Derek Sivers

Introducing Pragmatism - by Cornelis de Waal

Introducing Pragmatism - by Cornelis de Waal

ISBN: 1138367184
Date read: 2022-11-11
How strongly I recommend it: 6/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Semi-academic introduction to philosophers in the pragmatism tradition. Not a light read, but some great insights and ideas in the quotes.

my notes

Enormous progress in the applied sciences:
While we got a better grip on the world, it became more difficult to argue that we can know its true nature.

Our mind is also very skilled at deceiving us.

Rationality is neither neutral nor intrinsically good.

Definition of belief: “that upon which a man is prepared to act.”

What can I know?
What must I do?
What may I hope?

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.
Difficulties which have amused philosophers have blocked up the way to knowledge.
We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.

Pragmatism aims to guarantee that the concepts we use have meaning.
Concepts that have no conceivable practical consequences are to be thrown out as meaningless.

There may not be any rules made up in advance, no finished and a priori world “out there” to operate as an absolute, secure standard by which to measure themselves.

Pragmatism focuses on the future rather than the past.

The term pragmatism: James prefers practicalism, Schiller humanism, and Dewey instrumentalism.
The only real significance of a general term lies in the general behavior which it implies.

Descartes argued that whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true.

Magicians make us “see” things that do not happen.
What seems absolutely clear and true at the outset later turns out to have been deceptive and false.

The meaning of any thought lies in the thoughts it calls up.

What is not a question of a possible experience is not a question of fact.

Any question we ask always takes place against a backdrop of beliefs that we take for granted.

Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves.
Belief is a calm and satisfactory state.
We feel a strong desire to change doubt into belief.
We do our very best to maintain the beliefs we have, to avoid lapsing back into doubt.

Doubting is very much like having an itch. It requires immediate action directed to its relief.
Doubt is thus a direct stimulus to inquiry, and we stop inquiring as soon as the doubt is gone, just as we stop scratching when the itch is gone.
Any belief that alleviates doubt will work, no matter whether it is true or false.
The belief is not necessarily true belief.

Belief is the establishment of a certain habit that will determine how we will act when appropriately stimulated.

Confidence in our own beliefs is too easily shaken in the interaction with others.
He might find that other men think differently from him, that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief.

The opinions which today seem most unshakeable are found tomorrow to be out of fashion.

The skeptic makes the basic mistake of concluding from the fact that any belief can be doubted that all beliefs can be doubted.

There is absolutely no difference between a hard thing and a soft thing so long as they are not brought to the test.

Question what would occur under circumstances which do not actually arise.

Something is real when it is independent of what you or I or anyone in particular thinks it to be.

The belief these real objects can effect upon us is our whole conception of those real objects.
“Reality” can mean nothing other than the object of permanently settled belief or opinion.

One man’s experience is nothing if it stands alone. If he sees what others cannot see, we call it hallucination.

Truth is permanently settled opinion.

Permanently settled belief = a belief that no future inquiry can undermine; that no future inquiry can show it to be false or cast any doubt on it

Filter out distorting elements that result from the peculiarities that individual inquirers may carry with them.
Conspiracy theories hold that reality encompasses more than what actually exists.
The pragmatist is interested primarily in those effects that can be conceived to make a practical difference, rather than those that are of mere theoretical value.

One has a right to believe something even when there is no sufficient evidence for its truth.

We may, or even must, make up our mind even when there is not enough evidence to support our choice.

Take the risk and be prepared to face the consequences.

Restricting the “freedom to believe” solely to genuine options that cannot be resolved by the intellect?

Some things become true precisely because we believe them.
If I am willing to believe that you must like me, then I am much more likely to be nice to you myself, thereby increasing the chance that you will indeed like me.

Relate beliefs directly to the individual’s motives for holding them.

The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is indeed the conduct it dictates or inspires.

The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the one which is true.

If the belief has practical consequences for the believer, then that belief has pragmatic value.

Should we believe that the universe is a chance product of the random motion of bits of matter (materialism)
or should we believe that the universe is created by a god (theism)?
Both mean exactly the same thing - the power that can make just this world.
There will be no practical difference between the two; there is a difference in name only.

What matters is not the past, but how they direct us to the future.

Taken by themselves, facts are never true.
It is only when we say something about them that truth and falsity come in.
The facts themselves are not true. They simply are.
Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.
Truth is neither a property of certain ideas, nor a property of facts, but involves the agreement of our ideas with facts.
Consequently, when we say that a certain fact is true, we have added something to that fact.

Truth we conceive to mean everywhere.

Ideas are true when they fit in.

Moral ideas - expressing how things should be - may differ widely from how things are.

That an idea is “true” so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives - that it is good.

Beliefs that originate within ourselves, but that do not copy anything without us, will still count as true when they lead us in directions that are worthwhile.

A process of veri-fication, in which our beliefs are made true by the events to which they lead.

If my believing in God leads to good consequences (on the whole and in the long run), then we can say that this belief agrees with reality, and consequently, it can be said to be true (as truth is an agreement of our beliefs with reality).

True beliefs are those that work, and false beliefs are those that don’t.

Philosophical conceptions such as truth, reality, determinism, etc., must always be kept within our own human perspective and may not be dehumanized.

Beliefs must have practical consequences to be meaningful.
If those practical consequences come about, the belief is not just meaningful but also true.

That the earth is round is not something “made true” by those who first discovered it, but something that was true all along, and something that would have been equally so had it never been discovered.

All “truths” must be verified to be properly true.

My belief that I can jump over a stream may give me the strength to do so, and thereby it makes the object of the belief (my ability to jump over the stream) real.

We are continuously obliged to act without ever fully appreciating either the sources of our acts or their consequences.
Any discussion of the meaning of life should center on action.
It cannot be settled in rational reflection (by giving reasons) or through passive experience (as if watching a play).
It can be resolved only through action, by actually living life, as a freely chosen experiment.

Some dismiss pragmatism as a “logical utilitarianism” where truth is made subservient to psychological gratification, just as the utilitarians, with their pleasure-pain calculation, had done for morality.
The pragmatists fail in their moral obligation to seek truth, satisfying themselves instead with what is useful and pleasurable.
In contrast, we must accept truths also when they are useless or painful.

Any philosophy is nothing but a personal mode of living.

Reject all prefabricated ideas or theories.
Each individual is capable of developing his or her own theory of life.

A philosophy of action, a philosophy of doing, of rebuilding, transforming, creating.

The true is the useful. To know is to do.

We must not accept reality “as is.”
Our responsibility is not to describe reality, but to shape it according to our own ideals.
It is not we who must bend to reality, but reality must make way for us.

Concepts have no meaning in isolation.
To determine the meaning of a concept, one must see it in action.

Pragmatism “unstiffens” our theories and beliefs by recognizing their purely instrumental value, making them susceptible to change when the circumstances alter.

Pragmatism is really less a philosophy than a method of doing without philosophy.

In the absence of an independent criterion of truth, the solution to any intellectual or practical problem can only be a product of caprice.

All knowledge is about a direct connection of particular, private ideas drawn within a particular voluntary act of judgment by a particular individual at a particular moment.
It is wholly confined to that.
It does not extend beyond it.

Skepticism is so often accompanied by a robust desire for absolute certainty.

Whenever we think, we engage in an interior dialogue that always involves three parties: our past self, our present self, and our future self.

The act with its practical consequences controls the acquisition of knowledge.

Thought cannot be separated from action.

The consequences of one’s acts are seldom limited to oneself.

The shift from mere play to playing games marks an important step.
In a game, roles are connected through the specific rules.
Not only are chess and football games, but also taxation, open heart surgery, democracy, and linguistic communication.

The self is shaped by the roles that individual comes to play, by the games we come to participate in.
Hence, people understand themselves as students, lovers, parents, bricklayers, doctors, citizens, Christians.
Individuals participate in numerous overlapping games.
You are the roles that you play.

Games cannot be played without the cooperation of others.

Many games have their own purpose, which may be different from the aims of any of the individuals participating in them.
The object of the game resides in the life-process of the group, not in those of the separate individuals alone.
The stock market is a good example of a game with its own object.

Individuals can grasp those objects by distancing themselves from their own role and taking the attitude of the group.
They can do this as they can run mentally through the roles of others.
See how the different roles hang together.

Thought is nothing but action internalized, so that there is no principal difference between a philosophy of the act and a philosophy of mind.

The eye endows objects with color. The colors are not in the object, nor are they in the eye of the beholder, but they emerge within the transaction that takes place between the two.

Philosophy, including logic and the theory of inquiry, are firmly within psychology.
Logic cannot be separated from psychology.

In a world without trouble, there would be no thought.

If the problem is how to evenly divide five pieces of birthday cake among eleven children, it is not the personal satisfaction of the children or the cake-cutter that determines whether the cake is cut evenly, but whether the eleven children all get the same amount of cake.
The same is true for knowledge acquisition in general.
The issue is not whether the inquirers feel satisfied with the answer, but whether the answer solves the problem.
Of course, solving the problem will generally satisfy the inquirers.

If all judgments are practical, thinking would be an art, like boatbuilding or painting watercolors, and all knowledge would be a product of the art of thinking.

Just like boatbuilding, thinking takes certain raw materials (memories, sensory experiences, etc.) and shapes them to make them fit a certain purpose, which in this case is the purpose of attaining knowledge.

What gives an observation - the world - its value, is how it contributes to the purpose at hand.

The orchardist, the woodworker, the painter, and the biologist all see an apple tree differently.
It makes no sense to ask which of these impressions reflects the real apple tree or whether there is something like “the true apple tree” of which the others are all partial (and partisan) impressions.

The principles of logic are as objective as the principle that teakwood is the best choice for ship decks - as it is durable, strong, doesn’t soak up water, doesn’t rot, etc.
It is simply a matter of means and consequences.

What is reasonableness?
You see a person doing something that is unreasonable.
What do you mean?
Either he is setting up ends that he hasn’t got the means for realizing, or he is using the means in such a way that they won’t give him the result he is after.

Use “warranted assertibility” to replace “belief” and “knowledge”.
Stay away from “belief” because of its ambiguity - it can refer either to the object of a belief, or to a state of belief. Confusing these two has caused serious misunderstandings.

“Dogmatic” applies to any statement asserted to possess inherent self-evident truth.

Too much rationality puts the soul at odds with life.
Rationality implies an almost superstitious reliance on logical proofs and logical motives, and it is logic that life mocks and contradicts at every turn.
We cannot separate our feelings from our perception of life.

The proper attitude for the experimental life:
Simulated ignorance, and the adoption, without committing one’s self, of another’s point of view.

The given is that element in perception that remains unaltered, no matter what our interests, no matter how we think or conceive.
It is wholly independent of any activity of thought.
The given is what remains untouched and unaltered, however it is construed by thought.

Reality is a conceptual construction created by the human mind to fit its aims in scientific reasoning and its need, as a social animal, for a common world.

The a priori is necessary not because the mind is forced to accept it no matter what experience will bring, but because it represents the free attitude of the mind, so that it does not matter whether experience agrees with it or not.

We used to define death as having stopped breathing.
That definition was replaced, first by one in terms of a stoppage of the flow of blood, and later by one that makes the absence of brain activity the dominant sign of death.
In both cases, the new definition does not prove its predecessor false, but simply causes us to abandon it.

We do not attain knowledge when we somehow furnish ourselves with a copy of what is presented.
Rather, we know something when we can proceed from what is given to something that is not.
It can be related to future actual and possible experiences, or it can be related to our own interests and actions.

Whether a certain interpretation is successful depends on whether it matches our future experiences and serves our interests.

There can be no more fundamental ground than the pragmatic for a truth of any sort.
Nothing - not even direct perception - can force the abandonment of an interpretative attitude … except some demand or purpose of the mind itself.

All problems are problems of conduct.
All judgments are judgments of value.

Take the geocentric view, on which Earth is the unmoving center of the universe. It states that “The Earth does not move.”
In contrast, the heliocentric view, which positions the Sun at the center, states that “The Earth does move.”
Since these two statements contradict, if one is true, the other must be false.
Now it is tempting to resolve this contradiction as follows:
The Earth does not move according to the geocentric view.
The Earth does move according to the heliocentric view.
This does not work, he writes, for the simple reason that whereas the original two claims were about Earth, the latter two are not.
The truth of “The Earth does not move according to the geocentric view” is independent of whether the Earth moves or not.

We cannot describe reality independently of any version.
In the absence of version-independent facts, we have no non-arbitrary ground on which to claim which of them truly describes the world.
Since we can only think about a world through some version, we cannot really say that a version is true to a world.
The reverse is equally true - namely, that the world is true to a version.
Where versions contradict, they must describe different worlds.
Various criteria can be used to determine what version to choose.
However, the claim that one version describes “the world” better than the other version cannot be one of the criteria.
We must conclude that we partake in multiple worlds at once.
These worlds contain different facts, as facts emerge only at the conceptual level.

Conceptual relativism:
In trying to understand what people mean, we must presuppose that most of their beliefs are true.
We do this when someone says something that we think is true even though he is using what we take to be the wrong word.
We begin by ascribing truth to someone’s claims and, on the basis of that, try to figure out what he must have meant.
We have to be charitable when interpreting the claims of others.
This charity is forced on us.
Whether we like it or not, if we want to understand others, we must count them right in most matters.

There is not much left of empiricism.
This is because empiricism relies on the notion that there is something neutral and common that lies outside all conceptual schemes and determines which schemes are correct

We can only compare conceptual schemes with other conceptual schemes.

Truth is merely human truth, fallible and changeable like everything human.
What lies outside the cycle of human occurrences is not truth, but fact.
Truth is a property of beliefs, and beliefs are psychical events.

Beliefs are vague and complex.
Beliefs are not sharply opposed as true or false, but have a blur of truth and falsehood; they are of varying shades of grey.

The meaning of a sentence is to be defined by reference to the actions to which asserting it would lead.

A different conception of truth: from true propositions picturing or mirroring the facts, we shift to beliefs being true when they meet our (epistemic) ends.

The sentence “S is true,” means exactly the same as (adds nothing to) the sentence S itself, making the add-on “is true” redundant.

Everything that does not fit the procrustean bed of logic and sense is nonsense.
Albeit this includes some very important nonsense, like ethics and religion.

Though acts may not be true or false, they can be successful or unsuccessful.

There are things we trust because it is unreasonable not to, even though we cannot prove them because any proof will be less certain than they are.
They are, rather, instinctual, in that they are not taught and often remain unarticulated.

Many of these things are not particularly useful in the narrow sense that they direct us to successful action - action that gives us the things we want.
Rather, they constitute the general background that makes (successful) action possible.

We just can’t investigate everything.

If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.

We developed sense organs not so we could acquire disengaged theoretical knowledge about the world, but to steer our actions.

Knowing an object entails participating in its Sosein - its being what it is on its own accord, not as a tool that can serve some purpose of ours.

Knowing is characterized by humility and self-effacement, rather than by domination and control.

Getting to know another being, or the world, requires openness and a willingness to become like it.

Pre-theoretical engagement with the world forms the basis for any understanding of that world.

Unable to lose ourselves in the here and now, we had to become anticipatory, and had to discipline ourselves, to the future.
We are forced to create the conditions necessary for our survival.

Humans are first and foremost acting beings, not minds with bodies.
Our need to act extends beyond our ability to know.

A situation calls for a non-experimental form of action, one that is grounded in tradition, instinct, habit, or convention.

Beliefs, statements, and acts can be said to be more rational the more defensible they are against criticism.
New conception of truth: whether we can defend the belief against the objections of others.

To want simply a saucer of mud is irrational, because some further reason is needed for wanting it.
To want a saucer of mud because one wants to enjoy its rich river-smell is rational. No further reason is needed.

The True and the Right are matters of social practice.
The view which can survive all objections.

Stop worrying about whether what one believes is well grounded and start worrying about whether one has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to one’s present beliefs.

Rather than the myopic precision of a forensic accountant, a desire of being astonished and exhilarated.

We have no way of talking about truth other than in terms of the justification of belief.
Truth: with the consensus of a community rather than a relation to a nonhuman reality.

Declare the whole enterprise of seeking theories of truth outdated.
One might as well continue to insist that chemical compounds be analyzed in terms of the four basic elements: earth, fire, air, and water.

We do not need a goal called “truth” any more than our digestive organs need a goal called health to set them to work.

The word “truth” can be used in a cautionary sense, as in “This belief is justified, but is it really true?”

A way that helps us cope with life.

Our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark.
What we need is solidarity.

Changing how one sees the world means changing how one speaks about it.

Common sense is the watchword of those who unselfconsciously describe everything important in terms of the final vocabulary to which they and those around them are habituated.

The free exchange of ideas enabled by democracy formed through a process of deliberate mutual adjustments a certain coherence in belief.

“Human rights” is merely an expression we currently agree upon using to condemn or commend certain actions or beliefs.

Truth is how an all-knowing god would see and describe the world.

Facts are always infused with values, and values are always infused with facts.

“Good” is a value judgment.

If we cannot disentangle facts from norms and values, and norms and values are subjective, then the question becomes whether objective knowledge is possible at all.

Our norms and values merely reflect our interests.
We are all too easily swayed by claims that agree with what we already believe.
There are certainly moments when we say to ourselves, “I can’t believe I fell for that.”

Relativism (what counts as true depends entirely on one’s culture) is not a viable alternative to metaphysical realism (what counts as true is wholly independent of one’s culture).

An objective world out there that is independent of language and mind?

A statement can be true even when we are not in the least justified in accepting it as such.

The demise of metaphysical realism leaves us no choice but to also let go of the notion of truth.

To say that a statement or theory is true is nothing but a compliment paid to beliefs which we think so well-justified that for the moment further justification is not needed.
And it does not add anything.

Truth consists in representing something correctly.

We perceive the world through a veil of ideas.
The advance of physics caused properties such as colors to be located in the mind of the perceiver - rubies are not really red; that’s just how we see them.
What is presented to the mind when we have a sensory impression is not the object we are seeing, but a mental representation of that object.

Dreams and hallucinations shows us that we can see something even when there is nothing there.

We can make sense of our commonsense world only when we accept that many of the things we encounter are real and that many of our beliefs about them are true, while also recognizing that we can be wrong about any single one of them.

Foundationalists make a distinction between basic and derived beliefs.
Basic beliefs are not justified in terms of other beliefs but by the subject’s sensory experience, direct intuition, being self-justifying, etc.
All our other beliefs are then justified by deriving them from these basic beliefs.
For coherentists, in contrast, beliefs are justified by their being part of a coherent set of beliefs.

Relations among beliefs: justification is not merely a matter of what you believe, but also of why you believe it, which is in turn related to how you came to believe it.

The purpose of an analogy is heuristic - to suggest ideas, which then have to stand on their own feet.

In sham reasoning, the inquirer does not seek to discover how things truly are, no matter where the search will lead him, but seeks to support a proposition he is already deeply committed to.
The fake reasoner is driven by other considerations, such as a wish for promotion, money, fame - driven neither by a genuine desire for truth nor by a desire to show that certain cherished beliefs are true, but he is indifferent to truth.

In certain circumstances believing a falsehood may be more advantageous.

Truth is wholly independent of what anyone may think about it.

The young child playing by itself in the park is better off believing, wrongly, that all toadstools are poisonous than believing, rightly, that some of them taste really good.

The wide variety of ways in which groups of people defend their views reflects differences in background beliefs more than differences in standards of evidence.

A physician and an astrologer, for instance, use very dissimilar facts to explain someone’s chronic fatigue.

The vulgar pragmatists maintain that the justification of our beliefs has nothing to do with truth.
It is a vulgar pragmatism because of:
* its appeal to the common people, as opposed to philosophy professors
* its preference for the vernacular, as opposed to philosophy’s (and logic’s) technical jargon
* its lack of cultivation (it tills the soil only lightly)
* its lack of refinement (there is little interest in precision and exactness).

Non-scientific ways of knowing can be more valuable than scientific ones, for instance when studying such topics as Renaissance music, causes of mental anxiety.

Appropriation of Christianity by black slaves who sought to extract from their lived reality - a reality where they had no other worth than as commodities to be bought, used, and sold - a sense of hope that could neither be rationally nor empirically justified.
Being equals in the eyes of God gave them “a special self-identity and self-esteem.

The need to reimagine the world in ways that open up real possibilities. It must inspire.

Forces that operate within society, largely outside of the consciousness of individual subjects, like the bureaucracies that shape not only who we are but also what can be thought, how we understand ourselves, and what we can conceive as possible.

We have only a very limited grasp of the institutions that we ourselves create.
We don’t fully understand them, and we don’t fully control them.

Shifts in the penal system that birthed the modern prison came to shape modern society as a whole.
Factories, hospitals, and schools all became modeled after the prison, by semi-conscious encroachment rather than by conscious design.

The key to pragmatism is its emphasis on the ethical significance of the future.
The future has ethical significance because human will - human thought and action - can make a difference in relation to human aims and purposes.

We have an ethical obligation to actively try to improve our lot, even when we are in the thralls of deepest despair and convinced of the futility of our thoughts and actions.

a future in which the potentialities of ordinary people flourish and flower

What we call reality is instead a human product, formed from the buzzing and blooming confusion we found ourselves in when we first opened our eyes and began to take stock of the world - a process that is shot through and through by practical considerations, a process from which we cannot neatly separate out our own contributions, and which is a deeply social affair. The same holds for truth and goodness.

Pragmatists are not skeptics but fallibilists.
We can be certain that many of our beliefs are true, even though we cannot say this for any single one of them.
Beliefs: that drinking water does not kill you, that you have ten toes, that hot coffee may burn your lips, that your bicycle is where you left it, that when you step on a chair it does not collapse, etc.
However, from the fact that every single one of these beliefs can be false - drinking water can kill you, bikes do get stolen, chairs do collapse - it does not follow that all such beliefs can be false.
Most of these beliefs are practical.

We cannot understand what we cannot know, so any claims we make about it are meaningless and should be dismissed as bad philosophy.

Pragmatists’ rejection of the old notions of truth, reality, and reason puts them at risk of lapsing into subjectivism or relativism .

Our control over what enters the mind is very limited.

The mere fact that we make reality does not make it any more subjective than suspension bridges or legal codes.

Three classes of men:
The first consists of those for whom the chief thing is the qualities of feelings. These men create art.
The second consists of the practical men, who carry on the business of the world. They respect nothing but power, and respect power only so far as it [is] exercized.
The third class consists of men to whom nothing seems great but reason. If force interests them, it is not in its exertion, but in that it has a reason and a law.
For men of the first class, nature is a picture
For men of the second class, it is an opportunity
For men of the third class, it is a cosmos, so admirable, that to penetrate to its ways seems to them the only thing that makes life worth living.