requiem for certainty

Pragmatism Returns to Princeton: Appiah’s New Book

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Below is a working rough draft of a review essay I am writing on Appiah’s new Experiments in Ethics (Harvard UP, 2008). As my title here suggests, I discern more than just a shade of pragmatism in Appiah’s ‘experimental philosophy’. I’ve thought for awhile now that Appiah was headed toward a kind of pragmatism, for instance in his The Ethics of Identity (Princeton UP, 2005). The point though is not to show that James, Dewey, and Rorty ‘got there first’ but rather to show how the pragmatists can help the experimentalists achieve the sort of interdisciplinary philosophical practice they seem to be aiming for. The piece is a little long (3000 words) so you may just want to skim it.

Pragmatism Returns to Princeton: Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics

Pragmatism has come back to Princeton. I am not referring to the professed prophetic pragmatism of Cornel West and Eddie Glaude, Jr. in Princeton’s Department of Religion. To be sure, West’s 1989 The American Evasion of Philosophy is as crucial a contribution to contemporary moral and political thought as any pragmatist could hope to make and Glaude’s 2007 In a Shade of Blue is clearly one of the best books bearing the pragmatist banner to have come out since West’s American Evasion and Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity in 1989. But I am thinking of a pragmatism that is afoot elsewhere at Old Nassau. Pragmatism has come back, perhaps most notably, to the Philosophy Department. It was in old 1879 Hall (the impressive physical home of Princeton Philosophy) that Richard Rorty worked in the 1970s when he was busy re-launching pragmatism, or as some would insist launching his own neopragmatism. Rorty’s curious mixture of confidence in pragmatism and faithlessness in philosophy was a scandal to the profession through much of the 1980s and 1990s. It was made more or less clear to Rorty that he should leave Philosophy at Princeton (though the happy conjunction of an invitation to a University Professorship at the University of Virginia and the awarding of a MacArthur Grant made the departure surely somewhat easier to bear) and when he took his retirement position at Stanford years later it was not at the request of Philosophy. It is thus remarkable that pragmatism has returned to the halls of Philosophy at Princeton and maybe soon enough will return to Stanford as well.

Yet this is a pragmatism that does not profess itself as such. So it takes some showing to see that it is indeed pragmatism. But first I wish to address an important preliminary matter: Why might a pragmatist today not claim the mantle of America’s only native intellectual philosophy? Perhaps because Rorty gave pragmatism a bad name amongst philosophers when he insisted that one implication of pragmatism is that philosophy is far less important than we philosophers would like to think. In one way, this claim of Rorty’s was very much out of the spirit of his pragmatist forebears, William James and John Dewey. But in another way, it is not difficult to see that James and Dewey would have been distraught had most of the brilliant young minds of their generation been inculcated into a practice of philosophy that narrowly set its sights on many of the arcane and technical issues that dominated our profession through much of the Cold War. James and Dewey placed their confidence in a conception of philosophy that would above all be a public vision for an uncertain American culture. That public philosophy was what their pragmatism was. Rorty, looking around Old Nassau in the 1960s and 1970s, saw little in the way of professional philosophy that could pass itself off as even remotely relevant to public vision. So, Rorty suggested, the pragmatist quest for a public vision ought to lead us away from philosophy, though we who are fortunate enough to live in liberal democratic cultures may nonetheless philosophize as a private pursuit. Let’s just not tell ourselves that all our fancy-sounding arguments are in the service of the public good, Rorty urged.

Any philosopher who thinks or acts like a pragmatist today is right to be wary of adopting the title that Rorty made so infamous. It’s a recipe for professional disaster. Rorty, who was perhaps the most influential and important American intellectual of the last quarter of the twentieth century, was more or less excluded from the profession. Imagine the prospects for some unimportant and not influential philosopher making the same kinds of noises. It’s entirely unsurprising, then, that pragmatism has surreptitiously snuck back into the profession with almost the exact temperament, theses, and arguments of the previous pragmatists and yet without the name. For here is one difference between the new stealth pragmatism and Rorty’s pragmatism: pragmatists today are once again in a position to see how philosophy might become a public project that matters to the moral and political life of our culture. Rorty is not to be blamed for his assessment of philosophy: accept his argument as akin to a sociological diagnosis: that is just how philosophy was through much of the Cold War. Things are different now. One can once again believe that philosophy might matter to the culture at large. This is because philosophy, much of the best philosophy that is being turned out today especially by younger philosophers working in both Analytic and Continental thought, is rightly wary of the dangers of scholasticism and rightly hopeful about its public mission. (I note in passing that this shift in philosophical self-consciousness is probably due, at least in part, to Rorty’s warnings about our professional deformation.)

Having spent all this time clearing the ground, which is indeed a very rough terrain to sow, I would like to turn finally to the book in which I recognize this return of pragmatism to the most respected work in professional philosophy: Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 2008 Experiments in Ethics.

Appiah’s book could be seen as a tour through many of the most familiar themes in pragmatist thinking. Each of the book’s five chapters offers an argument, drawn up in the terms of contemporary moral philosophy, for a pragmatist (Appiah calls it ‘experimentalist) approach to morality and ethics. Chapter 1 is a brief against philosophy’s venerable fact/value dichotomy (cf. Hilary Putnam’s the Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and on behalf of a certain conception of naturalism (cf. Jaegwon Kim’s “The American Origins of Philosophical Naturalism”). Chapter 2 argues against globalist or universalist theories of ethics in favor of moral situationism or contextualism (cf. John Dewey’s “Context and Thought”). Chapter 3 makes the case for a combination of philosophy and psychology (cf. William James’s The Principles of Psychology). Chapter 4 is all about the integration of nature and culture, or fact and value, from the perspective of reconciling the two Kantian standpoints of scientific and moral thought (cf. John Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty). Chapter 5 ties all these together by invoking pragmatist-sounding themes of fallibilism, pluralism, and naturalism so as to affirm the “messiness” and “heterogeneity” of ethics (cf. James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”).

Of the greatest works in moral philosophy Appiah writes, “Every comprehensive account accommodates, in one idiom or another, notions of character, consequences, duties, maxims, reasonableness, fairness, consent” (202). He is referring to Aristotle’s Ethics, Kant’s Groundwork, Mill’s On Liberty, and Rawls’s Theory. But there are no references to the pragmatists here even though this is an argument that the pragmatists made far more effectively than any of the thinkers Appiah invokes. I do not want to urge, however, that Appiah should be faulted for neglecting James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” nor even Dewey’s “Three Independent Factors in Morals” in which he argues precisely Appiah’s point that the moral life must be seen as an integration of consequences, intentions, and virtues. It is perhaps understandable that Appiah and his readers are not familiar with these admittedly obscure writings by philosophers in an outcast tradition. But it is strange, even though still not quite reproachable, that Appiah fails to mention Rorty’s more recent arguments to this effect. In a piece on his two favorite contemporary moral theorists (J.B. Schneewind and Annette Baier) published in his final volume of collected papers under the apt pragmatist title of Philosophy as Cultural Politics, Rorty writes that we should get over our “obsession with the opposition between consequentialism and non-consequentialism that still dominates Ethics 101” (2004, 191). Isn’t this also what Appiah is aiming for in calling attention to the “deeply heterogeneous” character of the best work in moral philosophy (202)?

Appiah motivates his argument for moral heterogeneity in part by appealing to the idea that many of our current philosophical dilemmas are not in fact crucial to the tasks of moral living: “From the point of view of getting on with your life, though, [these philosophical problems are] really crucial only if you’re a particularly devoted meta-ethicist” (182). He then goes on to offer a characteristically pragmatist point: “When we leave this set of problems behind, it will not be because a glorious knock-down argument has settled matters, but because, as regularly happens in the history of the moral sciences, philosophers have grown bored, for the moment, with the debate and so have moved on. And when we leave it—no doubt to return to it again in later decades or centuries—we will still be faced with the challenge of making our lives” (184). Rorty has made much of this kind of idea, for instance in the “Introduction” to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature where he describes his philosophical heroes as “setting aside” rather than “arguing against” epistemology (6). Rorty has noted that this view is really only a gloss on a view expressed long ago by Dewey, for instance this passage from 1909: “Intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume—an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them” (19). The pragmatist point is that we are not likely to figure out the old high modern dilemma of teleology versus deontology. What is more likely is that we will come to see the dilemma as outworn and unnecessary. Perhaps it will come to seem like a bad question because of some new approach to the moral project of making our lives which emphasizes the importance of integrating consequences and intentions, pleasures and wills, welfare and will.

So, you might agree, it does sound as if Appiah sounds like a pragmatist. Still, you might fairly ask, even if he sounds like a pragmatist, what’s the use in calling him one? If Appiah can make many of the points that James, Dewey, and Rorty made without relying on their words, then we should welcome him to do so. After all, there are some very unpleasant aspects of these previous pragmatisms (Rorty’s lack of confidence in philosophy or Dewey’s incautious praise of ‘science’) that Appiah should rightly wish to distinguish himself from. Certainly there is much that Appiah contributes to moral philosophy that is simply not made available in the writings of James, Dewey, and Rorty. So aside from a label which many philosophers would like to avoid, what could pragmatism positively contribute to experimental ethics?

One contribution which pragmatism can make to Appiah’s program concerns his central call for an integration of philosophy with other disciplines in exploring the questions it takes as its purview. The point of the idea of ‘experiments in ethics’ is not so much that philosophers should start performing experiments, but rather that we should start drawing on the experimental inquiries into moral living, moral psychology, moral sociology, and moral history conducted throughout the social sciences and humanities. Appiah opens thus: “This little book is an attempt to relate the business of philosophical ethics, which is my professional bailiwick, to the work of scholars in a number of other fields and to the concerns of the ordinary, thoughtful person, trying to live a decent life…. It is my argument that we should be free to avail ourselves of the resources of many disciplines to define that vision; and that in bringing them together we are being faithful to a long tradition” (1). Appiah’s book as a whole can thus be read as a kind of call for an interdisciplinary practice of philosophy. Philosophy, Appiah urges, ought to engage itself with and integrate its own inquiries into work being conducted by our colleagues in psychology, history, sociology, and anthropology. Appiah writes, “The commonplace I want to challenge is that philosophy, in having relinquished those inquiries that now belong to the physical and social sciences, has somehow become more purely itself” (2). This is the commonplace which delivered that purified state of philosophy to which Rorty so vehemently objected, on pragmatist grounds. Appiah’s point is really Rorty’s point, but seen from the other side: philosophy ought to involve itself in the work of other disciplines in order to do its work. (By the way, this was also Bernard Williams’s point, for instance in “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline.) Rorty thought that philosophy was not in a position to achieve this at least not in his lifetime (he was unfortunately right!), while Appiah thinks that philosophy might just be able to recall a more interdisciplinary vocation that would reconnect our inquiries with the best work in the philosophical tradition. Appiah offers a brief disciplinary ‘genealogy’ in his first chapter to show just how central his interdisciplinary vision was to much of the best work in philosophy in the modern period (Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill).

In that short history Appiah does not mention the pragmatists. But he would have been good to do so. For here is where pragmatism can offer at least one distinctive contribution to his project, indeed to the very core of that project in its call for the integration of philosophical inquiry with inquiries undertaken elsewhere in the academy. Rorty in many ways offers a model of integrating philosophy with work in literature and literary criticism. But given Rorty’s doubts about a renewal of ‘professional philosophy’ it is perhaps advisable to focus on the classical pragmatists who shared with Appiah a confidence about philosophy. James could provide Appiah with a useful model of how an experimental philosophy might better integrate itself with experimental work in psychology. Indeed for James philosophy and psychology were hardly separable even if he did think that there were some questions which cannot be answered in the lab and other questions which can only be answered in the lab. Dewey could offer Appiah an even more useful and detailed model of how an experimental philosophy might integrate itself with work in sociology and history. One way of understanding Dewey’s work in ethics and epistemology is to see it as growing out of his work in education undertaken at his University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which was an environment for experiment in education. At the Laboratory Schools a whole generation of progressive education got its start, but also a whole generation of pragmatist epistemology and ethics. For Dewey’s pragmatist views of morality and knowledge were directly informed by work undertaken in this experimental environment and other such environments including Jane Addams’s Hull House. Those might not be exactly the same kinds of laboratory experiments involving MRI scans and control groups to which Appiah appeals, but there is no reason why we philosophers ought to exclude the kinds of inquiries conducted by modern-day Laboratory Schools and Hull Houses.

While we may continue to disagree with some of Dewey’s conclusions in ethics and epistemology, it is undeniable that his work offers a useful and enriching model of how philosophical inquiry might proceed hand in hand with experimental inquiry conducted under the auspices of sociology, anthropology, history, and education. (Dewey’s misleading references to ‘scientific method’ are in fact nothing more than an invocation of the ‘experimental’ approach of the natural and human sciences.) Dewey’s philosophy does a remarkable job of showing how philosophy can proceed by taking as its material for reflection the results of inquiries conducted elsewhere in the social sciences and humanities. Dewey’s epistemology was not constructed out of abstracted conceptions of knowers and propositions, but rather out of the materials furnished by the experiments in knowing conducted at his Laboratory Schools. In like manner his moral and political philosophy was not built up as a search for timeless principles of justice or right, but was rather developed in conversation with the actual historical and sociological material furnished by his collaborators and colleagues. His book The Public and Its Problems, for example, is not a search for an ideal theory of justice but is an inquiry into how political and moral order questions are now changing in the face of the industrialization and commercialization which only detailed social scientific inquiry can show us the contours of. The material of Dewey’s philosophy was a material that we can experiment with and have experimented with. I take it that is, at least in part, what Appiah is calling for in calling the attention of philosophers back to a less purified and rarefied practice of philosophy in collaboration with our colleagues in other disciplines.

Appiah not only calls for this experimental and interdisciplinary conception of philosophy—he also practices it himself. We ought to take notice of this in his work. In doing so we can affirm that this work could benefit enormously from the prior engagements of previous philosophers not only with the theories he is propounding (the fallibilism and pluralism he shares with the pragmatists) but more crucially with the practice and conception of philosophy he is envisioning (the emphasis on experimental and practical primacy he shares with the pragmatists). The point of pointing out the pragmatism in Appiah’s work is not after all to claim him as a pragmatist or to insist that the pragmatists were right all along. If they had been right, then pragmatism would have worked better than it did. The point of pointing out his pragmatism is to suggest ways in which he might improve the work he is doing—so that experimental philosophy and pragmatist philosophy yet work better than they have. This, at least in pragmatist terms, would be the measure of their truth.


Written by Colin Koopman

February 28, 2008 at 1:54 am

Posted in appiah, pragmatism, rorty, x-phi

Tagged with , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. Hey,

    It’s been a few weeks without an update! How’re you?



    April 21, 2008 at 1:07 am

  2. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Bogey


    June 19, 2008 at 2:39 pm

  3. Colin,

    I stumbled across your blog while searching for book reviews of Appiah’s *Experiments in Ethics*. It’s nice to read someone examining how Appiah could be read as a latter-day pragmatist, at least in his most recent writings in moral philosophy. I’m surprised that you overlooked the pragmatist whose cultural pluralism and axiology is most similar to his, Alain Locke.

    Given that Locke could be viewed as a classical yet critical pragmatist and that his critical pragmatism dealt with issues of cosmopolitanism and value theory, he should be listed along with James, Dewey, and Rorty as one of the pragmatist whose philoosphy resembles Appiah’s. Of course, if James and Dewey are “admittedly obscure writings by philosophers in an outcast tradition,” and Appiah neglects to feature their moral philosophy in this book, I should also expect Appiah not to mention Locke’s axiology or cultural pluralism by name. Yet, he should have, given that his discussion of values in chapter 4 is very Lockean.

    Besides, Appiah is somewhat familiar with Locke’s axiology, as evidenced by his presentation on Locke as a multicultural theorist in 1997 and the blurb he wrote about Leonard Harris’ anthology, *Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond* (1989). Come to think about it, I should write a paper on this topic.

    Don’t let my criticism fool you. It’s been a pleasure reading your work as always.


    July 23, 2008 at 9:23 pm

  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Dwayne. You are entirely correct about Alain Locke. There are other classical pragmatists in the tradition who should also be named here, namely Mead and Addams, probably DuBois as well. Among more recent pragmatists I should think that Cornel West would count too. My reference to the James-Dewey-Rorty triad (sometimes with Emerson as a fourth) is just the most concise way of painting in broad strokes the sort of pragmatism that I discern hints of in Appiah. By intentionally leaving Peirce off of this list I think I say something about what I take pragmatism to be.

    I’m considering expanding on this piece and trying to turn it more into an article-ish and less a review-ish piece so let me know if you have any further thoughts or concerns.

    Note that there is now a very long discussion of Appiah’s work in response to a very interesting post by Chris Kelty over at the Savage Minds anthropology blog. The post is rightly provocative, the discussion is interesting at times, but also predictably descends to flame-throwing at times.

    And… Congrats on the GVSU hire–well done!


    July 24, 2008 at 1:27 am

  5. […] , metaphilosophy , pragmatism Tags: dewey, metaphilosophy, pragmatism Following up on some earlier thoughts about Appiah’s book about X-Phi where I made the case that the pragmatists and the experimentalists (x-phi-ers) have […]

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