Questions and Lecture on Pragmatism: Practicality and Creativity

William O'Meara (c) Copyright, 1997

1. Compare the stages of scientific method and the stages of the evolution of a species, in order to show that scientific method is evolution become conscious of itself.

2. Hence what method should we use to solve problems in the natural world? in the social world?

3. Therefore, how does the pragmatist see practicality? Explain why.

4. How does James summarize this view of practicality for Peirce?

5. So, what is the difference between Descartes and Peirce in regard to the truth of an idea? Explain?

6. What do the pragmatist, the rationalist, and the empiricist agree upon in general in their approach to the definition of truth?

7. What element in the definition does the rationalist emphasize? the empiricist? What does the pragmatist emphasize? (Practicality, of course) Explain your answers.

8. How would the rationalist try to see if the idea of causality is true? How would the empiricist? How would the pragmatist?

9. Consequently, why in the pragmatist theory of truth should the origin of ideas be creative and free? Explain by comparing James's approach to the testing of ideas for their truth with the practice of the scientist in testing hypotheses for the truth.

10. How does James defend or attack the passional element in thought?

11. What does science say about the world in the analysis of James? What does morality say? What does religion say? Give examples of each.

12. Analyze the example of a moral decision about murder from the pragmatist perspective in order to support James's view that choosing to believe can help to create the fact (or value) believed in.

13. Analyze the example of economic matters from the pragmatist perspective in order to support James's view that choosing to believe can help to create the fact (or value) believed in.

14. Analyze the example of a woman declaring her love for a man from the pragmatist perspective in order to support James's view that choosing to believe can help to create the fact (or value) believed in.

15. Is religious truth created or discovered for James? Explain.

Pragmatism: Practicality and Creativity

The pragmatist thinkers emphasize the practical aspects of thinking and the need for creativity and freedom as an essential step in the development of hypotheses to be tested by their complete, concrete, working effects.

First, the pragmatists emphasize practicality. They argue that consciousness has arisen in the context of evolution and that, like any result of a long evolution, it serves a useful purpose in preserving and advancing the life of the human species. George Herbert Mead, an exponent of pragmatism with Dewey at the University of Chicago, exemplifies this position quite clearly. He proposes that the strict scientific method and a widened scientific method, the pragmatic method, should be used by people for achieving self-knowledge. The stages of the evolutionary process are similar to the stage of scientific method:

In this pragmatist approach, the human mind is not something that seeks to know ideas for their own sake in order to build castles in the imagination. Rather, the human mind is primarily the ability to respond deliberately and imaginatively to problems in the natural and social environment. In order to respond intelligently, humans must treat their ideas just the way scientists do, as working hypotheses, not as absolute truths worth knowing for their own sake:

The pragmatist therefore sees practicality as the essence of thought. For the practical application of the idea is not just a test of the idea's truth, rather the practical consequences are the whole of our conception. As James summarizes this view for Peirce:

For example, the difference between the idea of a car and of an airplane is essentially the difference in the practical effects between driving a car and flying an airplane. The car moves along the road, whereas the plane flies. No matter how well an airplane is designed, if it does not fly, we cannot properly conceive of it as an airplane. Stumpf explains that Peirce's theory of ideas is against Descartes's position:

To give a charicature of Descartes' position, we can exaggerate by saying that Descartes would argue that the idea of a thing such as an airplane or such as Almighty God in either case can be clarified by introspective analysis of the relation of those ideas to the 'I think, therefore I am.' However, Peirce would insist that the idea of an airplane or of God can only be clarified by conceiving of the practical effects of these ideas in experience. For Descartes, the idea and its truth are private; whereas for Peirce, the idea and its truth are public, being clarified in open experience available in principle to all.

The pragmatist method therefore finds the meaning of an idea in the practical effects of that idea. This method leads to a theory of truth. For the pragmatist discovers the meaning of the idea of 'truth' in the practical consequences of that idea. The pragmatist, the rationalist, and the empiricist all start with the same general definition of truth as "the agreement of an idea with reality." (text, p. 69)

The controversy between the pragmatist, rationalist, and empiricist can be clarified through considering the truth of the idea of causality. For Descartes and Hume, the important thing the origin of the idea: if its origin is proper, then it is a legitimate idea. Thus, for Descartes, if the idea of causality can be reduced to an origin in clear and distinct ideas such as "It is impossible for something to come from nothing," then the idea is true. In a similar manner for Hume, if the idea of causality can be reduced to a clear and distinct origin in sensory experience where we perceive the cause-effect connection, then the idea of true. However, for the pragmatist the origin of an idea is not crucial since the truth of an idea lies in its practical consequences. For the pragmatist, no matter where the idea of cause-effect connection comes from, the idea is true to the extent that it enables us to anticipate future experiences.

In this pragmatist theory of "truth," the origin of ideas is creative, fanciful, imaginative, in short, free. It does not matter from where the idea arises. Just as the scientist must imaginatively create hypotheses, explanatory guesses that enable us to predict the observable results of future experiments, so also the pragmatist philosopher must imaginatively create hypotheses, explanatory guesses that enable us to predict future experiences. For the pragmatists generally and for William James especially, those ideas which arise from emotional and volitional interests offer significant hypotheses concerning the significance of experience. As James recognized, "That theory will be most generally believed which, besides offering us objects able to account satisfactorily for our sensible experflence, also offers those which are most interesting, those which appeal most urgently to our esthetic, emotional, and active needs." (Principles of Psvchology, Vol. II, p. 312)

James especially defends the passional element in thought, arguing for the right to choose to believe in moral and/or religious hypotheses even though there is insufficient evidence in the origin of the idea. For if the idea can be verified by choosing to act according to its practical implications, then it would be unwise to wait for more evidence. The evidence may be available only to one who takes the risk or believing. James defends the right to choose to believe only when our strictly scientific intellect cannot be convinced. Hence if science could prove conclusively that our moral and religious ideas were strictly relative to our cultures or persons, then it would be absurd to defend a right to believe in absolute moral ideals or religious beliefs. But James believes:

The sciences both natural and social only tell us what values and beliefs people hold, what natural things are, but they did not tell us what moral values and religious beliefs people ought to hold about what humans ought to be. Hence in trying to determine what ought to be, James sees science as unable to tell us what our basic values ought to be since it deals only with facts. Thus, truths dealing with values can only be chosen with the risk and passion that choice involves. For example, if I am about to be witness to a murder, I must make a choice of values. I must either decide that values are relative, that people can do as they please, or that some values are absolute, that there are some things that no people ought to do. If I refuse to make a choice in this matter of either of those two approaches to values, then I am really deciding that values are not absolute. For in this case, the decision is unrepeatable; and not to decide is to decide 'No!' If I witness the murder without any resistance, then I am really deciding that murder is not absolutely wrong. Hence, James argues it is unwise to put off my decision ln such cases. Even though all the evidence is not available now on the matter, I can take a risk and choose that murders ought not to be; my choice may become part of the evidence which eventually shows that some values ought to be absolute. When more evidence can come through choice and action, then James defends the right to believe.

Another more mundane example of the will to believe occurs in economic matters. If people believe that a recession or depression is going to come, then they will fear for their money and will sell thelr stocks and conserve their cash, restricting their investments in machinery since products will not sell. However, it is precisely such behavior which can precipitate an economic crisis. However, if people have confidence in the economy and believe that they can master its difficulties, they will choose to expand their investments and to increase their debts because the market will continue to expand. It is precisely such choices which enable the economy to become the fact which people have believed in.

However, there are cases, where choosing to believe may not create the fact but only help disclose the true facts. Suppose that a girl loves a young man but he does not know it, and suppose that she will not declare her love until he declares his. But suppose he is fearful that she will reject a proposal of marriage. Then only if he chooses to believe that she can love him, will he declare his love to her. If he does choose to believe, then he will discover what is in fact true, namely, that she loves him.

Religious truth for James is partially created and discovered by the choosing-to-believe. It is partially created since the truth of an idea consists in its practical efforts. For deep mystical experiences can be created usually only for those who choose to seek them out by some ascetic means. Primarily, however, religious truth is discovered through choosing to believe since God is not created by the human imagination but rather discovered as the living God through the reality of His effects upon those who choose to believe. (See Stumpf, pp. 413-14)


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