Pragmatism as a Way of Life - Ruth Anna and Hilary PutnamISBN: 067496750X
Date read: 2023-05-20
How strongly I recommend it: 4/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)
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Renowned philosphers and married couple. Her writing is clear and wonderful. But his? Every sentence is a tangled knot of side-clauses that made me stare at the page in confusion. I loved her description of moral skepticism even though I disagreed with her conclusions. I skipped most of his chapters and almost gave up on the book, but because of her chapters I’m glad I didn’t.
Philosophy will recover itself when it ceases to deal with the problems of philosophers and addresses the problems of men.
I seek a philosophy that I do not have to leave behind in the study.
Pragmatism is associated with James’s idea that “the truth is what works” - so pragmatists identify truth with success or usefulness or wishful thinking.
This egregious misreading then sets up the pragmatist theory of truth as an object of derision.
Philosophy is criticism of criticisms.
The most important lessons of pragmatism are:
* fallibilism (a difficult idea to explain given the existence of necessary truths whose denial we cannot currently understand)
* pluralism (epistemological, ethical, aesthetic, political, etc.)
* experimentalist methodology
* the need to overcome the widespread assumption of a fact/value dualism
Fight the twin tendencies toward incredible “realisms” and unlivable “skepticisms”.
What we want is an ethical standard external to the subjective opinions of any one thinker, but not external to all thinkers or all life.
Do not be afraid of offering your own philosophic picture, even though you know that your picture is fallible and based on your own ideals.
What will move someone from a dogmatically held belief, a belief which one claims to be immune to falsification, if one is not willing to count any sense experience as contrary evidence, or if the belief is such that no sense experience could count as contrary evidence?
Coming to see that these beliefs are not shared by others will cause one to rethink every social or political problem is a moral problem.
Thinking for yourself does not mean thinking by yourself.
Morality is social.
Textbooks treat pragmatism as a theory of truth.
They identify it with the theory that true = what is satisfying to believe.
None of the classical pragmatists actually held this theory.
Someone committed to fallibilism, would be delighted to be refuted.
Saying that 7 + 5 sometimes = 13 would be one which we could regard as an inevitable continuation of our present uses of the words ‘7’, ‘5’, ‘13’, ‘+’, ‘=’, and ‘sometimes’.
Conceptual truths depend not only on the interpretation of words but also on the interpretation of ways of life.
To replace a concept with blurred edges by a rigidly limited concept is not to analyze the original concept but to replace it with a different concept.
The idea of ‘belief’ as simply a freestanding mental ability was resolutely opposed.
Beliefs are complex and multitracked habits of action.
The interdependence of our conceptual abilities and our practical abilities is at the heart of pragmatism.
Pragmatism? I am a natural realist. The world is like beans on a table. By themselves they spell nothing. An onlooker may group them as he likes. He may count them all and map them. He may select groups and name these capriciously, or name them to suit extrinsic purposes. As long as he takes account of them, his account is neither false nor irrelevant. So why not call it true?
For Nietzche, fear of life is at the heart of our sickness, and the will to live is what has to be revived and strengthened.
For Heidegger, the sickness is inauthenticity, and the valorized life combines authentic acceptance of absurdity with submissiveness.
There are disagreements between cultures concerning what beliefs are more “coherent,” “plausible,” “simpler as accounts of the facts”.
When cultures disagree, saying that one side is objectively right is mere rhetoric.
We should scrap the whole notion of an objective world and speak of views which “our culture” would accept instead.
Talk of “cultures” only makes sense when talk of other people, talk of beliefs.
The idea of a common world?
Commonsense realism about the views of my cultural peers coupled with antirealism about everything else makes no sense.
“subjective” statements = made from an idiosyncratic standpoint, or by persons who are heedless of other relevant interests and standpoints
“objective” statements = their claim to truth is not dependent on idiosyncratic standpoints or on disregarding the standpoints and interests of others.
Reasonable from the standpoint of an interest in the common welfare.
The common welfare is determined by intelligent discussion among persons who share this commitment.
Reality has an existence and character wholly independent of human practices, beliefs and evidence.
Something’s being the case is independent of how anyone would regard it.
Experience isn’t neutral.
It comes to us screaming with values.
What are “facts” or “values”?
Ethical claims are just expressions of feeling, for the emotivists.
Claims are just expressions of a decision to translate a discourse one way rather than another - a decision which may be convenient or inconvenient, but not scientifically right or wrong.
Nonmoral facts and moral facts are so intimately interwoven that the distinctions will not support moral skepticism.
Nature presents us with facts but not moral values.
We need moral values to provide us with reasons for choosing and acting.
We need values to provide the foundation for the complicated moral-legal-political structure without which human society would be impossible.
We need human society both to live and to flourish.
Since unaided nature does not provide us with moral values, we must do for moral values what we do in other cases when unaided nature fails to provide what we need:
We must *make* moral values.
We make values whenever we choose to act and even when we choose not to act.
If we do this often enough and if enough other people do the same thing, the norms will change, and a new moral value will have been created.
We tolerate now a wide range of life styles that would have been condemned in the past.
Weakness of will - rather than moral doubt - causes us to violate the moral norms into which we were socialized.
If everything is permissible - how great!
If everything is permissible, nothing is worth doing - how dreadful!
None of these responses are acceptable.
Are we then condemned to take seriously what we know to be an ‘arbitrary’ morality?
We make moral values because we need moral values, just as we make other things which we need and which unaided nature fails to provide.
We make tools, we design and build machines, we cultivate plants and domesticate animals.
Our needs generate the constraints within which these things are made and the standards by which they are evaluated.
We make moral values because we need to live in a human society, we need to cooperate with each other at least somewhat.
This need generates some constraints: some lives must be ‘sacred’, some agreements must be trustworthy, some originality must be permitted.
Within an ongoing society, moral inventors must appeal to some old values or to some strong and widespread sentiments.
If we transgress the moral conventions of our society, the result must be clearly ‘good’ if we are to escape censure.
We can evaluate moral values by how well they succeed in grounding stable human societies and in fostering human flourishing.
If we cannot separate facts from values, scientific from moral theories, that arbitrariness will infect all our beliefs as well as all our values.
The appeal of fundamentalist religion rests, at least in part, on its claim that it alone can provide a firm foundation for the moral values which in turn will ground a stable society in which human beings can live and flourish.
Endless dialogue between skeptics and their realist opponents has dominated modern philosophy since Descartes.
“Philosophy sees itself as the attempt to underwrite or debunk claims to knowledge made by science, morality, art or religion.”
Replace the image of ourselves as spectators, or the image of the mind as a mirror of nature, by an image of ourselves as agents, as organisms that interact with their environment.
Give up the image of true beliefs as accurate representations of the world.
The correspondence theory of truth:
There is a way the world is, independent of how we think (or say) it is.
True beliefs then are said to correspond to that way.
Most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental events.
We can say that human rights are social constructions, but then we must say the same thing about quarks.
Human rights are as little or as much social constructions as are trees or pains.
“Culture” is a set of shared habits of action, those that enable members of a single human community to get along.
Virtually all human individuals belong to more than one culture - voluntary or involuntary associations.
Not all traditions are equally good.
Philosophy needs to avoid a scholastic self-absorption in self-generated problems.
Pragmatism is not a philosophical “system,” not a set of propositions.
It is a philosophy precisely in the sense of being an attitude, a way of life, in particular a way of dealing with problems.
Philosophy must not be a refuge from our problems; it must help us to see them clearly.
What if the way it seems to be is the way it is?
Truth is the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate.
Truth is ultimate consensus.
Truth is a property of beliefs or judgments.
Without thinkers there are no beliefs to be true or false.
Being interested in having true beliefs determines whether there will be truth.
Distinguish between “half-truths” - the statements we accept at a given time as our best posits - and “absolute truths”.
True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.
The overriding ideal is to discover more inclusive ideals.
“Absolutely” true: what no farther experience will ever alter.
See concepts as instruments which serve many different interests.
We do not have to think of truth as able to overcome the limitations of all limited and finite points of view (as in absolute idealism).
The natural propensity of man is to believe that whatever has value for life is thereby certified as true.
Experiences are only psychological phenomena. They possess enormous biological worth.
Spiritual strength really increases in the subject when he has them, a new life opens for him, and they seem to him a place of conflux where the forces of two universes meet.
And yet this may be nothing but his subjective way of feeling things, a mood of his own fancy, in spite of the effects produced.
MORAL SKEPTICS maintain that there are no objective moral values.
Even if there are no objective moral values in one sense, there are objective moral values in another sense, and the latter values are good enough to do some of the jobs that objective values in the first sense would have done.
Real things are what they are regardless of what we believe them to be or would like them to be.
In contrast, stories which we make up and characters which we invent are what we want them to be and can be changed at will.
People used to believe that there are moral facts that are just as hard as the bareness of the tree.
Moral laws, they said, are as immune to change by mere human willing as are the laws of planetary motion.
Moral skeptics say that there are scientific facts but there are no moral facts.
Moral skeptics deny the contrast between the objective moral goodness of honesty and the subjective goodness of vanilla ice-cream.
They hold that all moral goodness is ultimately subjective.
Emotivists say that ‘there are moral values’ is metaphysical nonsense as is any expression which asserts the intrinsic goodness of anything.
Metaphysical moral skeptics say, instead, that all such expressions are false.
All versions of moral skepticism cause anguish if taken seriously.
No action is simply obligatory apart from any human institution or practice of which it is a part.
If there were objective moral values, they would provide us with justifications for action.
We could say, “I did that because it was my duty.”
But if there are no objective moral values, or if moral values cannot be known, then there are ultimately no justifications for actions; the responsibility is all ours.
Out of some needs justifications for action may be fashioned; but we long for moral values.
Sometimes we want to give others reasons for acting in a certain way, but we do not want to coerce them. Sometimes we want to justify an action of our own but do not want to claim that we were simply helpless cogs in a causal machine. Sometimes we want to explain a persistent moral disagreement by charging our opponents with moral blindness or moral idiocy.
Even if there are not objective moral values, we produce values that are objective enough to take the place of the values we have ‘lost’.
People used to think that justifications for action were supplied by values which exist independently of human needs and interests.
God gave us laws and thereby provided us with the stable foundation on which we could erect the detailed moral-legal-political structures which enable us in our varying circumstances (hence varying structures) to live together, to cooperate, to be (relatively) secure, and, when things go well, to flourish.
We still need stable moral-legal-political structures to regulate our conduct and make life livable.
These moral-legal-political structures still need secure foundations.
We still need moral values.
When people need something which nature fails to provide, then people sooner or later, more or less successfully, invent or create what will supply that need.
Thus people create tools and machines, cultivate food plants, and domesticate animals.
Morals were created in response to a human need, that human need constrains what they are, they are better or worse precisely to the extent that they satisfy that human need and do not as a ‘side effect’ thwart other important human needs.
Since there are no preexisting values, we create values, and the result is anguish.
We cannot escape creating values.
We create values whenever we choose to act, and even when we choose not to act.
We experience anguish because self-created values do not provide a firm basis for a common morality.
Moral choice is to be compared to the making of a work of art.
People do not find created-by-us values sufficiently reassuring.
Since we get along well enough with facts although they are made-by-us, we should entertain the suggestion that we can get along well enough with made-by-us moral values.
Facts can be verified here and now, or with very little effort.
Theories are new ways of looking at old facts.
Theory-construction is one of the exciting ways in which human beings are creative.
Theory-creation is appreciated as being crucial to human progress.
Facts are small theories.
True theories are big facts.
The familiar world of facts is simply the world of a very familiar version.
It is the world of a theory so old, so entrenched, so successful that it is for us the world that is ‘there’, that needs explaining.
Even the most solid facts have been made by some human being.
Knowledge and morality without foundation give us a sense of vertigo.
There are even more possible versions (or worlds) than we had thought.
In each generation the composer is driven from within by his own ideas and from without by the dictates of his inarticulate social environment to formulate new idioms of expression which modify tradition and add to it.
We are constrained by the insistent demand for coherence and consistency.
Children are more observant and more creative than adults in part because they do not look at the world in terms of a finished and familiar version.
Why then do we need values?
When do we, you and I, experience a lack of values?
Why do human beings need any values at all?
We experience a lack of values when we are confronted with a seemingly irresolvable clash of values.
We need values in order to have reasons (of the kind that may serve as justifications) for our actions, and more generally in order to choose.
We need values when we are confronted with choices - that is, when neither instinct, nor deeply ingrained habit, nor internalized values, nor a set of explicit instructions has set us on a road with no exits.
We construct complex systems of morality, law, political arrangements, customs and etiquette, religious practice.
This complex system has become so thoroughly internalized that it seems now as immune from critique as is instinctual behavior.
Some reflection may cause us to realize that one alternative is clearly ruled out by moral obligations which we do not intend to shun.
We appeal to the existing structure, the structure provides the values we need, and we are not forced to examine the basis of that structure.
Even if all of the structure is made by us, it is no more arbitrary than the structure of facts, no more arbitrary than a work of art.
In building it, in filling in gaps, we encounter constraints similar to the constraints encountered in the other cases.
Brutus and Caesar: By choosing as he chooses and for the reasons for which he chooses, Brutus creates a value.
A need for new values arises when old values clash.
The complex moral-legal-political structures, so that we may live, cooperate, be reasonably secure, and flourish.
So broad that they admit of different interpretations and elaborations.
These interpretations and elaborations pose irreconcilable alternatives.
The sharp fact/value distinction on which both the moral skeptics and their moral realist opponents agree.
The moral realist says that values are not part of the natural world, that no scientific evidence can be adduced in support of ultimate moral judgments.
The moral skeptic replies that in that case there are no moral values at all, that ultimate moral judgments are false (or, in another variant, meaningless).
People belonging to other cultures, committed to other elaborations of ‘life, cooperation, security, and human flourishing’.
Tolerance for other styles in the arts is possible because museums have many galleries.
Imagine a world in which all our dearest social utopias are realized.
Then imagine that this world is offered to us at the price of one lost soul at the farthest edge of the universe suffering eternal, intense, lonely pain.
How hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted.
Our best ideals cannot be realized in this poor world without trampling some other ideals under foot.
Institutions that are on the whole beneficial will have innocent victims.
Certain moral facts are immediately felt by a specific emotion.
How can we infer the existence and nature of a public and permanent world (an external real world) from our private and fleeting sense data?
To this problem, the only answer seems to be ‘you cannot,’ as centuries of failed philosophical attempts have demonstrated.
The pragmatists rejected the problem.
They rejected the philosophical assumption that our basic data are private sense data.