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Posts Tagged ‘anti-foundationalism’

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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