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  • Empiricism, Pragmatism, and the Settlement Movement
  • Tom Burke

This article examines the so-called settlement movement (a social reform movement in the United States and elsewhere during the Progressive Era, roughly 1890-1920) in order to illustrate what pragmatism is and what it is not. In 1906, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch proposed an analysis of settlement house methods as part of an explanation of what the settlement movement was and how a settlement house functioned in its respective neighborhood. Because of her emphasis on interpretation and action, and because of the very nature of the settlement movement as a concrete social reform effort with vitally important consequences for anyone directly or indirectly involved, it might be thought that her analysis would be pragmatist in character. I argue that her analysis is decidedly empiricist, not pragmatist, and offer an alternative pragmatist sketch of settlement house methodology.

Empiricism vs. Pragmatism

A longer version of this article would dwell on what empiricism and pragmatism are and how they differ as alternative philosophical "attitudes" or stances. We want to be clear about what the difference is—a difference that Simkhovitch's analysis of settlement house methods is supposed to nicely illustrate. So what is the difference? A quick-and-dirty account of the difference goes something like the following. It is basically a matter of how and where action fits into the picture.

Empiricism is an epistemological stance that takes for granted a view of human experience whereby sensory impressions are introduced to the thinking mind and are processed by way of existing conceptual systems whereby bodily actions in the world are respectively generated and managed in accordance with one's beliefs. This is, more or less, a circular process insofar as bodily actions [End Page 73] make changes in the immediate environment and thus, in turn, influence subsequent sensory inputs. Such a brief sketch of empiricist psychology is, of course, overly simple; but the point is that even more sophisticated versions are based on the same three-step core template: (1) sensory inputs are followed by (2) internal processing of such inputs as informative data, followed by (3) subsequent outputs in the form of bodily actions. More simply still: inputs are followed by internal processes which then yield outputs. Sensation informs thinking which leads then to action. We may wave our hands quickly or slowly in big or small circles as we describe this picture; but that is the basic empiricist picture of the arc of experience that has come down to us from seventeenth-and eighteenth-century British empiricism, that was put to use in the psychophysical methodology of the "New Psychology" in the nineteenth century (see Fechner; Wundt), and that constrained the verificationist presuppositions of logical positivism (see Carnap) early in the twentieth century.

Pragmatism, originally formulated as a method for clarifying the meanings of one's terms, is a philosophical stance with a view of human experience that gives actions a more fundamental role than does an empiricist stance. Arguably, Peirce's pragmatic maxim (EP 1:132) is the key to understanding what pragmatism is; and there are at least two ways to read this maxim (so that there are multiple ways to characterize pragmatism, depending on how one weighs and relates these different readings). Namely, the pragmatic maxim may be given either an operationalist or an inferentialist reading. This ambiguity is the reflection of a view of human experience that, on one hand, is grounded in an interactive account of "sensory" inputs. On the other hand, human experience is answerable to systemic consequences of holding particular beliefs, calling for continual management of one's beliefs and their bearings on changing circumstances. These are two different conceptions of action—one that pertains to our capabilities to detect what our circumstances are by virtue of a vital interactive embeddedness in the world, and one that pertains to our capacity to alter our circumstances as the need arises. The one conception of action emphasizes interactions with objects falling under given concepts—looking for operational, evidence-oriented accounts of word meaning (for example, saying what the word "hard" means by saying how hard things would react to various interactions with them, etc.). The other...


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pp. 73-88
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