Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/October 1907/What Pragmatism Is Like

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1. Pragmatism can not he defined

WHOEVER should define pragmatism in a few words would be doing the most anti-pragmatic thing imaginable. In fact, he who should try to include in a single brief phrase all the tendencies and theories which make up pragmatism would surely be doing something generic and incomplete, and the pragmatists despise nothing so much as vagueness and indefiniteness.

On the other hand, I want you, my readers, to be interested at once in the argument, and love, says Leonardo, is born, and increases with acquaintance. But how shall I proceed? I might give two or three definitions of pragmatism which I have here quite ready, and which reduce all its characteristics and elements to a single one, but I do not feel that I can recommend my wares.

I could tell you, for example, that pragmatism is nothing but "a collection of methods for augmenting the power of man" but you could answer that even a manual for tunnel builders would then form a part of pragmatism. Another pragmatist could, on the other hand, assure you that his doctrine is founded upon preoccupation with the future (consequences, previsions), and that therefore it might also be called prometheism. You would promptly ask him if books of meteorology, or manuals of prophecy from dreams, or the Utopias of the reformers, form parts of pragmatism.

It would be worse yet if any one should undertake to say that the theory of pragmatism lays stress upon the practical and, in the selection of its doctrines, substitutes the criterion of utility for that of truth. This definition contains much that is true, but one must examine closely what is meant by the practical and by utility, in order that they may gain an undeniable meaning. In fact, what theory is there whose originator does not claim for it practical consequences? What theory would be completely unutilitarian? Theories have a certain sort of utility which coincides with their truth, as, for example, it is commonly useful to hold theories which bring about true previsions. And there is another sort of utility in contrast with this, as, for example, the moral enthusiasm which a belief might give us, even though it were entirely absurd.

These definitions might be continued, but you would probably arrive at the conclusion that pragmatism, instead of being something new, embraces a vast number of already existing things, and that it is already accepted and practised, consciously or not, by all thinking men.

In this, however, you would be wrong, because, seriously, pragmatism contains new things, and if it is practised by many, it is not recognized or accepted by all. The blame lies with the definitions, since they must not or can not be made as long as books. For definitions, reduced to a single phrase attempting to give an explanation and resume of the whole, end at best by failing to make really clear that of which they treat. Oftener still, they give rise to embarrassing equivocations and false representations. In order to show the novelty and specific nature of any doctrine whatever, we must come down from the universal to the particular, and fill such large abstract terms as potentiality, actuality, future, etc., with the wealth of special theories and of concrete facts. Without realizing it, I have already given you an elementary first lesson in pragmatism.

2. What may he expected of Pragmatists

As soon as I have begun one task, another lies before me. One of the maxims dearest to the pragmatists is this: that the meaning of theories consists entirely in the consequences which their followers may expect from them. To affirm anything actually means this: I foresee that certain things will follow, or that I shall do certain things.

Now apply this maxim to the definition of pragmatism itself, and ask me: What actions or beliefs may be expected from a thinker who is a confessed pragmatist?

That is soon said. These expectations relate almost wholly to his choices in the world of thought. That is, we can foresee what things he will love and what things he will hate; what problems he will consider important, and what ones he will reject as useless; what will be his sympathies and antipathies in the world of ideas and of men.

He will seek in every way not to concern himself with a great part of the classical problems of metaphysics (in particular with the universal and rationalistic explanation of the sum total of things), which are for him non-existent and senseless problems. On the other hand, he will concern himself strenuously with methods and instruments of knowledge and action, because he will be sure that it is far more important to improve or to create methods of obtaining exact previsions, or of changing ourselves or others, than to sport with empty words around incomprehensible problems.

His sympathies will be with the study of the particular instance; with the development of prevision; with precise and well-determined theories; with those which serve as the best instruments for the most important ends of life; with conciseness, with economy of thought, etc.

Naturally he will have an antipathy for all forms of monism; for all universal phrases which signify nothing or too much; for obscure babblings about absurd and inconceivable questions. He will distrust, I say, the pretended evidence and intuitiveness of principles; the faith in a sole and changeless truth; all agnostic theories which make what lies beyond sense a synonym of the unknowable. He will reject all that refuses to change or to adapt itself, all that claims to rule in the name of the divine right of the absolute. He will show no respect or subservience to the famous "reality" of the ordinary man and to the terre à terre of the empiricist.

That is to say, the pragmatist scorns those doctrines which pretend to explain the world by means of three or four mysterious phrases in the name of some unique principle. The pragmatist has an equal contempt for those doctrines that humbly cling to brute facts, as experience gives them to us, without trying to extend them into theory (the narrow empiricism and utilitarianism of so-called common sense), or into practise (the ethical evolutionism of "resignation to the laws of nature"). Instead we see the pragmatist kindled by a certain spirit of enthusiasm for all that shows the complexity and multiplicity of things; for whatever increases our power to act upon the world; for all that is most closely bound up with practise, activity, life.

Now if all these characteristics fail to define with sufficient fullness and precision what pragmatism is, yet they may give some idea of its tendencies.

But I can do something more to give precision to these ideas: that is, I can show in what points pragmatism does not resemble preceding systems of philosophy.

3. Pragmatism is not a "Philosophy."

Pragmatism differs above all from other philosophies through the simple fact that it is not a philosophy, if by philosophy you mean a system of metaphysics, a system of the universe, a Weltanschauung or any such matter. The pragmatist, in so far as he is a pragmatist, does not profess idealism rather than materialism, does not believe in the doctrine of creation rather than in that of emanation. For him, comprehensible metaphysical theories (and they are not many), can only give rise to moral consequences that differ—for the practical and experimental expectations are the same for all. This implies that the most rampant idealist and the timorous materialist would avoid in Just the same way an automobile which was about to throw them down; while the beliefs of the former would favor certain moral ideals, such as pride, nobility, the platonic dream of a world-builder, etc., more than those of the latter would.

For the pragmatist, then, no metaphysical hypothesis contains more truth than another. He who feels the need of one may choose it according to his purposes and his taste in ideas, but he should not greatly flatter himself that his hypothesis can be recognized as the most solid and certain, the best proven and demonstrated.

Pragmatism contains, therefore, no metaphysics, either open or implied. For it, the different theories of the world, properly understood, are but diverse ways of affirming the same commonplace facts, and their value consists solely in their form side, which may be more or less suggestive, more or less favorable to certain aims and preferences of our minds. For the pragmatist, metaphysical theories are facts amongst other facts, and for him the thing that matters is the power of foreseeing the varieties of behavior of the different men who believe in those theories.

From what I have said, it will perhaps seem clear that pragmatism is really less a philosophy than a method of doing without philosophy. On the one hand, by striving against problems devoid of sense, such as metaphysics, monism and the like, it diminishes the field of action of that which, historically speaking, is called philosophy; and, on the other hand, by inciting men to act more than to talk, to alter things rather than to contemplate them, to force things actually to exist in a definite way, instead of asserting that they already do so exist, it enlarges the field of action at the expense of pure speculation. Pragmatism would seem to be, then, not only something different from philosophy, but even hostile to metaphysics taken in the traditional cosmological sense.

And the differences do not end here. Another equally important distinction is the pluralistic character of pragmatic theories, in contrast with the unity and formal organization of systems created or elaborated by one single mind. A great many do not yet perceive that there is no such thing as pragmatism, but that there are only pragmatic theories, and thinkers who are more or less pragmatic. Let it be understood that among the theories of these thinkers there are affinities and points of contact among their tendencies, otherwise the common adjective would not be justified. But that does not do away with the fact that pragmatism is a coalition of theories coming from various sources and temperaments rather than a handsome system sprung from the brain of a single philosopher, or from a homogeneous and well-organized school. If you compare its somewhat chance formation, to which so many men and countries have contributed with rational and well-constructed bodies of thought, such as determinism in the works of Spinoza, absolute idealism in those of Hegel, evolution in those of Spencer, the difference is most plainly evident.

The scattered state of the ideas which have been grouped together under the name pragmatism makes it impossible to find a thinker who is a pragmatist from head to foot. Some people are, even though unconsciously, pragmatical on some points or on certain sides, while they are not pragmatical, or are even anti-pragmatical, on other sides. This spirit of liberty, this freedom from rigidity which the pragmatists have discovered in the sciences exists also in their own doctrine.

4. Pragmatism is Different from Positivism

In making this rapid survey of the differences between pragmatism and the philosophies, I have purposely left positivism on one side, because the question of its relation to pragmatism is far more complicated.

In fact, there are those who maintain—either through timidity or ignorance—that pragmatism is nothing but a version, or a trivial revision, of what is known as positivism, or agnosticism. Naturally there are those who say that it is a perfecting, others who say that it is a deterioration of positivism. Mario Calderoni, although he asserts that the name pragmatism expresses "really an advance upon the system of positivism," yet affirms the "fundamental identity" of the two doctrines. In fact, he sees nothing more in the struggle of Peirce against meaningless questions than a simple continuance of the strife of the positivists against metaphysics. Upon this point I do not agree with Calderoni, and I marvel that such a passionate lover of distinctions should not see what differences there are between the two doctrines.

There are two points in which they seem to agree: the importance of prevision, and the rejection of futile and absurd questions. But even concerning these two points there are differences, not to mention others which we shall examine later.

In fact, pragmatism does not consider prevision merely as opening the way to practical applications, or as an aid in verifying theories, but also as a means of definition and interpretation of the theories themselves. In this case, therefore, such prevision forms a completely new addition to the positivist's method.

Pragmatism, like positivism, condemns and discards the absurd and empty questions which form so large a part of metaphysics, but it does not discard them because they are insoluble. That is to say, nearly all the positivists are agnostics, and say that the human mind can not succeed in solving these problems. The pragmatists, on the contrary, are all anti-agnostics, and maintain that it is not true that those problems are too lofty for our intelligence, but too devoid of sense, too stupid, and that their unwillingness to busy themselves with such matters is not a proof of the impotence, but of the power of our mind. The positivists repudiate metaphysics, but as they do not sufficiently explain why they do so, they leave open a way whereby the exiled problems may return. And thus a still graver thing happens, for the lack in their theories, of a sufficiently profound analysis of the methods of science and of philosophy, gives the metaphysical spider a chance to spin its web once more even within themselves and in their own thought. This may be seen in even the best representatives of positivist methods, for these, while raising their voices upon all occasions against vain and empty metaphysics, yet do not perceive the poor and feeble metaphysics in their own books and discussions. Agnosticism, monism, materialism, evolution, which are almost always associated or confused in the minds of the positivists, are metaphysical doctrines which presuppose in their turn metaphysical premises. Agnosticism implies the belief in a world more real than ours. Monism appeals to universal and unthinkable conceptions. Evolution supposes a sort of providential plain of the universe, and so on. Positivism, then, is only anti-metaphysical in words, while pragmatism is anti-metaphysical in substance.

And the differences do not end here. There are in pragmatism at least three tendencies which in agnostic positivism do not exist at all, or at best only in the germinal state.

First of all is the principle of the economy of thought, traces of which may more easily be found in Occam and Leibniz than among the positivists. Secondly, the resurrection of the Baconian axiom "knowledge is power," that is, the demonstration of the part played by the idea of power and the possibility of power in our beliefs and theories. Finally, the emancipation of thought, both from immediate facts and from pure rationalism. Both are shown in pragmatism, not only by its theories about the free "creation" of facts, and of hypotheses in science, but also by its views concerning the non-necessity. for deduction, of the premises being "rational." That is to say, its willingness to start from absurd or fanciful hypotheses, in building up new theories and new sciences. It seems to me, then, that this is enough to justify the separation of these two lines of thought under distinct names, the more so since it can be shown historically that the differences between positivism and pragmatism arc much greater than those which existed between positivism and the earlier so-called "English philosophy." Pragmatism may indeed continue on certain lines the work of some of the best positivists, but it may claim, when closely considered, to be really made up of differences from positivism. It would be hard to differ more than that!

5. Why it is Good to he a Pragmatist

After all this talk my readers probably begin to see what it means to be a pragmatist, but it would not surprise me to hear some one say: Then, since it seems the pragmatists prefer theories that are of some use, tell us, please, what is the use of being a pragmatist.

The answer, after what I have said, is not difficult. The spiritual gains of one who is or becomes a pragmatist are not to be despised. The first is a gain of time, for the pragmatist gives a definitive quietus to the so-called "insoluble problems," the pretended "enigmas of the universe," which are merely non-existent or ill-stated problems that become soluble when stated in the pragmatic way. The time thus saved can be used either in the study of other problems, or in the practical application of theories that have been already verified by experience.

The second gain is the mental stimulus given by the consciousness of our human control over scientific conceptions, and over our own minds, and by the feeling of the plasticity of truth and of the opening of ever-wider spheres of possibility offered to the deductive imagination, and to the powers of the human soul over the universe.

This economy of time and strength and this increase of satisfaction and enthusiasm will suffice. I should think, to content those who have any intention of becoming pragmatists. If these do not suffice I will point out other advantages. Pragmatism having the characteristics of a thing not yet finished, not completely worked out, not fixed and crystallized, can therefore offer to him who turns to it the possibility of developing and transforming it, that is, of being not merely one of its followers, but at the same time one of its creators. Pragmatism thus offers the advantage of not being in itself a metaphysic, but of permitting the esthetic or moral enjoyment of possible or actual metaphysics.

6. Who will become Pragmatists?

There is one last question that could be asked. Who are the men who most readily become pragmatists? Is it possible to predict what classes of minds are the most disposed to receive the teachings of pragmatism?

In order to answer, I should perhaps have to build up the psychology of the pragmatist typo. For theories, even the purest and abstractest, have their actual ground and source in biological needs, and in the deepest sentiments of the general human race, or of particular exceptional persons.

This conception of Nietzsche—which the pragmatists have taken up and unfolded—of the vital and moral sources of "pure thought." so-called, shows us, When applied to pragmatism itself, the three groups of sentiments which are to be found hidden in the souls of the pragmatists. The first group is that of our vital sentiments, that is, of our instinctive desires for a larger and richer life, for more extended power. Our love of the concrete, of real and particular things, comes in here, as well as our fondness for dreams that "come true"; also our hatred of useless words, and of dreams foisted upon reality, that neither let us contentedly accept it, nor enable us to alter it.

The second group may be called the pessimistic sentiments. These are shown in the tendency to wish to change all existing things, facts and theories. Another manifestation of this is a certain aversion to anything that comes to us claiming to be already complete, and forces itself upon our acceptance, whether it call itself scientific hypothesis or law of nature.

The third group, on the contrary, is optimistic in its character. It consists in sentiments of pride. These are shown in our honorable reluctance to accept things ready-made, instead of making them for ourselves; in our unwillingness to receive our intellectual inheritance without right of appeal or revision. They are also shown l)y the dislike of submission to what men call the inevitable, the unchangeable, the eternal, and by the proud hope of being able to change existing things by means of simple spiritual force.

To come down from this hypothetical psychology to a more exact forecast, I believe, in general, that all those who think in order to act, who prefer provisional truths that work to over-abstract terms, however intoxicating, may be in sympathy with pragmatism.

Excluded beforehand, consequently, are all pedants devoted to fixed formulae, all systematizers who see the world under the despotism of a symbol: all lovers of immutable truth, of ]n;re reason, of transcendental conceptions, in a word, all conservatives of a rationalistic complexion. But there are, in particular, two classes of minds that seem to me destined to form the bulk of the pragmatist army. I mean practical men and Utopians. The first, because they find in pragmatism the theoretical explanation of their scorn for questions that have no sense or practical import, and of their sympathy with all that is clear, potent and unencumbered. The second, because they find in pragmatism suggestive points of view that encourage them to imagine and to hope extraordinary things. The ideas of pragmatism about absurd hypotheses, about imaginary sciences, about the influence of the will upon belief, and of belief upon reality, seem made on purpose to stimulate the poets and dreamers of the world of thought. Thus pragmatism, in this sole point resembling the Hegelian dialectic, succeeds at last in reconciling opposites.

  1. Translated by Katharine Royce.