The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

This is an entry in a series called The Oxford History of Philosophy, written by an expert on the philosophical school known as “pragmatism”. Here’s how Oxford University Press describes the book:

Cheryl Misak presents a history of the great American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, from its inception in the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s to the present day. She identifies two dominant lines of thought in the tradition: the first begins with Charles S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright and continues through to Lewis, Quine, and Sellars; the other begins with William James and continues through to Dewey and Rorty. This ambitious new account identifies the connections between traditional American pragmatism and twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, and links pragmatism to major positions in the recent history of philosophy, such as logical empiricism. Misak argues that the most defensible version of pragmatism must be seen and recovered as an important part of the analytic tradition.

According to Professor Misak, “the most defensible version of pragmatism” is the version initiated by C. S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright in the 19th century and carried forward by C. I. Lewis, W. V. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars in the 20th. She argues that it is more defensible because it considers truth to be less subjective. In the caricature or simplification of pragmatism as set forth by William James and criticized by G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, true statements are those that “work for us”. If religious beliefs make your life better, for example, they’re true. By contrast, the tradition that began with Peirce treats truth more objectively. Statements may “work for us” even though they’re false. The Peircean pragmatists see a stronger relationship between truth and how the world is, regardless of human goals or interests.

It isn’t easy to briefly explain what pragmatism is, but Prof. Misak gives it a try in the Preface:

Pragmatists are empiricists in that they require beliefs to be linked to experience. They want their explanations and ontology down-to-earth (natural as opposed to supernatural) and they require philosophical theories to arise out of our practices. As Peirce put the pragmatic maxim, we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them….

[But] pragmatists reject the part of empiricism that says that all of our beliefs originate in experience and that our beliefs can be linked in an atomistic way to discrete experiences…. They reject any naturalism that gives ontological to matter or physicality — they want to consider whether value, generality, chance, etc. might be part of the natural world. They are holists, taking their view to encompass all of science, logic, mathematics, art, religion, ethics and politics. Unlike most of their empiricist predecessors, they fence off no realm of inquiry from the principles they set out.

In the Conclusion, she adds:

The core pragmatist thought is about the human predicament. We must try to explain our practices and concepts, including our epistemic norms and standards, using those very practices, concepts, norms and standards. This is the pragmatist’s task and we have found that, within the pragmatist tradition, there are different ways of trying to fulfill it.

I’ll finish with a brief example of pragmatist thinking. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume is sometimes viewed as a skeptic (e.g. he believed there is no rational basis for ever thinking that one event causes another). The pragmatist John Dewey, however, saw Hume as a predecessor:

While in his study, Hume finds skepticism compelling, but as soon as he leaves that secluded place of theoretical philosophizing, skepticism loses any force it might have had. The skeptic’s doubts, as Peirce would put it, are paper doubts [107].

According to the pragmatists, what matters, even from a philosophical perspective, is how our ideas connect with our lives outside the philosophy class.

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Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.

Dewey by Steven Fesmire

This is an introduction to the philosophy of John Dewey, one of America’s leading philosophers of the 20th century. Dewey was one of the founders of the philosophical movement called “pragmatism”. He also did important work on the theory of education and was a strong voice for progressive political causes.