Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

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


Anonymous Aeneas said...

Very good. Thank you.

9/10/2017 8:59 PM  

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