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Damn the Absolute!

Jul 7, 2021

Pragmatists do not hold absolute faith in any particular value, principle, or belief. This applies even to the many concepts affiliated with pragmatists—such as pluralism, fallibilism, democracy, and naturalism.


They focus on experience as the field in which we continually test out and reconstruct our views of the world and determine what works in our particular place and time. Pragmatism is focused on concrete results in experience, judging ideas and beliefs according to their fruits and not their roots.


For a pragmatist, the world is constantly changing—not just our views or understanding of it. The questions that were relevant two millennia ago may no longer be relevant today. This requires new solutions and novel practices.


Pragmatism offers an approach to the human experience that will resonate with some, and not with others. So is pragmatism best understood as a temperament? A method? Is it a theory of truth? Or is it primarily a way of viewing the world?


In the final episode of the season, Jeffrey Howard speaks with John Stuhr. Stuhr is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and American Studies at Emory University, where he chaired the department of philosophy from 2008-2016. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy (2003); Pragmatic Fashions: Pluralism, Democracy, Relativism, and the Absurd (2016); and 100 Years of Pragmatism: The Revolutionary Philosophy of William James (2009). 


Stuhr thinks of pragmatism more as a fashion or "season of belief." It's a temporal philosophy. If reality weren't constantly changing, then we could assert a truth and hold onto it for eternity. Instead, by leaning into experience and viewing truth as provisional, we can continue to adapt to changing circumstances. This provides us with a dynamic means through which we can improve our communities and personal lives just a little more each day.


That is if we're willing to do the work, because, for a pragmatist, the future is never guaranteed.


A few questions to consider. How does pragmatism avoid devolving into reckless relativism? How might a pragmatist approach questions of what it means to live well? What is the future of philosophy and what role can pragmatism play in our pursuit of truth?


Show Notes

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (350BCE)


The Essential Works of Charles S. Peirce by Charles Peirce (2010)


Pragmatism: A New Name for an Old Way of Thinking by William James (1907)


Essays in Radical Empiricism by William James (1906)


A Pluralistic Universe by William James (1909)


The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy” by John Dewey (1917)


Experience and Nature by John Dewey (1925)


The Public and Its Problems by John Dewey (2012)


Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy by John Stuhr (2003)


Pragmatic Fashions: Pluralism, Democracy, Relativism, and the Absurd by John Stuhr (2016)


100 Years of Pragmatism: The Revolutionary Philosophy of William James edited by John Stuhr (2009)


S1E14 A Tool for a Pluralistic World w/ Justin Marshall (2021)


S1E12 Philosophers Need to Care About the Poor w/ Jacob Goodson (2021)


S1E07 Charles Peirce and Inquiry as an Act of Love w/ David O'Hara (2021)


S1E06 Levinas and James: A Pragmatic Phenomenology w/ Megan Craig (2020)


"The Power of One Idea" by Jeffrey Howard (2020)


"The Pragmatic Truth of Existentialism" by Donovan Irven (2020)