Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 83-95
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The Betrayal of Pragmatism?: Rorty's Quarrel with James
Ryan E. Cull *
For the past several decades, Richard Rorty has sought to reinvigorate pragmatism as a viable alternative to analytic philosophy and various postmodernisms. His project insists on the contemporary relevance of his pragmatist predecessors. In Consequences of Pragmatism, for example, he boldly observes that "James and Dewey were not only waiting at the end of the dialectical road which analytic philosophy traveled, but are waiting at the end of the road which . . . Foucault and Deleuze are currently traveling." He argues that while "James and Nietzsche make parallel criticisms of nineteenth century thought," James's perspective is preferable, since it avoids the "metaphysical" entanglements that have hampered Heidegger and Derrida. 1 Aside from such eulogizing, however, for many years William James did not receive any detailed consideration from Rorty. Thus, it is remarkable to encounter an extended critique of James's pragmatism in Rorty's recent essay, "Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility and Romance." Here Rorty focuses on James's approach to metaphysics, the very aspect of James's thinking that he had previously praised. The essay culminates in a stinging accusation that James, in "The Will to Believe," had "betrayed his own pragmatism." 2
The forcefulness of this reversal of opinion is not without irony. It reveals a crucial difference between the two thinkers as well as Rorty's own recent and unfortunate turn away from practicing the kind of intellectual pluralism that always has been associated with pragmatism. Beneath their eloquent exterior, many of Rorty's essays actually use the same rhetorical strategies as his intellectual adversaries. Instead of simply trying to find ways to use ideas in order to accomplish goals, he [End Page 83] becomes obsessed with the very epistemological disputes that pragmatists for well over a century have deemed unresolvable. He seems to have misunderstood James's great insight, which was to develop an ameliorative rhetorical stance that brings paradigms together not in order to select a winner and discard everything else but to see if any of them can offer suggestions that might help to solve a particular problem. Considering Rorty's current stature and influence, this is a particularly important moment in the history of pragmatic thinking. Only a return to this ameliorative rhetoric of James, as practiced in works like "The Will to Believe," will ensure the continued relevance of pragmatism in metacritical debates.
In brief, James attempts to mediate in "The Will to Believe" a dispute between scientific rationalists, who demand empirical verification prior to the acceptance of any belief, and religious believers seeking justification for belief in the Divine. James strives towards this lofty goal, according to H. O. Mounce, by making two major propositions: "first, that inquiry has its affective as well as its intellectual conditions; and, second, that in some circumstances the affective may [justifiably] take precedence over the intellectual." 3 The initial proposition is defended by describing intellectual decisions as being either "1, living or dead; 2, forced or avoidable; [or] 3, momentous or trivial." 4 "Genuine" decisions are those that are simultaneously living, forced and momentous. Because no individual is capable of assimilating all of the knowledge necessary to determine the actual living, forced, and momentous nature of every proposition in a truly scientific manner, one must, on many occasions, simply trust in the "authority" or "prestige" of particular expert opinions. James argues therefore that intellectual decision making is not fundamentally a scientific process: "Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. . . . But if a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how we know all this, can our logic find a reply? No!" (WJ, p. 722).
Having shown the importance of our affective nature in our decision making, James considers whether there are scenarios in which it might actually be appropriate for our affective nature to take precedence. If the use of our logical nature is not available in a purified form, he claims that
Our passional nature...