Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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


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