The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 26, 2014

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The Conservative Pragmatism of Charles Peirce
Thomas Short (MA 43:4, Fall 2001) - 11/12/08

Philosophy does not have a nationality, but nations have made distinctive contributions to philosophy. We speak of French rationalism (though neither Spinoza nor Leibniz was French), for example, or of British empiricism. America’s distinctive contribution is usually supposed to be pragmatism, an outlook all too easily associated with the most degenerate forms of an alleged American “practicality.” It suggests a disdain of knowledge pursued for its own sake. In place of understanding, it seems to urge the application of intelligence to “solving problems” or to “making life better.” Social engineering and social experimentation thus appear to be sanctioned by a philosophy thought to be distinctively American.

That ignores the Founders’ conservatism, embodied in our Constitution. But our constitutional philosophy, though it structures the daily life we lead and is therefore more deeply rooted than any thinker’s paper philosophy, lacks the cachet that, in certain quarters, an intellectual “movement” has. Those quarters and that cachet may not warrant our very high regard, but the unfortunate fact is that they have a large influence on those who, in turn, shape public opinion.

As witness to that conclusion, I call upon none other than Richard Rorty, who has been very busy, of late, in inventing an indigenous American legacy for radicalism.1That is no more than a rhetorical ploy, but one that is potentially effective. It is a matter of adjusting the stage lighting. In place of the dark clouds of discredited Marxism swirling out from Europe, Rorty proposes a genial, open-air, sun-lit American radicalism, led by John Dewey, typical Yankee. Rorty makes Dewey to be our most pragmatic pragmatist and, as such, a philosopher on a level with Heidegger and Wittgenstein. There’s the cachet. Rorty makes it possible for a radical to claim a deep philosophy and, at the same time, to disarm his critics: “There’s nothing subversive here—why, radicalism is as American as apple pie!”

Richard Weaver wrote that ideas have consequences; what we learned in the 1960s is that bad ideas, if uncontested, most definitely do have consequences—very bad ones. I propose, therefore, to make a few corrective comments on the received view of pragmatism. Let me begin with that about which all will agree.



Pragmatism is, indeed, the one major philosophical movement to have originated in the New World; all the others, barring the religious philosophies of India and East Asia, originated in Europe. The idea and the name are due to Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse,” 1839–1914), who introduced both in conversations with a small group of young men, including William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early 1870s. Later, in 1878, Peirce published the idea but not the name in an essay, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” It was not until 1898 that William James, in a lecture, first introduced the name, “pragmatism” to the public and made pragmatism famous; in that lecture, and always thereafter, he attributed the idea and the name to Peirce.

That idea, like those of rationalism and empiricism, belongs, at least at first glance, to the theory of knowledge rather than to metaphysics or ethics. The rationalists supposed that the mark of truth is its conformity to human reason, the “light of nature” within us. If an idea is clear and distinct, then we can be—rather, we are—certain of its truth. There is no deeper or further test by which a clear and distinct idea could be shown to be false. The empiricists shifted emphasis from truth to meaning. According to Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, an idea has no meaning except so far as it derives from experience, whether “outer” sense experience or “inner” experience of our own mental acts and states. As a meaningless idea exists in words alone, there is also a tacit shift of emphasis from thought to language. By this means, the empiricists could reject rationalist claims, not as false but as meaningless.

But the empiricists faced a number of problems, and it is these which led, via Kant, to pragmatism. As experiences, inner or outer, are always of particulars, the empiricists had trouble accounting for general ideas. And since the content of experience—even “outer” experience—is, in their view, always “inner,” they had trouble accounting for ideas of a world external to the mind. Even one’s own body seemed to be no more than a congeries of episodes in his mind. What is worse, other minds are external to one’s own and, thus, it is nonsense for anyone to suppose there is any other mind than his own; attempts to evade this lonely conclusion were not convincing. Equally, they had trouble accounting for our knowledge of laws of nature. Those laws are general but we observe particular events only; a regularity in the latter proves nothing about the future. That’s Hume’s infamous problem of induction.

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