The philosophical tradition Pragmatism challenges the implicit assumption that our practices are necessarily inadequate and require backup from some standard or unchangeable principle which lies beyond them. However, there is no other world that we can refer to. Philosophy is not religion by other means; it´s not babysitting, but an ongoing struggle for survival.

So, when my Mac broke down a few days ago – due to some spilled milk – I didn´t have a backup. How could I? Instead, I took my obligation to write some words serious. Therefore, I am writing this on my suegra´s laptop.

The reason for this post, of course, is not my broken computer, but the book Pragmatism by Michael Bacon. Normally, I comment on books in Danish, but with the lack of all the interesting Danish letters, I am stocked with a more pragmatic language. After all, pragmatism is mainly an American story, and to some extent American philosophers tend to debate with themselves. It is a closed party which is both an advantage and a disadvantage, for example, the debate becomes intense, but sometimes too narrow minded. This book tries to open up for a more broad and inclusive view, but in my opinion it doesn´t make sense to include Habermas in this introduction without including many other European thinkers such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Perhaps, the inclusion is strategic, but then again it is a strategy of the past.

The themes of Pragmatism are not an American phenomenon, but an interesting American phenomenon. Still, the main difference between European and American philosophers is that many European philosophers understand philosophy, I think, as a form of life (the existentialist tradition from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Deleuze … has formed many thinkers regardless of differences). The way one thinks, feels and acts are part of the way one lives his or her life. Americans are more philosophers of profession which, however, is a tendency that are growing in Europe as well.

Enough of this; let us deal with Pragmatism. It starts with Charles Sander Peirce, but only because William James refer to him in a lecture given in 1898.  Bacon´s book describe the history of Pragmatism by presenting a list of prominent portraits: Dewey, Rorty, Davidson, Putnam, etc.  Most of them are familiar faces regardless ones knowledge of Pragmatism per se. The book also portraits a few interesting thinkers that I haven´t read: Brandom and Bernstein, for instance.

There are things that the pragmatist share such as ideas never should become ideologies by referring to transcendent norms. They belief that everything is fallible, in other words, nothing is certain understood as unquestionable. Several pragmatists deal with the relation between “the game of giving and asking for reason.” The purpose of philosophy is not truth, but an ongoing inquiry that might make us wiser in overcoming the various struggles or setbacks that a life is full of.

Personally, I like the style of James and Dewey, because they write very clear without too much jargon. The same can be said about Rorty even though some might find him too jovial at times. In my opinion he has written some interesting essays, for instance, one on Nabokov and cruelty. It says that the trouble with rights is that they address predetermined forms of cruelty. This idea that everything is given makes our thinking shrink (Badiou was saying something similar in a previous post). Rorty says in an interview: “If we take care of freedom, truth can take of itself.” Hereby emphasizing what is most important in philosophy: freedom, of course, not truth. The truth doesn´t set any one free, it´s just another example of an unquestionable postulate. However, being free makes one available to a more rich understanding of life.

Another interesting figure that Bacon presents is Sellars. He, for example, deals with the myth of the given stressing that the human being is distinct in his or her ability to bring understanding to the world through the creation of concepts. His ideas lead to Brandom, or some of them. One very interesting idea is that language is not merely a tool. Rather, what we do is intrinsic to the structure of language. So, language is not a tool to reach a goal, like some pop-coaching methods claim. The point is that the interests in a goal can´t exist prior to language. If it does, then in doesn´t have any transforming potential, which might be the reason why some forms of coaching often is a never ending story trying to convince the poor victim about the significance of the goal. This idea is also related to Brandom´s idea about negative and positive freedom that appears to place itself in alignment with Foucault´s idea about resistance, and Deleuze understanding of the will to power as a will to create. Freedom understood as becoming through a mixture of resistance and creation. “Without a suitable language there are some beliefs, desires, and intentions that one simply cannot have.”

Some portraits, of course, I find less interesting, es lo que hay, but in general the book serves it purpose: it introduces to a huge amount of thinkers related to Pragmatism in a very precise and clear way.

In conclusion, Bacon emphasizes that pragmatist are united in what Putnam calls “the supremacy of the agent point of view”, and Brandom “the primacy of the practical”, whether this concerns knowledge, communication, reasoning, etc. A very interesting result of pragmatism is that we – all of us human beings – constantly are in a clash of mentalities (not cultures, por favor!), or a clash of standpoints and beliefs.

New readers may start to think now.

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