in New Literacies

Methodology for Pragmatists

I had an extremely productive Bank Holiday Monday, writing c.5,000 words of the Methodology section for my Ed.D. thesis. The following is an extract that explains where the philosophy of Pragmatism originated.

The essence of Pragmatism is that there exists no standpoint from which to judge the objective truth or falsity of a statement or belief:

There is no absolute standpoint, and there is no exemption from standpoints; there are only and always relative standpoints… I can in reality think of no absolute whatever; I always tacitly place myself upon the scene as the observer who is beholding things in their relation to himself. (Lovejoy, 1930:81, quoted in Mounce, 1997:159)

Instead of being able to distinguish between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities in the world, therefore, we are left with only secondary qualities of which we can speak. The grass is not objectively green, it is only green to me. Pragmatism is a philosophy concerned with action and the practical application of meaning. It is concerned with the development of capacities and habits that allow for human beings to be successful and productive in the world. As we shall see, Pragmatist philosophers have little patience with definitions for their own sake.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represented have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

And later in the same essay:

Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder; the steps are actions, the new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.

Peirce and James did formalised this way of thinking in such a way that it provided a philosophical approach to problem-solving. Peirce’s project was anti-Cartesian in approach and focus, whereas James was concerned with the concept of ‘truth’ – especially as it related to religious belief. In addition, they both discussed the skepticism to which Emerson alludes, rejecting it as debilitating. James in particular thought that cultivating a habit of doubt in relation to truth statements was indicative of an attitude rather than an intellectual position (Mounce, 1997:88). Skepticism is the result of confining one simply to the intellectual and theoretical sphere, as dangerous as confining one solely to the non-rational.

Instead, James argued that we should allow our ‘passional nature’ to help us decide upon the truth or falsity of statements and propositions:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must decide an option between two propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question’ is itself a passional decision – just like deciding yes and no – and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.(James, 1918:108)

Like the historian, we gain certainty through commitment, by leaving certain areas unquestioned. Certainty both in history and science comes through being ‘imperfectly theoretical’ – i.e. Being theoretical up to a point. As Mounce (1997:99) puts it, “It is only in philosophy, where commitment is at a minimum, that scepticism flourishes without limit.”

As a result, endless definitions do not serve to advance our understanding of the world and move closer towards truth. ‘Bachelor’ is a oft-cited example of a definition that means something precise. However, an alien to our planet would have to understand the institution of marriage, which cannot be easily explained in a sentence, before grasping the meaning of ‘bachelor’. Instead of definitions, then, it is the commitment to a statement, proposition or belief that helps us make our ideas clear. To use another example from Mounce, there is no sharp demarcation between day and night but we still find it useful to use these terms (Mounce, 1997:104).

It is precisely the fact that Pragmatism allows for error and chance that makes it a practical philosophy. Instead of committing ourselves to omniscience when using the words ‘know’ and ‘certainty’ we use them as practical instruments to go about our business in the world. I, for example, know that I am to attend a conference in a foreign country soon. I can express this certainty despite my attendance depending upon my continued health, an absence of airline strikes, and various geological phenomena not taking place.

For Pragmatists, and James in particular, truth becomes close to utility – what is ‘good in the way of belief’. James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is a defence of this position. We cannot base beliefs on a theoretical conception of the world because this would, in effect, be a ‘view from nowhere’. Pragmatism, it will be remembered, is a philosophy that rejects the existence of an objective standpoint from which to ascertain the truth or falsity of a statement or belief. Reasoning is allied to experience rather than replacing it.

James was the original populariser of Pragmatism, the one who explained it to the intelligentsia of the early 20th century. However, it is important to briefly sketch the origins of Pragmatism in Peirce to understand the true aim of the overall project. Peirce rejected Cartesian dualism along with the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal world. To Peirce and later Pragmatists, what Kant termed the noumenal world – the unknowable world ‘as it exists in itself’ – is a fiction. Likewise, Peirce rejected Descartes’ recommendation to start from a position of scepticism:

Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you should begin by doubting everything, and says that there is no one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were as ‘easy as lying’… But, in truth, there is but one state from which you find yourself at the time you do ‘set out’ – a state of mind in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you can not divert yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubting has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all reality out of you, recognise, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt in the least. (Peirce, 1935(V) para 416:278, quoted in Mounce, 1997:21)

Meaning can only be grasped through practice, not through armchair philosophising, for Peirce and other Pragmatists. The ‘Pragmatic Maxim’ as formulated by Peirce states that a conception does not differ from another conception (either in logical effects or importance) other than in the way it could conceivably modify our practical conduct (Mounce, 1997:33).

It is this Pragmatic Maxim that I shall be using to test concepts surrounding ‘digital literacy’ in my Ed.D. thesis! :-)