6. The Deconstruction of Traditional Philosophy in William James’s Pragmatism
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William James’s Pragmatism was intended to effect a revolution in philosophy, a radical reorientation in the way philosophy is to be done. Like Hume before him and the later logical positivists, James views the history of philosophy with horror, as a scandal, since it consists of disputes that are not only perennial but apparently intractable as well since the disputants cannot even agree upon any decision-procedure for resolving their disagreements. Past philosophy, therefore, resembles a crap game played with unmarked dice. It was the mission of Pragmatism to find a method for putting marks on the dice so that these disputes would become tractable.1 What is this method that will enable us to resolve these disputes after two thousand years of fruitless bickering? How does James deploy it to resolve these problems? And with what success? These are the questions that this essay will attempt to answer. The Method The method, as you might garner from the title of the book, consists in applying the pragmatic theory of meaning to thoughts and conceptions so as to ascertain their true meaning. James credits Charles Sanders Peirce with having first formulated this theory: Mr. Peirce, after pointing out that our beliefs are really rules for action, said that, to develop [sic] a thought’s meaning we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance. . . . To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these efThe Deconstruction of Traditional Philosophy in William James’s Pragmatism Richard M. Gale 6.   .   .   .   .   . The Deconstruction of Traditional Philosophy in James’s Pragmatism  •  109 fects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all. (P, 28–29; my italics) Before considering how James employs this pragmatic theory to clean out the stables of traditional philosophy and with what success, some problematic features of it must be addressed. First, James begins by speaking of the “conduct that it [the thought] is fitted to produce” but subsequently adds sensations when he speaks of “what sensations we are to expect from it and what reactions we must prepare.” This raises the question of whether actions and sensations are each necessary and together sufficient or whether each is alone sufficient for a conception or thought to have a meaningful content. We know that Peirce required both conduct and sensations. The reason is that his account of meaning is modeled on the operationalistic concepts that are employed by working laboratory scientists. For them the content of a conception is a set of conditionalized predictions as to what sense experiences will be had in the future upon performing various actions. For example, “If you place this substance in aqua regia, then you will have sense experiences of its dissolving.” Think in this connection of a physicist’s conception of momentum or energy based on the operations by which these quantities are measured. James broadened the application of Peirce’s account so that it applies to all concepts, even those of a metaphysical , religious, and moral sort. Although James usually went with Peirce’s conditionalized prediction account, we shall see that sometimes he was willing to go with actions alone. He also sometimes went with experiences alone, but, as will be seen, he then was unwittingly switching to a non-pragmatic version of empiricism. Another problematic feature is that this pragmatic theory of meaning identifies the whole or sole meaning of a thought with this set of conditionalized predictions . But this has the counter-intuitive consequence that the whole meaning of a proposition reporting a past event, that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, for example, consists in the future experiences that will be had upon performing different actions , such as finding certain sentences inscribed in books in the library. This is what A. O. Lovejoy aptly characterized as the paradox of the alleged futurity of yesterday. This problem will be considered later. Yet another problem is that the claim that “our beliefs are really rules for action ” is a potentially misleading ellipsis, for neither the psychological belief state, the believing, nor the what-is-believed, the content of the belief, can be identified with a rule without absurdity. Whereas the believing is...


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