Pragmatism Mail Bag


I’m digging out from a day of travelling. I’m in LA now for a conference and some other stuff. But I thought I’d post some interesting email in response to my earlier post. I will try to address some of the points later on.

Still reading…

I’d like to make a distinction between CS Peirce’s Pragmatism, and that of James, Dewey, et al. Peirce  came to call his version “Pragmaticism” to distinguish it from James’ . I don’t think Peirce would have agreed that his pragmatism had anything to do with destroying meaning or truth. On the contrary, he argued that the truth of scientific theories could always be called into question by new observations and discoveries, but at the end there is truth. He argued that truth could be hidden for a long time, but it would always be discovered. What passes for Pragmatism is poorly understood Peirce. I don’t think most Peirce scholars liked Louis Menand’s “The Metaphysical Club” because he didn’t understand Peirce, either.

Something that does occur to me, though, that maybe the progressives were attracted to Pragmatism, if not Pragmaticism, through Peirce’s ideas on evolution. For Peirce, everything in the universe evolved, up to and including the laws of nature. Maybe pragmatism (not Pragmaticism) as a philosophical system, justified social darwinism for the Progressives.

“Peirce makes everything in the phaneron evolutionary. The whole system evolves. Three figures from the history of culture loomed exceedingly large in the intellectual development of Peirce and in the cultural atmosphere of the period in which Peirce was most active: Hegel in philosophy, Lyell in geology, and Darwin (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) in biology. These thinkers, of course, all have a single theme in common:evolution. Hegel described an evolution of ideas, Lyell an evolution of geological structures, and Darwin an evolution of biological species and varieties. Peirce absorbed it all. Peirce’s entire thinking, early on and later, is permeated with the evolutionary idea, which he extended generally, that is to say, beyond the confines of any particular subject matter. For Peirce, the entire universe and everything in it is an evolutionary product. indeed, he conceived that even the most firmly entrenched of nature’s habits (for example, even those habits typically called “natural laws”) have themselves evolved, and accordingly can and should be subjects of philosophical an scientific inquiry. One can sensibly seek, in Peirce’s view, evolutionary explanations of the existence of particular natural laws. For Peirce, then, the entire phaneron (the world of appearances), as well as all the ongoing processes of its interpretation through mental significations, has evolved and is evolving.”

I suppose the reason I find Peirce so attractive is this, although the description of Capitalism is not correct, in my view…

“An especially intriguing and curious twist in Peirce’s evolutionism is that in his thinking evolution involves what he calls its “agapeism.” According to Peirce, the most fundamental engine of the evolutionary process is not struggle, strife, greed, or competition. Rather it is nurturing love, in which an entity is prepared to sacrifice its own perfection for the sake of the wellbeing of its neighbor. This doctrine had both a social significance for Peirce, who apparently had the intention of arguing against the popular socio-economic Darwinism of the late nineteenth century, and a cosmic significance, which Peirce associated with the doctrine of the Gospel of John and with the mystical ideas of Swedenborg and Henry James. Peirce even argued that being logical in some sense presupposes the ethics of self-sacrifice. The sort of social Darwinism and related thinking that constituted a supposed justification for the more repugnant practices of unbridled capitalism Peirce referred to as “The Gospel of Greed.””

Too much of this, I’m afraid…


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review