Ben Franklin, Pragmatist

[…] I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but, each of them having afterwards wrong’d me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another freethinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho’ it might be true, was not very useful.


From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (emphasis mine).

Compare William James, one hundred years or so later:

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?–fated or free?–material or spiritual?–here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.

– From Pragmatism.

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  1. Dude…

    Are you becoming a pragmatist???

    That was one of the major subjects that you and I used to disagree about thoroughly….

    Please say it isn’t so!!! 😉

    Just kidding…

    In any case.. I agree with both Franklin and James… what is really important is to know what the actual worldly affect is. Ideas are definitely important, of course, because they inspire and they can direct you in new directions… but arguments over ideas just for themselves is silly… because if they truly do not apply to the world in which we live.. then arguments about such ideas is just mental masturbation… it may be fun.. but it really doesn’t have a lasting impact on anything…

    I need another bloody mary…

    1. of course..

      I meant “effect”…

      need more booze… (and coffee…)

      and While I’m at it.. can you please come visit again sometime… and do it when I might actually get to chat with you and Stacey… (sp?)

      That would be cool…

      1. Re: of course..

        I would really like to. In fact, Madison is on my short list of places to go, given an opportunity to travel in the near future. My chief regret from my last visit is that I never got a chance to sit down and chat with you.

    2. Re: Dude…

      In the William Jamesian sense, I am an unabashed pragmatist! Particularly when it comes to religion and spirituality, which is where he most famously applied it. Hence my constantly hauling out of that quote of Puddleglum’s in The Silver Chair. The more I deal with my inherent mysticism and need for spirituality and the necessity of reconciling that with my hardheaded skepticism and rationality, the more I cling to James’ insight, stated so succinctly by Franklin, that a belief does not need to be strictly true to be useful. “Healing fictions” is, I believe, the term that James Hillman uses. If holding on to a particular idea can make you measurably successful at fulfilling your full potential, well then by all means hold on!

      I confess I still cling to a certain idealism in matters political. But I try to anchor this in reality… this is why I am trying to acquire a more fully-rounded education, historically, economically, politically, psychologically. I feel certain things to be right in my bones… things like liberty and autonomy. But I endeavor to be able to justify them on practical grounds, not just on moral grounds. And where the principles fall down in practice, or seem to, I want to know.

  2. Kind of like my feelings about the whole field of philosophy. The world wouldn’t change if it were gone. Sometimes it can be fun to talk about thing that have no practical value to change anything, but argueing about them is beyond irritatiing.

    1. Philosophy is, to a great degree, a wank. But I disagree that if it went away it would change nothing. How we feel about the world may not change the world itself, but it may alter how we behave – which is James’ point. He doesn’t reject philosophy as a whole; he just insists that it be examined with respect to what effect holding a given belief has on the outward behavior of the holder. If it has no effect, then it is devoid of real meaning no matter how elegant it might be. If, on the other hand, that person is moved to do certain things in accordance with that belief which they would otherwise not have done, it’s value must be judged on what positive or negative actions it inspired.

      Thus, for instance, if a person adopts a belief in invisible pink unicorns which cannot be seen, felt, heard, touched, or detected in any way, the belief is moot from the Jamesian point of view, because it has no effect on how that person deals with the world. If, on the other hand, they adopt a fatalistic, deterministic philosophy and as a consequence withdraw completely from life because there is no point, then their philosophy has real repercussions, and can be evaluated as good or bad accordingly.

      Ultimately James uses this test to defend religious belief, because he saw it resulting in beneficial changes in the believers.

  3. additionally, some of socrates’ antagonists in plato’s dialogues presage pragmatism. 🙂

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