Tag Archives: Pragmatism

Quote for the Day – C.S. Peirce on How Philosophy Should Imitate the Sciences

Philosophy out to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibres maybe ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.

~C.S. Peirce, “Some Consequences of Our Incapacities”, quoted in The Pragmatic Maxim, by Christopher Hookway

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Quote of the Day – Philip Kitcher on the Legacy of Descartes in the Age of Google

I am inclined to think that, were Descartes to be resurrected among us, he would be puzzled by the legacy of his questions in contemporary epistemology – and far more interested in the neglected issue of how to provide access to reliable information in a world awash in potential sources (the “Google/Wikipedia” problem).

Philip Kitcher, Preludes to Pragmatism

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Why I Think Pragmatism Fails

My intellectual history with pragmatism goes way back. My first real exposure to pragmatism was through Richard Rorty’s masterpiece Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In this work Rorty attempted to argue for a position that would do away with the dogmas and philosophical problems associated with either realism or idealism. Rorty’s own position was heavily inspired by James, Dewey, Heidegger, and late Wittgenstein. He saw in this tradition a way to avoid the problematic claims of realism and idealism, which he saw as both relying on a kind of epistemic foundationalism to get off the ground. Foundationalism is the idea that we can secure a solid foundation for building up philosophy and science that rests on self-evident epistemic principles. The most obvious epistemic foundation for Modern Philosophy is subjective experience. This was Descartes position in a nutshell. From the indubitably self-evident principles of subjective consciousness, Descartes wanted to provide a solid footing for the entirety of human knowledge, including science. For foundationalism, the essential project is to build a edifice of knowledge that rests on the epistemic security of our own experience of the world. From our own experience, we can provide a foundation for the truth claims of the sciences.

Rorty found this problematic because it assumed that our essential self was, at bottom, this self-conscious “Glassy Essence” that mirrors the world through representational mentation. Because the mind represents the world, the most secure path to knowledge for foundationalism is to determine whether the contents of the mind match up or correspond to the external world. Since the mind is the foundation for our knowledge, if we can develop a method for determining which mental contents accurately correspond to the world, we can arrive at a concept of truth. True mental states are those that correspond to the external world.

But what is this external world? Kant eventually forbid philosophy from talking about mental states corresponding to the external world. For Kant, the method for securing our epistemic foundations is equally subjective, since the essential task for philosophy is to inspect the mind to make sure its representational mechanisms are working properly. On the Kantian schema, the path to objective, grounded knowledge goes through the self and never really leaks out to the external world. The world which we think is external, is actually internal to our minds, since our experience is but a representation of the noumenal realm. To make sure our mirror is working properly, Kant wants us to polish the mirror rather than inspect the actual world, since we can never get out of our heads.

For Rorty, this whole project of grounding knowledge is doomed to fail from the beginning because it presupposes an awful lot about the nature of the mind, the self, and knowledge. Rorty’s essential philosophical move is to externalize the self such that there is no “inner core”, no real “Glassy essence” except the one we invent for ourselves through cultural accumulation. Rather than starting with the inner world and moving outwards towards the world, Rorty, like Sellars, wants to start with the outer world and move inwards. For Rorty we are first and foremost social creatures inhabiting a public sphere with a public language. Following Heidegger’s move of externalization, Rorty thinks we are first “outside” the mind, in-the-world, and it is only a theoretical move which brings us to the inner realm of subjectivity. Once we as a culture have played this “subjectivity game” for long enough, we actually become convinced that we do indeed have a Glassy Essence which is the foundation for all our experience, along with the appropriate cultural mechanisms for acknowledging our own authority on subjective matters. Rorty thinks this is a delusion generated by philosophical language games. In this respect, we can see how Rorty took up the project of later Wittgenstein, who thought philosophical problems about the mind and body are mere tricks generated by our use of language games.

When I first read Rorty, I bought this hook, line, and sinker. The demolition of the Glassy Essence seems right to me, even to this day. If there is no glassy essence at our core grounding knowledge, then the truth-claims of both realism and idealism are groundless, since they are both founded by the core self (which we know now is a mere delusion). In realism, the glassy foundation allows us to make truth-claims about the world insofar as we can represent the objective world in our mind. In idealism, the glassy foundation allows us to make truth-claims about the human-world correlate. On Rorty’s reading, both positions are problematic since they start off with the isolated, representing self.

So if objective truth-claims are groundless for Rorty, how does he avoid a radical relativism where anything goes? Since Rorty moves the “foundation” for knowledge from the inner self towards the outer community, does this not relegate truth to the community? What is to stop a community of flat Earthers to say it is “true for them” that the Earth is flat because they have a long communal history of talking about the Earth as if it is flat? Nothing. Rorty cannot avoid this relativism. But he can attempt to rob it of its essential force. How does Rorty do this? By recognizing that one of the most dominant and “useful” communal language games is science itself. Science is nothing but a sophisticated communal practice that has developed its own norms of subjectivity and objectivity, and science tells us that the Earth is not flat.

So although Rorty thinks that it is impossible to ground or provide an absolute foundation for truth claims which separate appearance from reality, he does think that science has invented a language game for distinguishing appearance from reality. This is how Rorty responds to the critics who claim that he is a relativist where “anything goes”. Rorty doesn’t think that we can have absolute knowledge of what’s mere appearance versus what’s reality, but he does think that we have highly developed language games for separating appearance from reality. Science is exactly such a game. It’s just that the truth-claims of science are grounded, not by the self, but by the standards and norms of the scientific community. So we are still able to make truth-claims that separate appearance from reality, it’s just that this ability to make claims is itself just a language game, albeit an absurdly successful one.

So why does pragmatism fail? Very simply, it fails because no matter how hard he tries Rorty is unable to stop religious fundamentalists from hijacking this exact argument to show the rationality of faith-based knowledge claims. Reformed Epistemologists like Plantinga want to use this exact same anti-foundationalist argument to bolster the claim that it is rational to believe in God even if there is no evidence or rational argument for his existence. Just so long as there is a religious community with shared communal norms and standards, it is perfectly rational for someone growing up in that community to accept the truth-claims without rational evidence or argumentation. God becomes “properly basic” i.e. not believed on the basis of any epistemic foundations. The Christian community grounds the truth-claims of Christianity and Christians are excused from providing evidence or arguments for their position.

This is unacceptable to me. I discovered this “quirk” of pragmatism when I took an undergrad class on Reformed Epistemology. That class made me realize that pragmatism makes it too easy to bolster the “subjective” truth-claims of religion as being perfectly rational because there are religious communities in which those claims make sense. If science is groundless but ok because it’s useful, then religion can be ok too so long as it is useful to a community of believers.

So what’s the solution? How do you avoid the relativism of pragmatism without collapsing back to a problematic foundationalism wherein truth-claims are grounded by the subject, which always seems to lead to problems of skepticism? I’m not totally sure. I’m still working out my critique of pragmatism and Reformed Epistemology. I certainly don’t want to return to foundationalism. I do think we need to demolish the “Glassy Essence” and acknowledge that we all start off embedded in a community of pragmatic norms. But perhaps we need to rehabilitate the position of naturalistic realism to be compatible with the demolition of the self. Can we develop an ecological realism that acknowledges both the reality of the mind-independent world and the ideality of our embeddedness into a community? Moreover, if the scientific language game is able to give a plausible explanation for how religion evolved in the first place, then we would have rational recourse for rejecting the truth-claims of religion without necessarily collapsing to a dogmatic foundationalism. If we can show that religion evolved as a method of social control based on the hallucination of divine beings, we could actually explain religion without merely claiming it is “false”, for obviously someone hallucinating believes with all their mind that their hallucinations correspond to reality. We could acknowledge that religious people think their claims are true while still having a plausible explanation for how these feelings of certainty are generated by neurological activity in the brain, which have an evolutionary and developmental history. When placed side by side in the intellectual arena, the truth-claims of religion and the naturalistic explanation for how religion contingently developed don’t seem to be on equal footing. If a schizophrenic was convinced that aliens had implanted a device in his brain, the pragmatist would be forced to say it’s “true for him”, especially if the schizophrenic started a cult of followers who developed communal norms of truth based on the reality of alien abductions. The pragmatist could only say “that idea is false from perspective of a scientific language game but true in respect to the standards of the cult”. The naturalistic realist would be able to, in principle, trace the origin of the belief in aliens to either a evolutionary or developmental neurological fact and claim them to be in all likelihood false (although it’s, of course, possible that the schizophrenic is right).

Have I really escaped pragmatism? It’s hard to see how I am avoiding it if I accept anti-foundationalism. It might seem like I am accepting anti-foundationalism but just adding dogma. But I think realism might have a way out of this, and that’s through the method of approximation by guessing. If we wanted to answer the question of where religion came from, we have two competing hypotheses. The religious hypothesis is that religion developed because God actually exists. The naturalistic hypothesis is that religion developed as a contingent fact of evolutionary and cultural development. Now which is the better hypothesis? I.e. , which hypothesis is most likely to be accepted by a community of genuine, truth-seeking inquirers after a million years of sustained inquiry? Given the overwhelming acceptance of naturalism amongst the educated and scientifically literate, we could extrapolate and determine that naturalism’s hypothesis about religion is approximating the truth. Given that the God-hypothesis cannot actually generate any predictions of the natural world (for it is one thing to say God exists, it is another to say what he is going to do), it seems like naturalism is superior as a method of inquiry. And the hypothesis for why that method is superior is that naturalistic realism is actually true. Note how this claim is not presupposed at the beginning of the investigation, but rather, is something that is generated after genuine inquiry into the probability of either hypothesis being true. Naturalism is the result of a long process of thinking and examining the world, not a dogma presupposed on the basis of self-evident knowledge. It seems then that we can accept anti-foundationalism while still being naturalists and realists.

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Great line by Heidegger (also a note on pragmatism)

In contrast to [the] historical path toward an understanding of the concept of world, I attempted in Being and Time to provide a preliminary characterization of the phenomenon of world by interpreting the way in which we at first and for the most part move about in our everyday world. There I took my departure from what lies to hand in the everyday realm, from those things that we use and pursue, indeed in such a way that we do not really know of the peculiar character proper to such activity at all, and when we do try to describe it we immediately misinterpret it by applying concepts and questions that have their source elsewhere. That which is so close and intelligible to us in our everyday dealings is actually and fundamentally remote and unintelligible to us. In and through this initial characterization of the phenomenon of world the task is to press on and point out the phenomenon of world as a problem. It never occurred to me, however, to try and claim or prove with this interpretation that the essence of man consists in the fact that he knows how to handle knives and forks or use the tram. (Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, p. 177)

Some would say that this line is definitive textual evidence against a pragmatist reading of Heidegger. However, this would be a mistake insofar as pragmatism is also not committed to claiming that the essence of man consists in the usage of knives and forks. If anything, pragmatism has perhaps the best explanatory gloss on both pedestrian equipment use and the so-called “higher” faculties afforded by language and culture.

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Sunday Pragmatism, part III: James on Habits and Will; a Mental Taxonomy

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Pragmatism Series

Part I
Part II

William James’ Principles of Psychology is a remarkable book. One of the most striking chapters is chapter IV, “Habit”. It starts by claiming

When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits. (104)

This is one of James’ most famous expressions. It represents, I think, a powerful argument against Cartesian psychology. Indeed,

The strongest reason for believing that [attention and effort] do depend on brain-processes at all, and are not pure acts of the spirit, is just this fact, that they seem in some degree subject to the law of habit, which is a material law. (126)

That our mental life is undoubtedly structured by asymmetric rules of psychology provides a powerful abductive argument against the Cartesian — ultimately Platonic —  taxonomy of Reason above and against base emotions and habits. After James, Heidegger was perhaps the most systematic critic of the dualisms stemming from Descartes, Locke, and Kant. Like James, Heidegger inverted the traditional mental hierarchy by placing greater emphasis on factical thrownness and our “falling” into habit, idle chat, and the socially scripted comportments of Das Man and the they-self.  All this is evidence against the dualist hypothesis. An analytic of humanity must be finite for indeed,

the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed. (105)

We see in James a clear statement of naturalistic philosophy of mind, an attempt to embody the mind and ground it in natural reality. It’s curious that Husserl accused Heidegger of also trying to naturalize consciousness in his marginalia of Being and Time. Moreover, James’ broad understanding of cognition seems to me light-years ahead of his time. We see in this chapter a lucid account of what was considered a modern neuroscientific fact: brain plasticity and Hebbian learning (“fire together, wire together”):

The only thing [nervous currents] can do [to brain matter], in short, is to deepen old paths or to make new ones; and the whole plasticiy of the brain sums itself up in two words when we call it an organ in which currents pouring in form the sense-organs make the extreme facility paths which do not easily disappear. (107)

The most complex habits, as we shall presently see more fully, are, from the same point of view, nothing but concatenated discharges in the nerve-centres. (108)

Moreover, James’ mental metaphors were far ahead of his time. He had already clearly saw the importance of homeostatic equilibrium and the basic ideas of dynamic systems theory and how they theoretically apply to cognitive function. The image is vague, but the substance is there:

…[W]e can only fall back on our general conception of a nervous system as a mass of matter whose parts, constantly kept in states of different tension, are as constantly tending to equalize their states.

I won’t go into the details, but it seems clear that James’ understood the idea of phase state changes and Deleuzian singularities, albeit abstractly. Speaking of Deleuze, I am really looking forward to taking John Protevi’s Deleuze class in the Fall; it’s going to rock! (I’m planning on digging into Deleuze this summer with Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus, and Protevi’s Political Physics and Political Affect.)

Anyway, James’ chapter on Habit is also brilliant in regards to its understanding of child development and the process of mastering embodied skills. He quotes at length a Dr. Carpenter from 1874 who said

It is a matter of universal experiences that every kind of training for special aptitudes is both far more effective, and leaves a more permanent impress, when exerted on the growing organism that when brought to bear on the adult. (110)

This kind of stuff is bread and butter to the Dreyfusian Heideggerians. It’s no surprise to me that many people accuse such scholars of reading Heidegger in terms of American pragmatism. Often this is seen as a narrow reading, but this critique only works if one assumes that James’ understanding of humanity was itself narrow. On the contrary, James’ mental taxonomy was phenomenologically rich, perhaps more so than the purely “formal indication” of Heideggerian phenomenology. Indeed, in developing a mental taxonomy, he says

Most of the performances of other animals are automatic. But in [humanity] the number of them is so enormous, that most of them must be the fruit of painful study. (113)

From this, James’ extracts a general principle: “habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts our performed.”

One may state this abstractly thus: If an act require for its execution a chain, A, B,C,D,E, F, G, etc., of successive nervous events, then in the first performances of the action the conscious will must choose each of these events from a number of wrong alternatives that tend to present themselves; but habit soon brings it about that each event calls up its own appropriate successor without any alternative offering itself…(114)

This might not sound obviously Heideggerian, but upon close inspection, we can see that it is.

We all of us have a definite routine manner of performing certain daily offices connected with the toilet, with the opening and shutting of familiar cupboards, and the like. Our lower centres know the order of these movements, and show their knowledge by their “surprise” if the objects are altered so as to oblige the movement to be made in a different way. (115)

From this passage, we can see that Heidegger’s phenomenology of the ready-to-hand was not original; it had been anticipated by American pragmatism decades earlier. Like Heidegger, James says that our primary mode of interaction with the world is characterized by familiarity. We are intimately familiar with the usability of our surroundings and how they afford us opportunities for acting. We become so familiar or “at home” in our dwelling that when something familiar doesn’t work how it normally works, readiness-to-hand “breaks down”, or we become “surprised”, as James put it. The mental taxonomies are roughly isomorphic.  However, I think James’ taxonomy is more accurate, because it has a phenomenological account of initiation and voluntary will that Heidegger is either unable or unwilling to address. Indeed, James says

A strictly voluntary act has to be guided by the idea, perception, and volition, throughout its whole course. In a habitual action, mere sensation is a sufficient guide, and the upper regions of brain and mind are set comparatively free….

In habitual action…the only impulse which the centres of idea or perception need send down is the initial impulse, the command to start.(115-116)

The only psychologist I know who captured this notion of “initial commands” as well as James did is Julian Jaynes and his notion of “structions” or “neural instructions”. Furthermore, Jaynes’ notion of “behavioral reactivity” and his distinction between automatic nonconscious cognition and volitional conscious narratization is drawn from Jamesian mental taxonomies as well. A post on Jaynes and James will probably be forthcoming soon…

After laying out his taxonomy of habit and will, James’ uses this to provide some moral lessons from which we can rethink education of the young. I will end this post with one one of my favorite passages ever:

Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. (127)

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Sunday Pragmatism: Dewey on Philosophy

We are here concerned with the fact that it is the intricate mixture of the stable and the precarious, the fixed and the unpredictably novel, the assured and the uncertain, in existence which sets mankind upon that love of wisdom which forms philosophy. Yet too commonly, although in a great variety of technical modes, the result of the search is converted into a metaphysics which denies or conceals from acknowledgement the very characters of existence which initiated it, and which give significance to its conclusions. The form assumed by the denial is, most frequently, that striking division into a superior true realm of being and lower illusory, insignificant or phenomenal realm which characterizes metaphysical systems as unlike as those of Plato and Democritus, St. Thomas and Spinoza, Aristotle and Kant, Descartes and Comte, Haeckel and Mrs. Eddy.

-Dewey, Experience and Nature, p. 59

If only I could write like that! Having only recently rediscovered American pragmatism, I am now stunned by its power and scope in dealing with the big questions of philosophy. I now see that the Husserl-Heidegger line of intellectual growth was in many ways indebted to the James-Dewey one, implicitly if not explicitly. We see in the passage above a key Heideggerian principle. For Dewey, as for Heidegger, it makes no sense to produce a universal metaphysics that scorns the everyday experience of humanity by turning embodied meaning into something derivative, “secondary”, “mere”, or inferior. Doing so is paradoxical precisely because as Dewey and Heidegger are apt to emphasize, metaphysical questioning is itself dependent on the “inferior” lifeworld given that the very cognitive mechanisms which enable it are finite through and through (one cannot think without your brain). The futility  of claiming the physical as inferior to or derivative of the ideal is apparent when we consider that the significance of such speculations is relevant only insofar as we are embodied creatures capable of physically reacting to the awe and magnitude of metaphysical thought. The mind thinks and the body shudders. Without this emotional valence, reflective thought would never get off the ground for it could not affect our embodiment. So while reflective thought is apt to deny the primacy of facticity, the phenomenologist understands how the results of thought matter only through their affective significance. One cannot philosophize in a vacuum. There must be a medium through which the results of thinking are made significant. This medium is the lived body. Without it, philosophical conclusions would be meaningless. Hence, any philosophical system which inverts the primacy of lived experience is left dangling in the air.

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