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TEN Twelve Misconceptions of Pragmatism We now have a fairly definite proposal regarding what pragmatism is. Namely, ignoring common usage if need be and defining the terms ‘pragmatic’ and ‘pragmatism ’ in line with how Peirce and James originally characterized pragmatism as a philosophical method or attitude, here, in summary form, is what we have so far been defending: 1. Pragmatism endorses a conception of belief where, as Peirce puts it, beliefs are formed as responses to respective doubts (they “appease the irritation of doubt”) and as such “involve the establishment in our nature” of habits or rules of action (Peirce 1878a, EP1:129). It is not just that we act in accordance with our beliefs but that our beliefs are individuated in terms of rules of action. This accommodates various normative conceptions of rational, justified, warranted belief so long as these conceptions are explicable in terms of beliefs playing out (working) in ways that comport with the respective rules of action that constitute those beliefs. 2. Pragmatism endorses a corollary conception of meaning as formulated by the pragmatic maxim (Peirce 1878a, EP1:132). Namely, beliefs are couched in words and/or concepts such that a clear definition of a given word or concept will be in terms of the rules of action (stateable perhaps as “conditionals having their apodoses in the imperative mood”) that would be constitutively involved in believing that the concept applies in a given case—rules of action that could be brought to bear as measures or standards to test such a belief. Since actions have “exclusive reference” to their effects or consequences, as Peirce puts it, we cannot mean anything by a given belief other than that various specific consequences should come about as results of acting in ways consistent with certain actions characteristic of that belief. This emphasis on actions and consequences can be understood in two ways: a. Operationalism emphasizes tangible effects of interactions with objects alleged to fall under a given concept. b. Inferentialism emphasizes implied consequences of holding a given belief when conjoined with other standing beliefs. 143 144 / WHAT PRAGMATISM WAS We would want to say then that to be a pragmatist is to acknowledge and consistently hold to these particular conceptions of belief and meaning. On the other hand, being pragmatic is not the same as being a pragmatist. We might want to say that to be pragmatic is not just to be practical or prudent or down-to-earth but to think and work (saying what one means, formulating and implementing policies, etc.) in ways that comport with these respective conceptions of belief and meaning, whether one acknowledges them or not. More simply, in this latter full sense of the term, to be pragmatic is to be like a pragmatist. On this score, one may at times be pragmatic without being a pragmatist. One may also be disposed to being pragmatic as a matter of principle and thus in a sense be a pragmatist without necessarily acknowledging it or knowing anything about the origins and history of pragmatism as a philosophical attitude. One may simply adopt such an attitude or be disposed to such a temperament, as it were. In any case, what it means exactly to be a pragmatist is what a careful analysis of the pragmatic maxim and a pragmatist conception of belief is designed to articulate. References to pragmatism are not uncommon in political news and commentary , and they often have no apparent connection with pragmatism as a philosophical position. It is not likely in today’s political climate, of course, that anyone caught up in the grind of governing would bother with a great deal of philosophical nitpicking. Nevertheless one would like to think that Obama’s supporters and detractors have actually been cognizant of what it means when they label his attitudes or methods as pragmatist or pragmatic in nature (Keyes 2009; Obama 2008b; Sunstein 2008; Wickham 2008). If Peirce and James have anything to say about it, such a claim would not be untruthful if it is understood that pragmatism is based on a view such that our beliefs are individuated by the actions that they promote as a rule; that, in this light, it recommends a method for clarifying one’s policies and is not itself a particular policy or political doctrine (it is at most a meta-doctrine—a methodological doctrine about doctrines, beliefs, etc.); and that this latter method is inferentialist but that, more fundamentally, it is operationalist. The issue...


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