The Menace of Pragmatism, by Tara Smith

Every person is a philosopher by nature; however, we are quickly dissuaded from this delightful activity by those who call philosophy impractical. But there is nothing more practical than knowing who you are and what you think. Try it sometime.

The Menace of Pragmatism, by Tara Smith

Postby admin » Wed Mar 01, 2017 1:58 am

Part 1 of 2

The Menace of Pragmatism
By Tara Smith
From The Objective Standard, Vol. 3, No. 3.
July 2008

Author’s note: This essay is based on a lecture delivered at the Objectivist Conference (OCON) held in Newport Beach, CA, July 2008, and retains some of the informal character of an oral presentation.



While people commonly disagree about competing world views and substantive ideologies—arguing the merits of different religious creeds or value systems, for instance, of environmentalism or dominant business practices, of volunteerism or the specifics of political platforms—many are blind to the fact that nearly all these ideologies are fueled by a single, more basic philosophy: pragmatism. As people increasingly complain that political candidates are “all the same,” in fact, many of the ideas and approaches supported by these candidates do reflect a shared method. It is important to understand this common element not simply because of the breadth of its influence, but because of its destructiveness. While pragmatism presents itself as a tool of reason and enjoys the image of mature moderation, of common sense and practical “realism,” in truth, it is anything but realistic or practical. Pragmatism has become a highly corrosive force in people’s thinking. And insofar as it is thinking that drives actions—the actions of individuals and correlatively, the course of history—as long as a person or a nation is infected by a warped philosophical approach, genuine progress will be impossible.

In this essay, I seek to demonstrate the stealth but all too live menace that pragmatism poses. Pragmatism is not a substantive set of doctrines so much as a way of thinking, a unifying approach that helps to sustain an array of doctrines that are, in their content, irrational. Because it is a method, however, and informs the way that a practitioner tackles any issue, it proves much more difficult to unroot than an erroneous conclusion. Moreover, thanks to its positive image, pragmatism tends to give harmful ideas a good name, bestowing them with the misplaced aura of reason. It thereby makes people who wish to be rational all the more susceptible to those ideas.

I will begin by clarifying exactly what pragmatism is and proceed to supply evidence of its prevalence. I will then consider the distinctive appeal of pragmatism, as well as the heart of its error—where its goes wrong. Next, I will explain its destructive impact, the principal means by which pragmatism is, indeed, corrosive. Finally, I will offer some thoughts concerning means of combating its influence. [1]

What Pragmatism Is

As a formal school of philosophy, pragmatism was founded by C. S. Peirce (1839–1914) in the late 19th century. Its more renowned early advocates included William James (1842–1910) and John Dewey (1859–1952). Primarily, pragmatism is a way of tackling philosophical questions. This, according to its founders, is what made pragmatism different from all previous philosophy. James wrote that pragmatism does not stand for any results or specific substantive doctrines; rather, it is distinguished by its method of “clarifying ideas” in practical terms by tracing the practical consequences of accepting one idea or another. [2] The meaning and the truth of any claim depend entirely on its practical effects. The mind, accordingly, should not be thought of as a mirror held up to the external world, but as a tool whose role is not to discover, but to do, to act. [3]

What, then, should we make of the concept of truth?—or the concept of reality? Don’t we need to respect those, in order to achieve practical consequences? Well, of course truth exists, says James, but truth is not a stagnant property. Rather, an idea becomes true—“truth happens to an idea.” Truth “lives on a credit system” in his view; what a truth has going for it is that people treat it in a certain way. The true is the “expedient,” “any idea upon which we can ride.” Any idea is true so long as it is “profitable.” [4]

All truths do have something in common, then, namely, “that they pay.”5 The question to ask of any proposed idea is: What is its “cash value in experiential terms?”6 The traditional notion of purely objective truth, however, is “nowhere to be found.”7 The world we live in is “malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands.”8 As Peirce memorably put it, “there is absolutely no difference between a hard thing and a soft thing so long as they are not brought to the test.”9 In the view of a much more recent and influential pragmatist, Richard Rorty, truth is “what your contemporaries let you get away with.”10 To call a statement true is essentially to give it a rhetorical pat on the back.11

In short, for the pragmatists, we find no ready-made reality. Instead, we create reality. Correlatively, there are no absolutes—no facts, no fixed laws of logic, no certainty.

While all of this conveys pragmatism’s basic character, a succinct definition is elusive. Indeed, James boasted of pragmatism’s protean inclusiveness, encompassing advocates of conflicting beliefs: materialists and idealists, theists and atheists, and so on.12 (In contemporary jargon, you might say that pragmatism is a “big tent” theory.) Moreover, when pressed, its distinctive method proves murky: We are to determine meaning and truth based on “practical consequences.” Which practical consequences? The consequences of believing a notion, or of its being so? How are we to measure consequences? What is the standard of practicality? Which ends should be advanced?

Leave aside such technical questions, however. The broad instruction of pragmatism quickly caught on; this was one philosophy that many were eager to put directly into practice (perhaps because it seems liberating to be told that reality is what you make it—your “final touches” can be powerful). And it is this broad sense of pragmatism that I shall be discussing in this essay. For our purposes, when I speak of pragmatism as a force in our culture, I am referring not to self-conscious disciples of James or Dewey, nor to pragmatism as a formal school of philosophy as precisely laid out by any particular figure, but to a looser cluster of mental tendencies that reflect its central thrust. I use “pragmatism” to refer to a style of thinking marked by four key features.

A short-range perspective. Perhaps most conspicuously, pragmatism involves range-of-the-moment thinking. This is clearly encouraged by the thesis that the yardstick of meaning and of truth is what works, and that since reality has no definite, enduring nature, what works today may be quite different from what works tomorrow. The here and now is paramount.

The inability (or refusal) to think in principle. Pragmatism rejects principles and erodes its practitioners’ ability to grasp principles, let alone to apply and be governed by them.

The denial of definite identity. The pragmatist characteristically resists identifying things by their essential nature. Whatever the subject of inquiry, each thing is regarded as sort of this and sort of that. Since reality is continually “in the making,” on pragmatist premises, so is each particular in so-called reality. To name things—to clearly identify or define an entity, an event, a policy, or any phenomenon—would be unrealistically constraining.

The refusal to rule out possibilities. Finally, when it comes to decision-making, the pragmatist’s inclination is to keep all options open—indefinitely. Whether he is negotiating differences with others or making a solitary, primarily self-regarding decision, nothing is ever off the table. After all, there is nothing that might not be “expedient” some day.
In essence, then, pragmatism is the absence of essence. It is the deliberate eschewal of identity and principle. Pragmatism champions the primacy of the piecemeal.

Pragmatism’s Prevalence

Given this portrait of what pragmatism is, we can now consider the various areas in which we encounter it. Even a little reflection quickly reveals that contemporary American culture is saturated with pragmatism. It is worth observing a variety of its manifestations in order to appreciate how deeply it penetrates our mindset and, correspondingly, how difficult it can be to dislodge.

Pragmatism is ubiquitous in the realm of politics and has been conspicuous in the 2008 presidential campaign, in which we have witnessed the familiar charade of candidates cultivating one profile during the primaries, only to polka to the center for the general election. These days, all viable candidates seek the “moderate” image—for, conventional wisdom has it, that is the way to be elected.13 Pragmatism was evident in the Democratic National Committee’s decision to seat the delegates chosen in the Florida and Michigan primaries at the national convention, but to recognize only half a vote for each. It brushed aside the party’s pre-announced rules for the 2008 primary season (which those states had violated) on the pragmatic rationale: But we mustn’t be rigid or rule-bound; we have to accommodate the Clinton backers.

In international affairs, we are routinely informed that it is only the extremist Islamists who pose problems. Any agenda that is not deemed extreme is greeted with open arms. Moderation is the test of respectability. Accordingly, engagement with one’s enemy is the mantra; one must always keep “dialogue” open, a peace “process” alive. Should one be so impertinent as to inquire into the validity of different camps’ competing positions, the typical (and thoroughly pragmatist) response is: “Whose validity? There is no moral truth, so there are no rightful claims.”

Consider the 2008 Olympics, which raise the question: Should nations that respect individual rights boycott games held in China, a notorious and ruthless abuser of rights? Many world leaders have answered, “No, . . . but we’ll skip the opening ceremony. ”When asked his position on this a few months before the games, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said that he would take a wait-and-see approach, emphasizing that he would leave the threat of a boycott “firmly on the table.”14

Turning to the field of law: In classrooms, professional training is dominated by professors who embrace positivism, which essentially rejects the place of principle in law. In courtrooms, judicial reasoning proceeds via “balancing tests,” which typically leave the standards of proper “balance” unidentified and undefended. Sandra Day O’Connor was widely lauded on her retirement from the Supreme Court a few years ago for her moderation and adherence to “judicial minimalism,” a method of splitting every difference, deliberately avoiding “sweeping” decisions, carving out the narrowest grounds for a ruling while saying as little as possible about the principles that ground it.15

A paradigm of pragmatism arrives in the recent, ballyhooed book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Wealth, Health, and Happiness, coauthored by the highly respected law professor Cass Sunstein.16 Nudge advocates “libertarian paternalism.”17 Its thesis is that while we should not force people to do things that are good for them (such as eat healthily, exercise, or save for their retirement), public and private policy alike should push people in that direction by deliberately structuring certain choices that they face—the way their options are presented to them as well as the associated default mechanisms—so as to make self-beneficial decisions more likely. Adoption of such a well-intentioned policy could mean, for instance, that a worker is automatically enrolled in a savings plan when he starts a new job and must take specific, deliberate action in order to opt out. Or again, it could mean that those designing the layout of offerings in a cafeteria deliberately place the fruit and yogurt and healthier foods in the most convenient, easy-to-grab locations, and the candy and less healthy alternatives in comparatively hard-to-reach shelves (far from the impulse-driven checkout counter, for instance). As an enthusiast writing in the New York Times describes the book’s central thrust: “It is a lot easier to trick [people] into doing what you want than to try to educate them or incentivize them.”18

Nudge’s authors concede that such “libertarian” measures are not a panacea. They cannot assure that individuals actually make good choices. Sometimes, therefore, a government will need to take stronger, more intrusive paternalistic measures. Yet often, Sunstein and Thaler contend, a “freedom-preserving” nudge will suffice.

(It should not be difficult to appreciate what such “libertarian” paternalism actually amounts to. Insofar as the book’s thesis addresses government policy, its proposal, in thoroughbred pragmatist fashion, fudges the identities of the policies under consideration and ignores the relevant principle, namely, the proper function of government. In fact, it is not the role of government to direct individuals to lead their lives in a particular way, be it allegedly self-beneficial or not. The government is charged with protecting individuals’ freedom, not manipulating people toward exercising their freedom in one way or another. What makes this book seductive, however, is the soft-edged pragmatism of its appeal, the unthreatening aura of a mere nudge. Its authors comfortingly assure readers that this is a defense of liberty, but one that is “practical.”)19

It is not only in law and politics that we encounter pragmatism; we find it also in education, sports, and across the cultural board. One of the most recent initiatives in schools to improve poor performance is to pay students for good grades.20 In the 2007 NFL season, when it emerged that the New England Patriots had been breaking league rules by spying on the signals of opposing teams, many defended them by reasoning, “everyone does it—you have to, to succeed; that’s life in the big leagues.”

We see pragmatism at work in much of the recent chorus of criticism of CEOs’ pay: “Sure, it’s fine for you and me to try to win raises and bonuses, but the money those guys get? That’s just too much.” Pragmatism infects popular attitudes toward journalism, where people increasingly believe that fact, fiction, opinion, and spin all merge into one. “Yes, I know that (documentary maker) Michael Moore distorts facts,” you’ll hear people say, “but there must be something to it. It’s truthy.” When disputes are still discussed in terms of facts, they are increasingly posed as a contest between “my facts” and “your facts”—as if we face numerous alternative sets, or as if reality has multiple personalities and a person may choose which identity to assign to it on a given day.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that pragmatism pervades our ethos. It is palpable in the way that people approach all sorts of issues—in the homily of “tolerance toward all,” for instance, preaching that a person must forgive every transgression, regardless of the wrong, that virtue resides in “getting past our differences” (whatever those differences might be). Pragmatism animates the recent bumper sticker that spells out the word “coexist” by stringing together a peace sign, the star of Israel, the symbols of Islam, yin and yang, and others representing a variety of conflicting moral and political ideologies.21 The message conveyed by uniting this assortment of antithetical beliefs? Differences do not matter. Which, more deeply, implies that convictions do not matter; ideas do not matter; facts do not matter. The pragmatist, having rejected the very notion of facts, naturally applauds.

Pragmatism infiltrates our vocabulary. To wit, a “polarizing” figure is ipso facto a bad guy; “conciliatory” is the trait in demand. “Extremist” is a dirty word; “ideologues” are considered one step shy of the asylum. To speak of an “axis of evil” is lampooned as cartoonish. Note, too, that ours is an era of qualified names: “compassionate conservatism,” “democratic capitalism.” Internationally, we are urged by many to exert “soft power.” Labels are increasingly accompanied by qualifiers—in effect, ways of hedging our bets, taking it back, negating the very claim just made—because, as conscientious pragmatists, we all seek to be broad-minded “pluralists.” Expansive phrasing keeps one’s options open.

The ever-widening embrace of pragmatism is unapologetic. As the former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, now widely revered as a modern day sage, matter-of-factly informs us, “compromise on public issues is the price of civilization.”22

All of these examples notwithstanding, it may be natural to suspect that my portrait is unfairly one-sided. Isn’t it the case that we still encounter forces in our society that are far from pragmatic? What about the radical environmentalists, for instance, or unabashed religious fundamentalists, who fiercely defend extreme principles? Isn’t the Bush administration widely decried as the most partisan ever? Don’t people still disagree righteously about certain issues, such as abortion? And, whatever you think of him, isn’t the success of Obama’s campaign a function of its hope and idealism?

Several points should be made, in response.

I readily concede that the evidence does not univocally point in the pragmatist direction. And many individuals, certainly, are torn between pragmatism and principle as they try to assess various issues. It is not uncommon for people to be pragmatists in some spheres and comparative “true believers” in others. My contention is not that there is not a principled person on the planet, but rather that such people are increasingly the exceptions and that the tide is decidedly pragmatist. In support of this, consider some of the specifics.

Without a doubt, politicians and others continue to make principled noises on occasion—for the simple reason that the rhetoric of principle still sells. Sounding such themes is thought to be practical. Nine times out of ten, however, words of principle are hollow. These days, when you hear a principle articulated, it is advisable to stay tuned, for a contradiction is almost invariably in the neighborhood, whether explicitly or implicitly. In May 2008, for instance, while on a visit to Israel, President Bush condemned talking with terrorists as appeasement, which sounded bracingly principled to many. Unfortunately, a quick scan of mental inventory reminded one that this is the same man who willingly engaged in negotiations with (and sometimes offered more positive forms of support for) a variety of parties he had previously condemned as evil.23 When words’ meanings are malleable, as pragmatism preaches, so are any purported principles expressed through such words.

Concerning abortion: The continuing debate over its proper legal status does not tell against the reign of pragmatism. Many Americans’ support for legal abortion is not support for a woman’s rights—the relevant principle—as evidenced by polls finding that many of those supporters approve of legal restrictions when they do not like the particular abortions that women choose to have (because a fetus tested positive for Down syndrome, for instance). A great number of Americans favor legal abortion primarily because it is convenient—always handy to have that option. Yet, their pragmatic attitude is, even convenience has limits and must yield at some point (“After all, it’s always a balance”).24

Similarly, what the “partisan” Bush White House is partisan about is not its dedication to any particular substantive principles. What it covets is power. Power to do what? Whatever—whatever will keep its preferred policy makers in office. Moreover, the haughty complaints about partisanship typically reflect the premise that political figures should not be principled or fight for ideas. Conciliation is always the right path.

While religion enjoys the image of commitment to principle, this image cannot withstand scrutiny. Religious people cannot be principled, in practice, because of the chasm between articles of faith and facts of reality. Irrational doctrines cannot be consistently practiced; those who profess such doctrines necessarily betray them in order to live. To the extent that any idea is accepted qua religious—because of its being decreed by certain authorities or thought to be issued by revelation—it is irrational.25 As such, it is inimical to the conditions of human existence (since the use of reason is man’s necessary means of survival).26 Those who profess to accept irrational doctrines (religious or otherwise) cannot avoid violating those doctrines on a regular basis. To characterize such people as principled is to distort language in precisely the manner fostered and required by pragmatism; it is to deny objective meaning by engaging in pragmatism’s anti-identity, “nothing is truly, definitively anything” premises.

(Interestingly, a major study of Americans’ religious views published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in February 2008 finds that an increasing number of Americans who are religious are unaffiliated. And most of these people described their religion as “nothing in particular.” In other words, people are increasingly uncomfortable with definitions; they do not like being locked in—to anything—including their allegedly principled ideals.)27

Finally, what about Obama-mania? Does the candidate’s appeal tap an idealism that belies my emphasis on widespread cultural pragmatism? Here again, even modest reflection proves otherwise. Note that Obama’s admirers acknowledge that for Obama, consensus “trumps ideological stridency.”28 A mentor describes Obama as “wanting to make the tent as large as possible.”29 According to the New York Times, dozens of interviews with political leaders and longtime associates in Chicago paint the candidate as “the ultimate pragmatist.”30 Within just weeks of Clinton’s capitulation after the primaries, Obama came under intense, prolonged criticism (from Republicans and Democrats alike) for flip-flopping on a range of issues (e.g., the funding of his campaign, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [FISA], a troops pullout from Iraq, negotiations with Iran, offshore oil drilling).31

This Democrat’s campaign, alas, offers ersatz idealism. Notice what the “hope” is for: largely, a post-partisan America, where people’s differences (of race, income, gender, etc.) are overcome, and, most salient here, where we are all comfortable with ideological diversity.32 To urge the embrace of ideological diversity, however, is to endorse the pragmatist notion that the substance of an ideology—the content of one’s philosophical outlook, one’s views about what is real and what is important—is of little significance. Getting along is more important than where we are going. The substance of Obama’s policies, as was widely noted by commentators during the primary season, is not appreciably different from Clinton’s. Beneath the glamour, Obama simply offers new dressing for the tired, compromise-cobbled nanny state: government health insurance, help for some in an economic downturn, protection from jobs moving overseas. (This professed opponent of “politics as usual” could not bring himself to vote against the Farm Bill, its poster child.)

A deeper lesson can be drawn. What the portrait of Obama’s campaign as “idealistic” reveals is how the concept of idealism itself has been watered down by our culture of pragmatism. Like every other concept under pragmatism, idealism has come to mean . . . whatever. Obama-mania is not the idealism of rational principles—or even of principles. It is the pragmatic patchwork of what makes crowds of people feel good—“what works for me.” When one seeks to identify the content of the ideals that are supposedly gripping his supporters, all that one finds is emotionalism, amounting to the explanation: “I get goose bumps when I hear him speak.”

This tour of our culture’s rampant pragmatism is not uplifting. It is important to see how pervasive pragmatism is, however, in order to recognize its grip and to appreciate how easy it can be for a person to absorb a pragmatic outlook unwittingly. When so many signals around him reinforce the idea that this is what reason dictates, it is hard to resist. Indeed, who wants to resist being “rational” and “realistic”? In order to resist pragmatism, it is crucial to understand its appeal and its error. Let us turn to these.

Pragmatism’s Appeal and Fundamental Error

Why has pragmatism caught on? And what is wrong with it? Why should we reject it?

The appeal of pragmatism is hardly mysterious. It seems realistic—and every responsible adult knows that he cannot accomplish anything without being realistic. Part and parcel of this, pragmatism seems doable: This is a philosophy that can actually be practiced, that can guide people. It imposes no demands that we be saints or heroes; rather, it speaks to people as the (allegedly) imperfect beings we really are, not to the idealized characters of scripture or fiction.

Moreover, by being “realistic” in the ways that it advises, a person is seemingly forging progress toward his ends. Through pragmatism, a person seems free to serve that which is a man’s proper end, namely, his rational interest.

Further, and perhaps most seductively, pragmatism invariably presents itself in the robes of reason. The course it commends is branded as simply good sense (as in the case of the nudge). This, seemingly, reflects the grown-up view of what life takes. Pragmatism astutely exploits the fact that there is much to reject in most of the extreme ideologies on offer today. Given the unsustainable demands of collectivism or altruism, for example (doctrines that are nonetheless widely endorsed), pragmatism offers relief, a welcome loophole that releases people from the impracticable commands of these doctrines. Pragmatism authorizes deviations that do make sense, in other words, insofar as they are deviations from irrational ideals. It is no wonder that people flock to it.

The question is: Is pragmatism realistic? Is it rational? And does it serve anyone’s genuine self-interest?

The answer is no—three times. The reason is that pragmatism rests on erroneous conceptions of reality, of rationality, and of what it is to be practical.

First, when pragmatists urge compromise between any conflicting views, observe the nature of the “reality” that it would have us bow to. Which facts demand our respect? According to pragmatism, the answer is, fundamentally, other people’s beliefs—regardless of whether those beliefs make sense. That is, in the name of “reality,” pragmatists urge concessions to the irrational ideas of others. There is nothing pragmatic about making a concession when a person who disagrees with you is right, when his ideas are rational. To the extent that pragmatism calls for unjustified concessions, however—for the propriety of concession as such—its deepest allegiance is to the beliefs of others. That is what constitutes the hard and fast “fact” that a person must respect: what other people think. In this way, pragmatism elevates man-made reality above metaphysical reality. Man’s beliefs about existents are considered more important and more real than those existents themselves. Indeed, in the pragmatists’ view, all reality is man-made. This is why, for the pragmatist, when “reality rules,” what that means is that consciousness rules. Other people’s beliefs and wishes about reality determine what should be respected as reality. The fact that some men may have correctly identified relevant facts on an issue and drawn logical implications, while others did not, is dismissed as insignificant. Metaphysical reality is not regarded as a check on man’s conclusions about reality, on the pragmatist view; it is not the basis on which we should evaluate a man’s assertions. Reality is malleable; correspondingly, we must be.33

The purportedly realistic character of pragmatism, then, is an illusion. And far from encouraging men to use reason, pragmatism’s instruction is diametrically opposed to reason. It is anti-conceptual. Its intellectual compass is restricted to what is immediately, perceptibly present. A man is to determine what is practical not by invoking relevant principles and not by integrating his awareness of one situation with his knowledge of others that are like it in significant respects, but by attending exclusively to what is here, before him, now. “I feel sure I can win this contract by lying, so honesty be damned.” “If I can get elected by making this interest group one promise and that interest group a conflicting promise (in artfully crafted language, of course), that’s my ticket.” Or, with William James, one might “deny the right of any pretended logic to veto my own faith.”34

This is not clear-eyed rationality, as the pragmatist contends. It is self-induced myopia. It is deliberate conceptual shrinkage.35 The pragmatic method militantly plants itself at the level of animals, instructing a man to attempt nothing higher than a beast’s type of mental functioning.36 And that is what it delivers; a subhuman level of existence is the prize toward which the pragmatists’ method is practical. The only “reality” that its method enables a man to know is a minuscule, transient, subjective slice: my perception, this instant. As Ayn Rand emphasized, however, human beings cannot survive by the methods adequate for lower animals. We cannot achieve the values that our existence requires without conceptual thought. Since reason is man’s means of survival, for pragmatism to turn its back on reason is for it to turn its back on life.

It should be clear, correspondingly, that pragmatism rests on an erroneous notion of what being practical consists of. On a rational understanding of the concept, an action or policy is practical when it is most likely to be effective in achieving an end—an end that should be achieved. This is not to say that people unfailingly use the term exclusively in this way, but that the truly practical course is one that both can be consistently practiced and that should be. Pragmatism, however, discards all objective grounds for evaluating what should be. Loosed from the constraints of reality, “proper” ends are whatever we like; it thus has no grounds for affirming anything as truly practical. What is practical by pragmatism’s lights is whatever a person thinks will work (rightly or wrongly) for whatever end he happens to seek (rightly or wrongly). (To put the point slightly differently, any action that will not advance a person’s objective, all-things-considered interest is not truly practical. By rejecting the absolutism of reality, however, pragmatism surrenders the grounds needed for the concept of objectivity and, correlatively, for objective evaluation of any conclusion, including claims about what is and is not practical.)

In the end, the most fundamental error in pragmatism is its opposition to reality. It denies the axiom of identity—the fact that A is A, that a thing is what it is. It denies the axiom of existence—the fact that “existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.”37 It denies the law of excluded middle—the fact that it is impossible for the same thing to be F and not F at the same time and in the same respect.38 Pragmatism seeks to have things both ways—to have all things, all ways.

In fact, of course, reality is not shaped by the shifting tides of people’s beliefs. This is not the occasion to rehearse the inescapability of these axioms, the fact that one must presuppose them even in the course of denying them.39 Suffice it to say that a philosophy based on the denial of the most basic facts of reality could not hope to be practical or to serve a man’s genuine self-interest.

Pragmatism’s Destructive Impact

Once we understand the critical errors of pragmatism, we can readily appreciate the damage that it inflicts. Given its nature, and that it instructs a person’s way of thinking about all issues, its fundamental victim is reason—and consequently, knowledge and values. We cannot survey here all the derivative carnage that its irrationality rains on us, but it is important to register the major respects in which pragmatism poisons human life.

First, consider its effect on reason and knowledge. Pragmatism rejects principle as the tool needed for a human being to make his way in the world; it openly encourages un-principled action. Improvisation is commended not as an exception, occasionally needed in a pinch, but as the rule, standard operating procedure for handling life’s challenges. Pragmatism thereby disarms man’s true means of living, however, since reason is principled. The use of reason, at however basic or sophisticated a level, is an exercise in principled thinking—in identifying and integrating essential characteristics that unite a number of particulars. A culture cannot preach perceptual-level functioning and escape deterioration in its people’s ability to reason. This is distressingly apparent in the world around us. Numerous studies and commentators have documented the decline in people’s cognitive skills (e.g., their ability to identify or retain the essentials of major historical events, or their ability to solve basic math problems or understand rudimentary principles of science).40 In recent decades, America has been taking dumbing down to new heights. This is obvious in the level of public discourse about any issue; it is also increasingly evident in our habits, our judgment, and our attention span. Ours might be called a culture of distraction—we are all “ADD.”41 It is as if we have swallowed a pragmatism pill and become oblivious to all except that which is in front of us now, the immediately perceivable. The given item’s relationship to other facts or its larger significance are dismissed as impractical, theoretical questions. As a result of this trend, people are less and less equipped to judge what warrants attention and how to evaluate events. People frequently lament that rational standards seem to be on the decline in nearly every sphere, failing to notice that pragmatism is a major contributor to this. When ideas are a game—when ideas are not thought to be about reality because, according to pragmatism, there is no independent reality—people will not invest much effort in the rational scrutiny of ideas (or in cultivating the techniques of rational scrutiny). They will not seek out truths if they are convinced that truth does not exist.

Insofar as pragmatism attacks reason, it attacks everything that rests on reason. It destroys objective knowledge and objective standards. Accordingly, when government policy and a country’s culture are dominated by the methods of pragmatism, imagine the kind of schools we can expect. Or the kind of art, or science, or medicine. Or the kinds of laws and foreign policy. Sadly, we do not need to imagine these; we can see the sterile progeny of pragmatism on display all around us. (In the realm of foreign policy, President Bush offered a vivid exhibit when, on first meeting the Russian president Vladimir Putin a few years ago, he famously pronounced Russia a trustworthy ally because he felt good vibes. Bush recounted, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”)42

All of this is, admittedly, a rather unforgiving indictment of the dominant cultural trends of late, and one might wonder why such overt irrationality did not crop up earlier. After all, irrational philosophies have been around for ages. Destructive doctrines certainly predate Peirce and Dewey. The pragmatists, however, have served as pivotal, highly effective middlemen. They bottled the reality-denying doctrines of certain previous philosophers, principally Immanuel Kant, in a palatable formula that goes down much more smoothly.43

One might also wonder whether, despite the perils that I have pointed to, pragmatism nevertheless offers a certain saving grace. Because it condemns the advocacy of extreme positions, perhaps, to the extent that people accept pragmatism, it can slow the progress of today’s most noxious ideologies, such as rabid environmentalism. Perhaps the course of compromise that the pragmatist urges can buy time, in other words, against those who urge more substantively irrational agendas.

While it might be comforting to believe this, such a perspective amounts to wishful thinking. For pragmatism steadily convinces people that they do not need to take strong action in order to oppose destructive ideologies. It dampens the willingness to fight by spreading the belief that fights are never constructive; accommodation is all, splitting our differences is always the way to go. In a given case, admittedly, this might delay complete surrender to an erroneous school of thought. But pragmatism’s fundamental effect is to encourage unprincipled, irrational thinking. Slowing the tide by further entrenching the epistemology of pragmatism—its rejection of reality, truth, reason, and objectivity—is not the path to salvation. And this is what makes pragmatism especially destructive. As a philosophy that is essentially about epistemology, it strikes at the source of all of a person’s beliefs. It corrodes people’s manner of thinking about every issue, distorting the framework through which people view problems and conceive of possible solutions.

Pragmatism’s hostility to reason is explicit, and the effects of that assault are fairly plain. Less obvious is its correlative damage to values—both to existing values and to the very act of valuing.

Objective values are achieved only through reason. To the extent that pragmatism steers us away from reason, it impedes the creation of values. We cannot bring life-serving goods into existence by any means that defy reason. Makeshift tactics can occasionally bring temporary relief from the most pressing exigency (e.g., appeasing an enemy to stop him from attacking you today), but they thwart the deeper, conceptual thought that is required to sustain human life.44

Pragmatism does not merely impede the creation of values, however. It destroys existing values. This is evident today in the economy, where we are choking production through regulations that are invariably pragmatist in inspiration—designed to quiet this clamoring constituency or that, whichever needs placating more urgently. Pragmatist measures are responsible for our standard of living sliding backward in a number of areas—in air travel, where we are increasingly paying for peanuts, pillows, and luggage; in health care, where we are paying more money to obtain lesser quality.45

The pragmatists’ “quick fixes” fix nothing. On the contrary, they exacerbate existing problems, create more problems that will need fixing, and destroy previously achieved values.

It is crucial to appreciate this. The central prescription of pragmatism is compromise. Yet the consequences of pragmatism are inescapably toxic. As Ayn Rand pointed out, “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”46 That which is true and rational and right has nothing to gain from that which is false and irrational and wrong. The latter can offer no value. Those who practice any irrational doctrine are, of necessity, parasites. Since the practice of irrationality does not work—since ignoring or denying relevant facts cannot result in the achievement of the values that human existence requires—people engaged in irrationality endure only thanks to the support they receive from the rational. When a person makes concessions to irrationality, he is cooperating in his own exploitation. He is providing the lifeline to those who (knowingly or not) suck his blood. While a given pragmatist may not look as obviously rotten as an overt preacher of a more blatantly noxious thesis, by appeasing evil through inappropriate compromises, he paves the way for the more deliberately evil to be effective.47

To put the point simply: The pragmatist who urges accommodation as standing policy is instructing a man to feed his enemy, to make concessions whose only effect will be to strengthen that enemy and to weaken the concession maker. He is urging a man to nourish his killer. The individual who loves his life must unequivocally decline the invitation.

To watch the erosion of one’s values is depressing. To be taught that this is proper—that all values should be surrendered on the altar of compromise—is demoralizing. Herein lies pragmatism’s damage not simply to values, but to valuing.

The thrust of pragmatism is egalitarian. When every position is to be accommodated, all ideas are leveled and all actions, however antithetical, are considered equally valid. One obvious result of this is injustice: The undeserving are rewarded, receiving better than they deserve, while the deserving are punished, receiving worse. But an even more insidious result is discouragement of the very act of judging. What is the point of evaluation, under pragmatism? If a person is told to not act on his judgments, but to give ground to others’ conflicting judgments, why should he judge anything at all? Pragmatism conveys the message that it is foolish for a man to seek values, since we have no basis for deeming some things as worthy ends. There are no true values (since there is no true anything). And, even if there were, it would not be appropriate for a man to pursue values seriously. Insofar as pragmatism counsels compromise, it counsels turning away from one’s goals, not going after them with conviction or commitment, avoiding such “extremes.”

Psychologically, I would speculate, the deeper effect of pragmatism is that it fosters an outlook of resignation, a disposition to settle for the “good enough,” an acceptance of the notion that muddling through is the best one can do. Pragmatism erodes aspirations and breeds cynicism—not bitter or hard-edged cynicism (since nothing has sharp edges, under pragmatism’s softening influence), but a hazy, overcast, unspoken hopelessness. It tamps down expectations. This may be its most tragic impact. To the extent that a culture is saturated in pragmatism, its sense of life is diminished. There is no fire in a culture—or a person—steeped in pragmatism. There is no ambition. And there can be little joy.48

Combating Pragmatism

Given the ubiquitous influence of pragmatism and its profoundly destructive effects, pragmatism needs to be vigorously opposed. To oppose it effectively, though, one must recognize the magnitude of the challenge and anticipate the obstacles that he will face.

Because pragmatism revolves around epistemology, it is an especially resilient adversary, for it is difficult to argue with a method of arguing—especially a method that denies the possibility of an objectively correct method. Normally, when a doctrine is mistaken, a rational argument can demonstrate that its conclusions do not follow from its premises or that its premises are false; one can point out faulty logic. Pragmatism, however, corrupts people’s understanding of what logic is.

Moreover (and, in part, as a result of this), many practitioners are not aware of their pragmatism; they do not recognize it as a distinctive view that they have adopted. A Marxist knows that he is a Marxist, just as a theist identifies belief in god as something that distinguishes him from certain other people. This is not true of the pragmatist. Many times, when a person disputes a pragmatist’s positions or method of approaching an issue, the pragmatist has trouble understanding what the objection is—how could anyone possibly disagree with his moderate, “reasonable” approach? Just as most people today assume that morality consists of sacrificing for others—that that is simply what being moral is—so most people assume that the solution to any problem is reached (in textbook pragmatist form) through bending and blending and reconciling differences. Such is the extent of pragmatism’s penetration. Awareness of these facts should restrain expectations concerning the pace at which progress can be made in loosening its grip, but such awareness should also impress on us the urgent need to actively challenge this creed. To that end, what follows is a handful of brief suggestions for combating pragmatism in others and, because even well-intentioned, essentially principled people can sometimes unwittingly fall prey to it, in oneself.

Perhaps the most basic step one can take to resist pragmatism is to place oneself on alert to spot pragmatism when it arises—and to name it when it does. One can institute a standing policy of identifying pragmatism and calling attention to its failures, pointing out how a particular pragmatic policy in health care, for instance, actually led to disastrous results, or how the Food and Drug Administration’s pragmatic compromises of competing interest groups’ demands do not successfully safeguard us. The point of raising such examples in discussion with others is neither to instigate arguments for their own sake nor to fulfill an anti-pragmatism duty. The aim, rather, is to better the world for one’s own sake by helping others to realize that pragmatism is not actually practical and that an alternative to the prevalent pragmatist assumptions does exist.

Second, one can battle pragmatism by vigilantly policing the meaning of words, seeking to safeguard the objective meaning of concepts. One can consciously resist being spun by convenient labels that others quickly attach to news events or cultural trends and that reinforce pragmatist presumptions. In this vein, it is crucially important not to yield to pragmatists the title of being “realistic” or “practical.” And it is even more imperative not to allow the word “reasonable” to be used as a fudge term that evades the Law of Identity, the fact that reality is absolute and that morality is black and white. “Reasonable” is frequently employed these days in a way that replaces the concept of the “rational” with the woolly “kinda rational” or “wanting to be rational.” When used in this way, however, what is allegedly reasonable is not rational. A proper understanding of rationality is indispensable to any viable defense of rationality.49

A third means of battling pragmatism lies in defending idealism. To show the impracticality of pragmatism, it is important to spotlight the practical value of its antithesis: devotion to ideals. Point to the success of people who are committed to principles and who live by rational ideals. Documenting the efficacy of idealism is a powerful means of disabusing people of the notion that compromise is the path to success.

The remaining suggestions more directly concern managing oneself.

It is important to beware the pull of the present. Because one is always in the present, immediate circumstances can naturally seem to be the most important consideration when confronting any decision. Pragmatism’s compromises typically appear as shortcuts that offer some relatively near-term satisfaction. Psychologically, that which is nearer tends to exert a disproportionate attraction for human beings that will prevail by default unless a person makes a deliberate effort to step back and use his conceptual capacity to understand his immediate situation in its larger context. In light of this, the person who wishes to resist pragmatism must exert a conscious effort to properly frame his perspective. He must adopt the policy of pulling back from his most immediate thoughts and feelings about a situation to think in principle about what he should do given all the relevant facts and the long-range requirements of life.

Similarly, a person needs to be on guard against the pull of the practical—on the commonplace, shallow notion of what that is. It is always wise to be practical, of course, but a person must make sure of which course furthers ends that are objective values and thus is truly practical, all things considered. (Notice that if a person does not fully understand the practicality of adherence to rational principles, he will be especially susceptible to pragmatism’s lure of pseudo-practicality. On a proper account of reason and morality, a person is not to abide by principle as an alternative to being practical; rather, allegiance to rational principle is a man’s means of being practical. Fidelity to principle may not always be the most convenient course, but following a valid principle is never not in one’s interest. Much of what is needed for a person to conquer pragmatism, in other words, is a matter of fully understanding the practicality of a rational code of action.)50

It is also crucial to acknowledge a different sort of challenge. Avoiding pragmatism requires accurately distinguishing legitimate compromise from illegitimate—that is, compromise regarding optional matters (e.g., the price you are willing to accept for your house) and compromise on moral matters (e.g., the principle of honesty regarding its condition). A person must judge when a concession would be fully rational, given the circumstances, and when a concession would amount to a pragmatic sellout. This judgment is sometimes (objectively) difficult to reach. No recipe can ensure a person’s getting it right. Two observations can be helpful when facing it, however.

First, a person must be completely honest with himself about the reasons that favor a given alternative. Whenever he has a doubt or nagging misgiving about one of the considerations he is weighing, he must probe what lies beneath it, in order to determine whether or not the reservation is valid. In doing this, he must listen particularly for internal rationalizations. Every pragmatic decision relies on some rationale; consequently, a person needs to carefully check whether the salient rationale is valid or merely a pretext.

Second (and truly, this is a further element of complete self-honesty), avoiding illegitimate compromise requires perseverance in the face of complexity. A person must not allow the complexity of a given case to deter him from making the effort to sort it out; he should not treat the difficulty of understanding a situation as an excuse to not try to resolve it by the relevant rational principles. He should not, for instance, quickly surrender to an internal voice assuring him, “oh, it isn’t such a big deal,” when part of him still believes that it is. Because it is naturally the complicated cases that will be difficult to untangle, one must plan to confront such cases by patiently evaluating the competing factors by reason.

Any serious effort to repel pragmatism will inevitably demand another kind of tenacity as well. Because pragmatism is so widely and deeply entrenched in our culture, those who recognize its corrosive nature may naturally struggle against outrage fatigue, from time to time, and have their appetite for action worn down by attrition. It may occasionally be tempting to throw in the towel. To sustain motivation, the best antidote may be simply to regularly remind oneself of the stakes. To surrender to pragmatism is to surrender to the rule of irrationality—with all that that brings and all, as we have indicated, that that destroys.

Finally, the Socratic injunction to know thyself can prove invaluable in warding off the temptations of pragmatism. To fortify oneself to think and act on principle, a person should seek to know himself ever more thoroughly. By identifying his tendencies, good and bad—his weaknesses (areas where he might tend to compartmentalize, for instance) as well as his strengths and those strategies that help him to make good decisions, he can become better attuned to the particular types of temptations to which he will be most vulnerable. He can correspondingly plan the most promising means of avoiding succumbing to them.
Site Admin
Posts: 33508
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Menace of Pragmatism, by Tara Smith

Postby admin » Wed Mar 01, 2017 2:02 am

Part 2 of 3


Pragmatism is a pervasive yet little remarked-upon cultural force. It is dangerous in large part because people do not recognize the corrosive nature of its far-reaching effects. To the extent that people are aware of pragmatism, most of them mistakenly praise it as rational and practical. It is anything but.

This essay has only scratched the surface of an intricate, multi-layered phenomenon. By opening our eyes to pragmatism’s essential character, its taken-for-granted prevalence in numerous domains, and its deeply destructive impact, however, I hope to have indicated why the seemingly innocuous methods of pragmatism pose a mortal threat to rational values.


Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Craig Biddle for very helpful suggestions on an earlier draft.
1 As an adaptation of a lecture, the level of argumentative detail in this essay is somewhat less rigorous than it would be in a more scholarly piece.
2 William James, Pragmatism, edited by Bruce Kuklick (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981; original published 1907), pp. 31–33.
3 Ibid., pp. 28, 87.
4 Ibid., pp. 92, 30, 92, 95, 100, 30, 36.
5 Ibid., p. 98.
6 Ibid., p. 92.
7 Ibid., pp. 32–33.
8 Ibid., p. 115.
9 C. S. Peirce, Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, edited by Philip P. Weiner (New York: Dover, 1958), p. 124.
10 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 176.
11 Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism—Essays: 1972–1980 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. xvii, quoted in Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 65. Haack argues that Rorty dilutes the more rigorous pragmatism of Peirce.
12 James, Pragmatism, pp. 29, 38.
13 Hillary Clinton shrewdly cultivated a moderate profile from the time she arrived in the Senate, aiming to recast her earlier image as firmly to the left of her husband. Indeed, on leaving the White House, the couple chose to reside in New York for the nakedly pragmatic purpose of enabling Mrs. Clinton to quickly run for a Senate seat.
14 “Boycott Beijing,” compiled by Evan R. Goldstein, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 25, 2008, p. B4.
15 For a clear discussion of the basic tenets of Minimalism, see Cass Sunstein, One Case as a Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). Also see my discussion of Minimalism in “Why Originalism Won’t Die—Common Mistakes in Competing Theories of Judicial Interpretation,” Duke Journal of Constitutional Law and Public Policy 2, 2007, pp. 159–215.
16 Cass Sunstein andRichard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Wealth, Health, and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Sunstein has been called the “pre-eminent legal scholar of our time” by the dean of Harvard Law School, Elena Kagan (Evan R. Goldstein, “The New Paternalism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2008, p. B10) and has also served as an advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The book has captured international attention, as well, reportedly winning acclaim as a serious basis for policy from the British Conservative party leader David Cameron. See “Wink, Wink,” The Economist, July 26, 2008, p. 68.
17 Sunstein and Thaler, Nudge, p. 5.
18 Steven D. Levitt, “Nudge,” New York Times, April 11, 2008. For a good overview of the book’s theme, see Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, “Easy Does it—How to Make Lazy People Do the Right Thing,” The New Republic, April 9, 2008, pp. 20–22.
19 Ayn Rand discussed a mixed economy’s pretense that “might and right can be safely scrambled together if we all agree never to raise the issue” in “Have Gun, Will Nudge,” The Objectivist Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 3, March 1962, p. 9.
20 See “Nearer to Overcoming,” Economist, May 10, 2008, pp. 33–34 and Elissa Gootman, “Mixed Results on Paying Students to Pass Advanced Tests,” New York Times, August 20, 2008, p. C-10 of national edition.
21 This emblem can be viewed on several websites, although some representations offer variations in the exact symbols used. For a sample, see
22 Alan Greenspan, quoted in Michael Kinsley, “Greenspan Shrugged,” New York Times Book Review, October 14, 2007, p. 13.
23 See Helene Cooper, “For Some Foes the Chat, Some the Cold Shoulder,” New York Times, July 6, 2008, p. 4 of Week In Review, national edition. Beyond negotiating with the three states he once condemned as constituting the axis of evil (Iran, North Korea, and Syria), Bush’s willingness to cooperate with such oppressive regimes as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and numerous others is well known.
24 For a good discussion of the morality (and implicitly, the proper legal status) of abortion, see Ayn Rand, “Of Living Death,” The Voice Of Reason, edited by Leonard Peikoff (New York: New American Library, 1988), pp. 46–63, and Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 357–58.
25 I base this on standard conceptions of the basic nature of religion. Among the definitions of religion provided by the Oxford English Dictionary are: “Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this”; “A particular system of faith and worship”; “Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.”
26 For clear demonstration of this, see Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet/Penguin, 1964), pp. 19–25; Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 193–98.
27 Neela Banerjee, “A Fluid Religious Life is Seen in US, with Switches Common,” New York Times, February 26, 2008, p. A12, national edition; and “Brand Disloyalty,” Economist, March 1, 2008, pp. 34–36. For a report on related later findings, also see Neela Banerjee, “Survey of Religion in US Finds a Broad Tolerance for Other Faiths,” New York Times, June 24, 2008.
28 Jeffrey Rosen, “Card-Carrying—The First Civil Libertarian President?” New Republic, February 27, 2008, p. 4.
29 Abner J. Mikva, as quoted in Jo Becker and Christopher Drew, “Pragmatic Politics, Forged on the South Side,” New York Times, May 11, 2008, pp. 1, 18–19, national edition.
30 Becker and Drew, “Pragmatic Politics, Forged on the South Side.”
31 See, for instance, Bob Herbert, “Lurching with Abandon,” New York Times, July 8, 2008; and “New and Improved,” Economist, July 12, 2008.
32 See the accounts of Obama’s views in Cass Sunstein, “The Visionary Minimalist—Toward a Theory of Obama-ism,” New Republic, January 30, 2008, pp. 13–15; and Noam Scheiber, “The Audacity of Data,” New Republic, March 12, 2008.
33 For elaboration on the distinctions I am invoking here, see Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Manmade,” Philosophy: Who Needs It (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), pp. 28–41; and Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 23–30. On the primacy of existence as opposed to the primacy of consciousness, see Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff (New York: Penguin, 1990), 2nd ed., pp. 23–24, 245–51; and Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 17–23.
34 James, Pragmatism, p. 132.
35 A term coined by Peikoff in his lectures “The DIM Hypothesis,” delivered at OCON, July 2007, Telluride.
36 For discussion of the contrast between human consciousness and that of lower animals, see Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 19–23; Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 10–18; “The Missing Link,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 42–55; “For the New Intellectual,” For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet/Penguin, 1961), pp. 9–57; and portions of Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged (New York: Dutton, 1992), especially pp. 1012–14, 1016–18.
37 Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p.1015. Also see discussion in Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 4–12.
38 See Aristotle’s formulations of this principle in his Metaphysics IV, 3, 4.
39 See Aristotle’s discussion of this inescapability in the Metaphysics; Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 9–12; and for a brief, essentialized explanation of how this holds for the law of non-contradiction, Matthew Kramer, Objectivity and the Rule of Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 23.
40 For a discussion of the condition of Americans’ thinking habits, see Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 2008).
41 ADD is the familiar acronym for widely diagnosed attention deficit disorder.
42 Quoted in Caroline Wyatt, “Bush and Putin: Best of Friends,” BBC News online, June 16, 2001,
43 See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.
44 On man’s need for reason and for rational values, see Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics”; Peikoff, Objectivism, chapter 7; and Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), chapters 2 and 3.
45 See Lin Zinser and Paul Hsieh, “Moral Health Care vs. ‘Universal Health Care,’” The Objective Standard, vol.2, no. 4, Winter 2007–2008, pp. 9–41.
46 Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 1054. Note that this does not condemn all compromise, but only compromise with the irrational.
47 For related discussion, see my treatment of sanctioning evil in the chapter examining justice in Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, pp. 159–64, as well as the book’s discussions of principles and integrity, pp. 33–38 and 176–97. Also see my “No Tributes to Caesar: Good or Evil in Atlas Shrugged,” Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew (New York: Lexington Books, forthcoming in 2009).
48 Rand explains a sense of life as “the pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence.” She elaborates on this in “Philosophy and Sense of Life” and “Art and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet/Penguin, 1971), pp. 25–34 and 34–44.
49 For a brief but instructive discussion of this difference, see Kramer, Objectivity and the Rule of Law, pp. 84–86.
50 For much more on a rational morality’s practicality, see Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics”; Peikoff, Objectivism, chapters 7–9; and Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics and Viable Values—A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), chapters 4–6.
Site Admin
Posts: 33508
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Menace of Pragmatism, by Tara Smith

Postby admin » Tue May 23, 2017 10:31 pm

Project Democracy's Program: The Fascist Corporate State (Excerpt)
by Webster Griffin Tarpley
April, 1987

Mussolini claimed to justify his regime through the need for efficiency and getting things done effectively. The Second World War revealed the overwhelming logistical and military weakness of the fascist corporate state. Despite the failure of corporatism in its declared aims of generating economic and military power, corporatist forms have exercised an almost hypnotic fascination over certain financier cliques in times of grave economic crisis. One such financier was Bernard Baruch, whose wholly controlled operative, Gen. Hugh Johnson, was the leader of the National Recovery Administration during the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The organizations that were supposed to be created in each sector of production around the NRA code for that sector were a very transparent copy of the fascist corporations. Many of the brain-trusters in the first New Deal were declared admirers of Mussolini, and even went so far as to prepare a summary report on the fascist corporate state for President Roosevelt. As we will see, the Trilateral Commission is committed to a neo-corporate order for the United States.

At this point in the argument, certain readers may become impatient with an argument that seems to them to be incongruous. Can it be that the business-suited bankers of the Trilateral Commission, the shirt-sleeve bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO, or even such figures as Oliver North share decisive elements of their ideology with a black-shirted, jack-booted, strutting fascist like Mussolini, with fez, dagger, and club, with jaw jutting over the balcony of Palazzo Venezia? Are not the present-day figures of Project Democracy too bland to qualify as fascists? Are they not just American pragmatists with views that may happen to differ from our own?

It may come as a surprise to many that Mussolini himself was a professed follower of American pragmatism. Among the thinkers who had made the greatest contribution to his own intellectual formation, Il Duce numbered first of all William James, the classic exponent of American pragmatism, whom he knew especially through the Italian writer Papini. Then came Machiavelli (certainly not a pragmatist and clearly not understood by Il Duce), followed by Nietzsche, who must be considered as representing a slightly different school of pragmatism. Then came the French anarcho-syndicalist, Georges Sorel, the theorist of purgative violence and also a declared pragmatist.

All pragmatists are not necessarily fascists, but in the 20th century many have been, and there is no doubt that all fascists are pragmatists. In a crisis of civilization like the one of the 1980s, the fascists constitute the fastest-growing component of the pragmatic school. This makes it possible for individuals like Oliver North and Carl Gershman to embrace fascism as a simple practical expedient.

In one of his speeches, Mussolini remarked: "The second foundation stone of Fascismo is represented by anti-demagogism and pragmatism." William Yandell Elliott of Harvard University remarks in his study of post-World War I political irrationalism, entitled The Pragmatic Revolt in Politics: "For pragmatism, a myth is true so long as it works. Mussolini offers himself as the new Caesar .... If he can capture the imagination of Italians and inflame them with his dream, he feels that he can govern with consent." (p. 341) Elliott, it should be recalled, was one of the principal teachers of Henry Kissinger.

William James had posited this "working test of truth," which was also reflected in Mussolini's celebrated contempt for programs. When asked for a program, he replied: "Our program is simple: We wish to govern Italy. They ask us for programs, but there are already too many of them." For Mussolini, program was a part of liberalism's "government by talk," which he was determined to extirpate. In 1932, Mussolini wrote: La mia dottrina era stata la dottrina dell'azione. Il fascismo nacque da un bisogno d'azione e fu azione. (My doctrine had been the doctrine of action. Fascism was born of the need for action, and was action.) Oliver North would presumably agree.
Site Admin
Posts: 33508
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Menace of Pragmatism, by Tara Smith

Postby admin » Sun Dec 10, 2017 8:44 pm

The Fixation of Belief
by Charles Sanders Peirce




Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one's own ratiocination, and does not extend to that of other men.

We come to the full possession of our power of drawing inferences, the last of all our faculties; for it is not so much a natural gift as a long and difficult art. The history of its practice would make a grand subject for a book. The medieval schoolman, following the Romans, made logic the earliest of a boy's studies after grammar, as being very easy. So it was as they understood it. Its fundamental principle, according to them, was, that all knowledge rests either on authority or reason; but that whatever is deduced by reason depends ultimately on a premiss derived from authority. Accordingly, as soon as a boy was perfect in the syllogistic procedure, his intellectual kit of tools was held to be complete.

To Roger Bacon, that remarkable mind who in the middle of the thirteenth century was almost a scientific man, the schoolmen's conception of reasoning appeared only an obstacle to truth. He saw that experience alone teaches anything -- a proposition which to us seems easy to understand, because a distinct conception of experience has been handed down to us from former generations; which to him likewise seemed perfectly clear, because its difficulties had not yet unfolded themselves. Of all kinds of experience, the best, he thought, was interior illumination, which teaches many things about Nature which the external senses could never discover, such as the transubstantiation of bread.

Four centuries later, the more celebrated Bacon, in the first book of his Novum Organum, gave his clear account of experience as something which must be open to verification and reexamination. But, superior as Lord Bacon's conception is to earlier notions, a modern reader who is not in awe of his grandiloquence is chiefly struck by the inadequacy of his view of scientific procedure. That we have only to make some crude experiments, to draw up briefs of the results in certain blank forms, to go through these by rule, checking off everything disproved and setting down the alternatives, and that thus in a few years physical science would be finished up -- what an idea! "He wrote on science like a Lord Chancellor," indeed, as Harvey, a genuine man of science said.

The early scientists, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, and Gilbert, had methods more like those of their modern brethren. Kepler undertook to draw a curve through the places of Mars; and to state the times occupied by the planet in describing the different parts of that curve; but perhaps his greatest service to science was in impressing on men's minds that this was the thing to be done if they wished to improve astronomy; that they were not to content themselves with inquiring whether one system of epicycles was better than another but that they were to sit down to the figures and find out what the curve, in truth, was. He accomplished this by his incomparable energy and courage, blundering along in the most inconceivable way (to us), from one irrational hypothesis to another, until, after trying twenty-two of these, he fell, by the mere exhaustion of his invention, upon the orbit which a mind well furnished with the weapons of modern logic would have tried almost at the outset.

In the same way, every work of science great enough to be well remembered for a few generations affords some exemplification of the defective state of the art of reasoning of the time when it was written; and each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic. It was so when Lavoisier and his contemporaries took up the study of Chemistry. The old chemist's maxim had been, "Lege, lege, lege, labora, ora, et relege." Lavoisier's method was not to read and pray, but to dream that some long and complicated chemical process would have a certain effect, to put it into practice with dull patience, after its inevitable failure, to dream that with some modification it would have another result, and to end by publishing the last dream as a fact: his way was to carry his mind into his laboratory, and literally to make of his alembics and cucurbits instruments of thought, giving a new conception of reasoning as something which was to be done with one's eyes open, in manipulating real things instead of words and fancies.

The Darwinian controversy is, in large part, a question of logic. Mr. Darwin proposed to apply the statistical method to biology. The same thing has been done in a widely different branch of science, the theory of gases. Though unable to say what the movements of any particular molecule of gas would be on a certain hypothesis regarding the constitution of this class of bodies, Clausius and Maxwell were yet able, eight years before the publication of Darwin's immortal work, by the application of the doctrine of probabilities, to predict that in the long run such and such a proportion of the molecules would, under given circumstances, acquire such and such velocities; that there would take place, every second, such and such a relative number of collisions, etc.; and from these propositions were able to deduce certain properties of gases, especially in regard to their heat-relations. In like manner, Darwin, while unable to say what the operation of variation and natural selection in any individual case will be, demonstrates that in the long run they will, or would, adapt animals to their circumstances. Whether or not existing animal forms are due to such action, or what position the theory ought to take, forms the subject of a discussion in which questions of fact and questions of logic are curiously interlaced.


The object of reasoning is to find out, from the consideration of what we already know, something else which we do not know. Consequently, reasoning is good if it be such as to give a true conclusion from true premisses, and not otherwise. Thus, the question of validity is purely one of fact and not of thinking. A being the facts stated in the premisses and B being that concluded, the question is, whether these facts are really so related that if A were B would generally be. If so, the inference is valid; if not, not. It is not in the least the question whether, when the premisses are accepted by the mind, we feel an impulse to accept the conclusion also. It is true that we do generally reason correctly by nature. But that is an accident; the true conclusion would remain true if we had no impulse to accept it; and the false one would remain false, though we could not resist the tendency to believe in it.

We are, doubtless, in the main logical animals, but we are not perfectly so. Most of us, for example, are naturally more sanguine and hopeful than logic would justify. We seem to be so constituted that in the absence of any facts to go upon we are happy and self-satisfied; so that the effect of experience is continually to contract our hopes and aspirations. Yet a lifetime of the application of this corrective does not usually eradicate our sanguine disposition. Where hope is unchecked by any experience, it is likely that our optimism is extravagant. Logicality in regard to practical matters (if this be understood, not in the old sense, but as consisting in a wise union of security with fruitfulness of reasoning) is the most useful quality an animal can possess, and might, therefore, result from the action of natural selection; but outside of these it is probably of more advantage to the animal to have his mind filled with pleasing and encouraging visions, independently of their truth; and thus, upon unpractical subjects, natural selection might occasion a fallacious tendency of thought.

That which determines us, from given premisses, to draw one inference rather than another, is some habit of mind, whether it be constitutional or acquired. The habit is good or otherwise, according as it produces true conclusions from true premisses or not; and an inference is regarded as valid or not, without reference to the truth or falsity of its conclusion specially, but according as the habit which determines it is such as to produce true conclusions in general or not. The particular habit of mind which governs this or that inference may be formulated in a proposition whose truth depends on the validity of the inferences which the habit determines; and such a formula is called a guiding principle of inference. Suppose, for example, that we observe that a rotating disk of copper quickly comes to rest when placed between the poles of a magnet, and we infer that this will happen with every disk of copper. The guiding principle is, that what is true of one piece of copper is true of another. Such a guiding principle with regard to copper would be much safer than with regard to many other substances -- brass, for example.

A book might be written to signalize all the most important of these guiding principles of reasoning. It would probably be, we must confess, of no service to a person whose thought is directed wholly to practical subjects, and whose activity moves along thoroughly-beaten paths. The problems that present themselves to such a mind are matters of routine which he has learned once for all to handle in learning his business. But let a man venture into an unfamiliar field, or where his results are not continually checked by experience, and all history shows that the most masculine intellect will ofttimes lose his orientation and waste his efforts in directions which bring him no nearer to his goal, or even carry him entirely astray. He is like a ship in the open sea, with no one on board who understands the rules of navigation. And in such a case some general study of the guiding principles of reasoning would be sure to be found useful.

The subject could hardly be treated, however, without being first limited; since almost any fact may serve as a guiding principle. But it so happens that there exists a division among facts, such that in one class are all those which are absolutely essential as guiding principles, while in the others are all which have any other interest as objects of research. This division is between those which are necessarily taken for granted in asking why a certain conclusion is thought to follow from certain premisses, and those which are not implied in such a question. A moment's thought will show that a variety of facts are already assumed when the logical question is first asked. It is implied, for instance, that there are such states of mind as doubt and belief -- that a passage from one to the other is possible, the object of thought remaining the same, and that this transition is subject to some rules by which all minds are alike bound. As these are facts which we must already know before we can have any clear conception of reasoning at all, it cannot be supposed to be any longer of much interest to inquire into their truth or falsity. On the other hand, it is easy to believe that those rules of reasoning which are deduced from the very idea of the process are the ones which are the most essential; and, indeed, that so long as it conforms to these it will, at least, not lead to false conclusions from true premisses. In point of fact, the importance of what may be deduced from the assumptions involved in the logical question turns out to be greater than might be supposed, and this for reasons which it is difficult to exhibit at the outset. The only one which I shall here mention is, that conceptions which are really products of logical reflection, without being readily seen to be so, mingle with our ordinary thoughts, and are frequently the causes of great confusion. This is the case, for example, with the conception of quality. A quality, as such, is never an object of observation. We can see that a thing is blue or green, but the quality of being blue and the quality of being green are not things which we see; they are products of logical reflections. The truth is, that common-sense, or thought as it first emerges above the level of the narrowly practical, is deeply imbued with that bad logical quality to which the epithet metaphysical is commonly applied; and nothing can clear it up but a severe course of logic.


We generally know when we wish to ask a question and when we wish to pronounce a judgment, for there is a dissimilarity between the sensation of doubting and that of believing.

But this is not all which distinguishes doubt from belief. There is a practical difference. Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. The Assassins, or followers of the Old Man of the Mountain, used to rush into death at his least command, because they believed that obedience to him would insure everlasting felicity. Had they doubted this, they would not have acted as they did. So it is with every belief, according to its degree. The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. Doubt never has such an effect.

Nor must we overlook a third point of difference. Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.

Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least such active effect, but stimulates us to inquiry until it is destroyed. This reminds us of the irritation of a nerve and the reflex action produced thereby; while for the analogue of belief, in the nervous system, we must look to what are called nervous associations -- for example, to that habit of the nerves in consequence of which the smell of a peach will make the mouth water.


The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry, though it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation.

The irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief. It is certainly best for us that our beliefs should be such as may truly guide our actions so as to satisfy our desires; and this reflection will make us reject every belief which does not seem to have been so formed as to insure this result. But it will only do so by creating a doubt in the place of that belief. With the doubt, therefore, the struggle begins, and with the cessation of doubt it ends. Hence, the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false. And it is clear that nothing out of the sphere of our knowledge can be our object, for nothing which does not affect the mind can be the motive for mental effort. The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is mere tautology to say so.

That the settlement of opinion is the sole end of inquiry is a very important proposition. It sweeps away, at once, various vague and erroneous conceptions of proof. A few of these may be noticed here.

1. Some philosophers have imagined that to start an inquiry it was only necessary to utter a question whether orally or by setting it down upon paper, and have even recommended us to begin our studies with questioning everything! But the mere putting of a proposition into the interrogative form does not stimulate the mind to any struggle after belief. There must be a real and living doubt, and without this all discussion is idle.

2. It is a very common idea that a demonstration must rest on some ultimate and absolutely indubitable propositions. These, according to one school, are first principles of a general nature; according to another, are first sensations. But, in point of fact, an inquiry, to have that completely satisfactory result called demonstration, has only to start with propositions perfectly free from all actual doubt. If the premisses are not in fact doubted at all, they cannot be more satisfactory than they are.

3. Some people seem to love to argue a point after all the world is fully convinced of it. But no further advance can be made. When doubt ceases, mental action on the subject comes to an end; and, if it did go on, it would be without a purpose.


If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry, and if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain the desired end, by taking as answer to a question any we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything that might disturb it? This simple and direct method is really pursued by many men. I remember once being entreated not to read a certain newspaper lest it might change my opinion upon free-trade. "Lest I might be entrapped by its fallacies and misstatements," was the form of expression. "You are not," my friend said, "a special student of political economy. You might, therefore, easily be deceived by fallacious arguments upon the subject. You might, then, if you read this paper, be led to believe in protection. But you admit that free-trade is the true doctrine; and you do not wish to believe what is not true." I have often known this system to be deliberately adopted. Still oftener, the instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, makes men cling spasmodically to the views they already take. The man feels that, if he only holds to his belief without wavering, it will be entirely satisfactory. Nor can it be denied that a steady and immovable faith yields great peace of mind. It may, indeed, give rise to inconveniences, as if a man should resolutely continue to believe that fire would not burn him, or that he would be eternally damned if he received his ingesta otherwise than through a stomach-pump. But then the man who adopts this method will not allow that its inconveniences are greater than its advantages. He will say, "I hold steadfastly to the truth, and the truth is always wholesome." And in many cases it may very well be that the pleasure he derives from his calm faith overbalances any inconveniences resulting from its deceptive character. Thus, if it be true that death is annihilation, then the man who believes that he will certainly go straight to heaven when he dies, provided he have fulfilled certain simple observances in this life, has a cheap pleasure which will not be followed by the least disappointment. A similar consideration seems to have weight with many persons in religious topics, for we frequently hear it said, "Oh, I could not believe so-and-so, because I should be wretched if I did." When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger, and then calmly says there is no danger; and, if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see? A man may go through life, systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions, and if he only succeeds -- basing his method, as he does, on two fundamental psychological laws -- I do not see what can be said against his doing so. It would be an egotistical impertinence to object that his procedure is irrational, for that only amounts to saying that his method of settling belief is not ours. He does not propose to himself to be rational, and, indeed, will often talk with scorn of man's weak and illusive reason. So let him think as he pleases.

But this method of fixing belief, which may be called the method of tenacity, will be unable to hold its ground in practice. The social impulse is against it. The man who adopts it will find that other men think differently from him, and it will be apt to occur to him, in some saner moment, that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief. This conception, that another man's thought or sentiment may be equivalent to one's own, is a distinctly new step, and a highly important one. It arises from an impulse too strong in man to be suppressed, without danger of destroying the human species. Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other's opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.

Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men's apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. Let the people turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made into the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment. When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country. If the power to do this be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up, to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to segregate them as radically as possible from the influence of the rest of the world.

This method has, from the earliest times, been one of the chief means of upholding correct theological and political doctrines, and of preserving their universal or catholic character. In Rome, especially, it has been practised from the days of Numa Pompilius to those of Pius Nonus. This is the most perfect example in history; but wherever there is a priesthood -- and no religion has been without one -- this method has been more or less made use of. Wherever there is an aristocracy, or a guild, or any association of a class of men whose interests depend, or are supposed to depend, on certain propositions, there will be inevitably found some traces of this natural product of social feeling. Cruelties always accompany this system; and when it is consistently carried out, they become atrocities of the most horrible kind in the eyes of any rational man. Nor should this occasion surprise, for the officer of a society does not feel justified in surrendering the interests of that society for the sake of mercy, as he might his own private interests. It is natural, therefore, that sympathy and fellowship should thus produce a most ruthless power.

In judging this method of fixing belief, which may be called the method of authority, we must, in the first place, allow its immeasurable mental and moral superiority to the method of tenacity. Its success is proportionately greater; and, in fact, it has over and over again worked the most majestic results. The mere structures of stone which it has caused to be put together -- in Siam, for example, in Egypt, and in Europe -- have many of them a sublimity hardly more than rivaled by the greatest works of Nature. And, except the geological epochs, there are no periods of time so vast as those which are measured by some of these organized faiths. If we scrutinize the matter closely, we shall find that there has not been one of their creeds which has remained always the same; yet the change is so slow as to be imperceptible during one person's life, so that individual belief remains sensibly fixed. For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this. If it is their highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain.

But no institution can undertake to regulate opinions upon every subject. Only the most important ones can be attended to, and on the rest men's minds must be left to the action of natural causes. This imperfection will be no source of weakness so long as men are in such a state of culture that one opinion does not influence another -- that is, so long as they cannot put two and two together. But in the most priest-ridden states some individuals will be found who are raised above that condition. These men possess a wider sort of social feeling; they see that men in other countries and in other ages have held to very different doctrines from those which they themselves have been brought up to believe; and they cannot help seeing that it is the mere accident of their having been taught as they have, and of their having been surrounded with the manners and associations they have, that has caused them to believe as they do and not far differently. Nor can their candour resist the reflection that there is no reason to rate their own views at a higher value than those of other nations and other centuries; thus giving rise to doubts in their minds.

They will further perceive that such doubts as these must exist in their minds with reference to every belief which seems to be determined by the caprice either of themselves or of those who originated the popular opinions. The willful adherence to a belief, and the arbitrary forcing of it upon others, must, therefore, both be given up. A different new method of settling opinions must be adopted, that shall not only produce an impulse to believe, but shall also decide what proposition it is which is to be believed. Let the action of natural preferences be unimpeded, then, and under their influence let men, conversing together and regarding matters in different lights, gradually develop beliefs in harmony with natural causes. This method resembles that by which conceptions of art have been brought to maturity. The most perfect example of it is to be found in the history of metaphysical philosophy. Systems of this sort have not usually rested upon any observed facts, at least not in any great degree. They have been chiefly adopted because their fundamental propositions seemed "agreeable to reason." This is an apt expression; it does not mean that which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe. Plato, for example, finds it agreeable to reason that the distances of the celestial spheres from one another should be proportional to the different lengths of strings which produce harmonious chords. Many philosophers have been led to their main conclusions by considerations like this; but this is the lowest and least developed form which the method takes, for it is clear that another man might find Kepler's theory, that the celestial spheres are proportional to the inscribed and circumscribed spheres of the different regular solids, more agreeable to his reason. But the shock of opinions will soon lead men to rest on preferences of a far more universal nature. Take, for example, the doctrine that man only acts selfishly -- that is, from the consideration that acting in one way will afford him more pleasure than acting in another. This rests on no fact in the world, but it has had a wide acceptance as being the only reasonable theory.

This method is far more intellectual and respectable from the point of view of reason than either of the others which we have noticed. But its failure has been the most manifest. It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion, and accordingly metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement, but the pendulum has swung backward and forward between a more material and a more spiritual philosophy, from the earliest times to the latest. And so from this, which has been called the a priori method, we are driven, in Lord Bacon's phrase, to a true induction. We have examined into this a priori method as something which promised to deliver our opinions from their accidental and capricious element. But development, while it is a process which eliminates the effect of some casual circumstances, only magnifies that of others. This method, therefore, does not differ in a very essential way from that of authority. The government may not have lifted its finger to influence my convictions; I may have been left outwardly quite free to choose, we will say, between monogamy and polygamy, and, appealing to my conscience only, I may have concluded that the latter practice is in itself licentious. But when I come to see that the chief obstacle to the spread of Christianity among a people of as high culture as the Hindoos has been a conviction of the immorality of our way of treating women, I cannot help seeing that, though governments do not interfere, sentiments in their development will be very greatly determined by accidental causes. Now, there are some people, among whom I must suppose that my reader is to be found, who, when they see that any belief of theirs is determined by any circumstance extraneous to the facts, will from that moment not merely admit in words that that belief is doubtful, but will experience a real doubt of it, so that it ceases to be a belief.

To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be determined by nothing human, but by some external permanency -- by something upon which our thinking has no effect. Some mystics imagine that they have such a method in a private inspiration from on high. But that is only a form of the method of tenacity, in which the conception of truth as something public is not yet developed. Our external permanency would not be external, in our sense, if it was restricted in its influence to one individual. It must be something which affects, or might affect, every man. And, though these affections are necessarily as various as are individual conditions, yet the method must be such that the ultimate conclusion of every man shall be the same. Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality. It may be asked how I know that there are any Reals. If this hypothesis is the sole support of my method of inquiry, my method of inquiry must not be used to support my hypothesis. The reply is this: 1. If investigation cannot be regarded as proving that there are Real things, it at least does not lead to a contrary conclusion; but the method and the conception on which it is based remain ever in harmony. No doubts of the method, therefore, necessarily arise from its practice, as is the case with all the others. 2. The feeling which gives rise to any method of fixing belief is a dissatisfaction at two repugnant propositions. But here already is a vague concession that there is some one thing which a proposition should represent. Nobody, therefore, can really doubt that there are Reals, for, if he did, doubt would not be a source of dissatisfaction. The hypothesis, therefore, is one which every mind admits. So that the social impulse does not cause men to doubt it. 3. Everybody uses the scientific method about a great many things, and only ceases to use it when he does not know how to apply it. 4. Experience of the method has not led us to doubt it, but, on the contrary, scientific investigation has had the most wonderful triumphs in the way of settling opinion. These afford the explanation of my not doubting the method or the hypothesis which it supposes; and not having any doubt, nor believing that anybody else whom I could influence has, it would be the merest babble for me to say more about it. If there be anybody with a living doubt upon the subject, let him consider it.

To describe the method of scientific investigation is the object of this series of papers. At present I have only room to notice some points of contrast between it and other methods of fixing belief.

This is the only one of the four methods which presents any distinction of a right and a wrong way. If I adopt the method of tenacity, and shut myself out from all influences, whatever I think necessary to doing this, is necessary according to that method. So with the method of authority: the state may try to put down heresy by means which, from a scientific point of view, seem very ill-calculated to accomplish its purposes; but the only test on that method is what the state thinks; so that it cannot pursue the method wrongly. So with the a priori method. The very essence of it is to think as one is inclined to think. All metaphysicians will be sure to do that, however they may be inclined to judge each other to be perversely wrong. The Hegelian system recognizes every natural tendency of thought as logical, although it be certain to be abolished by counter-tendencies. Hegel thinks there is a regular system in the succession of these tendencies, in consequence of which, after drifting one way and the other for a long time, opinion will at last go right. And it is true that metaphysicians do get the right ideas at last; Hegel's system of Nature represents tolerably the science of his day; and one may be sure that whatever scientific investigation shall have put out of doubt will presently receive a priori demonstration on the part of the metaphysicians. But with the scientific method the case is different. I may start with known and observed facts to proceed to the unknown; and yet the rules which I follow in doing so may not be such as investigation would approve. The test of whether I am truly following the method is not an immediate appeal to my feelings and purposes, but, on the contrary, itself involves the application of the method. Hence it is that bad reasoning as well as good reasoning is possible; and this fact is the foundation of the practical side of logic.

It is not to be supposed that the first three methods of settling opinion present no advantage whatever over the scientific method. On the contrary, each has some peculiar convenience of its own. The a priori method is distinguished for its comfortable conclusions. It is the nature of the process to adopt whatever belief we are inclined to, and there are certain flatteries to the vanity of man which we all believe by nature, until we are awakened from our pleasing dream by rough facts. The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give its thorough approval. Following the method of authority is the path of peace. Certain non-conformities are permitted; certain others (considered unsafe) are forbidden. These are different in different countries and in different ages; but, wherever you are, let it be known that you seriously hold a tabooed belief, and you may be perfectly sure of being treated with a cruelty less brutal but more refined than hunting you like a wolf. Thus, the greatest intellectual benefactors of mankind have never dared, and dare not now, to utter the whole of their thought; and thus a shade of prima facie doubt is cast upon every proposition which is considered essential to the security of society. Singularly enough, the persecution does not all come from without; but a man torments himself and is oftentimes most distressed at finding himself believing propositions which he has been brought up to regard with aversion. The peaceful and sympathetic man will, therefore, find it hard to resist the temptation to submit his opinions to authority. But most of all I admire the method of tenacity for its strength, simplicity, and directness. Men who pursue it are distinguished for their decision of character, which becomes very easy with such a mental rule. They do not waste time in trying to make up their minds what they want, but, fastening like lightning upon whatever alternative comes first, they hold to it to the end, whatever happens, without an instant's irresolution. This is one of the splendid qualities which generally accompany brilliant, unlasting success. It is impossible not to envy the man who can dismiss reason, although we know how it must turn out at last.

Such are the advantages which the other methods of settling opinion have over scientific investigation. A man should consider well of them; and then he should consider that, after all, he wishes his opinions to coincide with the fact, and that there is no reason why the results of those three first methods should do so. To bring about this effect is the prerogative of the method of science. Upon such considerations he has to make his choice -- a choice which is far more than the adoption of any intellectual opinion, which is one of the ruling decisions of his life, to which, when once made, he is bound to adhere. The force of habit will sometimes cause a man to hold on to old beliefs, after he is in a condition to see that they have no sound basis. But reflection upon the state of the case will overcome these habits, and he ought to allow reflection its full weight. People sometimes shrink from doing this, having an idea that beliefs are wholesome which they cannot help feeling rest on nothing. But let such persons suppose an analogous though different case from their own. Let them ask themselves what they would say to a reformed Mussulman who should hesitate to give up his old notions in regard to the relations of the sexes; or to a reformed Catholic who should still shrink from reading the Bible. Would they not say that these persons ought to consider the matter fully, and clearly understand the new doctrine, and then ought to embrace it, in its entirety? But, above all, let it be considered that what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief, and that to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind indeed.

Yes, the other methods do have their merits: a clear logical conscience does cost something—just as any virtue, just as all that we cherish, costs us dear. But we should not desire it to be otherwise. The genius of a man's logical method should be loved and reverenced as his bride, whom he has chosen from all the world. He need not contemn the others; on the contrary, he may honor them deeply, and in doing so he only honors her the more. But she is the one that he has chosen, and he knows that he was right in making that choice. And having made it, he will work and fight for her, and will not complain that there are blows to take, hoping that there may be as many and as hard to give, and will strive to be the worthy knight and champion of her from the blaze of whose splendors he draws his inspiration and his courage.



1.Not quite so, but as nearly so as can be told in a few words.

2.I am not speaking of secondary effects occasionally produced by the interference of other impulses.
Site Admin
Posts: 33508
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Menace of Pragmatism, by Tara Smith

Postby admin » Sun Dec 10, 2017 8:53 pm

How to Make Our Ideas Clear
Illustrations of the Logic of Science
by C.S. Peirce, Assistant in the United States Coast Survey
Popular Science
12 January 1878




WHOEVER has looked into a modern treatise on logic of the common sort, will doubtless remember the two distinctions between clear and obscure conceptions, and between distinct and confused conceptions. They have lain in the books now for nigh two centuries, unimproved and unmodified, and are generally reckoned by logicians as among the gems of their doctrine.

A clear idea is defined as one which is so apprehended that it will be recognized wherever it is met with, and so that no other will be mistaken for it. If it fails of this clearness, it is said to be obscure.

This is rather a neat bit of philosophical terminology; yet, since it is clearness that they were defining, I wish the logicians had made their definition a little more plain. Never to fail to recognize an idea, and under no circumstances to mistake another for it, let it come in how recondite a form it may, would indeed imply such prodigious force and clearness of intellect as is seldom met with in this world. On the other hand, merely to have such an acquaintance with the idea as to have become familiar with it, and to have lost all hesitancy in recognizing it in ordinary cases, hardly seems to deserve the name of clearness of apprehension, since after all it only amounts to a subjective feeling of mastery which may be entirely mistaken. I take it, however, that when the logicians speak of "clearness," they mean nothing more than such a familiarity with an idea, since they regard the quality as but a small merit, which needs to be supplemented by another, which they call distinctness.

A distinct idea is defined as one which contains nothing which is not clear. This is technical language; by the contents of an idea logicians understand whatever is contained in its definition. So that an idea is distinctly apprehended, according to them, when we can give a precise definition of it, in abstract terms. Here the professional logicians leave the subject; and I would not have troubled the reader with what they have to say, if it were not such a striking example of how they have been slumbering through ages of intellectual activity, listlessly disregarding the enginery of modern thought, and never dreaming of applying its lessons to the improvement of logic. It is easy to show that the doctrine that familiar use and abstract distinctness make the perfection of apprehension has its only true place in philosophies which have long been extinct; and it is now time to formulate the method of attaining to a more perfect clearness of thought, such as we see and admire in the thinkers of our own time.

When Descartes set about the reconstruction of philosophy, his first step was to (theoretically) permit skepticism and to discard the practice of the schoolmen of looking to authority as the ultimate source of truth. That done, he sought a more natural fountain of true principles, and professed to find it in the human mind; thus passing, in the directest way, from the method of authority to that of apriority, as described in my first paper, Self-consciousness was to furnish us with our fundamental truths, and to decide what was agreeable to reason. But since, evidently, not all ideas are true, he was led to note, as the first condition of infallibility, that they must be clear. The distinction between an idea seeming clear and really being so, never occurred to him. Trusting to introspection, as he did, even for a knowledge of external things, why should he question its testimony in respect to the contents of our own minds? But then, I suppose, seeing men, who seemed to be quite clear and positive, holding opposite opinions upon fundamental principles, he was further led to say that clearness of ideas is not sufficient, but that they need also to be distinct, i. e., to have nothing unclear about them. What he probably meant by this (for he did not explain himself with precision) was, that they must sustain the test of dialectical examination; that they must not only seem clear at the outset, but that discussion must never be able to bring to light points of obscurity connected with them.

Such was the distinction of Descartes, and one sees that it was precisely on the level of his philosophy. It was somewhat developed by Leibnitz. This great and singular genius was as remarkable for what he failed to see as for what he saw. That a piece of mechanism could not do work perpetually without being fed with power in some form, was a thing perfectly apparent to him; yet he did not understand that the machinery of the mind can only transform knowledge, but never originate it, unless it be fed with facts of observation. He thus missed the most essential point of the Cartesian philosophy, which is, that to accept propositions which seem perfectly evident to us is a thing which, whether it be logical or illogical, we cannot help doing. Instead of regarding the matter in this way, he sought to reduce the first principles of science to formulas which cannot be denied without self-contradiction, and was apparently unaware of the great difference between his position and that of Descartes. So he reverted to the old formalities of logic, and, above all, abstract definitions played a great part in his philosophy. It was quite natural, therefore, that on observing that the method of Descartes labored under the difficulty that we may seem to ourselves to have clear apprehensions of ideas which in truth are very hazy, no better remedy occurred to him than to require an abstract definition of every important term. Accordingly, in adopting the distinction of clear and distinct notions, he described the latter quality as the clear apprehension of everything contained in the definition; and the books have ever since copied his words. There is no danger that his chimerical scheme will ever again be overvalued. Nothing new can ever be learned by analyzing definitions. Nevertheless, our existing beliefs can be set in order by this process, and order is an essential element of intellectual economy, as of every other. It may be acknowledged, therefore, that the books are right in making familiarity with a notion the first step toward clearness of apprehension, and the defining of it the second. But in omitting all mention of any higher perspicuity of thought, they simply mirror a philosophy which was exploded a hundred years ago. That much-admired "ornament of logic"—the doctrine of clearness and distinctness—may be pretty enough, but it is high time to relegate to our cabinet of curiosities the antique bijou, and to wear about us something better adapted to modern uses.

The very first lesson that we have a right to demand that logic shall teach us is, how to make our ideas clear; and a most important one it is, depreciated only by minds who stand in need of it. To know what we think, to be masters of our own meaning, will make a solid foundation for great and weighty thought. It is most easily learned by those whose ideas are meagre and restricted; and far happier they than such as wallow helplessly in a rich mud of conceptions. A nation, it is true, may, in the course of generations, overcome the disadvantage of an excessive wealth of language and its natural concomitant, a vast, unfathomable deep of ideas. We may see it in history, slowly perfecting its literary forms, sloughing at length its metaphysics, and, by virtue of the untirable patience which is often a compensation, attaining great excellence in every branch of mental acquirement. The page of history is not yet unrolled which is to tell us whether such a people will or will not in the long-run prevail over one whose ideas (like the words of their language) are few, but which possesses a wonderful mastery over those which it has. For an individual, however, there can be no question that a few clear ideas are worth more than many confused ones. A young man would hardly be persuaded to sacrifice the greater part of his thoughts to save the rest; and the muddled head is the least apt to see the necessity of such a sacrifice. Him we can usually only commiserate, as a person with a congenital defect. Time will help him, but intellectual maturity with regard to clearness comes rather late, an unfortunate arrangement of Nature, inasmuch as clearness is of less use to a man settled in life, whose errors have in great measure had their effect, than it would be to one whose path lies before him. It is terrible to see how a single unclear idea, a single formula without meaning, lurking in a young man's head, will sometimes act like an obstruction of inert matter in an artery, hindering the nutrition of the brain, and condemning its victim to pine away in the fullness of his intellectual vigor and in the midst of intellectual plenty. Many a man has cherished for years as his hobby some vague shadow of an idea, too meaningless to be positively false; he has, nevertheless, passionately loved it, has made it his companion by day and by night, and has given to it his strength and his life, leaving all other occupations for its sake, and in short has lived with it and for it, until it has become, as it were, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone; and then he has waked up some bright morning to find it gone, clean vanished away like the beautiful Melusina of the fable, and the essence of his life gone with it. I have myself known such a man; and who can tell how many histories of circle-squarers, metaphysicians, astrologers, and what not, may not be told in the old German story?


The principles set forth in the first of these papers lead, at once, to a method of reaching a clearness of thought of a far higher grade than the "distinctness" of the logicians. We have there found that the action of thought is excited by the irritation of doubt, and ceases when belief is attained; so that the production of belief is the sole function of thought. All these words, however, are too strong for my purpose. It is as if I had described the phenomena as they appear under a mental microscope. Doubt and Belief, as the words are commonly employed, relate to religious or other grave discussions. But here I use them to designate the starting of any question, no matter how small or how great, and the resolution of it. If, for instance, in a horse-car, I pull out my purse and find a five-cent nickel and five coppers, I decide, while my hand is going to the purse, in which way I will pay my fare. To call such a question Doubt, and my decision Belief, is certainly to use words very disproportionate to the occasion. To speak of such a doubt as causing an irritation which needs to be appeased, suggests a temper which is uncomfortable to the verge of insanity. Yet, looking at the matter minutely, it must be admitted that, if there is the least hesitation as to whether I shall pay the five coppers or the nickel (as there will be sure to be, unless I act from some previously contracted habit in the matter), though irritation is too strong a word, yet I am excited to such small mental activity as may be necessary to deciding how I shall act. Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action. Sometimes it is not so. I have, for example, to wait in a railway-station, and to pass the time I read the advertisements on the walls, I compare the advantages of different trains and different routes which I never expect to take, merely fancying myself to be in a state of hesitancy, because I am bored with having nothing to trouble me. Feigned hesitancy, whether feigned for mere amusement or with a lofty purpose, plays a great part in the production of scientific inquiry. However the doubt may originate, it stimulates the mind to an activity which may be slight or energetic, calm or turbulent. Images pass rapidly through consciousness, one incessantly melting into another, until at last, when all is over—it may be in a fraction of a second, in an hour, or after long years—we find ourselves decided as to how we should act under such circumstances as those which occasioned our hesitation. In other words, we have attained belief.

In this process we observe two sorts of elements of consciousness, the distinction between which may best be made clear by means of an illustration. In a piece of music there are the separate notes, and there is the air. A single tone may be prolonged for an hour or a day, and it exists as perfectly in each second of that time as in the whole taken together; so that, as long as it is sounding, it might be present to a sense from which everything in the past was as completely absent as the future itself. But it is different with the air, the performance of which occupies a certain time, during the portions of which only portions of it are played. It consists in an orderliness in the succession of sounds which strike the ear at different times; and to perceive it there must be some continuity of consciousness which makes the events of a lapse of time present to us. We certainly only perceive the air by hearing the separate notes; yet we cannot be said to directly hear it, for we hear only what is present at the instant, and an orderliness of succession cannot exist in an instant. These two sorts of objects, what we are immediately conscious of and what we are mediately conscious of, are found in all consciousness. Some elements (the sensations) are completely present at every instant so long as they last, while others (like thought) are actions having beginning, middle, and end, and consist in a congruence in the succession of sensations which flow through the mind. They cannot be immediately present to us, but must cover some portion of the past or future. Thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations.

We may add that just as a piece of music may be written in parts, each part having its own air, so various systems of relationship of succession subsist together between the same sensations. These different systems are distinguished by having different motives, ideas, or functions. Thought is only one such system, for its sole motive, idea, and function, is to produce belief, and whatever does not concern that purpose belongs to some other system of relations. The action of thinking may incidentally have other results; it may serve to amuse us, for example, and among dilettanti it is not rare to find those who have so perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever get finally settled; and a positive discovery which takes a favorite subject out of the arena of literary debate is met with ill-concealed dislike. This disposition is the very debauchery of thought. But the soul and meaning of thought, abstracted from the other elements which accompany it, though it may be voluntarily thwarted, can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief. Thought in action has for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest; and whatever does not refer to belief is no part of the thought itself.

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment when belief is reached. But, since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought. That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action. The final upshot of thinking is the exercise of volition, and of this thought no longer forms a part; but belief is only a stadium of mental action, an effect upon our nature due to thought, which will influence future thinking.

The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise. If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs, any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes. Imaginary distinctions are often drawn between beliefs which differ only in their mode of expression—the wrangling which ensues is real enough, however. To believe that any objects are arranged as in Fig. 1, and to believe that they are arranged in Fig. 2, are one and the same belief; yet it is conceivable that a man should assert one proposition and deny the other. Such false distinctions do as much harm as the confusion of beliefs really different, and are among the pitfalls of which we ought constantly to beware, especially when we are upon metaphysical ground. One singular deception of this sort, which often occurs, is to mistake the sensation produced by our own unclearness of thought for a character of the object we are thinking. Instead of perceiving that the obscurity is purely subjective, we fancy that we contemplate a quality of the object which is essentially mysterious; and if our conception be afterward presented to us in a clear form we do not recognize it as the same, owing to the absence of the feeling of unintelligibility. So


long as this deception lasts, it obviously puts an impassable barrier in the way of perspicuous thinking; so that it equally interests the opponents of rational thought to perpetuate it, and its adherents to guard against it.

Another such deception is to mistake a mere difference in the grammatical construction of two words for a distinction between the ideas they express. In this pedantic age, when the general mob of writers attend so much more to words than to things, this error is common enough. When I just said that thought is an action, and that it consists in a relation, although a person performs an action but not a relation, which can only be the result of an action, yet there was no inconsistency in what I said, but only a grammatical vagueness.

From all these sophisms we shall be perfectly safe so long as we reflect that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it. If there be a unity among our sensations which has no reference to how we shall act on a given occasion, as when we listen to a piece of music, why we do not call that thinking. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus, we come down to what is tangible and practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtile it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.

To see what this principle leads to, consider in the light of it such a doctrine as that of transubstantiation. The Protestant churches generally hold that the elements of the sacrament are flesh and blood only in a tropical sense; they nourish our souls as meat and the juice of it would our bodies. But the Catholics maintain that they are literally just that; although they possess all the sensible qualities of wafer-cakes and diluted wine. But we can have no conception of wine except what may enter into a belief, either—

1. That this, that, or the other, is wine; or,

2. That wine possesses certain properties.

Such beliefs are nothing but self-notifications that we should, upon occasion, act in regard to such things as we believe to be wine according to the qualities which we believe wine to possess. The occasion of such action would be some sensible perception, the motive of it to produce some sensible result. Thus our action has exclusive reference to what affects the senses, our habit has the same bearing as our action, our belief the same as our habit, our conception the same as our belief; and we can consequently mean nothing by wine but what has certain effects, direct or indirect, upon our senses; and to talk of something as having all the sensible characters of wine, yet being in reality blood, is senseless jargon. Now, it is not my object to pursue the theological question; and having used it as a logical example I drop it, without caring to anticipate the theologian's reply. I only desire to point out how impossible it is that we should have an idea in our minds which relates to anything but conceived sensible effects of things. Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy that we have any other we deceive ourselves, and mistake a mere sensation accompanying the thought for a part of the thought itself. It is absurd to say that thought has any meaning unrelated to its only function. It is foolish for Catholics and Protestants to fancy themselves in disagreement about the elements of the sacrament, if they agree in regard to all their sensible effects, here or hereafter.

It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.


Let us illustrate this rule by some examples; and, to begin with the simplest one possible, let us ask what we mean by calling a thing hard. Evidently that it will not be scratched by many other substances. The whole conception of this quality, as of every other, lies in its conceived, effects. There is absolutely no difference between a hard thing and a soft thing so long as they are not brought to the test. Suppose, then, that a diamond could be crystallized in the midst of a cushion of soft cotton, and should remain there until it was finally burned up. Would it be false to say that that diamond was soft? This seems a foolish question, and would be so, in fact, except in the realm of logic. There such questions are often of the greatest utility as serving to bring logical principles into sharper relief than real discussions ever could. In studying logic we must not put them aside with hasty answers, but must consider them with attentive care, in order to make out the principles involved. We may, in the present case, modify our question, and ask what prevents us from saying that all hard bodies remain perfectly soft until they are touched, when their hardness increases with the pressure until they are scratched. Reflection will show that the reply is this: there would be no falsity in such modes of speech. They would involve a modification of our present usage of speech with regard to the words hard and soft, but not of their meanings. For they represent no fact to be different from what it is; only they involve arrangements of facts which would be exceedingly maladroit. This leads us to remark that the question of what would occur under circumstances which do not actually arise is not a question of fact, but only of the most perspicuous arrangement of them. For example, the question of free-will and fate in its simplest form, stripped of verbiage, is something like this: I have done something of which I am ashamed; could I, by an effort of the will, have resisted the temptation, and done otherwise? The philosophical reply is, that this is not a question of fact, but only of the arrangement of facts. Arranging them so as to exhibit what is particularly pertinent to my question namely, that I ought to blame myself for having done wrong it is perfectly true to say that, if I had willed to do otherwise than I did, I should have done otherwise. On the other hand, arranging the facts so as to exhibit another important consideration, it is equally true that, when a temptation has once been allowed to work, it will, if it has a certain force, produce its effect, let me struggle how I may. There is no objection to a contradiction in what would result from a false supposition. The reductio ad absurdum consists in showing that contradictory results would follow from a hypothesis which is consequently judged to be false. Many questions are involved in the free-will discussion, and I am far from desiring to say that both sides are equally right. On the contrary, I am of opinion that one side denies important facts, and that the other does not. But what I do say is, that the above single question was the origin of the whole doubt; that, had it not been for this question, the controversy would never have arisen; and that this question is perfectly solved in the manner which I have indicated.

Let us next seek a clear idea of Weight. This is another very easy case. To say that a body is heavy means simply that, in the absence of opposing force, it will fall. This (neglecting certain specifications of how it will fall, etc., which exist in the mind of the physicist who uses the word) is evidently the whole conception of weight. It is a fair question whether some particular facts may not account for gravity; but what we mean by the force itself is completely involved in its effects.

This leads us to undertake an account of the idea of Force in general. This is the great conception which, developed in the early part of the seventeenth century from the rude idea of a cause, and constantly improved upon since, has shown us how to explain all the changes of motion which bodies experience, and how to think about all physical phenomena; which has given birth to modern science, and changed the face of the globe; and which, aside from its more special uses, has played a principal part in directing the course of modern thought, and in furthering modern social development. It is, therefore, worth some pains to comprehend it. According to our rule, we must begin by asking what is the immediate use of thinking about force; and the answer is, that we thus account for changes of motion. If bodies were left to themselves, without the intervention of forces, every motion would continue unchanged both in velocity and in direction. Furthermore, change of motion never takes place abruptly; if its direction is changed, it is always through a curve without angles; if its velocity alters, it is by degrees. The gradual changes which are constantly taking place are conceived by geometers to be compounded together according to the rules of the parallelogram of forces. If the reader does not already know what this is, he will find it, I hope, to his advantage to endeavor to follow the following explanation; but if mathematics are insupportable to him, pray let him skip three paragraphs rather than that we should part company here.

A path is a line whose beginning and end are distinguished. Two paths are considered to be equivalent, which, beginning at the same point, lead to the same point. Thus the two paths, A B C D E and A F G H E, are equivalent. Paths which do not begin at the same point are considered to be equivalent, provided that, on moving either of them without turning it, but keeping it always parallel to its original position, when its beginning coincides with that of the other path, the ends also coincide. Paths are considered as geometrically added together, when one begins where the other ends; thus the path A E is conceived to be a sum of A B, B C, C D, and D E. In the parallelogram of Fig. 4 the diagonal A C is the sum of A B and B C; or, since A D is geometrically equivalent to B C, A C is the geometrical sum of A B and A D.


All this is purely conventional. It simply amounts to this: that we choose to call paths having the relations I have described equal or added. But, though it is a convention, it is a convention with a good reason. The rule for geometrical addition may be applied not only to paths, but to any other things which can be represented by paths. Now, as a path is determined by the varying direction and distance of the point which moves over it from the starting-point, it follows that anything which from its beginning to its end is determined by a varying direction and a varying magnitude is capable of being represented by a line. Accordingly, velocities may be represented by lines, for they have only directions and rates. The same thing is true of accelerations, or changes of velocities. This is evident enough in the case of velocities; and it becomes evident for accelerations if we consider that precisely what velocities are to positions—namely, states of change of them—that accelerations are to velocities.

The so-called "parallelogram of forces" is simply a rule for compounding accelerations. The rule is, to represent the accelerations by paths, and then to geometrically add the paths. The geometers, however, not only use the "parallelogram of forces" to compound different accelerations, but also to resolve one acceleration into a sum of several. Let A B (Fig. 5) be the path which represents a certain


acceleration—say, such a change in the motion of a body that at the end of one second the body will, under the influence of that change, be in a position different from what it would have had if its motion had continued unchanged such that a path equivalent to A B would lead from the latter position to the former. This acceleration may be considered as the sum of the accelerations represented by A C and C B. It may also be considered as the sum of the very different accelerations represented by A D and D B, where A B is almost the opposite of A C. And it is clear that there is an immense variety of ways in which A B might be resolved into the sum of two accelerations.

After this tedious explanation, which I hope, in view of the extraordinary interest of the conception of force, may not have exhausted the reader's patience, we are prepared at last to state the grand fact which this conception embodies. This fact is that if the actual changes of motion which the different particles of bodies experience are each resolved in its appropriate way, each component acceleration is precisely such as is prescribed by a certain law of Nature, according to which bodies in the relative positions which the bodies in question actually have at the moment,[1] always receive certain accelerations, which, being compounded by geometrical addition, give the acceleration which the body actually experiences.

This is the only fact which the idea of force represents, and whoever will take the trouble clearly to apprehend what this fact is, perfectly comprehends what force is. Whether we ought to say that a force is an acceleration, or that it causes an acceleration, is a mere question of propriety of language, which has no more to do with our real meaning than the difference between the French idiom "Il fait froid" and its English equivalent "It is cold" Yet it is surprising to see how this simple affair has muddled men's minds. In how many profound treatises is not force spoken of as a "mysterious entity," which seems to be only a way of confessing that the author despairs of ever getting a clear notion of what the word means! In a recent admired work on "Analytic Mechanics" it is stated that we understand precisely the effect of force, but what force itself is we do not understand! This is simply a self-contradiction. The idea which the word force excites in our minds has no other function than to affect our actions, and these actions can have no reference to force otherwise than through its effects. Consequently, if we know what the effects of force are, we are acquainted with every fact which is implied in saying that a force exists, and there is nothing more to know. The truth is, there is some vague notion afloat that a question may mean something which the mind cannot conceive; and when some hairsplitting philosophers have been confronted with the absurdity of such a view, they have invented an empty distinction between positive and negative conceptions, in the attempt to give their non-idea a form not obviously nonsensical. The nullity of it is sufficiently plain from the considerations given a few pages back; and, apart from those considerations, the quibbling character of the distinction must have struck every mind accustomed to real thinking.


Let us now approach the subject of logic, and consider a conception which particularly concerns it, that of reality. Taking clearness in the sense of familiarity, no idea could be clearer than this. Every child uses it with perfect confidence, never dreaming that he does not understand it. As for clearness in its second grade, however, it would probably puzzle most men, even among those of a reflective turn of mind to give an abstract definition of the real. Yet such a definition may perhaps be reached by considering the points of difference between reality and its opposite, fiction. A figment is a product of somebody's imagination; it has such characters as his thought impresses upon it. That whose characters are independent of how you or I think is an external reality. There are, however, phenomena within our own minds, dependent upon our thought, which are at the same time real in the sense that we really think them. But though their characters depend on how we think, they do not depend on what we think those characters to be. Thus, a dream has a real existence as a mental phenomenon, if somebody has really dreamt it; that he dreamt so and so, does not depend on what anybody thinks was dreamt, but is completely independent of all opinion on the subject. On the other hand, considering, not the fact of dreaming, but the thing dreamt, it retains its peculiarities by virtue of no other fact than that it was dreamt to possess them. Thus we may define the real as that whose characters are independent of what anybody may think them to be.

But, however satisfactory such a definition may be found, it would be a great mistake to suppose that it makes the idea of reality perfectly clear. Here, then, let us apply our rules. According to them, reality, like every other quality, consists in the peculiar sensible effects which things partaking of it produce. The only effect which real things have is to cause belief, for all the sensations which they excite emerge into consciousness in the form of beliefs. The question therefore is, how is true belief (or belief in the real) distinguished from false belief (or belief in fiction). Now, as we have seen in the former paper, the ideas of truth and falsehood, in their full development, appertain exclusively to the scientific method of settling opinion. A person who arbitrarily chooses the propositions which he will adopt can use the word truth only to emphasize the expression of his determination to hold on to his choice. Of course, the method of tenacity never prevailed exclusively; reason is too natural to men for that. But in the literature of the dark ages we find some fine examples of it. When Scotus Erigena is commenting upon a poetical passage in which hellebore is spoken of as having caused the death of Socrates, he does not hesitate to inform the inquiring reader that Helleborus and Socrates were two eminent Greek philosophers, and that the latter having been overcome in argument by the former took the matter to heart and died of it! What sort of an idea of truth could a man have who could adopt and teach, without the qualification of a perhaps, an opinion taken so entirely at random? The real spirit of Socrates, who I hope would have been delighted to have been "overcome in argument," because he would have learned something by it, is in curious contrast with the naive idea of the glossist, for whom discussion would seem to have been simply a struggle. When philosophy began to awake from its long slumber, and before theology completely dominated it, the practice seems to have been for each professor to seize upon any philosophical position he found unoccupied and which seemed a strong one, to intrench himself in it, and to sally forth from time to time to give battle to the others. Thus, even the scanty records we possess of those disputes enable us to make out a dozen or more opinions held by different teachers at one time concerning the question of nominalism and realism. Read the opening part of the "Historia Calamitatum" of Abelard, who was certainly as philosophical as any of his contemporaries, and see the spirit of combat which it breathes. For him, the truth is simply his particular stronghold. When the method of authority prevailed, the truth meant little more than the Catholic faith. All the efforts of the scholastic doctors are directed toward harmonizing their faith in Aristotle and their faith in the Church, and one may search their ponderous folios through without finding an argument which goes any further. It is noticeable that where different faiths flourish side by side, renegades are looked upon with contempt even by the party whose belief they adopt; so completely has the idea of loyalty replaced that of truth-seeking. Since the time of Descartes, the defect in the conception of truth has been less apparent. Still, it will sometimes strike a scientific man that the philosophers have been less intent on finding out what the facts are, than on inquiring what belief is most in harmony with their system. It is hard to convince a follower of the a priori method by adducing facts; but show him that an opinion he is defending is inconsistent with what he has laid down elsewhere, and he will be very apt to retract it. These minds do not seem to believe that disputation is ever to cease; they seem to think that the opinion which is natural for one man is not so for another, and that belief will, consequently, never be settled. In contenting themselves with fixing their own opinions by a method which would lead another man to a different result, they betray their feeble hold of the conception of what truth is.

On the other hand, all the followers of science are fully persuaded that the processes of investigation, if only pushed far enough, will give one certain solution to every question to which they can be applied. One man may investigate the velocity of light by studying the transits of Venus and the aberration of the stars; another by the oppositions of Mars and the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites; a third by the method of Fizeau; a fourth by that of Foucault; a fifth by the motions of the curves of Lissajoux; a sixth, a seventh, an eighth, and a ninth, may follow the different methods of comparing the measures of statical and dynamical electricity. They may at first obtain different results, but, as each perfects his method and his processes, the results will move steadily together toward a destined centre. So with all scientific research. Different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion. This activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreordained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion. This great law is embodied in the conception of truth and reality. The opinion which is fated[2] to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.

But it may be said that this view is directly opposed to the abstract definition which we have given of reality, inasmuch as it makes the characters of the real to depend on what is ultimately thought about them. But the answer to this is that, on the one hand, reality is independent, not necessarily of thought in general, but only of what you or I or any finite number of men may think about it; and that, on the other hand, though the object of the final opinion depends on what that opinion is, yet what that opinion is does not depend on what you or I or any man thinks. Our perversity and that of others may indefinitely postpone the settlement of opinion; it might even conceivably cause an arbitrary proposition to be universally accepted as long as the human race should last. Yet even that would not change the nature of the belief, which alone could be the result of investigation carried sufficiently far; and if, after the extinction of our race, another should arise with faculties and disposition for investigation, that true opinion must be the one which they would ultimately come to. "Truth crushed to earth shall rise again," and the opinion which would finally result from investigation does not depend on how anybody may actually think. But the reality of that which is real does depend on the real fact that investigation is destined to lead, at last, if continued long enough, to a belief in it.

But I may be asked what I have to say to all the minute facts of history, forgotten never to be recovered, to the lost books of the ancients, to the buried secrets.

"Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air."

Do these things not really exist because they are hopelessly beyond the reach of our knowledge? And then, after the universe is dead (according to the prediction of some scientists), and all life has ceased forever, will not the shock of atoms continue though there will be no mind to know it? To this I reply that, though in no possible state of knowledge can any number be great enough to express the relation between the amount of what rests unknown to the amount of the known, yet it is unphilosophical to suppose that, with regard to any given question (which has any clear meaning), investigation would not bring forth a solution of it, if it were carried far enough. Who would have said, a few years ago, that we could ever know of what substances stars are made whose light may have been longer in reaching us than the human race has existed? Who can be sure of what we shall not know in a few hundred years? Who can guess what would be the result of continuing the pursuit of science for ten thousand years, with the activity of the last hundred? And if it were to go on for a million, or a billion, or any number of years you please, how is it possible to say that there is any question which might not ultimately be solved?

But it maybe objected, "Why make so much of these remote considerations, especially when it is your principle that only practical distinctions have a meaning?" Well, I must confess that it makes very little difference whether we say that a stone on the bottom of the ocean, in complete darkness, is brilliant or not—that is to say, that it probably makes no difference, remembering always that that stone may be fished up to-morrow. But that there are gems at the bottom of the sea, flowers in the untraveled desert, etc., are propositions which, like that about a diamond being hard when it is not pressed, concern much more the arrangement of our language than they do the meaning of our ideas.

It seems to me, however, that we have, by the application of our rule, reached so clear an apprehension of what we mean by reality, and of the fact which the idea rests on, that we should not, perhaps, be making a pretension so presumptuous as it would be singular, if we were to offer a metaphysical theory of existence for universal acceptance among those who employ the scientific method of fixing belief. However, as metaphysics is a subject much more curious than useful, the knowledge of which, like that of a sunken reef, serves chiefly to enable us to keep clear of it, I will not trouble the reader with any more Ontology at this moment. I have already been led much further into that path than I should have desired; and I have given the reader such a dose of mathematics, psychology, and all that is most abstruse, that I fear he may already have left me, and that what I am now writing is for the compositor and proof-reader exclusively. I trusted to the importance of the subject. There is no royal road to logic, and really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention. But I know that in the matter of ideas the public prefer the cheap and nasty; and in my next paper I am going to return to the easily intelligible, and not wander from it again. The reader who has been at the pains of wading through this month's paper, shall be rewarded in the next one by seeing how beautifully what has been developed in this tedious way can be applied to the ascertainment of the rules of scientific reasoning.

We have, hitherto, not crossed the threshold of scientific logic. It is certainly important to know how to make our ideas clear, but they may be ever so clear without being true. How to make them so, we have next to study. How to give birth to those vital and pro-creative ideas which multiply into a thousand forms and diffuse themselves everywhere, advancing civilization and making the dignity of man, is an art not yet reduced to rules, but of the secret of which the history of science affords some hints.



1. Possibly the velocities also have to be taken into account.

2. Fate means merely that, which is sure to come true, and can nohow be avoided. It is a superstition to suppose that a certain sort of events are ever fated, and it is another to suppose that the word fate can never be freed from its superstitious taint. We are all fated to die.
Site Admin
Posts: 33508
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Return to Philosophy

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest