Purpose and Thought: The Meaning of Pragmatism

Purpose and Thought: The Meaning of Pragmatism

Purpose and Thought: The Meaning of Pragmatism

Purpose and Thought: The Meaning of Pragmatism

Excerpt

A new philosophical idea or theory, said William James, is received by its critics according to a pattern which can be recited in advance. First the novel conception is regarded as either unintelligible or outrageous or both; next it is said to be understandable, but obvious or trivial, and, finally, when the doctrine has become more familiar, those who initially opposed it claim that they discovered it first. This ironic summary has turned out to be a prophetic account of the odyssey of Pragmatism itself. The cluster of ideas known as Pragmatism was at the outset the subject of vigorous criticism at the hands of Russell, Moore, and, more profoundly, F. H. Bradley. Behind their criticism was the sense that the pragmatists made knowledge and truth thoroughly dependent on human needs and interests. Such subjectivism seemed to them monstrous and destructive of all critical thought. In the course of the succeeding decades the position came to be better understood, although, as it turned out, mainly for purposes of refutation. With the appearance of A. J. Ayer The Origins of Pragmatism the discussion came full circle. According to Ayer, Pragmatism was 'thought to be a distinctly American product', whereas the truth is that it has 'fairly deep roots in the history of philosophy', and, if he was right, one of these roots reaches all the way back to Protagoras' doctrine that 'man is the measure of all things'.

We need not pursue the comparison further; the important point is that the time is now ripe for a second look at the pragmatic movement, a reflective presentation aimed at producing a better understanding of what Pragmatism means both for advocates and critics. It is not necessary to suppose, as James frequently did, that all or most of the critical objections to Pragmatism were due to misunderstandings of what its advocates meant to say, but it would have to be admitted that much of the ensuing polemics expressed a greater concern to demolish than to understand. The pragmatists were partly to blame for the confusions engendered by their position. James, with his vivid imagination and arresting language, often used expressions which were either misleading or designed to confirm the prejudices of critics. His characterization of the true as 'the expedient in the way of knowing' at once conjures up connotations of 'calculating', 'self- indulgent' -- in short, the determination of truth by appeal to individual . . .

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