C. Wright Mills and the Pragmatists

Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America

by C. Wright Mills, edited with an Introduction by Irving Louis Horowitz
Paine-Whitman, 475 pp., $7.95

The greater part of this book, which contains among other things a version of C. Wright Mills’s doctoral dissertation, is worth reading. It has the benefit of two revisions: one, doubtless to its advantage, by its author, the other by its editor. It should be said in his defense that Professor Horowitz lacks the full courage of his intrusions. For instance he informs us in his Preface that “the title of the dissertation, A Sociological Account of Pragmatism, has been changed to Sociology and Pragmatism: A Study in American Higher Learning.” That this is not the title he has actually given the book, anyone but Professor Horowitz can see. A minor point. In extenuation of this (or that) alteration, the following has occurred to Professor Horowitz: “This is not only a commercially more viable title, but better reflects Mills’s main concern in the dissertation, the professionalization of philosophic education in the United States, and also his enormous indebtedness to the work of Thorstein Veblen.” Characteristic, and not so minor. My guess is that, under its original title, the book would have sold like hot-cakes, real higher learning and all; as it is it will undoubtedly have to be remaindered before the year is out. Mills’s indebtedness to Veblen is genuine, but it is not much in evidence here. Nor is the book’s chief concern with the professionalization of philosophical education. What it is concerned with, when Mills finally gets down to business, is the development, under various pressures, of the pragmatic tendencies in the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.

My advice to the reader is to leaf lightly through Professor Horowitz’s Introduction on “The Intellectual Genesis of C. Wright Mills.” The same goes for the first four chapters of Mills’s text: they are stupefying. In Chapter Five, however, things begin to pisk up. Indeed my impression is that only in this chapter, when some philosophical ideas come into view for the first time, and he can forget his puerile statistics, his desultory attempt to classify the types of men who went into philosophy in the nineteenth century, and his derivative remarks upon the rise of the secular American university, does Mills’s own mind really awaken from its sociological slumber. Chapter Five is concerned with the “Biographical Composition” of “The Metaphysical Club,” a “knot of young men,” at whose meetings during the early 1870s in Cambridge the name as well as the fundamental doctrine of pragmatism were conceived. By any standards the group was an extraordinary one; in addition to Peirce its members included (among others) his friend William James, the younger Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chauncy Wright, John Fiske, the historian, and F. E. Abbot, a brilliant free-lance “religionist” and occasional pastor. Of these “half-defiant,” semi-agnostical, supposedly anti-metaphysicians, “Wright, James and I,” as Peirce proudly says, “were men of science.” In one way or another, however, all of them were preoccupied with the implications of Darwin’s grand evolutionary theories, the scientific methodology, ethics, and social philosophy of the great Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill, as well as the psychology of Alexander Bain, whose definition of belief as “that upon which a man is prepared to act” closely anticipates Peirce’s own pragmatic conception of belief. The type of thought espoused by most members of the group “was decidedly British.” Only Peirce “had come upon the threshing-floor of philosophy through the doorway of Kant, and even…[his] ideas were acquiring the English accent.” History, biology, utility, method, and inquiry (along with “experience,” perhaps the golden word of pragmatism is “inquiry”): these were the salient ideas to which the leaders of the club constantly returned. And, particularly in the cases of Peirce and Wright, the discussions were given a decidedly contemporary turn by their insistence upon the central relevance at least to scientific inquiry of the use of mathematics and exact logic and of controlled laboratory experimentation. In the end, in fact, what distinguished pragmatism, particularly in Peirce’s version, was its insistence upon the internal relevance to the very meaning of scientific ideas of the logical and experimental operations involved in their formulation and validation. It was also William James’s self-confessed inability to do logic and mathematics that was responsible, in Peirce’s view, for James’s failure fully to appreciate the true operational meaning of Peirce’s version of pragmatism itself. By their operations, one may say (echoing Peirce), so shall ye know them; you understand only what you can do, and you know through, as well as are known by, your actions.

On the whole, and with the aid of some marvelous quotations, especially from Peirce and Chauncy Wright, one of the most remarkable members of the group, Mills tells the story of the Metaphysical Club very well. One is made aware, for example, not only of John Fiske’s addiction to the evolutionary philosophy of Herbert Spencer but also, and more significantly, of Wright’s striking criticisms of it. “Notice,” says Mills, “the way Wright confronts Spencer. He says that the man’s writings ‘evince an extensive knowledge of facts…,’ but ‘extensive rather than profound, and mainly at second hand.”’ Spencer’s method, as Wright put it, proceeds on “the supposition that the materials of truth have all been collected”; but in science “nothing justified…abstract…principle[s]…but their utility in enlarging our concrete knowledge….” For Wright, scientific ideas are “working ideas,” “finders, not merely summaries of truth.” “…Selection is the prime function of the intellect.” Experience is not just a heterogeneous mass of particular sense impressions; nor can it be explained by mere laws of association. Cognition is more than “mere chronicle[s] of sensuous history.” There are in all significant and cognitive experiences “orders and forms” that testify to the “constant reaction of the mind through memory upon the presentation of the senses.” And most pregnantly, “If our memories were only retentive and not only cooperative with the senses, only associations of the very lowest order could be formed. We should not each know the same world, but only each his own world.” For Wright as for Peirce the problem of knowledge is the problem of objectivity. Yet Wright’s mind, for all its brilliance, was stuck in the nominalism and individualism traditionally identified not only with J. S. Mill but with British Empiricism as a whole. Accordingly, as Charles Peirce insisted, he could give no intelligible account either of the public practices integral to actual scientific methods of verification or of his own underlying faith as a scientist in the recurring identities and identifiable continuities—the “general runs,” as Peirce called them—involved in the notion of an objective order of nature. What Wright practiced as a scientist, he could not bring himself to preach as a philosopher, and what he preached, in his drawn-out arguments with Peirce, would, had he endeavored to practice it, have put an end to his scientific work. Unlike Peirce, Wright had no adequate conception of what he himself was doing; and his philosophy accordingly was, from Peirce’s point of view, a papier mâché philosophy which could provide no basis for that self-knowledge and self-control which Peirce himself so desperately sought.

The same was true of Wright’s social and political thought. Wright, as Mills truly remarks, was a “hesitant” liberal. A professed individualist and libertarian in his social thought, he feared the increasing participation of the masses in the setting of social policies and in the choice of political leaders. It appalled him to think that problems of social reform, which he thought to be owing mainly to “mismanagement,” “will have to be solved through democratic agencies….” He came actually to the point of thinking that “the laws of property…have come to be productive, not of increased gains, but of a large and permanent class of unproductive consumers…so far they are devices of legalized robbery, and must be abrogated or amended….” Nevertheless “our great men are wise and painstaking promoters and guardians of extensive interests,” and “In the long run, the privileges of wealth—that is, most of them—conduce to the benefit of society.” Peirce on the other hand was unhesitantly illiberal; indeed, it is this fact, rarely alluded to by adulators either of Peirce or of pragmatism, which makes it quite plain that there is no inherent tie between pragmatism and the politics of twentieth-century liberal democracy.

The later chapters are divided into three unequal parts in which Mills offers, successively, three extended biographical-analytical accounts of the leading methodological and social theories of Peirce, James, and Dewey. There are also a good many passing references to the important but comparatively unknown Chicago pragmatist, George Mead, whose works, particularly his posthumous Mind and Society, appear to have had a decisive influence upon Mills’s own later social thought. It is all the more to be regretted that Mills gives us here no extended account of Mead’s contributions to the development of pragmatism.

In his treatment of Peirce, which I found astonishingly close to some published views of my own about Peirce, Mills shows how central both to Peirce’s thought and to his life was the extraordinary mathematical and scientific training which he received from his brilliant, remorseless, professorial father as well as his lack of guidance in other spheres. In Peirce’s devotion to scientific knowledge, not as a (as some use the term) “pragmatic” technological instrument of the affluent society, but as the summum bonum itself, his love of his father is obvious. What is less obvious, but no less likely, is that Peirce’s authoritarian, aprioristic social and political thought, which views the individual person as a mere cell of a social organism, represents a passionate wish to escape from the terrible freedom of one who, as he himself said, had never learned “moral self-control.”

Mills perceives the fact that for Peirce, at once the philosophical stalking horse for and the sacrificial lamb to science and logic, there is, in his own pragmatic sense of the term, no acknowledgable reality save that which science describes and (more important) which corporate scientific activity embodies. Yet he helps us also to see how deeply the ambivalent Peirce fears science and scientific reasoning when employed as guides to conduct. At one and the same time, Peirce, the founder of the pragmatic school, professes nothing but disdain for the “practical” (in the vulgar sense of the term), insisting that “the faculty of reasoning is not of the first importance to success in life…,” and yet, almost in spite of himself, yearns toward a practical moral and religious order in which the logician and the scientist can, self-forgetfully, give himself up to instinct and lose himself in a great, lovable consensus.

At the more technical level, Mills’s account of Peirce’s “laboratory style of inquiry” is both informed and discriminating. He shows how integral to Peirce’s own scientific pragmatism is his opposition to Descartes’s contextless, intuitionistic, subjectivisitic “method of doubt.” For Peirce, as for all pragmatists, significant doubt occurs only when, for some reason, there is a problem to be solved, and there is a problem to be solved only when there occurs, in the situation in which one finds oneself, a breakdown of one’s habitual assurances or beliefs. Cartesian doubt, for Peirce, is a form of “make-believe”; real doubt represents, in effect, a threat to the stability and economy of the mind and through it to the underlying social order which it represents. Accordingly, you cannot begin with doubt, as Descartes supposed, but only with belief. And in fact Peirce contended that there is always a large body of common-sense beliefs which normal men—and in this regard practicing scientists are eminently normal—do not, and indeed cannot, seriously doubt. Significant inquiries always take place, therefore, in medias res. There are no ultimate points of departure, no absolutely clear or simple ideas, no primordial intuitions of being in which all proper speculations must begin.

When he sticks to what he knows Peirce is among the most stimulating philosophers. He is a probabalist, an extoller of the concept of the degree. He does not, a priori, oppose certainty, only the benighted quest for it. Certainty, in Peirce’s view, is always behind you; if you have to pursue it, like happiness, it is gone forever. Perhaps this is why, as a philosopher, he regards reasoning as dangerous at the moral and religious level. For Peirce the whole point of the effort to “make our ideas clear,” and hence of such recipes as his own pragmatic maxim for guiding that effort, is, as he himself said, “self-control.” But the only self in which Peirce consciously believed was his scientific laboratory self and the only manner in which he could think of controlling it was in terms of the public technical operations involved in scientific experimentation and logical analysis. And so, paradoxically, he kept trying to reduce every other form of inquiry to a science, including ethics and philosophy, even though, by his own showing, the practical concerns and hence the governing ideas and precepts of the moral agent and the philosopher, the forms of control which they seek, must be conceived in terms of quite different operations and practices.

Thus Peirce the scientific “ethicist” remained at the level of moral practice, where alone characteristically moral problems arise, an instinctivist, irrationalist, and authoritarian, repelled by the idea of the life of reason. Thus also did Peirce, the pragmatic philosopher of science par excellence, whose basic conceptions of scientific thought and practice have not been greatly advanced upon to this day, wound up a broken metaphysician endlessly drawing up tables of contents for the books he would never write. And thus did “poor Peirce,” as his friends habitually referred to him, the great celebrant of the indefeasible reality of institutions, including above all the institution of language itself, wind up in an attic in Milford, Pennsylvania, dreaming his great dream of evolutionary love: an endless drift toward universal self-correction and self-perfection in which, even after the last man is dead, there will be formed that “real” consensus which, for the practicing scientist, exists only as an ideal in “the longest conceivable run.”

Mills clearly perceives how Peirce’s status as a constitutional reject from the academy affects his highly abstract, intellectualistic version of pragmatism. In contrast to James, who had supposedly “kidnapped” the term and applied it as a kind of salve of praise to every vital act of expression, however evanescent its “meaning,” and to every self-important doing, no matter how vulgar or how passing its significance, no matter how personal the standards of its success, Peirce insists that his “pragmaticism” (as he renamed pragmatism in order to remove James’s contaminating hands) has nothing to do with actual effects but only with those “conceivable” consequences which concern the public, scientific meanings of “signs.” His concern is with the conception, not the actual delivery, with the rule, not its observance, the run, not the step. And indeed, it gradually becomes plain, by a fantastic, ultimately cosmological irony, that Peirce’s whole public world, his institutions, his splendid “unlimited community” are, at bottom, only ideal potentialities whose true model of being is purely semantical and hence which exist, if at all, only in principle and for an ideal “interpretant.” The world of living men, with their exigent loves and thirsts, their concerns and terrors and doubts, has receded into a domain abstractly of demonstrative “thises” and “thats” which even laboratory scientists appeal to only at the end of their tether. Science and its world, what are they? Nothing you run into, certainly, at department lunches or conventions of university professors. In fact science is a grail, a promise, the obligation to which is understood, if at all, only by the lonely logician, unselfishly and gallantly setting type in a lovely universe of “law.”

William James, on the other hand, was, almost in spite of himself, a huge success at the wretched business of existing. From a distance he looks like a kind of philosophical counterpart of his own particular bête noir: the great rough rider, Theodore Roosevelt himself. If Peirce, the scientist and logician, tended to eliminate practicing from his notion of praxis, James, the Calvinistic moral agent par excellence, made of practicing a surrogate both of salvation and of reality. For James, God himself, if there were a God, would have to be a great practitioner. The only artist among the pragmatists, James was fearful of all creation, especially his own. Loveliness overwhelmed him and, accordingly, made him doubtful of his own always marginal self-control. In his eyes it is not creativity or its contemplation that makes perfect, but practicing and the will to practice. He preferred, or rather believed in, Swiss watches over Botticelli’s Venus; Italy was marvelous, but there was always work to do, lectures to give, books to write, words to polish in order to make them look unpolished. As James’s great biographer, Ralph Barton Perry, put it, James, the incurably tough-minded, “suffered from incredulity.” In him to fact disbelief always verged upon that final, despairing unbelief which is the paralysis of will. Hence the will to believe; hence also anything is meaningful that moves us even for the moment. James, in fact, turned pragmatism into a theory, not of signs but of gestures, not of usages but of actual uses, not of conceivable meanings but of present sayings.

The issue between “theism” and “materialism,” as Mills recognizes, was for James the issue between two “wholly different outlooks on experience.” As Mills puts it, the issue is whether men shall be optimistic or pessimistic, whether they shall dwell, even if temporarily, in a land of hope and glory or sink forever in a sea of disappointment. As a philosopher, however, James could preach neither materialism nor theism, neither pessimism nor optimism. He coined a word to describe his position: “meliorism.” Seize the day and better it was his prescription. How to do this? By living in the world, and by living in the world.

But James was complicated. As Mills shows, in a quite brilliant chapter entitled “Three Vocabularies of Social Practice,” James constantly used a “vocabulary” not only of action, common sense, and expediency, but also of commerce and business. Where Peirce placed his ideal practices in an ideal scientific laboratory, James placed his practicing in a free-wheeling, free-loading world of enterprise where individual men of affairs perform great deeds in order to forget the horror of their lives.

Mills admires James; in fact there is a touch of James’s own swashbuckling, improvising activism in Mills’s own makeup. But Mills, who looks at things in the last analysis from a sociological rather than from a moral or literary point of view, cannot ignore the indefensible fact that James, despite his sincere liberalism, his eager sympathy for the despised and the downtrodden, and his passion for uplift, had no coherent social philosophy. Indeed, James seemed scarcely aware of the need for one. The truth is, as Mills says, that James’s “political experience was meager…” “The political was peripheral to James’s major foci, incidental to his major interests. One might almost say that his political reactions, on the one hand, were derived syntactically from other domains of his mind, which had been otherwise set…” Surprisingly in one who is nowadays so much praised for his anticipations of existentialism, James’s ordinary social and political thinking is, as Mills justly remarks, ” ‘rationalistic’ in the non-technical, broad sense of the term.” His pragmatism, like the practice of any organization man, is a “mediatory affair.” Instinctively, he is a gradualist and a centrist. Mills quotes a striking sentence from James that sounds for all the world like Karl Popper: “Our difficulties and our ideals are all piecemeal affairs.” “In his many contexts,” concludes Mills, “James was at bottom conservative. In his pronouncements on morals. family life, and temperance this is true…. In political matters we have seen that his individualism was bound to place his weight with the regnant laissez-faire attitude.” Finally, and most crushingly, James regards property (it is not clear, I may add, that he is thinking of “property” in the post-Marxian sense of the term; in fact James seems scarcely aware of Marx’s existence) as an “instinct,” “one of the radical endowments of the race.”

Mills’s treatment of Dewey is twice as long as his discussions of James or Peirce. What he has to say of Dewey is within its limits full of insight. In fact no one has better placed this great, lumbering, ever self-transcending master of American philosophy so firmly within his many-textured, multi-functional world. No one has better described Dewey’s slow, inexorable professional ascent from Burlington, Vermont, through Ann Arbor and Chicago’s Hull House, to Morningside Heights; from his callow nineteenth-century idealism to the sophisticated, streamlined, light-weight gradualism of Liberalism and Social Action, and from his early Hegelianism and Darwinism through the contextualism of Experience and Nature, to the late flirtations with physicalism and positivistic unified science.

But power as Mills perceives is not innocent. And he reads a terrible indictment of a philosopher who lets it appear on the surface “that science and technology [are] morally neutral, that empirically they should be looked upon as means, which may limit the range of possible ends, but which, nevertheless, do not set them.” But, “For some time the scope of technologically possible ends has been very wide indeed, the range from utter comfort to stark death.” As Mills describes him, Dewey was never able seriously to move outside the social system of which he was often a harsh but always a “constructive” critic. He was far more systematic than James or Peirce, but in the end his recipes for the improvement of the human condition remain merely methodological. Peirce, at least, restricted the range of scientific “inquiry” to matters discussable in the “laboratory”; Dewey envisaged the whole social order as a great laboratory where virtually everybody contributes to the great consensus that sets the policies by which, and the limits within which, all men of good will are to live and have their being. The vision is glorious, but is it scientific? More to the point, is it desirable?

Dewey recognizes that there is a logical difference between the desirable and that which is simply desired. But his tendency to reduce the desirable to that which, in context, scientifically informed men desire suggests why, although he might suggest ways to improve the system, he had no notion, either for better or worse, of ways to beat it. The one dimension of experience which he seems never quite to understand is the transcendental. And so, after all, his thought is not so opentextured as he and his followers have supposed. Mills sees some of this very clearly. And because of this he already sees that there are limits to Dewey’s usefulness as an ideologue. What he does not, perhaps cannot, see, from his sociological perspective (this of course is what is wrong with sociology as a perspective) is the old man in his own marvelous acts of self-transcendence, talking with such extraordinary vividness and imagination about “art as experience” and about experience as art, loving both. What he misses is the still youthful lover of argument who, in his extremest age, found time to engage in polemics with young philosophers making their first appearances on the pages of The Journal of Philosophy.

Mills’s book is an uneven, sometimes an impossible, book. I have found it, nonetheless, very illuminating, often true. It approaches its material in a way that has not been taken, to my knowledge, by any half-way friendly historian-critic of pragmatism. In his later writings, Mills seems to think that the pragmatic tradition cannot transcend the historical limitations which have circumscribed and in some respects emasculated the thought of the great pragmatists. Accordingly, he tended to move out of the orbit of pragmatism which he attempts to define in this early work. In particular, it was the failure of the pragmatists to develop an adequate theory of, or response to, the developing revolutions of the twentieth-century which drove Mills at least half-way into the arms of the Marxists. For myself, I am not convinced that pragmatism, either as a theory of interpretation or as a style of social and cultural criticism, is incapable of developing into a revolutionary philosophy where in context revolution is required for a deeper, more extensive amelioration of human practices and institutions. One of the things which Mills’s own book shows is that none of the great pragmatists succeeded in defining the limits of pragmatic analysis and prescription. In the nature of the case, pragmatism is an anti-essentialist philosophy, and those who are responsive to its own inner dialectic, as it moves from its thesis in Peirce, through its antithesis in James, to its synthesis in Dewey, will also realize that in Dewey’s synthesis is also the thesis for a new development.

It is certain that Mills did not offer us a new synthesis; it is not at all certain that he would have wished to do so. Nonetheless, in an age of timid, anti-ideological neo-pragmatism which advances nowhere beyond the lessons of the masters, Mills at least makes a few moves toward a significant new antithesis. Later on, he talks about the need for “structural” changes in the social system, although I, at least, have no notion of what changes he really has in mind. Remembering our Nietzsche, we may perhaps say that Mills, like James, means to be a good “americano” even if not a good “norteamericano.” And he perceives that any “viable” (horrid word), not to say any decent, consensus of the future must include more than the thin, brittle establishment that fancies itself to be “the free world.” For this, in my opinion, he himself deserves a place of honor within the pragmatic tradition of which he has here proved himself to be an excellent historian and a trenchant critic.


Aiken on Mills April 22, 1965