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Why Not Pragmatism?

My freshman English teacher told us that pragmatism was a businessman’s philosophy, an assessment I have never seen any reason to dispute. Not that this is said in derogation. It is true, as Jacques Barzun stresses in a lucid if unduly worshipful study of William James,1 that “pragmatic” has been so debased—from an educator it means “practical,” from a journalist “unprincipled”—that it is hard today to appreciate pragmatism as the expression of America’s national ethos. Yet if, to begin with, pragmatism is taken merely as the maxim, “Test ideas by their consequences,” it already taps the spirit of America between the 1880′s and 1914, the years of its development by James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey.

It was during this “Reign of William and Henry,” as Barzun dubs it, that America invented the modern world by doing what others not only thought too difficult, but lacked the imagination to think of at all. Commerce abetted this transformation of life, as entrepreneurs offered an unprecedented array of new products for consumers to judge with their wallets. The images of this admirable time—Edison literally and figuratively electrifying New York, Orville Wright aboard the Kitty Hawk Flyer, Theodore Roosevelt manning a steam shovel in the Isthmus of Panama—are all of men not resigned to an immutably fixed world. You do not build skyscrapers or conceive the zipper by clinging to the formulas of the past. You try something new and see what happens.

But pragmatism would no longer interest and attract contemporary thinkers if it merely codified the spirit of a more vigorous America. The recent appearance not only of Barzun’s book but of A.J. Ayer’s Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, which devotes as much space to pragmatism as to any other movement, and of Richard Rorty’s eagerly awaited Consequences of Pragmatism,2 testifies to its enduring importance. Pragmatism offered revolutionary answers to two perennial problems: the nature of thinking and the nature of truth. What is more, say its partisans, its novel account of thought shed new light on the nature of morality.



If the pragmatic maxim I cited—“Test ideas by their consequences”—is taken in isolation, it appears to sanction believing whatever makes one happy. This widespread misunderstanding, reinforced by James’s talk of “the will to believe,” would make pragmatism a philosophy not for businessmen but for the village idiot. Pragmatism is better understood when seen against the intellectual background of its day.

Like the early G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, pragmatists were reacting against the high-sounding but empty abstractions of the Hegelianism entrenched at Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford. A.J. Ayer tells this story well, describing James’s shock at “the blandness and callousness” of F. H. Bradley’s complacent assurance that discord is an illusion, “with the implication that pain can be assumed to ‘disappear into a higher unity.’ ”

But the roots of pragmatism run deeper, into classical epistemology. Philosophers from Plato onward have taken man as primarily a knower, whose intellectual life consists in the attempt to copy reality. A properly working mind reflects nature. This “spectator” view of knowledge is part of ordinary speech. We say a true belief “fits the facts,” a phrase elaborated by philosophers into the correspondence theory of truth. But the metaphor of truth as correspondence to fact, natural as it sounds, quickly breaks down. The assertion, “Five strawberries are in the bowl,” fits the world in an obvious way: here is my cereal bowl, there within it five strawberries. But what does “There are no giraffes in Hoboken” correspond to—the sheer giraffelessness of Hoboken, or the confinement of all the world’s giraffes elsewhere? And what facts fit “Cubism would have puzzled Rembrandt” or “Odysseus must have been quite a guy, assuming he existed”?

Just as language is ill-suited for matching the world, there is, insist pragmatists, no fixed world to match. Any account of the world “in itself”—of its people, rocks, stars, or molecules—already reflects the work of man, dividing up an inherently unstructured flux of experience to suit his purposes. If a pond with a goldfish makes two things rather than one large wet thing with a small moving part, it is only because we segment reality in that way. We cannot compare our thoughts to things in themselves, for things come already filtered by our thoughts: “No ‘copying’ can take place,” says Barzun, “because no reaching out to ‘over there’ is possible.” Rorty goes him one better: “It is impossible to attempt to step outside our skins and compare ourselves with something absolute. . . .” For even a neutral given is, for him, a mythical abstraction. Reality thus becomes conceptualized all down the line.

But the most intriguing gap in classical epistemology only became clear after Darwin had proposed that almost all aspects of living nature are adaptive. In Darwinian terms, what is thought, as classically conceived, for? What advantage does beholding confer? Instinct meets some of our needs, and wholly insentient feedback systems—of the sort found in computers—could presumably meet the rest. Since passive beholding would not benefit organisms, it is hard to see how spectators could ever have evolved.

The pragmatist cuts these knots by denying that ideas serve as copies of anything. They are, instead, devices to guide action. Man is fundamentally an active, not a contemplative, creature, and his fundamental question about the world is practical: how to replace the stimuli bombarding him with more agreeable ones. His ideas are means to actions that in turn yield new experiences, the experiences yielded being what pragmatists call an idea’s “cash value.” What used to be called the search for truth is the adjustment of belief in light of the experiences it leads to. Believing is as natural as breathing. In keeping with this biological slant, pragmatists expect that unsatisfactory ideas, and those who think them, will die out, much as any maladaptation does.

Pragmatists were hardly the first to notice that beliefs control behavior, but they were the first to maintain that action exhausts what ideas are for. If ideas must be compared with anything, they say, compare them with tools. Imagine a cave man unable to subdue a mastodon with his spear because the mastodon can outrun him. The breakthrough comes when, after observing his quarry, he theorizes that the mastodon heads for the waterhole each sunset along the same path. Our hero hides along the path with his confederates (thoughts are social, to be shared), and the story ends with a successful ambush. According to James, the cave man’s bright idea is simply a better mastodon-catching tool than his spear, “true” insofar as it effectively transforms an “I’m hungry” episode into a “Yummy, mastodon steak” episode. This is the thrust of James’s aphorism, “The true is only the expedient in the way of thinking.”

The “will to believe” is a minor amendment to this story. As Ayer and Barzun explain, only when an issue is unavoidable and there is no evidence pro or con does James recommend that we believe what we wish. Since we must believe something about God and immortality, we may as well believe what suits our spiritual aspirations. James, who coined the term “tough-minded,” did not admire wishful thinking in everyday life.

The distinction between “the knower and the known” is not the only duality to fall. Pragmatism rejects as well the barrier between an “inner” mind and its outward manifestation in behavior. We normally deny thought to a guided missile because its gyrations are not the product of an immaterial mind or soul. It changes directions “only” when the radar image of its target misses the crosshairs of its sight. But surely, replies the pragmatist, the radar image in the missile’s innards is a proto-belief about where its target lies, for the image controls the missile’s behavior in the way your beliefs control yours. The missile, a flatworm avoiding light, a baseball fan striding toward the bleachers: instead of trying to distinguish “mere mechanism” from “purposeful action,” the pragmatist sees a continuum of guidance systems.

Smudged too is the conventional dichotomy between “fact” and “value,” between cognition and decision. As all ideas carry implications for action, all must be judged by the consequences of acting on them. “Moral principles” are simply ideas contrived with special explicitness for yielding satisfactory lives for individual and community. If they fail in this they are rejected, just as scientific ideas are rejected when their predictions fail and they become unable to relieve puzzlement. “Fanaticism” and “irrationality” apply to the disregard of experiential tests of dogmas—or of policies.



Yet even if the “will to believe” is deemphasized, pragmatism does permit a disturbingly free play in our opinions. It recognizes no fixed world to “compel submission from all right minds,” as Barzun puts it. Even experience, which arrives already edited, exercises little external control. Barzun embraces the inevitability of “conflicting truths,” but it is Rorty who shows how pragmatism can descend into obscurantism or worse. His steps along this path are quickened by irascibility toward academic philosophy, and his chief companions—Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger—seem to have been chosen for the unintelligibility of their writing.

Of the many escape-routes from reality, Rorty chooses flight into language. Since there is no reality to talk about, talk itself—or, more generally, “the text”—remains the sole topic of human thought. “One cannot see language-as-a-whole in relation to something else to which it applies . . . language is not a device for representing reality, but a reality in which we live and move.” This is said to follow from James’s rejection of a “privileged vocabulary.” With that gone,

we simply cast around for a vocabulary which lets us get what we want. . . . I think we shall best understand the role of textualism within our culture if we see it as an attempt to think through a thoroughgoing pragmatism, a thoroughgoing abandonment of the notion of discovering the truth. . . .

According to Rorty, not only does “textualism” reduce philosophy to a “literary genre,” all the while abjuring questions of what literature itself refers to, it renders even science “one genre of literature, . . . commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature.” Only once does Rorty so much as acknowledge the role of observation in science; mostly he prefers to take “the remarks of our fellow-inquirers” as the sole data in any intellectual endeavor. Rorty evades the autistic implications of his words by denying what he has said in the same breath in which he says it: “ ‘there is nothing outside the text’ is right about what it implicitly denies and wrong about what it explicitly asserts.” The reader who notices that what is denied is the existence of anything outside the text is left with little else.

Reasoning, the very idea that one party to a dispute may be right and the other wrong, naturally gets short shrift. Rorty congratulates Heidegger for not offering any arguments at all. Indeed, the end of classical philosophy—the attempt to reach important truths about man and the world by means of thought—cannot come too quickly for him. He anticipates a “postphilosophical culture” and warns against attempting to be “constructive and progressive.” Derrida is cited to what is allegedly the same effect, on

the systematic crossing-out of the arché and the transformation of general semiology into grammatology, the latter performing a critical work upon everything within semiology—right down to its matrical concept of signs—that retains any metaphysical presuppositions incompatible with the theme of differance [sic].

Says Rorty: “One can easily conclude from such passages as this that Derrida conceives of his work as purely negative.” I for one cannot conclude anything very easily from such prose, but when Derrida denigrates “Western methods of analysis, explication, reading, or interpretation,” and Rorty dismisses criticisms of his philosophical heroes as a failure to appreciate how profoundly they are debunking philosophy, I am reminded of orthodox Freudians and Marxists—the sort who diagnose disagreement as “resistance” or “false consciousness” and hence as further support for their pet doctrines.

In the end, Rorty’s animadversions against philosophy amount to the usual griping about the “barrenness of academic philosophy” and its hack professionals with their “scholastic little definitions.” We shall return to this accusation below—it suffices for now to recognize it as a thudding cliché in belletristic circles, insufferable from someone who cautions that his own work on Dewey and Heidegger “may seem a tour de force.”

It is hard to understand Rorty’s alienation from his profession: his previous book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), was enthusiastically received, and Anglo-American philosophers still study an essay he wrote on Wittgenstein over twenty years ago. Until recently he held a chair at Princeton (and now holds another at the University of Virginia, as well as a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation). His judgment that the American Philosophical Association exists “to breathe life into dead issues” was delivered in his 1979 presidential address to that body. Presumably, Rorty’s colleagues tolerate this ridicule because they think they deserve it. No longer trusting in the value of their work, they may not be the best but they certainly lack all conviction. The APA has recently summoned its energies to purge itself of “sexist language.” American philosophers must think they have nothing better to do.



But pragmatists need not follow Rorty’s plunge into darkness, which is the result of an elementary confusion. We may accept James’s stress on the relativity to human interests of language and the distinctions it embodies (although it can be overstated: the taxonomic vocabulary of science cuts nature nicely at the joints). But once a system of categorizing the world is adopted, the judgments made by means of it are no longer relative to their human origin. They stand by themselves, to be true or false. For instance, I can use whatever conventions I please for mapping the earth’s surface, but once I do so, the location of geographical features within my plan breaks free of my subjectivity and becomes completely objective. If I call one area “Europe,” another area “the Atlantic Ocean,” and a third “Staten Island,” that is up to me—but it is not up to me whether, as I have defined them, the Atlantic Ocean separates Staten Island from Europe. We obviously cannot talk about the earth’s surface or anything else without language, and language is obviously a human contrivance, but this hardly makes reality an undifferentiated blob of dough, given character only by human cookie-cutters. Europe and Staten Island are separated by water not because of Truth or Reality or Kantianism or the rest of the upper-case baggage Rorty and Barzun keep dragging in, but because of Europe, Staten Island, and all that water. This is reality enough for plain man or philosopher. We might say that Rorty and Barzun have made the mistake of supposing that the inventor of maps also invented territory itself.

Unfortunately, however, this way of saving pragmatism from relativism diminishes its appeal, at least as a distinctive philosophy of knowledge, for the absolute opposition between classical truth and pragmatic instrumentalism has now collapsed. The cave man’s hypothesis about the habits of his prey turns out to be both a device for organizing an unruly world and objectively true or false. If the mastodon does not show up as planned, the cave man’s belief is wrong (as well as useless). In fact, scientists take accurate prediction as the final confirmation of a theory, so that, for them, the pragmatist’s “working in practice” is just another way of saying “corroborated by experiment.” It is indeed far from clear what difference pragmatists can find between the two phrases. All that finally separates pragmatism from realism is a form of words. If it still seems important to choose—because how we talk is important—one might note the realist’s insistence on the limits of the human will and his provision of a world for science to aim at. I prefer the realist’s way of talking.



The foregoing is intended not only to pierce the nihilistic gloom, but to illustrate as well the value of plain old reasoning and distinction-making, however shallow and ahistoricist and non-Heideggerian. It is precisely because sobriety so easily falls out of fashion that A.J. Ayer’s book is most welcome. Ayer has been laboring in the philosophical vineyards for almost half a century now, pruning muddle and tending an outgrowth of pragmatism called Logical Positivism. Like pragmatists and other empiricists, Ayer believes that experience is the basis of knowledge, but he prefers methodical piecework to visions, detailed cogent argument to manifestoes. The relentlessness and compression of his style may discourage some readers, but it is good to have a thinker who does not lose the trees for the forest.

Ayer’s principal objection to pragmatism is typically “analytic.” By construing the “cash value” of a belief as the experiences it leads us to expect, pragmatism distorts beliefs about the minds of others and about the past. What do I anticipate if I suspect you are angry? Not being telepathic, I cannot hope to read your thoughts; instead, I brace myself to hear bad language and see you march out of the room. But these expectations all concern your behavior. In other words, claims Ayer, pragmatism must say that statements which appear to be about your thoughts are really about your body, and thus lapses into behaviorism. Similarly, since the “cash value” of my beliefs about ancient Carthage are predictions of what I will find in history books and archeological digs, pragmatism turns statements about what did happen into statements about what will happen. Ayer uses that latter difficulty to link pragmatism and phenomenology, which also sees the world as suffused by mind and is similarly unable to make sense of something happening before there were any people. It is important to add that the past, and especially other minds, are problems for most versions of empiricism.

It is this sort of unspectacular dissection of issues which infuriates critics of “analytic” philosophy and sets Barzun to muttering about “the Byzantine magnification of trifles.” Like many before him, he warns of “scholasticism” and a “decline into futility.” This animus is misdirected. Without one operatic gesture or overwrought trope, Ayer sheds more light on pragmatism and human knowledge than do volumes of pretentious continental double-talk about “the deconstruction of the episteme and logocentric metaphysics.” If Ayer ignores news of philosophy’s inanition, that is because he has something interesting for philosophy to do: study evidence. Philosophy, says Ayer, is the analysis of the relations of support among the various things we believe. The problem of other minds, for instance, really concerns the logical bearing of statements about behavior on statements about thought. This may sound silly by itself, but fragments of an enterprise as vast as philosophy are bound to seem silly and decadent, especially to anyone uneasy with subtlety and abstraction. (A single square inch from the Sistine Chapel would also look pretty unpromising, especially to someone who did not like art.) The pragmatist’s notion of “cash value” is his own attempt to explain the ultimate warrant of ideas. Whether or not they would accept Ayer’s formulation, pragmatists along with the other central figures of the Western philosophical tradition have been analyzing away for thousands of years.



Yet pragmatism is more than just another episode in intellectual history. While not a metaphysical advance on commonsense realism, it does have something permanently valuable to say, and that is on the subject of ethics. Its ethical message has been misunderstood because the exhortation to look to consequences resembles the utilitarian ideal of doing whatever serves the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Barzun says they differ in that pragmatism has “nothing to do with legislating the good of society at large or the wishes of a majority. It is a concrete relation between persons.” But this will hardly do.

Pragmatism is intended to be universal, to inform the deliberations of legislators as well as those of anyone else. As such, it appears vulnerable to the woes of any ethic of consequences. Taken literally, it requires the measurement and comparison of different persons’ satisfactions; in the extreme, it would apparently urge a sheriff to surrender his prisoner to a lynch mob should the gain in public peace outweigh the damage to the prisoner and general respect for the law.

But the matter does not end here. For if consequentialism is inadequate, so too is unconditional obedience to moral rules, consequentialism’s great rival. “Let justice be done though the heavens fall” leads to perplexities of its own. No rule is inviolable in the face of a sufficiently dire catastrophe; justice itself must sometimes be overridden. Murder is wrong, but who among us in 1943 would not have murdered Hitler if he could? Rigid adherence to rules is no more adequate to moral experience than utilitarianism. (To become a “situationist,” to play up the difference between lying to your wife and lying to the Gestapo as the key to right living, is to treat a truism as the discovery of the century.)

Pragmatism, if understood not as a criterion but as advice, offers a way out of this labyrinth. It tells us: retain your principles but be open to consequences. Both components are essential to developed moral thought. Some acts, like perjury, are wrong, and rules forbidding them cannot be violated for some small net gain. It is anyway not possible to decide each case from scratch. We must conserve our energy for crisis and, as James said, “Habit is the enormous fly-wheel of society.” But we abdicate our responsibility to think when we let principles make all our decisions for us. The many absurd regulations extruded by the federal bureaucracy illustrate the easy slide from pure principle (“equity” or “health”) to unreason. Legislators and the educated class prompting them, two groups comfortably insulated from experience, are in urgent need of a dose of pragmatism.

Decisions are not truly tested, however, by empty gestures—like the ritual appending of an unread “economic impact study” to the most outlandish proposals. Pragmatism demands alertness. Even openness to consequences itself cannot be taken as a dogma, for the extent and nature of the openness must be weighed. Judges looking to the sociological impact rather than the legal bases of their decisions have done harm precisely because they are too open to consequences, and open in an inappropriate way. What consequences to count and how to count them are all matters for reflection.

Telling people to balance principle against consequence offers little in the way of concrete guidance. But a philosophical overview is supposed to offer insight, not marching orders. Anyone who wants more is really looking for a magic formula to dispel moral quandary. It is a hard truth, but existence will be morally perplexing as long as confusing, indeterminate situations demand action. Nor would human beings really prefer to trade moral anguish for calculations that could be done by automata. It is remarkable that pragmatism, long derided as distinctly shallow in an American way, should address the human condition with unique candor.


1 A Stroll with William James, Harper & Row, 288 pp., $16.50.

2 Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Random House, 283 pp., $22.50; Consequences of Pragmatism, University of Minnesota Press, 237 pp., $29.50.

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