Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hillary Clinton's Course in Pragmatism. Well, not exactly.

Like many Americans I had nothing but scorn for Hillary Clinton's famous judgment on Benghazi.  Said Secretary of State Clinton to a Senate panel:
Clinton: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?
But a few weeks ago I bought a copy of William James's eight lectures on "Pragmatism," and now I understand what the Secretary was talking about.  Says James near the beginning of Lecture Two:
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, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. (My emphasis). (p.23)
Who knew?  Hillary Clinton as a profound philosophical thinker?

Now the question in the case of Secretary Clinton was not really about a "protest" or "guys out for a walk one night."  Even though it certainly does make a difference if the Ambassador Stevens was killed by a planned terror attack rather than a "spontaneous" protest.  It was about what in the Sam Blazes the Secretary and the President were doing that night and whether there was some action with practical consequences that they might have taken to save the lives of four Americans.   And we can guess the answer to that.  Deer in the headlights, baby.  Or maybe:  the president/secretary is in a meeting.

I like the pragmatic method as presented by William James.  It agrees with my own view that we know nothing about the world as it really is.  We only know that certain things work according to our experience and our theories.  Beyond that be dragons.

But I think that James rather betrays his principle when it comes to Kant.  He pooh-poohs Kant's idea of space and time as intuitions when they are "constructions as patently artificial as any that science can show."(p.79)  Hmm.  But the point Kant makes is that we don't want to think of space and time as absolute and equable in the way that Newton taught us to think.  As "forms of intuition" we learn to think of them as something we have conjured up in our brains.  Space and time might be something completely different than we think, and so it turned out with Einstein and space-time.

Then James goes on to whack against Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Hegel for being "utterly sterile, so far as shedding any light on the details of nature goes."  Well, maybe they seemed that way, back at the turn of the 20th century.  But I'd say that the contribution of critical philosophy and skepticism is that it keeps us precisely safe from the "dogmatic slumber" that Kant wrote about.  They remind us to keep our wits about us and expect the unexpected.  My view is we couldn't have got relativity and quantum mechanics without the radical skepticism of the empiricists and critical philosophy of the Germans.  It's telling that Germans made pretty well all the early running in the physics revolution that started with Einstein's two papers in 1905.

Why would that be?  It would be because German philosophy had kept German minds radically open to anything.  So when it appeared that however you measured the speed of light, it was always the same, a German Jew was ready to suggest that, if the speed of light was always experienced as constant it meant that, as far as the math were concerned, space and time were relative.

And James agrees with this at the beginning of Lecture Eight on Pragmatism and Religion.
On pragmatic principles we can not reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.  Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real to pragmatism as particular sensations are.(p.119)
You can see where this is leading.  It leads to God and Reason and the Absolute as conceptions that men down the ages have certainly regarded as useful.  It's just that we keep changing our minds.

And why not?

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