Open Thinkering


Pragmatism, dead metaphors & the myth of the echo chamber.

Building upon Karl Fisch’s post from July about the myth of the echo chamber, this post reflects my thinking towards engaging and building consensus amongst colleagues as a result of studies towards my Ed.D. thesis.

There has been much discussion – in fact ever since I can remember – about the problem of ‘echo chambers’ in any given community. As in:

That’s all very well, but aren’t we perpetuating an echo chamber here?

You’re preaching to the choir; we need to get out there and spread the gospel.

And so on.

Whilst I understand the sentiment, it’s always felt a little odd to me that the two activities of community-building and inquiry on the one hand, and bringing others into that community on the other, should be seen as separate. I’ve been looking recently at the work of a number of Pragmatist philosophers which has helped clarify my thinking in this area.

So that people actually read this post rather than dismiss it as an abstract philosophical argument, I’m going to boil down what I want to say into the following three points:

1. Engagement and acceptance

If you engage with another community you lend some legitimacy to their programme. As Stanley Fish puts it:

It is acceptable not because everyone accepts it but because those who do not are now obliged to argue against it. (Fish, 1980:257)

Sometimes refusing to engage and accept someone else’s point of view is the best idea. In the context currently under consideration, that means ploughing on with the ‘echo chamber’ until others want to join it.

2. Dead metaphors

The vocabulary of a community is that of dead metaphors. So, for example, the metaphor of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ may have stimulated thinking in 2001 for a few years, but this metaphor is dead and lacks utility to those in the community to which it originally engaged.

As Richard Rorty puts it, citing Davidson, it is like a coral reef:

“Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and foil for new metaphors.” (Rorty, 1989:118)

Metaphors are used when the words and phrases within our vocabularies are not rich enough to capture something of value. ‘Memes’ often have an element of metaphor, therefore, as they correspond to something compelling yet previously-unexpressed.

3. Language games

It’s true of almost every community that one or two, or even a whole subset of, individuals get caught up in semantics. As Ian Hacking puts it, deciding whether something is a ‘truth-value candidate’ depends upon whether a sentence has a fixed place in a ‘language game’:

This is because it is a sentence which one cannot confirm or disconfirm, argue for or against. One can only savor it or spit it out. But this is not to say that it may not, in time, become a truth-value candidate. If it is savored rather than spat out, the sentence may be repeated, caught up, bandied about. Then it will gradually require a habitual use, a familiar place in the language game. (Rorty, 1989:119-120)

This brings us back to the idea of a ‘dead metaphor’ – something which I think will eventually happen to the concept of ‘digital literacy’. Echo chambers are thus important for pinning down a metaphor so it may do some work.


Echo chambers are good if, and only if, they exist for consensus building. This is, to paraphrase Charles Sanders Peirce, not a short-term project but one that tends towards the ‘end of enquiry’. That is to say the project involves grabbing a metaphor and killing it through use in order to feed ongoing discussion and community-building.

Or something like that. :-p


  • Fish, S. (1980) ‘What makes an interpretation acceptable?’ (in Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: a contemporary reader, p.265)
  • Rorty, R. (1989) ‘The Contingency of Language’ (in Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: a contemporary reader)

12 thoughts on “Pragmatism, dead metaphors & the myth of the echo chamber.

  1. For a pragmatist, digital literacy is already a dead concept. The research I’ve read and the experience I’ve had says that those who are ‘behind’ in tech skills can catch up to those who are ‘ahead’ in 6 months given the right technology. However those that can’t read by 9 yrs of old, or don’t understand the ‘two-ness’ of two by 7 never really catch up. And even more importantly those children that don’t establish good attitudes to learning are incredibly difficult to change. So for me, as a pragmatist (which I think most primary school teachers are), digital literacy is just another tool for teaching real literacy, for supporting a good concept of number or for improving learning attitudes. I suppose things are more complex in HE…

  2. Ah, now I’m chewing my own poison. I wrote about this a few weeks ago in my post

    To add to ‘pragmatism’, which should really be synonymous with ‘Pragmatism’, I also discovered recently I’ve been using ‘prerogative’ wrong. In fact I even thought it was ‘perogative’.

    Now you’ll tell me I just used ‘synonymous’ wrong. Oh well – I think I need to reject this idea of using words accurately, as it’s just not practical for me.

    1. LOL – don’t worry about it too much! Words are just a means to
      communication. It just happens that’s a word central to my thesis and I
      don’t want to have to rewrite it all… 😮

  3. Nice post. I'm often trying to find good practical takes on philosophical issues. Nicely done. The echo chamber metaphor I think is a good one. Certainly within the field of digital work, and I am sure this is the case throughout human pursuit, we're looking to have our ideas validated and, evidence that we are validated seem to have a stronger psychological grasp on us that otherwise.

    I just wrote a post about Pragmatism (capital P) and realized whilst writing it that William James view and that of Richard Rorty as well as others resonates strongly with that of someone like Karl Popper's view of falsification and scientific inquiry.. any thoughts on that?

    1. Yes, although I'm not sure I'd call Popper a 'Pragmatist' (capital P) as his theory, as far as I understand it, doesn't go as far as saying 'truth is what is good in the way of belief'.

      1. Agreed he's not a Pragmatist in the sense that William James or someone like Richard Rorty is one. I think Popper's angle was very different. But, in a ,major way his philosophy amounts to the same thing.

        The phrase "is good in the way of belief'" is not clear on its own a requires as much clarification and William James gives to it in Pragmatism in order to see that 'good' is, as the subheading to the book given by James suggests "A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking". James was concerned with people. I think he felt a lot. Popper on the other hand (although I don't doubt that he felt) lived and worked in England in an age after Russell, Wittgenstein and the like. I think both Popper and James however, saw that knowledge cannot exist in a vacuum.

        They both contextualized 'Truth' I within the sphere of their contexts. Popper systematizes what amounts to much the same thing.

        Be very glad for your thoughts.

        1. You say that they "both contextualized 'Truth' within the sphere of their contexts", but I'm not so sure that's the case with the early Pragmatists. I'd need to re-read Popper (it's been while since undergrad days…) but I think he *denies* Truth (with a capital 'T') whereas Peirce and James would see it as the limit point towards which a community of enquirers are heading on an asymptotic line. Does that make sense?

  4. Yes, makes sense. It's been a while since I read Popper as well so I think we're both in the same boat. To my memory Popper provides a systematic account of the scientific method and denies Truth and advocates the principle of falsification. James talks about truths as opposed to Truth and denies that Truth with a capital T is remotely possible. He gives the analogy of sculpture and says that 'reality' provides the marble and we carve the sculpture. By context I simply refer to the fact that The start and the middle of the 20th century were very different times in Philosophy. The language and context were very different.

    I guess I am wondering – and don't know the answer to the question, the language they used aside, were what they trying to express the same thing? I don't know if that makes sense or not??

      1. LOL!! Yes, rejecting Positivism! Funny, on a personal note I can’t help enjoying the idea of Logic, truth (big T). But, on the other hand William James and the Pragmatists seem so much more reasonable..

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