Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Reflections on Wm. James' Conception 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."

"The popular notion is that a true idea must copy its reality."

This is a restatement of the correspondence theory of truth which claims that our ideas are true if they reflect something "real" in the physical world. Thus, what is "real" means "whatever exists." From this, we might infer that the content of "truth" and the content of "reality" are epistemologically identical. Of course, this raises a different kind of problem...viz., what ontological status do untrue ideas or beliefs hold? Do we say that our idea of Big Foot does not exist because our belief in it is untrue? No. Untrue beliefs must have some kind of reality because they exist as ideas in the mind. If this is so, then a simple correspondence theory about truth and reality is not a sufficient explanation. Since ideas exist by the very fact that someone is having those particular thoughts, then whether or not they represent something "real" (i.e., in the physical world) is not a test of their ontology (their "Being" as philosophers say). James is correct in suggesting that the popular linkage between truth and reality does not adequately explain the nature of our ideas. "Reality" is simply another word for "what is" or "what exists." Thus, we are led to the strange notion that all ideas are "real" insofar as they exist. But the property of "truth" attaches itself to some ideas and not to others.

What about ideas that existed in the past? Are they still real in the present? You have to conclude that unless an idea has passed completely into oblivion then it must endure as a memory. That brings up the question of whether ideas can exist outside of the mind. Plato certainly believed this was possible. But it is difficult to describe what kind of reality an idea has once separated from a living brain. Could you say that the idea (or datum) is preserved in a computer network or a manuscript, and thus continues to exist as a kind of contingent reality? Hmm.

"Where our ideas cannot copy definitely their object, what does agreement with that object mean?"

If ideas are only imperfect copies of their objects, then they cannot be strictly reliable. They give us only an approximation of the truth (or reality) which supports the idea. Nevertheless, the standard for truth must lie with reality, not with any test or principle of verification. The world exists whether or not it is inhabited by perceiving subjects. The problems with verification are primarily statements about perception, not the objects being perceived. Even if we agree with Descartes that mind and matter are intrinsically different, and that our knowledge is limited to what we (as perceiving subjects) can experience (or what God reveals), that still tells us nothing about the world itself.

"But the great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means essentially an inert static relation."

Unless truth is static, it can no longer function as a standard by which to evaluate our actions. If truth is malleable, then it means one thing today, something else tomorrow, and perhaps something else again as it recedes into the distant past. An elastic truth is no truth at all. It is only a word, a mere sound in the air that our lips make, but with no fixed meaning. Do we really want to say that truth is just a state of mind, like being angry or happy or noble? Doesn't this remove truth from the concerns of philosophy and abandon it to the realm of psychology? Is truth just another empirical process to be studied like rats in a maze? Or is it more than that?

"How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?"

This is more a question about relevance than ontology. There are actually two questions that need to be answered: what is real? and How can we know (or verify) what is real? If truth and reality are epistemological synonyms, as I believe they are, then these concepts are interchangeable because the problems they raise are identical. Of course, in philosophy, knowledge is divided into two categories: "things we know for certain," and "things which we believe." Plato believed that truth corresponds only to certainty. Everything else is mere opinion, which is not a form of knowledge at all but only a pale reflection of truth. With James, the question of what we can know is delimited by the range of things (ideas) which can be verified. As you might expect, this is the methodology of science. Things which, by their very nature, cannot be verified are bracketed as unknowable (i.e., metaphysical, or beyond the realm of physics) and put aside. Everything else is subjected to the rigors of verification. Thus, the domain of truth is reduced from all of God's creation (the universe or "logos") to the much smaller realm of things which can be understood by human reason and verified by human perception.

This slimming down of reality (a kind of philosophical reductionism) is done for the sake of human progress, that is to say the expansion of scientific knowledge. It is a credo of pragmatists everywhere that as science progresses, so does humanity. And it cannot be denied that science (and technology) advances by focusing its attention on problems that (in theory at least) have practical solutions. This is only to say that the disciplines of philosophy and science have very different agendas.

For example:

If we say that A = B, and either A or B is clearly unknowable, then the proposition will not hold. Notice, however, that lacking a means of verification is not the same as saying that A = B is untrue. For James, the notion of relevance is connected with the notion of truth. If you cannot clearly state what difference it makes to you whether A = B or not, then the question is moot and not worth pursuing. Thus, the realm of truth now shrinks further, constrained as it is by the need to satisfy both the test of verification and the test for relevance. But what is not considered relevant for the purposes of science may still be highly relevant for the purposes of mankind. Should we abandon metaphysics and theology because they do not conform to a fetishistic desire for verification?

We infer the presence of truth in the world from our experience and from our reason, but we can never know it directly. Kant believed that some aspects of reality are demonstrable, even without the benefit of experience. He called such truths "a priori" (meaning prior to experience). Among these are mathematics, and the intuitions of time, space, and causality. These truths are apprehensible and universal. But they are not verifiable in the pragmatist fashion. Are there other aspects of reality that are worth pursuing even if they are not fit subjects for scientific inquiry?

"True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot."

This is not a statement of fact but rather a proposal to redefine "true ideas" as being equivalent to....

"The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us."

"Yet since almost any object may some day become temporarily important, the advantage of having a general stock of extra truths, of ideas that shall be true of merely possible situations, is obvious."

Here we encounter the curious notion that truth is a temporary condition. Ideas which we characterize as "truth" may, at some future time, be recharacterized as lies or myths. So, truth has a quality about it like freshness. It might just as well have a date of expiration. I can't help but think of Orwell's "Ministry of Truth" when I hear truth described this way. If truth is merely instrumental, then it can be whatever we need it to be. Isn't this the same concept as propaganda? An idea which serves a political purpose and is valid only so long as it continues to serve that purpose.

"From this simple cue pragmatism gets her general notion of truth as something essentially bound up with the way in which one moment in our experience may lead us towards other moments which it will be worthwhile to have been led to."

I cannot disagree that experience leads us, willy-nilly, to things "worthwhile to have been led to." But this statement misses the point. If we allow the larger philosophical search for truth to be co-opted and assigned to the pragmatist's laboratory, we are settling for a much smaller, disposable version of reality than what is truly "out there." A truth that is deconstructed and dressed up can seem almost worthwhile. But having lost any meaningful frame of reference, we will no longer care what the truth is as long as it agrees with our current "evidence." No longer content to live in the old world (the enduring realm of Truth), we have embarked on the search for a new world of practical, post-modern values, where facts are king, and usefulness the law. Whether we will wash up on the shore of the Yahoos or the Houyhnhnm has yet to be determined.

[all quotations are taken from William James' Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Penguin Classics ]

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 6

What is truth? Without using a dictionary, most people think that truth is agreement with reality, and falsity is disagreement with reality. This is useful, as long as we all agree what reality is. Most of us equate reality with truth. James says that “The popular notion is that a true idea must copy its reality.” In other words, to have a “true idea” there needs to be something out there, somewhere, to make it a true idea rather than a false idea. There needs to be some measuring stick to measure how “true” something actually is.

James doesn’t think there is such a cosmic measuring stick. That’s fine for James. But Plato might argue: “When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter.” There’s nothing else to be said because you’ve rubbed up against The Real Thing. Some things are rock solid – eternal even – they never go away and they never change. True ideas are truer even than things we can see and taste and touch. That’s because all material things eventually go away or change – the sun goes down, milk turns sour, even mountains eventually erode. Plato seeks a Truth that won’t go away or change. For Plato, to really be True means a thing will have to stay the same as it is, now and forever.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, says that “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we can not.” This is a different definition. What does it mean exactly? James believes “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. It’s…a process.” Truth? A process? This flatly contradicts Plato. For Plato, Truth isn’t a process; it’s more like home base. It’s the goal we aim for. Our goal in life is to adjust our conduct to conform to these True Ideas. Pragmatism defines the notion of truth as something we create as we go along. We make up what is true, for us, by our experience of living in the world, not by dreaming up some abstract changeless reality. Therefore, Plato is clearly mistaken.

Who’s right? Can we conduct a test and decide who wins? Not really. This is the kind of argument where people have to agree to disagree. Why? Because we can’t fully verify either claim. James concedes there are many “truths” we cannot personally experience, even in the real world. He even acknowledges that “unverified truths…form the overwhelmingly large number of the truths we live by.” There’s just not enough time for us to experience everything personally. For example, it’s better for us to “assume Japan to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so.” This is the pragmatic method. It’s a working philosophy.

But some things we can verify: 1 + 1 = 2, for instance. This is true wherever we are, and for every possible ‘one’ that there can ever be. “Once true, always true” is something Plato approves. But James thinks that between concrete things in the “real world” and abstract things in our “mental world” our minds must function within two tightly controlled parameters. Reality in this view becomes the relationship between the concrete things that we perceive and the abstract thoughts that make connections between them. For us, that’s what “truth” is – the connections we make between concrete things and our abstract thoughts. These connections are “true” because they work for us. Abstract thoughts keep us searching for more truths; concrete things keep us grounded in the way things actually work. James warns that we need to keep clear in our minds what we are about in this world. “We mustn’t now call Abel ‘Cain’ or Cain ‘Abel.’ If we do, we ungear ourselves from the whole book of Genesis and from all its connexions with the universe…” In philosophy, as in life, it’s important that we all play by the same rules. And that’s something William James and Plato both should agree on.

-- RDP

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What is the Good of Common Sense?

There are three categories of human knowledge by which James measures our ability to learn: common sense; science, and critical philosophy. By "common sense," James does not mean simply having "good judgment" or being "free from eccentricity." That is the layman's perspective, or what the man on the street means by common sense. Instead, James is talking about an early "stage of development" in which human reason is responding to an unfamiliar world. This early stage of growth is replicated in every human being as the mind develops and extends itself into nature. As James says, it "form(s) one great stage of equilibrium in the human mind's development, the stage of common sense." Essentially, James is referring to the mind's tendency to organize its contents into categories of experience. These categories were not invented by James. They are a legacy of Kant. They represent the manner in which human reason operates upon nature. Such concepts as "thing" (or substance), "mind," "body," "time," "space," "causality," are the categories by means of which "we handle facts by thinking them ("denkmittel")." According to James, none of this organization comes to us "ticketed and labeled...we have first to discover what it is."

For James, these Kantian categories have resulted in a conceptual system that works pretty well most of the time. But we have inherited these "notions" without any knowledge of how they relate to our actual perceptions "taken by themselves." For example, our concept of weather is based on the idea that weather is something capable of description, that it can be observed and measured. In other words, it endures over time and can be experienced, or to put it another way, it has continuity or "being." "Being," of course, is a product of rational (Greek) philosophy which divides the world into two categories of experience: Being and Becoming, or that which IS versus that which is passing away. Linguistically, we employ the same categories when we combine our sentences into "subject" and "predicate."

Regarding weather, James says that there is no such thing as weather in general. There is only weather at a specific time and place:

"Weather-experience as it thus comes to
Boston is discontinuous, and chaotic. In point of temperature, of wind, rain or sunshine, it may change three times a day. But the Washington weather-bureau intellectualizes this disorder by making each successive bit of Boston weather episodic."

James is implying that just as weather is "discontinuous and chaotic" so is all of reality. We never experience weather in the abstract. It is always weather of a specific kind, at a definite location, at a certain time. In other words, episodic. That is exactly how we experience all of reality, episodically. It only appears to be continuous because that is how our minds process sensual information. This doesn't mean that the universe lacks continuity. But our experience of the world is broken into fragments of perception (viz., a quantum view of reality) that are constantly being reassembled to give the appearance of enduring objects.

From the perspective of ordinary common sense, we do not feel this constant motion. Life presents a steady stream of phenomena which is filtered by our mind and conceptualized to appear as though the world is "rational" But the appearance of order and rationality are only a result of our mind imposing its own conceptual structure (the Kantian categories) upon experience.

So what? Who cares if the world is chaotic and discontinuous as long as it appears to be rational and enduring? What difference does it really make? James says that young children and inferior animals "take their experiences very much as uninstructed Bostonians take their weather." In other words, they don't rationalize their experience of the world. They lack the Kantian categories. (Of course, Kant would say that these categories are "a priori" or prior to our experience of the world. Thus, it is inaccurate to describe them as "experiential." While James says that we can only know the categories through experience. We do not simply infer them.) Our mind's ability to conceptualize must develop organically as the brain itself evolves over time. If this growth is interrupted or impaired, our ability to see reality as continuous might also be compromised. At any rate, James argues that dogs and infants do not grasp the idea of a continuous world. For them, when something is no longer visible, it simply goes out of existence. They dwell in a kind of Berkeleyan universe where "esse est percipi" (to be is to be perceived). Whether or not this is a good thing is unclear. But it certainly sounds as if James thinks it is inadequate for human society:

"Absolute freedom and absolute helplessness have met together: you depend wholly on divine favor, yet that unfathomable agency is not distinguishable from your own life..."

Though James is critical of the old experiential categories of common sense, he allows that they do serve a purpose:

"Even today science and philosophy are still laboriously trying to part fancies from realities in our experience; and in primitive times that made only the most incipient distinctions in this line."

Yet, he reminds us that these categories have no reality of their own. They exist only as figments of the mind. They are convenient labels which we assign to perceptual events and that enable us to communicate our inner life (our thoughts) with others. Thus, common sense makes society possible. Otherwise, we would all be trapped in a world of our own experience with no conceptual categories with which to relate to others. Problems with common sense only arise when our assumptions about the world collide with actual experience. Since much of what passes for common sense is handed down to us from our forefathers, it should not be surprising that we are often dumbfounded by novelty, and resist radical change. The transition from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy took a thousand years. Yet the heliocentric model was first proposed as early as 270 B.C. by Aristarchus of Samos.

Though resistant to change, common sense has a way of embracing new ideas once they take hold. In other words, human thinking, like human behavior, adapts to new circumstance. However, some ideas take longer to embrace than others. The common sense belief that the earth is flat required people (Magellan, Vasco de Gama, et al.) to actually sail around the world before the truth could be accepted. Likewise, the discoveries of bacteria, electro-magnetism, and black holes. Science is the branch of philosophy which subjects conventional wisdom (aka, common sense) to the rigors of verification. What is fact today may well become fiction tomorrow. Thus, human knowledge advances through a slow, laborious process of trial and error, a gradual accretion of new information grafted to old, like the growth of calcium stalagmites in a darkened cave. William James believes that the good of common sense is that it eventually leads, however roundabout and silly the path, to more common sense. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 5

Is pragmatism the same thing as common sense? Well, sort of, sometimes, but sometimes not. There’s a distinction between pragmatism and common sense. Common sense tries to freeze everything in order to define “reality.” That’s a common method, and it makes sense, but only in our own minds. In our minds we want things settled, once and for all. That way we can understand them easier. But reality is different from what goes on in our own minds, and “the actual world, instead of being complete ‘eternally’…may be eternally incomplete, and at all times subject to addition or liable to loss.” We must constantly adjust for these additions and losses, so our definition of common sense must change accordingly.

What is common sense? They’re axioms which we assume everyone knows without demonstration or proof. Why do we think this? James believes that “…our fundamental ways of thinking about things (aka ‘common sense’) are discoveries of exceedingly remote ancestors, which have been able to preserve themselves throughout the experience of all subsequent time.” Because these original “discoveries” proved so successful over such long periods of time, we now take them to be self-evident truths. Why? What right do we have to do this?

It’s hard for us to fathom what took place in the primitive mind. Many things we take for granted were a mystery to our prehistoric cousins. For example, we see storm clouds gathering and make the connection with rain. Would primitive man have made this connection? Probably not. Were they stupid? No. But they had not yet developed logical thinking as we know it. James speculates that “…all our lowest ancestors probably used only, and then most vaguely and inaccurately, the notion of ‘the same again’…” In all likelihood our prehistoric cousins did not connect clouds in the sky with water on the ground. A prehistoric genius first noticed that the last time clouds gathered, it rained, and came up with the primitive formula clouds + rain = ‘the same again’. That was a huge step for mankind. Another huge step was the formulae that these clouds = rain, but those clouds don’t. It’s just common sense now, but it took some hard thinking way back then.

This formula clouds = rain actually worked in the real world. It was ‘the same again’ over and over. Since it worked in the real world common sense became equated with good judgment. That’s where things stand today: “In practical talk, a man’s common sense means his good judgment…In philosophy, it means something entirely different, it means his use of certain intellectual forms or categories of thought.” And that’s where most of us run into trouble. Most of us still use common sense to guide our lives in the real world. Who has time to bother with “intellectual forms or categories of thought?” But philosophy and science sometimes point to different truths than common sense and may have a greater impact, even in the real world.

James says “At this stage of philosophy…it is only the highly sophisticated…who have ever suspected common sense of not being absolutely true.” And, oddly enough, they may be right. “Science and critical philosophy (have) burst the bounds of common sense” says James, and if you don’t believe it, try using common sense for this test: What is a “thing”? Is a constellation a thing? Is an army? Is telepathy true or false? Is it a thing too? Like the normal laws of physics in a black hole, common sense breaks down under certain conditions. In some areas it simply can’t help us. We need other tools, like those provided by science and critical philosophy. But this may not be a bad thing. These tools may broaden our conception of reality and common sense. Like our brave prehistoric cousins before us, we may be paving the way for future generations to use a broadened highway of common sense that includes philosophy and science.

-- RDP

Friday, November 17, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 4

After tackling the philosophical problems of free will and evolution/design in nature, James turns his attention to an issue that has come to be known as ‘the one and the many.’ Very few people lay awake at night worrying about this one, and these tend to be either professional philosophers or college students. But the topic is actually more interesting than you might suppose. Basically: Is the world one thing with many parts, or is it just many separate parts with no unifying connection? Who cares? As long as you don’t think about it, you’ll do just fine. But philosophy isn’t satisfied doing just fine. Philosophy wants to know: is it One, or is it Many? This isn’t a question so much as a quest. James says that “Philosophy has often been defined as the quest or the vision of the world’s unity.” It goes something like this.

Human beings tend to look for the simplest explanation of things. That includes the world. To a child it just seems like common sense to say that the world is made up of many separate things: trees and rocks and rainbows and root beer. But by using the term “the world” you’ve already subconsciously answered the question of The One vs. The Many. It’s One – THE world. It’s more inherently pleasing to grasp the world as a unity – as One. It may be just a name that we give to it – One – a mere verbal construct, using “the world” (one world) for the sake of easy conversation, as when we say “the world goes ‘round.” But James asks an interesting question: “why is ‘one’ more excellent than ‘forty-three’ or ‘two million and ten’?” Why is One special? And he follows up with another: “What is the practical value of oneness for us?”

Again and again the pragmatist comes back to the same point: what is its practical value? Much of One’s practical value is a sort of verbal shorthand. We refer to the world as One so we don’t have to constantly qualify our statements. We want it clear that “the whole thing” is what we mean when we use the term “the world” – “we mean to cover the whole of it by our abstract term ‘world’, which expressly intends that no part shall be left out.” And just as our toes and fingers and arms and everything else all connect to make up the body, so the world is connected by all of its parts. When we clearly see how this part connects with that part, we feel the world is One. But when we can’t see how in the world this part over here connects with that part over there, we feel the world is Many. As James puts it: “The world is One, therefore, just so far as…many definite conjunctions as appear. But then also not One by just as many disjunctions as we find…It is neither a universe pure and simple nor a multiverse pure and simple.”

The philosophical term for Many is Pluralism, the term for One is Monism. And James says that “To interpret monism worthily, be a mystic…The method of Vedantism is the mystical method. You do not reason, but after going through a certain discipline you see, and having seen, you can report the truth.” Here’s an example of Vedantic thought: “We are not parts of the One; It has no parts; and since in a sense we undeniably are, it must be that each of us is the One…” Say what? You can see where this line of thought is headed.

The pragmatist is having none of that. Pragmatism…”must equally abjure absolute monism and absolute pluralism.” Neither extreme will do. So where does that leave us? Precisely where we began as children: the world seems to be made up of separate things even though some philosophers tell us it’s really just One Thing. Or, as James puts it, “This leaves us with the common-sense world, in which we find things partly joined and partly disjoined.” And since we don’t have enough data or understanding to answer the question definitively, James says that pragmatism “must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side.” In the question of the One or the Many, stick with the instinct you had as a child. You were probably correct.

-- RDP

Monday, November 13, 2006

Pragmatism and the Rise of Science

Pragmatism is a belief which claims that philosophy is only worth doing if it "makes a difference" in the world we live in. In other words, if it is "useful." Of course, this statement raises the awkward problem of how we measure the "usefulness" of anything, e.g., whether it is better to study the Bible or handbooks on nutrition. Nutrition can be justified because it results in better health. Better health is good because it leads to longevity and a better quality of life. Presumably, life itself needs no further justification, although we should not infer from this datum any claim that life is necessarily the highest good. In this manner, all things under the sun can be factored into a calculus of value in which the most useful things are also held to be the most important.

For William James, as for other pragmatists, philosophy can only be deemed valuable if it yields tangible results. Otherwise, it must be regarded as an entirely frivolous enterprise. Following this logic, can openers should be valued more than sonnets, and electrical engineering should be celebrated more than philosophy. And, in fact, today this is what we find. Philosophy has now been relegated to the obscure corridors of academia, whereas the study of technology (e.g. computer science or metallurgy) is deemed worthy of our best minds.

In pragmatism, we behold the very tendency that Plato predicted would emerge in a democratic society: the misappropriation of philosophy by charlatans, followed by the fallacious claim that science now provides what philosophy failed to accomplish...that is to say, verifiable results. In Lecture 3 of Pragmatism, James gives several examples of problems that philosophy cannot solve: for example, mind vs. matter; theism vs. materialism, and freedom vs. determinism. Let us examine one of these problems.

The problem of substance (matter) and spirit (mind). Human knowledge is limited by our powers of comprehension and sensation. Rationalists like Plato tended to put more emphasis on comprehension (reason) than sensation. The information our senses bring to us is often distorted. We think we see one thing and it turns out to be something else. Likewise, for sounds, smells, taste and touch. Our senses are often fooled, so we can't ever be sure that how we are experiencing the world is really the way it is. In fact, over many millennia the human nervous system has evolved to process information in highly specialized ways. Our vision and hearing are limited to a narrow band of wavelengths. We don't see well in the dark, and we don't hear sounds below 20 or above 20,000 hz. Thus, our senses are able to give us only approximations of what we encounter. When we see a table, what we perceive as a solid object is really a conglomeration of chemical bonds and atoms floating in space. All that we experience are sensations (electrical impulses in the brain) stimulated by the presence of some external matter (i.e., what Kant calls "phenomena").

The problem of substance arises when you try to describe what an object is. All you really have to go by are the qualities which you perceive through your senses. Behind these qualities is the "thing itself," which is indescribable. For lack of a better description, this "thing" is called "substance." Nominalists object to using names like substance. They say that since you cannot see or hear or feel substance, you ought not to invent a name for it. But without the concept of substance, how can you account for why these different qualities adhere in one time-space continuum? Substance is just a name for a concept which gives meaning to our perceptual experience. It is no more ambiguous than our use of a word like "quantum" to describe an event which the human eye cannot perceive. We infer the existence of substance just as we infer the existence of "quarks." I don't see why talking about substance is any different than talking about any number of phenomena whose existence can only be referred to as a metaphor for something we do not comprehend. Insofar as science poses a theory of "quarks" or a theory of gravitational waves, it also attempts to describe behavior (action) which is beyond our human (perceptual) capabilities. Another way of putting it is that language serves human experience. We see things and we give them names. Thus, we create the very world we inhabit ("logos"), for to name a thing is in a very literal sense to give it reality, even if the reality is provisional. "Substance" exists because we say it exists. The idea exists in our mind and has its effects on the way we construct other ideas about the world. Does that mean that the idea of substance is "useful"? Possibly. Depending upon what you regard as useful. To me, "useful" does not mean "good" or "true." It simply refers to how we regard something.

The idea of substance becomes troublesome when we apply it to mental phenomena. When we talk about physical things like chairs, substance clearly refers to matter. But when you speak of spiritual substance, what are you really trying to say? There is a tendency to confuse spiritual substance with ideas. But if you mean "ideas" then it is easier to just say ideas. But if you mean something like "soul" then it becomes a problem. Some people believe that "soul" is that mysterious essence which animates the human body. It cannot be seen or measured. But neither can Stephen Hawking (or anyone else) see those microscopic black holes which he posits with all sincerity. Does that mean they don't exist? No. But if meaning is always contingent upon verification, then science must abandon much of its own theoretical framework. Of course, Plato's belief in the realm of Forms was not just a useful theory. But, nevertheless, whether or not we speak of the "Good" in an absolute sense or of substance in a linguistic sense (subject-predicate), the idea has reality because it accounts for our way of interpreting (understanding) the world we live in. So, in this larger sense of the word, James, along with the other empiricists are correct. Reality is what we experience.

But we need to recall that a human experience of the world includes consciousness, as well as feelings. We are not just a bundle of sensations, as Hume believed. We impose our creative (conscious) will on the sensations we experience. We decide to act or not to act based on what we see and what we think of the situation. Thus, we arrive at the faculty of judgment which precedes action. Action proceeding without judgment is not rational and thus not human. For it is our capacity to judge which separates us from nature's other creatures. Insofar as we judge well, we are deemed wise. If we judge foolishly, we suffer. Empiricists like James want to have it both ways. They want a solid foundation beneath our claims to knowledge and they want us to behave like moral beings. But metaphysical claims and moral claims are always connected. If you believe that everything worth talking about can be seen ("meaning is verification") then you will act accordingly. And action, of course, is what Pragmatism is all about. It is optimistic and forward looking. It is a philosophy born of the industrial age in a society where bold adventurism is rewarded. It accommodates itself within a sphere of capitalistic endeavors where individuality is a virtue. Its attractions are especially felt by those who want definite answers and quick results, and in that sense it is very much an American movement. As a technique for resolving logical disputes, it may have some small benefit. But as sustenance for the human soul, it is a poor repast, a milquetoast meal that satisfies only the surface tremors of our deepest spiritual hunger.

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 3

In his third lecture James turns to a more specific application of Pragmatism: “Some Metaphysical Problems”. Those metaphysical problems turn out to be (1) the question of design in nature and (2) the free-will problem. Both of these problems hinge on the kind of the world we live in. James is adamant on this point. Pragmatism is only concerned with problems that have real consequences in the real world. The question always is: what difference does it make?

There are two ways of looking at the world: materialism and spiritualism. They seem to be diametrically opposed in their world views. Materialism says “The laws of physical nature are what run things…Spiritualism says that mind not only witnesses and records things, but also runs and operates them: the world being thus guided, not by its lower, but by its higher element.”

This is a very old dispute – going all the way back to the pre-Socratic Greeks. There were champions on both sides of the question then, and the basic question is still the same: Is matter all that there is? Or is there something else behind or beyond matter, something we call Mind or Spirit actually running things? What difference does it make?

James wants to make sure we don’t get sucked into a pointless debate here. He asks “What practical difference can it make now that the world should be run by matter or by spirit?...It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the past of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.” He’s not interested in what came before, he only wants to know what will be the practical consequences in the future that lies ahead of us.

And what does lie ahead of us? “The theist shows how a God made (the world); the materialist shows…how it resulted from blind physical forces.” If there were to be no future and the universe was suddenly frozen in time forever, then James says “The pragmatist must consequently say that the two theories, in spite of their different-sounding names, mean exactly the same thing, and that the dispute is purely verbal.” But even though it may be “merely verbal” when we look behind us, it is anything but verbal when we look ahead of us – “In this unfinished world (the world we live in) the alternative of materialism or theism is intensely practical…” Spiritualism or materialism may not make any difference at all when we look at the past, but they point to wholly different endings when we look to the future.

Materialism sees a future that will end tragically “Without an echo; without a memory; without an influence on anything…This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood. The lower and not the higher forces are the eternal forces…” and these eternal forces are on an irrevocable rendezvous with total destruction. Under materialism, our destiny ends not with a bang but with a whimper. On the other hand, “The notion of God…has at least this practical superiority over (materialism), that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved...” The cosmos may burn up or freeze, but somewhere out there God is watching and will preserve life, perhaps in some other form, in some other place, at some other time, but it’s still comforting to know that the universe doesn’t end in the silence of cold, dead matter. There’s still an eternal moral order to the universe that remains preserved and “This need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast.”

So it does indeed make a difference which side you choose: “spiritualistic faith in all its forms deals with a world of promise, while materialism’s sun sets in a sea of disappointment.”

This doesn’t prove that either view is either true or false. It merely shows the result of each view seen through the prism of pragmatism: what it means to me, right here, right now.

-- RDP

Friday, November 03, 2006

William James and the End of Philosophy

In which philosophy masquerades as a technique for conflict resolution

"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."

With these words, William James declares that philosophy, in the classical sense of the term, is dead. It is dead because the love and pursuit of wisdom is essentially non-serious or trivial. The old Platonic quest for truth can never lead to anything serious because, according to James, serious philosophy must always "show some practical difference" in the world. James believes that old ways of doing philosophy (e.g. the Socratic or dialectical school) fail to obtain practical results. Unlike the history of science, which clearly demonstrates its practical value through verifiable experiments. Instead of an abstract pursuit of truth in the Platonic tradition, James proposes a technique for conflict resolution (i.e., "settling metaphysical disputes").

Now a dispute is simply a difference of opinion which is the starting point to any philosophical discussion. Whenever men are in complete agreement about something, there is no need for discussion. Philosophy in the Socratic tradition involves the art of conversation (dialogue), which is not just aimless chatter, but a kind of speech directed towards enlightenment. It emerges out of the private impulse to know or understand, and the public impulse to govern or rule. Disputes are merely the intersections at which public and private interests collide. But classical philosophy, as with art and religion, was never about solving problems. Whether or not it could result in practical solutions for man or society was not the issue, at least not the primary one.

Because every philosopher from Thales to Hegel has disagreed with his predecessor, James, along with other pragmatists like C.S. Peirce and Dewey, regards the history of philosophy as one long exercise in futility.

"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."

In order to resolve disputes, you must first clarify what the dispute is about. Often, this requires a careful examination of the language used to express certain ideas. I think it is fair to say that James does not believe ideas come from a vacuum. Of course, there is a long standing dispute in philosophy regarding the source of our ideas. Plato believed ideas are but emanations from the realm of eternal Forms. Kant believed in the existence of innate ideas ("a priori") but limited these to a few simple categories such as mathematics, time, space, causality, etc. However, James, like other empiricists (e.g. Hume, Locke), belongs to the school of "tabula rasa," meaning that at birth the human mind is nothing but a blank slate, upon which experience jots a record of its occurrence. In other words, ideas come only from experience. Thus, we get Pierce's reformulation of this principle in his statement, "our beliefs are really rules for action." And from this, we infer that any idea which cannot be restated as a "rule for action" must be trivial.

Now, the history of philosophy is burdened with episodes of so-called trivial pursuits. We need only mention the apocryphal debate among medieval theologians pondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But is this any less dubious than the current debate among astronomers whether or not Pluto should be called a planet or a planetoid? What about questions regarding the human soul or the presence of beauty in the world? In fact, all of metaphysics seems incapable of delivering any practical solutions to life's problems. Does that mean metaphysics is a waste of time? Yes, if James is right.

If practical, demonstrable solutions are required then not only metaphysics, but all of aesthetics, epistemology, ontology, and theology must go. When James uses the word "practical" what he really means is "empirical." Empirical is technical language meaning "of or related to the senses. In other words, our perception of the world (empirical evidence) determines our ideas. Notice how the argument now shifts from the neutral ground of "what is true" to "what is useful." For James, being "useful" means having some empirical (verifiable) effect in the world. Something that satisfies the criterion for scientific proof. Because quantitative results matter in science, they also must be applied to philosophical inquiry. Thus, whatever does not generate hard, measurable data must be unworthy of our time.

But philosophy cannot play by the rules established for scientific research because it has an entirely different agenda. If you argue that philosophy merely seeks to extend the range of human knowledge, as does science, you are correct. But science limits its field of inquiry to empirical facts. Whereas philosophy remains open to all possible questions, even the unanswerable ones. Pragmatism wants to limit the kinds of questions we ask because it follows the same path as modern science. Yet science, which is very good at gathering and processing information, is completely useless when dealing with values. Science makes possible technology, but it gives us no clue how to use our inventions. Its scope of inquiry is limited to the realm of matter, or as Hobbes put it, "bodies in motion." Philosophy, however, concerns itself with those moral, aesthetic and political ideas which will ultimately decide the fate of man. Thus, if pragmatism succeeds, it will do so only because we as a society have abandoned the attempt to answer a question posed by the ancient Greeks—what is the good life?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 2

What Pragmatism Means --

The first lecture in this series was just a warm-up. In this lecture James gets down to business and tells us “What Pragmatism Means”. He gives a fairly succinct definition: “The pragmatic method…is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable…by tracing its practical consequences.” And he makes it clear that this isn’t just another branch of philosophy. For him, pragmatism is philosophy: “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants in our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.”

What this means in simple terms is that a pragmatist turns away from abstractions, words, and dogmas. He turns toward concrete things: facts and action. Pragmatism doesn’t stand for anything in particular, it’ s just a method. Many people are uncomfortable with a life philosophy that doesn’t stand for anything in particular. James places great confidence in the pragmatic method. He says we shouldn’t even trust the scientific method too far: “as the sciences have developed farther the notion has gained ground that most, perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations.” This attitude leads to a sort of intellectual vertigo. Take the wrenching changes because of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. Most people deal with jolting intellectual change by adapting as best they can and still retain their current belief-system. James says that “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order standing.” Question for James: is this necessarily a bad thing? People need somewhere to stand. They need something to hold on to and are reluctant to let go of what they know best. Why should they?

If I’m reading him correctly, James believes that Truth is what we say it is. If it works for us, then it’s true for us. So where does that leave someone like Plato, who teaches that philosophy is a life-long search for Truth – a Truth that’s the real thing, not just a subjective state of mind? Well, nowhere, according to James. James says that “Purely objective truth…is nowhere to be found.” So much for Plato. He’s been barking up the wrong philosophical tree.

As he did in his first lecture, James does a good job of drawing a firm distinction between types of thinking. In this lecture he draws the distinction between two schools of philosophy: “Pragmatism is uncomfortable away from facts. Rationalism is comfortable only in the presence of abstractions.” To the casual amateur reader, this appears to be merely a preference about where you would be most “comfortable” living, sort of like moving in to a new home. Some people like a traditional suburban ranch house, other folks might prefer an urban penthouse. It would seem that for James either system would be fine, so long as it worked for them. So long as it was true for them. Not so. He definitely comes down on the pragmatist side. James is usually fair to both sides, but at one point he states that “Your typical ultra-abstractionist (read Rationalism) fairly shudders at concreteness: other things being equal, he positively prefers the pale and spectral. If the two universes were offered, he would always choose the skinny outline rather than the rich thicket of reality. It is so much purer, clearer, nobler.”

If Plato were still around , he might reply: Precisely. The Truth is so much purer, clearer, and nobler than the philosophy of an “ ultra-pragmatist” or whatever you call yourself these days. I’ve run across your kind before – what you call the rich thicket of reality, I call rolling around in the mud. If that’s the sort of thing you prefer doing, then have at it. As for me, I’ll continue to search for Truth as long as I exist. If I’m wrong and there is no “Truth”, then at least I’ve led a life that was purer, clearer, and nobler than it would have otherwise been. But if you’re wrong, you’ve not only wasted your life in this world, you may also find yourself exiled from the next.

-- RDP

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 1

The Present Dilemma in Philosophy --

Reading William James isn’t like reading most philosophy, especially most modern philosophy. He does use a few specialized phrases, and he does tend to qualify many of his statements, presumably to protect himself from attack by other professional philosophers. But “Pragmatism” has more of the feel of a long talk with a wise old grandfather or uncle in the family den on a cold winter’s night. Of course this impression can be attributed to the fact that these readings were originally presented as a series of lectures. Even so, the tone is likely to appeal to amateur philosophers, especially American amateurs.

That’s because James makes statements that are easy to get your mind around. Here’s an example: “Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits.” This sentence rings true somehow. My own amateur reading of philosophy has resulted in the following conclusion: sometimes philosophy rises to the highest levels humanactivity; sometimes it descends to the lowest levels of navel-gazing intellectual gamesmanship.

But I get the sense that James is a straight-shooter: he says what he means in a straightforward manner. Such as, “The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments.” That’s interesting, but what does it mean? And is it true? In the first lecture James goes on to defend this statement at great length.

His basic premise seems to be this: most of us make up our minds about a subject first, and only then start looking around for evidence that will confirm our own (admittedly biased) opinion. James says that “Few people have definitely articulated philosophies of their own. But almost every one has his own peculiar sense of a certain total character in the universe.” He goes on to say that we often agree with someone not because he has persuaded us logically, but “simply because we feel his heart to be in the right place philosophically.”

James doesn’t ask you to trust his authority. Check your own experience in the “real” world. Look at certain fields of human endeavor and see if you find the following “clash of human temperaments”: in Manners there are well-bred formalists and those who are more free and easy in the way they act; in Government there are authoritarians who like strong leadership and others who would prefer no leadership at all, and be anarchists if they could; in Literature there are academics who like pure literature, as opposed to realists who go in more for the rough and tumble of street life; in Art there are classic outlooks emphasizing restraint and order and romantic outlooks emphasizing freedom and emotion. And so forth.

In Philosophy, James says this basic human split in world views breaks down along the lines of rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism is “monistic” and takes its start from universal principles, then works outward to make a unity on the basis of the original principle. Empiricism, on the other hand, is “pluralistic.” It starts from observing many individual parts, and then puts the parts together in a way that makes a coherent whole. While not openly declaring himself to be an empiricist, James does make the observation that “The actual universe is a thing wide open, but rationalism makes systems, and systems must be closed.” How can a closed system (rationalism) work in a wide open universe? Presumably, it can’t. So in Pragmatism, there’s apparently a higher premium placed on personal experience rather than universal ideas. James asks “what does thinking about (an experience) come to, compared to directly and personally feeling it…?” It’s hard to argue with a method that teaches learning about life from personal experience.

-- RDP

Anton Chekhov - THREE SISTERS

There’s an old saying that the grass is always greener on the other side. Of course it’s not true, but most of us find that out fairly early in life. Then we either learn to accept it and get on with life – or we become bitter, kind of like the three sisters in Chekhov’s play. All three are bitter, but for different reasons, and every bitterness has its own distinct flavor.

Olga, for example, wants a decent man and she thinks she knows where to find him. She says, “One single thought grows stronger and stronger…to leave for Moscow. To sell the house, finish with everything here and – to Moscow…I’d love my husband.” She dreams of Moscow and how things would be better if only they could move back there. Her brother Andrey also sees Moscow as the solution to all their problems: “in Moscow…you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, and at the same time you don’t feel a stranger. Whereas here you know everybody and everybody knows you, but you’re a stranger…A stranger and lonely…” However, the world-weary family friend, Vershinin, knows better: “…you won’t notice Moscow when you’re living there. We have no happiness and it doesn’t exist, we only desire it.”

Ok, forget Moscow. Maybe our happiness lies in our work instead. A second sister, Irina, makes the observation that: “A man, whoever he may be, must work, must toil by the sweat of his brow, and in that alone lies the sense and the goal of our life, its happiness, its joys.” Tuzenbakh, another family friend, agrees wholeheartedly: “God, how I understand the longing for work! I’ve never worked in my life, not once…I was protected from work…a mighty, healthy storm is rising, it’s coming, it’s already near, and soon it will blow sloth, indifference, contempt for work, this festering boredom right out of our society…everyone will work. Everyone!” Fine speech, but nothing much comes of that either. None of the characters in the play likes real work. They just imagine how wonderful it must be to have meaningful work.

Well, then how about a cultivated life of elegant pleasure? This seems to be what the third sister, Masha, has in mind when she confesses that “…among civilians generally there are so many coarse, unpleasant, uneducated people. Coarseness upsets and offends me, I suffer when I see a man without refinement, without gentleness and courtesy.” So maybe we can find happiness that way? Vershinin seems to think it might be possible, although not in our lifetime: “It goes without saying that you are not going to overcome the mass of ignorance surrounding you (but)…In two or three hundred years life on earth will be inexpressibly beautiful and amazing…Man needs that kind of life…” But Tuzenbakh is having none of that, and he responds that “…life will remain the same, difficult and full of secrets and happy. And in a thousand years man will still sigh, ‘Ah, life is hard!’ – and at the same time he will, as now, be afraid and not want to die…Life will remain the same as ever not just in two hundred or three hundred years but even in a million; life doesn’t change…”

Life doesn’t change? So where does that leave us? Right where we started at the beginning of the play – stuck out in the country dreaming how much better life would be in the city (
Moscow). Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. I think Chekhov’s point is that it wouldn’t be any better. No matter where these three sisters lived, their lives would go on pretty much the same. Is that true for us too? Ask yourself: do I daydream about 1) having a bigger and better house, 2) being happier in a new job, and/or 3) somehow becoming more educated and sophisticated? Of course, under the right circumstances all three of these are worthy goals. It’s a little seedling of the great American Dream so many of us work so hard to try to achieve. But Chekhov seems to be warning us, if you think the grass will be any greener once you get there – forget it.

-- RDP

Anton Chekhov's UNCLE VANYA

Devoting your life to a worthy cause is a worthy way to spend your life. But what if one day you find out that the cause isn’t so worthy after all, and you’ve devoted most of your life to a sham? That’s what happens to Uncle Vanya. The play picks up soon after he’s found out that his whole life has essentially been wasted, along with the life of his niece Sophie. They’ve devoted themselves to the wrong cause. As usual, Chekhov picks up on all the subtle nuances of dysfunctional family relationships.

How about this one, for example? Early in the play Telegin (an impoverished landowner, nicknamed ‘Waffle’ because of his pockmarked face) sounds like a pretty decent guy when he blurts out optimistically: “The weather is delightful, the little birds are singing, we all live in peace and concord – what more could we want?” Well, the problem here is that Telegin doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There are complex problems seething just beneath the surface of this outwardly placid family life on the country estate. Telegin himself admits that “my wife ran off the day after our wedding with a man she loved. Since then I haven’t abandoned my duty. I still love her and am faithful to her.” This may be “peace and concord” but is it any way to live?

Then there’s Astrov, the educated but cynical doctor. He’s something of an environmentalist and has his own cause - “The forests of Russia are being wiped out…and all because lazy man hasn’t the sense to bend down and pick up fuel from the ground.” He has a broader vision of how things could be, how they ought to be, if only we weren’t so stupid, if only Russians didn’t aim so low in life. And even though he knows with his brain what should be done, his heart can’t find consolation from it. He’s painfully aware that “my brain is in the right place, but my feelings have somehow got blunted. I don’t want anything, I don’t need anything, I don’t love anyone.”

It’s among characters like these that Uncle Vanya lives out his mis-devoted life. Professor Serebryakov was supposedly a great man. Serebryakov’s wife Yelena thought so. Vanya thought so. Almost everyone thought so. They all worked and slaved away so the professor could pursue his scholarship in comfort. And yet, it turns out all a sham. Yelena says “I swear to you that I married him for love. I was attracted to this famous scholar. My love was not real, it was artificial, but I thought it was real then.” Vanya says “I worshipped the professor…I was proud of him and his scholarship…God, and now? Here he is in retirement, and now one can see the sum total of his life…he’s completely unknown, he’s nothing! A soap bubble! I was deceived…I see it – deeply deceived!” How can this be? How could this possibly have happened?

Good question. Why slave away to support someone like the professor, who says things like “I work all my life for learning, I’m used to my study, the lecture hall, colleagues I esteem – and then, I end up for no good reason in this tomb, …I like success, I like fame…” For years everyone put up with such nonsense because they were all convinced that the professor was a great man. But he wasn’t. Vanya sees it clearly - “think of this now. For exactly twenty-five years a man reads and writes about art, understanding precisely nothing about art…he reads and writes about things long known to the wise and of no interest to the stupid: so for twenty-five years he has been pouring from one empty vessel into another.” And the tragedy of all this is, to use a metaphor from another tale, that it took everyone so long to discover that the emperor had no clothes. By then it was too late. Lives were wasted, and there was no happy ending.

-- RDP