11. Looking toward Last Things: James’s Pragmatism beyond Its First Century
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Looking toward Last Things: James’s Pragmatism beyond Its First Century John J. Stuhr 11.   .   .   .   .   In “What Pragmatism Means,” William James told his audience, and later his readers, that his pragmatism would be a “conquering destiny” (P, 30). In 1907, the year Pragmatism was published, he told his brother, Henry, that he would not be surprised if a decade later his pragmatic philosophy appeared “epoch-making” and something “quite like the protestant reformation,” explaining that he had no doubt at all about the “definitive triumph” of its “general way of thinking” (CWJ, III, 339). He even spelled out the stages by which he expected this would happen: Pragmatism first would be considered absurd, then admitted to be true but trivial, and finally declared an insightful invention earlier created by others and commonly known all along (P, 95). More than a century later, has it turned out that James was right? And does it matter? If so, how? And for whom? Pragmatism as Method, Theory of Truth, and Temperament It is not possible to determine whether James was right, or whether this matters at all, unless we know what he meant. This is one of the lessons taught by Peirce, James, Dewey, and other pragmatists (and other philosophers too): the truth of a claim cannot be determined if the meaning of that claim is not clear. So, what does James mean by “pragmatism?” Moreover, what does it mean for any philosophy’s general way of thinking to be a “definitive triumph,” to be a “conquering destiny” (P, 30), or to be “epoch-making?” What is pragmatism? James characterized it in three related but distinct ways. First, it is, he said, a new name for a way or method of thinking that makes it possible to settle otherwise interminable metaphysical disputes by tracing the practical meaning of beliefs and, so, determining what practical difference it Looking toward Last Things  •  195 would make if one rather than others were true (P, 28). Pragmatism is a method. Now, when James’s pragmatism is understood as a method, it is important to recognize that James does not claim it is a method for settling all disputes. Any resolution or any settling of an experiential or practical dispute, whether trivial or important, requires evidence, experiment and its results, and practical inquiry. How many scholarly books are in my office? Does a particular hiker one afternoon walk continuously in a rough circle from the north to the east to the south and then to the west of a squirrel in a tree near camp? Does drinking coffee regularly cause elevated blood pressure? What colors were dinosaurs? Would increasing the federal tax on petroleum products stimulate greater conservation and/or development of alternative energy sources and technologies? If you finish reading this essay and carefully think about it, will you understand James’s pragmatism much, much better than if you do not? Pragmatism, as James well knew, does not all by itself provide answers to questions like these. It is not an armchair philosophy. It holds that this kind of question or dispute cannot be settled without experience, practical consequences, active investigation, experimentation, and inquiry. James’s pragmatism, as he carefully explained, is a method for settling only “metaphysical” disputes. What are “metaphysical” disputes? James provided no concise definition, but his examples make clear that metaphysical disputes are disputes about the meaning of some particular notion. For example, what does it mean for a book to be a “scholarly” book? What does it mean for a hiker to “go around” a squirrel on a tree? What does it mean to drink coffee “regularly?” What does it mean to say an action is “good?”1 What does it mean for “God” to “exist?” What does it mean to “carefully think about” a chapter or a book or a philosophy? In settling “metaphysical” disputes by making clear the practical, experiential meaning of the notions involved, James’s pragmatism makes it possible , subsequently, to engage in practical, experiential inquiry. Until the practical meaning—the “cash-value”—of an idea is clear, no amount of practical inquiry can determine the truth or falsity of beliefs that include and make use of this idea. As Peirce recognized, making our ideas clear does not by itself fix belief and remove doubt, but the former is a necessary precondition of the latter. As James put it, with his pragmatic method, “science and metaphysics would come much nearer together, would in fact work absolutely hand in...