- Cambridge Pragmatism: From Peirce and James to Ramsey and Wittgenstein by Cheryl Misak
Cheryl Misak’s Cambridge Pragmatism is a key work for anyone who seeks to gain a deeper understanding of twentieth-century philosophy, especially during its first half. It is commonly assumed that pragmatism petered out in the early part of the century, only to resurface in the 1970s, most notably with the work of Richard Rorty. Much of what inspired this assumption was that most major figures were keen to distance themselves from a movement that named itself pragmatism. To many, it suggested that we should give up on getting things right and focus instead on (short-term) practical concerns. This view was fueled in part by James’s powerful statement that truth is the cash value of our ideas, which was interpreted to make truth an economic commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand in the marketplace of ideas. Consequently, influential figures, Russell and Wittgenstein amongst them, openly dissociated themselves from pragmatism. Nevertheless, notwithstanding such vocal opposition and explicit claims of disdain, pragmatism percolated slowly, and deeply, into the views of many, and Misak’s book brings some of this to the surface, and it does so in a truly excellent manner.
Part of Misak’s aim in Cambridge Pragmatism is to explore whether pragmatism “is successful in putting forward a view that combines the best of realism and idealism” (58), as that would be the main draw to pragmatism for the three figures that she discusses: Russell, Ramsey, and Wittgenstein. The book is split into two parts: “Cambridge Massachusetts” and “Cambridge England.” The first focuses on Charles Peirce, William James, and three figures that played key roles in bringing pragmatism to the United Kingdom: Victoria Lady Welby, C. K. Ogden, and the Oxford philosopher F. C. S. Schiller. The second, which is about twice the size of the first, discusses the reception of pragmatism, and its digestion, by Russell, Moore, Ramsey, and Wittgenstein. Misak’s account of the reception of pragmatism in Cambridge is thoroughly researched, with great attentiveness to detail and a close reading of key passages, especially for Ramsey. To briefly recap the main argument: Misak argues that pragmatism entered the twentieth century divided, with James and Schiller on the one side and Peirce on the other, that the criticism was directed at the first (especially Schiller), and that much of the acceptance of pragmatist ideas took shape through an increased familiarity with Peirce, mostly thanks to Welby and Ogden, and with Ramsey playing a pivotal role. Misak’s [End Page 565] book not only uncovers the historical record of who read whom when, but she also actively engages with what they were reading and how this featured into what they themselves were trying to establish. Misak is especially interested in the question of how normative notions such as truth, rightness, rule following, and consistency can be reconciled with a naturalist outlook as is found in Peirce, James, Ramsey, and Wittgenstein.
Misak’s title, Cambridge Pragmatism, is clever, but I think it is also an overstatement. It suggests that the British Cambridge became a central seat of pragmatism that is on a par with the American Cambridge where it all originated. This is a very different and much stronger thesis than saying that central players in the British philosophical scene took vital cues from the pragmatists. I think that Misak clearly established the latter, but I am less sure that her case is convincing enough to truly count people like Russell and Wittgenstein among the pragmatists. I further worry that Misak’s two-Cambridge approach invites a certain distortion. Little attention is given to the possible influence of other twentieth-century pragmatists, most notably John Dewey, Charles Morris, and C. I. Lewis. There was a fairly strong historical connection between Dewey and Russell, there was a close connection between Morris and the logical positivists, and Lewis spent much time and energy bridging pragmatism with the analytic tradition. Of course, like oil spills, inquiries...