Nihilism about ‘pragmatism’

In teaching pragmatism this semester, I’m rereading Peirce and James. It occurs to me that James explicitly rejects a central feature of Peirce’s pragmatism in a way that James himself does not recognize.

In a series of essays in Popular Science Monthly, Peirce argues that reality is what all enquirers would agree upon in the limit of indefinite enquiry.1 Sometimes, this is just presented as being a kind of verificationism. However, belief in reality of this kind is importantly not something that Peirce sees as an inescapable a priori truth. Rather, it is an assumption of the method of science. It allows that I might never know what is real, because I have a finite life span and might spend all of it in error. Accepting the assumption requires fitting myself in merely as a possible contributor to eventual discovery.

In the third essay, Peirce argues that relying on probabilities requires a similar concern for indefinite lots beyond my own. When I take my chances, it will either go well or poorly for me. For my own interests, that’s all that matters. The probability just concerns what the frequency will be in the long run. He writes:

[T]hree sentiments, namely, interest in an indefinite community, recognition of the possibility of this interest being made supreme, and hope in the unlimited continuance of intellectual activity, [are] indispensable requirements of logic.

In the first of the Pragmatism lectures, James poses a dilemma between tough-minded scientism and tender-minded religion.2 The problem with both, James suggests, is that we ought and must have our own personal relation to things. Instead of deferring to a general system, “almost everyone has his own peculiar sense of a certain total character of the universe.” He quotes the anarchist Morrison Swift who discusses the particular experience of a poor family and concludes “What these people experience is reality.”

James insists that we each have a right to insist on our own reality grounded in our concrete, personal experience and to claim as a reality “any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.”3 This is the absolute anthesis of Peirce.

Ever since James’ public introduction of the term “pragmatism” 120 years ago, he and Peirce have stood as exemplary pragmatists. James subscribes to the pragmatic maxim, of course, which he quotes and calls “Peirce’s principle.” If we see Peirce’s philosophy as bigger than just a bumper sticker, though, James rejects its core outlook. Perhaps it is misleading, as a matter of philosophical and historical method, to think in terms of any ‘ism’ that they both exemplify.

This leads to the thought behind my provocative title: If the label “pragmatist” obscures more than it clarifies its avatars, Peirce and James, perhaps we should give it up entirely.

I have self identified as a pragmatist for too long to be comfortable with that, but what does that count for?

UPDATE: There’s some interesting discussion of this post over on Facebook.

  1. I’m concerned here with the first three essays in the series: “The Fixation of Belief”, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, and “The Doctrine of Chances”.
  2. In a sense Peirce, is gored on both horns of the dilemma. He writes that the ‘three sentiments’ are logical aspects of the Christian virtues of Charity, Faith, and Hope.
  3. Here quoting “The Will to Believe”.

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