20 January 2013

The End Is Not Action but More Thinking

The common and current notion of "pragmatism" seems to be, if it works it may be considered "right" or "right enough."  When one claims a "pragmatic" approach it seems a kind of screen for a scam against the popular understanding of an item or event or policy.  It means, "this is compromised" and so compromised as to achieve a desired outcome that is likely the opposite of what was proposed to be the end at which was aimed.  In a sense we might say the "pragmatic" is a definitional front for "realpolitik."  It is a conning term disguising a con.

I imagine this was not the intent of William James, but it is a Jamesian usage, and James, as his life bears out, was a compulsive "doer" and in large part, a society "player."  It is in no way related to the idea as first proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce and is so far from it that Peirce later renamed his idea "pragmaticsim," a term he hoped so ungainly that no one would be interested in corrupting it.

So, Peirce's pragmatism is opposed to James's in that Peirce applies his to logic and thinking and James applies his to action.  Peirce comments on this in Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (below).

James takes Peirce's conception, laid out in the first paragraph, and makes it do work in the "real" world.  That is to say, James takes "practice" as the crux and proceeds to apply a consequentialist framework.  The "conception" IS consequence.  If the consequences of a conception lead to a desired end then they are "pragmatic" and justifiable, reasonable and reaching toward the logical.  And so, "good."  Peirce attempts to correct this.

(Emphasis and comment in [brackets] below are mine.)

The following is the meat of the entry.  CSP is Peirce; WJ is James.


The opinion that metaphysics  is to be largely cleared up by the application of the following maxim for attaining clearness of apprehension: 'Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.'   (C.S.P.)  [We should note that this is applied to the habit of "metaphysical" conceptions; this means, primarily, the way we assign "cause" to effect without any knowledge that can be defended as true.]

The doctrine that the whole meaning of a conception expresses itself in practical consequences, consequences either in the shape of conduct to be recommended, or in that of experiences to be expected, if the conception be true; which consequences would be different if it were untrue, and must be different from the consequences by which the meaning of other conceptions is in turn expressed. If a second conception should not appear to have other consequences, then it must really be only the first conception under a different name. In methodology it is certain that to trace and compare their respective consequences is an admirable way of establishing the differing meanings of different conceptions.   (W.J.)

This maxim was first proposed by C. S. Peirce in the Popular Science Monthly for January, 1878 (xii. 287); and he explained how it was to he applied to the doctrine of reality. The writer was led to the maxim by reflection upon Kant's Critic of the Pure Reason. Substantially the same way of dealing with ontology seems to have been practised by the Stoics. The writer subsequently saw that the principle might easily be misapplied, so as to sweep away the whole doctrine of incommensurables, and, in fact. the whole Weierstrassian way of regarding the calculus. In 1896 William James published his Will to Believe, and later his Philos. Conceptions and Pract. Results, which pushed this method to such extremes as must tend to give us pause. The doctrine appears to assume that the end of man is action -- a stoical axiom which, to the present writer at the age of sixty, does not recommend itself so forcibly as it did at thirty. If it be admitted, on the contrary, that action wants an end, and that that end must be something of a general description, then the spirit of the maxim itself, which is that we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order rightly to apprehend them, would direct us towards something different from practical facts, namely, to general ideas, as the true interpreters of our thought. Nevertheless, the maxim has approved itself to the writer, after many years of trial, as of great utility in leading to a relatively high grade of clearness of thought. He would venture to suggest that it should always be put into practice with conscientious thoroughness, but that, when that has been done, and not before, a still higher grade of clearness of thought can be attained by remembering that the only ultimate good which the practical facts to which it directs attention can subserve is to further the development of concrete reasonableness; so that the meaning of the concept does not lie in any individual reaction at all, but in the manner in which those reactions contribute to that development. Indeed, in the article of 1878, above referred to, the writer practised better than he preached; for he applied the stoical maxim most unstoically, in such a sense as to insist upon the reality of the objects of general ideas in their generality.  [That is to say, the ultimate good of "conscientious thoroughness" is that it leads to more reasonableness--ie, better, that is to say, "cleaner" thinking, ie, NOT metaphysics.]

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