IMPROVING OUR HABITS
Peirce and Meliorism
Although their perspectives and aims may differ greatly, most pragmatists tend to emphasize consequential practice rather than pure theory. Indeed, a melioristic inclination, a desire to improve the future lot of human beings in this world, could be identified as one defining characteristic of a pragmatist.1 However, although this transformative conception of pragmatism easily encompasses thinkers such as William James, F. C. S. Schiller, John Dewey, C. Wright Mills, and Richard Rorty, it seems to exclude certain others—most conspicuously Charles S. Peirce, the putative father of the movement.
In contrast to Dewey and Rorty, Peirce is manifestly skeptical of attempts to apply philosophy to concrete human affairs—to the “problems of men,” to use Dewey’s term. In his Cambridge Conferences Lectures (1898), Peirce notoriously not only seems to advocate a rather sharp distinction between theory and practice as two incompatible forms of life, but also to disparage melioristic conceptions of the philosopher’s task. In his expressed view, philosophy is a theoretical science that should not be compromised by concerns with concrete applicability or societal relevance.