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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?


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