Essays in Experimental Logic

Chapter 13: An Added Note as to the "Practical"

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

It is easier to start a legend than to prevent its continued circulation. No misconception of the instrumental logic has been more persistent than the belief that it makes knowledge merely a means to a practical end, or to the satisfaction of practical needs —practical being taking to signify some quite definite utilities of a material or bread-and-butter type. Habitual associations aroused by the word "pragmatic" have been stronger than the most explicit and emphatic statements which any pragmatist has been able to make. But I again affirm that the term "pragmatic" means only the rule of referring all thinking, all reflective considerations, to consequences for final meaning and test. Nothing is said about the nature of the consequences; they may be aesthetic, or moral, or political, or religious in quality—anything you please. All that the theory requires is that they be in some way consequences of thinking; not, indeed, of it alone, but of it acted upon in connection with other things. This is no after-thought inserted to lessen the force of objections. Mr. Peirce explained that he took the term "pragmatic" from Kant, in order to denote empirical consequences. When he refers to their practical character it is only to indicate

(331) a criterion by which to avoid purely verbal disputes. Different consequences are alleged to constitute rival meanings of a term. Is a difference more than merely one of formulation ? The way to get an answer is to ask whether, if realized, these consequences would exact of us different modes of behavior. If they do not make such a difference in conduct the difference between them is conventional. It is not that consequences are themselves practical, but that practical consequences from them may at times be appealed to in order to decide the specific question of whether two proposed meanings differ save in words. Mr. James says expressly that what is important is that the consequences should be specific, not that they should be active. When he said that general notions must "cash in," he meant of course that they must be translatable into verifiable specific things. But the words "cash in" were enough for some of his critics, who pride themselves upon a logical rigor unattainable by mere pragmatists.

In the logical version of pragmatism termed instrumentalism, action or practice does indeed play a fundamental rôle. But it concerns not the nature of consequences but the nature of knowing. To use a term which is now more fashionable (and surely to some extent in consequence of pragmatism) than it was earlier, instrumentalism means a behaviorist theory of thinking and knowing. It means that knowing is literally something which we do; that

(332) analysis is ultimately physical and active; that meanings in their logical quality are standpoints, attitudes, and methods of behaving toward facts, and that active experimentation is essential to verification. Put in another way, it holds that thinking does not mean any transcendent states or acts suddenly introduced into a previously natural scene, but that the operations of knowing are (or are artfully derived from) natural responses of the organism, which constitute knowing in virtue of the situation of doubt in which they arise and in virtue of the uses of inquiry, reconstruction, and control to which they are put. There is no warrant in the doctrine for carrying over this practical quality into the consequences in which action culminates, and by which it is tested and corrected. A knowing as an act is instrumental to the resultant controlled and more significant situation; this does not imply anything about the intrinsic or the instrumental character of the consequent situation. That is whatever it may be in a given case.

There is nothing novel nor heterodox in the notion that thinking is instrumental. The very word is redolent of an Organum —whether novum or veterum. The term "instrumentality," applied to thinking, raises at once, however, the question of whether thinking as a tool falls within or without the subject-matter which it shapes into knowledge. The answer of formal logic (adopted moreover by Kant and followed in some way by all neo-Kantian logics) is unambigu-

(333) -ous. To call logic "formal" means precisely that mind or thought supplies forms foreign to the original subject-matter, but yet required in order that it should have the appropriate form of knowledge. In this regard it deviates from the Aristotelian Organon which it professes to follow. For according to Aristotle, the processes of knowing —of teaching and learning— which lead up to knowledge are but the actualization through the potentialities of the human body of the same forms or natures which are previously actualized in Mature through the potentialities of extra-organic bodies. Thinking which is not instrumental to truth, which is merely formal in the modern sense, would have been a monstrosity inconceivable to him. But the discarding of the metaphysics of form and matter, of cyclic actualizations and eternal species, deprived the Aristotelian "thought" of any place within the scheme of things, and left it an activity with forms alien to subject-matter. To conceive of thinking as instrumental to truth or knowledge, and as a tool shaped out of the same subject-matter as that to which it is applied, is but to return to the Aristotelian tradition about logic. That the practice of science has in the meantime substituted a logic of experimental discovery (of which definition and classification are themselves but auxiliary- tools) for a logic of arrangement and exposition of what is already known, necessitates, however, a very different sort of Organon. It makes

(334) necessary the conception that the object of knowledge is not something with which thinking sets out, but something with which it ends: something which the processes of inquiry and testing, that constitute thinking, themselves produce. Thus the object of knowledge is practical in the sense that it depends upon a specific kind of practice for its existence— for its existence as an object of knowledge. How practical it may be in any other sense than this is quite another story. The object of knowledge marks an achieved triumph, a secured control — that holds by the very nature of knowledge. What other uses it may have depends upon its own inherent character, not upon anything in the nature of knowledge. We do not know the origin and nature and the cure of malaria till we can both produce and eliminate malaria; the value of either the production or the removal depends upon the character of malaria in relation to other things. And so it is with mathematical knowledge, or with knowledge of politics or art. Their respective objects are not known till they are made in course of the process of experimental thinking. Their usefulness when made is whatever, from infinity to zero, experience may subsequently determine it to be.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2