George Novack
Empiricism and Its Evolution - A Marxist View: Chapter IX



Empiricism and Pragmatism



Barrows Dunham has observed in Thinkers and Treasurers that middle-class philosophy is highly competitive and pluralistic. It is possible and permissible for a professor to be a pragmatist, a positivist, a realist, an idealist, an existentialist, or any shading or combination of these. However, this free enterprise in ideas has its limits. "Those limits are medieval philosophy on the one hand and Marxist philosophy on the other. The life of Western philosophy and the lives of its philosophers are spent in trying not to go back to the thirteenth century and not to go forward to the twenty-first."

This is certainly true of American philosophy. It has spontaneously spurned scholasticism, since it was born after the rise of bourgeois society, the victories of the democratic revolutions, and under the auspices of Protestantism. Thanks to the expansion and stability of capitalism in this country, it has yet to arrive at an acceptance and assimilation of dialectical materialism.

The central and characteristic philosophy of the American people has been, and remains to this day, one or another form of pragmatism. The pragmatic outlook and mode of thought had deep roots in the special conditions of the development of bourgeois civilisation and culture in North America. It was created as a distinctive theory at the turn of the twentieth century as the philosophical expression and instrument of that middle-class liberalism which was politically embodied in the Progressive protests against plutocratic domination.

Its principal ideas were derived from the events, forces, and views of the bourgeois-democratic movements of the Western world and the First American Revolution. Its theory of knowledge stemmed from John Locke. Its conception of society as based on a social contract, which could be remodelled by the common consent of all citizens, originated in the ideas of Roger Williams, Rousseau, Paine, Jefferson, and similar advocates of the doctrine of "natural rights." Its political program harked back to the ideals voiced in the Declaration of Independence.

In its ideological genealogy, pragmatism is essentially a belated and updated branch of the empirical tradition which has been the main stream of philosophy among the English-speaking peoples for over three centuries. Empiricism, pragmatism, and instrumentalism, or its variant, "operationalism," represent three consecutive phases in the evolution of the same trend of thought. Empiricism was the matrix, the rudimentary and general form from which pragmatism sprang, while Dewey's instrumentalism is the highest expression of pragmatism.

Why and how did the pragmatists remodel British empiricism?

The body of empirical theory as it was handed down to the founders of pragmatism at the end of the nineteenth century suffered from obvious shortcomings in their eyes. First, its account of the process of acquiring knowledge kept the body and its senses far too passive. These were pictured as inactive recipients or reflectors of whatever was impressed upon them from without. "In naked perception the mind is, for the most part, merely passive," wrote Locke. The reactions of the human organism to external stimuli, the modifications of these stimuli in the nervous system, and the activity of the mental processes were largely overlooked or slighted.

Classical empiricism was far less concerned with the forms of knowledge than with the origins and validity of its content. The German idealists correctly criticised the empiricists, both for ignoring the active powers of the sensibility and the thought processes and for disregarding the specific forms of knowledge in its development. They undertook to examine these sides of knowledge in opposition to the teachings of empiricism.

The pragmatists James and Dewey, who came long after them, tried to remedy these defects without going beyond the bounds of empiricism. Dewey, for example, sought to provide a more dynamic basis for the empirical theory of cognition with the aid of Darwinism, James' psychology, and some insights borrowed from Hegel.

Second, the original empiricism was unhistorical and non-evolutionary. This was a shortcoming it shared with other branches of science in that epoch. Locke's An Essay concerning Human Understanding analyses the foundations, structure, and verification of knowledge without attempting to review the historical process by which human understanding comes into existence, the stages through which it had to pass, or the specific phase it had entered. He appeals not to evidence taken from a study of biological and social processes, but "to men's own unprejudiced experiences and observations."

The pragmatists were evolutionists. They undertook to show how the organs of knowledge and knowledge itself originated in animal life and had been accumulated and improved as humanity developed. They resorted to new findings in the sciences of biology and psychology for those purposes.

An even deeper defect of classical empiricism was its failure to explain the influence of the social environment and its changes upon the origins and evolution of man's knowledge. Bacon, Locke, and Hume assumed that men's minds had functioned in precisely the same ways from time immemorial and that the processes of thought were governed by the same kind of fixed and universal laws as the, movements of the heavenly bodies. For them human nature was essentially invariant.

The pragmatists knew better and looked upon human nature as plastic and variable. However, they did not probe to the bottom for the social and historical causes of the changes in human capacities, characteristics, and ideas. James, for example, ascribed the diversities in men's philosophies to different types of temperament. Dewey was more profound and historical-minded. He turned to anthropology and the primitive modes of occupation to explain the savage mind. He referred to the class stratifications of Greek slave society to account for the special traits of Aristotle's logic and cosmology. But he never grasped the essence of the materialist method of historical explanation or applied it with any consistency.

Finally, classical empiricism was extremely individualistic. Its theory of knowledge took its point of departure from the experience of the solitary individual divorced from his fellow men. Dewey especially made energetic efforts to overcome this intractable individualism by bringing into his structure of thought the social nature of the conditioning, thinking, and functioning of the separate personality.

In addition to renovating empiricism by removing some of its archaisms and inadequacies and revising its doctrines in the light of later scientific developments and data, pragmatism redirected the line of its interests. The motives and aims of the American pragmatists were quite different from those of the founders of British empiricism. Locke, Hobbes, and Hume were primarily concerned with the origin of our ideas. They sought answers to the questions, Where do our ideas come from and what guarantees their validity? Although they gave somewhat different solutions to these problems, they followed a common procedure of tracing ideas back to their roots in sensation, reflection, or a combination of-both processes, and they tried to find the warrant for the correctness of ideas in previous experience.

Their descendants, James and Dewey, came upon the scene at a much later stage in the evolution of empiricism, when its fruits had not only ripened but had become somewhat decayed. These latter-day empiricists took for granted the ready-made premises of their school: the sensory origin of ideas, the nonexistence of innate principles, etc., and preoccupied themselves with an entirely different set of questions.

They did not ask, Where do our ideas come from? That was for them a settled question. They inquired, Where do our ideas go to and what are they good for? Instead of asking, How did ideas originate and what are their roots? they asked, What functions do they perform and what effects do they have upon further experienced They were, so to speak, primarily interested in the distribution and destination of ideas rather than in the sources and conditions of their production.

This change of emphasis was clearly discernible in the address delivered by William James in 1898, when he recast Peirce's pragmatic formula for obtaining clear ideas in these words:

"To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what effects of a conceivably practical kind the object may-involve and what sensations we may expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of their effects, then, is for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all." (My emphasis)

The emphasised words indicate clearly enough the pronounced shift of attention from causes to consequences, from material grounds to practical effects, from determined conditions to expectation, from correspondence of ideas with realities to preparation for action that are the, hallmarks of the pragmatic theory of knowledge.

The pragmatists were faithful to the empiricist tradition in announcing that they were giving to the world not a new conception of being, but merely a new theory of knowledge and an improved definition of truth and error. In his popular exposition of pragmatism, William James called it "a new name for some old ways of thinking." He characterised pragmatism as an attitude of mind, a mode of thought, a point of view, rather than a theory of reality or a system of the world.

In addition to assuming a new name, the Yankee pragmatists added five significant amendments to the charter of traditional British empiricism.

First, they stressed the biological origins and nature of mental phenomena. The pragmatists asserted that intelligence and ideas were rooted in animal life and must be approached as the outgrowth and extension of biological processes.

Second, they emphasised the practical functions of ideas. According to the pragmatists, the chief service performed by the mind was to help men achieve their ends. Intelligence arose out of the practical difficulties encountered in everyday life, intervened as a discoverer of possibilities in a troubled situation and as an indicator of effective solutions to its problems. Thereby, mind played a constructive, or rather a reconstructive, role in the processes of experience.

Third, the founders of pragmatism took exception to the assumption of the British empiricists that sense data are intrinsically isolated. In the theory of perception presented by James and Dewey, both connections and distinctions were given together in immediate experience. This recognition of the cohesiveness of sense experience enabled the pragmatists to avoid some of the difficulties engendered by the fictitious unrelatedness of each single sense impression which had led to Hume's scepticism.

Fourth, the pragmatists looked upon ideas as purposive and prospective. The real content of concepts is not determined by what has gone into them through previous experience or through what is given them by objective reality. This merely conditions ideas. Their final and real content is determined by what comes out of them when they are acted upon and their consequences All in practice are observed and known. Ideas do not look backward, outward, or inward; they look and lead forward. They are all permeated with human purpose. -Concepts are habits of belief which become habits of action, not reflections of realities.

Finally, the pragmatists defined truth as a quality which is acquired by ideas solely in practice. The validity of an idea is not determined by its correspondence with independent and prior real conditions, which is then tested in practice. The truth of an idea is derived from and through. practical experience. Ideas in themselves are nothing but "working hypotheses" which have to acquire -their truth as well as demonstrate it by their effectiveness in solving the problems and realising the aims of men.

These five propositions summarise the main points of the pragmatic theory of knowledge as well as the novelties it introduced into classical empiricism.

The pragmatists, like the empiricists before them, used their innovations as weapons for polemics on two fronts On one side they took up the cudgels against the idealists who refused to admit the natural origins and practical functions of the thought processes and who defended unchanging principles and the purely speculative, logical and contemplative essence of reason. By hammering away at these bulwarks of idealist error, the pragmatists helped bring philosophy closer to reality and the results of scientific discovery.

However, the pragmatists directed more of their criticism against the materialist conception of the unity of being and thought. They agreed with the materialist premise that mind was an outgrowth of nature and society but violently rejected the materialist conclusions that its contents must conform to the reality of nature and society and be ultimately derived from them.

For pragmatism, ideas were not determined by an objective independent world nor did they reflect its features; ideas were made and remade in the course of experience by the needs and will of man. This one-sided, subjectivist notion of the nature of ideas and of truth was hailed by its proponents and admirers as an epoch-making advance in philosophy. Actually, it was a step backward, not only from the advanced ground attained by the progress of materialism, but even from the position of Locke.

William James

Let us see how this worked out in the thought of William ,James, the ardent populariser of pragmatism. The Harvard professor proclaimed himself to be "a radical empiricist." He wrote in Essays in Radical Empiricism: "To be radical, an empiricist must neither admit into his constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced." This is the same rule that Hume adopted as his guide.

What then, according to James, do we directly experience? Nothing but "pure experience" which is "the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection." This "pure experience" is the primal stuff out of which everything else is subsequently composed. It exists before either matter or mind. These are only extracted or constructed later- as separate functions of the featureless flowing stream.

James thus sought to efface the priority of the external world over the mind and the essential difference between the objective and subjective, the known and the knower. For him there is not an external world existing before mankind or our relations with it, which are then experienced and thought about. The world is created by mankind out of the formless plastic mass of "pure experience" which precedes anything and everything else. Mankind takes the place of God in Genesis, creating the world and its distinctive divisions out of the primal flux of events.

It is true that the objective and subjective are inseparable in mankind and that the world first appears to us as "a buzzing, blooming confusion." But mankind and its experiences are not identical or coexistent with material existence; they are a product and part of its evolution.

James reverses the real relations between experience and reality. He makes nature depend upon experience, not experience upon nature. The root of his error is in identifying the subjective aspects of human experience with the objective existence of the world- and then drowning the latter in the former.

His theory of knowledge and interpretation of the truth depend upon the doctrine of "pure experience." If experience comes before nature, then ideas do not copy external reality. Ideas are primarily plans of action. They enable us to operate advantageously in relation to other things; they are means of orientation in the flux of pure experience, guiding us along in it and helping us make the most of its currents. Out of them we build our picture of the world.

How do we separate true ideas from the - false? Not by testing their conformity with given realities but by conceiving w hat their effects would be and noting the consequences when we act upon them. If an idea does help us get along in this stream of experience, fulfils our needs, satisfies our desires and demands, then it is true, or rather it becomes true to that extent. "An idea is 'true' so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives." And "the true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking . . . in the long run and on the whole, of course."

This "expedience' interpretation of truth and falsehood is bound up with a special version of the nature of human action. All activity for James is fundamentally experimental in character, a gamble. We try out this idea or that, this procedure or that, and then see what happens. If it does the assigned job, well and good; if it fails, try something else. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

The whole flux of experience is thereby subjected to determination by human action alone, apart from objective circumstances. This is a highly subjective conception of the interplay of ideas and experience. Collective human action can, to be sure, decide many things in

life, up to the further development of society. But it can do so only when it proceeds in consonance with the material possibilities of the historically given objective conditions, and not in any arbitrary manner that runs counter to them.

But human activity by itself doesn't determine either the 'nature of things or the nature of ideas. These are by and large determined for us, not by us. James had a different opinion.

He used this pragmatic conception of ideas as nothing but "working hypotheses," and truth as shaped by the consequences of human action and aims, as a springboard for the justification of religion. "We cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it . . . if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true . . . And he finds that religious experience affords proof "that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own."

.James thus went back to Bishop Berkeley who likewise used the doctrine of "pure experience" to demolish scepticism, materialism, and atheism and hand the world over to God's jurisdiction. There are not a few such "impure" elements in the alleged "pure experience" of the pragmatists; the new dish they served contained some old and rather odorous ingredients.

By starting with the premises of Hume and ending close to the conclusions of Berkeley, James showed how retrogressive empiricism had become in its refurbished pragmatic version. Compared with Locke, and still more with Bacon, he took several steps backward since the momentum of his philosophy and its results were different from theirs. Although they too retained a personal belief in God's existence, the effect of their philosophical activity was to loosen reason and science from the grip of religion and make room for the advance of the most progressive thought of their age.

More than two hundred years after this release, James explicitly tried to reconnect philosophy with religion, thus substituting irrationalism for the exercise of reason and involuntarily promoting obscurantism. Philosophy was once again supposed to serve as a handmaiden of religious faith. "Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has been associated with irreligion and I believe that a new era of religion as well as of philosophy will be ready to begin," James asserted in The Varieties Of Religious Experience. Such a relapse would have undone the work accomplished by the most enlightened advocates of classical empiricism from Locke to Hume.

John Dewey

John Dewey was less of an individualist and less concerned with salvaging crumbling religious certainties than his co-thinker, William James. As the major philosopher of Progressivism, he was the most collectivist representative of the pragmatic school and even espoused in later life a mild brand of evolutionary socialism.

Dewey explicitly acknowledged that' empiricism was the parent of pragmatism and was proud of their kinship. "We must not forget here," he wrote in Philosophy and Civilisation, "that James was an empiricist before he was a pragmatist, and repeatedly stated that pragmatism is merely empiricism pushed to its legitimate conclusion." Throughout his work he constantly appealed to the premises and propositions of the empirical tradition while claiming to be eliminating its errors and defects.

Dewey broke most sharply with classical empiricism in regard to the nature of sensation and the part it played in the process of knowledge. Locke, following Bacon and Hobbes, maintained that all human knowledge came from and was based upon the action of external material objects upon the sense organs which produced simple ideas. These sense data form "the materials of all-our knowledge."

Dewey turned this cardinal principle of the empirical theory of knowledge inside out. Whereas for Locke sensation was the source and foundation of cognition, for Dewey sensation was completely non-cognitive. "Sentiency is itself is anoetic," he stated in Experience and Nature (p. 259). The phenomena of sense simply have a quality of immediacy which, as such, is senseless and conveys no meaning. "Things in their immediacy are unknown and unknowable, not because they are remote or behind some impenetrable veil of' sensation or ideas, but because knowledge has no concern with them," he argued (II)id., p. 86). Sensations are simply "liked," suffered, and enjoyed; they are not in any way known.

The notion that "sensations are cases of knowledge" is "a superstition, growing up in a false physics and physiology and perpetuated by psychology . . ." Dewey wrote in Essays in Experimental Logic. Perceptions have no inherent validity, or cognitive value; they are no more taken "natural events, having in themselves . . . no more knowledge status or worth than, say, a shower or a fever . . ."(Ibid,, p. 253)

This contention that sensations are merely, natural events having no essential connection with cognition of the external world is disproved by the evolutionary origins and development of our sense organs and their functions. The sensibility of the higher nervous system, which has grown in the higher animals out of the irritability of lower organisms, as Dewey himself noted, is the outcome of the action of external causes on the living creature. Vision has emerged front the phototropism by which a plant or simple organism turns to the light and follows its course. Eyes Would never have developed without the pre-existence of light rays, which act upon the body whose organ of' vision is the means of reacting to them.

In the act of vision, luminous energy from a specific material source becomes converted into nervous energy which, through complex psycho-physical processes in the cerebral cortex, generates the image of qualities of external objects. Thus objective physical properties become transformed into subjective impressions, or--what Locke called a "simple idea."

We are aware of the forms of matter in motion only through the sensations which they produce on our sense organs. Bats, gliding on silent wings, have an ultrasonic "sonar" system to avoid obstacles and intercept insects. This sound apparatus enables the bat to receive and interpret vital information concerning its environment. If sight and hearing had no connection with their sources in the external world and conveyed no information about them, eyes and ears would have been useless in the struggle for existence and would never have been developed by birds or men.

Living beings have developed only those sense organs and their capacities which were necessary to preserve the species and enhance its adaptability. If sensations did not reflect the properties of reality, how could sensation enable animals and men to orient themselves and adapt themselves effectively to their surroundings and its continual changes? How would animals survive if, for example, they could not recognise food through their senses and distinguish what was edible from what was unassimilable?

Sensation is not merely a stimulus to action, as Dewey believed, but the crudest form of knowledge-its raw material. It is the most vital and central link in the unity of the organism with the external conditions of its existence. The impulses emanating from some section of the external world impinging upon the organism excites a motor response, an unconditioned reflex, which is the basis and beginning of all subsequent and higher forms of knowledge, from conditioned reflexes through perceptions to concepts and laws.

Dewey's denial that sensation has any intrinsically cognitive elements even of the lowest kind is an extreme expression of the subjectivist trend in the empirical tradition fostered by Hume. By severing the sensory ties between the organism and its environment, Dewey removed the genetic unity between what objectively exists and what is experienced. This opened the way for the affirmation of the fundamental thesis of the pragmatic and instrumentalist theory of knowledge that ideas do not disclose the content of reality but are invested with truth by human action alone.

The instrumentalist epistemology is detached from objective reality at both ends of the acquisition of knowledge. In its origins, sensation is regarded as without cognitive links with the external world; in its ultimate results, concepts allegedly enable us to reshape things without necessarily corresponding in any respect with the content of reality.

Thus Dewey's discarding of the empirical principle that sensation was the ground of knowledge served to accentuate and consummate the departure from objectivity prefigured in the pristine ambiguity of empiricism about the relations between our sensations and their material causes.

Despite their departures from classical empiricism in certain respects, the pragmatists did not break away from its prime postulate that what is presented here and now to the individual affords the best insight into the nature of reality. Pragmatism remained attached to the phenomenology of experience. The mandates of its method inhibited persistent search for the inner causal connections in the full scope of their evolution which generate the outward appearances of things.

James and Dewey not only tried to bring traditional empiricism abreast of the scientific achievements of the nineteenth century.. They remodelled its ideas to suit the requirements and outlook of the liberal middle-class intellectuals of their day. Indeed, the pragmatic philosophy had the same relation to empiricism as the political program of Progressivism had to capitalism and bourgeois democracy. It aspired to modernise the structure rather than change the foundations.

The modifications introduced by pragmatism did not succeed in eradicating the inherent and insuperable defects of empiricism but rather reaffirmed them in its own way. The dualism between materialism and idealism discernible in Locke flowered into eclecticism with Dewey. As an illustration, take his treatment of, the relations between the social system and the philosopher himself.

Dewey did not hesitate to apply the principle of historical materialism that a thinker's views are fundamentally shaped by his social situation and class outlook to explain the special features and errors of Aristotle's metaphysics and politics. Yet he claimed that his own philosophy was totally exempt from class conditioning and that he spoke for the general interests of all men. The coexistence of two such incompatible types of interpretation did not disconcert him; he used either one as he pleased.

Dewey was the most radical consummator of the pragmatic tendency. He did for pragmatism what pragmatism helped to do for the empirical tradition. His instrumentalism pressed its ideas to the farthest limits and thereby disclosed their basic insufficiency. Empiricism cannot go beyond Deweyism without annulling its basic premises and either passing over into materialism to its left or towards logical positivism or linguistic analysis to its right.


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