Philosophical Pragmatism, an Update

By Driscoll, Kevin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Philosophical Pragmatism, an Update


Driscoll, Kevin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Charles Sanders Peirce, chemist, mathematician, logician and philosopher, was by most accounts a very difficult man. Given to dramatic mood swings and even paranoia, he was also something of a libertine and very much of a snob, intellectually speaking.

Peirce's difficult manner eventually caught up with him: While teaching at Johns Hopkins in 1884, he was abruptly denied a seemingly inevitable tenure appointment and dismissed from his position when it was discovered that he had been living with the woman who would become his second wife before he had officially divorced his first (he was ahead of his time in more ways that one). Seven years later, Peirce was forced to resign from the United States Coastal Survey, where he had worked off and on for some 30 years.

Unable to find steady employment, he retreated to his home in Pennsylvania and spent most of his remaining days writing furiously in an effort to complete his philosophical summa. He never did, leaving behind instead thousands upon thousands of manuscripts when he died in poverty of cancer in 1914.

Despite his rather Dickensian fate, Peirce managed to make a monumental contribution to philosophy and to this day is reckoned by many to be the greatest thinker in American history. Among those holding this opinion is the British philosopher Susan Haack who, in her collection of essays, "Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate," sets out on a rescue mission of sorts. As she sees it, the venerable philosophical tradition that Peirce - along with his friend William James - helped to found, a school of thought generally known as pragmatism, is today in grave danger at the hands of the very people in charge of protecting the standards of philosophical inquiry and rigor: the philosophers themselves.

Pragmatism, as Peirce conceived of it, was a way of making philosophy more scientific. "And this means," according to Miss Haack, ". . . that [philosophy] should be genuine, disinterested, truth-seeking, a good-faith effort to discover the truth of some question." Hence the name pragmatism; for according to Peirce, our truth-seeking was to take the form of "observations which every person can make in every hour of his waking life."

That those who today purport to follow in Peirce's footsteps have instead ranged far from the path he blazed is made patently clear in the book's second essay, which takes the form of a witty, if occasionally plodding, "conversation" between Peirce and the leading "pragmatist" of today, Harvard philosopher Richard Rorty. Using selections from each man's writing, the author has arranged the passages in the form of a dialogue, revealing at a stroke not just her own encyclopedic familiarity with the work of each, but also, and more important, the wide gulf between the two, a gulf which for Miss Haack represents the depths to which contemporary philosophy has sunk.

The direness of the situation is summed up for Miss Haack by Mr. Rorty's now famous comment that he "doesn't have much use for notions like . . . `objective truth.'"

It is that embattled notion of objective truth - so derided in today's academy by those who would fence it about with sneering "scare quotes" - that Miss Haack sets forth to recover and defend. And in singling out Mr. Rorty - widely considered the dean of American philosophy - and several other prominent philosophers early and often in this collection, the author makes clear from the outset the tenacity with which she intends to mount her defense:

"Call me old-fashioned if you like," she writes in the book's opening essay, "but I think Peirce . . . had some insight into what the life of the mind demands while Rorty [and other contemporary philosophers] reveal a startling failure, or perhaps refusal, to grasp what concern for truth is, or why it is important."

This lack of concern for truth manifests itself in several ways - in the writings of "feminist epistemologists," in certain forms of radical multiculturalism and in the ever-present but newly resurgent shade of radical relativism, to name just three. …

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