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  • Vision and Technique in Pragmatist Philosophy
  • Robert Sinclair

1. Introduction

In his 1929 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association (APA), Morris Raphael Cohen took as his central theme the contrast between vision and technique in philosophy. By drawing this contrast, Cohen sought to counter what he viewed as the negative influence of both the Jamesian view that reduced philosophy to vision and the Deweyan proposal that philosophers turn away from their technical concerns in favor of the problems of humanity. However, in extolling the virtues of technical work in philosophy, Cohen was not concerned with simply eliminating the use of vision in philosophy. Rather, he recommends a middle position between these two extremes, where philosophic vision must be tempered by the use of scientific, logical technique. This compromise position is further tied to what he sees as a shared aim between science and philosophy, where both play a role in “humanity’s organized search for universally ascertainable truth, a truth that can withstand partisan contention and critical doubt” (Cohen, “Vision” 128–29). Cohen then promotes a view of philosophy where it remains interested in offering a broader view of humanity’s place in the universe, but which is further guided by an ongoing search for impartial truth through an appeal to the technical formulation of issues seen in modern science. While he thinks philosophy offers a type of viewpoint that can provide moral consolation in the face of humanity’s frailty, its main aim is to seek a truer objective view of humanity’s place in the universe, which, against Dewey’s alternative vision, offers no specific practical application in attending to the moral problems of society.

The aim of the following discussion is to use Cohen’s distinction between vision and technique as a platform from which to critically examine aspects [End Page 64] of Cheryl Misak’s project in her recent historical work on the continuing importance of the American pragmatist tradition. I will take advantage of how Cohen’s emphasis on the importance of technique and truth in philosophy mirrors important aspects of her narrative in the further attempt to evaluate some of the consequences of her downplaying the significance of the “pragmatist visionaries,” most notably John Dewey, from her history of American pragmatism. I will argue that her reliance on pragmatism’s theoretical problem-solving achievements, as seen with her main emphasis on Peirce’s view of truth, conceals the moral stance that is a central feature of pragmatist philosophical reflection.1 This criticism is further clarified through an examination of Cohen’s and Dewey’s 1920s disagreement over the proper aims of philosophy, which highlights several key historical issues relevant for understanding the development of pragmatism, including the pressures of professionalization within philosophy, where these revolved around the question of how to make philosophy more “scientific.” Cohen’s view is similar to Misak’s, since he finds fault with Dewey’s neglect of truth as central to philosophy, and further argues that Dewey’s moral mission for philosophy is confused. However, as indicated above, Cohen maintains that philosophy requires both vision and technique in attempting to offer a philosophical synthesis of these competing trends that provides moral solace through the acceptance of the frailty of human life. While Dewey is often critical of the technical problems of what he labels “sterile metaphysics and sterile epistemology,” he elsewhere recognizes the central role of logical and scientific modes of presentation as essential features of any attempt to philosophically persuade (MW 12:152; MW 10:3–48).2 He then, like Cohen, also recommends a blending of the logical and technical with vision, but clearly differs in claiming that this involves a certain moral conviction concerning philosophy’s active role in articulating and defending a conception of the good life. As I will then further show below, the difference between Cohen and Dewey is not over the need for vision in philosophy, nor is it over the importance of logical, scientific technique per se; their key difference is located in a disagreement over the nature of the moral standpoint that should be part of the proper philosophical combination of technique and vision.

Seen in this light, their...


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