Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reading Schedule for Winter / Spring - 2007

January 8 ... Bellow - Seize the Day

January 15 ----------- LIBRARY CLOSED --

January 22 ... Douglass - Narrative of the Life of F. Douglass

January 29 ... Anonymous - The Epic of Gilgamesh

February 5 ... Aeschylus - Prometheus Bound

February 12 ... Montaigne - Of Friendship

February 19 ----------- LIBRARY CLOSED --

February 26 ... Montaigne - Of Solitude

March 5 ... Pascal - Pensées

March 12 ... Emerson - Self-Reliance

March 19 ... Whitman - Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

March 26 ... Tocqueville - Democracy in America

April 2 ... Ibsen - An Enemy of the People

April 9 ... Poincaré - The Value of Science

April 16 ... Freud - Thoughts…on War and Death

April 23 ... Conrad - The Secret Sharer

April 30 ... Veblen - The Theory of the Leisure Class

May 7 ... Jung - The Stages of Life

May 14 ... Olsen - Tell Me a Riddle

May 21 ... Munro - Boys and Girls

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM – Lecture 8

This is the last lecture in William James’ series on pragmatism. Having defined what pragmatism is and what its method is, James now goes on to discuss its relationship with religion. He once again states the basic principle: “On pragmatic principles we can not reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.” And it’s obvious to James that religion can be useful because “the use of the Absolute is proved by the whole course of men’s religious history.” In other words, religion is important to the pragmatist only because it has useful consequences. It can be useful in one of two ways: (1) by providing a firm foundation of belief (a “static One” as James puts it), or (2) as an evolving process that contains “plural, genuine possibilities” that are constantly changing. Which of these views is correct?

James clearly states that “the pluralistic way agrees with the pragmatic temper best.” Why is this? Because the two different ways of looking at religion appeal to different temperaments. These two temperaments revolve around the whole notion of “the world’s possibilities.” One possibility is that the world will eventually turn out for the best. The other possibility is that things may turn out alright in the end, or they may not. The first view is called optimism; the second view meliorism. Optimism sees the world as turning out alright in the end because it must turn out that way. It can’t do otherwise. Meliorism sees the world as still in the process of becoming either better or worse. It’s not impossible that things will turn out for the best in the end, but they could just as well fall apart and all of life would end in tragedy.

No human being can be neutral concerning these alternatives. If some people claim not to care one way or the other, then it’s because they don’t realize the stakes involved. Can we change our collective fate? The pragmatist’s view is that we can change the world, but our actions are either cooperating or competing with thousands of others before they all merge into what we call reality. For example, we may think a thousand thoughts a day, but only a few of those thoughts ever see daylight. And even though our actions can change the world it’s always a risk for the pragmatist because there are no guarantees that they will change things for the better. That means every day is an adventure and this is the kind of world James prefers. He wants to experience life at its fullest. On the other hand, he believes that Hindus and Buddhists (and presumably Christian or Jewish contemplatives) want to withdraw from life and retreat into the safe havens of their own thoughts and meditations. James thinks they want to withdraw because they are “simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life.”

Whether this is a fair assessment depends on your point of view. The Zen Buddhist monk may believe that James is afraid to look deeply inside and confront his innermost being. Who’s right – William James or the Zen Buddhist monk? James does admit that “in the end it is our faith and not our logic that decides such questions…pragmatism has to postpone a dogmatic answer.” Since pragmatism can’t give us a definitive answer and our faith has to make the final decision, we have to make up our own minds. And it’s ironic that we end up right where we began in Lecture 1: the Tough-minded vs. the Tender-minded. If you’re tough enough to live in an adventurous world that can potentially end in disaster, then you may not need religion at all. But if you’re “tender-minded” you’ll want the security of knowing that we live in a universe that is ultimately good, and will be much more comfortable with a radical devotion to the notion of God (monotheism). Pragmatism offers a middle path between these two alternatives (but only if you have enough faith in pragmatism).

-- RDP

Monday, December 11, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 7

William James seems absolutely convinced that there’s no such thing as the truth. In fact, he claims that “what is the truth” isn’t even a real question because truth should be thought of as plural. This idea goes against the grain of what many people consider to be common sense. What if B claims: “I think James’ ideas are wacky, and that’s the truth.” B might think that here’s a sufficient refutation of James’ idea of many truths, because it states one truth. But what does James really mean when he claims that there may be any number of truths? Is B’s comment a refutation of James, or merely a statement of his own opinion about what James believes?

The problem seems to be in two different understandings of the meaning behind the word “truth.” B feels on solid ground when talking about the truth. And it seems solid enough, unless you start thinking about it in a different way. James points out that the number 27 can be seen as 9 x 3, or it can be 26 + 1, or 100 – 73…all of these are true statements, and many other expressions besides. These would all be true expressions, and none of them would be any truer than the other. However, B may respond that this misses the point entirely. The truth in this case is the number 27. All the various expressions are just different ways to point to the same truth. The number 27 is still solid, and true, no matter how many different ways you express it.

This seems like a trivial quarrel, until you consider the implications that can be drawn from your conclusion. If you agree with B, then things like truth, law, and language are constant (maybe even eternal) because they are true and can be counted on to be there when you need them. But if you agree with James, then “Truth, law, and language…make themselves as we go.” You can still count on them to be there when you need them, but for an entirely different reason: they’ve changed, just as you’ve changed, and have now evolved into a “truth” that is more adaptable and more up-to-date than the “truth” which B uses as a bedrock foundation.

What difference does it make? Perhaps a great deal of difference. Consider the
United States Constitution. Is it a living document that evolves and grows to adapt to the changing needs of a changing society? Or is it a bedrock foundation we can count on to give society ballast and to keep people in power from making up the rules as they go along? If you agree with James, then the Constitution can be interpreted in different ways as we progress. If you agree with B, then the Constitution is rock solid and means what it says. The only way to “change” the Constitution is to pass an amendment.

This notion of flexibility vs. firmness can be extended to other areas as well, but the alternatives show up particularly well when you use the examples of truth, law and language. Do you promise to tell the truth? Will the law be the same tomorrow as it is today? Do words really mean what they say? These aren’t trivial questions and this topic isn’t child’s play.

Even if you don’t agree with James, it’s worth considering what he has to say. He quotes Schiller’s application of Humanism: “Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist.” The test of truth for a Pragmatist is what practical difference it makes to a specific human being in the present moment. If it works for me personally, then it’s true for me. If it doesn’t work, or if it can’t be tested, then it’s not true for me. Mr. B may be puzzled by that concept. He prefers to stand on solid ground whereas James sees a world that is constantly shifting and adapting to new circumstances. Mr. James is searching for adventure in a wild and wooly world; Mr. B. wants a nice comfortable world where he can be at home. In the end, who can say which one is right? They want different things from life, and they both find what they started out looking for in the first place.

-- RDP