Present Philosophical Tendencies: A Critical Survey of Naturalism, Idealism, Pragmatism, and Realism Together with a Synopsis of the Philosophy of William James

By Ralph Perry Barton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
THE PRAGMATIC THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE

§ 1. IT is characteristic of pragmatism that it does not readily lend itself to summary definition. It can neither be identified with a fixed habit of mind, as naturalism can be identified with the scientific habit of mind, nor can it be reduced to a single cardinal principle, as can idealism. We are as yet too much in the midst of it to discern its general contour; indeed it is not so much a systematic doctrine as a criticism and a method. Nevertheless, it is not impossible, I think, to give a preliminary characterization of it that shall be roughly true, and shall serve as a guide to the study of its diverse aspects. Pragmatism means, in the broadest sense, the acceptance of the categories of life as fundamental. It is the bio-centric philosophy. And it must be added at once that the pragmatist means by 'life,' not the imaginary or ideal life of any hypothetical being, not the "eternal" life or the "absolute" life; but the temporal, operative life of animals and men, the life of instinct and desire, of adaptation and environment, of civilization and progress.

The General Meaning of Pragmatism

Although the pragmatic movement is new, pragmatism is, as James acknowledges, "an old way of thinking." It is dangerous, however, to identify contemporary pragmatism too closely with any of the earlier doctrines that resemble it. Thus the whole 'experimentalist' tendency in English science and philosophy may be said to have anticipated the pragmatist theory that truth is achieved by the trying of hypotheses. And Hume suggested at the close of his Treatise that we must be satisfied in the end with a belief that is suited to action.1 But these antici-

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1
Cf. above, p. 139.

-197-

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