requiem for certainty

Archive for the ‘hope’ Category

William James’s Ethics of Faith

with 11 comments

William James’s writings on philosophical ethics are a vexed collection.  Though James’s moral contributions are quite wide in their range, there can be little doubt that most of the attention he has received in these respects has been focused on his work on the ethics of belief, including the infamous essay “The Will to Believe”. (A quick and nonscientific survey of The Philosopher’s Index on April 23, 2010 revealed 91 hits for “Will to Believe” versus 6 hits for “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, even though most commentators would regard as James’s most sustained contribution to philosophical ethics.)  For the most part, the interpretations and criticisms commonly put forward concerning the ethics of beliefs has tended to treat these writings in an isolated fashion that fails to make connections to James’s other contributions to philosophical ethics.

The standard treatment is unfortunate because what is needed is exactly what we lose by failing to take James seriously on these matters.  Faith, thought James, is much-needed in our world today.  But it something that many of us, myself included, know precious little about.  The causes of this would be difficult to discern.  But the story would probably have something to do with the late-nineteenth century culture wars between voluntaristic religious outlooks and evidentialist scientific outlooks.  The history of the twentieth century shows that science won that war.  Perhaps this was for the better.  But religion (or at least morality in a capacious sense, such that religion would be one species of the wider genus) provided something that science can never muster of its own accord, namely faith in uncertifiable possibility.  If there is no longer a place for traditional religion in our scientific culture, then it would behoove us to make a place for something else by which we might find our way to faith.  For faith is needful now more than ever, as James himself well understood over one hundred years ago.  We live, now more than ever, in a world of immense fragility, threadbare possibility, and thoroughgoing chance.  Finding oneself at home in such a world would be greatly assisted by founding faith within oneself.  Hence the importance of James’s contributions to ethics for us today. Read the rest of this entry »


Written by Colin Koopman

April 26, 2010 at 4:33 am

Book Cover, New Job, &c.

with 7 comments

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated anything here.  That’s a sign of business not laziness, of course.  (It’s also a function of the increasingly-useful way in which status updates are handled on facebook.)

Two main pieces of news.

First, I am now living up in Eugene, Oregon where I have a one-year appointment as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Oregon.  I am (if it’s not obvious) quite pleased to be up here: great colleagues, great graduate students, great program, and a great place to live.

Hunkering down for a solid year of solid work in Eugene should give me the opportunity to update the blog more often.  So I plan to start on that.

Second, it now appears as if my book Pragmatism as Transition: Historicity and Hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty will be out with Columbia University Press very soon (sometime next month, apparently).  I was quite pleased that Columbia was able to get the rights to an image of the painting that I have long hoped would grace the cover of the book, Ducham’s Nude Descending a Staircase, no.2.  You can read a little more about the book on Columbia UP’s website.

So, more soon I hope.  I’m investing lots of time in lots of projects right now.  Some of them will be bloggable in short order.

Written by Colin Koopman

October 1, 2009 at 11:45 pm

“There is no understanding of Obama without an understanding of Pragmatism”

with one comment

Check out Aboulafia on Obama’s pragmatism over at TPM (or over at Aboulafia’s blog).

Aboulafia’s point: Obama the experimentalist, Obama the fallibilist, Obama the pluralist.  All that is missing here: Obama the meliorist (a fancy word for ‘hope-ism’).  And that is where he might really make a difference in reinvigorating a pragmatist, an American, a democratic politics of self-governance.

Written by Colin Koopman

December 20, 2008 at 10:10 pm

Obama Meliorism and Obama Criticism

with 9 comments

Well what an exciting time!

Obama’s acceptance speech last night offered a true occasion for pause, reflection, and consideration.  I would like to do a much fuller analysis and thanks to some of my students this morning my wheels are really turning about this just now.  But until such time as I can find time to write more let me flag two themes:

“Unyielding hope” – Obama is a meliorist (even if he, knowledgeable as he is, may have to look that word up).  The meliorist is the one who holds dear the conviction that we can, through our own efforts, make better lives for our selves.  The meliorist is neither the pessimist who sees gloom nor the optimist who sees brightness as automatically given.  Betterment is our doing, our energy, our achievement: so says the meliorist.  That Obama is a meliorist makes him a pragmatist and an American of the best variety our history has to offer.  (If you want to see something like a scholarly argument for this last point see my article “Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Hope“, which is a shorter and earlier version of Chapter One of my forthcoming book.)

“This is your election” – Obama is pushing participatory democracy which is much welcome after the eight long dark years of elitist democracy as foisted on us by Bush et. al..  I keep coming back to something Cornel West said in, I believe, his appearance on Bill Maher with Mos Def (but it may have been elsewhere).  He said that he would celebrate all night when Obama was elected but the next day he would wake up and become his biggest critic.  This seems so valuable to me just now because one finally has the sense that the President will welcome that criticism.  Of course one should not expect that Obama himself would actively respond to all of his critics, though it is plausible that he may have some dialogue with West at some point.  What one should expect rather would be that Obama would welcome as vitally important for democracy the process of that criticism and its more extreme forms, such as civil disobedience.  This is in many ways an emphatic inspiration for amateur cultural critics like myself.

If there was one bit of rhetoric in the speech which I did not care for it was the worn-out gesture for something called “national unity” all wrapped up with the bow of a pretty reference to Lincoln.  That much unity is apolitical.  Politics requires a healthy exchange between consensus and dissent.  Let us not pretend that division and difference ever stands in the way of our better unyielding hopes.

Here is what I would like to learn to take away from this moment: For our democracy to work we all must contribute what we can.  For some of us this contribution will be a work that is simultaneously meliorative and critical, hopeful and unsettling, progressive and destabilizing.

Written by Colin Koopman

November 6, 2008 at 7:18 am