When is a pragmatic philosopher not a pragmatist?

More dispatches from my pragmatism seminar.

C.I. Lewis offers a pragmatic conception of the a priori which treats the conceptual scheme by which one interprets experience as one among many possible schemes, selected for its practicality and usefulness.

Nelson Goodman invokes James and Peirce. He replaces natural kinds with relevant kinds which are “habitual or traditional or devised for a new purpose.” The worlds we live in are world versions which “alter with circumstances and objectives.”1

I noted in my earlier posts that Peirce, James, and Dewey share what Isaac Levi calls belief/doubt model of enquiry: Enquiry begins with the disturbance of doubt. Functionally, it is aimed at settling the doubt and replacing it with belief.

The focus is on what Jane Addams calls preplexities— situations in which habit and experience come into tension. The model is also explicit in Mead, Quine, Morton White, and others.2 So it has as strong a claim to be a defining commitment of pragmatism as anything does.

Yet it seems absent from Lewis and Goodman. For them, although conceptual schemes or world versions are selected for practical reasons, there is no special emphasis on the practical tension which leads to the revision of them. So, although they have pragmatic philosophies, it would not be too pedantic to deny that they are pragmatists.

It’s not even clear that Goodman would disagree. He writes in the foreward to Ways of Worldmaking:

I think of this book as belonging in that main stream of modern philosophy that began when Kant exchanged the structure of the world for the structure of the mind, continued when C.I. Lewis exchanged the structure of the mind for the structure of concepts, and that now proceeds to exchange the structure of concepts for the structure of several symbol systems…

pointillist face of Nelson Goodman

At this point, I raise my eyebrow and remind the reader that I’m still dubious about the utility of thinking of pragmatism as one unified thing.

  1. Ways of Worldmaking, 1978; pages 10 and 13 respectively.
  2. For Quine, tension in the web of belief only arise from irritations at your sensory periphery. This reflects Quine’s narrow conception of experience.

2 thoughts on “When is a pragmatic philosopher not a pragmatist?”

  1. I wonder how much of the difference has to do with the development of philosophy of science as an established subdiscipline. For Peirce and James (maybe a bit less for Dewey?) the study of inquiry was the study of something that we all do, and that scientists aspire to do more intensively and rigorously. So examples could sit anywhere on a continuum. By the time of Lewis and Goodman, it was more natural to see scientists (broadly conceived) as being the main practicitioners of the kinds of inquiry worth studying. So there are still experienced goads to doubt (viz Kuhn), but they’re a bit farther removed from the immediate practicality of action.

    (If I’m right, I think the consequence would be that this should be seen as a difference more of focus and scope than of foundational assumptions.)

  2. Thanks for commenting!

    Your suggestion won’t work for Goodman, because he intends his account to apply well beyond science. He insists that there are world-versions associated with painting and works of art just as much as there are with scientific theories.

    Nevertheless, when discussing Goodman in class last night, I realized that he has the kind of anti-foundationalism which characterizes the belief-doubt model. Creating a new world-version always means starting from habit and tradition, modifying it in some incremental way. What he lacks is any account of the impetus to do so.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.