What Does Pragmatism Mean by Practical


By John Dewey

PRAGMATISM, according to Mr. James, is a temper of mind, an attitude; it is also a theory of the nature of ideas and truth; and, finally, it is a theory about reality. It is pragmatism as method which is emphasized, I take it, in the subtitle, “a new name for some old ways of thinking.” It is this aspect which I suppose to be uppermost in Mr. James’s own mind-one frequently gets the impression that he conceives the discussion of the other two points to be illustrative material, more or less hypothetical, of the method. The briefest and at the same time the most comprehensive formula for the method is: “The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (pp. 54-55). And as the attitude looked “away from” is the rationalistic, perhaps the chief aim of the lectures is to exemplify some typical differences result- ing from taking one outlook or the other. But pragmatism is also “used in a still wider sense, as mean- ing also a certain theory of truth” (p. 55); it is “a genetic theory of what is meant by truth” (p. 65). Truth means, as a matter of course, agreement, correspondence, of idea and fact (p. 198), but what do agreement, correspondence, mean? With rationalism they mean “a static, inert relation,” which is so ultimate that of it noth- ing more can be said. With pragmatism they signify the guiding or leading power of ideas by which we “dip into the particulars of experience again,” and if by its aid we set up the arrangements and connections among experienced objects which the idea intends, the idea is verified; it corresponds with the things it means to square with (pp. 205-206). The idea is true which works in leading us to what it purports (p. 80).2 Or, “any idea that will carry us pros- perously from any one part of experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor, is ‘ William James, ” Pragmatism, a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.” Popular Lectures on Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green & Co. 1907. Pp. xiii + 309. 2Certain aspects of the doctrine are here purposely omitted, and will meet us later. 85

86 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY true for just so much, true in so far forth” (p. 58). This notion presupposes that ideas are essentially intentions (plans and methods), and that what they, as ideas, ultimately intend is pros- pective -certain changes in prior existing things. This contrasts again with rationalism, with its copy theory, where ideas, as ideas, are ineffective and impotent since they mean only to mirror a reality (p. 69) complete without them. Thus we are led to the third aspect of pragmatism. The alternative between rationalism and pragma- tism ” concerns the structure of the universe itself ” (p. 258). ” The essential contrast is that reality . . . for pragmatism is still in the making” (p. 257). And in a recent number of this JOURNAL3 he says: “I was primarily concerned in my lectures with contrasting the belief that the world is still in the process of making with the belief that there is an eternal edition of it ready-made and com- plete. ” It will be following Mr. James’s example, I think, if we here re- gard pragmatism as primarily a method, and treat the account of ideas and their truth and of reality somewhat incidentally so far as the discussion of them serves to exemplify or enforce the method. Regarding the attitude of orientation which looks to outcomes and consequences, one readily sees that it has, as Mr. James points out, points of contact with historic empiricism, nominalism, and utili- tarianism. It insists that general notions shall “cash” in as par- ticular objects and qualities in experience; that “principles” are ultimately subsumed under facts, rather than the reverse; that the empirical consequence rather than the a priori basis is the sanctioning and warranting factor. But all of these ideas are colored and trans- formed by the dominant influence of experimental science: the method of treating conceptions, theories, etc., as working hypotheses, as directors for certain experiments and experimental observations. Pragmatism as attitude represents what Mr. Peirce has happily termed the “laboratory habit of mind” extended into every area where inquiry may fruitfully be carried on. A scientist would, I think, wonder not so much at the method as at the lateness of philosophy’s conversion to what has made modern science what it is. Nevertheless it is impossible to forecast the intellectual change that should proceed from carrying the method sincerely and un- reservedly into all fields of inquiry. Leaving philosophy out of account, what a change would be wrought in the historical and social sciences-in the conceptions of politics and law and political economy! Mr. James does not claim too much when he says: “The center of gravity of philosophy must alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, ‘Vol. IV., p. 547.

PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS 87 must resume its rights…. It will be an alteration in the ‘seat of authority’ that reminds one almost of the Protestant Reformation” (p. 123). I can imagine that many would not accept this method in phi- losophy for very diverse reasons, perhaps among the most potent of which is lack of faith in the power of the elements and processes of experience and life to guarantee their own security and pros- perity; because, that is, of the feeling that the world of ex- perience is so unstable, mistaken, and fragmentary that it must have an absolutely permanent, true, and complete ground. I can not imagine, however, that so much uncertainty and controversy, as actually exists, should arise about the content and import of the doctrine on the basis of the general formula. It is when the method is applied to special points that questions arise. Mr. James reminds us in his preface that the pragmatic movement has found expression “from so many points of view, that much uncon- certed statement has resulted.” And speaking of his lectures, he goes on to say: “I have sought to unify the picture as it presents itself to my own eyes, dealing in broad strokes.” The “different points of view” here spoken of have concerned themselves with view- ing pragmatically a number of different things. And it is, I think, Mr. James’s effort to combine them as they stand which occasions misunderstanding among Mr. James’s readers. Mr. James himself applied it, for example, in 1898 to philosophic co-ntroversies to indicate what they mean in terms of practical issues at stake. Before that, Mr. Peirce himself (in 1878) had applied the method to the proper way of conceiving and defining objects. Then it has been applied to ideas in order to find out what they mean in terms of what they intend, and what and how they must intend in order to be true. Again, it has been applied to beliefs, to what men actually accept, hold to, and affirm. Indeed, it lies in the nature of pragmatism that it should be applied as widely as possible; and to things as diverse as controversies, beliefs, truths, ideas, and objects. But yet the situations and problems are diverse; so much so that, while the meaning of each may be told on the basis of “last things,” “fruits,” “consequences,” “facts,” it is quite cer- tain that last things and facts will be very different in the diverse cases, and that very different types of meaning will stand out. “Meaning” will itself m,ea’n something quite different in the case of “objects” from what it will in the case of “ideas,” and for “ideas” something different than in the case of “truths.” Now the explanation to which I have been led of the unsatisfactory condition of contemporary pragmatic discussion is that in com- posing these “different points of view” into a single pictorial whole,

88 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY the distinct type of consequence and hence of meaning of practical appropriate to each has not been sufficiently emphasized. When we consider separately the subjects to which the pragmatic method has been applied, we find that Mr. James has provided the necessary formula for each-with his never failing instinct for the concrete. We take first the question of the significance of an object: the meaning which should properly be contained in its con- ception or definition. “To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve-what sensations we are to expect from it and what reactions we must prepare ” (pp. 46-47). Or, more shortly, as it is quoted from Ostwald, “All realities influ- ence our practise, and that influence is their meaning for us” (p. 48). Here it will be noted that the start is from objects already empirically given or presented, existentially vouched for, and the question is as to their proper conception-what do objects mean. And the meaning is the effects these given objects produce. One might doubt the correctness of this theory, but I do not see how one could doubt its import, or could accuse it of subjectivism or idealism, since the object with its power to produce effects is assumed. Meaning is expressly distinguished from objects, not confused (as in idealism), and is said to consist in the practical reactions objects exact of us or impose upon us. When it is a question, then, of an object, “meaning” signifies conceptual content or connotation, and “practical” means the future responses which ana object requires of us or commits us to. But we may also start from a given idea, and ask what the idea means. Pragmatism will, of course, look to future consequences, but they will clearly be of a different sort when we start from an idea as idea, than when we start from an object. For what the idea as idea means, is precisely that an object is not given. The prag- matic procedure here is to set the idea “at work within the stream of experience. It appears less as a solution than as a program for more work, and particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. Theories, thus, become instru- ments. . . . We don’t lie back on them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid” (p. 53). In other words, an idea is a draft drawn upon existing things, an intention to act so as to arrange them in a certain way. From which it follows that if the draft is honored, if existences, following upon the ac- tions rearrange or readjust themselves in the way the idea intends, the idea is true. When, then, it is a question of an idea, it is the idea itself which is practical (being an intent) and its meaning resides in the existences which, as changed, it intends. While the

PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS 89 meaning of an object is the changes it requires in our attitude,4 the meaning of an idea is the changes it as attitude effects in objects. Then we have another formula, applicable not to objects or ideas as objects and ideas, but to truths-to things, that is, where the meaning of the object and of the idea is assumed to be already ascer- tained. It reads: “What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle” (p. 45). There can be “no difference in abstra.ct truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact, and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody” (p. 50).6 Now when we start with something which is already a truth (or taken to be truth), and ask for its meaning in terms of its consequences, it is implied that the con- ception, or conceptual significance, is already clear, and that the existences it refers to are already in hand. Meaning here, then, can be neither the connotative nor denotative reference of a term; they are covered by the two prior formulhe. Meaning here is valute, importance. The practical factor is, then, the worth char- acter of these consequences: they are good or bad; desirable or un- desirable; or merely nil, indifferent, in which latter case belief is idle, the controversy a vain and conventional, or verbal, one. The term meaning and the term practical taken in isolation, and without explicit definition from their specific context and problem, are triply ambiguous. The meaning may be the conceptual cannota- tion or definition of an object: it may be the denotative existential reference of an idea: it may be actual value or importance. So practical in the corresponding cases may mean attitudes and conduct exacted of us by objects; or the capacity and tendency of an idea to effect changes in prior existences; or the desirable and undesirable quality of certain ends. The general pragmatic attitude, none the less, is applied in all cases. If the differing problems and the correlative diverse significations of the terms “meaning” and “practical” are borne in mind, not all will be converted to pragmatism, but the present uncertainty as to what pragmatism is, any way, and the present constant complaints on both sides of “misunderstanding,” will, I think, be minimized. At all events, I have reached the conclusion that what the pragmatic ‘Only those who are already lost in the idealistic confusion of existence and meaning will take this to mean that the object is those changes in our reaotions. “I assume that the reader is sufficiently familiar with Mr. James’s book not to be misled by the test into thinking that Mr. James himself discriminates as I have done these three types of problems from one another. He does not; but, none the less, the three formulse for the three situations are there.

90 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY movement just now wants is a clear and consistent bearing in mind of these different problems and of what is meant by practical in each. Accordingly the rest of this paper is an endeavor to elucidate from the standpoint of pragmatic method the importance of enforc- ing these distinctions. First, as to the problems of philosophy when pragmatically ap- proached, Mr. James says: “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world formula or that world formula be true” (p. 50). Here the world formula is as- sumed as already given; it is there, defined and constituted, and the question is as to its value if believed. But from the second standpoint, that of idea as working hypotheses, the chief function of philosophy is not to find out what difference ready-made formulhe make, if true, but to arrive at and to clarify their meaning as pro- grams of behavior for modifying the existent world. From this standpoint, the meaning of a world formula is practical and moral, not merely in the consequences which flow from accepting a certain conceptual content as true, but as to that content itself. ‘And thus at the very outset we are compelled to face this question: Does Mr. James employ the pragmatic method to discover the value in terms of consequences in life of some formula which has its contelnt, its logical meaning, already fixed; or does he employ it to criticize and revise and, ultimately, to constitute the proper intellectual meaning of that formula? If it is the first, there is danger that the prag- matic method will be employed only to vivify, if not validate, doc- trines which in themselves are pieces of rationalistic metaphysics, not inherently pragmatic. If the last, there is danger that some readers will think the old notions are being confirmed when in truth they are being translated into new and inconsistent notions. Consider the case of design. Mr. James begins with accepting a ready-made notion, to which he then applies the pragmatic criterion. The traditional notion is that of “a seeing force that runs things.” This is rationalistically and retrospectively empty: its being there makes no difference. (This seems to overlook the fact that the past world may be just what it is in virtue of the difference which a blind force or seeing force has already made in it. A pragmatist as well as a rationalist may reply that it makes no difference retrospectively only because we leave out the most important retrospective differ- ence.) But “returning with it into experience, we gain a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force, but a seeing force, run things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present descernible in the terms design and designer” (p. 115, italics

PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS 91 mine). Now is this meaning intended to replace the meaning of a “seeing force which runs things”? Or is it intended to superadd a pragmatic value and validation to that concept of a seeing force? Or, does it mean that, irrespective of the existence of any such object, a belief in it has that value? Strict pragmatism would seem to require the first interpetation, but I do not think that is what Mr. James intends. The same difficulties arise in the discussion of spiritualistic theism versus materialism. Compare the two following statements: “The notion of God . . . guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved” (p. 106). “Here, then, in these different emotional and practical appeals, in these adjustments of our atti- tudes of hope and expectation, and all the delicate consequences which their differences entail, lie the real meanings of materialism and spiritualism” (p. 107, italics mine). Does the latter method of determining the meaning of, say, a spiritual God afford the sub- stitute for the conception of him as a “superhuman power” effect- ing the eternal preservation of something; does it, that is, define God, supply the content for our notion of God? Or, does it merely superadd a value to a meaning already fixed? And, if the latter, is it the object, God as defined, or the notion, or the belief (the ac- ceptance of the notion) which effects these consequent values? In either of the latter alternatives, the good or valuable consequences can not clarify the meaning or conception of God; for, by the argument, they proceed from a prior definition of God. They can not prove, or render more probable, the existence of such a being, for, by the argument, these desirable consequences depend upon accepting such an existence; and not even pragmatism can prove an existence from desirable consequences which themselves exist only when and if that other existence is there. On the other hand, if the pragmatic method is not applied simply to tell the value of a belief or controversy, but to fix the meaning of the terms in- volved in the belief, resulting consequences would serve to constitute the entire meaning, intellectual as well as practical, of the terms; and hence the pragmatic method would simply abolish the meaning of an antecedent power which will perpetuate eternally some exist- ence. For that consequence flows not from the belief or idea, but from the existence, the power. It is not pragmatic at all. Accordingly, when Mr. James says: “Other than this practical significance, the words God, free will, design have none. Yet dark though they be in themselves, or intellectualistically taken, when we bear them on to life’s thicket with us, the darkness then grows light about us” (p. 121, italics mine), what is meant? Is it meant that when we take the intellectualistic notion and employ it, it gets value

92 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY in the way of results, and hence then has some value of its own; or is it meant that the intellectual content itself must be deter- mined in terms of the changes effected in the ordering of life’s thicket? An explicit declaration on this point would settle, I think, not merely a point interesting in itself, but one essential to the determination of what is pragmatic method. For myself, I have no hesitation in saying that it seems unpragmatic for pragmatism to content itself with finding out the value of a conception whose own inherent intellectual significance pragmatism has not first determined by treating it not as a truth, but simply as a working hypothesis and method. In the particular case in question, moreover, it is difficult to see how the pragmatic method could possibly be applied to a notion of “eternal perpetuation,” which, by its nature, can never be empirically verified, or cashed in any particular case. This brings us to the question of truth. The problem here is also ambiguous in advance of definition. Does the problem of what is truth refer to discovering the “true meaning” of something; or to discovering what an idea has to effect, and how, in order to be true; or to discovering what the value of truth is when it is an existent and accomplished fact? (1) We may, of course, find the “true meaning” of a thing, as distinct from its incorrect interpreta- tion, without that establishing the truth of the “true meaning”- as we may dispute about the “true meaning” of a classic passage concerning Centaurs, and yet the determination of its true sense does not establish the truth of the notion that there are Centaurs. Occa- sionally this “true meaning” seems to be what Mr. James has in mind, as when, after the passage upon design already quoted, he goes on: “But if cosmic confidence is right, not wrong, better, not worse, that [vague confidence in the future] is a most important meaning. That much at least of possible ‘truth’ the terms will then have in them” (p. 115). “Truth” here seems to mean that design has a genuine, not merely conventional or verbal, meaning: that something is at stake. And there are frequently points where “truth” seems to mean just meaning that is genuine as distinct from empty or verbal. (2) But the problem of meaning of truth may also refer to the meaning or value of truths that already exist as truths. We have them; they exist: now what do they mean? The answer is: ” True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability, and flowing human intercourse” (p. 215). This, referring to things already true, I do not suppose the most case-hardened rationalist would question; and even if he ques- tions the pragmatic contention that these consequences define the meaning of truth, he should see that here it is not an account of what

PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS 93 it means for an idea to become true, but only of what it means after it has become true, truth as fait accompli. It is the meaning of truth as fait accomnpli which is here defined. Bearing this in mind, I do not know why a mild tempered rationalist should object to the doctrine that truth is valuable not per se, but because, when given, it leads to desirable consequences. “The true thought is useful here because the home which is its object is useful. The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us” (p. 203). And many besides confirmed pragmatists, any utilitarian, for example, would be willing to say that our duty to pursue “truth” is conditioned upon its leading to objects which upon the whole are valuable. “The concrete benefits we gain are what we mean by calling the pursuit a duty” (p. 231, compare p. 76). (3) Difficul- ties have arisen chiefly because Mr. James is charged with converting simply the above proposition, and arguing that since true ideas are good, any idea if good in any way is true. Certainly transition from one of these conceptions to the other is facilitated by the fact that ideas are tested as to their validity by a certain goodness, viz., whether they are good for accomplishing what they intend, what they claim to be good for, that is, certain modifications in prior given existences. In this case, it is the idea which is practical, since it is essentially an intent and plan of altering prior existences in a specific situation, which is indicated to be unsatisfactory by the very fact that it needs or suggests a specific modification. Now we have the theory that ideas as ideas are always working hypotheses concern- ing attaining particular empirical results, and are tentative pro- grams (or sketches of method) for attaining them. If we stick consistently to this notion of ideas, only consequences w’hich are actually produced by the working of the idea in cooperation with, or application to, prior realities are good consequences in the specific sense of good which is relevant to establishing the truth of an idea. This is, at times, unequivocally recognized by Mr. James. (See, for example, the reference to veri-fication, on p. 201; the ac- ceptance of the idea that verification means the advent of the object intended, on p. 205.) But at other times any good which flows from acceptance of a belief is treated as if it were an evidence, in so far, of the truth of the idea. This holds particularly when theological notions are under consideration. Light would be thrown upon how Mr. James con- ceives this matter by statements from him on such points as these: If ideas terminate in good consequences, but yet the goodness of the consequences, was no part of the intention of an idea, does the good- ness have any verifying force? If the goodness of consequences

94 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY arises from the context of the idea in belief rather than from the idea itself, does it have any verifying force?6 If an idea leads to consequences which are good in the one respect only of fulfilling the intent of the idea (as when one drinks a liquid to test the idea that it is a poison), does the badness of the consequences in every other respect detract from the verifying force of these consequences? Since Mr. James has referred to me as saying “truth is what gives satisfaction” (p. 234), I may remark (apart from the fact that I do not think I ever said that truth is what gives satisfaction) that I have never identified any satisfaction with the truth of an idea, save that satisfaction which arises when the idea as working hypothesis or tentative method is applied to prior existences in such a way as to fulfill what it intends. My final impression (which I can not adequately prove) is that upon the whole Mr. James is most concerned to enforce, as against rationalism, two conclusions about the character of truths as faits accomplis: namely, that they are made, not a prtiori, or eternally in existence,7 and that their value or importance is not static, but dynamic and practical. The special question of how truths are made is not particularly relevant to this anti-rationalistic crusade, while it is the chief question of interest to many who are not ration- alists. Because of this conflict of problems, what Mr. James says about the value of truth when accomplished is likely to be inter- preted by some as a criterion for ideas as ideas; while, on the other hand, Mr. James himself is likely to pass lightly from the conse- quences that determine the worth of a belief to those which de- cide the worth of an idea. When Mr. James says the function of giving “satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts” is necessary in order to establish truth, the doc- trine is unambiguous. The satisfactory character of consequences is itself measured and defined by the conditions which led up to it; the inherently satisfactory quality of results is not taken as vali- dating antecedent intellectual operations. But when he says (not ” The idea of immortality or the traditional theistic idea of God, for example, may produce its good consequences, not in virtue of the idea as idea, but from the character of the person who entertains the belief; or it may be the idea of the supreme valute of ideal considerations, rather than that of their temporal duration, which works. I” Eternal truth ” is one of the most ambiguous phrases that philosophers trip over. It may mean eternally in existence; or that a statement which is ever true is always true (if it is true a fly is buzzing, it is eternally true that just now a fly buzzed) ; or it may mean that some truths, in so far as wholly conceptual, are irrelevant to any particular time determination, since they are non-existential in import-e. g., the truths of geometry dialectically taken- that is, without asking whether any particular existence exemplifies them.

PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS 95 of his own position, but of an opponent’s8) of the idea of an abso- lute, “so far as it affords such comfort it surely is not sterile, it has that amount of value; it performs a concrete function. As a good pragmatist I myself ought to call the absolute true in so far forth then; and I unhesitatingly now do so” (p. 73), the doctrine seems to be as unambiguous in the other direction: that any good, conse- quent upon acceptance of a belief, is, in so far forth,9 a warrant of truth. In such passages as the following (which are of the common type) the two notions seem blended together: “Ideas become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience” (p. 58); and, again, on the same page: “Any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor, is true for just so much” (italics mine). An explicit statement as to whether the carrying function, the linking of things, is satisfactory and prosperous and hence true in so far as it executes the intent of an idea; or whether the satisfaction and prosperity reside in the material consequences on their own account and in that aspect make the idea true, would, I am sure, locate the point at issue and economize and fructify future discussion. At present pragmatism is accepted by those whose own notions are thoroughly rationalistic in make-up as a means of refurbishing, galvanizing, and justifying those very no- ‘ Such statements, it ought in fairness to be said, generally come when Mr. James is speaking of a doctrine which he does not himself believe, and arise, I think, in that fairness and frankness of Mr. James, so unusual in philosophers, which cause him to lean over backwards-unpragmatically, it seems to me. As to the claim of his own doctrine, he consistently sticks to his statement: “Pent in, as the pragmatist, more than any one, sees himself to be, between the whole body of banded truths squeezed from the past and the coer- cions of the world of sense about him, who, so well as he, feels the immense pressure of objective control under which our minds perform their operations? If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandments one day, says Emerson” (p. 233). 9 Of course, Mr. James holds that this ” in so far ” goes a very small way. See pp. 77-79. But even the slightest concession is, I think, non-pragmatic unless the satisfaction is relevant to the idea as intent. Now the satisfaction in question comes not from the idea as idea, but from its acceptance as true. Can a satisfaction dependent on an assumption that an idea is already true be relevant to testing the truth of an idea? And can an idea, like that of the absolute, which, if true, “absolutely” precludes any appeal to consequences as test of truth, be confirmed by use of the pragmatic test without sheer self- contradiction? In other words, we have a confusion of the test of an idea as idea, with that of the value of a belief as belief. On the other hand, it is quite possible that all Mr. James intends by truth here is true (i. e., genuine) mean- ing at stake in the issue-true as distinct, not from false, but from meaningless or verbal.

96 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY tions. It is rejected by non-rationalists (empiricists and natural- istic idealists) because it seems to them identified with the notion that pragmatism holds that the desirability of certain beliefs over- rides the question of the meaning of the ideas involved in them and the existence of objects denoted by them. Others (like myself), who believe thoroughly in pragmatism as a method of orientation as defined by Mr. James, and who would apply the method to the determination of the meaning of objects, the intent and worth of ideas as ideas, and to the human and moral value of beliefs, when these various problems are carefully distinguished from one another, do not know whether they are pragmatists or not, because they are not sure whether the “practical,” in t.he sense of desirable facts which define the worth of a belief, is confused with the practical as an attitude imposed by objects, and with the practical as a power and function of ideas to effect changes in prior existences. Hence the importance of knowing what pragmatism means by practical. And since Mr. James first introduced the term into print, and since he is chiefly responsible for its currency, he can speak with an authority possessed by no one else. It would do Mr. James an injustice, however, to stop here. His real doctrine, I think, is that a belief is true when it satisfies both personal needs and the requirements of objective things. Speaking of pragmatism, he says, “Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted” (p. 80, italics mine). Aind again, “That new idea is truest which performs most felicitously its function of satisfying outr double urgency” (p. 64). It does not appear certain from the context that this “double urgency ” is that of the personal and the objective demands, respectively, but it is probable (see, also, p. 217, where “consistency with previous truth and novel fact” is said to be “always the most imperious claimant”). On this basis, the “in so far forth” of the truth of the absolute because of the comfort it supplies, means that one of the two conditions which need to be satisfied has been met, so that if the idea of the absolute met the other one also, it would be quite true. I have no doubt this is Mr. James’s meaning, and it sufficiently safeguards him from charges that pragmatism means that anything that is agreeable is true. At the same time, I do not think, in logical strictness, that satisfying one of two tests, when satisfaction of both is required, can be said to constitute a belief true even “in so far forth.” At all events this raises a question not touched so far: the place of the personal in the determination of truth. Mr. James, for example, emphasizes the doctrine suggested in the following words:

PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS 97 “We say this theory solves it [the problem] more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasize their points of satisfaction differently” (p. 61, italics mine). This opens out into a question which, in its larger aspects, the place of the personal factor in the constitution of knowledge systems and of reality, I can not here enter upon, save to say that a synthetic pragmatism such as Mr. James has ventured upon will take a very different form according as the point of view of what he calls the “Chicago School” or that of humanism is taken as a basis for interpreting the nature of the “personal.” Accord- ing to the latter view, the personal appears to be ultimate and un- analyzable, the metaphysically real. Associations with idealism, moreover, give it an idealistic turn, a translation, in effect, of monistic intellectualistic idealism into pluralistic, voluntaristic ideal- ism. But, according to the former, the personal is not ultimate, but is to be analyzed and defined biologically on its genetic side, ethically on its prospective and functioning side. There is, however, one phase of the teaching illustrated by the quotation which is directly relevant here. Because Mr. James recognizes that the personal element enters in passing upon whether a problem has or has not been satisfactorily solved, he is charged with extreme subjectivism, of encouraging the element of personal preference to run rough-shod over all objective controls. Now the question raised in the quotation is primarily one of fact, not of doctrine. Is or is not a personal factor found in truth evaluations? If it is, pragmatism is not responsible for introducing it. If it is not, it ought to be possible to refute pragmatism by appeal to empirical fact, rather than by reviling it for subjectivism. Now it is an old story that philosophers, in common with theologians and social theorists, are as sure that personal habits and interests shape their opponents’ doctrines as they are that their own beliefs are “absolutely” universal and objective in quality. Hence arises that dishonesty, that insincerity characteristic of philosophic discus- sion. As Mr. James says (p. 8), “The most potential of all our premises is never mentioned.” Now the moment the complicity of the personal factor in our philosophic valuations is recognized, is recognized fully, frankly and generally, that moment a new era in philosophy will begin. We shall have to discover the personal factors that now unconsciously influence us, and begin to accept a new and moral responsibility for them, for judging and testing them by their consequences. So long as we ignore this factor, its deeds will be largely evil, not because it is evil, but because, flour- ishing in the dark, it is without responsibility and without check. The only way to control it is by recognizing it. And while I would

98 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY not prophesy of pragmatism’s future, I would say that this element which is now so generally condemned as intellectual dishonesty (perhaps because of an uneasy, instinctive recognition of the search- ing of hearts its acceptance would involve) will in the future be accounted unto philosophy for righteousness’ sake. So much in general. In particular cases, it is possible that Mr. James ‘s language occasionally leaves the impression that the fact of the inevitable involution of the personal factor in every belief gives some special sanction to some special belief. Mr. James says that his essay on the right to believe was unluckily entitled the ill to believe (p. 258). Well, even the term “right” is unfor- tunate, if the personal or belief factor is, inevitable-unfortunate because it seems to indicate a privilege which might be exercised in special cases, in religion, for example, though not in science; or, because it suggests to some minds that the fact of the personal com- plicity involved in belief is a warrant for this or that special per- sonal attitude, instead of being a warning to locate and define it, and to accept moral responsibility for it. If we mean by “will,” not something deliberate and consciously intentional (much less, something insincere), but an active personal participation, then belief as will rather than either the right or the will to believe would seem to phrase the matter. I have not attempted to review Mr. James’s book, but rather the present status of the pragmatic movement as expressed in the book; and have selected only those points which seem to bear directly upon matters of contemporary controversy. Even as an account of this limited field, the foregoing pages do an injustice to Mr. James save as it is recognized that his lectures were “popular lectures,” as the title-page advises us. We can not expect the kind of clearness and explicitness in such lectures which would satisfy the professional and technical interests which have inspired this review. Moreover, it is inevitable that the attempt to compose different points of view, hitherto uncoordinated, into a single whole should give rise to problems foreign to any one factor of the synthesis, left to itself. The need and possibility of the discrimination of various elements in the pragmatic meaning of “practical,” attempted in this review, would hardly have been recognized by me were it not for by-products of perplexity and confusion which Mr. James’s combination has effected. Mr. James has given so many evidences of the sincerity of his intellectual aims, that I trust to his pardon for the injustice which the character of my review may have done him, in view of wha.tever service it may render in clarifying the problem to which he is devoted. As for the book itself, it is in any case beyond a critic’s praise

PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS 99 or blame. It is more likely to take place as a philosophic classic than any other writing of our day. A critic who should attempt to appraise it, would probably give one more illustration of the sterility of criticism compared with the productiveness of creative genius. Even those who dislike pragmatism can hardly fail to find much of profit in the exhibition of Mr. James’s instinct for concrete facts and the breadth of his sympathies, and his illuminating in- sights. Unreserved frankness, lucid imagination, varied contacts with life digested into summary and trenchant conclusions, keen perceptions of human nature in the concrete, a constant sense of the subordination of philosophy to life, capacity to put things into an English which projects ideas as if bodily into space till they are solid things to walk around and survey from different sides- these things are not so common in philosophy that they may not smell sweet even by the name of pragmatism. As for the thing pragmatism, moreover, Mr. James has per- formed so uniquely the composing of different elements into a single pictorial or artistic whole, that it is probable that progress in the immediate future will come from a more analytic clearing up and development of these independent elements. It will then be possible to pass upon their differential traits, and the possibility of their consistent, logical combination. After a period of pools and mergers, the tendency is to return to the advantages of individual effort and responsibility. Possibly “pragmatism” as a holding company for allied, yet separate interests and problems, might be dissolved and revert to its original constituents.


What Does Pragmatism Mean by Practical?
Author(s): John Dewey
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Feb.13, 1908), pp. 85-99
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

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