165 Pragmatism’s Founders

American historians generally note that “pragmatism” is this nation’s only uniquely homespun philosophy.  Now most all philosophical labels are to a degree misleading generalizations, and the men who crafted pragmatism were hardly of one mind.  Nevertheless, as Louis Menand shows in his marvelously informative The Metaphysical Club:  A Story of Ideas in America (New York:  Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c. 2001), a handful of New England Pragmatists (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; William James; Charles S. Peirce; John Dewey) shared certain perspectives and deeply shaped this nation.  The men’s biographies–including family roots, personal experiences, social connections, New England backgrounds, and the challenge of Darwinism–provide valuable contexts for understanding their thought.

Indeed:  “together they were more responsible than any other group for moving American thought into the modern world.   . . . .  Their ideas changed the way Americans thought–and continue to think–about education, democracy, liberty, justice, and tolerance.  And as a consequence, they changed the way Americans live–the way they learn, the way they express their views, the way they understand themselves, and the way they treat people who are different from themselves.  We are still living, to a great extent, in a country these thinkers helped to make” (pp. x-xi).  To distill their positions to a single sentence:  “they all believed that ideas were not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools–like forks and knives and microchips–that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves” (p. xi).

Menand first treats Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who grew up in Boston, the son of an eminent physician and writer.  Unlike his famous father, he fully ascribed to the abolitionist agenda and enthusiastically marched off to battle when the Civil War began.  He proved to be a courageous, repeatedly wounded soldier.  But in the course of the war he lost his faith in both abolitionism and God.  Moral and metaphysical certainties of any stripe, he decided, lead to ghastly violence.  He simultaneously discovered and fully embraced the philosophical naturalism espoused by Charles Darwin in On The Origin of Species.   (Importantly, one of the constants in the Pragmatists’ story is the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.  However one responds to the biological hypothesis, one cannot deny its pervasive philosophical and sociological consequences)

Losing faith in God and social reform on the battlefield, Holmes substituted an admiration for his fellow soldiers and the ultimate prerogatives of power.   For the rest of his life he routinely recounted his involvement in battles and reminded folks of his wounds.  Though distressed by the war’s violence, he still seemed fixated on it.  And he clearly concluded that “might makes right” because there really isn’t any ultimate “right.”  Before Nietzsche uttered his oracles Holmes had settled into a Nietzschean nihilism.  “‘You respect the rights of man–,’ he wrote to Laski.  ‘I don’t, except those things a given crowd will fight for–which vary from religion to the price of a glass of beer.  I also would fight for some things–but instead of saying that they ought to be I merely say they are part of the kind of world that I like–or should like'” (p. 63).

Like Holmes, William James was sired by an illustrious father, Henry, who embodied both the enthusiasm and anarchical sectarianism of America’s Second Great Awakening.  Henry passed through a variety of intense religious experiences and even studied briefly at Princeton Theological Seminary.  In time he embraced Swedenborgianism, wherein he enjoyed the freedom to shape his own mystical religious convictions in accord with his own experiences.  No church ever suited him, so he became his own church.  Like many who inherit great wealth and never work to earn a living, he was fully fascinated with socialism, drinking droughts of Charles Fourier and fantasizing about “‘the realization of a perfect society, fellowship, or brotherhood among men'” (p. 85).

Young William, after traipsing about Europe and picking up a smattering of education from various tutors and schools, ultimately studied biology with the acclaimed Louis Agassiz at Harvard.  In time James embraced the very Darwinism that Agassiz rejected, though he was, of course, fully aware of its implicit, inescapable determinism.  For, Menand emphasizes:  “The purpose of On the Origin of Species was not to introduce the concept of evolution; it was to debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence–the idea that the universe is the result of an idea” (p. 121).  One may quite easily believe in a form of evolution under divine guidance.  “What was radical about On the Origin of Species was not its evolutionism, but its materialism” (p. 121).

But a materialist William James was not and could not be, so he struggled to carve out realms of personal freedom within the broader scope of biological necessity.  He could not abide Thomas Huxley’s conclusion that “We are conscious automata.”  Somehow the processes of natural selection had mysteriously spun out human beings who freely choose what to think and how to live.  “There is intelligence in the universe:  it is ours.  It was our good luck that, somewhere along the way, we acquired minds.  They released us from the prison of biology” (p. 146).  Thus the pragmatism James espoused was, he said, “the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation” (p. 88), a new faith for the new scientific world.  If believing in God and freedom enabled one to live better, such beliefs are “true.”

Charles S. Peirce, like James and Holmes, was the son of a prominent Bostonian, Professor Benjamin Peirce.  His father taught mathematics at Harvard and was, in his own right, a highly significant intellectual.  He considered himself an “idealist,” for “he believed that the universe is knowable because our minds are designed to know it.  ‘In every form of material manifestation,’ he explained, ‘there is a corresponding form of human thought, so that the human mind is as wide in its range of thought as the physical universe with it thinks.  The two are wonderfully matched.’  Thought and matter obey the same laws because both have a common origin in the mind of a Creator.  This is why the truths of mathematical reasoning (as [Benjamin] Peirce often reminded his students) are God’s truths” (p. 156).

Young Charles Peirce was precociously brilliant–and almost equally eccentric.  Thus he never settled into an established career.  He earned a living, primarily, as an employ of a federal bureaucracy, thanks to his father’s influence.  And he wrote reams of material never published in his lifetime.  Ironically, perhaps the most brilliant of the “pragmatists” was not, in many significant ways, a Pragmatist!  He did, however, deal with significant issues, such as statistics and probability theory, and in these areas insisted on a form of pragmatic epistemology.  Furthermore, like Holmes and James, he addressed the philosophical implications of Darwinism, wondering how can we know anything if the world is merely the product of chance and necessity.  He decided that “chance variation could explain evolution adequately–[but] he thought God’s love must play a more important role, a theory he called ‘agapism,’ derived in part from the Swedenborgian writings of Henry James, Sr.–and he could not imagine a universe devoid of ultimate meaning” (p. 365).  He also argued that great scientists, like Kepler, came to their conclusions through a “kind of guessing Peirce called ‘abduction’; he thought that it was a method integral to scientific progress, and that it pointed to an underlying affinity between the mind and the universe” (p. 367).

The fourth thinker Menand studies, John Dewey grew up in Vermont and studied at the state’s university in Burlington.  He earned a Ph.D. at The John Hopkins University, and then successively taught philosophy at the University of Michigan, Chicago University, and Columbia University.  He moved intellectually as well as geographically, shifting (in the 1890s) from Hegelian idealism to a form of Pragmatism (often called Instrumentalism) that he espoused thenceforth.  We learn, he decided, almost exclusively by doing.  So schools  should be places where we learn to cook, sew, and construct things; they should be small shops where we work together and solve very practical problems.  Math and science, geography and psychology–whatever’s worth knowing–should be discovered by students engaged in activities of some sort.  In John Dewey progressive educators had their American guru!  Progressive politicians had their guide!  Progressive churchmen had a new Moses!

Menand’s genius is to weave together four men’s biographies and make a tapestry of the times.  His research, evident in both the notes and the evident familiarity he has with the subject, bears witness to his patient plowing through archives as well as publications.  His synthesis, making the book much more than a series of biographical vignettes, reveals the fundamental issues and lasting legacy of the men studied.  The style, crisp and alluring, draws the reader into an exciting intellectual adventure.  The Metaphysical Club is certainly one of the finest works of intellectual history of recent decades.

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Menand considers Holmes a pragmatist, and inasmuch as he was an ethical consequentialist, he fits into that tradition.  But Albert W. Alschuler, a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, portrays him as more properly a nihilistic existentialist, much akin to Nietzsche.  He was likewise a Social Darwinist, fully imbued with that bleakly naturalistic philosophy.  Because of Holmes and his followers, “the central lyric of twentieth-century American jurisprudence” is summed up by Perry Farrell, the lead singer of Porno for Pyros,” who decreed:  “‘Ain’t no wrong, ain’t no right, only pleasure and pain'” (pp. 189-190).  Deeply displeased with such developments, Alschuler incisively critiques Holmes in Law Without Values:  The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, c. 2000).  Holmes’s philosophy, rightly examined, is as irrationally adolescent and wrong as Perry Farrell’s song.

Without doubt Justice Holmes, Alschuler argues, “more than any other individual, shaped the law of the twentieth century” (p. 1).  And he cast it in utterly amoral terms, contending “that moral preferences are ‘more or less arbitrary . . . .  Do you like sugar in your coffee or don’t you? . . .  So as to truth'” (p. 1).  In the deepest sense, Holmes rejected “objective concepts of right and wrong” and set a “downward” trajectory that explains the moral vacuity of many recent court decisions.   When we wonder about Supreme Court decisions–involving cases concerning the Ten Commandments, homosexual rights, property rights, partial birth abortion, etc.–we do well to trace their philosophical roots to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Holmes was, in many ways, a thoroughgoing skeptic, much like the ancient Sophists such as Thrasymachus (portrayed in Plato’s Republic as Socrates’ amoral antagonist).  And Holmes’s followers, in legal circles today, are legion and sophistic.  Relativism reigns.  Moral truth is whatever the largest or most vociferous or politically correct crowd desires.  Vices and virtues are merely words indicating personal preferences.  “All these American scholars,” Alschuler says, “have tilted from Socrates on the issue that marks the largest and most persistent divide in all jurisprudence.  In ancient Athens, the philosopher Thrasymachus anticipated Holmes by 2,3000 years when he said, ‘Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.’

Rejecting this position, Socrates replied that justice was not the enacted will of the powerful but ‘the excellence of the soul.’  He argues that justice was unlike medical treatment (a means to an end) or an amusing game (which had no end beyond itself).  Justice was a good of the highest order–an end and a means, a good to be valued for itself and for its consequences.  In Rome four hundred years later, Cicero described justice as ‘right reason in agreement with nature'” (p. 8).  Cicero and Socrates helped shape the “natural law” or “moral realist” tradition so evident in the founding documents of the United States.  “We hold these truths to be self evident,” said Jefferson, in a succinct declaration of the natural law, “that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  This nation’s Constitution and the laws implementing it were shaped by Locke and Blackstone, then stamped with an American imprint by Madison, Marshall, Story, and Lincoln.  The years from 1776-1860 were the “golden age” of American law.

Oliver Wendell Holmes and his followers, however, rejected any “natural” or “divine” law and imposed what Pope Benedict XVI recently described as a “dictatorship of relativism.”  Contrary to Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence,” Holmes saw “no reason for attributing to a man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or to a grain of sand'” (p. 23).  “‘All my life,’ said the architect of 20th century American jurisprudence, ‘ I have sneered at the natural rights of man'” (p. 26).  Instead, he propounded “a power-focused philosophy,” says Alschuler.  As Thrasymachus asserted, “might makes right.”  Thus, while sitting on the United States Supreme Court, Holmes wrote:  “‘I have said to my brethren many times that I hate justice, which means that I know that if a man begins to talk about that, for one reason or another he is shirking thinking in legal terms'” (p. 89).

On a personal level, biographers agree, Holmes cared little for anyone other than himself.  Revealingly, when he died he left his entire estate to the federal government!  After spending 15 years preparing an authorized biography he never published, Grant Gilmore said:  “‘The real Holmes was savage, harsh, and cruel, a bitter and lifelong pessimist who saw in the course of human life nothing but a continuing struggle in which the rich and powerful impose their will on the poor and weak'” (pp. 31-32).   Which is as it should be because it simply is what is!  In his support of eugenics, fore example, he revealed a thinly disguised contempt for the weak and unfit, delighting to uphold laws sterilizing imbeciles and “writing approvingly of killing ‘everyone below standard’ and ‘putting to death infants that didn’t pass the examination'” (p. 29).

In his enthusiasm for military valor and virtues, in his celebrated will-to-power nominalism, he clearly resembled Nietzsche.  The “were born three years apart and had much in common.  Both viewed life as a struggle for power; both were antireligious . . .; both saw ethics as lacking any external foundation; both could fairly be regarded as existentialists; both saw the suffering and exploitation of some as necessary to the creative work of others; both were personally ambitious and had a strong work ethic; both had a strong sense of personal destiny; . . . both often seemed indifferent to the feelings of those around them; both found in their wartime experiences a metaphor for the universe at large; and both had military-style moustaches” (p. 19).

As a legal scholar, Alschuler gives meticulous attention to Holmes’s writings.  Though they enjoy something of a hallowed place in legal circles, Alschuler finds them sorely deficient in many ways.  He regards The Common Law, the treatise that established Holmes’ reputation in the 1880’s, a “clear failure” (p. 125).  Only the first paragraph–the lines recited by most scholars–proves memorable.  Likewise, Holmes’s 1897 article, “The Path of the Law,” considered by Richard Posner “‘the best article-length work on law ever written'” (p. 132), cannot withstand careful scrutiny.  Written, Holmes said, to “‘dispel a confusion between morality and law,'” (p. 150), committed to the proposition that “All law means that I will kill you if necessary to make you conform to my requirements'” (p. 144) the article reveals his amoral positivism.   “In The Path of the Law,” Alschuler says, “Holmes listed five words to illustrate the sort of moral terminology he proposed to banish from law–rights, duties, malice, intent, and negligence” (p. 172).  He particularly despised “duty.”  Laws are issued by whoever is in power, and one obeys them because he must do so.  But there is no inner “ought,” no moral imperative, no reason to do what’s honorable.

“The Path of the Law,” writes Alschuler, “has molded American legal consciousness for more than a century, and lawyers now carry gallons of cynical acid to pour over words like duty, obligation, rights, and justice” p. 176).  It has quite recently been described by legal scholars “as an ‘acknowledged masterpiece in jurisprudence,’ ‘the single most important essay ever written by an American on the law,’ and perhaps ‘the best article-length work on law ever written'” (p. 180).  But Alschuler insists that  Holmes’s “theory of contracts,” set forth to replace the natural law position, is “a hopeless jumble of ill-considered prescriptive and descriptive ideas” (p. 176).  Despite its influence and renown, the essay is in many ways quite “incoherent” (p. 135), and its very incoherence reflects Holmes’s Nietzschean, Darwinian worldview where nothing much makes sense.

Alschuler ends his critique of Holmes with a chapter entitled “Ending the Slide from Socrates and Climbing Back.”  The chapter’s first two paragraphs deserve quoting, for they sum up the case against one of the most powerful 20th century intellectual currents:  “The current ethical skepticism of American law schools (in both its utilitarian and law-as-power varieties) mirrors the skepticism of the academy as a whole.  Some twentieth-century pragmatists, extending their incredulity further than Holmes, have abandoned the idea the human beings can perceive external reality–not only right, wrong, and God (issues on which Holmes took a skeptical stance) but also gravity, suffering, and even chairs (issues on which Holmes was a realist.  “These pragmatists maintain that the only test of truth is what works, and a century of pragmatic experimentation has given that question a clear answer:  “Pragmatism and moral skepticism don’t they are much more conducive to despair than to flourishing.  They fail their own test of truth.  We have walked Holmes’s path and have lost our way” (p. 187).

Given their demonstrable failure, we need to find a better way.

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