Pragmatism and Existentialism

Pragmatism and Existentialism
conatus
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Posted Jul 2, 2010 - 9:38 PM:
Subject: Pragmatism and Existentialism
I'm curious at the seeming parallel development of these two forms of philosophical thought. Both developed almost simultaneously; Soren Kierkegaard/William James - John Dewey/Martin Heidegger (Sartre) etc.

Not to say they influenced each other or anything... I'm just curious in comparing both forms of thought. I don't know enough of Pragmatism to say much about it.

Thoughts?
wuliheron
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Posted Jul 2, 2010 - 10:47 PM:

Pragmatism literally evolved out of Darwin's theory of Evolution and to this day is closely related to naturalism. It emphasises the usefulness of things over any truth value they might possess. As a pragmatist myself I'd have to say that Existentialism doesn't seem terribly useful to me except possibly in psychology practices. Many of its concepts are covered by other philosophies, especially Asian ones, in more productive ways.
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Posted Jul 3, 2010 - 8:17 AM:

wuliheron wrote:
Pragmatism literally evolved out of Darwin's theory of Evolution and to this day is closely related to naturalism.
So, too, did atheistic existentialism. The nihilism and pessimism that Nietzsche was responding to grew out of the growing revelation that "God is dead" -- i.e., that our scientific advancements have removed the viability of faith in God, and with it the ordering principle of most Western civilizations. The theory of evolution, with its broad implications that were almost immediately obvious (even if not well-formulated), was a critical turning point in this development and the impetus for the questions of existentialism becoming mainstream.

wuliheron wrote:
Existentialism doesn't seem terribly useful to me except possibly in psychology practices.
Existentialism is a reaction to the thesis of existential nihilsm (the view that life and the world have no intrinsic purpose or meaning). Those who accept this thesis and despair are nihilists/pessimists. Those who accept the thesis and do not despair are existentialists. Those who reject the thesis must explain how life obtained an intrinsic meaning.

wuliheron wrote:
Many of its concepts are covered by other philosophies, especially Asian ones, in more productive ways.
The connections between existentialism and Eastern philosophy have been well-covered, and indeed there are elements of Eastern philosophy in the work of many existentialists. Henry Bugbee, for instance, is often considered both an existentialist and a Taoist. As such, I do not see why you feel the need to think of Eastern philosophy in opposition to existentialism. They are not even opposite sides of the same coin, but rather the same side of a single coin. They only look different because that coin is being used as currency in places with different exchange rates.
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Posted Jul 3, 2010 - 10:57 AM:

Postmodern Beatnik wrote:

Existentialism is a reaction to the thesis of existential nihilsm (the view that life and the world have no intrinsic purpose or meaning). Those who accept this thesis and despair are nihilists/pessimists. Those who accept the thesis and do not despair are existentialists. Those who reject the thesis must explain how life obtained an intrinsic meaning.


Well, I don't know about that... Kierkegaard speaks a lot about despair and he was definitely not a nihilist. Beauvoir and Sartre too talk about embracing despair in a positive light.
And what about the Absurdism of Camus? Where does that fit in?
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Posted Jul 3, 2010 - 1:02 PM:

I consider myself a pragmatist, but I'd prefer to keep existentialist thought as removed from pragmatism as possible. That said, there are multiple takes on pragmatist philosophy. Rorty can be considered sympathetic to postmodern and perhaps existentialist ideas, but I am not too familiar with his ideas.

Camus seems to imply that life has a sort of meaning through absurdity. There is no reason behind it. Pragmatism says pragmatic reasons are real reasons, so I don't think the two are entirely compatible. I suspect Camus would say "life has no meaning that we can determine, and the fact that we want meaning is irrelevant." A pragmatist could say "life has no meaning that we can determine, and the fact that we want meaning entails that there is a meaning of which we may create or accept for ourselves."

I don't know. I think existentialism is rather vague and nonsensical most of the time. I like a few ideas in it, but I prefer clarity in philosophy and analytical argumentation.
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Posted Jul 3, 2010 - 1:05 PM:

Postmodern Beatnik wrote:
So, too, did atheistic existentialism. The nihilism and pessimism that Nietzsche was responding to grew out of the growing revelation that "God is dead" -- i.e., that our scientific advancements have removed the viability of faith in God, and with it the ordering principle of most Western civilizations. The theory of evolution, with its broad implications that were almost immediately obvious (even if not well-formulated), was a critical turning point in this development and the impetus for the questions of existentialism becoming mainstream.


I believe you are overstating the case. I am asserting that pragmatism evolved directly from Darwin's theory, not merely that Darwin's theory had an influence on the development of pragmatism. No doubt his theory influenced any number of philosophies, but that is a moot point.

Postmodern Beatnik wrote:
Existentialism is a reaction to the thesis of existential nihilsm (the view that life and the world have no intrinsic purpose or meaning). Those who accept this thesis and despair are nihilists/pessimists. Those who accept the thesis and do not despair are existentialists. Those who reject the thesis must explain how life obtained an intrinsic meaning.


Here is what the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say on the subject:

Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy wrote:
“Existentialism”, therefore, may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence. To approach existentialism in this categorial way may seem to conceal what is often taken to be its “heart” (Kaufmann 1968:12), namely, its character as a gesture of protest against academic philosophy, its anti-system sensibility, its flight from the “iron cage” of reason. But while it is true that the major existential philosophers wrote with a passion and urgency rather uncommon in our own time, and while the idea that philosophy cannot be practiced in the disinterested manner of an objective science is indeed central to existentialism, it is equally true that all the themes popularly associated with existentialism—dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness, and so on—find their philosophical significance in the context of the search for a new categorial framework, together with its governing norm.


Thus existentialism does not include every school of thought that accepts "...the view that life and the world have no intrinsic purpose or meaning".

Postmodern Beatnik wrote:
The connections between existentialism and Eastern philosophy have been well-covered, and indeed there are elements of Eastern philosophy in the work of many existentialists. Henry Bugbee, for instance, is often considered both an existentialist and a Taoist. As such, I do not see why you feel the need to think of Eastern philosophy in opposition to existentialism. They are not even opposite sides of the same coin, but rather the same side of a single coin. They only look different because that coin is being used as currency in places with different exchange rates.


I didn't say they were in opposition, merely that Asian schools have covered much of the same ground in more productive ways. If for no other reason then because they have been around for eons, while existentialism is a relative infant.
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Posted Jul 3, 2010 - 3:56 PM:

conatus wrote:
I don't know enough of Pragmatism to say much about it.

Thoughts?


I would say pragmatism is more of an attitude than a school of thought. In other words, it doesn't make claims about how things are, as in you don't come in a toolshed and ask "What is the best tool here?". Rather, you choose a tool for a specific task at hand. So, if believing in gods and tooth fairies is what it makes you tick, all the best to you.

Existentialism has some metaphysical assertions which I'd rather not discuss due to my lack of expertise. But I find myself sympathetic towards existentialism, because as a pragmatist, I find existentialism serving a valuable purpose in my worldview.

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Posted Jul 3, 2010 - 4:27 PM:

conatus wrote:
Well, I don't know about that... Kierkegaard speaks a lot about despair and he was definitely not a nihilist.
Read my post again: none of the existentialists are nihilists -- they reject nihilism. But the atheistic existentialists, who were the explicit subject matter of my post, do accept the thesis of existential nihilism.

conatus wrote:
Beauvoir and Sartre too talk about embracing despair in a positive light.
Context is everything. The reaction they endorse is still at odds with the more Schopenhauerian pessimism that characterizes existentialism.

conatus wrote:
And what about the Absurdism of Camus? Where does that fit in?
This is a matter of some contention among scholars. Was Camus an existentialist? Is absurdism a form of existentialism? Perhaps. On the rather loose definition I have given, this would certainly follow. Others, however, want to separate the two based on more specific elements of their respective responses to the existential nihilism. On this interpretation, existentialists reject the pursuit of intrinsic meaning in favor of creating their own meanings. Absurdists, meanwhile, suggest that there may be meaning in the pursuit of intrinsic meaning despite its non-existence. In this way, absurdism might be seen as a middle ground between theistic and atheistic existentialism. Then again, that perhaps pushes back towards the first interpretation.

As such, we might end up with a picture that looks something like the following: the thesis of existential nihilism is a strong one, and we must be skeptical regarding either the existence of intrinsic meaning or at least our ability to discover it (pending new arguments from realists). One reaction -- that of the nihilists/pessimists -- is to accept the existential nihilism and despair at that fact. The other side -- that of the existentialists -- does not despair. Whether one accepts the thesis of existential nihilism or simply suspends judgment and how one recommends we move forward from there determines to what school of existentialism one belong: the atheistic school, the absurdist school, or the theistic school.

This more complex picture gets my tentative endorsement, but I in no way hold that the matter is clear-cut.
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Posted Jul 3, 2010 - 4:56 PM:

wuliheron wrote:
I believe you are overstating the case.
No more than you are.

wuliheron wrote:
I am asserting that pragmatism evolved directly from Darwin's theory, not merely that Darwin's theory had an influence on the development of pragmatism.
And I see no greater case for that then there is for other philosophers. Darwinian evolution is primarily credited with influencing the Pragmatists' epistemology, yet the same influence is there in the epistemologies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Furthermore, Peirce's early epistemological work -- including his famous "pragmatic maxim" -- arose out of his work on logic and attempt to respond to early modern philosophers (particularly Descartes). Darwin had little or nothing to do with it.

And in fact, almost all of the major "Pragmatist innovations" have parallels in other philosophers of the time -- and all of them have parallels in the work of Nietzsche. Why should we count one iteration of an idea as directly evolving from Darwin while calling other iterations of what amounts to the same basic idea merely "influenced by Darwin"?

wuliheron wrote:
Here is what the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say on the subject:
Thank you for corroborating my point. That passage really did the trick.

wuliheron wrote:
Thus existentialism does not include every school of thought that accepts "...the view that life and the world have no intrinsic purpose or meaning".
Which would be a really great point if I had said otherwise. But, of course, I did not. Indeed, I explicitly said the opposite, since nihilists/pessimists accept this view but are not existentialists. Because they refuse to join in, as the SEP puts it, "the search for a new categorial framework, together with its governing norm."

wuliheron wrote:
I didn't say they were in opposition, merely that Asian schools have covered much of the same ground in more productive ways. If for no other reason then because they have been around for eons, while existentialism is a relative infant.
Fair enough. From your first post, however, it seemed like you wanted to think of them as thoroughly separate views that were perhaps addressing similar subjects.
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Posted Jul 3, 2010 - 5:05 PM:

DJPavel wrote:
I would say pragmatism is more of an attitude than a school of thought.
Well, there is a school of Pragmatism, and then there is being pragmatic. The two are certainly related, but I wouldn't want to say that the former is just the latter.

DJPavel wrote:
But I find myself sympathetic towards existentialism, because as a pragmatist, I find existentialism serving a valuable purpose in my worldview.
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