The Worst Sentence William James Ever Wrote

I have just concluded, in one of my classes this semester, my teaching of William James‘ classic Pragmatisma bona fide philosophical classic, one richly repaying close reading and elaboration of its central theses. My admiration for James’ writing and thought continues to grow, even as this semester, I encountered a passage that is remarkably incongruous with all I know about James’ sensitivity and appreciation of diverse religious traditions–this is after all, the man who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Lecture IX, ‘Pragmatism and Religion,’ James says:

Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety…is unwarranted. It is a real adventure….Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? Would you say that, rather than be part and parcel of so fundamentally pluralistic and irrational a universe, you preferred to relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which you had been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice?

[I]f you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. There is a healthy-minded buoyancy in most of us which such a universe would exactly fit. We would therefore accept the offer…Yet perhaps some would not; for there are morbid minds in every human collection, and to them the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance of safety would probably make no appeal. There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving….We want a universe where we can just give up, fall on our father’s neck, and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the river or the sea.

The peace and rest, the security desiderated at such moments is security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The hindoo and the buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life. [emphasis added]

The total misunderstanding on display here of these two great religious and philosophical traditions is acutely disappointing. James seems to have absorbed, uncritically, the most facile and reductive view possible of the claims they make; he reduces the diversity of Indian thought to a quick caricature. ‘Nirvana’ is not nothingness; it indicates a state of living in this world that is not afflicted by the pointless suffering that is the lot of all those who do not practice the kind of ‘ironic detachment’ the Buddha preached and practiced. The ‘hindoo’ for his part does not retreat, afraid of this world; nowhere in the diverse philosophical systems that make up ‘Hindu thought’ is retreat from the world the central prescriptive claim. At best, it might be one of the practices that lead to enlightenment, one of the stages of life that we must pass through.

James betrays here a parochialism that still infects the modern academy; the misunderstanding on display still reigns supreme.

Getting The ‘Rorty’ In The ‘Putnam-Rorty Debate’ Wrong

In his essay on Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett writes of the ‘famous’ Putnam-Rorty debate as follows:

The crux of their dispute centered on how far to take pragmatism. [Richard] Rorty thought that the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality: There is the stuff we say, and then there is the actual world, and never the twain shall meet. We agree on certain conventions in order to function, but we’ll never arrive at anything like truth. Putnam meanwhile held to the idea, as he wrote, that “there is a way to do justice to our sense that knowledge claims are responsible to reality.” In other words, it was possible, as he saw it, to be a pragmatist without jettisoning truth altogether.

In ‘Getting Rid of the Appearance-Reality Distinction,’ Richard Rorty wrote:

Only philosophers take seriously Plato’s distinction between Reality with a capital R and Appearance with a capital A. That distinction has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. We should do our best to get rid of it.

If we did so, we should no longer wonder whether the human mind, or human language, is capable of representing reality accurately. We would stop thinking that some parts of our culture are more in touch with reality than other parts. We would express our sense of finitude not by comparing our humanity with something nonhuman but by comparing our way of being human with other, better ways that may someday be adopted by our descendants. When we condescended to our ancestors, we would not say that they were less in touch with reality than we are, but that their imaginations were more limited than ours. We would boast of being able to talk about more things than they could. [New Literary History, 2016, 47: 67–82.]

What this excerpt, and indeed, the title of the paper it is excerpted from, show is that Rorty did not think the “the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality”–rather, he thought that the notion of ‘actually connected’ and the ‘actual world’ was incoherent, that ‘reality’ was only of concern to those who believed in the separation between what we thought and the way the ‘actual world’ ‘really, really is.’ Rorty considered one of the primary planks of his ‘neo-pragmatism‘ to be the dismissal of any such separation and with it, a whole host of issues that were of interest to the ‘traditional philosopher’: the epistemological worry about whether our theories of the world were a ‘good representation’ of it, the gap and relationship between ‘world and word’, the realism-anti-realism debate, the nature of the ‘justification’ of our beliefs by the ‘actual world.’ The correspondence theory of truth and metaphysical realism are not false or mistaken theories for Rorty; they are just besides the point, the result of a philosophical mistake of sorts, set right by the dismissal of the appearance-reality distinction. The extremely reductive description above Rorty describes him, at best, as a kind of crude anti-realist, and Rorty was anything but.

Nietzsche As Pragmatist

Nietzsche is a pragmatist with strong resonances with the American pragmatists; this is not a new claim. Renè Berthelot, for instance, termed Nietzsche “a German pragmatist” and emphasized the resemblance between Nietzsche’s perspectivism and the pragmatist theory of truth.[1][2] The resemblance between Nietzsche and the American pragmatists [3] is made especial note of in Arthur Danto‘s Nietzsche as Philosopher, which bids us examine The Gay Science. There, as Danto notes, Nietzsche claims that “we `know’…just as much as may be useful in the interest of the human herd” and that our primary epistemic concern is “how far a belief furthers and supports life, maintains and disciplines a species.” Nietzsche’s epistemological strategy has clear entailments for his ontology: what we believe exists is a function of how useful that belief is; metaphysics and epistemology are inseparable. Questions of ontology for Nietzsche are questions of human interests; they do not address the ‘ultimate nature of being,’ to anything unconditioned, to “something which would be true, absolutely and unconditionally, outside of all temporal and perspectival conditions.”

For Nietzsche, perspectives, interpretations, constitute our epistemological relationships with the world completely, rendering talk of distortions of reality unintelligible. Thus, marking the beginning point for pragmatic evaluations of theoretical formulations, our dominant perspective and its attendant ontology are the most “useful and necessary.” Morality and our moral theories too, allow a life-preserving way of living and interacting with this world. Morality becomes one of our many perspectives; but there are no moral phenomena or facts—all we have are “moralistic interpretations of phenomena.” Nietzsche thus dismisses the fact-value distinction—as a pragmatist might—because there are no facts, only interpretations guided by our interest-driven values. Such values come to constitute our sense of ourselves for “evaluation is creation.”

As Danto notes, Nietzsche claims there is “an inescapable tendency on our part to posit entities—to think in terms of things—and to regard the world as characterized by ‘unity, identity, permanence, substance, cause [and effect], thinghood and being.”[4] This positing tendency, the hallmark of theory construction, leads to perspectives which speak of, and manipulate these entities in their claims; these perspectives are sustained by their success in helping achieve our ends; utilizing these concepts ‘works for us’ in furthering our collectively determined ends.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism entails all terms are theoretical. The supposed contrast between theoretical terms and constructs and the objects of ‘common sense’ now vanishes; the solid object we bump up against is a theoretical posit within the perspective termed ‘common sense.’ We construct a world and its attendant reality—for ourselves, the theory’s proponents—by constructing a theoretical world indispensable for the forms of life we lead. The acceptance of these ‘articles of faith’ and their indispensability hints at the theoretical resilience of these entities. Nietzsche thus urges a pragmatic understanding of concepts like ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ as “conventional fictions.” Concepts are creative, ways by which we can fashion a new being, a new form of life.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism—human needs constitute the world for us—rejects metaphysical realism, preferring a view in which a dynamic always-becoming world is theorized into a form suited to our purposes.  Perspectives are interpretations; they make some statements true and not others but none is privileged–absolutely–above the others. In Nietzsche’s ontological view “the world is a mere fiction, constructed of fictitious entities” (The Will to Power, 568); these entities are invented to suit our ends. The entities Nietzsche considers ‘fictitious’ includes “substance, soul, (ego, philosophical subject), synchronic and diachronic identity, being, thing, cause and effect, duration, and materiality.”[5] Our language—a theory with its theoretical terms, its ‘fictions’—is a function of our means and ends and interests and bears the mark of our social activities and organizations, its service of particular ends and ways of life. Those forms of life determine the metaphysics the language necessitates. (For instance, the view that “the self is a substance that is identical over time and is that which acts and is the agent of moral responsibility” is ‘required’ by law and adopted in its ontology. )

For Nietzsche ‘things’ do not exist independent of perspectives; objects—the members of an ontology—exist within theories; they do not have character independent of them. Our concepts carve up the world according to our interests; they give us a lens through which we may categorize and make comprehensible the world.  Our interests dominate our theoretical presumptions; we assess explanations by their consonance with those interests and our values.

The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything.

Notes:

[1] (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/d/dickstein-pragmatism.html

[2] Resonances with the pragmatist theory of truth may also be found in In Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.

[3] These resonances between Nietzsche and the American pragmatists have been exhaustively explored in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s magisterial American Nietzsche.

[4] (Danto, 86) 

[5] (Danto, 60-61)

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Critical Theory And The Supposed Post-Truth Era: The Ideological Reaction

The tools that critical theory provides enable the undermining and subversion of established structures of power–political, cultural, discursive, technical, material, governmental, architectural, scientific, moral. They expose ideological pretensions and foundations, thus making it possible to see that all that is seemingly permanent and absolute may rest on evanescence. on historical contingency and accident and luck; they enable a corrosively suspicious response to any claims to political virtue. Critical theory is subversive; it should induce a kind of vertigo of possibility, one tinged with both fear and excitement; moreover, if the kind of critical position it points to is available for all dominant systems of cultural and political and intellectual formations, then it should also induce a fierce counter-reaction to its ‘revolutionary’ possibility, a co-opting of its ‘tools’ to be used against it. That is the least you would examine of any sophisticated ideology with a track record of survival; the ability to utilize the features of its opponents to undermine it.

The current brouhaha about how postmodernism made the Donald Trump presidency possible, by clearing the decks for fake news and alternative facts and truth-free daily briefings for the White House Press Corps and Pinocchio-inspired press spokespersons, by inspiring disrespect for ‘truth’ and ‘justification,’ is part of this counter-reaction. It is perfectly predictable; when those in power are subjected to the critique that their claims carry with them their pretensions to power, that they are invested with their own selfish material interests, that their philosophies are but their autobiographies, they will use those critical tools against the critique itself.

The suggestion that tools of critical analysis, the ones used to unmask pretensions of power, are the ones used to prop up an authoritarian regime that plays fast and loose with ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ and all of the other components of a realist, respectable, scientific, naturalistic epistemology is a reactionary one; and a predictable one too. It is of a piece with all those claims that point out problems with the form and content of protests; never the right time, never making its points in the right way, or speaking at the right volume. When directed at critical theory, this reaction says that your kind of protesting, its form, its methods, its techniques have resulted in the creation of a new and deadlier political and cultural monster; cease and desist with your critical analysis at once. It suggests that our tools are being used against us; we should lay them down at once; we should exert no other form of critical analysis to help us make political, cultural, or epistemic judgments. We should have known all along what was coming at the terminus of this ‘critique’: the claim that power in place should not be criticized, that critique has gone bad.

The perfect predictability of this ideological maneuver makes its deployment unsurprising; the personnel recruited for it–philosophers and journalists–are also the expected ones. Their easy acquiescence might be a little worrisome, of course, but all kinds of resistance breaks down when power comes calling.

Durkheim On The Pragmatist Conception Of Truth

Pragmatism’s much reviled ‘theory of truth’ received a sympathetic and yet critical and rigorous treatment in Émile Durkheim‘s little-known–to philosophers–Pragmatism and Sociology (John P. Allcock, ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1955.) As part of this treatment, Durkheim notes that:

If thought had as its object simply to ‘reproduce’ reality, it would be the slave of things, and chained to reality. It would simply have to slavishly ‘copy’ the reality before it. If thought is to be freed, it must become the creator of its own object, and the only way to attain this goal is to give it a reality to make or construct. Therefore, thought has as its aim not the reproduction of a datum, but the construction of a future reality. It follows that the value of ideas can no longer be assessed by reference to  objects but must be determined by their degree of utility, their more or less ‘advantageous’ character. [emphasis in original, p. 66]

Understanding the ‘aim’ or the objective of thought as the ‘construction of a future reality’ causes a reconceptualization of truth too; truth is not ‘mere correspondence’ with reality but rather some other recognition of the ‘value’ of an idea; the former is exclusively semantic, the latter is a richer notion, more complex than the simpler notions which preceded it:

[I]n rationalism truth is….necessarily placed above human life. It cannot conform to the demands of circumstances and differing temperaments. It is valid by itself and is good with an absolute goodness. It does not exist for our sake, but for its own. Its role is to let itself be contemplated. It is so to speak deified; it becomes the object of a real cult….’To soften’ the truth is to take from it this absolute and…sacrosanct character. It is to tear it away from this state of immobility that removes it from all becoming, from all change…from all explanation….instead of being thus confined in a separate world, it is itself…naturally part of reality and life….It poses problems: we are authorized to ask ourselves where it comes from, what good it is and so on. It becomes itself an object of knowledge. Herein lies the interest of the pragmatist enterprise: we can see it as an effort to understand truth and reason themselves, to restore to them their human interest, to make of them human things that derive from temporal causes and give rise to temporal consequences. To ‘soften’ truth is to make it into something that can be analysed and explained.

It is this ‘irreverence’ for, and ‘softening’ of, truth that allows pragmatism to make its most ambitious and ‘outlandish’ claims; it is what allows it to participate as a theoretical contributor to the sociology of knowledge; it makes comprehensible the ‘value’ of truth and its importance for us in our thought and action; unlike rationalism, which takes truth’s value as a given, pragmatism inquires into the role it plays in our theorizing and investigates whether the goods it promises are actually delivered or not.

Durkheim On Social Facts As Things: Methodology As Metaphysics

In The Rules of Sociological Method (The Free Press, 1982, pp. 35-36) Émile Durkheim writes:

The proposition which states that social facts must be treated as things…stirred up the most opposition. It was deemed paradoxical and scandalous for us to assimilate to the realities of the external world those of the social world. This was singularly to misunderstand the meaning and effect of this assimilation, the object of which was not to reduce the higher forms of being to the level of lower ones but…to claim for the former a degree of reality at least equal to that which everyone accords to the latter….we do not say that social facts are material things, but that they are things just as are material things, although in a different way.

What indeed is a thing? The thing stands in opposition to the idea….A thing is any object of knowledge which is not naturally penetrable by the understanding….It is all that which the mind cannot understand without going outside itself, proceeding progressively by way of observation and experimentation from those features which are the most external and the most immediately accessible to those which ‘are the least visible and the most profound. To treat facts of a certain order as things is therefore not to place them in this or that category of reality; it is to observe towards them a certain attitude of mind. It is to embark upon the study of them by adopting the principle that one is entirely ignorant of what they are, that their characteristic properties, like the unknown causes upon which they depend, cannot be discovered by even the most careful form of introspection.

This passage of Durkheim’s is rich in metaphysical import–precisely because it offers a definition of ‘thing’ and suggests existence can be ascribed to orders of being that are not ‘material,’ and which are not for that reason, lacking in ‘reality.’ The fundamental opposition for Durkheim is between objects of the intellect–‘ideas’–and those that are not–things, which require externally directed study. These ‘things’ can be ‘material,’ made up of material substance, or they can have some unknown constitution. But a ‘thing’s’ reality is not a matter of its composition, or its location in space and time; rather, it is a matter of what relation our thought bears to it. The opposition between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial’ is not one between ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’; the immaterial can have just as much reality as the material. Rather, if the ‘thing’ in question is an object of a particular kind of study, if it is a component of our theoretical schemes, it has reality.  The notion of ‘reality’ coming in ‘degrees’ might remain obscure, but whatever it is, Durkheim suggests that the lack of materiality of social facts does not prevent them from being ‘things’ if our methods of study for them–non-introspective, directed outward–treat them as such. In this blend of metaphysics and epistemology Durkheim’s claims reveal a certain pragmatist sensibility at the heart of the social science whose foundations he was establishing; here, yet again, Durkheim shows that methodology is metaphysics.