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.
On Facebook, Clayton Littlejohn posts this question:
Imagine there were a philosophy guru. You could ask the guru questions, get the guru’s answer, the answers would always be right, but the answers wouldn’t come with arguments or explanations. … If you wrote those answers down … would you be doing philosophy?
Numerous respondents say NO, on the grounds that philosophy involves giving arguments. It’s the game of giving and asking for reasons. Mere answers aren’t reasons.1
I’ve been mulling over related issues because I taught Emerson last week in my pragmatism seminar. Continue reading “Emerson and the philosophy guru”
Liam recently blogged about epistemic isolation, a propos blatant lies of the nascent Trump administration. Trump continues to insist that the audience at his inauguration was the biggest ever. Liam wonders why one would spend so much time making trivial claims that are easily checked and which are egregiously false.
Liam’s hypothesis, which he elaborates by name dropping Kevin Zollman and Han Fei, is that the strategy epistemically quarantines Trump’s core supporters. Perhaps more accurately, it provides an instrument by which they can quarantine themselves. The crazy lies provide a kind of litmus test by which core supporters can guide their belief formation, to rely on sources offering the alternative facts favored by their sect and avoid sources promulgating actual facts.
Charles Sanders Peirce, in The Fixation of Belief, describes this as part of the method of authority:
“If the power to [kill everyone who disagrees] be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up, to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to segregate them as radically as possible from the influence of the rest of the world.”
Another possibility is that the persistent lying is just a kind of smokescreen, a distraction from other things that the administration is doing. Trump’s many executive orders receive some media attention, but not as much as they would receive if he and his proxies weren’t spending so much time lying about trivial issues.
Yet another possibility is that this is no strategy at all, that Trump is simply so vain that he cannot accept the possibility that his inauguration was not the most well-attended of all time or that a majority of voting Americans voted against him.
I do not have any way of knowing what actually motivates the current regime. As Peirce discusses it, however, the move doesn’t need to be a self-conscious strategy. Groups operating by the method of authority are unconcerned with even the concept of truth. The formation and maintenance of such groups might typically involve epistemic quarantine, because without it such groups wouldn’t form and persist. No explicit planning or strategy is required.