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THE PRAGMATIC THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
§ 1. It is characteristic of pragmatism that it does not readily lend itself to summary definition. It can neither
be identified with a fixed habit of mind, as The General Meaning of naturalism can be identified with the scientific Pragmatism
habit of mind, nor can it be reduced to a single cardinal principle, as can idealism. We are as yet too much in the midst of it to discern its general contour; indeed it is not so much a systematic doctrine as a criticism and a method. Nevertheless, it is not impossible, I think, to give a preliminary characterization of it that shall be roughly true, and shall serve as a guide to the study of its diverse aspects. Pragmatism means, in the broadest sense, the acceptance of the categories of life as fundamental. It is the bio-centric philosophy. And it must be added at once that the pragmatist means by 'life,' not the imaginary or ideal life of any hypothetical being, not the "eternal" life or the "absolute" life; but the temporal, operative life of animals and men, the life of instinct and desire, of adaptation and environment, of civilization and progress.
Although the pragmatic movement is new, pragmatism is, as James acknowledges, “an old way of thinking." It is dangerous, however, to identify contemporary pragmatism too closely with any of the earlier doctrines that resemble it. Thus the whole experimentalist' tendency in English science and philosophy may be said to have anticipated the pragmatist theory that truth is achieved by the trying of hypotheses. And Hume suggested at the close of his Treatise that we must be satisfied in the end with a belief that is suited to action. But these anticipations of pragmatism are largely accidental, and more negative than constructive.
1 Cf. above, p. 139.
On the other hand, Kant, and the Fichtean idealists after him, maintained “the primacy of the practical reason." Pragmatism is doubtless related to this and other traditional forms of voluntarism. But from the idealistic form of voluntarism, at least, pragmatism is sharply distinguished by its naturalistic and empirical leanings. Pragmatism does, it is true, depart from naturalism in so far as this assigns the fundamental place to the mechanical categories. Pragmatism would insist on the priority of biology to physics; or at least upon the right of biology, together with the moral and social sciences, to regard the teleological method as independently valid. For if it can be argued that the processes of life may be described as quantities of mechanical force or energy, it can equally well be argued that energy and force themselves are instruments which serve the uses of life. But while pragmatism is opposed to a fundamental or universal mechanism, it has much in common with naturalism. It may even in a sense be called 'naturalistic.' For it identifies reality with “this world,” with the sort of thing that is going on here and now; and regards perception as the most reliable means of knowledge.?
The polemic of pragmatism is mainly directed, not against naturalism, but against idealism; and not against the cardinal or subjectivistic principle in idealism, but against idealism as the contemporary form of absolutism. The perfect antithesis to pragmatism is Spinoza, and it is the perpetuation of Spinozism in objective and absolute idealism that is the real object of the pragmatist attack. Absolutism is other-worldly, contrary to appearances; pragmatism mundane, empirical. Absolutism is mathematical and dialectical in method, establishing ultimate truths with demonstrable certainty; pragmatism is suspicious of all short-cut arguments, and holds philosophy to be no
1 See below, pp. 363-366.
exception to the rule that all hypotheses are answerable to experience. Absolutism is monistic, deterministic, quietistic; pragmatism is pluralistic, indeterministic, melioristic. That which absolutism holds to be most significant, namely, the logical unity of the world, is for pragmatism a negligible abstraction. That which for absolutism is mere appearance - the world of space and time, the interaction of man and nature, and of man and man, is for pragmatism the quintessence of reality. The one is the philosophy of eternity, the other the philosophy of time.
§ 2. Pragmatism like all contemporary philosophies is first of all a theory of knowledge. It is in the applica
tio of the vitalistic or bio-centric method to The Pragmatist Conception of knowledge that all pragmatists are agreed. the Theory
We may hope to discover here a body of comof Knowledge
mon pragmatic doctrine from which the various pragmatisms diverge.
The pragmatist has a characteristic way of setting the problem. In the first place, he means by knowledge a process, and not merely a product. The term knowledge is often used to mean what is known, in other words, completed knowledge, or science; and epistemology has been taken to mean the analysis of such completed knowledge with a view to discovering its universal principles or its underlying ground. With pragmatists, however, knowledge means knowing: a complex event, involving an individual knower, a something to be known, certain means of knowing it, and then, finally, the cognitive achievement or failure. Critics of pragmatism have attempted to dismiss this method of studying knowledge by calling it 'psychological,' rather than ‘logical.' It is certainly not exclusively logical, because it takes into account the circumstances and agencies of knowledge, and not merely its grounds. But, on the other hand, it is not psychological in any limited or disparaging sense, because it seeks to
· This is on the whole the idealistic conception of 'the categories.' Cf. above, pp. 139–143.
distinguish the cases of true knowledge from the cases of false knowledge. In short, it is both psychological and logical; and for the reason that both psychological and logical factors enter into that particular complex which we call knowing.
Regarding the whole of the concrete process of knowing, pragmatism finds that its form is practical. In its native habitat, where the pragmatist seeks it out and observes it, knowing is a phase of life, of action in an environment. This holds equally of the kind of knowledge that is ordinarily called 'practical, and the kind that is ordinarily called 'theoretical.' Whether it be the execution of a policy, the calculation of the price of a commodity, the investigation of the properties of non-Euclidean space, or the demonstration of the attributes of God, knowing is always an enterprise, projected on a particular occasion, tried with particular means, attended with hope or fear, and concluded with success or failure. This is the subjectmatter with which the pragmatist theory of knowledge primarily deals. And there are two problems which the pragmatist makes both prominent and fundamental: first, what is the role of ideas in knowledge? second, what is the difference between a true idea and a false idea?
$ 3. To understand the pragmatist theory of the role of ideas in knowledge, it is necessary to insist on the interpreThe Role of
tation of knowledge which has just been given. Ideas in The theory applies only in the cases where Knowledge
the full panoply of knowledge is present. And in particular there must be a having of ideas about something, where the ideas and the thing are in some sense different. In other words, we have here to do exclusively with reflective knowledge, what James calls “knowledge about” as distinguished from “knowledge of acquaintance.” Professor Dewey would not regard the latter as knowledge at all, but would insist upon “an element of mediation, that is, of art, in all knowledge.”i While it will be necessary * John Dewey: Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, and other Essays, p. 80.
presently to inquire into these implied reservations, we shall do well for the present to exclude them. Just what, then, is meant by an 'idea,' in the sense in what we are said to have ideas about things?
The pragmatist answers, first, that an idea is whatever exercises the function of 'meaning.' In other words, there is no peculiar quality attaching to an idea as such - but only an office. Anything may be an idea, provided you mean with it; just as anything may be a weapon, provided you do injury with it. The commonest instance of an idea is probably a verbal image, and there is no visible or audible form that may not serve as a word. An idea
' is, in short, what an idea does.
But what is this function of ' meaning,' which defines an idea? The pragmatist answers that meaning is essentially prospective, that it is a plan of action terminating in the thing meant. More specifically, an idea means a thing when it projects a series of acts that would, if carried out, bring that thing into the same immediacy which the idea itself already enjoys. Thus when I utter the word “cold," this verbal sound is so connected with a temperature quality that were I to follow up the connection, I would sense coldness. I may be said to have such a plan or incipient train of action without actually executing it — just as a traveller may be said to have a destination even though circumstances should prevent his arriving at it. An idea is like a railway ticket which will take you to a distant place, though you should never make the journey, or like a bank-note which has a cash-value though you should never redeem it. And like bank-notes, ideas are negotiable; they may be themselves used in place of currency for purposes of reasoning or communication. The virtue of ideas thus lies primarily in their being practical substitutes for immediacy."
James: Meaning of Truth, pp. 30–31.