[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Jennifer L. Geddes: The Possibilities of Pragmatism: An Interview with Giles Gunn

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Jennifer L. Geddes: The Possibilities of Pragmatism: An Interview with 
Giles Gunn
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Professor of English and of Global and International Studies at
    the University of California, Santa Barbara, Giles Gunn is author and
    editor of well over a dozen books, the most recent being the Penguin
    Classic of William James's Pragmatism and Other Writings and Beyond
    Solidarity: Pragmatism and Difference in a Globalized World.

What Is Pragmatism and What's Its Use?

          For some, pragmatism conjures up a blank; we know little about
    it and certainly not enough to see why it would be relevant to
    thinking about the world today. Can you give us a working definition
    of pragmatism and a sense of what resources it offers?

          Pragmatism is probably most easily understood as a theory of
    intellectual inquiry. Charles Sanders Peirce first used the term
    "pragmatism" in an essay entitled "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" and
    associated it with a procedure for determining the rational meaning of
    an idea or concept. For Peirce that meaning could only be established
    by relating it to its implications for human conduct on the grounds
    that all distinctions in kind, no matter how fine, are nothing more
    than possible differences in practice. William James then took
    Peirce's insistence on the connection between ideas and their possible
    consequences and turned pragmatism into both a critical method and a
    theory of truth.

          As a critical method, for which James could find precedents in
    the work of everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Spinoza, Hume, Kant,
    and Mill, pragmatism expanded into a belief that the full meaning of
    any proposition is to be found, if not in some particular to which it
    points, then in the particular difference it would make to the course
    of human experience if it were true. This gave pragmatism as a method
    a good deal more latitude than Peirce intended for it, but this
    latitude was eventually reinforced by Dewey when he further revised
    the pragmatic test or rule as the attempt to determine the meaning of
    anything in terms of both the probable, as opposed to merely
    verifiable, causes from which it emerged and the potential, as opposed
    to inevitable or predictable, consequences in which it may result.

          As a theory of truth, on the other hand, pragmatism was
    identified by James with the view that the true is less an inherent
    property of ideas than a property of their working relationship with
    those things which we already hold to be true. By truth, then, James
    referred to something that helps us get in better touch with other
    parts of our experience. What James meant by this was simply that
    truth is cumulative and also conservative. We can only accept as new
    truths those ideas that are somehow understood to extend or
    complement, even as they also modify, what we had already accepted as

          Since these convictions about truth and the procedures for
    ascertaining it carried with them a number of implications for
    understanding experience in general, pragmatism quickly developed for
    James and also for Dewey (and later for many others both in this
    country and abroad) into a more generalized perspective on life
    itself. Nor was this all. As pragmatism acquired this larger sense of
    itself as a general perspective, it also became in time, and
    especially as a result of transnational, really international,
    re-expressions, more pluralized, such that it would now be more
    accurate to speak of pragmatisms rather than pragmatism.

          How would you characterize this looser, more expansive view of
    pragmatism as a perspective or orientation?

          As a more general perspective on things, pragmatism has almost
    always entailed, whether for James and Dewey or for some of its
    European exponents like Jürgen Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu, a belief
    that experience is always on-going, open-ended, and unfinished, that
    it will never be complete until the last person has her or his say. It
    has also presumed that experience is inevitably plural, confusing,
    unpredictable, contradictory, contrary, and (an especially important
    attribute for James) vague.

          A pragmatic outlook or perspective also acknowledges that if
    truth is always partially hostage to the past, to the assemblage of
    things already accepted as true, then thought never starts from a
    position of complete neutrality and can never yield conclusions that
    are completely objective. Such terms as "neutrality" and "objectivity"
    when applied to thought processes possess at best only a relative kind
    of credibility. Just as there are no uncontestably stable foundations
    for thinking, so there are no absolute guarantees for certainty in our
    conclusions. Thinking is a reflective process that is best described
    for the pragmatist as tentative, provisional, improvisatory,
    experimental, even hypothetical, and always open to self-correction
    and revision, and is directed less at discovering final solutions than
    at posing questions, sorting out issues, and assessing alternatives.
    As Dewey stated, what life presents us with is not a hierarchy of
    answers but a hierarchy of problems. The challenge for the pragmatist,
    then, is not to resolve doubt but to figure out, case by case and
    moment by moment, what is the better option to select, what is the
    better life to be led.

          So, in its resistance to foundationalism, its openness to new
    experience, its belief that thought is never complete and must always
    be corrected, and its emphasis on the concrete and the ordinary,
    pragmatism quickly became much more than just a theory of truth and an
    intellectual method. It became a way of thinking and not just a system
    of thought, a mode of intellectually relating oneself to life as a

          Are you saying that pragmatism is a way of life?

          That would be going too far, I think, though at the time he
    died, James was working on a full-blown metaphysics, the outlines of
    which were apparent in his theory of radical empiricism, and Dewey was
    always convinced that pragmatism led directly to democracy which he,
    indeed, did construe as a way of life. To put this another way, Dewey
    viewed pragmatism democratically, as a technique for enhancing our
    shared life with others by encouraging us to cooperate with them in
    the common task of testing hypotheses about experience against
    experience itself, not just for the sake of overcoming obstacles and
    smoothing out difficulties but also for the sake of enriching the
    qualities of life as such.

          What do you find most compelling about pragmatism?

          This is a tough question, but I guess my answer would lie in
    several features of what I just called its general orientation. As a
    general perspective on, or orientation toward, life, pragmatism shares
    with aspects of postmodernism, for example, the conviction that
    absolute certainty in thought is almost always out of reach. It
    moreover believes, again with aspects of postmodernism, that the
    philosophical "quest for certainty," as Dewey termed it, must be
    replaced, or at the very least complemented, by something like an
    aesthetic reconceptualization of experience as a form of art and the
    moral reformulation of the purpose of art as life's continuous
    revaluation of itself.

          At the same time, however, pragmatism is very clear that we can
    develop or attain varying degrees of assurance about any number of
    things. Hence it neither asserts that the search for the truth is
    ultimately futile nor that all truths are relative and therefore, in
    effect, equal. If it insists that none of us possesses all of the
    truth all or perhaps even part of the time, it also assumes that the
    only way that we can correct our ideas about any truths is by
    referring those ideas back to experience itself.

          Thus truth for pragmatism is always potentially social. Just as
    Peirce was looking originally for a test of truth that, in standing up
    to the laboratory's requirements for exactitude, consistency, and
    coherence, would convince all investigators and not just one, so James
    and Dewey held that the search for the true is always a communal
    rather than an individual enterprise and that its value can only be
    established in relation to its impact on others.

          You have suggested that pragmatism is "not so much an
    alternative to late modernist or postmodernist thinking as a useful
    intervention within it." What do you mean by that?

          What I mean is that though pragmatism shares postmodernism's
    anti-foundationalism, it does not conclude that we thereby lack the
    means to compare differing versions or assessments of experience. In
    other words, it doesn't reduce all of our negotiations with reality,
    as in at least some renderings of postmodernism, simply to a dispute
    between sentences or metaphors which are alleged to provide no basis
    for comparison. Through its reference to experience, and not just our
    experience but our attempts to understand the experience of others, it
    gives us ways to establish standards of evaluation that can be fairly
    widely shared and publicly warranted.

          How would our society change if we employed pragmatism as our
    means of coming up with what we think is true, which values we should
    pursue, and how we should set goals for our culture?

          I think we would be less confident about both our innocence and
    our righteousness. We would be more suspicious of our certitudes and
    less intolerant of difference. We would, in short, be far more
    attentive than we have ever been to the feelings and aspirations and
    convictions of other people in the world--not in the sense that we
    would necessarily wind up sharing those feelings and convictions, but
    rather in the sense that we would be in a somewhat better position
    both to understand them and to understand ourselves in relation to
    them. What pragmatism resists is any sort of presumption that truth or
    value resides within only one community of faith or practice. What it
    promotes, at least by implication, is the belief that the true and the
    good are most often the product of collaborative discoveries in which
    discussion, cooperation, negotiation, and even compromise among equals
    often plays a crucial part.

Pragmatism and Difference

          Do you see a connection between pragmatism, multiculturalism,
    and difference?

          One way of defining pragmatism is to call it a philosophy of
    difference, a philosophy, that is, designed to measure and assess the
    different kinds of difference that difference makes, whether this
    difference refers to distinctions of identity, statement, action, or
    principle. Such difference is of course the basic signature of a
    pluralistic world, but this does not mean that pragmatism merely
    legitimates or replicates in its procedures the ideology of
    multiculturalism. From a pragmatic point of view, multiculturalism in
    America is in danger of foundering on the contradiction between, as
    David Hollinger has pointed out, its centrifugal pressures for
    cultural diversity and its centripetal pressures for some kind of
    shared sense of cultural identity. To me this means that we must
    rethink the meaning of multiculturalism in a way that fully takes
    account of what William James meant by "a certain blindness in human
    beings" (our inability to think our way into the feelings of other
    people) without succumbing to the belief that all our views of others
    are always already merely forms of ourselves.

          Does pragmatism assume or hope that we will all end up with the
    same view of things?

          Not at all. Dewey put it very well when he said that we must at
    least be tolerant of those who are not themselves intolerant, so any
    differences that are not inherently or declaredly destructive of human
    community can be refashioned to provide it with a stronger basis. But
    that basis will be found not in reconciling differences but in
    rendering them conversable and debatable.

          In a recent issue of The Hedgehog Review, Rorty stated that
    "religion is something that the human species would be better if it
    could outgrow." Religious difference is, in his view, not a helpful or
    useful difference. How does pragmatism as a method or a way of
    approaching differences help us with the very deep differences in the
    world today?

          On this matter I find myself seriously at odds with Rorty. As
    Isaiah Berlin noted long ago, it is one thing to decry religious
    authoritarianism or lament the effects of fundamentalist thinking on
    moral practice, but it is quite another to appreciate the deep,
    incurable metaphysical need that so many people in the world still
    possess, and not without reason, for greater moral and spiritual
    support. In addition, there is an enormous distinction to be made
    between those religions that think they can provide us with absolute
    certainty in the face of the world's confusion and evil and those
    which seek instead to provide us with moral guidance and support in
    the face of the world's uncertainty.

          A distinction that often accounts for those religions, or
    traditions within them, which seek to command and rule as opposed to
    those which seek to console and reform, it also helps illumine the
    relation between religion and violence. Those religious traditions
    which seek to command and rule tend to turn the religiously and
    culturally different into the absolutely other and thus resort to the
    ancient religious practice known as scapegoating, where people seek to
    cleanse themselves ritualistically by projecting onto others the
    burdens of their own undesired fears and pollution. Those traditions
    dedicated, on the other hand, to consolation and reform try to
    reverse, or at least counter, these processes by conceiving of the
    absolutely other on the contrary as simply the radically different and
    then employ another venerable religious practice which views the
    different not as opposites but rather as mirrors or, better, prisms
    which can refract back to the self undetected aspects of itself.

          Pragmatism thus furnishes us not one but two ways of approaching
    the deep differences at work in the world today. Negatively,
    pragmatism presents itself as a cautionary philosophy that seeks to
    warn us against the evils of absolutism and particularly the
    "dogmatization of difference," as the political philosopher William E.
    Connolly calls it, and the deprecation of the different which
    absolutism breeds. More positively, pragmatism offers us the record of
    its own genesis as a philosophy initially developed by James as a
    method for settling otherwise interminable ideological and
    metaphysical disputes and raises the question about whether it still
    might be employed--as, in actual fact, it is being informally employed
    throughout the world--to sort out and assess the comparative moral and
    religious merits of different perspectives--James called them
    "world-formulas"--in the new globalized world in which we now find

Richard Rorty and Pragmatism

          What are the strengths and weaknesses of Rorty's pragmatism?

          Rorty possesses an exceptionally acute eye for many of the right
    issues--the tyrannies of Enlightenment reason, the hazards of
    liberalism, the political centrality of solidarity, the emergence of a
    new kind of moral writing devoted to edification as much as to
    critique--and exhibits an enviable ability to develop these issues in
    arresting language. He has never lacked for courage in raising
    questions that others have ducked, and he is prepared to embrace
    allies wherever he finds them. By the same token he has sometimes
    revealed a tendency to pose these issues in overly simple,
    oppositional terms that are intended to make his opponent's arguments
    look bad and his own look good. At his best, Rorty has lent pragmatism
    a more contemporary look by associating it with concerns and motifs
    that are postmodernist and postructuralist, or what he calls
    textualist. At his worst, he has conflated the history of pragmatism
    itself with a coming-of-age narrative whose liberal project to
    de-divinize the world is but the obverse side of its tendency to
    reduce all intellectual inquiry to a question of personal advantage.

          At bottom these difficulties derive from the overly sharp
    philosophical distinction that Rorty wants to draw between those
    languages we use to describe what is good for ourselves and those
    languages we use to describe what is good for others. On his reading
    of the history of Western philosophy, the gap between these languages
    is simply unbridgeable.

          The public/private distinction?

          Right. Rorty views private narcissism and public responsibility
    as irreconcilable, but this is to forget that if our private lives are
    not dependent on our public lives with others, then we would have no
    way of explaining either why we should want to change ourselves or why
    we should be concerned for others. Rorty is rightly in favor of both,
    but he does not think we can supply any philosophical rationale for
    what the one has to do with the other. In this case, the fact that we
    support both is simply a matter of personal prejudice, albeit a
    commendable one.

          But this is to overlook the fact that there are other
    communities--the African American community is one--where the
    languages of public accountability have not been sequestered
    philosophically from the languages of personal self-recreation. Like
    many American academics, Rorty has failed to see that African American
    intellectuals have done most of their best thinking about such matters
    not in the realm of professional philosophy or Grand Theory but in the
    more public world of letters and political thought.

Does Pragmatism Work When the Stakes Are High?

          While pragmatism may be a helpful procedure or way of talking
    about things in our everyday lives or experiences, some argue that it
    lacks a certain motivating force when we get into extreme situations.
    How would you defend pragmatism's ability to provide us with reasons
    to fight injustice or pursue the good when the stakes are high?

          I'm not sure that any defense is needed; or, to put it
    differently, I don't think that such arguments are really justified.
    James defied public opinion by taking dead aim at American imperialism
    in the Spanish-American War. Dewey weighed in for well over a half a
    century against social injustices wherever he could find them. And
    Rorty has gone on record as saying that nothing is more important than
    fighting cruelty and preventing humiliation. But if these examples are
    not by themselves sufficient to prove that pragmatism possesses a
    political consciousness, let me add that a philosophy devoted to
    translating questions of meaning and truth into questions of practice
    and to redirecting all forms of inquiry away from what James called
    "first principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and
    origins" and "towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts,
    towards action, and towards power" is not a philosophy inclined to
    take lightly the challenges of extreme situations.

          Such arguments are not, however, altogether unexpected, given
    the influence of various neopragmatists like Stanley Fish and Walter
    Benn Michaels who, not without Rorty's own support, tend to view
    culture as an intertextual system of signs capable of infinite
    redescription. Pragmatism then becomes the name of a theory, as
    Michaels and Stephen Knapp state in their essay "Against Theory," that
    is no theory at all but rather a practice critical of all other
    practices that resort to theory for the sake of governing practice
    from a position mistakenly assumed to operate outside of it. In such a
    world, shorn of any ontological or epistemological supports, language,
    rhetoric, and symbols go all the way down, and the stakes themselves
    are simply, as the saying goes, a matter of interpretation.

          Many of the ideals held in the past several centuries were
    founded on metaphysical ideas, systems, and understandings now in
    question, and without which it was feared, there would be no basis for
    upholding the ideals. Does pragmatism give us the ability to uphold
    those ideals because of its relatedness to our experience and because
    something in our experience tells us these ideals are worth fighting

          It is worth remembering that pragmatism was itself born out of
    the erosion of a religious world view once sedimented in different
    ways in the early lives of James and Dewey, and its emergence as a
    philosophy was thus in large part motivated by the conviction that the
    intellectual energies released as a result might help us rethink the
    meaning of the legacy of those more antiquated systems in a secular,
    or at least less conventionally orthodox, age. That said, it is clear
    that pragmatism is only one of many recuperative strategies which may
    be able to assist us in retrieving those ideals once locked in
    inherited traditions which still contain unspent potential that may
    help guide us through this difficult, terribly dangerous moment for
    the world.

          While Rorty argues that cruelty is the worst thing one person
    can do to another, and that we need to expand our sense of "we" in
    order to combat cruelty, he also says that we have no reason or
    foundation or basis by which to tell a torturer that what he is doing
    is wrong.

          Rorty is simply trying to be consistent, and philosophers have
    always made a virtue of consistency. If there are no foundations for
    thought, then there can be no rational basis for values, which turns
    values, Rorty reasons, into prejudices that are merely, after all,
    matters of taste. All of this was said earlier by Dewey, but Dewey was
    scarcely disheartened by the discovery. If everything is merely a
    matter of taste, he reasoned, then philosophy should be redefined as a
    critique of prejudices in which part of the challenge is to determine
    which are the more constructive, which the most destructive. Needless
    to say, Dewey would have had no more trouble than Rorty in deciding
    where torture falls on that scale, but he would also have been less
    troubled about why he felt that way.

          For the rest of us, however, I suspect that consistency is less
    a virtue than a kind of expediency, and no doubt an important one
    until it conflicts with our deepest sense of ourselves and our
    relation to others, whereupon we side with Walt Whitman who silenced
    most misgivings about inconsistency by declaring that if he
    contradicted himself, so much the worse for consistency because he
    was, he believed, large, and, like the rest of us, contained

Pragmatism and the Aesthetic

          How does the aesthetic relate to pragmatism?

          Pragmatism has always made a great deal of the aesthetic. Rorty
    has said this most clearly in recent years by noting that one of
    Dewey's greatest contributions to modern philosophy was his attempt to
    try to reground philosophical discourse not in terms of the scientific
    but in terms of the aesthetic. The great text was of course Art as
    Experience where Dewey argued that all experience is art in potential
    and the purpose of all art is to criticize the actual in light of the

          But pragmatism's affirmation of the aesthetic is so strong that
    it actually reinstalls the imaginative at the center of its notion of
    cognition and thus challenges the classic Enlightenment notion of
    reason as purely analytic. One sees this most vividly in James' theory
    of the pragmatic method which identifies the meaning of ideas not only
    with outcomes and consequences but with outcomes and consequences many
    of whom cannot be verified and confirmed before we must act on them.
    For the most part we act not on the basis of confirmed facts but on
    the basis of surmises and conjectures. Thus, for James the imagination
    assumed a role in the operations of the intellect that was central
    because so much of the life of the mind is devoted to determinations
    whose results we can never substantiate in advance but can only guess
    at or speculate before we have to respond to them. But if thinking
    pragmatically is therefore as dependent on techniques of conjecture,
    surmise, intuition, and good guessing as it is on procedures of logic
    and deduction, then the rational properly conceived is not the enemy
    of the aesthetic but its ally, and all serious processes of reflection
    have a place, or at any rate a need, for the projective capacities of
    the poetic.

Is There Truth in Pragmatism?

          Some argue that the notion of truth is unimportant to the
    pragmatist. What does it mean for something to be true in pragmatism?

          Pragmatism has gotten bad press about its views on truth, though
    some of the responsibility for this lies with James himself, and
    particularly with some of his formulations in his book Pragmatism,
    which forced him to publish another book immediately thereafter to
    explain himself called The Meaning of Truth.

          Pragmatism, as I said before, views truth in relational rather
    than substantive terms, as a working notion rather than as an
    inherited or self-evident norm. Truth represents a triangulated
    relationship between what has heretofore been accepted as true, what
    we now think might be true instead, and what we know or believe we
    have fathomed about the external world to which any notions of truth,
    old or new, must be applied. While it would be comforting to think
    that truth is one and unchanging, the pragmatist in most of us
    believes otherwise. What most of us know is that change is relentless
    and unpredictable and that, as a result, the fund of old truths, like
    our quiver of new truths, must be constantly tested and re-tested
    against the always unstable, ever-fluid field of experience itself.

          So truth isn't relativistic in the sense that one thing can't be
    judged as truer than another? Rather, pragmatism emphasizes the
    changing nature of our understanding of the world and ourselves?

          I think that's right. If truth is relative, this is not because
    all truths add up to the same thing but rather because all truths are
    related to the circumstances in which they arose and to which they

          In pragmatism is there the possibility of affirming or
    proclaiming universal values or universal truths?

          Yes, but with a proviso. Pragmatism can easily concede that
    certain truths have held up over very long periods of time and been
    broadly supported and believed. At the same time it must acknowledge
    that few truths have lasted forever or gained assent from everyone. In
    this sense, "universality" is itself a relative term. But the point is
    not that particular truths have not been widely shared, for they most
    certainly have; the point is rather how to protect those same truths
    from becoming totalizing, absolutist, totalitarian. The real issue is
    not only to defend truth from its detractors but also to prevent truth
    from becoming fixed and dictatorial in the hands of its supporters.

          So we might be able to work for the acceptance of human rights
    or the sacredness of each human individual as a universal value, but
    without claiming a certain metaphysical foundation for that?

          Even if I thought that we possessed a metaphysical foundation
    for these values, I don't believe that either of them require its
    support for their legitimacy. They square with enough of the general
    wisdom of humankind to justify our allegiance and our advocacy. But
    there is a difficulty that attends the claim that these values are, as
    you describe them, "universal." Does this mean that they are
    self-evident to all people? That surely is not the case. Does this
    mean that all people everywhere interpret them in the same way? That,
    too, is surely not the case. Does this mean that their recognition is
    based on some common traits that all people share? That, too, is
    likely to be disputed. If human rights are construed rather
    differently, for example, in the East, the Middle East, and the West,
    if different moral and religious traditions place different values on
    human life, where does the term "universal" take us?

          Perhaps it is enough to say that while the universality of such
    values is deeply contested around the world, the disputes they attract
    nonetheless attest to the enormous stakes all of us everywhere have in
    their interpretation. While we clearly need to find better ways of
    saying what we mean by such values, we still more urgently need to
    find better ways of safeguarding what they variously represent to
    people throughout the world. One of the central intellectual tasks of
    the twenty-first century will be to devise strategies for addressing
    both issues in a less essentialist or exceptionalist, and a more
    pragmatic, manner.

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