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Thoughts on an Essay about Pragmatism

In American History, Arts & Letters, Communication, Essays, Ethics, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pragmatism, The Literary Table, Western Civilization on August 20, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post appeared here at The Literary Table.

Lately I’ve been reading a subject of interest to the lawyers, theologians, writers, and philosophers at the table: pragmatism.  (Pragmatism finds a way of encompassing any interest whatsoever.)  The following discussion is brief and does not do justice to the nuances of my subject: Ruth Anna Putnam’s essay “The Moral Impulse” (in The Revival of Pragmatism, Morris Dickstein, ed., Duke University Press, 1999).  Nevertheless, I proceed with eyes wide open. 

Putnam opens by referencing William James’s pragmatist metaphysics and its reliance upon feelings and the sensorial to get at the religious or moral.  This reference provides Putnam wide latitude to articulate her arresting point that people participate in moral value systems because they always retain agency even if their actions seem like products of habit.  People do not act in putatively moral ways simply because they are conditioned or determined to do so; they act in those ways because they want to do so.  The want is the moral impulse.  That one should act or think on an impulse does not evacuate that action or thought of all intelligence.  “It is not,” Putnam assures us, “to say that one does not have or has not given intellectually compelling reasons for that position” (63).  In fact, as James himself suggests, we may—notice he does not say ought to or must—entertain any moral impulses so long as they lead us toward critical currents of thought that have not been invalidated even if they have not been validated.  Using such Jamesian refrains as her starting-point and hesitating over the usefulness of a now catch-all signifier like “pragmatism,”[1] Putnam announces her intention to explore moral beliefs in the work of James and Dewey.  Her focus is on those moments of convergence and departure, with slightly more emphasis on the departure.  Without touching on all Putnam’s arguments about James and Dewey and their agreements and disagreements, I will here note one of Putnam’s more sustained and striking observations, which addresses the difference between James’s and Dewey’s moral values: the difference which, it turns out, is at the heart of her essay.

Having shown that James sees the question of free will in terms of determinacy and indeterminacy without essentializing that binary opposition, and having shown that Dewey rejects James’s position as a dualism that is fundamentally flawed, Putnam resorts to James’s position to lump Dewey into a determinist camp and James into a free will camp (which does not seem the same as an indeterminacy camp, but I will not get into that).  Putnam then resorts to Dewey’s position by implicitly allowing that these polarized categories will not do; for she suggests that Dewey questioned the amount of personal agency a person could achieve in a world that, in light of quantum physics, does not seem deterministic (64).  At any rate, her point in playfully adopting both a Jamesian and Deweyian perspective at once seems to be that despite the seeming differences between them, James and Dewey both “understand that morally significant choices express who we are and shape who we will be,” and that “this relation between character and conduct leaves room for choice, for moral growth or deterioration, even for dramatic reversals” (64).  The human mind makes deliberate choices based on evaluative criteria gained by experience in the tangible world.  That, I suspect, is a statement with which James and Dewey and I daresay even Putnam would agree.

The main difference between James and Dewey, at least as Putnam positions them, is that the former actively sought out morality and truth in the external world, by which I mean, with Putnam, the world of “standard[s] outside the thinker,” whereas the latter held that we evaluate external data not to arrive at truth but simply to make decisions as everyday expediency requires (64).  For James, sensation signaled something morally relevant, whereas for Dewey sensation was merely a factor taken into account when one makes decisions to do or not to do something (and one rarely makes decisions based on morality but rather on the gratifications of the moment).  James therefore believed in the ability of humans to learn morals through factual knowledge; Dewey rejected factual knowledge altogether.  Instead, Dewey believed in contextualized knowledge, which is not the same thing as factual knowledge because it is not so absolute about its meaning.  All of this analysis points Putnam towards Dewey’s and James’s application of their respective “valuings” (Putnam’s word, not mine). 

If James’s empiricism led him to seeming dead-ends, he resorted to tradition rooted in experience and struggled “against the idealist solution precisely because that solution fails to make sense of his moral life” (69).  Wallace Stevens would do the same several years later, or so his essays on imagination would suggest.  In James’s and Stevens’s working paradigms, feelings and moral impulses function as the proximate bases for values and for criteria for values.  Or as Putnam claims, “James believes both that our values begin with immediate feelings, that is, experiences, and that values are real—there are objective standards” (69).  James, then, would not go so far as to reject foundations altogether the way that Dewey seems to do with his insistence on contextual knowledge.  James always relies on the hope or possibility that truth will arise no matter how it manifests itself.  Without the quest for truth, after all, there can be no philosophy.  At least that is what Putnam suggests when she claims that James rejects skepticism because “if we are skeptics, there is no job left for the philosopher” (69). 

Dewey, on the other hand, is more anti-foundationalist.  Early in her essay, Putnam calls him a relativist.  Whatever we label him, Dewey rejected the value of tradition even though, for him as for James, experience formed the touchstone of thought and theory.  Yet experience and tradition are not the same; and it is their difference that makes all the difference in James’s and Dewey’s philosophy.  Dewey would not entertain metaphysical categories couched in the vocabulary of absolutes, even prospective or potential absolutes.  James would.  Dewey would not invest too much stock in the belief in transcendent reality.  James would.  Although these differences between Dewey and James seem rather stark in the context of Putnam’s essay, in the broader context—let us say in the history of philosophy—the two men are of a piece.       

[1] Putnam claims that she is not “wedded” to the term pragmatism because she has “come to have sympathy for C. S. Peirce’s complaint that the word has come to mean too many different things to too many people,” and because “today it is even less clear than it was at the end of the nineteenth century” (63).


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