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  • Pragmatism after Humanism:Peirce, Rorty, and Realism
  • Ryan White (bio)

Without this non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present, without that which secretly unhinges it, without this responsibility and this respect for justice concerning those who are not there, of those who are no longer or who are not yet present and living, what sense would there be to ask the question "where?" "where tomorrow?" "whither?"

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

Even at the beginning, as far back as Peirce and James, two distinct and opposed traditions have seemed to operate within pragmatism, as if from the start it was denied an identity even with itself. As H. O. Mounce claims, "The development of Pragmatism from Peirce to Rorty exhibits a movement between two sets of ideas which are directly opposed to each other. The former may be taken as a paradigm of Realism; the latter of Anti-Realism. The two have nothing in common except that they are called by the same name" (229). Richard Rorty's pointed exclusion of Charles S. Peirce from the contemporary revival of pragmatism draws the most visible boundary between these two movements, a rejection motivated in part by the fact that "Peirce . . . continued to believe in the eventual possibility of reaching truth" (Diggins 12). Peirce's concept of "reality" exceeds Rorty's concept of "belief " and therefore seems to betray a metaphysical realism that marks the other side of an important distinction: that which must be rejected, outcast, or excluded in the name of a proper pragmatism.

However, a closer look reveals that Peirce's experimental philosophy is a curious and hybrid monstrosity roaming freely over the fences that Rorty patrols with such admirable vigilance. As John Patrick Diggins notes, Peirce's thinking can seem hopelessly confused (and confusing) [End Page 59] because it "often vacillate[s] between idealism and realism, between the belief that objects are internal to the mind and that they exist independent of consciousness" (165). The terms "idealism" and "realism" are particularly vexing when considered in regard to Peirce because it would seem they draw the very distinction that his philosophy is designed to put into question. Both realism and idealism presume something like a "mind," which may achieve either a representational relationship with the world or a coherent relationship with itself. For both an inviolate distinction between mind and some external reality remains intact, a distinction that Peirce repeatedly made clear that he intended to do away with entirely: "Modern philosophy has never been able quite to shake off the Cartesian idea of the mind . . . everybody continues to think of mind in this same general way, as something within this person or that, belonging to him and correlative to the real world" (Essential 2: 199). Instead, Peirce argued that "mind" is not the special property of individuals, but a general quality of the universe as a whole, something not in any individual's possession at all: "Thought is more without us than within. It is we that are in it, rather than it in any of us" (Collected 8: 256). Or in another important passage:

. . . there is no element whatever of man's consciousness which has not something corresponding to it in the word; and the reason is obvious. It is that the word or sign which man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign; so, that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign. This is to say, the man and the external sign are identical. . . . Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought.

(Essential 1: 54)

Peirce turns the humanism of texts like The Will to Believe inside out by reducing what is human to the sum total of an impersonal language; by putting the human in language and effectively barring any retreat or turn "inside," he reveals that the human is already in some sense "outside," external (one may even say opposed) to itself. As Peirce continues, this condition is often elided by modern philosophies...


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pp. 59-76
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