No, not thousands, not today. It only feels that way. I’m not sure why the docket is suddenly so full, unless it’s because we’re getting near the end.
It’s Peirce and James (and Vandy’s Robert Talisse on the pragmatists and truth), Nietzsche (and Aaron Ridley on Nietzsche on art & truth), and Sigmund Freud, and more philosophers/historians/linguists etc. from Carlin Romano.
I’m not especially pleased with Nigel Warburton’s take on James, true enough to the letter but not at all to the spirit of his pragmatic conception of truth. More on that later. At least he gets the squirrel right.
Here’s what James actually said, about the squirrel and about pragmatism’s conception of truth:
…Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.
I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as THE PRAGMATIC METHOD. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right… Pragmatism, Lecture II
Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term ‘agreement,’ and what by the term ‘reality,’ when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with…
Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”
The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as…
…truth is ONE SPECIES OF GOOD, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. THE TRUE IS THE NAME OF WHATEVER PROVES ITSELF TO BE GOOD IN THE WAY OF BELIEF, AND GOOD, TOO, FOR DEFINITE, ASSIGNABLE REASONS…
Certain ideas are not only agreeable to think about, or agreeable as supporting other ideas that we are fond of, but they are also helpful in life’s practical struggles. If there be any life that it is really better we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really BETTER FOR US to believe in that idea, UNLESS, INDEED, BELIEF IN IT INCIDENTALLY CLASHED WITH OTHER GREATER VITAL BENEFITS.
‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we OUGHT to believe’: and in THAT definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is BETTER FOR US to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart?
Pragmatism says no… Pragmatism, Lec. VI
This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is “expedient” in a situation James’s critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It’s more like Richard Rorty’s invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a “Santa Claus” philosophy of truth.
James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling’s comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.
Besides, he’s the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he’s the one I’d most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn’t drink. (Too bad they don’t serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters, they humanize his philosophy and place his “radical” views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.
Speaking of dead philosophers…
Our text rightly (if inconsistently) points out the non-literal intent of Nietzsche’s infamous “God is dead” proclamation. More to come on that too. Meanwhile, the theists among us will enjoy imagining that their God has the last word.
Freud is darker than Nietzsche… Sheer joy and sheer affirmation of life is pretty hard to find, if you’re being absolutely honest about what reality is
As long as your ideas of what’s possible are limited by what’s actual, no other idea has a chance.
Some wonder what makes Freud a philosopher. In the spirit of Carlin Romano I wouldn’t worry about that. He philosophized (albeit reluctantly, says one biographer) about civilization, psychic health, happiness, religion, the material mind, conscience, consciousness, and the scope of philosophy itself.
Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves itself as if it were a science, and to a certain extent it makes use of the same methods; but it parts company with science, in that it clings to the illusion that it can produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe. Its methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological value of our logical operations…
Like Kierkegaard, Freud endlessly mucked around in the morass of anxiety and depression and, like those other great explorers of the mind, was often accused of being of too depressing. Yet, when pressed to provide some positive vision of health, Freud more than once implied that what is fundamental to happiness is the ability to love and work; that is, to be able to invest in something other than yourself. G. Marino, “Freud asPhilosopher“
Also in the spirit of Carlin Romano, some philosophers who aren’t dead yet…
Historian Francis Fukuyama jumped the gun when he declared, in nearly-Hegelian tones, The End of History in 1989, as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell. Those were heady days, prompting many to pronounce the end-times: Bill McKibben’s End of Nature, Daniel Bell’s End of Ideology, George Leonard’s End of Sex (which really would be the end, as the last Shaker might confirm). Reports of all these ends again invite Twainian drollery: they’re all greatly exaggerated. And as The Hitch said, Fukuyama’s thesis in particular was touted by neocons in an unseemly and unmerited spirit of self-congratulation. History continues.
But to his great credit, Fukuyama “brought light to an area (anywhere within a thousand miles of Hegel) thought by professional philosophers to produce Absolute Obscurity.”
Harvard political scientist Dennis Thompson “argued for as much public discussion as possible,” but also “recognized that the polis occasionally resembles a circus.”
Choice, unsurprising example: the Tennessee senate’s silliness surrounding the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. They actually drafted ethics legislation including a provision that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me…” What would late-night television comics do, without our benighted legislators to kick around? Easy for them, they don’t get to live here.
Thompson also said, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, that the privacy of public officials “should receive less respect.” But their public malfeasance still gets the lion’s share of my disrespect.
George Fletcher revived Josiah Royce’s interest in the philosophy of loyalty. “America: love it or leave it” is a bad form of loyalty, as was the German people’s to Hitler and the motherland.
But what about Camus’s’ mother-love? What about partisan political party loyalty in general? Loyalty to tradition, to church and country? What about loyalty to life itself? What about Carl Sagan’s great statement at the end of Cosmos? “Our loyalties are to the species and the planet… to the cosmos from which we spring?”
Many have questioned Noam Chomsky‘s loyalties. Nobody has questioned his impact, in linguistics or in radical politics. Carlin Romano questions his intellectual integrity and “goodwill,” his penchant for character assassination and “ad hominem attacks on those who disagreed with him.” Chomsky thinks himself “in possession of the Truth.” He might benefit from a little more pluralism, and a reading of Pragmatism.
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