CSP v James; pragmat(ic)ism v positivism RE: [xmca] Zo-peds, roads, and Senseis

From: Tony Whitson (twhitson@udel.edu)
Date: Tue Dec 26 2006 - 09:57:43 PST

A couple complications in this thread can be sorted out by clarifying the
difference between Peirce and James, and the difference (I would argue, the
diametric opposition) between positivism and pragmatism (Peirce's approach,

In an earlier message, Mike Cole wrote:
"I picked out that quotation because it seemed to me to point precisely to
the Skinnerian program's underlying logic and roots in pragmatism."
I'm not sure what the particular quotation is that Mike's referring to, but
it's in the context of James on pragmatism and experimentalism, and the
Skinner reference ties in with positivist appropriations of "pragmatism."
    The most direct and explicit effort to join positivism and pragmatism
was made by Charles Morris. Morris's supposed exposition of Peirce is very
easy reading that does not challenge prior understanding in any fundamental
way, so generations of scholars in fields such as communication and rhetoric
formed their impression of Peirce on the basis of Morris's writing. As Dewey
and Bentley showed, however, Morris had no understanding of Peirce.
    With that lack of understanding, Morris actually approached Carnap and
others in his attempt to build on what he saw as the natural affinity
between the two traditions. Carnap was no more impressed than Dewey was by
Morris's ideas. Nonetheless, there is a lineage of thinking that could be
reflected in what Mike sees in Skinner. For example: the Wikipedia article
on Operationalism ("Operational definition" - Percy Bridgman) has just these
three cross-reference entries at the bottom of the article:
See also
    * Pragmatic maxim
    * Pragmaticism
    * Pragmatism
-- even though none of those terms occurs in the article itself.

A central thesis of my Silhouette paper is that an understanding of meaning
that's informed by semiotic pragmatism is directly antithetical to
positivism -- I argue, actually, that positivism itself is best understood
as ignorance of the basic nature of meaning, as understood through
semiotics. (My other major thesis in the paper is the importance of this
difference for education.) I include a little of Peirce explicitly
commenting on positivism, but more important, I think, are the principles
discussed by CSP that would make it quite impossible to think that a
Skinnerian program could deal with phenomena of meaningful semiosis.

How this pertains to James, I do not know, since I've never read much of
James. << Michael Glassman's interesting post on James, Peirce, Mead, etc.
actually arrived while I was writing that last sentence. >> In the context
of this thread, however, I think it is important to note the basic
difference between CSP and James on "pragmatism," which is easier to pin
down than with Dewey, who may have had his own third way.

We can focus on the first two sentences from the Dewey excerpt Michael
posted earlier in this thread:
Just to take one short section of Quest for Certainty and unpack it,
>From Chapter 5
"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."

CSP and James would also have said that the test of ideas is found in their
consequences, but they were talking about different things. James propounded
a "pragmatic" theory of TRUTH -- so consequences provide a test for truth.
The "pragmatism" formulated by CSP was not a theory of truth, it was a
theory of MEANING -- so the meaning of ideas is to be found in their
consequences. In the quotation above, Dewey writes of "evidence as to the
worth of ideas," which may be something else, besides either truth or

In his 1905 paper titled "What pragmatism is," Peirce explained:
//// (referring to himself, "the writer," in the 3d person):
His word "pragmatism" has gained general recognition in a generalized sense
that seems to argue power of growth and vitality. The famed psychologist,
James, first took it up, seeing that his "radical empiricism" substantially
answered to the writer's definition of pragmatism, albeit with a certain
difference in the point of view. ... But at present, the word begins to be
met with occasionally in the literary journals, where it gets abused in the
merciless way that words have to expect when they fall into literary
clutches. Sometimes the manners of the British have effloresced in scolding
at the word as ill-chosen -- ill-chosen, that is, to express some meaning
that it was rather designed to exclude. So then, the writer, finding his
bantling "pragmatism" so promoted, feels that it is time to kiss his child
good-by and relinquish it to its higher destiny; while to serve the precise
purpose of expressing the original definition, he begs to announce the birth
of the word "pragmaticism," which is ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.

Later that year in a letter CSP summarized his point in the Monist article:
'... I proposed that the word "pragmatism" should hereafter be used somewhat
loosely to signify affiliation with Schiller, James, Dewey, Royce, and the
rest of us, while the particular doctrine which I invented the word to
denote ... should be called "pragmaticism." The extra syllable will indicate
the narrower meaning.'

I don't know about James or Dewey, but I feel confident offering this
argument for the CSP approach against any positivist appropriation:

Decisively, for CSP, meaning is NOT any kind of positive content. MEANING is
not CONTENT, but POTENTIATION. The meaning of any sign (i.e., of an idea, a
way of thinking, a message, or communication, or learned behavior, or
anything that can be interpreted as a meaningful sign) is to be found in the
interpretations that the sign potentiates.

It seems to me that a pragmatic theory of truth is less radical than CSP's
pragmatic theory of meaning, since a pragmatic test for truth could still be
a test for the truth of a proposition, still construed as having meaning as
a positive propositional content. Pragmatism of that kind may indeed be
conducive to developments such as Bridgman's operationalism, or to Skinner's

What do you think?

-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On
Behalf Of Andy Blunden
Sent: Tuesday, December 26, 2006 2:17 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 <MGlassman@ehe.ohio-state.edu> 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: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu 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
>> > 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
>> > of ideas to be their agreement with some antecedent [i.e. already
>> > existing] state of things. This change of outlook and standard from
>> > precedes to what comes after, from the retrospective to the
>> > from antecedents to consequences, is extremely hard to accomplish.
>> > 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
>>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
>>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 (thehangedman@gmail.com)
>Philosophy Graduate Student, UCSD
>Web: http://thm.askee.net
>xmca mailing list

  Andy Blunden : http://home.mira.net/~andy/ tel (H) +61 3 9380 9435, AIM
identity: AndyMarxists mobile 0409 358 651

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