Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some notes on pragmatism

In a recent comment, Chris helpfully links Richard Horner's "Two Cheers for Pragmatism", from the Fall 2001 issue of the Hedgehog Review on pragmatism.  Horner discusses two worthy contributions of pragmatism to which even non-pragmatists should be receptive, followed by a possible shortcoming that deserves critique.  I think the article offers some worthwhile thoughts, but a few points came to mind that I thought I'd mention here.  I'd welcome the thoughts of others on this as well. 

The second positive contribution that Horner describes of the pragmatist understanding of the history of reason is well-stated, and I think deserves even more attention.  Critiques of scientific law amongst late nineteenth-century French thinkers could also be added to the chorus of pragmatist philosophies of science that prepared the way for 20th century advances in scientific theory and also opened up the possibility of seeing reason as something distinct from bare rationalism.  I'm fine with this section as far as I could tell from an initial read-through.

Horner's first section strikes me as possibly more problematic... he says that "the first cheer for pragmatism [...] is for its simple method of framing inquiry and argument."  I wouldn't deny that pragmatism can be employed this way- as a "simple method", or in another of Horner's characterizations, as a "strategy".  But I'm not sure that this is at the heart of the pragmatist point.   It seems to me (from my limited knowledge and reading) that people often take pragmatist statements to be more prescriptive in their intentions than is actually the case.  Take this section from Horner, for instance:
Following William James one can think of this modest means of proceeding as the practice of trying on beliefs in order to see which of them carries us about in experience most satisfactorily. Try on ideas and beliefs, James writes, in order to see which of them “help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.” We should make the most, he continues, of “any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily.”
 As I was reading this, something struck me as being slightly off.  Did James really say that we should come to our beliefs in this way?  Is it something that he thought we ought to do, or something that he thought we simply do?  Following is the larger context of the quote that Horner excerpts, from James's lecture "What Pragmatism Means" and in the midst of a discussion about the views of Dewey and Schiller as they relate to late nineteenth-century critiques made by philosophers of science:
Riding now on the front of this wave of scientific logic Messrs. Schiller and Dewey appear with their pragmatistic account of what truth everywhere signifies.  Everywhere, these teachers say, 'truth' in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in science.  It means, they say, nothing but this, that ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena.  Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; 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 labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally.
This strikes me as more of a descriptive point than a prescriptive one.  It's not that we should do as the pragmatists do and pursue our beliefs this way, rather it's that the pragmatist thinks that all of us already pursue our beliefs this way, whether we are pragmatists or not.  Whether we are involuntarily categorizing our visual intake as so many distinct shapes and distances or consciously deciding upon how best to make sense of a friend's ambiguous comment, what we're doing is attempting to establish a "satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience", and we're constantly revising our conclusions as things fail to become or remain satisfactory.  Pragmatism strikes me as being much more of a metaphilosophy, that is, rather than an ethical program.

This point leads into Horner's final section, where he outlines certain problems with pragmatism... although it is not really pragmatism that he is critiquing, but rather some beliefs held by Rorty and Stuhr in "the morally lightweight, detranscendentalized understanding of homo sapiens that seems to accompany the skeptical swing of the pendulum of modern reason."  Horner even employs pragmatist arguments against these two, so it is clear that his concern is not with pragmatism itself:
On pragmatic considerations alone, therefore, Rorty and Stuhr fall short. They do not provide us with beliefs that are sufficient to guide action. In a pragmatic frame we are looking for a set of beliefs about ourselves and our fellow inhabitants of this planet that will not simply allow for good behavior by making that behavior a legitimate possibility. We are looking for action-guiding beliefs from which good behavior follows as a consequence. It is not clear that Rorty’s and Stuhr’s beliefs are generative of action. 
I think this more or less conforms to a sense I have had... that the naturalist commitments of many (especially post-WWII) pragmatists is not really a particularly pragmatist stance, but rather simply one that a lot of pragmatists happen to affirm.  I wonder, however, whether it is appropriate for Horner to be so critical of Rorty's views on the human condition (at least on the ethical grounds that he pursues).  Horner writes, "we are not arguing that Rorty’s liberal and humanitarian ethics are inconsistent with his understanding of the human condition. His understanding is open to numerous ethical conclusions, and one of these possibilities is the ethical stance to which he holds."  The problem, however, is that, "their action-guiding beliefs are inadequate as guides to action. While their beliefs allow for the ethical choices they prefer, their beliefs do not require these choices."

While pragmatist conditions for the truth of a given belief do depend upon the extent to which it holds good in consequence, I don't know why this would require us to set an additional standard of belief needing to require certain consequences or guide certain actions.  Insofar as we will act upon them, they are beliefs, but if they are not actionable, then they're not really beliefs in the first place.  Beliefs can't fail as guides to action because this is what defines them as beliefs.  As to the standard of not only allowing certain ethical choices but rather requiring them, I'm not clear on why Rorty's understanding of human nature needs to precede his ethical beliefs in progressive liberalism as some sort of basis for them.  Presumably if he has liberal ethical beliefs as well as non-metaphysical beliefs about human nature, he retains both "just in so far as they help [him] to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of [his] experience".  Now, this juxtaposition of beliefs may not be acceptable to Horner or myself, but in that case we don't hold to one, the other, or both of them, and for precisely the reason that the pragmatist has already outlined: because they are not satisfactory for making sense of our wider web of beliefs.  Something has to give for Horner, although it apparently doesn't for Rorty.  This doesn't constitute a critique of pragmatism, however, or even a critique of Rorty's beliefs about metaphysics.  It is simply a statement, perhaps quite compelling so far as it goes, of the shortcomings of certain beliefs about the (lack of a) metaphysics of human nature if one is to maintain liberal ethical stances.

[To Chris-- I know I've written an extended post on difficulties that I have with this piece, but don't at all take this to mean that I wasn't helped by it or didn't appreciate the reference.  I wouldn't have put so much time into a response if I didn't think it was a worthwhile essay, and I'm glad you mentioned it.  To others-- I'd welcome thoughts as these are only some musings and I certainly can't claim to be any expert on pragmatism at this point.]

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Evan, for taking the time to write this helpful post.

    Regarding your first point, I do think Horner knows that he's standing outside, as it were, of James' thoughts and taking them to be prescriptive rather than merely descriptive. In other words, I think he aims to empower the reader to take a "pragmatic" approach when seeking out what's true. My guess is that he sees assuming James' et al., epistemic presuppositions to be tantamount to relativism and so doesn't want to cheer on pragmatism as a metaphilosphy, which is basically what he dogs Rorty for, no?

    Which doesn't quite stick, as you suggest. Rorty himself fully admits that belief aren't guides to action, quite precisely because Rorty denies the possibility of a such a thing:

    "One should try to abjure the temptation to tie in one's moral responsibilities to other people with one's relation to whatever idiosyncratic things or persons one loves with all one's heart and soul and mind (or, if you like, the things or persons one is obsessed with). The two will, for some people, coincide [Rorty cites certain "lucky" Christians and revolutionaries as examples]…But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so" ("Trotsky and the Wild Orchids").

    For Rorty, denying this meant denying one's finitude (that what matters to you may well be something that may never matter much to most people). For Horner, I think that's exactly what he wants to deny—that as Christians we transcend the relativism of everyday life. In other words, it's just plain unacceptable to not seek to hold reality and justice in a single vision (as Rorty would put it). Horner want to persuade one to action, guided by beliefs. Rorty denies this project. This, in the end, is why he's comfortable saying that "My philosophical views offend the right as much as my political preferences offend the left" (ibid.). The one is irrelevant to the other.