4. Pragmatism and Death: Method vs. Metaphor, Tragedy vs.the Will to Believe
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My analysis of Pragmatism begins with an observation, perhaps with a detour of sorts. The “manifest content” of Pragmatism concerns its image as a method and as a theory of truth. Both of these are important. However, there is also a “latent content” to Pragmatism. The method and the theory of truth are “situated” in a more nebulous “context.” That context can be found in the first and last lectures of the text. Both of these turn to the subject of “death” as an important theme with which pragmatism must deal. “Dealing,” it may be noted, does not necessarily mean “solving.” Dealing may have to do with affirming, even if not wholly accepting, or, alternatively, declaring “tragic” and incomprehensible. Any view of pragmatism as a method or “problem solver” can be rejected or at least significantly limited in power and scope by noting domains where and how it does and does not apply. In sum, I wish to focus upon death (suicide) and tragedy , as these are found in Pragmatism. These seem not to be “solvable” via the pragmatic method because they are not problems to begin with. They may be “resolvable,” that is, appropriated or rejected, but that entails utilization of “the will to believe.” The Beginning: Pragmatism and Death Pragmatism begins with two examples about death. The two examples come from a publication titled Human Submission by the anarchist Morrison Swift, who was a little extreme for James’s tastes, but with whom he nonetheless sympathized a great deal. In one of them John Corcoran, an unemployed clerk, “ended his life by drinking carbolic acid” (P, 21). He had found work as a snow-shoveler but was too weak from illness to sustain the pace after one hour. Upon returning home he found that his wife and children had no food and that he had been dispossessed. He ingested the poison the following day. James selected Pragmatism and Death: Method vs. Metaphor, Tragedy vs. the Will to Believe William J. Gavin 4.   .   .   .   . . 82  •  William J. Gavin as a second example from Swift a Cleveland worker who kills his children and himself, and agrees with Swift that this type of case or situation discloses reality in all its elemental rawness, and that it cannot be explained by being explained away. This had oftentimes been the project of religion and of religious idealism, and its many treatises on God, Love, and Being (see P, 22). But more than the rationalizations of religious idealism is at fault here. James opened his lectures on pragmatism by “inventing the problematic” or outlining “the present dilemma in philosophy.” He divided the world of philosophy into two camps, the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded,” admitting that the division was rather oversimplistic in nature, and he has great difficulty in attributing “freedom” to either camp. He initially lists it under the tender-minded, but seems to remove it shortly thereafter, saying that tender-minded rationalism believes in systems, and that systems are closed. James finds it difficult to accept the findings of either camp exclusively. The tender-minded are too ethereal and abstract, the tough-minded too unromantic, even if they do seem to deal with this world. Neither camp is very “intimate” with life. The two examples from Swift’s text are offered as examples from the latter, that is, of real experience with which, thus far at least, the abstract written treatises of philosophers had been unwilling or unable to deal. The difference here is an important one. Have philosophers heretofore chosen to emphasize the abstract over the concrete? To replace and not reflect life as it is actually lived? Does language per se, or logic per se, or “thinking” per se necessarily do this? Or, on a deeper level, is it just the case that “humankind cannot stand very much reality”? If the first alternative is the case, then the situation can still be salvaged. And indeed James, in this first lecture, throws his philosophical hat in the ring, saying, “I offer the oddly-named thing pragmatism as a philosophy that can satisfy both kinds of demand [tough-minded and tender-minded]” (P, 23). But even if salvageable two important caveats are still in order. First, James stated at the very beginning of the first lecture that “the history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments” (P, 11). This indicates , on a self-reflexive level, that pragmatism involves an attitude or a stance toward...


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