Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/December 1909/What Pragmatism Is, as I Understand it
|WHAT PRAGMATISM IS, AS I UNDERSTAND IT|
ONE who undertakes to tell what pragmatism is has a hard task to perform. Before he gets through with it, he may find himself in a like plight with old Kaspar in' trying to tell his grandchildren of the battle of Blenheim. You will remember that in response to little Peterkin's request, "Now tell us what 'twas all about," and to his question, "And what good came of it at last?" Kaspar could only declare "That 'twas a famous victory."
To begin with, not only has no history of the origin, rise and spread of pragmatism yet been written, but no full, complete, systematic statement of what it really is, what it does and what it may be expected to do is to be found anywhere. A systematic exposition of this "new philosophy" remains an unfulfilled want. We can not be said to have anything like an adequate treatise. Dr. Schiller's "Humanism" and "Studies in Humanism" consist of a number of detached essays, largely controversial in character, written at different times between the years 1892 and 1907, on various occasions and for special purposes. Professor Dewey's "Studies in Logical Theory" also consists of detached essays from himself and seven of his co-workers, and Professor James's "Pragmatism" is made up of eight popular lectures, published in the same form in which they were delivered, without notes and without revision. All of these are most excellent books, well written, entertaining and bearing directly upon the new philosophical movement, only they are not, and do not pretend to be, what most of the critics seem to have rather hastily assumed—full or complete expositions or treatises. Much other literature upon the subject may be found scattered through the various philosophical periodicals. In fact, so voluminous has this literature grown of late years and the movement has evoked so much hostile criticism, that the uninformed reader would be justifiable in thinking "pragmatism a complete system set forth for centuries in hundreds of ponderous volumes."
However, for all practical purposes, it still remains as true as in 1905, when Professor James wrote concerning the movement:
So, a few months later, an able and somewhat sympathetic reviewer complained:
There is undoubtedly some truth in this accusation, but the reason why such a condition exists is not far to seek.
It is well known to all who have ever attempted to make them that definitions and rules in any science or branch of study are always exceedingly difficult to frame. Though studied first by the student, they are necessarily formulated last. Dr. Schiller says:
Only a moment's reflection will convince us that this is true. Definitions must necessarily delimit and restrict, consequently with the growth of knowledge they become insufficient and obsolete. The discovery of one new fact may invalidate and completely overthrow a definition that may have passed current and remained unchallenged for years. In other words, "new facts burst old rules" and definitions, both are man-made products, so it should never be forgotten that definitions and "rules are made for man, not man for rules" and definitions. No science is finished, none can be called exact, all are in the process of formation. To illustrate. Who can define matter, or ether, or electricity? Of how much value now are many of the definitions in physics or chemistry of ten, or even five, years ago? All definitions, then, at least along scientific lines or in any living, growing branch of study, should be regarded as provisional only, true only up to date, and, like railroad schedules, subject to change without notice to the public. They should be treated as useful working tools, but liable any day to be superseded by better instruments. All this applies with especial force to a "new philosophy," still in the embryonic or chrysalis state. Since "the pragmatic movement,—so-called," according to Professor James, "seems to have rather suddenly precipitated itself out of the air," it ought not to be a matter of surprise that there is not entire agreement even among the pragmatists themselves. It would be an easy task to set forth various points of difference, as well as apparent, if not real, contradictions, among those who have grasped their pens, even if they can not be said to have drawn their swords, and hastened to do battle in its defense. In doing this, however, we should only be following in the wake of the hostile critics who have emphasized these points to the exclusion of any real merits which the movement may possess.
We all remember what Emerson said long ago about ideas announcing truth being in the air, seeking to gain entrance to different minds in different parts of the world at the same time, and "the most impressionable brain will announce it first, but all will announce it a few minutes later." But it is not to be expected that all minds will be impressed in the same way or to a like degree, or that all would have equal power of utterance. So we are further told by Professor James:
Before the movement was fairly launched, or an opportunity had been afforded its leaders of getting together and comparing notes as to their common message and unifying it, if possible, the critics had attacked it on all sides and from every quarter. This caused a rush of both friends and foes, professionals and tender feet, to this newly discovered philosophical Klondike, which has been productive of much confusion and misunderstanding. Reconciling these conflicting statements is simply out of the question, and I shall not attempt the impossible.
Disclaiming right at the outset all intention of speaking as one clothed with authority, fully realizing that what I may say is binding upon no one, my mission is simply to set forth what pragmatism is, as I understand it. Even this I venture upon with diffidence. As an excuse for my seeming rashness, if such be needed, I would repeat what the protagonist of pragmatism himself has said:
My purpose, however, is not to add another to the many existing definitions, but rather to weigh and compare some of those already current. In other words, I merely propose to examine the history of the movement with the intention of ascertaining, if possible, what pragmatism is, and I shall throw this layman's contribution into
It is easy enough to tell of the origin of the word and that it is "derived from the same Greek word πράγμα meaning action, from which our words 'practise' and 'practical' come." Now this not only does not tell us much, but has actually proved misleading and is responsible for some of the current misunderstandings. But it is too late now to rectify this most unfortunate selection of a name. It has been married to the movement for so many years that they must be taken together "for better for worse." As Dr. Schiller has well said:
Elsewhere he has said:
In the end we never find out "what a thing really is" by asking "what it was in the beginning.". . . The true nature of a thing is to be found in its validity, which, however, must be connected rather than contrasted with its origin. "What a thing really is" appears from what it does, and so we must study its whole career. We study its past to foretell its future, and to find out what it is really "driving at."
The first person to use the word pragmatism in print was Professor James, in his California address in 1898, wherein he sets forth the principle as follows, with the prefatory statement that
He goes on to say:
All this seems to be perfectly plain and simple, but, in view of the misunderstandings that are still current concerning the principle, due largely to flagrant, if not wilful misrepresentations, and as this is the beginning point of the "new philosophy," I trust that you will pardon still further extracts. The gifted lecturer tells us that "to take in the importance of this principle, one must get accustomed to applying it to concrete cases," and the entire address is devoted to such applications along religious and philosophical lines. He says:
After stating that "it is the English-speaking philosophers who first introduced the custom of interpreting the meaning of conceptions by asking what difference they make for life," he adds:
Finally, he says:
Expressed in these different ways but all meaning the same thing, it would seem that Dr. Schiller was right in saying that the principle
After all that has been written on the subject, a writer has quite recently said:
Even if this contains only a half-truth, it behooves us to try to get our bearings, although philosophical orientation be fraught with all the difficulties that have been claimed. In any event, it is of the utmost importance to get the right point of beginning, so I have thought it advisable to set forth Professor James's exact words when he first announced the principle.
So far as I have been able to discover, the next time he announced it was in his "Varieties of Religious Experience," where he condensed it. I quote only one sentence:
I should like you to note especially the added words, "immediate or remote." I would also call attention to the fact that none but a pragmatist could have written this truly delightful book. The eighteenth chapter, bearing the title "Philosophy," is simply a clearly wrought-out application of the principle in the philosophy of religion.
In Baldwin's "Dictionary of Philosophy," Professor James defines the principle as follows:
In an article entitled "Humanism and Truth," published in Mind for October, 1904, he says:
All that the pragmatic method implies, then, is that truths should have practical consequences. In England the word has been used more broadly to cover the notion that the truth of any statement consists in the consequences, and particularly in their being good consequences. Here we get beyond affairs of method altogether; and since my pragmatism and this wider pragmatism are so different, and both are important enough to have different names, I think that Mr. Schiller's proposal to call the wider pragmatism by the name of "Humanism" is excellent and ought to be adopted. The narrower pragmatism may still be spoken of as the "pragmatic method."
Before proceeding further or attempting to set forth what the movement has seemed to mean to others who have written upon the subject, whether favorably or otherwise, it may be advisable for us to pause and ask ourselves if we are certain that we understand what its brilliant protagonist means. Is the language in which he has couched it so vague, obscure, ambiguous, uncertain or contradictory as to warrant the different constructions that have been placed thereon? I ask this question advisedly, since Professor James himself, in his Pragmatism, has said:
It would seem that it ought to be well worth our while to try to get at the reason for this.
It may be that in so doing we can derive some assistance from the rules applied by the courts in the interpretation and construction of constitutions, statutes, contracts, deeds, wills and other written instruments. Some of these rules are so well settled that they are regarded as almost axiomatic and pass unquestioned. They are even applied to the construction of charges and instructions given by trial judges to juries to aid them in reaching correct verdicts in the trial of contested cases, whether human life, liberty or property is involved. If it be practicable and safe to apply them in the settlement of such vital questions, surely they may be used profitably and safely, even pragmatically, if you will, in abstract discussions along philosophical or religious lines. Of course, there are some points of difference in the application of these rules by the courts to the different kinds or classes of instruments, but such points are of minor importance and may be treated as negligible for our present purposes. In setting forth some of these cardinal rules, I shall divest them of all legal technicalities, as far as may be, and clothe them in plain, simple language.
1. When the language of a writing is plain and unequivocal, there is neither occasion nor opportunity for interpretation. When the words used admit of but one meaning, to put another upon them is not to construe or interpret a writing, but to alter it.
2. Words are presumed to be used in their plain, ordinary sense; technical terms are to be understood in their technical sense; all words are to be understood according to their meaning at the time and place of writing them.
3. The grammatical and ordinary sense of words is to be adhered to, unless that would lead to some absurdity, or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument, in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words must be modified, so as to avoid that absurdity or inconsistency, but no further.
4. In construing any part of a writing, regard should be had to the entire instrument. Other portions may throw much light upon the one under special investigation or consideration, and greatly modify the meaning which it would bear as an independent clause. Every part of a writing should be brought into action in order to collect from the whole one uniform and consistent purpose, if that is possible. Accordingly, if one construction will give reasonable effect to every part of an instrument, while another would require the rejection of a part, the former will be preferred.
These rules will probably prove sufficient for our present purposes. In order, however, to make it plain to you, perhaps, it may be well for me to give a concrete instance of their application by the courts. I shall select the giving of charges or instructions to juries. In passing upon a single instruction or charge it should be considered in connection with all the other instructions and charges bearing on the same subject, and if, when thus considered, the law appears to have been fairly and impartially presented to the jury, an assignment of error predicated upon the giving of such instruction or charge must fail, unless, under all the peculiar circumstances of the case, the appellate court is of the opinion that such instruction or charge was calculated to confuse, mislead or prejudice the jury. In determining the correctness of charges and instructions, they should be considered as a whole, and, if as a whole they are free from error, an assignment predicated on isolated paragraphs or portions, which, standing alone, might be misleading, must fail. Again, where an instruction, as far as it goes, states a correct proposition of law, but is defective because it fails to qualify or explain the proposition it lays down in consonance with the facts of the case, such defect is cured if subsequent instructions are given containing the required qualifications or exceptions. It is not required that a single instruction should contain all the law relating to the particular subject treated therein.
I believe that these are all the legal propositions to which I wish to call your attention. I might add that the object of judicial interpretation of instruments is not to discover the intention of the maker or writer by the use of any and every legitimate means, but rather to take the instrument itself and determine such intention from the words used therein.
It would really seem that the rules of grammar and the laws of language would be all that we should need in order to determine what Professor James meant in the quoted passages, but even if we should apply these legal rules in all their strictness I do not believe that we should be left in any state of doubt or uncertainty. But we are not called upon to so narrow and restrict our investigation. It is well known that every writer of marked individuality or originality acquires a style peculiarly his own and easily recognizable. Their writings come to have a certain hall-mark, so to speak, which there is no mistaking. It is further true that a writer, especially along philosophical or theological lines, either forms a school or system of his own, which he is likely to do if he is a genius, or else joins or connects himself with one of the already existing schools. In either case he becomes identified with certain doctrines. He presents those aspects of the truth, as he has conceived it to be, which have most strongly appealed to him and which he considers of supreme importance. Upon these he will dwell and lay special emphasis, reiterating them, presenting them from different points of view, until his readers grow to expect his utterances to be along those chosen lines and in his own individual way. In this way schools and systems are founded and followers and adherents gained. Such a writer is entitled in all fairness to have whatever he writes taken and judged in connection with his other utterance along similar lines; otherwise, in order to avoid misunderstandings, he would be forced to continually repeat himself, which would be intolerable.
Professor James has written much along both psychological and philosophical lines, and the particular doctrines which he holds are well known. His style has long been noted for its lucidity and has become both the marvel and despair of other writers. Hitherto be seems to have experienced no difficulty in making himself understood. Is it conceivable, then, that, all at once, when he began expounding the principle of pragmatism, he should have lapsed or fallen into vague and obscure expressions? In all candor, I ask you to turn back to the quoted passages, and taking them just as they are, torn from their contexts and settings, apply to them any or all of the rules and tests that I have mentioned, and then ask yourself whether or not you have any difficulty in grasping their meaning. If not, why have the critics found it so hard to understand them?
And yet, the most diverse and contradictory constructions have been placed thereon as well as upon his "Pragmatism," which entire book is devoted to elucidating what the principle is and wherein it may be applied. In fact, to such an extent has this prevailed that he felt impelled to write "a final brief reply" to his critics, which he entitled "The Pragmatist Account of Truth and Its Misunderstanders" and published in The Philosophical Review for January, 1908. It should further be borne in mind that the critics also had access to all of his other writings and were presumably familiar with them. Again I ask the pertinent question, how such a condition of affairs could exist? Making all due allowances for the imperfections and uncertainties of language and the limitations of human thought and understanding will not serve to explain it. It could not really have been asked or expected that the entire essence of the principle should have been compressed into one concise definition or even into one formal or rigid statement. As its protagonist himself has said in an article entitled "Humanism and Truth Once More," published in Mind for April, 1905:
In the same article he says:
It would seem that this was expecting entirely too much. He had also said in The Journal of Philosophy for March 2, 1905:
I am inclined to think that its very simplicity has been the chief barrier in the way of its acceptance. "Unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness." Has it not ever been so in both the philosophical and religious worlds? Would it not find more ready acceptance if it required "some great things "? Perhaps, one barrier in the way of those who have "seriously tried to comprehend what the pragmatic movement may intelligibly mean" is mental myopia, which prevents them from assuming the proper attitude in order to gain the right point of view. They are too wedded to their idols of dogma and authority to experience that change of heart which would enable them to break the shackles which bind them to "absolutists hopes" and acquire the freedom which would permit them to enter into such "conditions of belief." Dr. Schiller has said:
Whether this be true or not, many have failed to understand it simply for the reason that they have not really tried to do so. They "have boggled at every word they could boggle at, and refused to take the spirit rather than the letter "of what was said. In violation of every rule of interpretation, common-sense or legal, they have ignored the context and pounced upon single words and isolated sentences. Truly, in philosophy as elsewhere, "none are so blind as those who will not see." We are all familiar with "the proof-text method" of argument, much in vogue among theological disputants some years ago, but now happily fallen into a state of "innocuous desuetude." Surely it is not being revived in philosophy. The reasons for the attitude of this class of critics are plain. If the pragmatic method should prove to be true or valid, it would necessarily require "much restatement of traditional notions." If it should prevail, the existing systems of philosophy would be unsettled, if not overthrown, and many of the past, not to mention current, philosophical treatises would thereby become obsolete and subject to relegation to "that 'Museum of Curios' which Professor James has so delightfully instituted for the clumsy devices of an antiquated philosophy." Did not Demetrius, a silversmith, and his followers raise a great uproar at Ephesus against St. Paul for like reasons?
Our Harvard pragmatist has further said:
Yet once more:
All this affords some explanation of the flutter and consternation which pragmatism has caused in the philosophic dove-cotes and why it has even been productive of ruffled feelings and bad temper. Doubtless some felt deeply incensed that "proud Philosophy," that celestial goddess, long acclaimed "Scientia Scientiarum," should be dragged down from her emyprean heights into this work-a-day world, reduced to the menial position, so to speak, of a hewer of wood and drawer of water. Surely this was desecration, if not rank sacrilege. Perhaps, a still further explanation may be found in the fact that pragmatism undertook to act as a mediator and reconciler between the contending systems and, in consequence thereof, has suffered the proverbial fate of the peacemaker.
Whether or not I have been successful in pointing out the true causes which have induced the fierce onslaughts which have been made against the movement, it must be admitted that they have signally failed to check it, and that it is growing, in spite of all the hostile criticisms and gross misrepresentations. It would seem that it has come into the world to stay. It might well be that its critics would have fared better from the beginning if they had remembered that "good humor is a philosophic state of mind," even if it be not true "that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile." It undoubtedly would have been more in unison with the true philosophic spirit, and, perhaps, attended with better results, if they had set to work in good earnest to refute the arguments advanced by Professor James and the other leaders, instead of contenting themselves with giving pragmatism a bad name and bestowing upon it abuse and opprobrious epithets. If they were simply following the old maxim, "give a dog a bad name and it will hang him," they were on a false trail.
As I have said, entire harmony has not existed in pragmatist ranks, of which fact the critics have made the most. Even so, such differences furnish no justification for the failure of the professional philosophers to understand the lucid statements of Professor James, or of the other two leaders, Dr. Schiller and Professor Dewey, as some of them seem to have done. The points of divergence among them are easily discernible by those who really try to see and understand the movement.
However, pragmatism, being what its protagonist says it is, ought not to be expected to mean the same thing or to make a like appeal to different minds. Evidently, it was with deep design that Professor James began the first lecture in his "Pragmatism" with that paradoxical quotation from Mr. Chesterton's "Heretics," as to the most important thing about a man being his philosophy. It contains a greater modicum of truth than most paradoxes, for as a man's philosophy is, so will be "his view of the universe," and, as that view is, so will be his life. From this paradox our pragmatist proceeds to develop the thesis that "the history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments," and to show us how temperament "loads the evidence" not only for philosophers, but for all of us. In this he follows Fichte, who has said somewhere, "what system of philosophy you hold depends wholly upon what manner of man you are." So Dr. Schiller has said, "the fit of a man's philosophy is (and ought to be) as individual as the fit of his clothes." All this must naturally follow if we agree with Mr. E. B. Marett, who has said:
Our "great student of the human soul" has said, this particular difference in temperament "has counted in literature, art, government and manners as well as in philosophy." He should have added religion, for in no other department of life has temperament played a most important rôle, as he himself has superbly exemplified in his "Varieties." This furnishes the key to the explanation of why "God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born," to use Francis W. Newman's significant phrase. There is no escaping it. By shaping our faith for us it largely "divides us into possibility men and anti-possibility men" and explains why "each of us dichotomizes the Kosmos in a different place," thereby each making for himself the world in which he lives. We have certain rules by which we can calculate with approximate correctness the variation of the magnetic needle from the true North and South line, but, most unfortunately, we have no rule for computing temperamental variation.
Pragmatism, therefore, being primarily a method of thought, "an attitude of orientation," neither designates nor leads to any "specific philosophic creed"; and is not a system or a metaphysic. Dr. Schiller has cogently said that it is "an epistemological method which really describes the facts of actual knowing." That it should somewhat definitely point to a metaphysic and also prove to be "a genetic theory of what is meant by truth" should prove no surprise to us, but, as important as all this is, it must be considered as secondary. One of its chief beauties and attractions is that it leaves each one of us perfectly free to develop his own particular "ideals and over-beliefs, the most interesting and valuable things about a man." Thus it has led Professor James to "radical empiricism," Mr. Peirce to "pragmaticism," Professor Dewey to "instrumentalism" or "immediate empiricism," Dr. Schiller to "humanism," and others to "the thirteen pragmatisms," of which we have been hearing so much of late. All this is as it should be and is greatly to its credit. But these different terms should not be confounded with each other, used interchangeably as though they were synonymous, or identified with pragmatism, as has been done by some friends and many foes of the movement. At all hazards, the pragmatic method must not be permitted to become identified with any one of them. That would be only the first step towards its crystallization into a creed or petrifaction into a dogma. That would be but to follow blindly in the footsteps of those teachers who have be treated the Christian religion, thereby creating schisms, sectarianism, and that intolerant party spirit "which blights and cankers the truth itself." Whatever Christianity may be now, primarily it was a method of living, a principle of life—not a creed or dogma.
For us, in this day and time, to repeat this blunder would simply be indefensible and unpardonable. However desirable unity may be, it should never be purchased at the expense of truth and freedom. Dr. Schiller says:
Consequently, the pragmatic method will not prevent the formation of different systems of philosophy, which may be expected to "abound as before, and be as various as ever." They will still "have their day and cease to be," in the future as in the past, being necessarily only "broken lights," but pragmatism will not fall with them, for the reason that it will be "more than they" and, therefore, not identified with any of them.
That pragmatism should have encountered bitter opposition was what might have been expected. Has it not been so with every great movement in human thought from the time of Protagoras, with his famous dictum, "man is the measure of all things," down to the present time? It seems inevitable that all must run the gauntlet of criticism. Perhaps, this helps to determine "the survival of the fittest." Professor James E. Angell has recently said:
This would seem to be true, since even Mr. Bradley has said of Professor James's last book:
However, the distinguished author of "Appearance and Reality" may have made this statement in a Pickwickian sense. If it be true, as has been somewhat sneeringly said, that pragmatism has made comparatively few converts among the professional philosophers, but has made its strongest appeal to the men in the street, it may be fittingly replied that this has been likewise true of the greatest movements in the world's history. That the common people have heard its teachers gladly may prove to be, not its reproach, but its honor and its glory. Again and again it has happened that "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called," but rather those who have become as little children, single-minded and simple-hearted.
We are still passing through one of those great transitional eras of human thought which recur at somewhat irregular intervals. It may be said to have begun some fifty years ago with the launching of the evolutionary hypothesis, but when or what the end may be no one can say. Whatever the result may be, whether for good or ill, things will never be just the same again.
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.
There is a spirit of unrest in the air which has invaded and seriously affected, not only philosophy and science, but religion and government. In fact, it would seem that all things are being called in question, and that "there is a general reaction against uncritical acceptance of the authority of tradition along all lines of thought." What may ultimately survive or what may perish we cannot tell. Some of us believe that the pragmatic movement is one of the contributing causes, perhaps the most important, toward bringing about this condition of affairs. We think that it has already accomplished a most salutary work in philosophy and religion, which is far from being finished, and we look for it to make its presence strongly felt along educational and governmental lines. We believe that it is destined to invade our law-making bodies and courts of justice, where it must be admitted that it is sorely needed. In fine, we believe that the days of blind authority and antiquated precedents are numbered, and that the principle of pragmatism will perform a like mission in the world to that of the woman's leaven in the three measures of meal. It has been ironically spoken of as "a new gospel in philosophy." To some of us it has proved to be a veritable gospel indeed—a gospel of freedom, an evangel of hope.