Pragmatism: What’s the Use?   /   Fall 2001   /    Articles

Life without Spirituality, Philosophy without Transcendence

John J. Stuhr

Night sky in Brazil (Ruy Carvalho, 2014). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the Absolute and the Arbitrary


The question posed to the contributors to this issue of The Hedgehog Review was: What are the resources and limitations of pragmatism for freeing inquiry and argument from the swing between the absolute and the arbitrary, between dogmatism and skepticism?

Suspense may be a fine thing in mystery novels and horror films, but I see no reason for it here, so let me respond directly. The resources of pragmatism for freeing inquiry and argument from the swing—the tired and empty swing—between the absolute and the arbitrary are immense. Indeed, I think pragmatism—here I have in mind the works of Charles S. Peirce and especially William James and John Dewey—long ago accomplished this freeing. As a result, there has been little, if any, concern with absolutes or arbitrariness in the writings of the best pragmatists after Dewey—here I have in mind the works of persons such as John E. Smith, John McDermott, John Lachs, Sandra Rosenthal, Bruce Wilshire, and many others uninvolved in the analytical rediscovery of pragmatism.11xIf one is inclined to look for a “head pragmatist,” particularly a pragmatist who has gone beyond conversation and reconstructed the notion of truth, one should look to this group and similar writers rather than, with Linda Alcoff, to analytically oriented philosophers such as Richard Rorty or Hilary Putnam. To consider pragmatism exclusively or primarily in terms of Rorty and Putnam is something like considering Peirce and Dewey “head” analytical philosophers. See Linda Alcoff’s “Reclaiming Truth Talk: Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary” in this issue of The Hedgehog Review. Hans Joas substitutes Habermas for Rorty, but the overall result is the same. Again, it would be something like viewing G.H. Mead as a leading critical theorist. See Hans Joas’ “Values versus Norms: A Pragmatist Account of Moral Objectivity” in this issue of The Hedgehog Review.

However, to the extent that pragmatists, in an insufficiently pluralistic and genealogical manner, have viewed this change as a liberation of inquiry—as a freeing of inquiry rather than a reconstruction of it—their pragmatism has been incomplete and too limited.22xSee my Genealogical Pragmatism: Philosophy, Experience, and Community (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), especially chapters 5 and 15. The cure for this limitation is, I believe, more—not less—pragmatism. Accordingly, in this essay, I set forth a more thoroughgoing, more pluralistic, more genealogical pragmatism.

Now, there is something very odd about proposing to advance pragmatism through a consideration of epistemological questions about the absolute and the arbitrary. In fact, I think it is not just odd but downright impossible. Peirce decisively demolished on their own terms both philosophical absolutism and philosophical skepticism in “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” his overturning of modern philosophy.33xCharles S. Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 1, ed. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992) 28–55. Santayana did this in a different but equally effective way in Scepticism and Animal Faith.44xGeorge Santayana, Scepticism and Animal Faith (New York: Scribner's, 1929). Moreover, in his system of philosophy, Peirce classified logic as a subset of ethics, thus directing us to view epistemological questions as questions of value and making ethics “first philosophy.” In a similar move, James argued in Pragmatism that the true is merely a subset of the good, that it is the good in belief.55xWilliam James, Pragmatism (New York: Longmans, Green, 1907). Dewey set forth a parallel view in The Quest for Certainty, his study of pre-pragmatic Western philosophy, and throughout his life he called on philosophers simply to shut down the wheezing “epistemology industry.”66xJohn Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (New York: Minton, Balch, 1929).

I make these references—and let me add that I would be happy to multiply them many times over for anyone who objects to the application of Ockham’s razor to scholarly citations—to make it very clear that pragmatists have little interest in “the absolute and the arbitrary” as a philosophical problem to be solved (rather than abandoned). To the extent that pragmatists do pay attention to this issue, it is as a cultural symptom to be diagnosed (rather than assumed). This pragmatic temperament and orientation was expressed well by Dewey:

This essay may, then, be looked upon as an attempt to forward the emancipation of philosophy from too intimate and exclusive attachment to traditional problems. It is not in intent a criticism of various solutions that have been offered, but raises a question as to the genuineness, under the present conditions of science and social life, of the problems.77xJohn Dewey, John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924, vol. 10, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (1917; Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980) 4.

And again:

Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, predispositions, deeply engrained attitudes of aversion and preference. Moreover, the conviction persists—though history shows it to be a hallucination—that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present.

But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume—an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them.88xJohn Dewey, John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924, vol. 4, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (1909; Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977) 14. In this context, it should be clear that, unlike Merold Westphal—with whom I am in much agreement—I do not think it is helpful to characterize pragmatism as either antirealism or as weak skepticism. Instead, on a reading of Dewey less taken with and misled by Rorty, pragmatism is neither realism nor anti-realism and neither skepticism nor anti-skepticism. See Merold Westphal’s essay “Coping and Conversing: The Limits and Promise of Pragmatism” in this issue of The Hedgehog Review. Similarly, unlike Catherine Elgin, I do not think it is helpful or accurate to characterize postmodernism as holding that justification is just pretense if there is no God’seye view. Both pragmatism and postmodernism, I think, assert her own conclusion that justification is always precarious and provisional, always subject to revision, without last word, always already. See Catherine Elgin’s “What’s the Use?” in this issue of The Hedgehog Review.

I approach the topic of this issue in this manner—pragmatically—and urge you to let go of some of your old ideas and habits. This means that I reconstruct the topic as pragmatists do—by abandoning certain questions and both of the alternatives (the absolute and the arbitrary) they assume. And, it means that I focus on practical consequences and pragmatism in life. To advocate pragmatism in any other way is silly—on pragmatism’s own terms, to establish pragmatism in theory alone is to establish nothing.

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