2 minute read

Pluralism

Pragmatism

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a new philosophical movement called pragmatism emerged, part of the modernist revolt against nineteenth-century orthodoxy. Influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and the French thinker Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941), the movement included such leading figures as Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910), and John Dewey (1859–1952). Although differences existed within the movement, pragmatists were united in their search for empirical truths capable of guiding action in a changing world. Unlike absolutists therefore, pragmatists conceived of truth as relative and akin to scientific hypotheses verifiable through experience and subject to revision in the light of new conditions. William James captured the reigning view of truth in his critique of absolute theism. Like philosophical idealism, its more secular counterpart, absolute theism insisted that "truth exists per se and absolutely by God's grace and decree, no matter who of us knows it or is ignorant, and it would continue to exist unaltered, even though we finite knowers were all annihilated" (1909, p. 28). However, the proliferation of contending scientific theories in the late nineteenth century, as well as the profound influence of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, called into question the entire notion that truth represents a mere mental copy of a static, independent reality. Pragmatists believed "that even the truest formula may be a human device and not a literal transcript" (James, 1955, p. 233). Indeed James regarded the "very notion of a world complete unto itself, to which thought comes as a passive mirror, adding nothing to fact" as "irrational" (1955, p. 233).

By situating truth and reason inside the empirical flux of experience rather than outside it in some abstract, static transcendental realm, pragmatists abandoned the unhelpful quest for certainty and instead offered reason as an instrument of adaptation and dynamic transformation of the world. "What really exists," James held, "is not things made but things in the making" (1909, p. 263). Regarding truth as an encounter between subject and object, he looked to "living understanding of the movement of reality" as an alternative. Moreover that flux could only be seen as pluralistic rather than monistic. In the place of monism, James thus offered his pluralistic universe, which he regarded "more like a federal republic than like an empire or kingdom. However much may report itself as present at any effective center of consciousness or action," he cautioned, "something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity" (1909, pp. 264, 321–322).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPluralism - Philosophical Pluralism, Aristotle, German Historicism, Pragmatism, Cultural Pluralism, Political Pluralism, Conclusion