RE: [xmca] Zo-peds, roads, and Senseis

From: Michael Glassman (
Date: Tue Dec 26 2006 - 08:31:26 PST

This is an interesting, gossipy story, and honestly I am not sure how much truth there is to it. William James was attempting to move this action/empirical based "theory of mind" he had been working on with a number of people, including Peirce, and Dewey by correspondence - and I guess ideas were flying all around and coming from everywhere (a young George Mead was a tutor for James' children - and I can't believe Henry didn't have something to say over the family dinner table). James was very fond of Peirce and Peirce was having a terrible time professionally (because he had an affair with a married woman, or because he was so cantankerous, or because he was just smarter than everybody else and wasn't shy about it - I don't know). James asked Peirce to name the philosophy so they could have some type of common touch stone. Peirce, being Peirce, chose what had to be the most obscure name possible - using the term Pragmata - which is Greek for things that you do - in the very broad sense. In other words he called it Activity Theory except he did it in Greek! I have read in more than one place that this annoyed James no end (boy I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for some of their conversations). But in a series of lectures at Harvard (arranged by James?) Peirce coalesced the idea around the word Pragmatism (actually, something a little closer to Pragmata I think) and James named his most famous book "On Pragmatism." But I think James was also worried about the mainstream applicability of the word, and he wanted to include his own ideas on the value of experimentation, so in the end he called his ideas radical empiricism (I'm not sure - was he calling it this before Peirce's famous lectures?) and his final book, his summing up, was called radical empiricism.
Dewey was looking to incorporate his own ideas in to the Pragmatic cannon - particularly the idea that Pragmatism was more than an empirical approach to the human condition, it was an experimental approach. In other words we weren't third person observers of what was happening, we were active participants determining the consequences to action. He called his approach Instrumental Pragmatism. After Dewey left the University of Chicago for New York Mead kept the faith. Herbert Blumer, who was student of and colleague to Mead later differentiated his theory as symbolic interactionism (I'm not sure why).
If you ask me, they are all versions of Pragmatism. Ironically, as obscure as the word was it has entered the American lexicon as a rather common word. The only trouble is I think nobody is quite sure what it means. Somewhere Peirce is laughing.


From: on behalf of Andy Blunden
Sent: Tue 12/26/2006 2:16 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Zo-peds, roads, and Senseis

Matt, I have a lot of respect for Dewey, and I should probably have spoken
more cautiously. I see Cultural-Historical Activity Theory as to a great
extent a Russian-American creation, not just Russian. The excerpt kind of
typified one of the great weaknesses of American Pragmatism - not
particularly Dewey himself. And of course as you say, it is very much a
part of that American tradition that ideas are valid only within the
context of some real problem, not in themselves, and this is an important

I don't understand what you mean though by "a problem is not solved by
intellectual or authoritative decision". Who says it is? Do you mean
problems are solved *practically*?

Michael: is "radical empiricism" the same as "pragmatism"?

At 07:48 PM 25/12/2006 -0500, you wrote:
>I think Michael has exactly the right thing to say, here. Andy would
>have Dewey dead to rights if we treat him as speaking apart from
>situations and problems. But we have to remember that, for Dewey (and
>I think, to a lesser degree of clarity, in the other American
>pragmatists), all thinking happens in a context that is to some degree
>non-intellectual. So, a problem is not just "thought up," it is felt,
>it is existential, it is a real quality or feature of the situation of
>organism-environment(-culture) interaction. And a problem is not
>solved by intellectual or authoritative decision (though many have
>tried to do so, most unfortunately in the case of some key
>socio-political problems), it requires a change in the situation that
>removes the problematicity (contradictions?).
>On 12/24/06, Michael Glassman <> wrote:
>>This sort of talks to Pragmatism's reliance on experimentalism. I found
>>it interesting that David Backhurst used the term radical empiricism to
>>describe the more liberal aspects of Lenin, because of course James
>>termed his theoretical approach radical empiricism. The idea being you
>>can only know what you do know from experimentation - and understanding
>>the consequences comes from experimentation in particular
>>situations. You determine what the problem is, you determine what the
>>problem would look like if it was solved (in a very concrete manner), and
>>you see if you achieved that end-in-view. Very concrete and very much
>>attached to the situation. I believe that is what Dewey is talking about
>>when he mentions consequences - the only issue is whether you have
>>achieved a solution to the problem - if not, you go back and do another
>>From: on behalf of Andy Blunden
>>Sent: Sun 12/24/2006 6:01 PM
>>To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>>Subject: RE: [xmca] Zo-peds, roads, and Senseis
>>At 11:55 AM 24/12/2006 -0500, you wrote:
>> >... >From Chapter 5 [Dewey]
>> > "The test of ideas, of thinking generally, is found in the consequences
>> > of the acts to which the ideas lead, that is in the new arrangements of
>> > things which are brought into existence. Such is the unequivocal
>> > evidence as to the worth of ideas which is derived from observing their
>> > position and rule in experimental knowing. But tradition makes the tests
>> > of ideas to be their agreement with some antecedent [i.e. already
>> > existing] state of things. This change of outlook and standard from what
>> > precedes to what comes after, from the retrospective to the prospective,
>> > from antecedents to consequences, is extremely hard to accomplish. Hence
>> > when the physical sciences describe objects and the world as being such
>> > and such, it is thought that the description is of reality as it exists
>> > in itself."
>>It seems to me that the Achilles' heel of American Pragmatism is how it
>>(and Dewey in the above passage) reduce the relation between consciousness
>>and activity to: "The test of ideas, of thinking generally, is found in the
>>consequences of the acts to which the ideas lead." This overlooks the fact
>>that it is by no means given exactly what these consequences are, at what
>>time consequences are deemed to have been realised, for whom they are
>>effective, and from the standpoint of what system of activity they are
>>assessed; all of which refers back to the very idea which is supposed to be
>>tested in its consequences. One can equally say: "The test of the
>>consequences of an act is the ideas, and thinking generally, by which they
>>were brought about."
>>Fascinating and important as Dewey is, I prefer Marx.
>>xmca mailing list
>>xmca mailing list
>Matt Brown (
>Philosophy Graduate Student, UCSD
>Web: <>
>xmca mailing list

  Andy Blunden : tel (H) +61 3 9380 9435, AIM
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