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The Power of Positive Pragmatism

The Origins of Pragmatism: Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James

by A.J. Ayer
Freeman, Cooper, 336 pp., $8.00

Any philosopher of whatever persuasion who tries to write the history of his subject in America from its beginnings to the First World War will sooner or later discover that, of all the thinkers he is obliged to study, the two most brilliant and most original were those life-long friends and partners in pragmatism, Charles Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910). Both were sons of intellectual fathers, both were Harvard men, and both began their careers in natural science, but soon after their intellectual launchings they sailed into very different seas.

James became an international success upon the appearance of his Principles of Psychology in 1890, made a triumphal entry into philosophy in the next decade, and died with the knowledge that he was one of the most famous philosophers in the world. Peirce’s luck was very different. He never succeeded in publishing a book in philosophy, never had a permanent academic position, often lived in squalor, and was constantly forced to keep body and soul together by lecturing, reviewing, and writing dictionary entries. He was a thorny, unconventional mathematical logician who had a genius for being unpleasant to his benefactors, yet he never seems to have driven away the ever-generous James, who made allowances for Peirce’s nuttiness and who praised and supported him in every kind of emergency. James handsomely announced to the world in 1898 that Peirce had been the founder of pragmatism but Peirce’s distinction took an inexcusably long time to sink into the American academic mind. It was not until the 1930s, when his posthumous Collected Papers began to appear, that Peirce’s greatness was generally acknowledged by philosophers.

America had been much too late in discovering its philosophical Cinderella, but better late than never. After Peirce’s works joined James’s on library shelves, it became evident what a powerful pair they had been. They compared favorably with any philosopher produced by England or the Continent in their time, and alongside their American predecessors and contemporaries they shone with almost solar brightness. Before Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) there was virtually nothing of lasting philosophical value in what may be called Perry Miller Land after that dedicated explorer of the Puritan mind. And although Edwards was an acute and even powerful arguer on the subject of free will, he was hardly a heavyweight when compared with Locke, Hume, or Berkeley. Emerson (1803-1882) was a great man and a seer, but what little technical philosophy he espoused was connected with his slavish acceptance of Coleridge’s distinction between the Reason and the Understanding. Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), often said to be the ur-pragmatist, turns out on careful reading to be better regarded as a highly intelligent and knowledgeable disciple of Darwin and John Stuart Mill. Josiah Royce (1855-1916), the younger colleague of James and the friend of Peirce, is not to be put in the same class with them, for all of his learning and his logic. And if one is thinking of liveliness and originality, the less said the better about the supernumerary Philadelphia materialists, Princeton realists, and St. Louis Hegelians who lurk in the underbrush of American philosophical history.

It is not at all surprising, therefore, that when Professor Ayer—who does not appear to have any general interest in America’s history or its ideas, but who has a nose for good philosophy—was invited by an English foundation to lecture on “the history, literature, and institutions of the United States,” he was inevitably drawn to Peirce and James. Ayer was informed by his broadminded hosts that the terms of the lectureship might be taken to cover a comparison of British with American philosophy, and so in 1957 he delivered at University College in London a series of four lectures under the overall title of “Pragmatism and Analysis,” in which he tried to trace the main lines of American philosophy from Peirce and James to the present, alongside the main lines of British philosophy from G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell to the present. Finding the subject of his lectures too vast for a book, Ayer decided at first to narrow it down to Peirce and James as the originators of American pragmatism, and Moore and Russell as the originators of British analysis; but when he discovered how difficult it would be to deal merely with Peirce and James, he settled for a book on them alone. Such is the origin of The Origins of Pragmatism.

Not only has Ayer focused all of his attention on these figures, but he has limited himself to their pragmatism and allied doctrines. Ayer’s apparent indifference to the views of other writers on these doctrines will appall many Peirce and James specialists, but it will evoke the sympathy and knowing smiles of every philosophy professor who has had to lecture on a figure in ignorance of the scholarly literature about him. Ayer views his own failure to cite anything in the vast secondary literature on Peirce and James with what can only be called “chutzpah.” “It has not been my aim to produce a work of historical scholarship,” he says, and neatly disarms his likely reviewers in scholarly journals. “I have read the works of Peirce and James attentively, but I have not tried to situate them in the history of philosophy.” “Nor,” he adds, “have I studied the writings of other commentators, to see how far their interpretations agree with mine.” The space that Ayer saves by not considering the views of other commentators he uses to develop his own theories on some of the main issues raised by Peirce and James.

I confess that I am of two minds about certain aspects of this undertaking. On the one hand I can’t help feeling that it is odd for an interpreter of a philosopher—especially an interpreter of Ayer’s empiricist leanings—to ignore what has been written about his subject in this way. The task of discovering what a philosopher has said and meant is empirical, and so one might expect a commentator to seek all possible evidence about him, including that provided by other commentators. I think therefore that this book would have been a much more useful one if Ayer had spent more time dealing with the opinions of other interpreters of Peirce and James, and less on presenting his own ideas on the issues raised by Peirce and James. On the other hand, we all know how easy it is for the interpreter of a philosophical text to be diverted from his main task by wrangling with other commentators. And to make matters worse, anyone who felt obliged to read everything written on Peirce and James would have to go through a dreary cultist literature that has grown up beside a respectable exegetical literature.

Moreover, I need not stress the amount of rubbish that has been written on the alleged alliance between pragmatism and American capitalism, and on the so-called pragmatism of FDR and JFK. I venture to guess, therefore, that if Ayer had, in the manner of an intellectual historian, waded through all of the literature on Peirce, James, their lives and times, we would never have had any book by him on Peirce and James, and that would have been a pity. As it is, we can be grateful for an illuminating and challenging study, which allows us to witness the impact of two of our most distinguished philosophical minds on one of the most lucid and least insular of present-day English philosophical writers.

In the Thirties Ayer brought the positivistic doctrines of the Vienna Circle home to England and wrote his provocative Language, Truth and Logic. In this book he is bringing home a report, which may be news to some, that two Americans had created an original and powerful philosophy before Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein were born. Although Ayer has come a long way from his youthful positivism, one of the most interesting things about his latest book is his application of what he learned in Vienna to the pragmatism of James. Therefore I shall concentrate on this aspect of the book even though much of what he says about Peirce is also of great interest. Ayer is especially concerned to refute the view that according to James a man may believe any proposition that he finds it satisfying to believe, and tries to protect James from this charge by viewing him as something like a logical positivist.

So far as I can see, Ayer has never abandoned the positivistic doctrine that there are three fundamentally different types of statements which are supported in fundamentally different ways: those of empirical science which are factual, those of pure mathematics and logic which concern the relationship between ideas, and those which are moral or aesthetic. In spite of James’s failure to acknowledge such a trichotomy explicitly, Ayer thinks that he really did accept it. When James said that we should adopt only those beliefs that “work,” he meant to add, according to Ayer, that the factual beliefs of empirical science work in one way, mathematical and logical beliefs in a second way, and moral and aesthetic beliefs in a third. On this interpretation, a factual belief works if and only if it is corroborated by experience; a mathematical or logical belief works if and only if it expresses a relationship between ideas which is “perceptively obvious at a glance”; and a moral or aesthetic belief works if and only if it brings satisfaction to the person who holds it. Therefore, only the moral or aesthetic belief behaves in the manner usually described by commentators on James, because it alone is at the mercy of the personal caprice that is usually associated with James’s doctrine. By contrast, Ayer holds, the grounds on which we accept the statements of science and mathematics are as objective on James’s view as they can be on any positivistic doctrine.

What about metaphysical and religious beliefs? According to Ayer, James put them into the same category as moral and aesthetic beliefs, because they too are neither empirical nor mathematico-logical, and therefore they too may be said to work if and only if they satisfy the person who holds them. That is why James could appeal to moral sentiment alone in rejecting the metaphysics of determinism and naturalism. The belief that every choice is determined does not square, he said, with our feelings of moral regret; and therefore belief in determinism must give way. The belief that there is no spiritual order beyond nature does not square with equally respectable feelings, and therefore that belief must also give way for non-intellectual reasons. On Ayer’s interpretation of James, science, mathematics, and logic are deaf to the claims of feeling; and mathematics and logic are deaf to the claims of sensory experience; whereas a man’s metaphysics and his theology respond to his every heart-beat.

There is a good deal to support this interpretation of James, even though there are many passages that provide obstacles to it. Rather than say that it represents the correct interpretation, however, I should say that Ayer has put his finger on one conspicuous strain in James’s thought, a strain which brought him very close to his predecessors, Jonathan Edwards and Emerson. In order to provide a rationale for evangelical religion, Edwards added a sixth sense to the ordinary ones of Locke; he insisted that the Protestant elect have a “sense of the heart” which allows them to see the glory of divine things, and roundly attacked as formalists those who were content with a more theoretical or more historical knowledge of divine excellency. Although Emerson departed in many ways from Edwards’s philosophy and theology, he notoriously relied on his heart more than on his head in coming to his religious, moral, aesthetic and metaphysical convictions.

That was Emerson’s main purpose in urging that Coleridgian Reason could see the glory of God in the face of Jesus, the existence of Platonic Ideas, and the truth of moral propositions. And that is why we may sum up about 150 years of American philosophy by pointing out that the Calvinist’s Sense of the Heart, the Transcendentalist’s Reason, and James’s Will to Believe were all irrationalist or anti-intellectualist devices. For Edwards the Protestant saint could be a simple, ignorant man and yet see truth more effectively than the man of learning or the philosopher; for Emerson the poet who saw the highest truths could be a farmer or a child; and for James in The Will to Believe, anyone with feelings had the right to accept a metaphysics or a religion that satisfied him when his logical intellect, as James put it, had not been coerced on the subject.

It is ironic that James should fit more easily into the older American tradition of anti-intellectualism when one concentrates, as Ayer does, on the positivistic strain in his thought. However, this becomes more understandable when one realizes that there is a strong tendency among twentieth-century positivists to treat so-called ontological questions as radically different from scientific questions. When they don’t regard them as nonsensical, positivists hold that philosophical questions like “Are there physical objects?” and “Are there universals?” are not settled as we settle questions like “Are there bacteria?” or “Are there electrons?” The latter they regard as factual questions which should be answered by empirical methods, whereas they think that ontological questions call for decisions about the convenience of certain conceptual frameworks, decisions made by appealing to so-called pragmatic considerations. Once a positivist comes to regard ontological questions in this way, we can easily see why he might be sympathetic to the idea that ontological and other metaphysical beliefs are acceptable only in the degree to which they satisfy us. For, as Quine has pointed out, the positivist subscribes to an untenable contrast between the method of ontology and the method of science, putting his pragmatism to work only after his empirical, scientific inquiries have supposedly ended, whereas in fact pragmatic considerations when properly understood play a part in the justification of both onto-logical and scientific beliefs. A belief in the existence of universals, like a belief in the existence of electrons, is to be tested by—among other things—its capacity to organize our experience effectively. Therefore we do not appeal only to our hearts in metaphysics, religion, and morals while we use only our heads in science.

I should say therefore that if Ayer is right in claiming James as having adopted an anti-intellectualistic positivism, so much the worse for James. Such a positivism depends on an indefensible trichotomy of physics, logic, and ethics, which is propped up by an obscure distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, and an unsuccessful analysis of the nature of moral judgments. I hope therefore that as Ayer continues his study of American philosophy he will be persuaded that there is no radical methodological distinction between the way in which our ontological beliefs work and the way in which our scientific beliefs work.

If I were writing a book on James I should call attention to a strain in his thought which Ayer neglects, but which seems to me to be closer to the philosophical truth. It is well expressed in a passage like the following from James’s essay, “The Sentiment of Rationality”:

Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions. Intellect, will, taste, and passion cooperate just as they do in practical affairs; and lucky it is if the passion be not something as petty as love of personal conquest over the philosopher across the way. The absurd abstraction of an intellect verbally formulating all its evidence and carefully estimating the probability thereof by a vulgar fraction by the size of whose denominator and numerator alone it is swayed, is ideally as inept as it is actually impossible. It is almost incredible that men who are themselves working philosophers should pretend that any philosophy can be, or ever has been constructed without the help of personal preference, belief or divination.

I would remark that here intellect, will, taste, and passion are all said to cooperate in the formation of a philosophical opinion, and that intellect is not denied a part. James was interested in giving personal preference a part in the process but not the only part. The key phrase in the passage is “the whole man.” When he spoke in this way, James did not wish to deny that intellectual considerations played some part in his abandonment of, say, determinism. When this strain comes to the fore in his thinking, he emphasizes that a decision to accept or reject a metaphysics is dictated by a blend of considerations that are logical, empirical, and emotional. When he is thinking along these lines, he is far from accepting the anti-intellectual idea that a factual belief is tested by experience alone, a mathematico-logical belief by examining only the relationships between ideas, and a metaphysical belief by consulting only one’s emotions.

By the time his Pragmatism appeared, he was moving away, I suggest, from the notion that we test our beliefs individually in accordance with standards that are peculiar to the discipline from which they come. He was leaning more and more to the view that when we think we are testing an isolated belief, whether metaphysical, scientific, or logical, we are really evaluating what he called a “stock of opinions” that is variously composed and subject to the demands of consistency, experience, and emotion. This comes out most clearly in the following passage in his Pragmatism:

The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently. This idea is then adopted as the true one. It preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible.

Here, I suggest, there is no tendency to insist that physics works in one way, logic in a second, and metaphysics in a third. The emphasis is rather on the idea that a whole man will subject a heterogeneous stock of opinions to a test in which conformity to both experience and desire is to be taken into account, that he will balance many considerations against each other in an effort to deal with the challenge that has put the old system to a strain. And although James recognizes the need to preserve that system with a minimum of modification, he regards even the oldest truths in the old stock—those of logic and mathematics—as modifiable in the face of a challenge from experience or emotion.

How plastic even the oldest truths…really are,” he announces, “has been vividly shown in our day by the transformation of logical and mathematical ideas.” This is the James who encourages us to reject sharp positivistic distinctions between the analytic and the synthetic, between metaphysics and science, and between science and morals. This is the James who looks forward in the history of American philosophy and not backward to the anti-intellectualism of Edwards and Emerson. This is the greater James but the James I don’t see enough of in this lucid, stimulating examination of pragmatism.

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