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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pragmatism, Pluralism and Academic Freedom

It took me a long time to finish the re-read of "The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America" by Louis Menand but I finally got through to the other side.  One would figure that a re-read of a book I had first read in 2001 would be a quick review of ideas that were relatively fresh in my mind (I've studied American pragmatism extensively since 1995) but it was not to be.  Presently, I have responsibilities in my life that were not even a figment of my imagination back in 2001.  In fact, I struggled most of the time trying to make sense of why I had underlined a passage or marked an entire page for review.  The enterprise ended up being a fresh-from-the-press read instead of a review of areas of academic interests.  Nevertheless, I am glad I re-read this volume and hope that eventually I can go back and reference it if I am challenged for having misunderstood any of it.

William James's pragmatism caught my attention as an undergraduate.  In graduate school, I ended up writing my thesis on Jamesian Pragmatism and defending it orally in front of a room of dumbfounded professors.  I remember distinctively an Assistant Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences whose first question to me was something to the effect of "how the hell did you come up with such an idea... no one writes about pragmatism anymore."  I was actually very glad for the question because it sent the tone of exposing my fundamental ideas about pragmatism and how it applied to the work I had chosen.  The defense lasted four hours (with two 15 minute breaks) and I emerged victorious, albeit almost life-less.  I never looked back from that experience and continue reading and studying pragmatism as a tool for literary interpretation.

American pragmatism is credited in name to William James, but she was a daughter of many thoughtful contributions from top-notch American scholars such as Charles Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chauncey Wright, among others.  Personally, James gave an immense amount of credit to Holmes for its theoretical basis, but the bulk of his gratitude went to Charles Pierce.  At the time, most of these "heavy-hitters" were engaged in developing (or at least thinking heavily about) a system for answering seemingly unanswerable questions.  Charles Pierce early essay "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" was the early catalyst of the push to "concretize" subjective thinking.  From William James's "What Pragmatism Means" the method of answering the unanswerable gained momentum; or, more specifically, how not to get tangled in metaphysical questions without being able to yield some concrete result/answer.  The anecdote of the camping party observing the squirrel going round the tree seems an awkward way to start off in such an enterprising aim, but it does work as the text develops.  Basically speaking, the method for obtaining such concrete results is based on the "cash value" of ideas; that is to say, for an idea to be true, it must yield some practical benefit.  There were, of course, many detractors; chiefly among them was Oliver Wendell Holmes.  But Holmes did not object to pragmatism on the basis of challenging James' academic caliber (or anyone else's for that matter).  For Holmes, meddling in such methods was an attempt to inject the metaphysical into matters of logic, reason and objectivity and this for him was a fool's errand.  Why, then, did William James give so much credit to Holmes?  This is not a mystery, really, but we must move to today's state of academia to discover an answer (in order words, we have to be pragmatic).  These men were not in the "business" of trying to destroy one another's work.  The challenge was not that of personal attacks or attempts to jockey for position, for these men the exercise of intellectual inquiry was an art.  These gatherings of intellectual powerhouses were designed with the requirement that the opposition was as important as the gathering itself.  In other words, unlike today's academic circles--where everyone sits around for the most part parroting each other ideas and patting each other's back in self-assured comfort--these men (James, Holmes, Wright, Pierce, and others) gather or corresponded with each other with rigorous opposition/challenge to the ideas they presented.  No wonder the originality of the ideas developed during this epoch of American scholarship was so fruitful and far-reaching.

William James's main ideas are nicely encapsulated by Menand, making the reading a pleasure not only on the wealth of its historical content, but also in the facility of digesting the difficult or out-of-reach philosophical substance.  Menand explains, "Pragmatists think that the mistake most people make about beliefs is to think that a belief is true, or justified, only if it mirrors 'the way things really are'--that (to use one of James's most frequent targets, Huxley's argument for agnosticism) we are justified in believing in God only if we are able to prove that God exists apart from our personal belief in him.  No belief, James thought, is justified by its correspondence with reality, because mirroring reality is not the purpose of having minds.  His position on this matter was his earliest announced position as a professional psychologist.  It appears in the first article he ever published, 'Remarks on Spenser's Definition of Mind as Correspondence,' which appeared in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy in the same month that 'How to Make Our Ideas Clear' was appearing in the Popular Science Monthly--January 1878.  'I, for my part,' James wrote, 'cannot escape the consideration... that the knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing.  The knower is an actor, and co-efficient of the truth... Mental interests, hypotheses, postulates, so far as they are bases for human action--action which to a great extent transform the world--help to make the truth which they declare.  In other words, there belongs to mind, from its birth upwards, a spontaneity, a vote.  It is in the game."  The clarity of this passage underlines the complexity of the dilemma of the value of ideas.  I ran this passage by a friend of mine (a man of deep faith with no college experience) and he agreed wholeheartedly.  The way he phrased it was enlightening to me because, as both a man of faith and academic interest, I never really saw the distinction with clarity.  My friend gave credence to the belief that agnostics or even atheists are at a liberty to believe as they do, but that they should also acknowledge that the Judeo-Christian principles that forged the morality of modern society is of benefit to them in their lack of belief or skepticism.  That is to say, the moral functioning of American society (if it can be said to be credited to those Judeo-Christian principles as so many conservatives believe) allows for the agnostics/atheists to live in a relatively safe environment where crime is minimal (compared with other countries, he was keen on qualifying).  As I understood his example then... the "cash value" of a belief (even when you are not holding that belief at all) is that what gives credibility to the belief itself.

As the pragmatism segment of the book came to a close, a neatly detailed account of Charles Pierce's follies and sad fate came into brighter focus.  William James did a great deal trying to help Pierce get a foot-hold inside academia again, but it was not to be.  Nevertheless, the men continued correspondence and James even set up a fund to help Pierce in the last days of his life.  Pierce was certainly not forgotten or eclipsed, but his influence in academia had been damaged beyond repair since his dismissal from Johns Hopkins.  It is hard to understand how administrators (still to this day) can make or break the career of a brilliant mind simply on the merits of mistakes or poor judgments made outside the classroom.

The last two segments of "The Metaphysical Club" cover some historical account of the path to academic freedom and how pluralism helped define culture in early 1900s America, and the role of academic freedom in higher education.  Academic freedom in higher education is a war that, in my opinion, was lost years ago.  The very same progressive minds, the so-called liberal activists, who tore down the walls of censorship, of excessive administrative oversight, are the same clowns that today have turned our campuses into totalitarian states.  I don't take this stance as a conservative or even as part of the same liberal movement; my intention is to disclose a very well-kept secret about American colleges and universities and that is that the overwhelming liberal bias has seemingly destroyed academic freedom in the United States.  Particularly, as a member of a liberal arts/humanities program, if you don't tug the liberal ideology, you either do not get tenure or don't even get a position to begin with.  What we have is a compartmentalized academia, where it is in vogue to be a conservative if you are in the business or economic departments, but not so much if  you are, say, an English professor.  An English professor, it seems, is expected to advocate the liberal causes in their teaching, to make their teaching an extension of their scholarship, whereas a business professor (whose audience by nature of his/her field appear to be more conservative as conventional wisdom holds) pitches the corporate rhetoric of practical capitalism and political expedience.  I am convinced we've lost that war and the members of "The Metaphysical Club" (particularly John Dewey) would die of embarrassment, really.  There's no pragmatism left in American academia (let alone American politics), and the loss is irreparable.  No wonder that Assistant Dean had to start with the question he did during my oral defense.

"The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America" was a volume written before the events of September 11th, and, as a result, it ends on a very positive note (as opposed to my previous paragraph).  It would be interesting to see what Louis Menand would say, for example, about the totalitarian turn the Federal government has taken since with the Patriot Act (Bush) and the National Defense Authorization Act (Obama).  Menand expertly studies how Oliver Wendell Holmes walked a very thin line regarding First Amendment issues and their relation to the Espionage and Sedition Acts at the outbreak of World War I.

I enjoyed re-reading this book very much.  I will return to it, I am sure, as the demands of remembering what I've read about pragmatism over the years returns to me.

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