Saturday, November 01, 2008

Book Review: Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking

In my continuing efforts to broaden my mind, I decided to pick up another book on philosophy, in this case, William James' 1906 work, Pragmatism, with the long subtitle noted above. James originally articulated these ideas in a series of university lectures as a new means of approaching philosophy that was different both from "tough-minded" empiricism, which focused mostly on facts, and "tender-minded" rationalism, which focused on ideas. Pragmatism was the "third way" of its day, offering as it did a way of incorporating abstract philosophical notions with the "real world." Here's how James puts it:

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable.
Mind you, many or most metaphysical disputes can be interminable if you've got a sufficiently boring philosphy professor. James, however, is an engaging writer (and, presumably, speaker if his prose is any judge). He often lapses into Latin, French, or German in such ways that he assumes his audience understands. It's a reflection of the times--or maybe just me--that I understood little to none of his foreign-language asides.

Be that as it may, what does pragmatism do? There is a certain negative connotation to the word because it is usually associated with political pragmatism, which is often translated as a willingness to compromise principles for personal gain or to avoid conflict.
Returning to James...

The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion (rational or empirical) by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right.


In what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true? If I can find nothing that would become different, then the alternative has no sense.

There is a bit more to it than that, of course. Pragmatism is also an approach to thinking. For instance, James says that "ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just insofar as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience." I translate that to mean, "If it [an idea] works, then it is good." This idea could be "I believe that human beings should pursue the good," which is a rationalist notion, or "I believe that the physical world is composed of atoms," which is something derived from empiricism."

Upon this basis, then, James addresses such questions as the creation of the world (and its likely future), the existence or purpose of free will, the existence of Truth (with a big T), et cetera. This notion of playing with ideas until they work--or don't--has an almost scientific feel to it. He is proposing that we apply the scientific method to philosophical ideas: form the hypothesis, set up an experiment, test the results. If no experiment is possible, the question/hypothesis isn't worth pursuing, at least according to James.

This is a very American way of thinking. Not being an especially philosophical people, we nevertheless must interact with the world of hard, empirical facts as well as loftier, more tenuous ideas like The Law, or Justice, or Truth, which are rational notions upon which our society depends. Americans tend to pursue "what works" rather than "what's been done before." This approach of using "what works" is partially a result of European settlers moving West and encountering landscapes, people, vegetation, and animals previously unknown and thus outside of previous experience; and is partially the result of a lack of classical or formal education along the frontier.
If I have any complaint with this book, it is its approach to ethics:

The way to escape from evil on this system is not by getting it "aufgehoben" [waived] or preserved in the whole as an element essential but "overcome." It is by dropping it out altogether, throwing it overboard and getting beyond it, helping to make a universe that shall forget its very place and name.
According to the scheme outlined in this book, good and evil are very contingent and situational, and it is up to each of us to choose the good (which James does, at least, prefer) and leave behind the evil. This is, as he puts it earlier in the book, the "ultimate protestantism." However, this is also as close to a Godless, rudderless moral universe as one can imagine.

James offers hope in the form of a universe wherein human beings are at least offered a chance at salvation, however you care to define the word, through individual choice and effort as opposed to a perfectly "good" universe, where the only freedom would be to be worse and a perfectly "evil" universe, where any action taken won't matter worth a plate of dingo's kidneys.

I kept thinking of Robert A. Heinlein as I read this book. Heinlein might have been the ultimate pragmatist science fiction writer. He wrote several stories and books depicting this very pragmatic, practical approach to human behavior. In Starship Troopers, he offers up a society in which only individuals who serve in the military or civil service for a minimum of three years are allowed to vote. At one point in the book, a teacher challenges his student on why the society has been set up this way. When the student starts reciting the philosophical, "textbook" answers, the teacher comes down on him and says, "No, our society is the way it is for one simple reason: because it works."
In a nonfiction essay entitled "The Pragmatics of Patriotism," found in the collection Expanded Universe, Heinlein discusses the functional (pragmatic) purpose of patriotism--why we need it, what its value is to society, and how it ennobles the individual. In other books, such as Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein's viewpoint character Jubal Harshaw sees the protagonist, the Man from Mars, radically changing society and its mores. Rather than rail against the changes, Harshaw examines the advantages of the changes, and accepts them because they work--at least within the context of the story.

This is not a philosophy that will make great inroads with cultural conservatives, who believe that morals cannot or should not change. Pragmatists, of which there are many in the science fiction writing community, at least recognize that morals, mores, and cultures are subject to change. And these changes are often based on "what works." In the end Pragmatism might offer the reader some insight into metaphysical thinking. It might even make sense. However, as with any philosophy--even pragmatism itself--one should be careful about judging the potential results or implications of the thoughts being presented.

1 comment:

lin said...

I have long been an advocate of universal national service. Whether military, veteran's hospitals, National Park Service, or some other worthwhile and non-political work is irrelevant.