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An Overview of Western Philosophy (14 of 18)

Dennis Waite,  Monday, October 03, 2011 06:19 AM
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Part 14 – Pragmatism and William James to Linguistic Analysis and Wittgenstein


Developed originally in America, and to some extent in rebellion against the metaphysical theories current in Europe at the time (especially Idealism), Pragmatism is effectively a method for determining the worth of philosophical problems and their proposed solutions. What was thought to matter was not all of the intellectual speculation and theorising usually associated with philosophising but the practical worth at the end of the day. Is a theory actually of any use to us in our day to day life? Will it make any difference to me if I follow it or am even aware of its existence? The word ‘pragmatic’ has now passed into everyday usage as referring to an approach that actually works.

The original ideas were developed by C. S. Peirce, who saw himself as following up the system devised by Kant. He thought the only purpose in philosophising to begin with was in order to solve problems that we actually encounter. We should then use the scientific method to enquire into the problem, drawing up hypotheses, experiments to test them and so on. Once we have an answer that gets us over the original problem we should simply stop there. A proposition is ‘true’ if everyone who investigates sufficiently thoroughly comes to the same conclusion. 

His ideas were promoted and enhanced by William James, the psychologist and brother of Henry, the novelist. James thought that a philosophical doctrine was worthwhile, and in a sense ‘true’, if its practice led to people’s happiness. He did not accept that an idea could somehow be true without taking into account our experience. Here, he disagreed with Plato, who had said that ideas were absolutely true or false, irrespective of whether anyone knew it. Basically, according to the Pragmatists, it is true if it works. It is neither true nor false to begin with but acquires one of those properties when we actually try it in practice.

This is not quite so ridiculous as it may at first sound. Newton’s laws of motion for example were initially regarded as universally true because they worked. After Einstein, however, and the Michelson-Morley experiments to investigate the speed of light, it was discovered that they did not give the correct results whereas the new Theory of Special Relativity did. Accordingly, in such situations, Newton’s laws became false since they did not work and Einstein’s became true. 

Furthermore, metaphysical beliefs which afford no clear benefit whether we believe in them or not are not worthy of our attention (says the Pragmatist).
According to this, it might be argued that it makes no sense for us to investigate the various theories that attempt to explain the nature of reality. The problems that face us in our everyday lives remain the same regardless. Obviously, I cannot subscribe to this conclusion, being an Advaitin!

Similarly, argued James, any idea is true if it helps us to live our lives. If belief in God makes life easier to accept, leads to people behaving better towards each other and so on, then it is true. This supporting argument for God was condemned by the pope. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, the same argument would show that Santa Claus also exists. Belief in God is not the same as God’s actually existing. 

Clearly, Pragmatism does not offer a consistent and satisfactory basis for behaviour from a moral point of view either. If I am seriously financially challenged and obliged to repay some debts, then meeting you in a dark alley and liberating you from your wallet may well ‘work’ for me but it is doubtful that anyone, especially you, would think it ‘right’ or ‘good’ in any sense.

William James was also responsible for another, unrelated theory concerning the existence (or not) of consciousness. The traditional view of experience was that there is a ‘knower’, a process of ‘knowing’ and an object (be it gross or subtle) that is ‘known’. James denied that this subject-object dualism was fundamental. He did not accept the existence of a thing called Consciousness and thought instead that everything is ‘made out of’ experience. Out of this mass of experience, we differentiate the various aspects such as ourselves, food and partners. Nothing is fixed; we simply do whatever is appropriate to make sense of the world as it appears at any given instant and the experience develops accordingly, giving rise to a new differentiation. 

Logic and Language

The philosophy of the twentieth century lost its sense of direction in many ways with some of the best minds in the world devoting themselves to analysing sentence structure and meaning. It began with the German Gottlob Frege stating that our investigations ought to be based upon logic rather than epistemology. His own investigations related mostly to mathematics, trying to demonstrate its axioms logically. Bertrand Russell had been working on similar problems independently and he took over the ideas attempting to apply them more widely. He wanted to prove that all of our knowledge comes from experience. What he found was that, once he began to analyse the construction of some of our statements, he was able to uncover logical errors. When these were removed and the statements made correctly, the problems that were thought to have been implicit were removed.

Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that philosophers had to confine their investigations to the phenomenal world, having accepted the pronouncement of Kant that reality was forever beyond our objective understanding. In the book that he eventually managed to get published, which goes by the wonderful name of ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’, he attempted to define the relationship between language and the world that it purported to describe, highlighting its function, mechanism and limitations. He believed at the time that in doing this he had clarified the nature of philosophy completely so that no further work would ever be needed.

In his later life he virtually rejected all of this work and began again, though nothing more was published until after his death. Wittgenstein’s family, incidentally, was one of the richest in Europe at the time and he could have inherited all of this and lived a life of luxury. Instead he refused any of it and spent much of his life working hard for a relatively low income in various jobs until he was eventually recognised as a truly great philosopher and offered a post at Cambridge University.

The Tractatus states that we can only speak meaningfully about anything if there is a direct correspondence between the words and statements that we make and actual objects and relationships in the world. Attempts to talk about God, emotional problems and so on, where there are no concrete facts to which the language can relate are ultimately meaningless. He ends the work with the oft-quoted statement: ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should remain silent’. 

These beginnings led on to a movement called ‘Logical Positivism’ which claimed that only those statements that could be verified were actually meaningful and its adherents attempted to use scientific standards to elucidate meaning. One of the main proponents, A. J. Ayer believed that the statements that we make must be verifiable either by reference to experience or by virtue of the meanings of the constituent words and the grammar of the sentence. If a statement cannot be verified in either of these two ways then it must be meaningless. Much of what earlier philosophers had written on the subject of religion and ethics, for example, fell into this third category, it was claimed! To say that something is good means nothing more than that I approve of it. One of the members of the so called Vienna Circle that originated Logical Positivism, Herbert Feigl, said that ‘Philosophy is the disease of which it should be the cure’.

These tenets were later realised to have been unreasonable and the movement was displaced by ‘Linguistic Analysis’, which used a more common-sense approach. The idea here was that each discipline and specialisation has its own vocabulary and ‘language games', as Wittgenstein later described them, so that it was necessary to restrict usage of a particular mode to the area in which it was applicable. Problems arise when we fail to do this and use an inappropriate way to express ourselves. The function of the philosopher is to disentangle the misuse of language and express the situation in a common-sense manner, the result being that there is now no longer a problem. At least that was the theory! 

Wittgenstein now realised that the meaning of words was not fixed such that they were always used to convey a single reality. Instead, their meaning varies according to the context in which they are used together with the nature of the speaker and listener. In order to understand what is being said, all of these have to be taken into consideration. Furthermore, languages develop and exist purely for communication. We have to use words according to the rules that have been agreed within the frame of reference in which the communication is taking place and language can only have meaning in such a context i.e. we could not have a ‘private language’ used only by ourselves for thinking.

Part 1, Part 13, Part 15


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About Dennis Waite

Educated to degree-level in Chemistry, he has worked for most of his life in computing. Since 2000, he has devoted his life to writing. He completed a philosophical/ecological thriller in 1999 (extensively revised in 2007-8) and a book on Earned Value metrics in March 2001. His first book on Advaita, 'The Book of One', was written for students of that path and published in 2003.

An introductory book on Sanskrit 'The Spiritual Seeker's Essential Guide to Sanskrit' was published in India in 2005. His book 'How to Meet Yourself', published in 2007, was aimed at the non-specialist reader and addresses the fundamental topics of meaning and purpose in one's life and the nature of happiness. Though not intended for the spiritual seeker, its intention was that, by the end of the book, the reader will wish to become one! It approaches the subject from the standpoint of Western philosophy, sociology and psychology but increasingly introduces Advaitic concepts so that the last two chapters explain in some detail the non-dual nature of self and reality.

His major book on Advaita, also published in 2007, was entitled 'Back to the Truth'. This is a systematic treatment of Advaita which, by using examples from many sources, helps the reader to differentiate between approaches and teachers. It compares the scriptures of traditional Advaita with the words of contemporary Sages and with the modern nothing to be done teaching of neo-Advaita. Should we ignore the mind? Is the world real? Is there anything we can do to become enlightened? These questions and many more are addressed and explanations given, in their own words, from those who discovered the truth.

His most recent book, published in 2008, was 'Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle'. This aimed clearly to define the term enlightenment and dispel the many myths about it propagated by new-age books on the subject. It endeavoured to set down the proven methods, passed down for over a thousand years in the traditional teaching of the subject and contrast these with those of modern satsang teachers and the non-teaching of neo-advaitins, demonstrating in the process that only the traditional methods are likely to bring about enlightenment.