Practical Philosophy
Gibbs A. Williams, Ph.D.

Selected Philosophical Quotations and Commentary
Relevant to Significant Psychological Change

Part 2

Abraham Kaplan: On Pragmatism
Pragmatism {addresses} itself to the problems of everyday life in this messy world. The word ''pragmatism'' comes from a root which means an act, deed, or affair. {Among other uses philosophy} has a creative task. Unless the philosophy is a merely academic speculation, it is an instrument for change, formulating new values and providing a conceptual framework by which they can be grasped and realized. In this changing world, the business of philosophy is in Dewey's {a leading exponent of pragmatic philosophy} phrasing, ''to mediate between the stubborn past and the insistent future.''

Pragmatism approaches philosophy as it approached all ideas by asking, not ''What does it mean?'' but rather ''What is it supposed to do?'' For its meaning lies in its purpose, or rather, in the way in which it works to fulfill it purpose.

If we now ask, ''What is the task for twentieth-century philosophy for the Western world?'' {the pragmatic answer is} to assimilate the impact of science on human affairs. Contrary to the popular reading of the word ''pragmatic,'' the emphasis is not on results but on method. In the {pragmatic} analysis, science turns out to be essentially a method of inquiry.{scientific method}.

{There are three core principles in pragmatic thinking}

(1) contextualism: to put every problem into its concrete behavioral and social setting, to analyze every idea as an abstraction from some context of action. Every experience occurs in what Dewey calls a biological and cultural matrix, and the conceptions that grow out of and are tested by experience are inevitably conditioned by that matrix. Contextualism implies that both the data and solution of these problems are relative - relative, that is, not to the mere think-so of the philosopher, but to the factors at work in the context in which the problem arises and is to be solved. And it implies also that data and solutions are ultimately concrete, rooted in the particular existents that make up the context, not in the abstract generalities of a fictitious world of ideas.

(2) The pragmatic method is secondly a genetic method. The pragmatist asks always. How did it get this way? What was its origin, its purpose, its function? How did the context in which it arose shape the character it now presents to us? The historical, evolutionary, functional approach has been invaluable in the human sciences. But throughout most of its history, philosophy has been influenced rather by mathematics and the natural sciences, and so has occupied itself with the quest for fixed relations among timeless essences. Pragmatism takes time seriously.

(3) In the third place, the pragmatic method looks for continuities and gradations rather than separateness and sharp differences. Wherever the pragmatist encounters polarities - and his way is beset by them: mind and body, reason and emotion, the individual and society, man and nature - he sets himself the task of overcoming them by reconstituting them as aspects of as seamless whole. The integrated personality and coherent culture for which the pragmatist strives he puts forward as an ideal rooted in the wholeness of the world of actuality. There is no such thing as "Appearance" and "Reality." The world really is what experience shows it to be. When we say that something is only apparent, we are contrasting it, not with what transcends experience, but with what would be disclosed in other experiences. Transcendent metaphysics converts a functional and contextual difference to a substantive and absolute distinction. Talk about what lies outside any experience remains just talk: its truth cannot possibly make any difference - that is, truistically, any difference that anyone could possibly experience.

The primary question which pragmatism raisesis the question of meaning. {In this connection, Pragmatism offers the 'verifiability theory of meaning'.} "Suppose this proposition were true; what conceivable bearing might it have on the conduct of our lives?" Meanings occur always in a human context, which is to say a context of action: words mean only because people mean something by them. Language is an abstraction from concrete acts of concrete acts of speech, and such acts have their origin in the desire to achieve some human end. Meaning, in short, must be analyzed by reference to its genesis in a context of purposive behavior.

The pragmatist's theory of truth {is} that candidates for truth are fundamentally not descriptions but predictions, and what they predict is the outcome of possible action. {This is applying scientific method to daily living parallel to what occurs in psychoanalysis}. Pragmatism, in spite of its reliance on the genetic method, turns here, not to the origins of the idea, but to its destination. What counts is not its antecedents, but what we can do with the idea, what we can make of it, what it promises for the enrichment of our lives. For knowledge is not merely a record of the past - not even the kind of knowledge we call "history." It is a reconstruction of the present directed towards fulfillments in the emerging future.

We must do something with the object of knowledge for it to become known: manipulate it, take it apart, experiment on it. Even just looking, if it is to yield cognitions, is not a matter of pure passivity. For scientific observation, surely, is not "just looking," we throw light on the subject, or pass x-rays through it, or bounce radar off of it. We know only as the outcome of our doings. The old saw that seeing is believing does not characterize the scientific mentality but its opposite. The task of inquiry is largely one of discovering what it is that needs to be done so that we can believe what we see.

For the pragmatist, thought of any kind is an activity of problem-solving. We begin always with some knowledge about some features of reality. Thought concerns itself with moving from some particular context in which a problem presents itself to the other contexts continuously emerging in the endless flow of experience. {The pragmatist is interested in how we can move from one place to another - ie. how does change occur?}

For pragmatism, the philosophic task is not to concoct a proof that the nature of man and the universe guarantees that human values are secure, but rather to provide ideational instruments {sound ideas} by which through human effort in this precarious world they can be made more secure. {William} James, I think, would have enjoyed the current definition of an optimist as a man who believes that this is the best of all possible worlds, and of a pessimist as one who's afraid that the optimist is right. His own position he described as "meliorism": the question is not whether it's best or worst, but how to go about making it better. The aim of life, as the pragmatist sees it is, in Dewey's words, ''to make the stability of meaning prevail over the instability of events.'' (A.Kaplan: The New World of Philosophy pp.13-52}

Gibbs' Commentary
This essay demonstrates a clear affinity between the contents, methods and attitudes of pragmatism and psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Both are vitally concerned with expeditiously helping people to identify, explore and work through their inevitable problems. Both provide a method of applying scientific method to problems of daily living that does justice to the complexity of real life details.

Both pragmatism and psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy provide a pathway to enable people to "mediate between the stubborn past and the insistent future."

Both pathways attempt to order the raw data of experience utilizing the organizing constructs of overlapping contexts, determining the historical origins of the matter at hand, and searching to discover and or create meanings. All of these ways of viewing the material at hand is in the service of inducing significant change.

Pragmatism, psychoanalysis, and psychoanalytic psychotherapy implicitly believe that it is meaning rather than causality that holds the world of human beings together. In that light Freud would most likely agree with Pierce, James and Dewey that the pragmatic method and the psychoanalytic method primarily aim at "making the stability of meaning prevail over the instability of events." Freud would probably state the same idea as "where id and super ego are,ego will be."


Preface | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


Gibbs A.Williams Ph.D.© 1999-2000