Thursday, January 22, 2015

Joseph Margolis Reinventing Pragmatism

Joseph Margolis is one of my favorite philosophers.  He has certainly done a lot of important work in aesthetics.  This blog post however will be on his book Reinventing Pragmatism:  American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century (Ithaca:  Cornell, 2002) where he basically says little about aesthetics or art, although it has implications for both.  

This is not a book I recommend for beginners.  It largely consists in a debate between Margolis and various contemporaries concerning the possible uses of pragmatism.  It is extremely dense.  I found myself trying to keep a tally of the things which Margolis seems to believe just to keep straight what he is saying apart from his various arguments against his fellow philosophers.

Naturalism is good.  
Naturalizing is not.  (I take it that naturalizing is a naturalism committed to Cartesian assumptions...see below).
Pragmatism is good but needs to be interpreted in a different way than Putnam's or Rorty's (i.e. by incorporating relativism and historicism)
Pragmatism can be associated with a good form of realism.
Historicism is good.
Cartesianism is bad. Descartes' "realism requires a radical disjunction between cognizing subjects and cognized world and pretends to reclaim an objective and neutral grasp of the way the world is apart from out inquiries, a world uncontaminated by the doubtful beliefs and appearances that occupy us in the process" (13)  He further explains Cartesian realism as "correspondentist in some criterially explicit regard, favors cognitive faculties reliably (even essentially) qualified to discern the actual features and structures of independent reality, is context-free and ahistorical, strongly separates human cognizers and cognized world, and is committed to one ideally valid description of the real world."  (38)  
Cognitive privilege is bad.
Constructivist realism is good.
Postmodernism is bad, particularly Rorty's version
Relativism can be coherently formulated, and as such is good.

Granted, Margolis has some style quirks that may be irritating to some.  For example, he often seems overconfident in his claims to have refuted opponents (something that may be inconsistent with his advocacy of relativism.)  He plays a very aggressive game. Also, although he often complains that his opponents have no arguments for their positions, I often find his jumps from final premise to conclusion surprising, if not breathtaking.  A few intervening premises might have helped. Complaints aside, the overall scope and vision of Margolis is impressive.  And his overall position is convincing.  One gets a sense in reading this book of some of the battles within contemporary philosophy, battles that not only occur between such recent and current thinkers as Rorty and Putnam, but also that extend back to Parmenides, Protagoras and Plato.  As mentioned the bete noire of the book is Descartes, or more specifically Cartesianism (on Margolis's view, Kant was a Cartesian too).  He sees most of his opponents as accepting some such position.  His heroes on a grand scale are Hegel (or what he often refers to as post-Kantianism) and Dewey. Rorty is attacked for his advocacy of Postmodernism. He also has some critical things to say about such thinkers as Davidson, Brandom, Devitt, McDowell and Quine.

So what does Margolis believe? As we have seen, he likes to talk in terms of isms. But in each case you need to understand that the ism he advocates is understood in his own way. He clearly favors pragmatism (mainly of the Deweyan sort), historicism (here he usually refers to Hegel), flux (the idea that there are no necessities or demonstrable invariances), holism, relativism (of a moderate sort in the sense that it may serve a useful function in some sectors), naturalism (but not the naturalizing move of much analytic philosophy), constructivism, realism of the constructivist sort, and symbiosis of the subjective and objective. He rejects the idea that there is any "neutral grasp of the way the world is apart from our inquiries." (13) He also rejects necessities de re and de cogitatione and even the necessity of bivalent logic, although a "relativistic logci" could be compatible with the use of bivalence. He also has it in for extensionalist logic. As a strong follower of Dewey, he sees knowledge as a matter of the interaction of the live creature and its surrounding environment. In sum "there cannot be any uniquely correct catalogue of 'what there is' in the way of entities or essential attributes."

Why is it that Margolis holds such an outlier position in advocating a relativist and constructivist version of pragmatism vs. both Putnam and Rorty?   It is because, as a philosopher of art as well, he does not limit himself to a small set of examples from the sciences in developing his overall philosophical perspective. For Margolis, judgments that would be seen as logically incompatible need not be judged as such: "interpretations of artworks ...that could not (bivalently) be jointly true of the same referent may, on a suitable many value logic, be jointly valid" although still logically "incongruent" in not being able to be incorporated into a single valid interpretation.

My only real objection to Margolis is that he fails to see the role that such things as essences, relativized and historicized, play in our actual experience.  There are essences even though they are, to use Margolis's own language, "provisional, perspectived, 'interested,' 'instrumental'...fluxive, constructed..."  (117)  These are objects of intuition closely tied to world as we experience it.  And they have what Aristotle referred to as potency or potentiality.  Essences are not just concepts but ways of seeing that are also ways of being.  They are attached to concepts.  They are also deeply aesthetic in nature:  they have aura.  Essences draw from the past and point to the future.  Moreover, essences are metaphorical in nature:  they involve a violation of conceptual order.  They are the objects of creative insight.  From the Spinozistic perspective, they are the spiritual aspect of the world, the other aspect of which is the material.  Essences are in a sense fictions, but fiction plays a real role in human experience.  The doctrine of flux is false if it means that there are no invariences, no necessities within experience.  I agree with Margolis that we cannot demonstrate modal invariences or necessities, but we can experience such things in a fictional way...and moreover, these experiences, and these things, are essential to what it is to be human.  There are invariences, necessities, a priori, the transcendental, if all of these are placed under quote marks:  a world of fiction that still plays a role in our lives.  The whole idea of pragmatism, that truth and meaning is best seen when looking at consequences, fits well with this.

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