Last week I began my way through Philip Kitcher's book, Preludes to Pragmatism: Toward a Reconstruction of Philosophy. No one will ever analyze my thinking on a scholarly level, but if you did, you would need to understand some of the things in this book. (The same goes for Keith Drury.)
1. In this chapter, Kitcher turns to the most important voice for pragmatism in the early twentieth century, John Dewey.
(It might be helpful to say that the fact that Dewey was an atheist does not mean that he has nothing of value to say for a Christian thinker. There is obviously a Christian version of pragmatism that believes that God is a personal Being, or I wouldn't be interested.
The key for me is to realize that human language can only point to and provide pictures of God. It cannot rise to the level of God's "thinking." It is the principle of incarnation. In revelation, God speaks our language, not "his.")
This chapter has 7 sections. The first gives us a nice taste of what Dewey meant when he spoke of “reconstructing” philosophy. He had no time for what have often been considered the core areas of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, and such. These areas tended to make philosophers into a “specialized class which uses a technical language” (2) that says little of anything useful to anyone but a philosopher. For Dewey, philosophy that was worth anything “must take effect in conduct” (2). It must have a meaningful impact on human lives.
2. In the second section, Kitcher backs up behind even Dewey to another of the pragmatist triumvirate, William James. Here is a famous quote from James that he actually claimed to draw from the third, C. S. Pierce: “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me” (3). In other words, it ought to address important questions. Here’s another quote from James: philosophy should make sense of “that somewhat chaotic view which everyone by nature carries about with him under his hat” (4).
For James, however, the primary preoccupation was the rise of science. How can we as individuals consider our lives meaningful given the rise of Darwinism? By contrast, Dewey was more interested in the use of philosophy for society as a whole (rather than the individual) and he saw multiple areas of life that needed to be addressed (not just science and religion). And of course James was at times open to the supernatural, while Dewey saw no usefulness to that idea.
Kitcher goes on in this section to ask what might make a question significant to life and what some concrete examples might be.
3. The third section deals with the question of how we might tell whether a question philosophy wants to answer is significant. Dewey did not buy James’ individualistic response—that the question must make a psychological difference to someone. That pretty much leaves philosophy where it is because the “specialized class” find their irrelevant pursuits psychologically meaningful. Dewey suggested it should enhance our engagement with nature. Kitcher does not find this satisfactory either. There are some explanatory pursuits that pay off in the end. Work that seems irrelevant can sometimes prove to be very relevant and impactful.
Kitcher finds some promise in Dewey’s sense that philosophy look to matters that are helpful to the public and to democracy. In other words, it should pursue things that have a collective rather than a mere individualistic pay-off. For him, things that are useful will have wide application rather than have to be rationalized as “truth for its own sake” (8). I do not completely agree with Dewey but I agree with his priorities (cf. Wesley Seminary).
Kitcher then enumerates what “well-ordered inquiry” would look like, philosophy that aims to be useful. First, it would give priority to questions that touch on the lives of many people. Philosophy should not focus on “the whimsical interests of the few, at cost to the many” (8). Second, philosophy must be well-informed. Finally, it should utilize a combination of expertise, with all points of view represented.
He does not pretend that this formula is clean cut. “There is, of course, no easy algorithm for testing extant or proposed lines of research” (10). To think there is a clear delineation of investigations that are useful is to misunderstand the fundamental dynamic of pragmatism itself.
4. Sections 4 and 5 in this chapter then show how Dewey applied pragmatism to ethics, politics, and religion. He begins with a very insightful quote from Dewey. No moral code can foresee every situation to which it will eventually have to be applied. This is of course true of the Bible, which does not address issues like nuclear war, in vitro fertilization, or disconnecting someone who is brain dead from a ventilator. It is ill-conceived for the rabbis (or the Wesleyan Discipline) to think that it can give a concrete legal answer to every future ethical question.
Ethical work is never finished. This is something I’ve long realized about teaching inductive Bible study. We inevitably end up spending most of the class looking at tools for understanding the original meaning but can’t really give a formulaic sense of how to apply the Bible to every situation today.
Dewey warned about the assumption that there was an abstract ethical ideology that we are applying to particular circumstances. Kitcher shows that this is largely a construct, because those who ran the Nazi death camps could answer every such “moral principle” question correctly. Similarly, Dewey objected to the notion that we as human beings each have some singular “moral point of view.” We are rather a “hodgepodge of considerations” (12-13).
5. Section 5 gives concrete examples of pragmatism at work in politics and religion. Dewey was someone sympathetic to John Stuart Mill, although Mill is once again very individual focused. Mill suggested that the state should only intervene into the life of an individual when an individual’s actions affected the lives of others. Dewey is more society focused. “Democracy advances human freedom through its ability to provide individual people with the ability to act together…” (15). Dewey worried, though that America had become so large and fragmented that it was easy for ignorance to take over, which diminishes the potential for freedom. “The mere opportunity to register a vote… is inadequate to realize it [democratic freedom]” (16).
Then Kitcher addresses Dewey in relation to religion. For Dewey, it is not religion that brings meaning, but when we find meaning, we develop a religious outlook to life. Philosophy thus should aim to address those “social conditions under which individual lives gain purpose and meaning” (17). Kitcher suggests that Dewey would be concerned with the current negativity and attacks on religion. A universe without religion leaves “a vacuum into which even the crudest forms of supernaturalism could easily re-intrude” (18). And here I think of how attractive a raw spiritualism or new age type spirituality can find a foothold in former Christians.
6. The sixth section deals with two objections to this program of “well-ordered inquiry.” How does this enterprise connect with the “central problems” of philosophy? And these ventures seem to require immersion in other disciplines and especially the practice of them. As to the latter, Kitcher suggests that the best philosophers have always reached across many disciplines. “Philosophy is not a discipline for those who are proud to know nothing, but is for people who aspire to know something of everything, so that they can propose… a broader perspective (19). Practitioners in these disciplines usually do not know enough about the other disciplines to do the integrative work of a philosopher.
Secondly, Dewey would object to the notion that these other areas of philosophy actually are the “central disciplines.” “Ventures in epistemology and metaphysics, Dewey claims, are often guilty of a… form of self-absorbed blindness” (20), like a chemist who becomes infatuated with blowing stylistic glass rather than the experiments it is made for. Kitcher argues that even in the twenty-first century, “the glass-blowers have taken over the lab” (21).
7. Finally, Kitcher compares himself to Rorty. Rorty argued that philosophy wasn’t a special discipline, but wanted to bury it. Kitcher, like Dewey, wants to renew it.
8. I think it’s enough for me to summarize this chapter for now. I don't think I have done it justice. I do personally think that there can be a “pragmatic epistemology” and a “pragmatic realism” that is useful. So I would extend the usefulness of philosophy to the central areas that Dewey more or less scorned. But I’m sure those issues will emerge later in the book.
More to come...