“The world is everything that is the case.” And then some.

The practical, non-ideological, “pragmatic” sensibility of traditional (“classic”) American philosophy has little use for inherited doctrinaire ideas. Its focus is always on what will come of what we’re doing, and how we can do it better next time.

And that’s why the American pragmatic movement threw off the puritan shackles of Jonathan Edwards. If you’ve already decided that you’re a fallen wretch unworthy of redemption, you’ll be less likely to go boldly and experimentally into an unlit but open and beckoning future. (This is part of what James meant when he said he personally rejected “vicarious salvation” and preferred a “continuously evolutionary” approach.)

We’re a young nation so we’ve not had that many original thinkers yet. Our thinkers have tended to be doers, like Franklin and Jefferson. Pragmatists think that’s a good thing. But the American public at large has tended routinely to reject philosophy and the life of the mind. Anti-intellectualism, Richard Hofstadter called it.

More recently Susan Jacoby has noted the prevalence of “unreason” and “junk thought” in our civic discourse, rooted fundamentally in a disinterest in proportioning belief to supportive evidence. Maybe we can still hope to grow out of that. Not quickly enough, though,  if you’ve been following the deliberations of our elected representatives lately in Washington, Madison, Nashville… [“Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?“]

Thoreau was an intellectual, but he was also an “anarchist” who earned his stripes as an inspirational contrarian individualist. Emerson is widely quoted (“build a better mousetrap” etc.) but little recognized amongst those who quote him most as an authentic American intellectual. He defies easy labeling (as should we all), but it would be a stretch to call him non-metaphysical. What makes him a founding father of American philosophy is his emphasis on Nature and Experience, and of course on Self-reliance.

Beliefs ought to be actionable, said Peirce, without quite clarifying what counts as “action”. He was pretty clear, though, about Cartesian-style meditation not measuring up.

His old classmate James was more liberal about that, saying beliefs pass the action test when they put us into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience. But what works for you may not work for me, and that’s ok: that’s pluralism, and it’s the perfect philosophy for a melting pot society like ours. (Pluralism is not quite the same thing as radical empiricism, but they’re definitely related.)

Dewey was an “evangelical” Hegelian, until he concluded that Hegel’s ideas were too abstract. In the name of concreteness Dewey set up an experimental school. He was all about “hands on” experimental philosophy, and (as noted last time) about the “influence of Darwinism on philosophy.”


Freud‘s philosophical credentials are challenged by some, but he expressed a forceful alternative to Cartesian rationalism and said we don’t know ourselves or our minds well at all. He liked to ponder the symbolism of cigars, too.

St. Louis Hegelians.” I’m from St. Louis, and the only Hegelians I encountered there were down in Columbia at Michael’s Pub. They weren’t all that deep, but at least one of them thought he was free and tried to give us a demonstration. A very predictable demonstration, in retrospect. Didn’t know what to make of it at the time, though. And that’s really the thing about freedom, isn’t it? It’s hard to fathom, when it’s happening, and impossible to prove. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

But again, it was a different story back in the day. Even Dewey was a member of the tribe, though he was no midwesterner.

And now for something completely different in philosophy, at least in tone and point of origin:

Gottlob Frege said philosophy had been putting Descartes before the horse all these years, as it were, by asking what we could know for certain, and how we could know it, without first clarifying the logical nature and status of our knowledge tools. Hence, his focus on the twinned roots of math and logic and his quest for a perspicuous language free of the imprecision of ordinary words. They’re ambiguous, their “sense” is sometimes hidden in the minds of speakers. Tighter analysis should lay bare their referential meaning, finally making reality reveal her secrets.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (who said William James was America’s Plato) wanted to “tidy up” math , but were stymied by Cantor‘s unfinished set theory and Godel‘s incompleteness theorem.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patternsinstead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Enter Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and atomism and logicism… and eventually the resurgence of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein (part I) modestly claimed to have “solved all the problems of philosophy,” in his terse and cryptic Tractatus. He was the Joe Friday of philosophy (“Just the facts, M’am”). Every picture tells a story.

Wittgenstein II, to return later (Phil Investigations) in the guise of therapist, is to me the more compelling figure. He apparently materialized while Wittgenstein the temporarily- ex-philosopher was busy doing other things including, to his credit, still philosophizing. [Bio & phil]

“The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous(pretentious?) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world structurally and isomorphically. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words or their logical surrogates, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

He was not really separated at birth from Lyle Lovett.  But my old Vandy Prof Michael Hodges did report that (although he was not from Texas, “that’s right”) he loved American western films. He may have been a Frank Capra fan, too: his last words, in 1951, were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Carnap and the Vienna Circle Positivists said all philosophical problems are really about the syntactical structure of language, not about ultimate meaning or Reason or Truth. They despised Hegel, who was not careful with his syntax at all. Ver-i-fy, they insisted. Fal-si-fyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas.

DuBoisWhiteheadHusserlWeber

Next week, STUDENTS: Logicomix, two chapters per class. (This is what I mean by “intellectual biography,” for those pursuing that option for your final report. But I won’t hold you to high standards of graphic art. Or even low standards. Just write some good words. If you’re doing a presentation instead, be ready on Thursday.)

Tags: , ,

3 Responses to ““The world is everything that is the case.” And then some.”

  1. Dalorian Finch Says:

    Witttgenstein’s Tractatus notes and profound mysticism that states “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” What type of experiences lie beyond the bounds of philosophy and the limits of reason? Can God not be properly thought and therefore “nothing can be said” about Him that is clarified through philosophy?

  2. osopher Says:

    Good question. Wittgenstein’s statement definitely implies the reality of something ineffable. I’ve always wondered if it isn’t already saying more than can be said, merely to assert the existence of something about which you “must be silent.”

    But if you ask ME what kinds of experiences I have a hard time finding words for, there are many. A fresh crisp spring morning evokes feelings that are better than words. A great play on the baseball diamond does too. Would there be any point in trying to describe them? Well, sure there is: some of our very best writing, poetizing, and philosophizing comes from trying to rise in speech to the level of our most soaring experiences.

    But remind me to share my favorite James quote about what always “glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught” in our verbal nets. Maybe that’s what Wittgenstein means too.

  3. Alex Says:

    William James considered religious experience an indispensable aspect of human “practical life” and that the religious experience was more important than the religious doctrine. Do you agree with James’ view?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: