Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Pragmatic Considerations

For the past several months, I’ve obviously been experimenting with vocabulary from the tradition of pragmatist philosophy – a tradition with which I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship. I’m currently working through James and Dewey, preparing for some more extensive writing on the topic, but wanted to put in a placeholder for a few of the elements of the tradition I think I’d need to disentangle, in order to make sense of what I feel comfortable appropriating, in which ways, from this tradition.

First there’s the issue of disentangling the various strands of the pragmatist approach to adjudicating truth claims. As I understand it (and I’ll readily admit my understanding may be quite flawed at this stage), pragmatism seeks to dissolve certain recurrent philosophical disputes when it is possible to argue that competing philsophical and scientific positions have no discernibly different practical consequences – a difference that makes no difference is no difference… At the same time, philosophical and scientific positions that do have differing practical outcomes can be judged according to the desirability of those outcomes.

The judgment of practical outcomes – the standards that someone would use to assess one outcome to be better, on a practical level, than another – seems, based on my current (admittedly preliminary) understanding of this tradition, to be somewhat fraught. The texts I have read seem to struggle around the issue – appealing to evolutionary notions of cumulative knowledge in some texts, and to local cultural ideals in others. To me, the concept that something becomes “true” to the extent that it has a useful practical consequence demands an examination of what conditions something to have practical consequences of a particular sort, what conditions us to prefer particular practical consequences, and, self-reflexively, why we suddenly find it plausible to look to practical consequences as a touchstone of truth… Although I suspect that I won’t find satisfactory answers to these questions within the tradition, I like the strong commitment that it should in principle be possible to adjudicate competing truth claims without an appeal to transhistorical absolutes, and am interested in finding a better way to flesh out this intuition.

At the same time, the tradition seems to me not to consider why particular philosophical and scientific debates arise: if it can in fact be demonstrated that two opposing philosophical or scientific positions cannot be differentiated in their practical effect, to me this deepens the mystery, rather than dissolves it – how should we understand the appeal (particularly, the long-term or mass appeal) of positions that, from the standpoint of pragmatist philosophy, have no “cash value”? Even where we can differentiate among philosophical positions with reference to their practical impacts, by itself the ability to make this judgment doesn’t give us much purchase on why particular kinds of philosophical or scientific concepts arise and become empirically persuasive, in particular times and places. I recognise, of course, that I think it important to understand such issues because I believe this is how we will ultimately come closer to developing a more historically-embedded understanding of how to adjudicate competing truth claims – a position that needn’t be shared by pragmatist philosophers…

Happy to take criticism on the grounds that I have fundamentally misunderstood the tradition – while I’m trying to make sense of what I’m reading, I’m painfully aware that this doesn’t mean I’m succeeding…

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