American Pragmatism

Last week, I read news that Center for John Dewey Studies was being inaugurated at the Savithribai Phule Pune University in collaboration with University of Texas, Austin. Yesterday, on the Art of Manliness podcast, I heard about two American philosophies – American Transcendentalism and American Pragmatism, with philosopher John Kaag.

Of importance to me and the link between these two events is that these are philosophies which John Dewey believed in. He passed on this influence further to the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. It is believed that this influenced him while working on the Indian constitution. Below are my notes from the podcast:

Kaag believes that American Transcendentalism is situated around three philosophers – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. The Transcendentalists believed in freedom from societal constraints and the idea of self-reliance and breaking away from traditions set by European philosophy. However, Emerson believed that this needs to be tempered with compassion. He wrote about this in an essay called Compensation in which he says that the freedom is always in tension with or operates within a cosmos of give and take. It is believed that this idea was inspired from his study of the Bhagavad Gita and broadly with his reading of Indian metaphysics and with the idea of karma.

This is broadly expressed in Transcendentalism as an individual existing within a cosmic whole, that an individual does not lead a solitary existence and that an individual continuously negotiates his freedom within the Society or cosmos he exists in.

The challenge to American Transcendentalism came from Charles Darwin and his work, On the Origin of Species. This posited that humans are just evolved animals. The question then arose that if we were just animals, then will we not be dictated by natural laws and hence, does free will exist?

The American Pragmatists provide the answer to this by trying to reconcile free will and morals with Science. They also appear after the American Civil War (1861-1865), where they see how a strict adherence to ideology and dogma leads to violence and conflict. American Pragmatism is built by philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Pragmatism believed in securing human freedom and human dignity in response to changes seen in Industrial Revolution. They believed Philosophy should be world ready and that philosophical truth should be based on practical consequences.

Kaag believes that William James read a French philosopher, Charles Renouvier, who believed that there is no empirical proof for the existence of free will. However, if one believed that there was such a thing as free will then it would create a world where there was free will. James expands on this concept and says that there are certain concepts in the world like God, Love, Free Will etc. for which there is no empirical evidence possible. Here, the standard method of Science fails because they miss things that happens below a certain level of consciousness, small nuances and an unseen order.

So, the Pragmatists answer the question of whether life is worth living without free will with Maybe. They push the onus on the live-r. They believe that the experience of the important life events are not based on certainty but on maybes. James believes that exercising our freedoms while living life with others and negotiating our freedoms while living our life, is what makes our life worth living. They believed that there is a connection between freedom and love based on this maybe.They believed more in the experience of the real world.

Kaag believes that Pragmatism as an idea went out of vogue in the 1950s when Philosophy became more logical and followed the footsteps of Mathematics rather than staying with the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I have not read any of the original thinkers mentioned on this podcast or the news item, Dewey and Ambedkar. Hearing the podcast, I think it would be worth reading them in the original. Naval Ravikant has tweeted and mentioned in other podcasts that reading “On The Origin of Species” in the original is possible. Hence, it may be worth reading the American philosophers, Emerson, James, Fuller and Thoreau, in the original as well. Of these, I have only tried reading and listening to Thoreau so far. However, I have ended up sleeping during both of my efforts. Perhaps, I should start with someone else?

What could be their contribution to our world today? It could perhaps ween us away from the strict adherence to ideology and dogma that we experience daily in the news and on social media. It could also help us understand that we are all rational beings capable of making decisions. Hence, we must respect others and the decisions they make that they have this rational capacity. There are some things that Science can explain and some that Science is yet to explain. We need to understand thing in the scientific way where evidence exists and be open to the possibility of the role of Spirituality where Science is not able to provide compelling answers yet. We need to spend more time experiencing life offline where experiences are shared and real and not try to argue in abstract terms. I would love to read the book that this podcast is based on, American Philosophy: A Love Story.