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  • Pragmatism:An Old (Idealist) Way of Thinking
  • Lisa Landoe Hedrick (bio)

I. Introduction

Despite a perception of philosophical antagonism, the resemblances between German idealism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and classical American pragmatism can be rather striking. Historically, pragmatism may be viewed as a distillation of Kant’s practical postulates from his preponderant pursuits of theoretical reason. Indeed, Peirce appropriated the term pragmatism from Kant’s first critique while shedding its pejorative connotations. Hegel, I will argue, can be read as employing a pragmatist epistemological method, albeit in a blinkered way, by building on Kant’s own pragmatist sympathies in light of a more developmental understanding of the relationship between our beliefs and our environments. Hegel did this not by simply stating that we find ourselves with normative commitments and then asking how we can see these commitments as both law-like and self-authored; he did this by asking the genetic question of how those norms become available for our commitment in the first place. Just as the pragmatic method equipped Hegel to readdress the Kantian project in ways more congenial to our growing understanding of the nature of experience, we can more rigorously apply the pragmatic method to Hegel to disabuse ourselves of idealist arrogations that belie our more fruitful routes to understanding experience.

As operative in this essay, pragmatism means a way of understanding the world in terms of adaptational processes, dynamic tensions that resolve into grander compatibilities, and functional statistical laws instead of absolutes. To be a pragmatist means to take our situatedness seriously, while not requiring that relativity to reduce to nihilism. As a method, pragmatism denies us a privileged perspective, while allowing us a valued perspective, insofar as it takes intersubjectivity to be our surest route to objectivity. It rests on a hypothesis about the reality of the world of objects, about our situation in that world, and about the function of norms in helping us to get along in that world through semantic relations obtaining among items of experience in terms of practical usefulness for goods of our own making. I understand normativity in terms of social institution, whereby normative statuses just are social statuses. Conceptual normativity means that how we use a concept determines what it means. Conceptual content, and so its meaning, is negotiated. This semantic pragmatism holds that to employ [End Page 240] a concept is to recognize the authority of precedent uses of that concept and to offer a candidate use for further recognition. The normative realm is thus a realm of reciprocal recognition and negotiation, which can be understood in just the same terms as the world more generally. The lesson to be learned from this approach is that we always begin from where we are, changing the edifice along the way only in a piecemeal fashion according to criteria composed of interests that change overtime as we develop new forms of life to support them.

As a working definition for my present work, I use “the pragmatist” to mean the thinker who embodies the former commitments. This account of pragmatism represents the sort of thinker that Charles Sanders Peirce portrays in “The Fixation of Belief.” The guiding conviction of “the pragmatist” is that beliefs are rules for inference, and though there be many methods for forming a coherent system of belief, only the method that values beliefs that are reliable guides to action will find traction with reality. Only those beliefs formed as the result of the practical differences they make will find something in reality that will count for or against them, and so have any checks on their claims to validity. Only in this way can we identify and learn from our failures.

Indeed, the process that we actually live in our lives generally should be reflected in our epistemic programs, and this means that such programs should account for the constancy of revision and reassessment in light of discord with experience, the developmental nature of linguistic education, the connection between what we are able to think and the languages we have intersubjectively acquired, and the experiences of doubt and error. Our beliefs must be such that something in experience can speak...


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pp. 240-259
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