Pragmatism was not eclipsed -- it endures

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https://aeon.co/essays/pragmatism-is-one...philosophy

EXCERPT (Cheryl Misak): At the dawn of the 20th century, there emerged in the United States a distinctive philosophical movement known as pragmatism. Although the term is often used today to denote the blunt desire to get results, the founders of pragmatism – Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), John Dewey (1859-1952), Chauncey Wright (1830-75) and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr (1841-1935) – were subtle thinkers. [...] H S Thayer presented a view of pragmatism’s founding that has become standard: "Pragmatism is a method of philosophising often identified as a theory of meaning first stated by Charles Peirce in the 1870s; revived primarily as a theory of truth in 1898 by William James; and further developed, expanded, and disseminated by John Dewey."

There are two tightly related ideas at play here. First, there is the view that Peirce and James formulated versions of pragmatism that are partial precursors to the systematic pragmatism of Dewey. Second, there is the notion that the story of pragmatism’s founding is the story of philosophical differences withering away, unifying in Dewey’s philosophy. This developmental view of the history of pragmatism is wrong.

One needn’t scour pragmatism’s initiating documents in order to identify points of substantive disagreement among Peirce, James and Dewey. Pragmatism was founded amid a well-known dispute between Peirce and James over its central idea, the ‘pragmatic maxim’. Peirce proposed the pragmatic maxim as a tool for dispensing with metaphysical nonsense; for him, pragmatism was strictly a ‘method of ascertaining the meanings of hard words and abstract concepts’. The core of this method is the idea that we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them.

To get a sense of how the pragmatic maxim operates, consider one of Peirce’s own applications: the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. This is the view that in the Mass, bread and wine are metaphysically transformed into the body and blood of Christ, despite there being no change at all in their sensible properties. [...] By insisting that words and statements be analysed according to ‘what is tangible and conceivably practical’, Peirce aspired to ‘dismiss make-believes’ from philosophy, and thereby set upon the path of proper enquiry.

James was dissatisfied with Peirce’s formulation of the maxim. Instead, he proposed a broader rendition according to which the point of pragmatism is not to dispel metaphysical nonsense, as Peirce had alleged, but rather to settle metaphysical disputes. James proposed that one should include among the practical effects of a statement the psychological impacts of believing it. Whereas Peirce argued that the pragmatic maxim exposes the meaninglessness of the doctrine of transubstantiation, James thought that pragmatism afforded a decisive case in favour of it. The idea that one can ‘feed upon the very substance of divinity’ has ‘tremendous effect’ and thus is the ‘only pragmatic application’ of the idea of a substance. For James, the pragmatic maxim serves to resolve rather than dissolve longstanding philosophical debates.

This difference regarding the pragmatic maxim underlies a monumental dispute between Peirce and James over truth. Peirce argued that a belief is true if it would be ‘indefeasible’; or perfectly satisfactory; or would not be improved upon; or would never lead to disappointment; or would forever meet the challenges of reasons, argument and evidence. James meanwhile set out his view on truth and objectivity thus: "Any idea upon which we can ride … any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labour, is … true instrumentally."

[...] When Dewey is brought into the picture, the story of pragmatism is shown to be anything but straightforwardly developmental, where one philosopher’s thought naturally leads to the next one’s. According to Dewey, pragmatism was neither in the business of dismissing nonsense nor of settling metaphysical disputes. He sought a way of doing philosophy that was unhindered by the traditional puzzles and problematics. He resisted the Peircean strategy of proposing a test of meaning and, instead, socialised philosophy, arguing that the traditional philosophical problems naturally arose out of the social and intellectual conditions of a pre-Darwinian age.

Dewey contended that, since these conditions no longer obtain, the traditional philosophical problems should be simply abandoned as ‘chaff’, replaced by new difficulties arising from Darwinian science. In Dewey’s view, Darwinism shows that the world contains no fixed essences or immutable natures. This realisation sets the problem of revising our philosophical and moral ideas so that they are better suited to serve as tools for directing change. According to Dewey, the leading philosophical problem for a post-Darwin epoch is that of keeping our values in step with our technological power, so that they might guide society towards greater freedom.

In this respect, Dewey breaks decisively with James: his pragmatism is not aimed at resolving disputes, but rather at showing that nonpragmatic philosophical programmes are nonviable. Here, Dewey might at first seem allied with Peirce, but Dewey’s stance towards the philosophical tradition is more extreme. [...] Whereas Peirce saw pragmatism as a rule for conducting philosophical enquiry, Dewey saw pragmatism as a philosophical programme for restructuring philosophy and society.

These philosophical differences were well recognised by the classical pragmatists themselves. [...] To be clear, the account we have just offered leaves aside many crucial details. However, what has been registered is enough to show that it is an error to present pragmatism as a doctrine initially proposed by Peirce, refined by James, and culminating in Dewey’s writings. Rather, what one finds in the classical pragmatists is a series of substantive disputes about enduring philosophical topics, including meaning, truth, knowledge, value, experience and the nature of philosophy itself.

There is another common misunderstanding about the history of pragmatism that is best articulated by the more recent pragmatist Richard Rorty:

Along about 1945, American philosophers were, for better or worse, bored with Dewey, and thus with pragmatism. They were sick of being told that pragmatism was the philosophy of American democracy, that Dewey was the great American intellectual figure of their century, and the like. They wanted something new, something they could get their philosophical teeth into. What showed up, thanks to Hitler and various other historical contingencies, was logical empiricism, an early version of what we now call ‘analytic philosophy’.

In other words, his popular ‘eclipse narrative’ (as we’ll call it) holds that pragmatism dominated professional philosophy in America throughout Dewey’s heyday, from the early 1900s until the early ’40s. Then, largely due to the war in Europe and the resulting influx of academics to the US, professional philosophy in the US took a ‘linguistic turn’ and began fixating on the technical and methodological issues that today are associated with ‘analytic philosophy’ [...]

Rorty took the new analytic philosophy to have been a malignant force in American philosophy departments, an invasion that displaced pragmatism. [...] Pragmatism, America’s homegrown philosophy, thus was driven underground, where the remaining loyalists built scholarly networks devoted to keeping the classical idiom alive. Yet there is also a resurrection in the eclipse narrative. ... Recovering from the analytic fad, philosophers in the US, notably Rorty, Hilary Putnam and Cornel West, rediscovered pragmatism in their landmark works of the 1970s and ’80s. Hence ‘neo-pragmatism’ came to the fore ... The eclipse seems to have been undone.

Well, not quite. The resurrection story is tinged with resentment. It is alleged that neo-pragmatism is too analytic and not closely tied to the classical texts. It has drifted off course, not authentically pragmatist. Pragmatism’s resurrection occasioned a second eclipse: although the philosophical mainstream is now once again attuned to some of the vocabulary and ideas of pragmatism, it has received them in the corrupted form promoted by the neo-pragmatists. On this view, classical pragmatism remains unjustifiably occluded.

Consequently, there is a growing literature devoted to repackaging Dewey’s pragmatism. [...] The upshot, tragic for the prospects of pragmatism, is that the resulting stance amounts to a principled insularity. ... This interpretation of the history of pragmatism relies upon the claim that the analytic philosophy that arrived in North America in the 1930s and ’40s (which took the names ‘logical empiricism’ and ‘logical positivism’) was antithetical to pragmatism. This is not accurate. There were remarkable similarities between pragmatism and logical empiricism, and each tradition evolved in light of the other.... (MORE - details)
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