Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.4 (2002) 368-381
[Access article in PDF]
Pragmatic Method and Its Rhetorical Lineage
"A new name for some old ways of thinking," William James subtitled his most popular book. With typical diffidence, he did not hesitate to acknowledge that many earlier philosophers were cognizant of and practiced in the pragmatic method. He mentions by name not only Locke, Berkeley, and Hume but also Socrates, "who was adept at it," and Aristotle, "who used it methodically" (1916, 50). Nor was he alone in his acknowledgement of his predecessors. Charles Sanders Peirce, who invented the method, remarks that "the river of pragmatism" may be easily traced back to antiquity. Socrates, he tells us, "bathed in these waters," and Aristotle "rejoices when he can find them." He also mentions Spinoza, Berkeley, Kant, and Compte (1960, 5:11).
But did the American pragmatists fully explore the intellectual provenance of the method that they made the hallmark of their philosophy? They did not, I shall argue. James does not appear to offer any technical analysis of its origins. Peirce does offer some specifics, however. He finds in Aristotle syllogistic analyses of importance, especially his inductive and abductive schemata (see, esp., 1960, 2:475-99, 508-14, or 619-31). 1 John Dewey traces induction and deduction back to "the original Aristotelian doctrines" (1938, 420). Yet despite their erudition, these philosophers do not offer genealogical investigations that are sufficiently extensive, I am sorry to report. Indeed, they all but snub the true ancestor of their method.
Because of this failure, surely excusable in pioneering efforts, the pragmatists have left a legacy that entails an unfortunate consequence. They did not succeed in establishing as general an acceptance for their method as they had wished. We still, even today, remain rather ambivalent about the method, especially its moral applications. One can say, I think, that [End Page 368] most philosophers and most people find the method to be a reasonable procedure to employ in the natural sciences. But do we have the same attitude about applying it in the moral sciences? Hardly. We seem to feel a distinct discomfort about its use for resolving not only ethical problems but social and political ones as well. Who wants to be subject to a lame-brain experiment regarding our way of life? Or our manner of government? 2
Why, then, do we hesitate to take advantage of the pragmatic method in moral matters? I submit that we merely seem not to adopt it because we lack an intellectual rationale sufficient to enable us to understand its full scope and import. For our shortsightedness the pragmatists themselves, ironically enough, are largely to blame. They fail to see in its entirety the philosophical roots and ramifications of their method because they do not grasp completely its disciplinary lineage. The plain fact of the matter is that we have been employing the method in moral matters for a very considerable time. But neither philosophers nor practitioners recognize it as we actually use it.
In this essay I wish to show why the experimental method has a scope as wide as that which the pragmatists claim for it, and why this method, as a consequence, has a practical import as great as that which they claim. Only if we place the pragmatic method in its proper intellectual perspective, shall we be able to enhance our understanding of it as well as our use of it. We then shall be more apt to employ it consciously rather than unconsciously and to embrace it wholeheartedly, even in moral matters, rather than halfheartedly, if at all.
What, then, might this proper perspective be? This perspective, I shall argue, is none other than rhetoric! Rhetoric?! Yes, indeed, rhetoric! I must ask you to set aside any prejudice that you may harbor toward this discipline if only to hear out my argument. What I shall show is that the pragmatic method in its essentials is the same as the rhetorical argument by example. We shall find that James especially offers formulae of the pragmatic method and of pragmatic...