The Evolving Truth of Pragmatism

In response to my last two posts a number of good points have been raised that I would like to start to address. Catherine has championed the idealism of Plato and Steiner against the Pragmatic vision and Don asked the devastatingly simple question “do I believe this?” In response to Don – I am still formulating my final beliefs and more to come on that later. As to Catherine I fear I may have given you the wrong impression about Pragmatism.

You said, “I had never understood before that pragmatism denies the existence of the world of pure ideas, of pure spirit.” This is actually not accurate. Most Pragmatists did believe in pure ideas – at least in some form or other. Charles Sanders Peirce talked about the materiality of an idea. By which he meant the objective, uninterpreted “stuff” of an idea. William James spoke about pure experience. And John Dewey wrote about the prevailing quality of experience.

Before getting into this territory I thought to share a word about what Pragmatism is. Pragmatism is a method of inquiry more than it is any particular view of what is real. Pragmatists believe that all conclusions about reality must be tentative and their validity must be constantly checked against their effect when put into action. In this sense your challenge – to wait to see the results of your research and use those results to come to a determination – is Pragmatic. The Pragmatists were simply taking the methods of scientific inquiry and applying them to philosophy. This attitude was based on a view of the universe as an evolutionary process in which human thought and activity were active creative participants.  Truth to them was something that was being constantly created through the interaction between minds, bodies and the universe.

Getting back to the issue of pure ideas, in an earlier comment you discussed my example of a circle being drawn on paper and said that before the circle would ever get drawn on paper it was a pure idea of a circle in the mind. To my understanding Peirce and James would not (in some ways) disagree with this. To really speak to this I need to do some deeper study of Idealism to just where the areas of agreement and disagreement are with Pragmatism (which I intend to) but for now here goes nothin’.

Assume that there is a pure idea, some initial conception in the mind. Then when a mind makes contact with this pure idea it simultaneously interprets that idea. At this point the pure idea becomes known, prior to any contact with an interpreting mind the pure idea is unknown.

Let us imagine that the pure idea is of a circle, once contact is made with that idea it immediately  results in the concept of a circle and an interpretation that the idea of a circle is not, for instance, a square, a line, or a point. The Pragmatists were not saying that the pure idea did not exist as much as they were saying that the pure idea only becomes real to us when it becomes known and it becomes known through a brute encounter – a touch – and a simultaneous interpretation of the pure idea. These three elements Peirce called Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness. Firstness is the pure idea, secondness is the encounter with the idea, thirdness is the interpretation.

Pragmatists (at least those I am familiar with) did believe in some form of a pure idea, what they didn’t believe was that it was possible to know a pure idea free from interpretation. The pure idea might be there, but as soon as you touch it with the mind you automatically interpret it and then it is no longer a pure idea, it is the combination of a pure inspiration PLUS some degree of interpretation. So all of our ideas must be held lightly, they are not absolute truth, they are interpretations of truth. The Pragmatists were the original pluralists and they wanted to be careful not to hold any ideas so firmly that they excluded the possibility of discovering still higher ideas – better interpretations – later. Their truth was a developing truth.