Pragmatism Then and Now

Pragmatism Then and Now

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The philosophy called pragmatism did not begin in 1907 when William James published his book Pragmatism. By then the word “pragmatism” had been around for thirty years, taking on a wide variety of meanings. To Charles Pierce, who originated the philosophy of pragmatism in 1878, the word seemed to have subsequently taken on a meaning so different from what he had originally attached to it as to coin a new word “pragmaticism.” The new word, Peirce said, was ugly enough to remain safe from kidnapers. Instead of kidnapers he should have spoken of plagiariz­ers. This word fits better those who in the academic world or in the world of letters thrive on kidnap­ping other’s brainchildren.

Peirce and James were good friends, both members of the Harvard Faculty and also of the founders of the Metaphysical Club in Boston. But they followed widely differing paths. Pierce was genuinely interested in general philosophical truths. These truths, he claimed, all eventually would embrace if they worked hard enough. Pierce was also an accomplished mathematician who did important work in probability theory. He did not, however, recognize the point that in order to be comprehensible and manage­able any formalism of chance or randomness must include non-stochastic, that is, invariable factors.

William James’ basic training was in medicine. From there he quickly turned to the investigation of psychological phenomena. He established his professional fame with the publication of a two-volume Principles of Psychology. It formed a milestone in the process which was summarized in the phrase: “Psychology having first bargained away its soul, and then gone out of its mind, seems now, as it faces an untimely end, to have lost all conscious­ness.”1

Pragmatism as advocated by William James could not encourage anyone to look for a praxis that would be universally valid for everyone. In 1907, when James published his Pragmatism Arthur Lovejoy, a historian of ideas at Harvard, came forth with a paper, “The Thirteen Pragmatisms II.”2 The number was an understate­ment. A few years later F. C. S. Schiller, the British pragmatist, remarked that there were as many meanings of the word pragma­tism as there were pragmatists. By then, we are in 1911, the number of professional philosophers who claimed to be pragmatists was fairly large. Some of them even tried to make it appear that almost all philoso­phers and many modern scientists were pragma­tists.

Some philosophers of pragmatism even claimed some physi­cists to themselves. Not that they would have called all physicists pragmatists just because they engage in the practice of carrying out experiments. But some physicists argued in writing that the specification of data and their correlation was all that made science. Kirchhoff was one of these physicists, Ernst Mach was another. First they called themselves positivists, later operationalists, and still later logical positivists or physicalists. Some of them were positively misinter­preted such as Pierre Duhem, who was a methodical positivist but not the ideologi­cal kind. For the ideologi­cal positivists there could be no general truths even in physics, let alone outside it.

The wish to see pragmatists in most philosophers who had worked before Peirce and James was clear in the subtitle, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, of James’ Pragma­tism. Some­thing similar happened half a century later when existential­ism rose to eminence and its elements began to be seen in all the previous philosophical literature. The result was that the word existential became a currency available everywhere and at will, which led to its quick devaluation. The same thing had already happened to pragmatism. Few philosophers if any would call themselves pragmatists today, but in praxis most philosophers, to say nothing of politicians and cultural gurus.

If pragmatism had been a largely theoretical preoccupation with the meaning of action, that is, of praxis, it would have quickly withered away. But William James injected the serum of vitality into pragmatism. He was one of the finest expository writers in English during the last twenty years of his life, which ended in 1916. First came his The Will to Believe (1897), a title that said it all. It owed much to the voluntarist trend in Neokantianism, but especially to Fichte. Whereas Vaihinger, a leader of Neokantianism in Germany, offered only pale formulas such as his Als ob (as if), James came forth with pages after pages that even today appeal by their stylistic force and virtuosity. He was the foremost preacher among philosophers also in the sense that he was gladly listened to by all who wanted to believe that what they wanted was right.

Once more it became true that style carried the day. In order to achieve his aim, James had to speak on almost everything but to say hardly anything specific on important points. One of them was reli­gion, which he tried to handle through its mystical aspects. But to an attentive reader of his famous Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, the gist of James’ message was that there were as many forms of mysticisms as there were mystics. In that book he dealt very briefly with Catholic mystics, such as Saint Teresa of Avila. He barely mentioned Saint John of the Cross. Yet both, especially Teresa of Avila, left behind vast accounts of their experiences. These accounts could give rise to a variety of explanations, especially when the central issue, that of prayer, was ignored.

One could indeed ask how anyone like James, who was not man of prayer by any stretch of imagination, could feel competent to speak of mysticism. But such is academic life all too often on its humanistic, or non-scientific side. On the scientific side quantities exercise a control over what one says, but there is hardly any control when one uses words other than numbers.

There is still another side to James’ pragmatism which so far has failed to be considered, but of which James could hardly be unaware. It was the founding in 1878 and in Boston of The New England Society for the Suppression of Vice. Its officers came from the ranks of academia and clergy. A year later the State of Massachusetts passed a prohibition of the sale of a wide range of obscene material, including contraceptive and abortive means, in addition to publications of pornographic nature. The Massachusetts law was an echo of the Comstock Law which the US Congress passed in 1873. The Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared to some so effective that in 1883 F. H. Stoddard wrote in The New Englander: “Sensuous love is no longer in good form in the modern novel. The hero no longer loves her [heroine] because her eyes are bright and her lips rosy, but because she feeds her soul.” Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Lolita were still to come, to say nothing of the flood of pornographic literature. The floodgates were opened partly because the rulings of the Courts contain no clear definition of what is pornographic and immoral.

As the mouthpiece or pragmatism, William James could not be unaware of what was most in the focus of society in New England during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. No trace of this can be found in his various publications on pragma­tism in which he set up the individual’s satisfaction with his action as the supreme norm of truth. Pragmatism from its start was an evasion of crucial issues that were existential to the core. He could not remain unaware of the sermon, preached in the leading Boston Congregationalist Church to which all the Boston Brahmins (including the Lodges and the Cabots) belonged. They were warned that if they limited the number of their children to one or two, their grandchildren would be dominat­ed by the grandchildren of their Irish maids and servants. And so it happened. But the same happened also to the Irish, about whom Life Magazine carried in the late 1950s the cover story: “The vanishing Irish.”

Sound as all this may be from the moral viewpoint, it is not recalled here for the purposes of moralizing. The purpose is merely to show the logic at work in pragmatism all whose proponents were and are in agreement with William James who toward the end of his life registered with satisfaction that most psychologists and psychiatrists did not believe in free will. Jurisprudence is powerless in reference to all such basic questions about praxis. Very telling is in this respect the basic arguments offered in two momentous decisions by the US Supreme Court. One was Griswold vs Connecticut in 1959, the other Roe vs Wade in 1973. In the former the majority of Justices claimed that not the Constitu­tion but the penumbra of the Constitution provided the grounds for the decision. In the second decision the majority invoked the emana­tions of the Constitution.

As a master of style, or rather jongleur with words, William James would have been delighted by both penumbra and emana­tions. Being imprecise, such words are used to support the most inconclusive arguments and at times arguments professedly self-contradictory. An illustration of this is the book, When Doctors Disagree, a book occasioned by the British Abortion Act of 1973. In Great Britain the new law was opposed by 300 gynecologist-consultants, a rather small number compared with the 15,000 general practitio­ners who wanted abortion. Had Dr Louis Goldman, the author of that book merely written in defense of the new law that the “ultimate ethical sanction lies in the moral sense of the communi­ty,” he would have provided the semblance of moral argu­ment. Fortunately, for the sake of clarity, he added: Modern society “may be a sick society,” but to hold on to what may be the healthy ethical view could be equiva­lent to practic­ing “the sin of ethical pride, one of the deadly virtues.”3 Against this argument William James could oppose only some pleasing rhetoric to extricate himself from a trap of his own making.

One may argue that a pluralistic society can only be a pragmatic society where majority vote decides what is right and what is wrong praxis. But those, I mean intellectuals, who must have the highest regard for the intellect should at least be ready to see clearly what goes on. Since this conference takes place on Madrid it should be useful to report instances of self-contradictory reasoning offered on behalf of rank immorality as being legislated in the Spain of our day. Here too a major philosophical figure paved the way toward illogicality.

This is not to suggest that William James would have influ­enced Ortega y Gasset, who dismissed America as immature and mechanistic. He did this in his best known book, The Revolt of the Masses. There he tried to figure out the past and future of Europe, which he held to be the only place of real culture. But in the book he purposely ignored the contribution which Christianity, idealism, and liberalism had made to culture. Ortega y Gasset wanted culture without a cult. Similar was the case with Miguel de Unamuno and Salvador de Madariaga, The former advocated faith but only in faith, which James would have found germane to his thinking. James, the psychologist, would have disagreed with Madariaga who held high national psychology only insofar as his preference would have been for American instead of Spanish national psycholo­gy.

Those three are the icons of a purely humanistic orientation in Spain today as distinct from an effort to recover Marxism under the label of socialism. Were its pseudo-democratic spokesmen to say that majority opinion is the final test of truth, they would dissipate by one stroke the fogginess of their discourse, full of unwarranted generalizations about culture and society. But then the emperor would appear without cloth, or at least without the semblance of logic. It should not be surprising that contradic­tions abound in any humanistic defense of immorality which presents it as the new morality.

In his The Revolt of the Masses Ortega y Gasset saw at least the hollowness of references very fashionable in the 1920s to the “new morality.” Ortega began the final chapter of his book that had for its title “We Arrive at the Real Question,” as follows: “Do not believe a word you hear from the young when they talk about the ‘new morality’. I absolutely deny that there exists today in any corner of the Continent of Europe a group inspired by a new ethos which shows signs of being a moral code. When people talk of the ‘new morality’ they are merely commit­ting a new immorality and looking for a way of introducing contraband goods.” Ortega looked for a new morality that would be more than arbitrary praxis either by the individuals or by the masses. He planned to set forth that new morality in a book that would present in details “the doctrine of human existence.” This book he never wrote. Had he tried to do it logically, he should have far transcended all forms of pragma­tism. In doing so he would have discovered what had already been discovered by Christiani­ty.

Christianity stated clearly what is the first in being and intelligibility, or a personal God in brief. Moreover, Christianity, and it alone of all cults, succeeded in impressing that notion on humanity. It may be that our age is post-Christian, but no post-Christian age shall ever be a-Christian, that is, free of any trace of Christiani­ty. One may disagree with Christianity, but one cannot escape its logic which posits a fully rational starting point. One may consider Christianity erroneous, but it is not possible to say that it is illogical. And if one has to choose between an error which is logical and an error, such as pragmatism, which is flouting all logic, the preference for the logical should seem com­pelling.




1. Sir Cyril Burt, “The Concept of Consciousness,” British Journal for Psychology,” 53 (1962), p. 229.

2. Journal of Philosophy 5 (1908), 29-39.

3. L. Goldman, When Doctors Disagree (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973), p. 196.