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The main features of classical pragmatism in the social sciences

The inquiry theory

The inquiry as fixation of belief in Peirce

In The Fixation of Belief (1877), Peirce thinks of inquiry not as the pursuit of truth per se, but as a struggle to move from irritating and inhibiting doubt to the security of a belief that prepares for action. In Peirce, we have seen, belief is both an “active rule in us” and an “intelligent habit according to which we will act when the occasion presents itself”. For Peirce there are four methods of inquiry (Claudine Tiercelin speaks of “four methods of fixing belief”):

  1. The method of tenacity — If for Peirce we can admire in this method its “strength, its simplicity, its direct character”, we must also note that it leads to ignoring contrary information, which creates tensions against which the tenacity will not be able to resist.
  2. The method of authority — In this case, the State will have a role of indoctrination. If this method can prove to be formidable, nevertheless it cannot answer all the questions and prevent individuals from thinking, from comparing with what is done elsewhere.
  3. The method known as a priori or “of what is pleasing to reason”. In this case the truth of belief depends on its pleasantness. If this method is more intellectually respectable than the other two, nevertheless it makes belief depend on capricious and accidental elements, in the Aristotelian sense.
  4. The method of science — In this case the inquiry assumes that it is possible to discover reality (Claudine Tiercelin calls this the “reality hypothesis”) regardless of any particular opinion, so unlike other methods, scientific inquiry can invalidate the belief, criticize it, correct it or improve it.

Peirce holds that while, in practical matters, slow and hesitant ratiocination is dangerously inferior to instinct or a traditional reflex, the scientific method is more suited to theoretical research and is superior to others because it is deliberately designed to trying to arrive at safer beliefs that can lead to better practices.


Process, ethics and personality

For John Dewey, the pragmatic philosopher who has studied the question extensively, democracy is not only a mode of government, it also has a moral significance and constitutes a way of managing value conflicts: one can conceive of the dominance of democracy, as a way of life, as the necessary participation of every adult human being in the formation of the values ​​which regulate the lives of men in common.

For Dewey, to think that democracy is only a form of government is like thinking that a church is only a building, it is to forget the essential. For him, the essential purpose of democracy is ethics, that is to say the development of personality.

”The true meaning of equality is synonymous with the definition of democracy given by James Russell Lowell. It is the form of society in which every man has a chance and knows that he has it-and we may add, a chance to which no possible limits can be put, a chance which is truly infinite, the chance to become a person. Equality, in short, is the ideal of humanity; an ideal in the consciousness of which democracy lives and moves.”

It should be noted that the individual is not seen as an atom but as a being in relation to others. This induces two consequences: 1) the rejection of the theories of the social contract à la Rousseau since among them, relations pre-exist to society 2) that the essential thing is that individuals develop their personality in complete equality. If for him, philosophy and democracy are linked, it is because in both cases the choices cannot be imposed from outside. In both cases, in connection with pragmatist anthropology, it is through discussion, questions and reflections that our convictions are formed and the institutions that structure the democratic process must lend themselves to this. In pragmatism, institutions are contingent and must be constantly evolving.

Social hope

Pragmatism remains marked by two ideas that irrigate or at least irrigated American democracy at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the importance of projecting oneself into the future and making decisions accordingly, and the idea that time allows inventions, constructions of the future. For Jean-Pierre Cometti, pragmatism has retained from Darwinism that “time constitutes the horizon in which what has value in our eyes can and must develop”. Like the utilitarians, the pragmatists believe that there are goals which must be pursued and that to be so successfully, they must be so by the majority, hence the problem of discussion and conflicts of values, settled through democratic processes.

Pragmatism and art

John Dewey, in Art as Experience, a work based on the William James Lectures given at Harvard, develops a more holistic form of what art, culture and the everyday experience of these are. Indeed, art, for Dewey, is or should be part of everyone’s creative life and not just the product of a privileged and restricted group of artists. He also emphasizes that the public is more than a passive recipient: it is an actor in the art. Dewey’s treatment of art departs from the transcendental approach to aesthetics following Immanuel Kant, which emphasizes the uniqueness of art and the altruistic nature of aesthetic appreciation.

A prominent contemporary pragmatic aesthetician is Joseph Margolis. He defines a work of art as “a physically embodied and culturally emergent entity”, a human “expression” that is not an ontological whim but commensurate with other human activities and cultures in general.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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