I am wondering if I could ask your opinion about pragmatism. I get weary of hearing about pragmatic truth, because what “works” is not always right, but then I like how some of the pragmatist writers explain the pragmatist tradition as moving beyond the epistemologically-centered Cartesian type of philosophy.
You’re right that pragmatism is flawed at the root. Truth isn’t what “works,” that is, what gives us what we want, but what corresponds to how things really are. I can hardly think of anything more like the philosophy of hell l than losing hope of connection with reality. Unless it would be rejoicing in the loss of that hope, as some pragmatists do.
About getting away from the epistemologically-centered Cartesian type of philosophy – I agree with you that Descartes got Western thought going in the wrong direction. It seems to me, though, that the way pragmatism “moves beyond” Descartes is that it goes even further in that wrong direction. Dreadfully further. Let me explain.
Classical thought recognized that before we can investigate how we know something, we have to know something. In that sense, it began with things, not with knowledge. It understood truth to lie in correspondence with reality, and it held that when we are investigating reality, we should believe what we have the best reasons for believing. It took for granted that disagreements would arise, and held that when they do, the view with the best arguments in its favor should prevail.
But Descartes refused to take disagreement for granted; he demanded a certainty so unassailable that it would eliminate the possibility of disagreement. Almost in despair of knowing anything with that kind of certainty, at last he thought he had found a starting point. He could be certain of his existence, he thought, just because he was thinking about the problem. But this famous cogito, ergo sum is fallacious, for the certainty “I exist” does not follow from the bare premise “I think.” One must also know for sure that thought requires a thinker. We derive this fact from experience. So we do know something already; we are beginning with things after all. Since we do this inevitably, wouldn’t it be better to admit it? Rather than refusing to believe anything we are capable of doubting, wouldn’t it make more sense to use the matters we are less in doubt about to test the ones we are more in doubt about? But to do that would be to return to the classical method that Descartes rejects.
From the failure of Descartes’ experiment, subsequent thinkers should have drawn the lesson that putting the study of knowledge before the study of things known is a blind alley. They should have returned to the classical approach, putting the study of things before the study of knowledge. Pragmatists, however, go in the other direction. Theydisconnect what they believe from how things are in reality. They no longer believe that it is even possible to know how things are in reality. When a pragmatist says he believes proposition P, he doesn’t mean that P is how things are, but that P “works.”
What does it mean to the pragmatist for P to work? That insisting on P produces results that someone likes. What if others don’t like what he likes? Then it comes down to which one can silence the other. Silence them how? With better arguments? But arguments are about how things are in reality, and the pragmatist no longer believes in how things are in reality. Apart from arguments, what means of silencing them are left? That’s alarmingly easy to figure out. In the final analysis, pragmatism, like all anti-realist philosophies, is a philosophy of power. Whether it uses a sneer or a gun, in the end it depends upon intimidation.