questions. We saw that driving James’s pragmatism was the need to reconcile science and values in a very broad sense. We saw that Dewey thinks that the values, in effect, start the whole thing, that’s how you keep them reconciled: you start with the social, the political, the normative. Quine has only one essay about values and it’s very short. His work is all about philosophy of science, philosophy of logic, epistemology and philosophy of language, and that sort of thing. Misak is a very interesting figure in this very long story of pragmatism. She publishes Truth, Politics and Morality in 2000 and it’s a return to Peircean pragmatism for the purpose of getting democratic theory right. Peirce himself, like Quine, wrote almost nothing about values. He certainly wrote nothing about politics, philosophically. In letters that we have where Peirce does talk about politics he says very unfortunate things about slavery, about women, and about democracy. So it’s a strange return to Peirce for the repurpose of moral and political philosophy. Here’s the nub of the book: We talked earlier about Peirce’s conception of meaning and the pragmatist’s maxim, the idea that epistemology is about conduct. That’s the core, the germ of the thought that Misak is developing here. As it turns out, Peirce thought a very funny thing about truth that Misak is reviving and, in a way, trying to clarify. Peirce thought that “truth is what an ideal community of enquirers is fated to believe.” In other words, he thinks that the truth is the ideal end point of enquiry, what we will come to believe if we continue enquiring. It’s called the “end of enquiry” conception of truth and, like James, Peirce articulates this thought in a lot of unfortunate ways. It seems an odd thought and you might think it gets the explanatory relation backwards. You might say, “No, no wait a minute! It’s the truth of the proposition that explains the convergence of opinion in the course of enquiry. It’s not the convergence of opinion in the course of enquiry that explains the truth.” Misak gives, I think, a much more promising gloss on that thought. She’s saying: this is how Peirce should have expressed it, this is what Peirce really means. Peirce thinks, like a good pragmatist, that if you’re interested in understanding a philosophical concept, we’ve got to draw out its implications for human practice. Peirce thinks that what we are doing when we are attributing truth to a particular belief is we are affirming, “Nigel, go and enquire — you’ll come to agree with me.” Or, “If we keep looking at reasons and keep challenging this thought, it’s going to stand up to the challenges. It’s almost a [John Stuart] Millian idea, that what we are doing with truth talk is making a prediction about the ability of a particular belief to which we attribute truth to withstand philosophical scrutiny and answer objections.
It’s almost like passing the test of time?
That’s exactly right. But it’s also, notice, an intrinsically social idea. If I say of some sentence “It’s true,” Peirce is saying — on Misak’s interpretation — that part of what I am saying is, “Nigel give me your arguments, give me your objections, let me hear about your reasons for holding some other belief. Let’s enquire together.” When I say, of a proposition, P is true, I’m saying that that process is going to leave P standing.
That’s starting to sound like Karl Popper’s account of science. We have bold conjectures that we try to refute and the ones that survive the refutation or get modified in the light of refutation are our best shots at the moment.
That’s exactly right. And like Popper’s, notice, it’s a social enterprise. As it is in Popper, the conception of truth is tied to an intrinsically social conception of enquiry.
What does Cheryl Misak do with that?
She says, to put it in a slogan, that proper enquiry, understood as this social enterprise, requires democratic institutions. She thinks that our commitment to the truth of our own beliefs requires us to commit to the thought that those beliefs would withstand the scrutiny of critics. The commitment to the truth of our beliefs requires us to have an open society. So it’s a conception that tries to move from this enquiry, this social conception of epistemology, to democratic politics. Cheryl and I are allied on a lot of philosophical issues. We fight a lot of philosophical battles on the same side, and this one is the core thing upon which we agree as philosophers. Democracy is many things, it’s certainly a moral commitment to treating people as free and equals. But democracy is also, very importantly, an epistemological proposal. Democracy is tied to epistemic practices. Democracy is a kind of society – it’s not just a decision procedure, it’s not just voting and elections and Supreme Court decisions. It is a kind of society that fits the Popperian description of the open society. It’s about freedom of enquiry and association and free speech and all the other freedoms we associate with contemporary constitutional democracies. If we care about truth, we have to care about sustaining the social and political conditions under which our beliefs can be challenged and scrutinized and those conditions are democratic. So you get a very direct argument from epistemology to democracy in Cheryl Misak’s book.
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