"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

American Pragmatism And The Enlightenment

Michael Roth has written http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinion/america-the-philosophical-by-carlin-romano/2012/07/21/gJQAMANR0W_story.html  a review of America The Philosophical by Carlin Romano, a book which focuses on American pragmatism.

Carlin Romano has a story to tell about philosophy and about America. Romano, a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chronicle of Higher Education, relates how philosophy long ago took the wrong path by seeking ultimate Truth, and how this quest has led academic philosophers to become increasingly detached from the concerns of just about everybody else. While philosophy pursued purity, American culture in the last century became ever messier — more heterogeneous, dynamic and difficult to categorize. Then, as the white, Protestant, elite culture broke down and diverse groups found their ways into universities and media networks, some philosophers and most of the culture abandoned the quest for Truth and focused on expanding the circles of inquiry and discussion.

What interests me most in this pragmatist take on American philosophy is how far we have come from Jefferson and The Age of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment began then, from the belief in a rational, orderly and comprehensible universe—then proceeded, in stages, to form a rational and orderly organization of knowledge and the state… This began from the assertion that law governed both heavenly and human affairs, and that law invested the king with his power, rather than the king's power giving force to law. The conception of law as a relationship between individuals, rather than families, came to the fore, and with it the increasing focus on individual liberty as a fundamental right of man, given by "Nature and Nature's God," which, in the ideal state, would encompass as many people as possible. Thus The Enlightenment extolled the ideals of liberty, property and rationality which are still recognizable as the basis for most political philosophies even in the present era; that is, of a free individual being mostly free within the dominion of the state whose role is to provide stability to those natural laws (University of Alabama, CIS, Birmingham)

Richard Rorty, reviewer Roth’s hero, is the most recent exponent of pragmatism, which is no more than an apologia for post-modernism:

[Postmodernism] affirms that whatever we accept as truth and even the way we envision truth are dependent on the community in which we participate . . . There is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate (Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism)

Richard Rorty insists that there is no "skyhook" which takes us out of our subjective conditions to reveal a reality existing independently of our own minds or of other human minds…There is no "God’s eye standpoint" that reveals reality in itself.  Each person interprets reality in accordance with his own subjective condition… He emphasizes the social influence upon the individual and his beliefs. Truth… is an inter-subjective agreement among the members of a community… The end of inquiry, for Rorty, is not the discovery or even the approximation of absolute truth but the formulation of beliefs that further the solidarity of the community, or "to reduce objectivity to solidarity. (Dean Geuras, SW Texas State University)

In other words, we have gone from a country that believed in the rational discovery of truth and the laws that govern the world and the societies which comprise it to one in which there are no truths but those defined by society.  Society becomes the all-important element in life, the arbiter of all.  No longer any truths that are self-evident, derived from universal laws and ultimately from God, but from a randomly aggregated collection of individuals. Indeed. 

Yorty, however, is the most extreme of the American pragmatists – as post-modernism is the most extreme perspective on modern life.  Others in the movement, such as William James respect much more the practical and understandable and very recognizable elements of American thought.

Pragmatism is an American philosophy from the early 20th century. According to Pragmatism, the truth or meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences rather than anything metaphysical. It can be summarized by the phrase “whatever works, is likely true.” Because reality changes, “whatever works” will also change — thus, truth must also be changeable and no one can claim to possess any final or ultimate truth (About.com)

In his lecture, "What Pragmatism Means," William James explains pragmatism as a method to make sense of everyday experiences, facts, and data. Pragmatism is not an end in itself, but an attitude or way of thinking. There is no end point in pragmatism, since pragmatism is only a method of understanding. Truths are constantly being discarded or modified as they are attempted to be applied to practice. Pragmatism seeks to steer philosophy away from its traditional method of seeking solutions to arguments, to using philosophy as a way to gain a clearer understanding of nature. Since pragmatism is based on practical consequences, all ideas are accepted. Pragmatism utilizes metaphysics, rationalism, empiricism, and religion in order to provide better tools for clearer understanding.(Helium.com)

[James said that] beliefs are considered to be true if and only if they are
useful and can be practically applied. At one point in his works, James
states, “. . . the ultimate test for us of what a truth means is the conduct it
dictates or inspires.” (Reading for Philosophical Inquiry, Introduction)

This is more sensible and very American.  “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it must be a duck”.  No funny business, no metaphysics or getting back to first principles or truth; just good old common sense. 

John Dewey was perhaps the most accessible American philosopher because he applied his theories to the ‘real world’, especially education:

[Dewey claimed that] since problems are constantly changing, the instruments for dealing with them must also change. Truth, evolutionary in nature, partakes of no transcendental or eternal reality and is based on experience that can be tested and shared by all who investigate. Dewey conceived of democracy as a primary ethical value, and he did much to formulate working principles for a democratic and industrial society.

In education his influence has been a leading factor in the abandonment of authoritarian methods and in the growing emphasis upon learning through experimentation and practice. In revolt against abstract learning, Dewey considered education as a tool that would enable the citizen to integrate culture and vocation effectively and usefully. Dewey actively participated in movements to forward social welfare and woman’s suffrage, protect academic freedom, and effect political reform. (Roebuckclasses.com)

Dewey reflected the thoughts of co-pragmatist C.S. Peirce:

Peirce regards pragmaticism (his invented word) as a method of clarifying conceptions. His basic principle is that the meaning of ideas is best discovered by putting them to an experimental test and then observing the consequences. He was especially interested in methodological procedure as evidenced in laboratory sciences. He maintained that the testing of hypotheses by the laboratory experimentation will produced a definite type of experience. Hence the complete definition of any concept is the totality of the experimental occurrences implied in that concept by logical meaning (chrisne.wordpress.com)

The problem with all four – James, Dewey, Peirce, and especially Yorty – is that they miss what Jefferson and his peers understood:  there are such things as universal moral and ethical principles which have served as guides to human behavior for millennia.  While the interpretation of these principles varies by historical era, the principles themselves have not changed.  Jefferson perhaps best expressed his interpretation of these universal principles when he enunciated his thoughts on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  The pursuit of happiness was not some selfish, individualistic enterprise, but a higher goal – one that aimed at the happiness of the larger society of which the individual was a part.  Locke insisted that there was a responsibility of individuals to supersede their venal desires and look to the common weal.   In other words, Locke understood the importance of the individual operating within a moral and ethical framework – one that had not varied since the beginning of history.  In fact, philosophers of the Enlightenment in accordance with their rational study of facts to reveal universal laws looked to history for insights.  They were not very happy at what they saw, of course – depredation, pillage, naked power and expansionism, and the trampling of individual rights at ever turn – and therefore the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights expressed ways to oppose tyranny and despotism

Dewey’s educational approach and Peirce’s scientific inquiry method seem harmless enough.  Who could be opposed to experimentation, trial and error, no a priori judgments, and objectivity?  Yet, both espouse a form of relativism which is troubling.  What schools – and communities at large – need is not more relativism but less.  As in all societies, there need to be certain fundamental anchors or fulcra around which social and individual enterprise is undertaken.  To claim, as many post-modernists do, that there is no such thing as universal truths or one consensual reality, misses the point.  One does not have to believe in God, as the men of the 18th Century did, as the originator of natural and human law, to believe in truths.  Certain principles of moral and ethical behavior – fairness, honor, justice, equality, respect, and many others – do not have to be God-given to be valid.  And valid they have been as regulators/motivators of human enterprise since forever.

It is weird to even put ‘America The Philosophical’ in a sentence.  We are as far from a philosophical people as can be.  Imagine Joe the Plumber sitting down with Pete the Carpenter at a café discussing Kant.  I am not sure the men in working bleus do either, but the program Apostrophes, a shamelessly talking-heads intellectual feast of ideas, was one of the most popular on French television for a long time.  OK, this all was before privatization, but viewers could have turned the set off if they didn’t like what was on.

This doesn’t mean that we Americans do not act according to philosophical principles.  We do, but just don’t know it.  The cultural relativists who promote diversity and the inclusion of all gender-race-ethnicity-religion points of view as equals do not think of themselves as American Pragmatists, just ‘doing the right thing’.  They have been motivated by the still-influential post-modernist academic establishment, but school administrators have themselves bought into the very practical approach to an increasingly heterogeneous society.  Such relativist inclusivity is not the only way, as I have argued, but one way.

Talk about old-fashioned! Wanting to return to the 18th Century tops them all; but I am in good company.  The Romans, like Dewey, reformed education; but unlike him, they understood the basic principles of proper behavior and trained their young leaders-to-be in the theories of Cato the Elder – justice, honor, discipline, fairness, equality were important to the ruled and should be important to the ruling.  Sound familiar?  Western Civilization is one relatively unbroken series of applications of and improvement on the democracy of the Greeks and the administration of the Romans.  Anglo-Saxon law and the English and Scottish Enlightenments were perhaps the apogee of this trajectory.

So, it is fine to be pragmatic; but it is also important to be constantly aware of those principles which guide individual behavior within society. 

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