“For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all at once.” – Wilfrid Sellars

The philosophical tradition of Pragmatism challenges the implicit assumption that our practices are necessarily inadequate and require backup from some standard or unchangeable principle that lies beyond them. This tradition argues, among many things, that there is no other world to which we can refer. Philosophy is not religion by other means; it is not babysitting, but an ongoing struggle for survival.

The reason for this post is the book Pragmatism: An Introductionby Michael Bacon that I recently read.

Pragmatism is mainly an American story, and to some extent American philosophers tend to debate with each other. It is a closed party, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage, since, for example, the debate becomes intense but sometimes also too parochial. This book tries to provide a broader and more inclusive view.

The themes of Pragmatism are not just an American phenomenon but an interesting American phenomenon. The main difference between European and American philosophers is that many European philosophers understand philosophy, I think, as a form of life (such as the existentialist tradition from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre to Deleuze), which has formed many thinkers regardless of their differences. The way a person thinks, feels, and acts are part of the way they live their life. Americans (I generalize) are more philosophers by profession, although this is also a tendency that is growing in Europe.

Enough of this; let us deal with the book Pragmatism. It starts with Charles Sanders Peirce, but only because William James refers to him in a lecture given in 1898. Bacon´s book presents the history of Pragmatism through a series of profiles of prominent Pragmatists: Dewey, Rorty, Davidson, Putnam, etc. Most of these are familiar faces regardless of one’s knowledge of Pragmatism per se. The book also presents profiles of a few interesting thinkers I haven´t read; yet, such as Brandom and Bernstein.

There are beliefs that the Pragmatists share, such as the view that ideas should never become rigid ideologies that refer to transcendent norms. They believe that everything is fallible and nothing is certain in all eternity, which they understand to mean unquestionable. Several Pragmatists deal with the relationship between “the game of giving and asking for reasons.” The goal of philosophy is not truth; rather, philosophy is an ongoing inquiry that may make us wiser in overcoming the various struggles or setbacks that fill our lives.

Personally, I like the style of James and Dewey, because they write very clearly, without too much jargon. The same can be said about Rorty, although some may find him too jovial at times. In my opinion, he has written some interesting essays, for instance, one on Nabokov and cruelty, which argues that the trouble with rights is that they address predetermined forms of cruelty; the idea that everything is given makes our thinking shrink (Badiou was saying something similar in a previous post).

In one interview, Rorty said, “If we take care of freedom, truth can take care of itself,” thereby emphasizing that what is most important in philosophy is freedom, not truth. The truth does not set anyone free; it is just another example of an unquestionable postulate. Being free, however, makes one amenable to a richer understanding of life.

Another interesting figure that Bacon presents is Sellars. Sellars deals with the myth of the given by stressing that the human being is distinct in his or her ability to bring understanding to the world through the creation of concepts. His ideas lead to the views of Brandom, or some of them. One very interesting idea is that language is not merely a tool. Rather, what we do is intrinsic to the structure of language. Language is not a tool to reach a goal, as some pop-coaching methods claim; rather, the interests in a goal cannot exist prior to language. If they do, then they do not have any transformative potential, which may be why some forms of coaching often comprise a never-ending story, trying to convince the poor victim (or paying client) about the significance of the goal. This idea is also related to Brandom´s idea about negative and positive freedoms, which appears to place itself in alignment with Foucault´s idea about resistance and Deleuze’s understanding of the will to power as a will to create–that is, freedom being understood as becoming through a mixture of resistance and creation. “Without a suitable language there are some beliefs, desires, and intentions that one simply cannot have.”

Some portraits, of course, I find less interesting—es lo que hay—but in general, the book serves it purpose: it introduces the reader to a vast number of thinkers related to Pragmatism in a very precise and clear way.

In conclusion, Bacon emphasizes that Pragmatists are united in what Putnam calls “the supremacy of the agent point of view,” and what Brandom calls “the primacy of the practical,” whether this concerns knowledge, communication, reasoning, etc. A very interesting result of Pragmatism is that we—all of us human beings—are in a constant clash of mentalities (not cultures, por favor!), or of standpoints and beliefs.

New readers may start to think now.


If interested, see also my comment on Richard J. Bernstein’s book, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now

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