Pragmatism was a philosophy that emerged directly out of The Enlightenment that initiated the “modern revolution” and it helps when thinking about Pragmatism to think about it in relationship to The Enlightenment and the new ways of thinking that emerged from it.
Prior to The Enlightenment human beings lived in a largely inexplicable world. Things happened and there was not yet any understanding of why. Explanations were developed to explain why things happened, but to our modern ears these explanations seem magical, mystical and unscientific.
Hosts of gods were imagined to control all of nature – lightening, rain, sunshine, plant growth, etc. And everything – including human beings – were thought to be possessed of an inner essence, spirit or soul that was the initiator and controller of action.
With the scientific revolution came the beginings of an objective, experimental and scientific understanding of how things work. The world became a machine of mechanical workings that could be understood and controlled. Weather was no longer controlled by a god – it was the result of the mixture of air pressure, humidity, wind velocity, etc. There was no longer the need to imagine some supernatural intelligence at work behind and above it all.
In the human being the same thing began to occur. The functioning of the body and the brain was increasingly recognized as the real cause of human action. And the newly discovered tool of human reason was proving itself capable of understanding – given sufficient time – everything. Human beings began to lose their need of gods – or even a single God – to explain the way things are.
The Enlightenment brought with it the advent of ways of thinking that turned many against religious notions because they seemed superstitious and unsupported by empirical evidence. The Traditional world of religious belief was becoming the Modern secular world.
The pragmatists- although to differing degrees – believed that philosophy – especially that of the French and German idealists (Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, etc.) – had retained too much of the superstitions habits of earlier thinking. These thinkers were certainly challenging the traditional ideas of The Church, at the same time they still retained ideas of a priori understanding, and absolute realities that somehow existed beyond and outside of the mind – this was too reminiscent of God for some.
The Pragmatists were following in the path of the English Empiricists by insisting that knowledge had to be directly connectable to that which was within experience. No supernatural essences were allowed (again the degree to which the different pragmatists held to this view varied considerably – James strongly, Peirce and Dewey much less.)
This is why the conception of “the self” came under scrutiny. It still smacked of a superstitious belief in “spiritual” essence or soul. Instead people like William James wanted to explain the existence of a “sense of self” by appealing to our actual experience and not to a supernatural “beingness.”
Pragmatism along with other modern philosophies were criticized with the advent of post-modern thinking for throwing out the baby with the bath water and for adopting a purely (or nearly so) materialistic relationship to reality. (In truth the early Pragmatists Peirce, James and Dewey were all trying to guard against this, but perhaps it was unavoidable for the pendulum to swing beyond center once it had started its arc.)
I believe there is a wisdom to the view – that while “self-concept” is real a “self” is not – that offers a rich vein of exploration still. In evolutionary terms we as human beings have tens of thousands of years of habitual experience of assuming supernatural essences to exist within physical things – so it may take some time before we stop unconsciously attributing an essence to things – especially ourselves.
Wow! What a beautiful and succinct description of a tectonic shift in the way educated people saw themselves, and the implications for our current understanding. Thanks, Jeff. I’ve been studying these topics on and off for almost 40 years and your post clarifies and puts into simple terms things that I have long understood but not really grasped altogether until now. Of course your account sets the stage for an integration or alignment of current day behavior science with a philosophical understanding of who “we” are in a very helpful way.
In Nashville we like to write songs, play guitar, and sing. I wrote this little piece. Here’s to adding The Arts to the blog: Can I draw you a picture? To show the way I think Can I fix you a sandwich? Get you something to drink? What’s that over there? At the dark end of the hall Could be a whisper or a prayer Could be nothing at all If body, mind, and spirit are one What are you going through now? I know exactly what needs to be done The only question is how They gave you the… Read more »
I never knew how much I resonated with the pragmatist view. It’s interesting to discover that there were philosophies emerging in our own cultural heritage that were grappling with empiricism before the strictly materialistic version of empiricism became so pervasive in our world view. To be honest, I find a lot of truth in the materialist or “naturalist” view but I can’t go all the way with it. I’m still a hold-out for something else and I’m trying to figure out why. What is it exactly in my own experience that makes me suspect that there is more to the… Read more »
Is it possible that there is an alternative to dividing the universe into material and immaterial? How about if there is only one thing? Skinner said that there is only “behavior,” by which he seems to have meant both activity that we perceive to happen in space (including our “seeing” of objects) and our inner or “covert” thoughts, feelings, perceptions and so on. The traditional view is that the latter are “immaterial,” but what if both things are merely what is “arising” in any moment, neither material nor immaterial? It’s just what is, and arises is one continuous explosion of… Read more »
I am so on this right now. I am reading more Skinner and also seeing that he is so close to what Pragmatists especially Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey were saying about the relationship between man , action and environment. I feel like I have to work this into my head a little more – but occasionally I get a sense of a completely different way of thinking about reality as one singular movement.
Carl, I thought this quote from Rudolf Steiner was on topic. Sounds similar to what you’re describing as Skinner’s view: “For naïve consciousness, the picture of the phenomena of the world sketched by a thinker does not count as something integral to the things of the world, but as something that exists only in the human head; the world is complete even without this picture. The world is complete and finished with all its substances and forces; and human beings make a picture of this finished world. To those who think like this, we need only ask: ‘By what right… Read more »
The radio show “New Dimensions” has a great leader to their weekly and great programs, that the personal and the cosmic are inter-related. For those who recognize this, it becomes clearer that the material and the immaterial, the mundane and the metaphysical are ingrained in humanity, in us personally and collectively. To deny the metaphyical, the spiritual is to deny a part, not insignificant, of our psyches, our Selves.
Can I posit there’s a Self and then the idea of self held by the individual. The Self is usually described as the authentic Self, one known to yourself in your heart of hearts. The other self is the one created by conditioning, all the accretion of life’s experiences. Some of the accretions are more authentic than others. We speak of pretensions and pretentioiusness don’t we, what is not authentic? There are those who have come to a realization of the wisdom and trueness within ourselves our Selves, not something external. To come to a spiritual understanding of that realization… Read more »
Jeff: Playing with the idea of (Self) / (Self concept)
I believe there’s a Self differentiated from self (small s), where Self is the Awakened Self and self is still unrealized.
I submit that it’s not so much what you believe you believe but how you behave. Awakened people are more spiritual though being Awakened isn’t necessary to be so. Being Awakened commits one more consciously to spiritual behavior for the long haul, for life–no turning around.
The Self is who we humans are at our best spiritually.