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The Process of Pragmatism: Some Wide-Ranging Implications
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The Process of Pragmatism:
Some Wide-Ranging Implications

The uprootedness of experience from its ontological embeddedness in a natural world is at the core of much contemporary philosophy which, like pragmatism, aims to reject foundationalism in all its forms. All hold positions that, in varying ways, there is a bedrock basis on which to build an edifice of knowledge, something objective that justifies rational arguments concerning what is the single best position for making available or picturing the structure of reality as it exists independently of our various contextually set inquiries. There can be no non-perspectival framework within which differences—social, moral, scientific, etc.—can be evaluated and resolved. These positions may, like pragmatism, focus on the pluralistic, contextualistic ways of dealing with life, on the role of novelty and diversity, on a turn away from abstract reason to imagination, feeling and practice, and on the need to solve the concrete problems of political, social, and moral life.

Pragmatism, however, in rejecting foundationalism and its respective philosophic baggage, does not embrace the alternative of anti-foundationalism or its equivalent dressed up in new linguistic garb. Rather, it rethinks the nature of foundations, standing the tradition on its head, so to speak. The following will explore the fabric of this rethinking as interwoven by the elusive but persistent understanding of process that pervades it. And a central place from which to begin such an endeavor is with the pragmatic concept of habit.

The pragmatic doctrine of meaning as habit is well known. However, the language in which it is couched tends to conflate its epistemic and ontological dimensions, thereby hiding from view its wide-ranging implications. There is a twofold sense of purposive biological activity running throughout pragmatism, one ontological, the other epistemic/phenomenological—both of which undercut the level of the biological in terms of the contents of [End Page 5] scientific analysis. There is an inseparable relationship between the human biological organism bound to a natural environment and the human knower who through meanings constitutes a world. From the context of organism-environment interaction there emerge irreducible meanings within the structure of experience. Such meanings are irreducible to physical causal conditions or to psychological acts and processes; yet they emerge from the biological, when the biological is properly understood, for the content of human perception is inseparable from the structure of human behavior within its natural setting. Thus, both Dewey and Mead stress that meanings can be expressed both in terms of the ongoing conduct of the biological organism immersed in a natural universe and in terms of the phenomenological description of the appearance of what is meant (see Dewey, Quest for Certainty; “Experimental Theory”; and Mead, Philosophy of the Act). The “lived through” biological activity of the human organism is capable of phenomenological description. Habits, dispositions, or tendencies are immediately experienced and pervade the very tone and structure of immediately grasped content, thus incorporating an intentional relationship that can be phenomenologically studied from within and that challenges all forms of reductivistic attempts to break the experiential flow into discrete bits.

“Felt” dispositions or habits as epistemic/phenomenological categories provide a unity and concreteness to objective meanings that outrun any indefinite number of experiences to which they give rise precisely because felt dispositions and tendencies are felt continuities that outrun any indefinite series to which they give rise. As Peirce observes, concerning a certain “unboundedness” inherent in dispositional modes of response as a readiness to respond to more possibilities of experience than can ever be specified, because they are, as felt continuities, immediately present “but still embracing innumerable parts . . . a vague possibility of more than is present is directly felt” (CP6.138).1 Or, in Lewis’s terms, such an absence of boundedness gives rise to our “sense of the experientially possible but not experientially now actual” (Analysis of Knowledge 17). Thus, even the most rudimentary conscious experience, according to Dewey, “contains within itself the element of suggestion or expectation” (“Existence of the World” 9).

The very structure of meaning is grounded in a primordial experience of time as process. What occurs within the present awareness is not the apprehension of a discrete datum in...