AL&P: William James

2007-03-27 00:00

In response to Philosophy and it’s Critics and What Pragmatism Means by William James: James basically tackles (the dubiously useful) task of defending the word “philosophy” from critics with a narrow modern concept of it, then (in What Pragmatism Means) outlines what he considers a useful and…well, practical, philosophical method: Pragmatism. Rather than entirely rehash what I presented in class for discussion (as I was one of the student facilitators), I will simply provide a link to the handout I made for discussion, and proceed from there. Much of the class discussion focused on the apparent dichotomy between modern science and modern philosophy, which was not present in the past. This dichotomy seems justified only in that the quantity of knowledge extant exceeds any single individual’s capacity to posses that knowledge. This requires a certain specificity of focus among individuals pursuing these studies (philosophical and scientific) in order to not, in some sense, waste intellectual capacity. As such, philosophy, having pushed beyond the ken of any single individual, allowed the analytic disciplines to separate themselves from the body of philosophy (to an extent); this is what we now call “science.” As the analytic disciplines provide simple and elegant solutions (also practical, see below) to many problems, much of science is, in a sense, solved. What remains are only edge cases, minutiae, and detail too obscure to provide practical results. James posits this provides a false sense of progress in science and not in philosophy, as today the disciplines are often separated. What James would instead state is that philosophy has made those advances, and continues to do so. What, in my mind, directly follows from this argument is that the analytic branches of philosophy (science, mathematics, logic) must be reconciled with the rest (metaphysics and theology, according to James) in order to solve new problems. James still seems to have the characteristic optimism that problems can eventually be solved through rational means, but I hold no such belief. There can be, and I would say there are, problems where rational inquiry (through scientific and analytic reasoning) will fail to provide even an acceptable model. To an extent, this is realized by Pragmatism; by tossing aside everything which cannot make real difference Pragmatism throws aside everything which can not be observed. (Perhaps one could argue that belief in the Absolute can not be observed, but under a pragmatic definition of belief, I would posit it must be observable.) Thus, it seems Pragmatism provides a certain kind of answer to some problems in philosophy, or rather, provides a method by which an answer may be obtained without appealing to irrational things. This starts to bridge the gap between metaphysics and science, but it cannot solve problems that are unable to be put into practical terms. I would suggest these problems are also important and deserve our philosophical attention.

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