The Metaphysical Club, 6

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 351-58, 369-75, 431-33, & 435-42.

This selection of pages allows us to wrap up the book while skipping most of the section on John Dewey. (This section is interesting, but it takes us well beyond the three main characters from the first two-thirds of the book.)

In section 4 of chapter 13, Menand essentially provides a pragmatic description of pragmatism. He elaborates here on the implicit definition from his preface, explaining that “Pragmatism is an account of the way people think” (351). For pragmatists, the “truth” of a belief depended on its practical relevance in a particular situation: does the belief change how we behave, or does it produce tangible results? If so, it is “true” for pragmatic purposes. The implication — and this might make you uncomfortable — is that truth might be plural. (James, in fact, sometimes thought of the universe as a multiverse.) James’s famous “Will to Believe” essay provides a window into how James applied his pragmatic method to religious belief (we will read this essay soon).

At the very end of chapter 13 (p. 375), Menand perceptively points to three problems with pragmatism. The first question is whether “its theory of truth is logically supportable” — a question that he puts aside, probably because it’s not a pragmatic question. But he asks two other questions that are worth pondering. First, where do we get the “wants” that drive us? — pragmatism seems to fall silent. Menand, however, does provide some answers to this question. He shows that pragmatists saw thinking as “a circular process.” What he means is that we cannot “appeal to some standard outside of the process of coming to the belief itself” in order to justify a belief (p. 353). Our beliefs do not emerge in any straightforward fashion from transcendent principles. So, where do our beliefs come from, then? Menand hints at a Darwinian analogy of “fitness” to try to explain the pragmatist point of view: “When we are happy with a decision, it doesn’t feel arbitrary; it feels like the decision we had to reach. And this is because its inevitability is a function of its ‘fit’ with the whole inchoate set of assumptions of our self-understanding and the social world we inhabit” (p. 353).

Menand leads us to believe that Holmes understood the process of thinking in this way. Holmes wrote that a judge should make a decision on a case and then (after deciding) determine the legal principles that justify the decision. As Menand points out, this strategy “does not mean that legal decision making is arbitrary” (p. 217). As a legal theorist, Holmes gave much more weight to “experience” than to abstract legal principles; and by “experience,” Holmes meant what we would probably call “culture” (p. 342). Holmes denied that there was a fixed set of general principles that could guide our behavior. All that we can do is make the best “bet” that we can about what behavior (or judicial decision) is going to work to achieve our goals (which, again, have no transcendent source).

The second problem with pragmatism is that some people hold very unpragmatic beliefs. (Does this fact mean that pragmatism does not accurately describe how people think?) Consider, for a moment, that Martin Luther King, Jr., “was not a pragmatist” (p. 441). There is an important sense in which pragmatism can support a status quo that many people would find undesirable. Pragmatism could be seen as a denial that such principles as justice could ever be realized or even adequately defined.

Having said that, it seems to me that a pragmatist could consistently defend the principle that all human beings possess certain inalienable rights, and that they are equally entitled to enjoy liberty. Such a statement, it seems to me, lays a necessary foundation for a democratic society, which pragmatists tend to value. In these ways, I don’t think that pragmatists necessarily support the status quo. In fact, by recentering values around human purposes, American pragmatists have often supported reforms of one sort or another.

The end of the book leaves us with more questions, including:

  1. Do you think that pragmatism was a positive development in American thought?
  2. Can you answer this question without resorting to pragmatic criteria?
  3. What impact does pragmatism seem to have had on American culture?

13 thoughts on “The Metaphysical Club, 6”

  1. I feel that pragmatism was overall a positive development in American Culture. Pragmatic thought seems natural in a democratic society which values fairness and equality. Pragmatic thought ultimately accepts numerous compromises between intellectuals. I feel it is pragmatism which allows society to progress. Although pragmatism may occasionally support the “status quo,” it additionally supports new ideas as well. Clearly Holmes, Peirce, James, and Dewey did not always agree with each other, yet they all contributed to the development of pragmatic thought. Thinking pragmatically as Menand argues in his epilogue allowed people to “bring ideas and principles and beliefs down to a human level” thus possibly avoiding the violence which often occurrs out of conflict. The founders of pragmatic thought experienced the result of such conflict between abstract ideas in the Civil War. They realized that violence was a horrible way for society to progress, and tried to stress the importance of independent, logical, and rational thought, all while recognizing an immense human experience full of emotions, flaws, virtues, and uncertainty.

  2. I have to agree to with James’s pragmatism on some topics, and disagree on others. I believe we are being conditioned or imprinted (355) when it comes to religion, or school, and life. As James says “That the organism is neurologically equipped to learn to shoot free throws is proved by the fact that the more we do it , the better we get” (355). But you can not call every thing conditioning. What about the three year old who hears classical music for the first time, walks to the piano and plays the song with out ever having piano lesson. You can teach people how to paint, but you can not make them a master.

  3. Pragmatism is a positive way of thought in American because it provides a way of thought for people but also “was designed to make it harder for people to be driven to violence by their beliefs” (440). Pragmatism really did step away from many old ways of thought to encourage new growth in American. And how can that not be positive.

  4. These Pragmatic ideas came from a lot of interesting characters who seem to have a grasp of life on all forms. Though they started out in a higher intellectual cities and insitutions, as they got older they seemed to become more open to other methods of thought. You could see the turning of the tides between the old generation of Holmes Sr. and Agassiz to James, Holmes Jr. and Peirce.

  5. This was kind of a hard book for me to sort through and understand completly. Having said that I believe that the pragmatic movement was a good one. I think it posed questions and ideas that hadn’t really been looked at before, which forced people to once agian open their minds and think “outside the box” so to speak. It was interesting to see this happen to the main intellects in the book (James, Holmes Jr, and Peirce) like Jordan stated above you could see their thought processes change over time throughout this book.

  6. The one problem I have with Pragmatic thought is that, if knowledge is socially constructed and every social society is different (customs, culture, language..etc), how are we supposed to know what “works” in society and what doesn’t? If one thing works in the United states how do we know that it is right in other areas of the world? Maybe I am misinterpreting it but do we really know what is the right or wrong way to understand or judge something?

  7. I think that pragmatism has had a lasting impact on American society, particulary in acedemic circles, even if it had been lessend since the advent of the Cold War. As Menand points out in the epilogue, pragmatism helped to make tolerence an official virtue in the United States, and it remained so after the Cold War started, even if the reasons for it changed. Additionally, I feel that pragmatism still influences people in this country in that there are many who care more about how someone reaches their decision that what their decision ultimately is.

  8. I think that pragmatism was a postive thought movement in the United States. It allowed the generation of the Civil War to convey the way they thought about the “old way of thinking.” This way of thinking helped capitalism and the growth of the country by giving ideas cash value.
    The only downfall of pragmatism is the blurred lines of morality and justice and truth. It is confusing that what is just for one person, is not just for another in the same situation.

  9. I think the pragmatist movement was a big step towards proving that there is no absolute answer to any question. When people decide what is right and wrong it depends upon their environment, which is ever-changing. Decisions and beliefs are based on situations that “imprint” us. What pragmatism doesn’t really explain is how human wants can change our decision-making process.

  10. I believe that pragmatism has had a positive effect on our society. I feel this way because, in my opinion, we have always been pragmatist. So to label it gives us some identity.

    Unlike what Ben Wolfe has said, I believe that pragmatism has had a positive influence on America because we do realize that what works for us may not work for someone else, and it allows us to find different methods. In my opinion, pragmatism is like a melting pot for ideas.

  11. Although pragmatism offers no concrete answers, I believe that it has a positive impact on society. Pragmatism allows for people to accept many ideas rather than being narrow minded. This ability helps people to be more accepting to changes and differences society.

  12. Pragmatism in and of itself was a huge new movement in thinking, what it was is that it made people look at things like there is no absolute truth. What it means is that if a person had a huge belief in something they could think that it was the truth.

  13. Adam–you’re on the right track about the pragmatists’ denial of absolute truth. At a minimum, they denied that humans could ever possess such a thing. However, they did still have standards about what counted as legitimate belief. But those standards depended on the individual. The key was that the belief had to “work” in some way. It had to yield desirable results. –DV

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