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Pragmatism developed in the U.S. after the Civil War (ca. 1865) no longer content merely to reflect European philosophy a new approach for a new and vigorous.

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Presentation on theme: "Pragmatism developed in the U.S. after the Civil War (ca. 1865) no longer content merely to reflect European philosophy a new approach for a new and vigorous."— Presentation transcript:

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2 Pragmatism developed in the U.S. after the Civil War (ca. 1865) no longer content merely to reflect European philosophy a new approach for a new and vigorous young nation 3 key thinkers: William James Charles Sanders Peirce John Dewey

3 William James ( ) trained first as a medical doctor, then a psychologist finally became a philosopher and the chief advocate of Pragmatism James shared the American distrust of purely theoretical or intellectual activity, and asked: What is the point of theorizing? What difference does it make? Why is it important to bother with the mind games of theorists?

4 What is Pragmatism? It is: a method for evaluating intellectual problems, and a theory about the kinds of knowledge we are capable of acquiring. The Starting Point: Before determining if any given philosophical claim is true, James thought it first necessary to determine the “cash-value” of the claim.

5 Cash-Value The “cash-value” of our ideas is to be found in the use to which they can be put. With regard to any theory, we can ask what difference it would make if I believed it, and what consequences it would have for my behaviour If it would not make the slightest difference whether I believed a theory to be true, and it had no effect on my actions at all, then the theory’s “cash- value” would be zero: the theory is useless

6 Theories ought to be judged, then, in terms of their success at helping us solve problems: -- they are the instruments we use. Suppose you get lost in the woods, and use your knowledge of the sun’s position, the direction you’ve been going, previous info. about the terrain, etc., to develop a theory about how to “find yourself” again. the “cash-value” of your theory will be judged according to your success in avoiding becoming a midnite snack for Smokey the Bear

7 By contrast, many classical philosophical theories have little or no cash-value. What difference does it make if you believe (or disbelieve) that the universe is really only one vast mind? It would change none of the daily problems you face, and give you no clues about how to resolve them. At best, such a metaphysical belief might make you a little bit happier (or sadder, if you disbelieved); beyond that, it has almost no cash- value.

8 Reflections like these led James to a simple conclusion: A theory is true if it works. Traditional (rationalist) philosophers like Plato held that the truth of ideas is not dependent on human experience -- an idea is true or false whether anyone knows it or not. James argued that the only meaningful way to gauge the truth of an idea is to see whether it works. claims about absolute, objective truth are meaningless, since they can never be proven by experience

9 Pragmatic Truth For a pragmatist, then, truth isn’t something a idea “has” -- it is something that happens to an idea. Before you discover whether an idea, theory, or belief works, it is neither true nor false. As you test out the theory or idea, it becomes true or false, or more true or less true. In other words, truth is not something static and unchangeable -- it grows and develops with time.

10 This view of truth fits quite well with modern science, which progresses by means of experimental trial & error through a succession of increasingly accurate theories. Newton, for example, worked out the laws of motion, and for centuries his theories were considered true because they worked. When Einstein showed that the classical laws of physics didn’t quite work in certain situations (esp. as one approaches the speed of light), our understanding of the truth about motion changed.

11 Pragmatism and Ethics For the pragmatist there is no “fixed” world to be revealed by experience; there is only a continuous quest to find workable solutions to life’s problems. The way to discover what is morally right or wrong is the same as when seeking truth: a good action is one that works to solve a given problem. e.g. Is the right way to solve one’s money problems to rob a bank?

12 Presumably, one pragmatist would consider all the possible unsatisfactory consequences for oneself and others (i.e. imprisonment) and conclude that bank robbery is the “wrong” solution. On the other hand, another might just as readily conclude the solution is “right” -- IF they get away with the crime. Clearly, then, pragmatism offers no absolute moral principles -- the “good” is what works, and judging this involves a purely subjective evaluation.

13 Criticisms At what point can you tell whether an idea has “worked?” We need some criteria, a moral framework; but this is just what pragmatism tells us we can’t have (because it’s “meaningless”). There is a danger of falling into a morality based on personal preference (“Well, it works for me!”). Some pragmatists respond that you must look to the long-term consequences, but those consequences may go on forever the idea might work only sometimes

14 Source: Popkin, R.H. and Stroll, A. Philosophy Made Simple. New York, Doubleday, See chapter 1.


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