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date: 24 February 2020

The Pragmatist Family Romance

Abstract and Keywords

The relationship between American pragmatists—Charles S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others—and their critics has often been marked by sharp conflict. Those philosophers wedded to the conceptions of meaning and truth that pragmatists would displace have, not surprisingly, been ill-disposed to go quietly. Yet conflict among pragmatists has been no less sharp, leaving some to wonder whether it really makes sense to speak of “pragmatism” as such. It does, but only with some care. Pragmatism is best conceived less as a well-defined, tightly knit school of thought than as a loose, contentious family of thinkers who have always squabbled, and have sometimes been moved to disown one another. Indeed, the history of pragmatism can perhaps best be narrated as what Freud called the “family romance” of the neurotic child, in which imagined doubts about paternity and sibling rivalry are front and centre.

Keywords: American pragmatists, pragmatism, family romance, Freud, Charles S Peirce, William James

The relationship between American pragmatists—Charles S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others—and their critics has often been marked by sharp conflict. Those philosophers wedded to the conceptions of meaning and truth that pragmatists would displace have, not surprisingly, been ill‐disposed to go quietly. Yet conflict among pragmatists has been no less sharp, leaving some to wonder whether it really makes sense to speak of “pragmatism” as such.

It does, but only with some care. Pragmatism is best conceived less as a well‐defined, tightly knit school of thought than as a loose, contentious family of thinkers who have always squabbled, and have sometimes been moved to disown one another. Indeed, the history of pragmatism can perhaps best be narrated as what Freud called the “family romance” of the neurotic child, in which imagined doubts about paternity and sibling rivalry are front and center. Here, as Freud said, the tale becomes one of each child (or philosopher) hero asserting his or her own legitimacy “while his brothers and sisters are got out of the way by being bastardized” at best (1909: 77).

No sooner did James announce the birth of pragmatism in 1898, than questions of legitimacy and confraternity were raised. James (1978 [1898]: 123–4) (p. 186) credited his boyhood friend Peirce with initially forging the pragmatic method in the series of articles on the logic of science that the latter published in the Popular Science Monthly in 1877–8. Peirce quickly denied paternity of pragmatism as James characterized it, and announced that he would henceforth refer to his own doctrine, properly understood, as “pragmaticism”, a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” such as James. Dewey, though deeply indebted to James in some respects, nonetheless took care to distinguish his own “instrumentalism” from what he took to be James's unconvincing efforts to mobilize pragmatism on behalf of religious belief. At the same time, the ever‐difficult Peirce responded to Dewey's praise of his essay on “What Pragmatism Is” (1998 [1905]) with a puzzled letter complaining that Dewey's work in logic “forbids all such researches as those which I have been absorbed in for the last eighteen years” (CP 8. 243–4). Undeterred by all this, the ever‐generous James extended a brotherly welcome to Europeans such as F. C. S. Schiller and Giovanni Pappini, who were drawn to some of the very elements of his thinking that most troubled Peirce and Dewey.

Subsequent generations of pragmatists have been no less quarrelsome and fractious, and contemporary “neo‐pragmatism” is even more variegated than its predecessors. Arthur Lovejoy's early estimate of “thirteen pragmatisms” now seems improbably low. For example, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam, the two most distinguished contemporary “neo‐pragmatists”, eyed one another warily. Putnam rebuffed Rorty's gestures of fraternal affection and has remained “appalled” at some of Rorty's views (1998: 10). Today we are confronted with an often bewildering array of efforts by philosophers, political theorists, legal scholars, and literary critics to reappropriate, recast, and reconstruct pragmatism in a sometimes surprising fashion. These projects not only contrast with one another but differ significantly from those of the founding pragmatists (Kloppenberg 1996).

What, then, is a plausible family tie among pragmatists? How might we, at least, constitute pragmatism as a lineage of contentious siblings, stepchildren, and bastards if not a gathering of more tightly knit kin. Obviously, we have to cast the family tie at a fairly high level of abstraction—not so high as to blur the distinction between pragmatists and those clearly outside the tribe, but not so low as to produce a gathering of kinsfolk any less internally contentious than the pragmatists have proven to be. A harmonious pragmatist family would be one without many of those who have a fair claim to the family name. That is, one could not construe this family as a happy one without simply taking (p. 187) sides in the legitimacy debates that have wracked it—insisting, for example, that Peirce or James or Putnam or Rorty should be disowned, and not merely bastardized (see, e.g., Haack 1997).

The fiercest debates between pragmatists and non‐pragmatists and among pragmatists have centered on the pragmatist conception of truth. It is here that the principal family tie abides, and here as well that intra‐family squabbles have usually begun.

As Putnam said, all pragmatists seek to avoid “both the illusions of metaphysics and the illusions of skepticism” (1992: 180). Consequently, they have been most often attacked by metaphysicians on the one hand and skeptics on the other, neither of whom regard themselves as the victims of illusions. And the most common charges that pragmatists have leveled at one another are those of regressing into dubious metaphysical claims or of falling into an abyss of skepticism.

By the “illusions of metaphysics”, Putnam is referring to what is often termed “foundationalism”, the belief that knowledge, if it is to be secure, must rest on certain, fixed, and incorrigible foundations. Those foundations must lie in the way the world is apart from the human effort to know about it. Foundationalists—be they realists or idealists—insist that belief is true if and only if it accurately represents or “corresponds” to that world. On this view, as Matthew Festenstein says, “the way the world is, including the way human beings are, constitutes an object which is accessible from a ‘God's‐eye view,’ independently of actual human emotions, choices, self‐understandings” (1997: 4). Only if we attain such a view against which to measure current belief, foundationalists argue, will our knowledge have the absolute, universal, and incorrigible grounds that, they contend, truth requires. If, as James said, “the trail of the human serpent is over everything” (1975 [1907]: 37), then, for the foundationalist, truth will forever elude us.

Pragmatists uniformly deny that human beings can secure such a God's‐eye view of the world and reject the sort of “correspondence theory of truth” that requires it. For them, the attempt to find foundations for human knowledge outside human practices is, as Dewey (1929) said, a futile, self‐defeating “quest for certainty”. And “God's‐eye view” is a particularly apt phrase for this quest, since some pragmatists—most notably, Dewey and Rorty—have suggested that the correspondence theory of truth is an unfortunate holdover from a theological age in which true knowledge was said to be knowledge of the world as God made it. To know the truth was to understand reality just as God intended; it was a pious act.

(p. 188)

Foundationalism, pragmatists argue, has persisted despite its failure to deliver on its promise of objective truths corresponding to a mind‐independent world because we fear that the only alternative to it is wholesale skepticism. We are in thrall to what pragmatist Richard Bernstein has termed “the Cartesian anxiety”, the phobia we have inherited from Descartes that disaster awaits us if we are unable to discover an Archimedean point on which to rest our knowledge. We fear “either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos” (1983: 18).

All pragmatists reject this Cartesian either/or. Just because we cannot attain a God's‐eye view of the world, they say, does not mean that we must fall into despairing skepticism. Doubt as well as belief, they argue, requires justification. “Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts,” Peirce wrote (1992 [1868]: 29). Universal doubt is a philosopher's game of pretend doubt, and while we may well doubt any particular belief on any particular occasion, we cannot doubt all beliefs all at once, since particular beliefs require a background of undoubted convictions if they are to be tested.

Thus, at the core of pragmatism is an attack on what Dewey termed the “intellectual lockjaw” (1977 [1908a]: 138 n.) of the insoluble epistemological conundrums of a “representationalist” conception of knowledge that holds that the aim of knowledge is to somehow (there's the rub, Dewey noted) represent or mirror the world as it really is, a conception that Dewey derided as a “Kodak fixation” (1977 [1908a]: 129). In its place, pragmatists substitute a conception of knowledge that owes much to the intellectual revolution fostered by Darwin and evolutionary theory, which had a profound effect on the classical pragmatists, and remains a touchstone for many neo‐pragmatists. In this naturalized and historicized conception of the quest for knowledge, intelligence is an attribute of human beings that emerged and developed over the course of the evolution of the species in the service of its survival, adaptation, and flourishing. A belief is warranted not if it mirrors the world, but if it serves to resolve what Dewey termed the doubt‐filled “problematic situations” in human experience. As Alan Ryan has said, “Pragmatism claims that human thinking and acting, from the least sophisticated to the most sophisticated, are driven by the need to respond to problems: all thought and action are provoked by a tension between ourselves as needy organisms on the one side and, on the other, the environment that must satisfy these needs. We think and act to reduce that tension” (2001: 16).

(p. 189)

As pragmatists see it, the alternative to foundationalism is not skepticism, but fallibilism—the conviction that belief, though never certain, is not therefore necessarily dubious. Fallibilism says that we may rest content with less than certain yet confident belief. It allows us to affirm our settled convictions, as long as we do so provisionally. We may not claim absolute certainty for any belief; but neither need we doubt any belief without good reasons for doing so (Flanagan 1998). “Fallibilism does not require us to doubt everything,” Putnam observes; “it only requires us to be prepared to doubt anything—if good reason to do so arises” (1995: 21). As therapist Peirce advised, “Your problems would be greatly simplified if, instead of saying that you want to know the ‘Truth,’ you were simply to say that you want to attain a state of belief unassailable by doubt” (1998 [1905]: 336).

As Peirce's advice indicates, pragmatists do not capitalize “Truth”. Theirs, as Cheryl Misak has nicely put it, is a deflationary, lower‐case, “low profile” conception of truth, one that nests it wholly within the confines of human inquiry (2000: 14). Inquiry is the means to resolve doubt and to sort out true from false beliefs. “A minimal characterization of good inquiry” is that it “takes experience seriously” (2000: 78). And because, to be adequately tested, beliefs must be subject to the widest possible range of experience, inquiry to be effective must, as Peirce said, be communal. “What fits with my experience is not of paramount importance as far as truth is concerned,” Misak says. “What is important is what fits with all the experience that would be available, what the community of inquirers would converge upon” (2000: 95). Inquiry is our means of subjecting belief to the challenge of reasons, argument, and evidence. A belief that fully meets this challenge is true. This is what pragmatists (usually) mean when they say that the truth of a belief is to be measured by its practical consequences; this is what pragmatists (usually) mean when they say that truth is made, not found; this is what pragmatists (usually) mean when they say that a true belief is one that works.

Truth for pragmatists, then, is the upshot of exhaustive inquiry. As Misak observes:

Pragmatism thus abandons the kind of metaphysics which is currently in so much disrepute—it abandons concepts which pretend to transcend experience. Truth and objectivity are matters of what is best for the community of inquirers to believe, “best” here amounting to that which best fits with the evidence and argument. On the pragmatist view of truth, when we aim at empirical adequacy, predictive power, understanding the way things work, understanding ourselves, and the like, we aim at (p. 190) the truth. For a true belief is the belief which best satisfies those and other particular aims in inquiry. (Misak 2000: 1)

For the pragmatist, then, “a true belief is one that would withstand doubt, were we to inquire as we fruitfully could on the matter. A true belief is such that, no matter how much further we were to investigate and debate, that belief would not be overturned by recalcitrant experience and argument” (2000: 49). But since no inquiry can be exhaustive, we can never know for sure that any of our beliefs are true, however indubitable they may seem at present or in present company. Truth is thus a “regulative ideal” (Emmet 1994), an ideal that is unrealizable, yet serves a valuable function—in this case, that of keeping the road of inquiry open. Truth, Misak concludes, is “what inquirers must hope for if they are to make sense of their practices of inquiry” (2000: 69). Truth is the aim of inquiry, but the best that can be secured at any moment in its course is well‐justified belief, which is not necessarily true. It is rational nonetheless to adopt well‐justified beliefs, even if these beliefs later prove to be false. Beliefs about matters that are in doubt are always forged against a background of beliefs about matters that, for the moment at least, are not—these fallible yet undoubted beliefs provide the warrants for new belief. Hence, beliefs can be deeply embedded in history and established cultural practices and nonetheless be well justified (if not necessarily true).

In abandoning representational conceptions of truth, pragmatists have not so much solved the problems plaguing foundationalists and skeptics as set them aside. Pragmatism, as Louis Menand has said, is “an effort to unhitch human beings from what pragmatists regard as a useless structure of bad abstractions about thought”. As such, it “has a kind of ground‐clearing sweep to it that gives many readers the sense that a pressing but vaguely understood obligation has suddenly been lifted from their shoulders, that some final examination for which they could never possibly have felt prepared has just been canceled” (1997: pp. xi–xii).

But foundationalists and skeptics have been loathe to permit pragmatists to escape the examinations they have set for each other, and consequently, pragmatists have periodically been embroiled in epistemological debates marked by uncomprehending efforts to enlist pragmatists in one camp or another of those they are trying to flee. Most often (usually by realist metaphysicians), they have been charged with an “idealism” that refuses to acknowledge the existence of a mind‐independent world, and hence locks (p. 191) human beings up in an imaginary, solipsistic—even narcissistic—inner world of their own collective imagining.

A good example of this sort of incomprehension is a debate that Dewey had early in the twentieth century with the realist James Pratt, a dogged critic of pragmatism, over true knowledge of past events. Pratt contended (as would many critics subsequently) that pragmatists confused truth and verification. By showing that a belief “worked”, inquiry might confirm its truth; but this working was not, as pragmatists contended, in itself the truth of the belief. Truth was antecedent to its verification: ideas were not true because they worked; they worked because they were true. In explaining the truth of belief about past events, the pragmatist conception of truth implied the fantastic assertion that such events could not be said to have occurred unless and until the belief that they had had been verified. Using one of Dewey's own examples, Pratt remarked: “Professor Dewey cites an idea that a certain noise comes from a street‐car; this idea being investigated and verified becomes true. Had it not been verified it never would have been true—even if as a fact the noise had really come from the car” (1908: 125). By this same logic, critics such as Pratt observed, the fact that Columbus landed in America in 1492 would rest, improbably, on the future working of a belief about his voyage.

Dewey acknowledged in his response to Pratt that there was a sense in which the truth of a belief could be said to antecede its testing. Prior to its verification (as its verification revealed), a true belief has “the property of ability to work” (1978 [1909]: 8). This sort of functional capacity was a property of beliefs organically connected to verification; hence Dewey did not see how any difficulties were posed for pragmatism by insisting on this sort of antecedent truth. He suspected that pragmatism's critics meant to say something more than that an idea worked because it was workable. Pratt and other such “metaphysical” critics, he argued, confused the occurrence of an event with ideas or judgments about such occurrences. “Truth” was not a substantial property of the former, but a functional property of the latter. “Some conviction, some belief, some judgment with reference to [events] is necessary to introduce the category of truth and falsity,” and it was important not to “confuse the content of a judgment with the reference of that content” (1978 [1909]: 6–7). The occurrence of noises from streetcars and of transatlantic voyages by fifteenth‐century mariners did not wait upon successful verification of the judgments that “the noise came from the street‐car” or “Columbus landed in America in 1492” (that would be fantastic), though the truth of our judgments about those occurrences did. Events did not “truly” happen, (p. 192) though true judgments about their happening could be made as long as these events left effects against which our judgments could be tested.

So much for the ties that bind the pragmatists and divide them from non‐pragmatists. What about the internecine quarreling? Why, despite these common convictions about truth, are pragmatists forever disagreeing with one another on the subject? What has remained to argue about at family gatherings?

Plenty, it would seem. First of all, as I say, pragmatists have attacked one another for backsliding into foundationalism or plunging heedlessly into skepticism. And, at times, they have done so for good reason. On the one hand, Peirce, whom Rorty periodically ventured to kick out of the family, could sometimes scratch his metaphysical itch and say things such as “all science must be a delusion and a snare, if we cannot in some measure understand God's mind” (1958 [1903]: 129). On the other hand, Rorty, whose thinking Peirce would no doubt have found as horrendous as do many contemporary Peirceans, could cozy up uncomfortably close to some fashionable forms of “postmodern” skepticism. When Rorty said such things as “James and Dewey … are waiting at the end of the road which, for example, Foucault and Deleuze are currently traveling” (1982: p. xviii), many pragmatists were inclined to say something like: “Well, if so, they are there to tell them to apply the brakes before they drive off a cliff.” One might say that pragmatists can be divided into those who navigate the pragmatist boat through the straits of epistemological debate by tacking closer to the Scylla of foundationalism and those who cut a channel closer to the Charybdis of skepticism.

Second, pragmatism has suffered from some notorious, widely broadcast formulations by two of its most provocative, well‐known, and adventuresome bastards, James and Rorty. In Pragmatism (1907), James boldly argued that “the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, for definite, assignable reasons” (1975 [1907]: 42). Many critics understandably took him to mean that whatever beliefs we take to be good for us may, by virtue of that fact, be said to be true—an interpretation to which James lent credence with further claims such as “if theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much” (1975 [1907]: 40). These arguments were the product of the marriage of pragmatism with James's notion of the “will to believe”, his contention that we have a right to beliefs for which the evidence is inconclusive if such beliefs are for us alive, forced, and momentous (1979 [1896]). James's concern here was to leave a logical space in which religious faith could flourish.

(p. 193)

This argument drew a chorus of complaint from pragmatists as well as non‐pragmatists, at the time and since. Although not necessarily hostile to religious faith, pragmatism cannot authorize its truth claims, Dewey said in a gentle, brotherly rebuke to James. The happy consequences for a believer of a belief in God “can not prove, or render more probable, the existence of such a being, for, by the argument, these desirable consequences depend upon accepting such an existence” (1977 [1908b]: 106). True ideas, Dewey said, were good in the sense that they solved the problems of inquiry, but this did not mean, as James sometimes implied, that any good that flowed from acceptance of a belief was evidence of its truth. James quickly backtracked from these claims, though the incautious Pragmatism has drawn far more readers than its more circumspect sequel, The Meaning of Truth (1909).

Among neo‐pragmatists, pride of place in eliciting the sort of dismay that James's arguments did early in the century, is Rorty's assertion in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that truth is “what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying” (1979: 176). This remark is the sort of thing that Putnam—who thinks of pragmatism as “realism with a human face”—finds most appalling about Rorty's thinking, evidence of a skepticism that collapses truth into mere prevailing, consensual taste, ignoring the fact that many a consensual belief has proved false and/or morally repugnant (1990: 19–26).

Rorty, like James, worked hard to answer critics such as Putnam, while at the same time warning them of what he saw as metaphysical temptations lurking in their criticism (1998). He made clear that he had no doubt about the existence of a mind‐independent world and its capacity to occasion beliefs about it, if not “in itself” justify beliefs that purport to “represent” it. “We can never be more arbitrary than the world lets us be,” he said. “So even if there is no Way the World Is, even if there is no such thing as ‘the intrinsic nature of reality,’ there are still causal pressures. These pressures will be described in different ways at different times and for different purposes, but they are pressures none the less” (1999: 33). Rorty also acknowledged that “true” is an absolute, context‐independent term, and that it makes no sense to say “true for me but not for you”. It has, he admitted, a useful “cautionary” role to play in inquiry, since it warns us that however well justified we think a belief may be, it may turn out to be unjustified at some future date to some future community.

While such qualifications, perhaps, preserved Rorty's standing as at least a black sheep in the pragmatist family, he still seemed to many pragmatists (p. 194) to underestimate, as no pragmatist should, the usefulness of a functional concept of truth. Huw Price, for example, argues forcefully that someone as committed as Rorty to the displacement of representation by “conversation” should realize how much the norm of truth adds to inquiry over and above that of justified belief. Truth, he says, is for a pragmatist a norm that supplies assertoric dialogue with “its essential esprit de corps”. Without a shared commitment to truth, we would have no investment in settling our differences in inquiry: “Truth is the grit that makes our individual opinions engage with one another. Truth puts the cogs in cognition, at least in its public manifestations” (Price 2003: 169). Rorty died apparently unconvinced (Rorty and Engel 2007).

Finally, pragmatists have often disagreed sharply about what the wider implications of their common understanding of meaning and truth might be for ethics, politics, and other realms of human experience. For example, a strenuous debate has emerged of late about whether or not pragmatism provides what Putnam termed “an epistemological justification for democracy” (1992: 180; cf. Westbrook 2005: 175–200). That is, some pragmatists such as Putnam, Misak (2000), and Robert Talisse (2005, 2007) have argued forcefully that, by virtue of its commitment to free and inclusive experimental inquiry, pragmatism has a tropism for democratic politics. “Democracy is a requirement for experimental inquiry,” Putnam says. “To reject democracy is to reject the idea of being experimental” (1994: 64). Other pragmatists such as Rorty and Richard Posner (2003) have vigorously disagreed. Rorty went so far as to contend that pragmatism is “neutral between democrats and fascists” (1991: 75). This too was apparently a view he took with him to the grave (2006).

Its history thus suggests that it is likely that the pragmatist family will remain a contentious one. But it is a family that is likely as well, in spite of and to some extent because of its fractious nature, to sustain its position as one of the more significant intellectual clans on the terrain of modern life.


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