Pragmatism and Principle

William James (1842-1910)

William James gave shape to a philosophy that would be known as pragmatism, a kind of “grown up” version of Nietzsche’s perspectivism.   At base pragmatism recognizes that truth claims are human constructs, tools that we use to manipulate and navigate our world.

This rejects the idea that truth is somehow a copy of reality — that we can have a proposition or claim that mirrors the way the world is.   The world is not language.   Language is a human construct designed to allow us to interpret sensation and experience.   We communicate our experience through language, meaning that linguistic claims reflect the brain’s effort to impose order and understanding on the world we experience.

Linguistic claims therefore cannot be said to able to convey any kind of absolute truth.   Some contain definitional truths — 5 is defined as a numeric quantity that comes from adding, say 4 plus 1.    We have constructed a useful truth claim that works.   The weirdness of quantum mechanics is often denied by those who do not want the kind of bizarre paradoxical reality that the theory implies – some want to believe in a clear mechanical like order.   But it works — and so it is accepted as truth.

When one moves away from linguistic definitional constructs to efforts to understand whether humans have free will, is there  a God, is a materialist or spiritual understanding of reality correct, or what principles should guide us, we lack the linguistic clarity of mathematical definitions.   Instead multiple competing discursive interpretations of reality can be constructed, many internally consistent and able to explain reality, but in contradiction with one another.

For James this was not a weakness of philosophy any more than the protestant reformation was a weakness of religion.  Rather it was a humanistic liberation from philosophical absolutism.   Just as the Roman Catholic church once claimed that religion could only be received through the Church, traditional philosophy looked to find one absolute truth that all should follow.   Just as the reformation created the idea that the individual could have his or her own interpretation of scripture and relationship with God, pragmatism liberates individuals to determine their own approach to philosophy and truth.

For James this was good because he believed that your philosophical predilection was based less on how you rationally analyzed arguments and came to conclusions and more on temperament.     “Tender minded” types tended to idealism and rationalism, trying to find principles that yield the one true philosophical system.   Moralistic, idealistic and often unyielding, this often created an opening for spiritual and optimistic views on life and nature.    Their views might not correspond to reality as they experience it now, but these people believe there is a deeper truth.   Tender minded folk can take solace in that, and the fact they do understand truth, even if the world does not.

Tough minded people, on the other hand, tended towards realism, cynicism, skepticism and materialism.  This yields a secular, empiricist world view, but one often cold, devoid of hope and pessimistic about the human condition.  Both world views can be held, and each can interpret reality consistently and logically – yet each yields a very different view on life.   Tender minded types build systems which seem to operate on logical core principles, tough minded folk are positivists and pluralists who question the very existence of core principles or the applicability of theoretical systems.

Pragmatism in that sense tells people that rather than try to figure out what is right (since that answer will come more from your personality than anything about reality), understand what truth claims mean for you and then choose those which work best for you and your experience in the world.   This does not mean “work best” in terms of getting what’s best for ones’ self at the expense of others.  This means what “works best” in terms of value fulfillment — what kind of beliefs will yield a life that is more full and meaningful for each individual?  Pragmatism is not simply an amoral approach to achieving ones’ desires.

James also focused on the mass public rather than specialized circles of philosophers.   Specialized philosophers are just people who are very good at developing linguistic defenses of their particular take on reality, debating with others about which take is “right.”   Not much is gained by the linguistic sophistication and logical complexity, except that the experts can feel superior with their own specialized jargon.    That’s not useful philosophy, that’s just playing intellectual games.  Useful philosophy must be accessible to any educated person, meaning James’ books and lectures were far more interesting and popular than those of the “professional” philosophers.

For James different beliefs mean different things.   If you believe in a spiritual approach to reality there is hope — there is meaning beyond the material.   For a materialist there is hopelessness — no matter what one achieves all will be demolished someday, the sun will explode all we know will be forgotten.  There is at base an essential meaninglessness to existence.  If you believe in free will there is a chance to improve the world; if you are a determinist all is as it must be, also a kind of hopelessness.

All these beliefs are possible — you can interpret reality to fit any of them.   Which you choose leads to certain conclusions.    Choose that which fits your temperament and intuition.   Go with it.    But don’t expect others to share the same view.

The pragmatist at base is about liberty — we are all free to choose how to look at reality and how to understand it.  There is no “right” answer that we should have.   That would be a kind of totalitarianism.  Those who think they have the “true” ideology will usually think that all should act in accord to what they see as the “truth.”   These are the equivalent of intellectual despots.   They think they have the right answer and condemn those who don’t think properly.    Since humans are fallible and the idea that one fallible human has somehow come up with the absolute truth is the height of arrogance and irrationality; a philosophical absolutist is a kind of intellectual Stalinist.   You can have your truth, but don’t pretend that it should be my truth.

Which means that the fundamental principles behind pragmatism are liberty and tolerance.   If there is no absolute truth — if truth is just a human constructed tool to use in the world — then dogmatism and intolerance are wrong.  They are wrong because they don’t work, they impede value fulfillment and the ability of people to make free choices about what to believe and how to act in the world.   Truth claims are all simply interpretations of reality, human linguistic constructs that can’t be measured against the world to see if they are ‘accurate.’   The world is not a linguistic construct.   Constructs are things we create, and are necessarily subjective and interpretivistic.   They are tools which can be judged only by how they work for each individual, how they allow value fulfillment and the ability to make sense of the world.

The claim that this necessitates tolerance and liberty is therefore not a claim of absolute truth, but a proposition based on the belief that dogmatism and absolutism are not only indefensible (no philosophy can prove itself true, since its truth is based on contingent definitions and assumptions), but yield a result that doesn’t work – it prevents value fulfillment and individual liberty.    The truth of this claim is not one that is asserted as a logical and necessarily truth, but has to be championed as a political and chosen truth: seeing the world this way is preferable to people than looking for some sort of “answer key.”    It is a normative belief that liberty trumps dogmatism and orthodoxy.

So pragmatism is, at base, the actualization of the principles of liberty and tolerance.    It is the quintessential American philosophy, justifying our belief in democracy and pluralism, similar to Nietzsche’s perspectivism, but more optimistic and positive.  It appears relativistic, but rests on a key insight:  embracing subjectivity is to embrace freedom, to strive for objective truth is to risk tyranny.

  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on February 19, 2012 - 16:16

    Another great essay Scott. You realize of course that anyone other than a pragmatist will dismiss your comments here as pure balderdash. 😉

    “Those who think they have the “true” ideology will usually think that all should act in accord to what they see as the “truth.” These are the equivalent of intellectual despots. They think they have the right answer and condemn those who don’t think properly.”

    Why did Newt Gingrich’s name come to mind when I read this?

  2. #2 by Jeff Lees on February 19, 2012 - 17:21

    Scott, have you read Isaiah Berlin? His idea of Value Pluralism seems to come right out of James.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2012 - 22:12

      I’ve only read about Berlin but actually haven’t read him. I do recall that he was said to be “inspired” by James. I’ll have to read him.

  3. #4 by modestypress on February 19, 2012 - 18:43

    The world seems to exist. It seems to follow the rules we describe as science, discovered by empiricism. As far as I can tell, there is no external reason, meaning, purpose, or moral rules created by a (probably imaginary) being described as “God.” Although I don’t like it, I can perceive my body getting older. Although I don’t like it, I understand that I will eventually cease to exist. As far as I can tell, what I have just written fits into the concept known as “nihilism.”

    Over the years, nihilism has received a bad press. Nasty people such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao have been described as nihilists, people who murdered, tortured, raped, and stole, because they thought, “Why not?” However, there are (I think) plenty of nihilists who are not bad people. I don’t murder, torture, rape, steal, etc., because of the trait known as empathy.

    Human beings evolved to possess “empathy.” Empathy means I can imaginatively experience feelings of other people (and creatures). If I see someone else in pain, I have similar feelings because I have experienced pain. If I see someone who is hungry, I remember what it felt like when I experienced hunger. Thus I am reluctant to cause pain, and I feel pleasure at alleviating suffering. Empathy motivates many people to behave ethically.

    Thus, I describe myself as an “ethical nihilist.” Thus I wish you and all your readers well. Do behave yourselves reasonably well, please.

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