Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I like this Stanley Fish essay on the American philosophical movement known as Pragmatism. I am myself a Pragmatist of a sort, as I will explain. The root belief of Pragmatism is that while there is a world out there that is a certain way, we only understand it through our own very limited minds. We try to make our beliefs about the world true, and it some ways we are probably very close, but there is no royal road to the Truth about the universe. Fish:
These implications are unthreatening because if the pragmatist account is right it is describing what has always been the case. When Margolis announces that there are “no privileged faculties, no preestablished harmony, no exceptionless universals, no assured natural necessities … no escape from the contingencies of whatever we report as ‘given’ within human experience,” he is not ushering in a new age, but describing the necessary condition of all the old ones. It has ever been thus (again, if pragmatism is right), and yet the world’s business has always been done.

Often, however, it has been done badly and that explains what Margolis calls “our remarkable appetite for the dictates of reason,” for something that would, if we could specify it and hold to it, enable us to avoid error and reduce contingency and provisionality to the point where our actions, both physical and mental, would be truly and firmly grounded. Pragmatism takes that hope away and tells us that all we can do is muddle through, that we have been muddling through for a long time, and that, with luck, we will continue to muddle through, and in the process, perhaps, develop new forms of the “cultural artifact” we are and develop too new forms of knowledge. The story so far has been an amazing one, full of wonder and full of horror. It is a story, says Margolis driven from behind and not by a teleological end awaiting us in the form either of a union with deity or an ascent to the realm of pure Reason. It is, Margolis tells us, “an extraordinary form of bootstrapping.”

This I believe. To live we must have beliefs, and we try to make them the right ones, but they are not True in some profound and deep sense -- or at least we can't know that they are. Many people long for this sort of absolute Truth, but I think those who believe they have found it are simply deluded. We do the best we can, and that has to be enough.

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