Mar 31, 2011

William James at the Book Club

Monday night saw a good crowd of the regulars at the Cumberland county book club.  Or selection this time was the last of the philosophers whose thoughts I'll get to watch the ordinary, educated, non-academic people of this book club engage with -- I'm leaving Fayetteville for the Hudson Valley at May's end, and our two next selections are more literary than philosophical.  Further blog entries in this "at the Book Club" series (which includes Arnold  and Kant) will have to wait until I find a suitable Great Books Club up north next Fall.

The selection included portions of a tried and true, oft-anthologized, piece, Pragmatism:  A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, commencing with the story of the squirrel and the conundrum over whether a man who circled the tree, the squirrel maintaining itself ever on the other side of he trunk from him, could rightly be said to have gone "around" the squirrel.  This, everyone agreed, was an entertaining tale, but not all actually saw it as significant -- a small irony.  And the discussion in fact added further ironies.

On the whole, the club members liked James' ideas.  One member, when asked:  "so do you think he's right," quipped: "more than I think he's wrong."  And that laconicism could well sum up the overall assessment, except that where there was some feeling that he was wrong, that he was off, that something had gone lacking, the objections became worrisome the more they were worked out.  But, that was not entirely unexpected for me, as a philosopher, who has read that essay countless times, and taught it already a few.  People tend to react in relatively few different ways to James' reduction or reworking of the notion of truth or meaning.  What I was much more startled by were their criticisms of James' style

As philosophers, we tend to think of James and other pragmatists as eschewing abstraction and clinging deliberately close to the concrete.  We unthinkingly think of his ilk as they represent themselves, taking their saying-so about their work at their word.  We nod along with James when he asserts:
Pragmatism represents a perfectly familiar attitude in philosophy, the empiricist attitude, but it represents it, as it seems to me, both in a more radical and in a less objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed.  A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers.  He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins.  He turns toward concreteness and adequacy, toward facts, toward action, and toward power.  That means the empiricist temper regnant and the rationalist temper sincerely given up.  It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretense of finality in truth.
We philosophers all know precisely what this mess of terminology means, now don't we?  After all, we can ourselves proudly parrot it, follow out the critiques of philosophies past and present.  Pragmatism asserts that it is concrete, that it dispels abstractions, that it cleaves to the common (as of course, did Socrates in his time, didn't he -- getting accused of talking about boots and cobblers and all such day to day nonsense).  But, what if we cease (or at least suspend) our own dogmatism and we genuinely, sincerely, experimentally put pragmatism -- or at least one its own self representations at the hands of one of its canonical -- to its own test.  Let's take and impose on itself James' own characterization
No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means.  The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, "categories", supposed necessities; and of looking toward last things, fruits, consequences, facts.
It is not so easy to make this shift, for in doing so, as a philosophy, pragmatism exhibits a tendency which we philosophers don't seem to have ourselves remarked, of surreptitiously coining new first things and principles out of the attitude towards last things and facts.  Now, if you want to know whether a philosophical doctrine which prides itself on its comprehensiveness, concreteness, and comprehensibility really has those traits, what sort of pragmatic test might you put it to?  Would you place it before the judgement of the philosophers?  Or would you instead lead it into the court of the ordinary, literate, interested public?  Any good pragmatist would have to agree to the latter.

But when this was done, with people who can certainly read their way around literature, who not only display long-honed aptitude but also appreciation and desire, a public sympathetic to many Jamesian ideas, who lauded his polymathic education and omnivorous interests -- certainly a sympathetic set of readers -- they nevertheless found James and his version of pragmatism actually wanting in concreteness.  They called it "esoteric", "abstract."  They criticized his lack of vivid examples from common life.  He was not, as we say, down to earth, not as practical, as they would have liked, particularly in an author who makes the virtues of his proposal turn precisely on the points of his philosophy's marked superiority in these very respects.  They wondered particularly why given the tumultuous affairs of our nation in his lifetime, he did not draw upon the wealth of available historical examples in which his readership would have easily and immediately seen the application of the pragmatic principle.

The characterizations of truth and the processes of finding or generating truth exercised strong attractions on the group, who cited passages, paraphrased a good bit, but I think also went beyond the James they knew from our text (I pointed out where their extensions matched up with positions James developed further in other writings).  Rather than simply cite James, I'd rather reproduce the formulations of our group.  They grasped immediately the notion of truth as "what works," as what is consonant with our experience and workable, realizable desires, as something which we discern in consequences, in vital or even just non-trivial differences. 

Truth is something that happens to an idea, as a doctrine, led into the assertion by one member that the truth changes in time, an example of which is the variance in understanding an eminently practical matter -- how to raise children.  Another member pointed out that by Jame's lights, truth is verified through the events of life, one's own life, the events with which the individual agrees, or finds good -- by what ever measure for that term upon which they rely.  A third noted that a person moves forward into truth by seeking out and encountering what is going on, and then added something very interesting, by stressing that such insights are enriched precisely through contacts with others, with being able to jibe with their own pracgmatic pursuit of truth.

This is as good a place then to turn to the inevitable objection that arises.  Truth and goodness are different things, as are falsity and evil.  Some of the members of the group then brought up ancient and medieval thinkers -- not specifically by name, but as a genre, mainly because they knew that some of them considered the connection between truth and goodness, falsity and evil to be more intrinsic than the the modern view whose tendency is to entirely dissociate them.  They were a bit hazy on these points, but they knew that the epistemological and aletheiological revoloution James was carrying out was something quite different from mere recurrance to an earlier pre-modern view (or to what James at any rate would have made of it.

The inevitable black-uniformed, swastika-scribing virulence that supplies the most common example for an objection did come up, of course.  I would have been surprised for it not to have.  But, I was happy to see the conversation at this point turn on the more general problem of what pragmatism would make of totalitarian society rather than on the specific Nazi or Hitler case.  For that is one inevitable weakness of the pragmatic conception of truth, one only partly remedied by the stopgaps its defenders introduce.  James' doctrine is in many respects anti-totalitarian in its intent, but it could all so easily be assumed into it.  In point of fact, historically, some did glimpse connections between pragmatism and fascism, and celebrated that fact.  Imagine a system like that of contemporary China, or an Orwellian state -- those work, and truth is generated, fabricated, tested against the fabric of other truths, to which one had better conform if one does not want to suffer, to experience a disharmony, to land in bad consequences.

"Political systems also create truths, not just individuals," one member pointed out, and we discussed the long survival of communism in its Leninist-Stalinist form, the effacement of so much challenges to a common truth in the gulags and the later state apparatuses. A temporary truth can be maintained much monger than one would at first suspect, can dull conscience, generate an environment that can be dimly felt as untrue, wrong, cracked, but even the facilities of language can be harnessed by the state to overmaster any challenges.  "Propaganda, that's how you get the truth out in tyrannical states," another member said.  Yet another stressed the ethical implication -- what if James was basically right?  Well then: "it is important what you think is true, because people believe and then start getting on with it.  It's important to get things right at the start."  Of course, to me that sounds rather Aristotelian!

The truth that one operates with will determine what one considers as consequences, and a prime example of that which one member brought up was uncovered in the book Slavery by Another Name, which detailed how prisoners were effectively sold to various economic enterprises that literally worked them to death. Nobody seemed to notice those consequences, or at least nobody whose views mattered to the larger community. and so people simply vanished, used up by the companies that purchased their labor and their lives.

I'll end with a reflection and prediction one person gave, one about current US Army thinking on the use of information.  "James and his ideas will have a recredesence, in the field of knowledge management -- lets open the information up, they'll say, and those who can demonstrate that they can do something with the information then get to do so."  An interesting idea, a highly practical application.  James and his conception of truth might sit easily with Pierce, in whose whose abductive logic and semiotics information analysts have long been interested.