Fantastic pragmatism

[Discussion paper for Philosophy as a Method of Thinking Practices: Phenomenology, Hermeneutics and Post-Structuralism in the Light of Pragmatism, Università degli Studi di Milano, 10 Feb 2021]

The argument of this paper is a tautology:

To be fantastic, pragmatism must be fantastic

But tautologies are vulnerable to the multiple and unstable senses of words. When two different senses of fantastic are used the argument becomes:

To be outstanding, pragmatism must be fanciful

Or more precisely:

To fulfil its philosophical potential, pragmatism must construct new realities

This version can be put negatively (though negative definitions are necessarily incomplete, serving best alongside positive ones):

To escape the bane of common sense, pragmatism must not seek solely to attune to common truths or ordinary experience

Here’s a more conceptual and philosophical version. It turns on ideas of metaphysical latency, the value and destructiveness of metaphysics, and the need for critical scrutiny:

To avoid the destructiveness of latent metaphysics, pragmatism should construct new metaphysics and criticise all metaphysical constructions, including its own

I’ll expand on this version at greater length through this post. The following statements are glosses of its main claims. Firstly, every proposition and logic has metaphysical presuppositions. These are latent when they are either denied or hidden; for example, in appeals to common sense where we ‘appeal to the plain man within our breast’ (28), to bare facts or to natural reason or logic, or when systems claim to be metaphysical in one way, but turn out to be metaphysical in another.

Which plain man within our breast? What are the effects of projecting this man on others? How and why does this man evolve over time? Is this man the same in different locations and at different ages? Does he change according to the languages he uses? His education? The varieties of experiences a life undergoes over days, months and years?

Secondly, all metaphysics have been destructive; they have overlooked or misrepresented the worlds they construct, describe and explain. Famous versions of this misrepresentation and subsequent violence include kinds of dualism, where a lower tier of existence is judged in relation to a higher one, or kinds of determinism, where necessity is posited against a world of probabilities, or kinds of materialism, where mechanical processes are imposed on living ones, or (perhaps most relevant to the contemporary world) kinds of adherence to the law of non-contradiction, where dialetheia are viewed as irrational even when they provide satisfactory descriptions of actual cases. The first three versions have long been canonical reasons to support pragmatism. The fourth is doubtless more controversial.

The appeal to a fantastic (metaphysically creative and critical) pragmatism is a response to the inevitability and destructive nature of metaphysics. Against this, there is a branch of pragmatism (notably in somewhat reductive interpretations of James, Dewey and Rorty) that views its scepticism as post-metaphysical, as counter to metaphysical and dogmatic philosophies. Accordingly, it is possible for sceptical pragmatism to stand outside metaphysics and rid thought of its pernicious effects.

If that branch is right, then metaphysical violence can be mitigated thanks to scepticism and – in some versions, one of which I’ll return to later – thanks to truth. My argument will be that there is no scepticism and no truth that can escape metaphysical foundations. The metaphysical breakaway is often based on a time bound critique of earlier dogmatism, on the cusp of social and ideological change, and on appeals to current standards of truth, as set by contemporary sciences and logic (but not necessarily). This timeliness and presentism will always be a threat to pragmatism as philosophy. They tie philosophy – an untimely subject defined by its capacity to project the present far into the past, and far to the future – to a particular epoch, viewed reflexively and from a single viewpoint with claims to generality.

Thirdly, destructiveness takes on insidious characteristics when metaphysics are latent or denied. This is because critical counterpoints are missed as illegitimate, mistaken or irrelevant; as if it is a category mistake to call pragmatism metaphysical because it does not rely on dogmatic concepts or transcendental arguments. There is a similar kind of defensive argument in favour of common sense: you are mistaken to criticise common sense as a philosophical claim, since it is a mere appeal to a generally held view.

This does not mean there are no arguments for philosophy free of metaphysics. It means these arguments are besides the point, making claims for a difference with transcendental and dogmatic philosophies, when the critical issue is that to make such claims, to situate a philosophy or an experience, already implies metaphysics. Akin to the accusation of performative contradiction raised by Habermas against poststructuralists, there is a metaphysical performative contradiction. It does not have the logical immediacy of phrases such as ‘I make no truth claims’, but rather calls for a philosophy free of metaphysics while drawing on words and things that imply metaphysics; for instance, by relying upon a particular kind of subject, rationality, or conceptual framework, as indicated by ideas like ‘experience’ or ‘common’ or ‘freedom from metaphysics’.

I am not using insidious in its moral sense, the insidiousness I am concerned about is a subtle and hidden background process, not an immoral or amoral act. My contention is that these processes are at work in post-metaphysical pragmatisms, such as the ‘metaphysical quietism’ described positively by David Macarthur, in his studies of Brandom, Price and Rorty. Quietism is a well-worn and controversial label. Following and improving on Rorty’s more impressionistic version, Macarthur defines it precisely in terms of minimal conditions:

Quietism, at a minimum, refers to a non-constructive mode of philosophizing, one that has no ambition to formulate a general philosophical theory nor to provide a straight answer to a philosophical problem. The aim of the quietist, in the region of philosophical thought to which it applies, is not to embrace philosophical doctrines or theories but to earn the right to live without them., p7

Against the idea that we can ‘earn the right to live without’ philosophical doctrines or theories, I am writing in support of the inevitability of metaphysics and hence for the desirability of a self-aware constructive and critical pragmatic metaphysics. My view is that doctrines become insidious when we maintain that we can successfully have ‘no ambition to formulate a general’ theory.

The argument is process philosophical and linguistic. It does not express an ought (‘philosophy should not claim to be post-metaphysical’) but a can’t (philosophy – any language – cannot be post-metaphysical). When we use language, when we place our acts and words into living structures, we impede upon, support and further metaphysical structures. We might not do so consciously, but we still do so when, for example, we use particular pronouns, values, distinctions, entailments, stances, attitudes, judgements. Perhaps more importantly, we also do so by simply remaining silent, not using certain words and using others, going beyond some values, erasing distinctions, denying entailments, mocking some stances and praising others, adopting new attitudes, refraining from judging (or appearing to).

These processes also imply a particular kind of pragmatism for metaphysics. It is not the pragmatism of weighing up better or worse outcomes: a pragmatism of options, ends and types of measurement. It’s a pragmatism of mitigation, of experimentally gaining a sense of how best to work with the necessity of the inevitable good and inevitable bad of metaphysical decisions and choices. It’s not a pragmatism where experience leads to better judgement, but one where experimentation leads to more and temporarily better creativity. Macarthur’s quietism is a decision not to judge (which inevitably ends up judging). The pragmatism I wish to adopt may sometimes be quietist, but as an ephemeral creative practice, laden with metaphysical and political consequences, and critically aware of this – not Rorty, but Beckett.

Macarthur’s definition of quietism is explicitly intentional: ‘ambition to formulate’, ‘ambition to provide’, ‘aim not to embrace’ and ‘aim to earn’. Note his insistence on the conscious effort to achieve a certain outcome, as opposed to the simple act (aim to earn, rather than earn). It could be claimed that these locutions are designed to indicate difficulty and uncertainty. I accept that. Nonetheless, they do so as aspects of deliberate and sustained intentions.

Metaphysical quietism is intentional and sustained. It is constituted by lengthy practice, refinement, memory and reflexion – repeated over time and as a negation of metaphysics. These are the marks of construction: oppose-build-review-memorise-build-review. Quietism is made and built up against things. Furthermore, this quietism is a theory and a doctrine, it groups adherents together around texts and teachings, not only accordance with the religious roots of the word, but also in its political ones (explicitly so for Rorty’s social and political statements, as criticised by Bernstein with responses from Rorty).

Quietists might respond with a distinction between quietism as a doctrine and quietism about a doctrine, accepting the former but pointing out that the latter is sceptical about theories and rejects action within them. Thus the quietism of no will is a teaching about will, for instance in Schopenhauer, but it avoids acts and doctrines of the will. However, my point is that this avoidance is a doctrine in its own right, as it is in Schopenhauer and in the Hindu Vedanta he drew inspiration from.

Against appearances, quietism as doctrine satisfies the definition of metaphysics as structures of concepts and values giving a picture of a world. Independent of intentions, such structures have consequences as metaphysics. A doctrine of ‘no will’ might well claim not to have will as part of its concepts, but it still implies a structure rejecting will and leads to a series of consequences about will and the world.

Taking a simple snapshot of a street you might not intend to picture a world, but your photograph will conjure up worlds, meanings and values. Just like the attempt to strip a photograph of its metaphoricity, it is futile to try to strip language of its metaphysicality.

There’s an analogy with political quietism. To be a quietist about repression in another country not only entails a set of arguments and values around borders, autonomy, repression and law (and many other things). It also entails a series of consequences for action in terms of quietism and other political actions when conditions change; when fascism spreads, or war becomes nuclear, for instance. Like conformism, silence take place amidst a clamour and cannot help but participate in its structures.

Might it be the case that metaphysical quietism avoids the violence and dogmatism of traditional metaphysics, by pursuing a different kind of more cautious and critical metaphysics, a kind of ongoing practice marginal to traditional metaphysics, rather than an outright construction?

In an article on Dewey and Putnam, Macarthur draws a distinction between descriptive metaphysics, describing something ‘that is open to view,’ (42) and traditional metaphysics, with the characteristics of an ‘unfamiliar use of the appearance/reality distinction; the claim that some (few) things are fundamental; and the claim that everything can be explained in terms of such things.’ (36) Following Dewey and Wittgenstein, he also defends the practice of continuing to criticise metaphysics as a kind of cleansing, vigilance and learning in language and philosophy.

I am arguing for a stronger version for continuing metaphysics than all three of Macarthur’s options. For descriptive metaphysics, my claim is that they have implicit metaphysics of their own; for instance, through what they choose to describe, how they describe them and what reasons they give (or rely on) for the contingency of the things and descriptions. The enculturation of experience holds for philosophers as much as it does for social anthropologists.

The ‘open to view’ depends on the histories, cultures, bodies, languages, sexes, genders, tools and theories of the viewers. Along with the act of description, they constitute a metaphysical environment that is no more innocent, pure, neutral and free of values and judgement than the encultured perceptions of social anthropologists at the outset of their research. At the very point where metaphysical quietism steps aside from traditional metaphysics it steps back into its own metaphysical dirt and dust.

Taken from a reflection on Frank Jackson, Macarthur’s definition of traditional metaphysics is too ‘thingly’, too quick to read the tradition from esoteric modern concerns with questions about things and reality, when traditional metaphysics are better thought of as systems, structures and models of the world. These include things, for sure, but the point is how the things interact, not what they are, or whether some are real or not. We can read Leibniz with a focus on the metaphysical status of monads, but his monadology is a theodicy, concerned with the relations of monads to God and lessons to be learned from their respective natures with respect to how the world is to be judged, reasoned about and lived in.

The difficulty is not whether we should continue to criticise metaphysics, but on what grounds. Should we criticise them from post-metaphysical side-lines, or does critique require an immersion in the same medium of clashes between images and models for the world? The latter requires a constant effort to get metaphysics right and to criticises how getting it right always involves costs – getting it wrong – and damages – catching some things against the grain or omitting them altogether, often with terrible consequences.

Given the tendency to destructiveness, there should always be a critical effort to expose it for any particular metaphysics and, hence, any particular pragmatism. This is not to reject metaphysics, but to campaign for awareness of the downsides of its complicated constructions. These references to complexity and to building lead to my definition of metaphysics as the invention of philosophical systems that explain and create the world by articulating all its processes according to models with their own criteria for consistency, function and value.

This invention does not have to be deliberate. Like eighteenth century engineers and scientists, working on steam engines with little inkling of the rail and waterborne revolution that was to follow, thinkers can develop ideas with no clue as to the far-reaching metaphysical and practical outcomes they will (or might) lead to. It has often fallen to novelists to read these clues.

Where philosophers and inventors concentrated on the ideal and the actual, writers like Verne, Wells and Dick drew out the metaphysical implications and imagined the worlds they implied. The impossible task for metaphysical quietism is to write such that no writer can adopt this language for a past, present or future world distant from our own and with all the hallmarks of a dangerous and haunting metaphysical creation.

As interventions on the world, metaphysics are not only worthwhile in themselves, as fine and taxing exercises in thought. They are valuable as speculative interactions with worlds over time, as creative ways of responding to change and instituting improvements. As such, metaphysics are political and my argument can be put politically:

To avoid the rule of an illusory majority, pragmatism should invent new democracies for overlooked minorities

This political dimension around democracy and effective progressive acts is of course central to pragmatism. It brings philosophical risks. First, the urgency of political causes enthuses philosophical reasoning and can thereby lead to entrenched views; for instance, around religion or around ideology. Second, actual democratic constituencies take on outsized importance within philosophical reflection; for instance, around universal suffrage. That’s not to say that the risks are not worthwhile. It’s to say that the debate has high political stakes providing a treacherous setting for philosophical arguments.

Since my definition of fantastic pragmatism depends on inventions and on context-driven judgements, such as the conservation or overturning of worlds, a pragmatism may be inventive at a particular period, but then become conservative in a later one. Dewey’s educational pragmatism was and still is fantastic in seeking to invent a new form of education out-of-step with general standards, classroom-based learning and repetitive testing. Were the world of education to evolve fully according to his ideas, it is possible that they may fall behind, not in relation to systems that preceded him, but in relation to those to follow, as yet unthought. The question of whether pragmatism is fantastic is itself pragmatic, involving delicate and uncertain assessments of changes over time.

What if a fantastic pragmatism is the last thing we need in turbulent times? What if we need sensible pragmatism, defending and furthering the reasonable and well-intentioned pursuit of empirically proven practical actions, with the best outcomes for a population, as measured against minimal standards for all, within a democratic framework? Don’t we need pragmatism to be an assistant to modern, liberal, democratic and capitalist states placed within a global order reflecting their values? Perhaps pragmatism shouldn’t be fantastic, but rather support a third way politics, deploying scepticism, cautious judgement and truths that cash out well in practice, to help modern liberal states to nurture their citizens’ capabilities, as justly as they can?

Empirically, the record of states that would recognise themselves in these descriptions is patchy, both on internal and external grounds, as seen in periods of extreme inequality, foreign wars and exploitation. However, this patchiness, allied to some great successes, such as universal healthcare, extension of the franchise and overall increases in wellbeing, could be taken as arguments for a pragmatism that works as the conscience and guide of these states. Louis Menand sums up this advisory role through two principles: ‘scepticism about the finality of any particular set of beliefs’ and ‘democracy is the value that validates all other values.’ (Louis Menand, Pragmatism’s Three Moments, at 36’30”)

Menand associates these ideas with a third historical moment of extensive impact for pragmatism. After the first moment of pragmatic theories of belief in the nineteenth century and a second moment with James and Dewey at the beginning of the twentieth century, the third moment began towards the end of the twentieth century and ended after 9/11 with the increase in ideologically inflected political action that still governs us now. The third moment was a period of influence by pragmatism over many disciplines, including architecture, law and Menand’s own disciplines of literature and history.

Is this third moment what I mean by fantastic pragmatism, given the closeness of Menand’s insistence on scepticism and my defence of criticism, and given his defence of democracy as validation and my insistence on the invention of democracies? Not at all, since to be fantastic, pragmatism should construct and deconstruct metaphysics, not simply fulfil a sceptical function and contribute to the refinement of an existing form of democracy.

In line with Rorty, Menand’s definition of pragmatism (as the philosophy of how we think and should think) situates the sceptical aspect of pragmatism against final beliefs or ideals. At a stretch, these beliefs and ideals correspond to my definition of metaphysics. It’s a stretch because the “final” aspect of a metaphysics can be at highly abstract level; for instance, in a metaphysics where the main claim is that all is uncertain and open to change, much of the finality is in the ‘all’.

Rorty defends the idea that thought and society can be post-metaphysical and better for it in a Deweyan switch from ‘philosophy to politics’. My argument is that no thought is post-metaphysical and no society can be free from the violence of metaphysics, because any standard of reason, logic and value, any language of time, things and orders has an implied metaphysics, just as any actual democracy has exclusions and losses calling for the invention of new democracies.