Irreconcilable differences

Last time I taught a seminar on pragmatism, I began to doubt that it made sense to see “pragmatism” as a movement and blogged about the fundamental differences between Peirce’s and James’ positions. I’m teaching pragmatism again, and the differences are even more salient this time.

What follows is a somewhat rambling discussion of differences between Peirce and James on method, on truth, and in their general outlook.

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Pragmatism texts

I’m teaching a seminar on pragmatism again this semester, so I’ve updated some of the texts in my pragmatism and American philosophy repository. My habits for using git are terrible, so lots of small changes got swept together in one giant update.

The big addition is LaTeX and PDF files for William Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief.” Although it’s in the public domain, I was unable to find an unabridged version anywhere on the net.1 So I spent some time today making one.2 Starting from OCR on a scan of the 19th-century original, I fixed the formatting, cleaned up the transcription, and whatnot. There may still be some errors, but it’s better than anything else I could find.

The update also adds the third lecture to James’ Pragmatism.

The buzz, the bees, and belief

I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.

Leonard McCoy

I posted yesterday about what I called the Positive Buzz fallacy:

  1. Activity z is the best way to accomplish goal y.
  2. Therefore, activity z is the best way to accomplish goals.

I realized today that it is closely related to a fallacy that people often commit in misunderstanding natural selection: An organism is fittest in a given environment, and the fallacifier infers that it’s simply best.

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Why evidentialism is tantamount to scepticism

Over on Facebook, Carl Sachs offers a send-up of evidentialist reasoning. In the comments, I boil the argument down to this:

  1. Only believe on the basis of univocally sufficient evidence.
  2. Evidence is never univocally sufficient.
  3. Therefore, don’t believe!

It’s valid, but are the premises true?

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A further comment about payoffs in will to believe cases

It occurs to me that there is a mistake in my previous post, but it can be patched up.

To review: Considerations of inductive or ampliative risk can make the difference between it being appropriate to believe something and it being inappropriate. If the stakes are high, then you might demand more evidence than if the stakes are low.

Schematically, what’s relevant are conditional values: the benefit of believing P if it is true, the cost of believing P if it is false, the cost of not believing P if it is true, and the benefit of not believing P if it is false.

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Payoffs in will to believe cases

In thinking about James’ Will to Believe (in a blog post and a draft paper) I distinguish two kinds of cases.

In cases of ampliative risk, the evidence does not overwhelmingly speak for or against. So the determination to believe or not depends in part on the stakes involved. I’ve typically put this in terms of conditional values: the benefit of believing P if it is true, the cost of believing P if it is false, the cost of not believing P if it is true, and the benefit of not believing if it is false. Heather Douglas calls this values playing an indirect role.

Implicit in this is that believing P if it is false is a cost. And so on. Ending up with accurate beliefs is generally good, and ending up with inaccurate beliefs is bad. What’s at issue is not the general valence of certain outcomes but instead their intensity.

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Having been written, more like is to believe

The paper which began as a blog post now exists as a draft.

Risk and Efficacy in ‘The Will to Believe’

Abstract: Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have recently argued strenuously against James’ permissivism about belief. They are wrong, both about cases and about the general issue. In addition to the usual examples, the paper considers the importance of permissiveness in scientific discovery. The discussion highlights two different strands of James’ argument: one driven by doxastic efficacy and another driven by inductive risk. Although either strand is sufficient to show that it is sometimes permissible to believe in the absence of sufficient evidence, the two considerations have different scope and force.

Portrait of William James by John La Farge, circa 1859. via Wikimedia.

What might be said about pragmatism

Today was the last class meeting of my pragmatism seminar. I had the students each make a presentation on their seminar papers in-progress. Some students were further along in their thinking others, but it gave everyone a chance to try out arguments and to exchange ideas.

The course syllabus covered more than 20 authors, but student interest was fairly focused.

  • 2 students are writing on issues of truth and objectivity.
  • 3 students are writing on Jane Addams and ethical method.
  • 2 students are writing on issues of ethical method and objectivity, one with an eye toward Nelson Goodman and the other by way of C.I. Lewis.

All the projects sound interesting, but I wouldn’t have expected this distribution.

Because this was me, the readings were weighted more toward philosophy of science and epistemology than toward ethics and value theory. But nobody is writing about philosophy of science. 😒

Jane Addams was a late addition to the syllabus, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out until the class meeting on her work. She was a hit. 😃

Now it’s just grading and administrative work between me and the end of the semester. 😰