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

Two Cheers for Pragmatism

How shall we proceed now that we have let go of the quest for method?

Richard V. Horner

Group of women toasting in Oxford Ohio. Image courtesy of Miami University Library.

Those of us who do not think of ourselves as pragmatists would do well, nonetheless, to accept the pragmatists’ invitation to exit “the increasingly tiresome pendulum swing”11xRichard Rorty, Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 4. between dogmatism and scepticism by pragmatic means. We may give the pragmatists only one or two cheers out of three, and a lot of us will hurry on to list our caveats and provisos, but when the pragmatists offer us a “third way of understanding critique that avoids…‘groundless critique’ and…rationally grounded critique that ‘rests’ upon illusory foundations,” they are on to something.22xWriting at the beginning of the 1990s, Richard Bernstein framed these extremes in terms of the modern and postmodern—a way of speaking that not many would choose presently. In doing so he suggests that all the fuss over the terms may be little more than a way of talking about the grand swing from dogmatism to skepticism, from the lofty aspirations of modernity to the empty postmodern space into which those aspirations seemed to dissolve. Begin with the questions and problems that arise in the course of experience, the pragmatists tell us. Try on alternative hypotheses for how best to solve these problems and answer these questions, and then test these alternative hypotheses against each other by tracing their consequences back into experience. As simple as this modest way forward sounds, when it comes to framing worthwhile inquiry and argument, this modest pragmatic means can go a long way toward delivering us from the frustrations that follow either from our failure to attain the unattainable standards of certainty and necessity or from attempting to live in the absence to which that failure seems to lead.


A Pragmatic Means of Inquiry and Argument


The first cheer for pragmatism, then, is for its simple method of framing inquiry and argument. Following William James one can think of this modest means of proceeding as the practice of trying on beliefs in order to see which of them carries us about in experience most satisfactorily. Try on ideas and beliefs, James writes, in order to see which of them “help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.” We should make the most, he continues, of “any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily.”33xWilliam James, Pragmatism in Writings, 1902–1910 (New York: The Library of America, 1987), 512. We choose between these hypotheses on the basis of what James calls the “principle of practical results,”44xJames, 531. which “is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.”55xJames, 506. This is pragmatism’s “usual question. ‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, ‘what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life?’… What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms.”66xJames, 573.

Though Richard Rorty takes this modest method several steps further in the direction of modesty, he too recognizes that a simple, pragmatic strategy, or means of proceeding, is what remains once the swing between dogmatism and skepticism has been set aside and the quest for method dissolved. Though Rorty talks about “pragmatism without method,” he does so in order to make the same points James made nearly a century ago when he wrote about pragmatism as method. Rorty prefers the term “muddling” over “method,” but the practices are largely the same as those that James describes. One begins with bits of experience, texts, or lumps in Rorty’s parlance, and one tries on alternative hypotheses for how best to understand and work with these lumps and texts. Where big questions are in view one faces the “slow and painful choice between alternative self-images.”77xRichard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972–1980 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), xliv. Where specific problems are in view, one encounters “Deweyan requests for concrete alternatives and programs.”88xRorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 87. In every case one’s reasons for choosing one hypothesis over another lie in the consequences that follow from holding to that hypothesis. As Rorty notes, “We pragmatists say that every difference must make a difference to practice.”99xRorty, “Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions?,” Academe: Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors 80.6 (1994): 58. It is on the basis of these differences, Rorty argues, that we opt for one alternative over another. In other words, we opt for one understanding of how to link certain bits of experience together over another understanding because it is “a more useful belief to have than its contradictory.”1010xRorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, xxiii. Whether one sets aside the swing between dogmatism and scepticism by way of James’ method or Rorty’s muddling, then, one still has a means of proceeding. It consists in trying on alternative hypotheses for how to link certain bits of experience together and comparing those hypotheses against each other by tracing their consequences in experience.

While this simple means of proceeding emphasizes consequences, it also values coherence, consistency, and completeness. For various reasons, some deserved and some not, James and his pragmatist heirs have often been thought of as disdaining such values. They have been written off as irrational or even anti-rational, as if notions of coherence, consistency, and completeness had no value to them. Those who hold to this caricature of pragmatism would do well to remember that the following statements all come from the pen of William James. The truth of any of our beliefs, he writes, “will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged.”1111xWilliam James, Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 41. Pragmatism’s “only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted.”1212xJames, Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, 44. Therefore, “what is better for us to believe is true unless the belief incidentally clashes with some other vital benefit…. In other words, the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.”1313xJames, Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, 43. Any particular belief, then, “has to run the gauntlet of all our other truths. It is on trial by them and they on trial by it, [and] our final opinion about [it] can be settled only after all the truths have straightened themselves out together.”1414xJames, Pragmatism, 521. There is no contradiction, then, between proceeding by pragmatic means and wanting to make the most of our ability to be reasonable. “We find consistency satisfactory,”1515xJames, The Meaning of Truth in Writings, 1902–1910 (New York: Library of America, 1987), 923. wrote James, and from a pragmatic standpoint, one can say the same of coherence and completeness too.

We would do well, then, to think of pragmatism primarily as an answer to the question: How shall we proceed now that we have let go of the quest for method? By thinking of pragmatism in this way, we acknowledge, with Rorty, that pragmatism places itself beyond the modern quest to identify the one method that will give us the certainty that no other method can give, while we also acknowledge, with James, that pragmatism is concerned with the question of how we carry out activities such as pursuing lines of inquiry, having worthwhile arguments, and arriving at settled beliefs.1616xSee Richard Rorty, “Pragmatism Without Method,” Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 63–77; and William James, Pragmatism, 505–22. Pragmatism’s understanding of the processes of inquiry and argument reassures us that our inquiries and arguments have substantive consequences in experience, but it does so without burdening us with lofty aspirations we cannot fulfill or abandoning us to the excesses or despair that so easily follow from our inability to achieve those higher aspirations. It takes Catherine Elgin’s question, “What’s the use?,” seriously. Having set aside the quest for method, pragmatism does not leave us with no way forward. It leaves us with a modest, non-methodological means for arriving at settled, albeit fallible, beliefs

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).