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