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Pragmatism

24 May 2013 10:50

If we strain out the differences, personal and philosophical, they [the pragmatists] had with one another, we can say what [they] had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea — an idea about ideas. They all believed that ideas are not "out there" waiting to be discovered, but are tools — like forks and knives and microchips — that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves. They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals — that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability.

—Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, preface

William James, of course, but also John Dewey and Charles Peirce. (I once, in the early 1990s, drafted an essay about how all the world seemed to be converging on "lower and distorted forms of pragmatism"; now that seems embarrassingly optimistic.)

Bertrand Russell, in his essays on (or rather, against) James's pragmatist conception of truth raised the following objection, which I find compelling. Suppose we need to choose between two irreconcilable beliefs, A and B. James advises that we choose the one with better consequences, as this actually constitutes the truth of the superior alternative. But to do this we must hold a belief c(A,B) about the consequences of believing A or B respectively, and we need to believe c(A,B) in preference to all its alternatives c'(A,B), c''(A,B), etc. Either these second-order beliefs have an old-fashioned sort of truth to them, or we need to have a belief d(c(A,B), c'(A,B), ...) about the consequences of believing any of the second order beliefs: and so on ad infinitum.

See also: Adaptation; America; Collective Cognition; Democracy; Evolution; Evolutionary Epistemology; Philosophy of Science


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