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INTRODUCTION The Pragmatic Maxim Trying to change the way the word ‘pragmatism’ is commonly used particularly in reference to political attitudes is probably an exercise in futility. Journalists, politicians, and philosophers alike seem equally mistaken about the meaning of the word. Nevertheless, this book is an attempt to clarify what the word means by looking at some key texts in the earliest history of pragmatism as a quintessentially American philosophical movement. By key texts in the “earliest” history of pragmatism one means certain seminal works of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. The following will not be a survey of the history of pragmatism such as one finds in Thayer 1981, Flower and Murphey 1977, or Schneider 1946. Nor will it be the kind of topical overview that one finds in Bernstein 2010 or Talisse and Aikin 2008, both of which are highly recommended. Rather, the aim here is to characterize and reconcile what Peirce and James originally meant by “pragmatism” independent of subsequent developments throughout the 20th century and around the world. The view of pragmatism promoted here is, first, that it involves a certain conception of belief, namely, that our beliefs about the world determine how we in fact act in the world insofar as they reflect “rules of action” embodied in established habits. How and why that is the case of course requires some explication and argumentation, and that is not an easy task given that it depends on whose version of pragmatism you are talking about. As such, this conception of belief is not itself a full-fledged theory of belief but only puts some constraints on such theories. In any case, second, a certain conception of meaning is alleged to follow from this conception of belief, namely, a conception of meaning formulated by the so-called pragmatic maxim. What this maxim says, it turns out, is also not easy to pin down and in fact can be given at least two distinct readings. Clarifying this ambiguity of the pragmatic maxim is the central focus of this book. In recent decades pragmatism has come to be identified with a kind of inferentialism —largely under the influence of philosophers like Richard Rorty and Robert Brandom—though it may be misleading to put it so simply. We will see below that inferentialism is essentially a contemporary take on pragmatism as it was originally promoted by William James. Namely, what a given belief means depends essentially on what may be inferred from it in conjunction with other estab1 2 / WHAT PRAGMATISM WAS lished beliefs. Thus the content of a belief is essentially determined by its logical consequences. At the same time, this is a take on James’s version of pragmatism that reflects later analytic sensibilities that are not uniquely pragmatist—as exemplified , for instance, in the work of Wilfrid Sellars and Willard van Orman Quine. The aim of this book is not to disparage or otherwise downplay inferentialism but to balance it with a different but equally important aspect of the pragmatic maxim that was originally emphasized by Charles Peirce. Namely, the maxim also promotes a kind of operationalism. Operationalist aspects of pragmatism have been eclipsed if not forgotten altogether for a number of reasons, but we will have a better , more complete understanding of what pragmatism is if we can clarify both its inferentialist and operationalist commitments. Clarifying the operationalist character of pragmatism is of special importance given that it is less well understood (even when acknowledged) as an aspect of pragmatism. James is credited with putting pragmatism on the philosophical map. He has strongly influenced how we conceive of pragmatism today, though his initial aim may have been simply to publicize and promote the views of a down-on-his-luck friend, namely, Peirce. James explicitly cited and summarized Peirce’s derivation and discussion of what is now referred to as the pragmatic maxim, thus baptizing a philosophical movement that originated as much with Peirce as with James. Peirce’s original statement of this “maxim of pragmatism” was not labeled as such but was described rather as “a rule for attaining [a high] grade of clearness of apprehension”: Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. (Peirce 1878a, EP1:132) James (1907c, PMT:29) restated this rule almost verbatim as part of a summary of Peirce’s presentation of it, labeling...


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