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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.

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