Friday, January 23, 2015

Some unorthodox comments about pragmatism

I have generally been positively inclined to pragmatism and have even called myself a pragmatist from time to time.  But there are some things that bother me, in no particular order (but based at first on reading Richard J. Bernstein's The Pragmatic Turn).  The general theme is:  what happened to insightful vision?  I am wondering whether attacks on such things as pictures, representations, and so forth, haven't gone too far.

According to James, Peirce says "The soul and meaning of thought...can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief..."  Well, of course, this depends on what you mean by "thought" and "belief."  In a fairly ordinary sense it seems to me I have all sorts of thoughts (ideas, notions, things that "enter my head," representations, images) that are not directed towards some endpoint of things held true.

OK.  So this leads me to the actual passage in Peirce:  "We may add that just as a piece of music may be written in parts, each part having its own air, so various systems of relationship of succession subsist together between the same sensations. These different systems are distinguished by having different motives, ideas, or functions. Thought is only one such system, for its sole motive, idea, and function is to produce belief, and whatever does not concern that purpose belongs to some other system of relations. The action of thinking may incidentally have other results; it may serve to amuse us, for example, and among dilettanti it is not rare to find those who have so perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever get finally settled; and a positive discovery which takes a favorite subject out of the arena of literary debate is met with ill-concealed dislike. This disposition is the very debauchery of thought. But the soul and meaning of thought, abstracted from the other elements which accompany it, though it may be voluntarily thwarted, can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief. Thought in action has for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest; and whatever does not refer to belief is no part of the thought itself."

The argument is circular.  If it is not leading to fixed belief then it is not thought even though it was previously called thought.  It belongs, as he puts it, to another system with "different motives, ideas and functions."  In particular it could have been something that was thought but was " the purposes of pleasure" and which themselves, apparently, never "get finally settled."  So, on his view, it is only "thought" as he specially defines it if it is in the "gets finally settled" mode.  He isn't really talking about the other things we call thought.  Or if he is, he thinks they are "perverted" and he is saving the honorific (for him) term "thought" for the stuff that leads to fixed beliefs.  No reason is given for why using thought to produce pleasure rather than the fixation of belief is a perversion of anything.  Clearly in thinking about those who would be vexed by the thought that the matter of their concern might finally be settled he is thinking about the perennial questions of philosophy, although it might not so much vex those people as lead them to think "oh well, then this is a matter of science, not of philosophy." And yet Peirce may see this as being vexed in some way, or he might misunderstand the real source of their vexation which is, to be brief, that they don't buy into the idea that this arena is now the province of science (as for example when neuroscientists think they have wrapped up the nature of the mind, way too prematurely...)  What Peirce speaks of as the "debauchery of thought" is just a Dionysian approach to thought which is not to his scientistic taste.  I just do not see why "thought in action" has to be directed to "thought at rest."  So what is Peirce doing?  Like all philosophers he is arranging his own thoughts about abstract concepts and the way things go with respect to the humanities and the sciences in a way that pleases him, privileging one sort of activity over another.  This is just bully and bluster, and of course it leads some philosophers who take it seriously to downgrade aesthetic experience in the realm of thought and interpretation...all the greater pity.

"Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have.  Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."  It depends on what you mean by "practical."  If "practical" is limited to what people commonly consider to be practical then there is a serious problem here.  If practical really just means "effects" and the effects may be not very practical at all in the eyes of many, for example the production of a great painting, then the claim is more plausible.  It is certainly a good idea to include within our conception of an object, particularly an abstract object of philosophical inquiry, for instance "art," our "conception of the effects" of art, for example, although normally we would distinguish between the effects we can conceive art as having and the effects that art actually has, and between that and the effects we think that art should have, i.e. our conception of its function.  But what about our conception of the relations between that object and a host of other things, for example the relations between art and knowledge or between art and religion.  Does it clarify things much to say that this is only understandable in terms of possible or conceivable or actual or proper effects?

After recently rereading Descartes Meditations and teaching it I found myself wondering what the point of Descartes really is.  Now, on reading Peirce again, who is so much opposed to Descartes, I find myself wondering about Peirce.  He writes "a  belief that the ultimate test of certainty is found in individual consciousness, rather than by relying on the testimony of sages" is a Cartesian assumption that is problematic.  Sure, but how about the idea that a feeling of certainty (which is attended by something like the phrase "aha...this must be this") is necessarily attached to a new idea (a personal vision) and that this is the basis (whether individual or cultural does not matter) for future creative work.  That's a possible way of translating Descartes into something more plausible, and it also shows a neglect by pragmatists of that aspect of thinking.  

Peirce writes:  "We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived from hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts" and "We have no power of Intuition, but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognition."  Sure, but how about this:  we have a power (not incorrigible) to intuit patterns in our experienced world which is not derived from hypothetical reasoning based on knowledge of facts, although such reasoning and such knowledge usually play important roles in crating that intuition. This intuition is a personal vision that collects and organizes the data, both facts and values, and projects into the future.  

He also says "we have no power of thinking without signs" and yet we do have the power to think, and thinking is usually a matter of getting some sign-less hunch, perhaps associated with a sign, into propositional form.  Peirce seems to be getting only one side of the creative process in thinking. 


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