Re: MD Practical Nightmares

From: Valence (
Date: Sun Feb 09 2003 - 01:59:33 GMT

  • Next message: David Buchanan: "RE: MD NAZIs and Pragmatism"

    Hey DMB,

     ...I was just asking
    the pragmatist how they would answer the question he posed and trying to
    make the question clear. And I still don't see anything close to a
    satisfactory response. All I can see in the attempted answers is more
    evidence that Pirsig's criticism is a very powerful one. All I see is more
    proof that pragmatism doesn't have a moral pot to piss in. Morally speaking,
    it seems to live in abject poverty.

    I don't believe Pirsig's criticism was "very powerful". On the contrary, I
    thought it was pretty much irrelevant. As I tried to point out to you in
    the last post, objecting to pragmatism because it is morally bankrupt is as
    nonsensical as objecting to a pencil because it is morally bankrupt....
    Saying the pencil is morally bankrupt because Hitler used it to write Mein
    Kampf would be just plain silly.

    ...For example, the assertion that pragmatism is only a method and not a
    position needs more explanation.

    WILLIAM JAMES (from 'Pragmatism', 1907, chap.2)
    [Pragmatism] is a method only.... stands for no particular results.
    It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.

        According to James, practicing this method simply means weighing
    seemingly opposed positions by comparing the consequences of holding each
    respective position. Pragmatism doesn't favor any particular result any
    more than a scale favors any particular weight. In this sense, pragmatism is
    like a syllogism (If A, then B. - A. - Therefore, B.). The syllogism
    doesn't stand for any particular conclusion. It doesn't care what "B" or
    "A" is. No matter what "B" or "A" are defined as, the syllogism is always
    the same method. It's force comes from its form. Pragmatism is the same

    Also, Matt recently asserted that pragmatists don't
    > believe in methods. So you'll please forgive me for being confused about
    > such flatly contradictory claims.

    I'm not sure what Matt meant when he said pragmatists don't believe in
    methods. James pretty clearly believed in methods. Maybe Matt will
    elaborate for us?

    > Another thing, I know enough about pragmatism to see that there are
    > different kinds. For Peirce, it was all about scientific certainty. For
    > James it was largely personal and psychological. For Dewey is was about
    > politics, education and the public good. Matt seems to be focused on none
    > these, but rather on Rorty's brand, which seems to be tied up with the
    > techniques of post-modern literary criticism. So I'd ask you to be
    > Pirsig's criticism is of James in particular.

    10-4 good buddy. My analysis has been and will continue to be
    James-specific. You'll have noticed that I try to back up all my assertions
    about pragmatism with quotes from James himself.

     I'd even go so far as to say that James' pragmatism failed
    > for the same reason all these other things have suffered, namely the
    > inability to make the distinction between the 3rd and 4th levels and the
    > inability to see the diffference between static and Dynamic Quality,
    > "in his Victorian lifetime they were monstorously confused." And I think
    > his claritfication of these things that saves Pirsig's brand of pragmatism
    > from these moral nightmares.

    Yes. This is precisely Pirsig's argument. I disagree with it because I
    believe Pirsig has completely misunderstood James and confused James's
    pragmatism with something which it is not. I'll try to show you how this
    occurs. To begin, let's look at Pirsig's and James's respective tellings of
    the squirrel story....

    PIRSIG (Lila ch26 p374)
        James and a group of friends were on an outing somewhere and one of them
    chased the squirrel around a tree. The squirrel instinctively clung to the
    opposite side of the tree and moved so that as the man circled the tree the
    squirrel also circled it on the opposite side.
        After observing this, James and his friends engaged in a philosophical
    discussion of the question: Did the man go around the squirrel or didn't he?
    The group broke into two philosophical camps and Phaedrus didn't remember
    how the argument was resolved.
        Did the man go around the squirrel or didn't he? He was north, south,
    east and west of the squirrel, so he must have gone around it. Yet at no
    time had he ever gone to the back or to the side of the squirrel. The
    squirrel could say with absolute scientific certitude, "That man never got
    around me."

    JAMES ('Pragmatism', 1907, chap.2)
        Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned
    from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical
    dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel - a live squirrel
    supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the
    tree's opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human
    witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly around the
    tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the
    opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man,
    so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical
    problem is now this: *Does the man go around the squirrel or not?* He goes
    around the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he
    go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness,
    discussion had been worn threadbare. Everyone had taken sides, and was
    obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I
    appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority.

        Immediately we can see some discrepancies in the two versions.
    Phaedrus's version has James and friends witnessing a man chasing a squirrel
    around a tree and then breaking into a philosophical debate about whether
    the man goes "around" the squirrel. James's own version presents himself as
    the deciding judge over a hypothetical, metaphysical dispute in which his
    friends were engaged when he arrived. This discrepancy may seem minor now,
    but it's actually quite important. Phaedrus's poor memory of "how the
    argument was decided" will cause him to miss the whole point of it....

    PIRSIG CONTINUED (Lila ch26 p374)
        Who is right? Is there more than one meaning of the word "around"?
    .... It seems as though the squirrel is using the term "around" in a way
    that is relative to itself but the man is using it in a way that is relative
    to an absolute point in space outside of the squirrel and himself......
        What emerges is that the word "around," which seems like one of the most
    clear and absolute and fixed terms in the universe suddenly turns out to be
    relative and subjective.

    From the preceding it is evident that Phaedrus believes the squirrel
    anecdote was intended to make a point about relativism. But James meant
    nothing of the sort! Here's the point James was actually trying to make...

    JAMES CONTINUED ('Pragmatism', 1907, chap.2)
        Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction
    you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows:
    "Which party is right," I said, "depends on what you practically mean by
    'going around' the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to
    the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him
    again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies those successive
    positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him,
    then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left and finally in
    front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for
    by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned
    towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the
    distinction, and there is no occasion for farther dispute.

    Those details Phaedrus forgot were of paramount importance to interpreting
    James's story. James had cast himself as the judge of a metaphysical
    dispute precisely because the point of the story was about how pragmatism is
    a method of settling metaphysical disputes!

    JAMES CONTINUED ('Pragmatism', 1907, chap.2)
        I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example
    of what I wish now to speak of as *the pragmatic method*. The pragmatic
    method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that
    otherwise might be interminable.... The pragmatic method in such cases is to
    try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical
    consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this
    notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference
    whatever can be traced, the alternatives mean practically the same thing and
    all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to
    show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's
    being right.

    But Phaedrus has missed all of this. He has followed his own thoughts to
    the conclusion that James was making an argument for some sort of

    PIRSIG (Lila ch29 p416)
    From a pragmatic viewpoint the squirrel's definition of "around" was a true
    one because it was useful. Pragmatically speaking, that man never got
    around the squirrel.

        Of course, the point of the story had absolutely nothing to do with 'the
    squirrel's definition of "around"'. The "pragmatic viewpoint" that James
    was trying to illustrate was that the disagreement over whether the man had
    gone "around" the squirrel was an illusion created by the fact that "around"
    has more than one meaning; and that no disagreement actually existed.
        But Phaedrus has misread the whole thing as an endorsement of some brand
    of relativism. Of course, we know that's impossible since James's
    pragmatism doesn't stand for any particular results or dogmas. It was the
    *method* James was illustrating in the squirrel story, not the stuff about
    the squirrels. Unfortunately, the rest of Phaedrus's thoughts on pragmatism
    are derived from this initial misunderstanding....

    PIRSIG (Lila ch29 417)
    James would probably have been horrified to find Nazis could use his
    pragmatism just as freely as anyone else, but Phaedrus didn't see anything
    that prevented it.

        On the contrary, I think James would have been horrified to find that
    his thoughts on pragmatism have been so badly confounded and misunderstood
    that anyone might believe this criticism to be relevant in any sense.
        James knew that people like the Nazi's could use his pragmatism as
    easily as they could a syllogism. But he also knew that like the syllogism,
    pragmatism was merely a method of thinking and not a belief system that
    stood for any particular result or dogma. It can't be made to "support"
    Nazism anymore than a syllogism or a pencil can be made to "support" Nazism.

    Enough for now.

    take care,

    MOQ.ORG -
    Mail Archive -
    MD Queries -

    To unsubscribe from moq_discuss follow the instructions at:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sun Feb 09 2003 - 01:58:48 GMT