Obliterative and therapeutic pragmatisms

I’ve been blogging recently about whether “pragmatism” is a sufficiently precise term to be one which we ought to use, apart from its being historically entrenched. In the course of reading Dewey again, I’m thinking about another aspect of the pragmatist tradition.

James says that pragmatism is, in one sense, a method. It’s typically expressed by the pragmatic maxim that discovering the meaning of a concept is best done by tracing out its practical consequences.

This method alone can still lead to abstruse metaphysics. William Caldwell argues that Jamesian pragmatism must be understood as a wild kind of idealism according to which reality itself is made by enquiry.1 He argues that James’ pragmatism is best understood “not [just] as a method of philosophy but as a would-be theory of reality” according to which “the world of reality consists of nothing but happenings and sequences and the manifestations of the struggle for life and the motived or purposeful actions that constitute the moral order.”

The extra step from method to metaphysics follows for Caldwell because of his conception of philosophy as requiring fundamental metaphysics. He writes, “the business of philosophy is to study reality and reduce it to it’s fundamental terms.”2

A proper pragmatism, it seems to me, must eschew this conception of philosophy. Dewey writes that philosophy is the business of uncovering, exploring, and revising the context of thought.3 He writes:

Philosophy is criticism: criticism of the influential beliefs that underlie culture; a criticism which traces the beliefs to their generating conditions as far as may be, which tracks them to their results, which considers the mutual compatibility of the elements of the total structure of beliefs. Such an examination terminates, whether so intended or not, in a projection of them into a new perspective which leads to new surveys of possibilities.

The opposition between philosophy as fundamental inquiry and philosophy as criticism can be elaborated in a few different ways.

Obliterative pragmatism

One option is to employ the pragmatic theory of meaning and argue that Caldwell’s study of fundamental reality is actually just meaningless. Here’s Dewey again:

Within the limits of context found in any valid inquiry, “reality” thus means the confirmed outcome… of the inquiry that is undertaken. … When “reality” is sought for at large, it is without intellectual import; at most the term carries the connotation of an agreeable emotional state.

So the word “unconditioned” (we might add ‘fundamental’) is “sacred on the lips of philosophers” but has no cognitive meaning.

Call this strategy obliterative pragmatism, because it utterly destroys even the possibility of the alternative. It’s a philosophical stratagem that goes back at least to Hume, who argued not just that cause was constant conjunction but that it was impossible for ’cause’ to mean anything more than that. People bleating about ‘power’ might be pleased by the noise they were making, but they couldn’t even form thoughts that disagreed with Hume’s account. When teaching, I call this the Humean judo move because it redirects the force of disagreement so as to render it meaningless.

Therapeutic pragmatism

An alternative is to allow that metaphysical bloviation can have cognitive content but that it’s inevitably unproductive. Caldwell’s conception of philosophy corresponds to a project that one can meaningfully take up, but doing so will only lead to disappointment and frustration. This is the approach Dewey takes when arguing that the traditional demand for certainty has created a kind of crisis, a schism between successful inquiry (science) and the search for meaning (ethics, religion). Dewey suggests that philosophers should stop demanding certainty and instead see inquiry into values as operating in an immanent, fallible way.4 Doing so would result in much less heartache, he suggests, and would help make the world a better place.

Call this therapeutic pragmatism, because it offers pragmatism as a tonic for sufferings. The alternative is acknowledged as meaningful, but diagnosed as painful and unproductive. Pragmatism becomes a prescription for escaping old problems, rather than the only genuinely meaningful possibility and thereby the default victor.

Although I don’t see this anywhere in Dewey, there’s also this possibility: Remaining neutral on the question of whether certainty-chasing, fundamental inquiry is doomed to failure, one might insist just that non-fundamental, pragmatic inquiry still counts as philosophy. One then goes on to do the pragmatic inquiry, producing whatever results one can produce, rather than kvetching about the non-pragmatic work that other people keep trying to do. This live-and-let-live pragmatism is partly a philosophical position but mostly a rhetorical strategem.5 It’s therapeutic pragmatism that keeps to itself, just insisting on the space to do its work.

John Dewey, US 30c stamp

  1. “Pragmatism”, Mind, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 36 (Oct., 1900), pp. 433-456.
  2. Caldwell loves Shopenhauer’s philosophy, so he thinks that pragmatism is only defensible if it’s recapitulating Shopenhauer.
  3. “Context and Thought”, 1931. It’s most readily found in The Essential Dewey v 1.
  4. See “Philosophy’s Search for the Immutable”, ch2 in Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty. Although Dewey doesn’t say so explicitly, philosophy as criticism is the pragmatist alternative to philosophy as the pursuit of certainty.
  5. Less congenially, it might be called don’t-let-the-bastards-get-you-down pragmatism.

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