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   Chapter 6 THE CRITIQUE OF PRAGMATISM

Winds Of Doctrine By George Santayana Characters: 24828

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The time has not yet come when a just and synthetic account of what is called pragmatism can be expected of any man. The movement is still in a nebulous state, a state from which, perhaps, it is never destined to issue. The various tendencies that compose it may soon cease to appear together; each may detach itself and be lost in the earlier system with which it has most affinity. A good critic has enumerated "Thirteen Pragmatisms;" and besides such distinguishable tenets, there are in pragmatism echoes of various popular moral forces, like democracy, impressionism, love of the concrete, respect for success, trust in will and action, and the habit of relying on the future, rather than on the past, to justify one's methods and opinions. Most of these things are characteristically American; and Mr. Russell touches on some of them with more wit than sympathy. Thus he writes: "The influence of democracy in promoting pragmatism is visible in almost every page of William James's writing. There is an impatience of authority, an unwillingness to condemn widespread prejudices, a tendency to decide philosophical questions by putting them to a vote, which contrast curiously with the usual dictatorial tone of philosophic writings.... A thing which simply is true, whether you like it or not, is to him as hateful as a Russian autocracy; he feels that he is escaping from a prison, made not by stone walls but by 'hard facts,' when he has humanised truth, and made it, like the police force in a democracy, the servant of the people instead of their master. The democratic temper pervades even the religion of the pragmatists; they have the religion they have chosen, and the traditional reverence is changed into satisfaction with their own handiwork. 'The prince of darkness,' James says, 'may be a gentleman, as we are told he is, but whatever the God of earth and heaven is, he can surely be no gentleman,' He is rather, we should say, conceived by pragmatists as an elected president, to whom we give a respect which is really a tribute to the wisdom of our own choice. A government in which we have no voice is repugnant to the democratic temper. William James carries up to heaven the revolt of his New England ancestors: the Power to which we can yield respect must be a George Washington rather than a George III."

A point of fundamental importance, about which pragmatists have been far from clear, and perhaps not in agreement with one another, is the sense in which their psychology is to be taken. "The facts that fill the imaginations of pragmatists," Mr. Russell writes, "are psychical facts; where others might think of the starry heavens, pragmatists think of the perception of the starry heavens; where others think of God, pragmatists think of the belief in God, and so on. In discussing the sciences, they never think, like scientific specialists, about the facts upon which scientific theories are based; they think about the theories themselves. Thus their initial question and their habitual imaginative background are both psychological." This is so true that unless we make the substitution into psychic terms instinctively, the whole pragmatic view of things will seem paradoxical, if not actually unthinkable. For instance, pragmatists might protest against the accusation that "they never think about the facts upon which scientific theories are based," for they lay a great emphasis on facts. Facts are the cash which the credit of theories hangs upon. Yet this protest, though sincere, would be inconclusive, and in the end it would illustrate Mr. Russell's observation, rather than refute it. For we should presently learn that these facts can be made by thinking, that our faith in them may contribute to their reality, and may modify their nature; in other words, these facts are our immediate apprehensions of fact, which it is indeed conceivable that our temperaments, expectations, and opinions should modify. Thus the pragmatist's reliance on facts does not carry him beyond the psychic sphere; his facts are only his personal experiences. Personal experiences may well be the basis for no less personal myths; but the effort of intelligence and of science is rather to find the basis of the personal experiences themselves; and this non-psychic basis of experience is what common sense calls the facts, and what practice is concerned with. Yet these are not the pragmata of the pragmatist, for it is only the despicable intellectualist that can arrive at them; and the bed-rock of facts that the pragmatist builds upon is avowedly drifting sand. Hence the odd expressions, new to literature and even to grammar, which bubble up continually in pragmatist writings. "For illustration take the former fact that the earth is flat," says one, quite innocently; and another observes that "two centuries later, nominalism was evidently true, because it alone would legitimise the local independence of cities." Lest we should suppose that the historical sequence of these "truths" or illusions is, at least, fixed and irreversible, we are soon informed that the past is always changing, too; that is (if I may rationalise this mystical dictum), that history is always being rewritten, and that the growing present adds new relations to the past, which lead us to conceive or to describe it in some new fashion. Even if the ultimate inference is not drawn, and we are not told that this changing idea of the past is the only past that exists-the real past being unattainable and therefore, for personal idealism, non-existent-it is abundantly clear that the effort to distinguish fact from theory cannot be successful, so long as the psychological way of thinking prevails; for a theory, psychologically considered, is a bare fact in the experience of the theorist, and the other facts of his experience are so many other momentary views, so many scant theories, to be immediately superseded by other "truths in the plural." Sensations and ideas are really distinguishable only by reference to what is assumed to lie without; of which external reality experience is always an effect (and in that capacity is called sensation) and often at the same time an apprehension (and in that capacity is called idea).

It is a crucial question, then, in the interpretation of pragmatism, whether the psychological point of view, undoubtedly prevalent in that school, is the only or the ultimate point of view which it admits. The habit of studying ideas rather than their objects might be simply a matter of emphasis or predilection. It might merely indicate a special interest in the life of reason, and be an effort, legitimate under any system of philosophy, to recount the stages by which human thought, developing in the bosom of nature, may have reached its present degree of articulation. I myself, for instance, like to look at things from this angle: not that I have ever doubted the reality of the natural world, or been able to take very seriously any philosophy that denied it, but precisely because, when we take the natural world for granted, it becomes a possible and enlightening inquiry to ask how the human animal has come to discover his real environment, in so far as he has done so, and what dreams have intervened or supervened in the course of his rational awakening. On the other hand, a psychological point of view might be equivalent to the idealistic doctrine that the articulation of human thought constitutes the only structure of the universe, and its whole history. According to this view, pragmatism would seem to be a revised version of the transcendental logic, leaving logic still transcendental, that is, still concerned with the evolution of the categories. The revision would consist chiefly in this, that empirical verification, utility, and survival would take the place of dialectical irony as the force governing the evolution. It would still remain possible for other methods of approach than this transcendental pragmatism, for instinct, perhaps, or for revelation, to bring us into contact with things-in-themselves. A junction might thus be effected with the system of M. Bergson, which would lead to this curious result: that pragmatic logic would be the method of intelligence, because intelligence is merely a method, useful in practice, for the symbolic and improper representation of reality; while another non-pragmatic method-sympathy and dream-would alone be able to put us in possession of direct knowledge and genuine truth. So that, after all, the pragmatic "truth" of working ideas would turn out to be what it has seemed hitherto to mankind, namely, no real truth, but rather a convenient sort of fiction, which ceases to deceive when once its merely pragmatic value is discounted by criticism. I remember once putting a question on this subject to Professor James; and his answer was one which I am glad to be able to record. In relation to his having said that "as far as the past facts go, there is no difference ... be the atoms or be the God their cause,"[7] I asked whether, if God had been the cause, apart from the value of the idea of him in our calculations, his existence would not have made a difference to him, as he would be presumably self-conscious. "Of course," said Professor James, "but I wasn't considering that side of the matter; I was thinking of our idea." The choice of the subjective point of view, then, was deliberate here, and frankly arbitrary; it was not intended to exclude the possibility or legitimacy of the objective attitude. And the original reason for deliberately ignoring, in this way, the realistic way of thinking, even while admitting that it represents the real state of affairs, would have been, I suppose, that what could be verified was always some further effect of the real objects, and never those real objects themselves; so that for interpreting and predicting our personal experience only the hypothesis of objects was pertinent, while the objects themselves, except as so represented, were useless and unattainable. The case, if I may adapt a comparison of Mr. Russell's, was as if we possessed a catalogue of the library at Alexandria, all the books being lost for ever; it would be only in the catalogue that we could practically verify their existence or character, though doubtless, by some idle flight of imagination, we might continue to think of the books, as well as of those titles in the catalogue which alone could appear to us in experience. Pragmatism, approached from this side, would then seem to express an acute critical conscience, a sort of will not to believe; not to believe, I mean, more than is absolutely necessary for solipsistic practice.

Such economical faith, enabling one to dissolve the hard materialistic world into a work of mind, which mind might outflank, was traditional in the radical Emersonian circles in which pragmatism sprang up. It is one of the approaches to the movement; yet we may safely regard the ancestral transcendentalism of the pragmatists as something which they have turned their back upon, and mean to disown. It is destined to play no part in the ultimate result of pragmatism. This ultimate result promises to be, on the contrary, a direct materialistic sort of realism. This alone is congruous with the scientific affinities of the school and its young-American temper. Nor is the transformation very hard to effect. The world of solipsistic practice, if you remove the romantic self that was supposed to evoke it, becomes at once the sensible world; and the problem is only to find a place in the mosaic of objects of sensation for those cognitive and moral functions which the soul was once supposed to exercise in the presence of an independent reality. But this problem is precisely the one that pragmatists boast they have already solved; for they have declared that consciousness does not exist, and that objects of sensation (which at first were called feelings, experiences, or "truths") know or mean one another when they lead to one another, when they are poles, so to speak, in the same vital circuit. The spiritual act which was supposed to take things for its object is to be turned into "objective spirit," that is, into dynamic relations between things. The philosopher will deny that he has any other sort of mind himself, lest he should be shut up in it again, like a sceptical and disconso

late child; while if there threatens to be any covert or superfluous reality in the self-consciousness of God, nothing will be easier than to deny that God is self-conscious; for indeed, if there is no consciousness on earth, why should we imagine that there is any in heaven? The psychologism with which the pragmatists started seems to be passing in this way, in the very effort to formulate it pragmatically, into something which, whatever it may be, is certainly not psychologism. But the bewildered public may well ask whether it is pragmatism either.

There is another crucial point in pragmatism which the defenders of the system are apt to pass over lightly, but which Mr. Russell regards (justly, I think) as of decisive importance. Is, namely, the pragmatic account of truth intended to cover all knowledge, or one kind of knowledge only? Apparently the most authoritative pragmatists admit that it covers one kind only; for there are two sorts of self-evidence in which, they say, it is not concerned: first, the dialectical relation between essences; and second, the known occurrence or experience of facts. There are obvious reasons why these two kinds of cognitions, so interesting to Mr. Russell, are not felt by pragmatists to constitute exceptions worth considering. Dialectical relations, they will say, are verbal only; that is, they define ideal objects, and certainty in these cases does not coerce existence, or touch contingent fact at all. On the other hand, such apprehension as seizes on some matter of fact, as, for instance, "I feel pain," or "I expected to feel this pain, and it is now verifying my expectation," though often true propositions, are not theoretical truths; they are not, it is supposed, questionable beliefs but rather immediate observations. Yet many of these apprehensions of fact (or all, perhaps, if we examine them scrupulously) involve the veracity of memory, surely a highly questionable sort of truth; and, moreover, verification, the pragmatic test of truth, would be obviously impossible to apply, if the prophecy supposed to be verified were not assumed to be truly remembered. How shall we know that our expectation is fulfilled, if we do not know directly that we had such an expectation? But if we know our past experience directly-not merely knew it when present, but know now what it was, and how it has led down to the present-this amounts to enough knowledge to make up a tolerable system of the universe, without invoking pragmatic verification or "truth" at all. I have never been able to discover whether, by that perception of fact which is not "truth" but fact itself, pragmatists meant each human apprehension taken singly, or the whole series of these apprehensions. In the latter case, as in the philosophy of M. Bergson, all past reality might constantly lie open to retentive intuition, a form of knowledge soaring quite over the head of any pragmatic method or pragmatic "truth." It looks, indeed, as if the history of at least personal experience were commonly taken for granted by pragmatists, as a basis on which to rear their method. Their readiness to make so capital an assumption is a part of their heritage from romantic idealism. To the romantic idealist science and theology are tales which ought to be reduced to an empirical equivalent in his personal experience; but the tale of his personal experience itself is a sacred figment, the one precious conviction of the romantic heart, which it would be heartless to question. Yet here is a kind of assumed truth which cannot be reduced to its pragmatic meaning, because it must be true literally in order that the pragmatic meaning of other beliefs may be conceived or tested at all.

Now, if it be admitted that the pragmatic theory of truth does not touch our knowledge either of matters of fact or of the necessary implications of ideas, the question arises: What sort of knowledge remains for pragmatic theory to apply to? Simply, Mr. Russell answers, those "working hypotheses" to which "prudent people give only a low degree of belief." For "we hold different beliefs with very different degrees of conviction. Some-such as the belief that I am sitting in a chair, or that 2+2=4-can be doubted by few except those who have had a long training in philosophy. Such beliefs are held so firmly that non-philosophers who deny them are put into lunatic asylums. Other beliefs, such as the facts of history, are held rather less firmly.... Beliefs about the future, as that the sun will rise to-morrow and that the trains will run approximately as in Bradshaw, may be held with almost as great conviction as beliefs about the past. Scientific laws are generally believed less firmly.... Philosophical beliefs, finally, will, with most people, take a still lower place, since the opposite beliefs of others can hardly fail to induce doubt. Belief, therefore, is a matter of degree. To speak of belief, disbelief, doubt, and suspense of judgment as the only possibilities is as if, from the writing on the thermometer, we were to suppose that blood heat, summer heat, temperate, and freezing were the only temperatures." Beliefs which require to be confirmed by future experience, or which actually refer to it, are evidently only presumptions; it is merely the truth of presumptions that empirical logic applies to, and only so long as they remain presumptions. Presumptions may be held with very different degrees of assurance, and yet be acted upon, in the absence of any strong counter-suggestion; as the confidence of lovers or of religious enthusiasts may be at blood heat at one moment and freezing at the next, without a change in anything save in the will to believe. The truth of such presumptions, whatever may be the ground of them, depends in fact on whether they are to lead (or, rather, whether the general course of events is to lead) to the further things presumed; for these things are what presumptions refer to explicitly.

It sometimes happens, however, that presumptions (being based on voluminous blind instinct rather than on distinct repeated observations) are expressed in consciousness by some symbol or myth, as when a man says he believes in his luck; the presumption really regards particular future chances and throws of the dice, but the emotional and verbal mist in which the presumption is wrapped, veils the pragmatic burden of it; and a metaphysical entity arises, called luck, in which a man may think he believes rather than in a particular career that may be awaiting him. Now since this entity, luck, is a mere word, confidence in it, to be justified at all, must be transferred to the concrete facts it stands for. Faith in one's luck must be pragmatic, but simply because faith in such an entity is not needful nor philosophical at all. The case is the same with working hypotheses, when that is all they are; for on this point there is some confusion. Whether an idea is a working hypothesis merely or an anticipation of matters open to eventual inspection may not always be clear. Thus the atomic theory, in the sense in which most philosophers entertain it to-day, seems to be a working hypothesis only; for they do not seriously believe that there are atoms, but in their ignorance of the precise composition of matter, they find it convenient to speak of it as if it were composed of indestructible particles. But for Democritus and for many modern men of science the atomic theory is not a working hypothesis merely; they do not regard it as a provisional makeshift; they regard it as a probable, if not a certain, anticipation of what inspection would discover to be the fact, could inspection be carried so far; in other words, they believe the atomic theory is true. If they are right, the validity of this theory would not be that of pragmatic "truth" but of pragmatic "fact"; for it would be a view, such as memory or intuition or sensation might give us, of experienced objects in their experienced relations; it would be the communication to us, in a momentary dream, of what would be the experience of a universal observer. It would be knowledge of reality in M. Bergson's sense. Pragmatic "truth," on the contrary, is the relative and provisional justification of fiction; and pragmatism is not a theory of truth at all, but a theory of theory, when theory is instrumental.

For theory too has more than one signification. It may mean such a symbolic or foreshortened view, such a working hypothesis, as true and full knowledge might supersede; or it may mean this true and full knowledge itself, a synthetic survey of objects of experience in their experimental character. Algebra and language are theoretical in the first sense, as when a man believes in his luck; historical and scientific imagination are theoretical in the second sense, when they gather objects of experience together without distorting them. But it is only to the first sort of theory that pragmatism can be reasonably applied; to apply it also to the second would be to retire into that extreme subjectivism which the leading pragmatists have so hotly disclaimed. We find, accordingly, that it is only when a theory is avowedly unreal, and does not ask to be believed, that the value of it is pragmatic; since in that case belief passes consciously from the symbols used to the eventual facts in which the symbolism terminates, and for which it stands.

It may seem strange that a definition of truth should have been based on the consideration of those ideas exclusively for which truth is not claimed by any critical person, such ideas, namely, as religious myths or the graphic and verbal machinery of science. Yet the fact is patent, and if we considered the matter historically it might not prove inexplicable. Theology has long applied the name truth pre-eminently to fiction. When the conviction first dawned upon pragmatists that there was no absolute or eternal truth, what they evidently were thinking of was that it is folly, in this changing world, to pledge oneself to any final and inflexible creed. The pursuit of truth, since nothing better was possible, was to be accepted instead of the possession of it. But it is characteristic of Protestantism that, when it gives up anything, it transfers to what remains the unction, and often the name, proper to what it has abandoned. So, if truth was no longer to be claimed or even hoped for, the value and the name of truth could be instinctively transferred to what was to take its place-spontaneous, honest, variable conviction. And the sanctions of this conviction were to be looked for, not in the objective reality, since it was an idle illusion to fancy we could get at that, but in the growth of this conviction itself, and in the prosperous adventure of the whole soul, so courageous in its self-trust, and so modest in its dogmas.

Science, too, has often been identified, not with the knowledge men of science possess, but with the language they use. If science meant knowledge, the science of Darwin, for instance, would lie in his observations of plants and animals, and in his thoughts about the probable ancestors of the human race-all knowledge of actual or possible facts. It would not be knowledge of selection or of spontaneous variation, terms which are mere verbal bridges over the gaps in that knowledge, and mark the lacunae and unsolved problems of the science. Yet it is just such terms that seem to clothe "Science" in its pontifical garb; the cowl is taken for the monk; and when a penetrating critic, like M. Henri Poincaré, turned his subtle irony upon them, the public cried that he had announced the "bankruptcy of science," whereas it is merely the language of science that he had reduced to its pragmatic value-to convenience and economy in the registering of facts-and had by no means questioned that positive and cumulative knowledge of facts which science is attaining. It is an incident in the same general confusion that a critical epistemology, like pragmatism, analysing these figments of scientific or theological theory, should innocently suppose that it was analysing truth; while the only view to which it really attributes truth is its view of the system of facts open to possible experience, a system which those figments presuppose and which they may help us in part to divine, where it is accidentally hidden from human inspection.

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