Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pragmatism -- Entry 1

     James opens the book by describing the state of philosophy as he sees it -- in 1906.  He contrasts the scientific, atheist, materialist type of thinker with the rationalist, religious type.  He identifies empiricist philosophy with thinkers like Herbert Spencer, who was widely read at the end of the 19th century but is not so now.  On the other hand we get idealists like the "Anglo-Hegelians" whose philosophies have nothing to the world in which we live.

       About the empiricists he says:

"Never were as many men of decidedly empiricist proclivity in existence as there are at the present day.  Our children, one may say, are almost born scientific.  But our esteem for facts has not neutralized in us all religiousness.  It is itself almost religious.  Our scientific temper is devout"(pg. 9)


He goes on:


"The romantic spontaneity and courage are gone, the vision is materialistic and depressing.  Ideals appear as inert by-products of physiology; what is higher is explained by what is lower and treated forever as a case of 'nothing but' -- nothing but something else of a quite inferior sort."(pg. 10)

If only I thought that kids today were born scientific!  It was said a few years ago that all the kids were relativists.  I'm not so sure about that anymore.  The whole science war business of the 90s left a bad taste in  a lot of peoples' mouths.  Perhaps there is an attitude of live and let live, which is ok.  James says we need a philosophy that combines intellectual satisfaction with applicability to life: idealism lacks the latter and empiricism lacks the former. 

"What you want is a philosophy that will not only exercise your powers of intellectual abstraction, but that will make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives."(pg. 11)

Recall that this is before the 20th century rise of analytic philosophy; it is even before the publication of Principia Mathematica.  Logical Positivism, to my mind anyway, tries to find a logico-empirical foundation for our knowledge of the world in which we live.  It seems to try to capture in spirit what James is after, but ended up in arguments about esoteric aspects of language and eventually collapsed in a flurry of excessive erudition that was very far from anyone's experience.  Phenomenology, as it developed later in the 20th century, did, for a time, yield folks like Sartre, who is closer to a philosopher of life, but which lost favor and was replaced by the excessive erudition of post-structuralism, and deconstruction.  One sees here a tendency in philosophy away from life as we live it and towards irrelevant abstractions.  

James says:
"The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed.  The world to which your philosophy introduces you is simple, clean and noble.  The contradictions of real life are absent from it.  Its architecture is classic.  Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts.  Purity and dignity are what it most expresses."(pg. 12)

amd then
"It is no EXPLANATION of our concrete universe, it is another thing altogether, a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape."(pg. 12)

There really is something, not just about philosophy, but about many intellectual pursuits, that seem to have an element of escapism about them.  Even reading the most militantly this worldly of philosophers, Nietzsche, is a kind of escape.  But then, why do any of us read books anyway if it is not for escape?  There is practical knowledge we need in the real world, but for some of us that kind of knowledge is not enough, we read philosophy for escape.  James offers pragmatism as an answer to the problems of philosophy, but maybe philosophy is itself a problem -- at least for folks like me.

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