Commentary Magazine


Pragmatism

To the Editor:

I am afraid that Michael Levin mars his excellent discussion of pragmatism, “Why Not Pragmatism?” [January], when he recommends deemphasizing the “will to believe.” I do not think that exclusive reliance on faith, or fideism (to use the traditional theological term), can be detached from the Jamesian corpus without great harm and distortion—it is what separates James from Dewey, and thus a true pragmatism from mere “instrumentalism.” Mr. Levin does not deny that there is an important difference between William James and John Dewey, and I hope he would concede that we can learn a great deal about both of these philosophers by the description of that difference. . . .

If we can account for “truth” without specific reference to external objects, and some mysterious “correspondence” of those objects with ideas in our heads, then conceptual simplicity requires such an account. . . . For reasons of conceptual simplicity, then, both James and Dewey describe truth as the ability of an idea to guide us away from (subjective) shocks and toward (either practical or conceptual) satisfactions. . . .

Deweyites . . . observe that a particular procedure, the procedure of the material or experimental sciences, has done a great deal to reduce the shocks of those who benefit from its results. The natural sciences have made the world a great deal less “nasty, brutish, and short” than it was for Thomas Hobbes and his contemporaries, and this achievement, for John Dewey, renders that kind of science the paradigm of truth. Thus, for a philosopher with a secular bent . . . truth is simply what certain observable experimental procedures provide. It is what a natural scientist does. . . .

James, too, begins from the economical notion of truth as intra-experiential success—truth is to be defined by the actual working of belief. . . . Any sort of experience, any type of satisfaction, any variety of success is a datum for the philosopher, and the satisfactions of “religious experience” (about which James wrote what may have been his greatest book) are emphatically included. Anything that may ever have happened to anyone is part of the appearance that philosophy must seek to save. In this expansive view of experience, James arrives at his will to believe.

I am sure Mr. Levin remembers the illustration, from The Will to Believe, of a mountain climber caught in a storm at a treacherous mountain pass. He must leap across an abyss to save himself, for to attempt to go back the way he came is impossible, and to stay where he is means he will perish. Yet it is not clear that he can make the leap—he might fall into the abyss. In this instance, the only sensible course is to believe that the jump is possible, a belief that itself can bolster his energies and increase the likelihood of success. Thus, faith can work and skepticism can fail. So it is in matters of religious faith, in questions of overbelief. An over-belief is one that is accepted without evidence sufficient to coerce its acceptance at the moment adopted, but which can work, can become true, through the life it provides.

This fideism, this faith in faith, was at the heart of all James’s work. William James was a man who wrote, at the climactic moment in a personal crisis, that his first act of free will “will be to believe in freedom.” His own brand of overbelief, as he developed it in his later years, was polytheistic and panpsychic—and into those realms I cannot follow him. But neither can I follow Mr. Levin’s tendency to read the will to believe out of pragmatism; for that reading allows us to accept only the narrower brands of pragmatism. If James is wrong in his bolder speculations, he is wrong for all the right reasons.

But I seem to have strayed from my original intentions. I wrote to praise Mr. Levin, not to quibble about an underemphasis of one element within his complicated subject.

Christopher C. Faille
Staten Island, New York

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To the Editor:

To understand pragmatism and the pragmatic maxim, “Test ideas by their consequences,” it is necessary to examine and reflect on the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce, the founding father of pragmatism and William James’s mentor. . . .

According to Peirce, the “scientific method” . . . does not necessarily mean the use of the laboratory techniques of natural science to obtain truth and knowledge of external reality. For Peirce, the “method of science” also means the effort to ascertain truth and knowledge through an appeal to common experiences (events and experiences that are observed through ordinary means such as seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching), and reflection on this experience.

Let’s say, for example, we notice that every time we throw a baseball into the air, it comes down. We want to understand this phenomenon. So, said Peirce, we develop an “explanatory hypothesis.” If our hypothesis is correct, certain observable consequences will ensue. This is what both Peirce and James meant by the maxim, “Test ideas by their consequences.”

How do we go about testing our hypothesis? Some scientists and philosophers (influenced by the doctrines of positivism and scientism) maintain that the only valid way to test the truthfulness of a theory is through the experimental methods of natural (or laboratory) science. . . . Peirce contended that there are other legitimate approaches—literary, historical, theological, and philosophical—to ascertaining truth; moreover, he insisted that his version of the scientific method was just as valid as the version proposed and used by the positivists. . . .

As in the case of Thomas Aquinas (who said that, by observing what occurs in everyday experience, we may come to see that God is real), Peirce believed that common realities point to the objective reality of a Supreme Being. Reflecting on common, everyday experience, thought Peirce, will lead one to acknowledge God’s existence in extramental reality, even as studying experience will lead one to see that there exists in our world the phenomenon known as the “law of gravity,” which explains why objects thrown into the air always fall back to earth.

Moreover, when Mr. Levin maintains that pragmatism is “not a metaphysical advance on common-sense realism,” he clearly is right. For Peirce said that one must be a critical realist even before one can be a pragmatist.

Haven Bradford Gow
Arlington Heights, Illinois

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To the Editor:

Michael Levin’s “Why Not Pragmatism?” is a welcome rebuttal to the attempts of many continental and Anglo-American philosophers to deny the existence of any external standards of truth. . . .

Nevertheless, in the area of ethics, in which both classical philosophers and classical theologians have always been very much interested, I think Mr. Levin gives too much credit to that brand of pragmatism known as “consequentialism.” An ethics which would be acceptable to “classicists” in both philosophy and theology is one which sees norms as coming from an acknowledgment of human nature, i.e., what makes a person uniquely human. . . . We are only interested in consequences consistent with human nature. For example, we are concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number if and only if that good does not sacrifice the natural rights of any one person for the sake of a collectivity. . . . That is why the prudence called for by ethics need not and should not be based on consequentialist / utilitarian / pragmatist assumptions.

Mr. Levin has opened up important issues which go far beyond the narrow confines of academic philosophy today.

[Rabbi] David Novak
Far Rockaway, New York

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Michael Levin writes:

To Christopher C. Faille: William James’s discussion of the mountain climber concerns not the will to believe, although James thought it did, but the phenomenon known today as the self-fulfilling prophecy. James is right, of course, that in human affairs believing that something will happen can be a precondition for its actually happening, so that the belief is self-justifying. But this is different from believing something simply because there is no possibility in this life of ever finding out if it is true or false. While the latter attitude does loom large in James’s writings on religion, it is logically quite tertiary in his pragmatic epistemology.

To Haven Bradford Gow: Whatever Charles Sanders Peirce’s private theistic convictions may have been, the historical residue of his “pragmaticism” (as he called it, to distinguish his position from that of James) has been precisely a belief in the omnicompetence of the experimental method. Since I myself agree that “philosophy of science is philosophy enough”—to cite an aphorism of the leading contemporary pragmatist, Willard van Orman Quine—I would defend the Peirce of contemporary reconstruction against the actual man.

To Rabbi Novak: I agree that consequentialism is a dubious basis for morality, and I may have given it too much credit in my essay. However, the only “human nature” I recognize is biological: i.e., the instincts we are born with. I cannot derive fundamental rights from this biological notion, but I should add that “human nature” even in my sense does put effective limits on the ambitions of social engineers by telling us what cannot be done with human beings. I thank heaven for small favors.

I also thank my critics for their praise and their measured tones.

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