The Pragmatists in America were modernists coming of age at the height of science’s rise to intellectual supremacy in the west. As such they were biased toward the idea that reason was supreme and that human beings could – given sufficient time – understand and overcome anything. They were also biased against any ideas that sounded superstitious or that depended on any source of supernatural causation – that is to say, God. The Enlightenment in Europe had begun to erode faith in God, yet the pragmatists believed that the supernatural habit could still be found in European philosophical conceptions like Kant’s a priori knowledge and Hegel’s Absolute.
The German philosopher, Kant held that some forms of knowledge were “just known.” He presumed that human beings were born with certain basic knowing that became the foundation for our more complex cognition. For example, our sophisticated understanding of geometry depended on the a priori knowledge of space. Certain basic aspects of reality were simply known to us – hardwired into the construction of our minds at birth. That knowledge didn’t come to us from our experience or from thoughts – it was there a priori (before) thought and experience.
The American Pragmatists were Modernists and they balked at any beliefs in the supernatural. Some of Charles Sanders Peirce’s earliest writings were a critique of Kant. And while he recognized that there were many fundamental assumptions that must be accepted if we are to build more sophisticated thoughts, he was not willing to believe that those assumptions were necessarily true. Peirce did not believe that Kant’s a priori knowledge were things that we knew were true, rather he took them to be things that we had to believe were true in order to move on. At any time we might find that we were wrong. This was his conception of Fallibility and it was a central core of his thinking throughout his life.
Hegel, another German philosopher, held that there was an Absolute knowing that was slowly making itself known through history as human understanding grew. The Absolute, as he called it, existed outside of and beyond the world of experience that we know in the common sense. William James played the role of an anti-absolute, anti-Hegelian watch dog throughout his life. He did not believe that there was anything that existed outside of our experience of reality. To him the universe was a constant process of creation emerging from nothing in every moment.
Both Peirce and James are expressing their preference for an understanding of reality that could be considered post-metaphysical. A metaphysical view of reality essentially is one in which all of reality already exists in some unseen essential form, or in the mind of God, or in a dimension outside of experience. This unseen reality then becomes our experienced reality slowly through time.
A metaphysical world is like a darkened stage that we exist within. The stage already exists and all the props are on it too, but the lights are out so we can’t see anything yet. As we march through time we walk around the dark stage with a flashlight and as we pass our light across the stage we become aware of that which was there all along. So there was a metaphysical (beyond physical) reality that already existed and then it came into physical existence as we walked through it. In this view nothing is really “created,” things just change form from unseen to seen.
James didn’t believe there was any stage that existed already. To him, as we walk around the stage it is being created under our feet. Peirce was not as absolute about there not being an Absolute. He believed that there may be a stage already, but we can’t know what it is with certainty, although it might be best to believe in it anyway. (In James’ defense – he did leave open the possibility of metaphysical realities, but insisted that they would only come into existence when and if we discovered them – they never pre-exist in his view – this aspect of James’ thought it particularly mind-bending and worthy of a post all on its own.)
The Pragmatists were biased against the supernatural? Bias is the tendency to interpret new information in such a way that confirms one’s prior beliefs, ignoring information that conflicts with one’s prior beliefs. What information does anyone have about the supernatural? Supernaturalism is what’s biased. That’s my bias, and I’m sticking to it!
Metaphysical is beyond physical? It’s about physical. Just as metadata is data about data.
Beyond that, I hope the Celtics will finally put away the Bulls.
One thing about blogging, you can’t take ’em back after you hit “Submit”.
I would agree that supernaturalism was also biased. What I am fascinated by at the moment is to see how pramatism was part of a development of human thought. The Pragmatists were obviously making their individual contributions, but at the same time they were being carried along by the current of modernism that was sweeping through the Western world at the time.
Jeff, I’m a little embarassed about the nitpicking in my May 2 posts. My apologoes. But maybe its leading to something.
The Pragmatist were being carried along by the current of modernism of there time, as you say. What are the new, even more modern currents of today that might cause you to point to there’s in contrast?
I think after the progrssivist mood of modernism you had a post-modern backlash. Many people seeing the shortcomings of progrssivism (ie. World Wars 1 an 2, The great depression, etc.) began to feel that we had lost touch with the deeper essence of humanity. People like Marc Van Doren (Literature professor at Columbia and colleague of John Dewey) began to preach a return to more traditional knowledge and the study of classics. Thomas Merton a student of Van Doren suaght out that spirit as a catholic monk and eventual through deep study of Easter Spirituality, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg… Read more »
While this might seem a bit of a tangent, I was a very serious student of St. Thomas Acquinas, the medieval theologian, when I was a Philosophy student in college and in my first year of grad school. The focus of his work was to show how Christian scripture was compatible with the best of “science” — as defined at that time by the work of Aristotle and the great Arabic philosophers/mathematicians/scientists of the age. I saw that synthesis as a noble goal, and have always thought that what we know from science and what we know from “revelation” ought… Read more »
Jeff and Carl, Thanks for addressing my crude assertions. We continue to be swept along by modernity and the fruits of the scientific method. Yet our rationality is but an elephant rider, barely guiding a powerful beast.
I think Brian asked a valuable question to you, Jeff: “What are the new, even more modern currents of today that might cause you to point to there’s in contrast?” Jeff, while any participant in this block can do a little research online and more or less infer your current position/perspective, that is, your embedded set of integral, evolutionary assumptions, I think it’s really valuable to continually assert/enact where you stand, that is, your “Kosmic Address” as Wilber calls it. In this sense Brian’s question to you reflects an important precedent for having very effective and genuine dialogue here regarding… Read more »
Hello Mark, First of all thank you for reading and for posting. I have been amazed to find roots to my current belief in Evolutionary Spirituality in the classic past of American Philosophy and my interest in that philosophy is founded completely in my conviction about the need for a spirituality that is aligned with the true mechanisms of universal growth. I don’t feel I have been less than upfront about this – see my bio or ‘about this blog” page. At the same time, I am in the middle of a fairly massive research project and am trying to… Read more »
Mark, Thanks for your follow through. Jeff’s answer seems reasonable yet I wonder if he met your criteria for ideological transparency and kosmic address. You seem to have insight. Is there more we should know?
We are going to satisfy Amanda at some point this
month, when nonetheless but we havenot organized.
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