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.
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Socrates said in Plato’s symposium about universal ideas: (in this case of beauty. It is translated from Dutch): ‘it always ‘is’, it never ‘becomes’, it doesn’t get bigger or smaller, it is not sometimes beautiful sometimes ugly, not beautiful in comparison to something else, no here beautiful but there ugly. Nor will it be beautiful as in the appearance of a face or hands or parts of a body. It doesn’t appear as an idea or a sort of knowledge. It is not to be found in another thing, nor in an animal or in the earth, or in heaven,… Read more »
Hello Liesbeth, Thank you for your thoughts and I certainly don’t want to imply that idealism and pragmatism are the same. At the same time the distinctions between them are more subtle than might immediately seem to be the case. Pragmatism is first and foremost a method of inquiry. According to that method the only thing that ultimately matters about an idea is what effect it has. If there is an idea that has no effect at all that doesn’t mean that the idea doesn’t exist, it just means that it effectively doesn’t exist. A pragmatist is not so concerned… Read more »
I do not know exactly which book I read it, but I remember Jung attacking Hegel as total non-sense, I will look for it tomorrow. What I understood lately is that his archetypes connect to the Ideas of Plato. When I read your response, I totally can imagine the last part, I had to think about a lecture last night with the Brahma Kumaris. The woman said that ‘mercy’ means being able to look beyond a deed of a person and compassion is that there is always the awareness of being One, whatever the action of a person. She was… Read more »
Dear Jeff and Liesbeth, thanks so much for the blog and the comments. Actually I am getting excited and thrilled every time one tries to make a bridge between Pragmatism and Idealism. I myself don’t really know where the bridge is located so I want to offer here an ongoing inquiry. What comes to me while reading the blog is that what is at play here is the belief system in its interaction with the representation system. It is not really the facts that pragmatists and idealists will disagree with, but the orientation of their beliefs. Take the example of… Read more »
Hello Catherine – Bravo! I really appreciate your post here. I think you really get to the heart of the matter as I see it. “It is not really the facts that pragmatists and idealists will disagree with, but the orientation of their beliefs.” Idealism and Pragmatism are not opposites. Idealism stands in opposition to Materialism and you can be a Pragmatics Idealist or a Pragmatic Materialist – and to be honest most of us are. If I was going to oppose something to a Pragmatic Philosophy I would say that its opposite was a Speculative Philosophy. Purely speculative Philosophies… Read more »
Jeff- I think you put your finger on the subtle difference between Idealism and Pragmatism here: “If there is an idea that has no effect at all that doesn’t mean that the idea doesn’t exist, it just means that it effectively doesn’t exist. A pragmatist is not so concerned with whether ideas are real or not, as much as what the effect is of believing them to be true.” The leap from pure materialism to Pragmatism in this sense is that ideas are granted existence. They are caused by something and in turn are caused. My model here in contemporary… Read more »
Dear James, Thank you for your comments. I took a look at your own blog and really appreciate your own Pragmatic application of philosophy. I look forward to the having the opportunity to continue to engage together on these all important topics. As I see it decision making (in reference to your blog) is central to Pragmatism and central to what it means to be human.
Here is an exchange of emails that I just engaged in that is of interest to this conversation. Jeff, In science, physics and engineering to be exact, this question of the actual vs the ideal comes up all the time. Theoretical and applied physics constantly challenge each other. Often with bitter words, or contempt or indefference, the two worlds while needing each other, often can’t get along. It’s like marriage. The ideal and actual are often miles apart, and yet the prospects of it working is eternally compelling. We keep trying and trying to get the one to approve of… Read more »
Jeff, just to be sure that we agree there with this definition “Does a belief in God have better results for human life than not believing? That would be the Pragmatic approach.” within this definition, both Steiner, Einstein and Bateson can be considered as Pragmatists…? although we agreed at the beginning at least for the two formers, they were in the camp of Idealism. Can we say that they are Serious Idealists ? Anyone serious will want to have results. You don’t need to be a Pragmatist for this. And sometimes, one could say that Pragmatists are not the ones… Read more »
Catherine, I had to think of your question, reading this…, maybe reading this is only for me clarifying. When a thinker analyses or criticizes an argument from everyday discussion or from general philosophy, we should expect two things: first that all the premises of the argument in question shall be explicitly stated and second that the rule or model (corresponding to the transformation rules in symbolic logic) to which his argument or any other similar argument conforms shall also admit of explicit statement. If their premises are real facts, also their conclusions will be p.49 of Peirce & pragmatism. When… Read more »
Just read a big article in my newspaper about pragmatism (‘pragmatic thinking is not so bad’): ‘it doesn’t matter if it is true, as long as it works’ (=John Dewey). This discussion is caused by the request for our mission in Afghanistan. The ‘green party’, a fusion of the most anti-military party there was and other left wing parties, is now actually accepting the mission to Afghanistan –IF not military. There was discussion on TV where the new leader ‘Jolande Sap’ was asked ‘where exactly is the point where ‘not-military’ and ‘military’ is divided …a policeman can defend himself and… Read more »
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