Allan Powell: Are Americans really more philosophical?

January 18, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

In his recently published book, “America The Philosophical,” Carlin Romano asserts that “America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany or any other place one can name over the past three millennia.” He supports this claim with such evidence as “degrees in philosophy and religious studies rose from 8,506 in 1998-99 to 12,444 in 2008-09, a 46 percent rise.”

This is a very bold claim when it is remembered that Alexis de Tocqueville, after a visit to America in 1831-32, wrote that no country paid “less attention” to philosophy than the United States. In addition, two scholars — Richard Hofstadter (1963) and Susan Jacoby (2008) — have reported on the widespread prevalence of anti-intellectualism in America. Does the contact with philosophy in college classrooms filter out into the general culture? Can the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Locke and Hume compete with beer and wrestling, gross hedonism, rank materialism and a vacuous fundamentalism that readily quotes Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of man, after the rudiments of the world ...”

Romano is an accomplished and sophisticated writer who provides many interesting details of American philosophers. He is, however, sometimes overly brief in sharing the actual ideas of these thinkers. This is the case in his treatment of pragmatism, a uniquely American philosophy, which deserves some attention. Since I have long been an admirer of William James, it seemed useful to share a bit of his thinking.

Pragmatism is one term in philosophy to appear with regularity in newspapers. It almost always is used in a political context and in its least philosophical form. Writers mention that President Roosevelt’s New Deal was the work of a pragmatist, by which they mean that the programs were practical, workable and useful. Even if some of these Depression programs were not totally compatible with New Deal theory, they were judged to be acceptable if they worked in ameliorating the suffering of people. Politicians who were flexible and non-doctrinaire welcomed the label “pragmatist.”

James, perhaps the most well-known promoter of pragmatism, had a much deeper and profound use for his line of thought. He wanted to elevate the pragmatic approach to the level of a test of truth — not just a mundane criteria of usefulness. At the turn of the 20th century, there were two tests of the truth value of a claim or proposition: the correspondence test and the coherence test. The correspondence test accepted as truth a claim that was supported by sufficient evidence. This is used in science. The coherence test required internal consistency within a claim or between claims.

James wanted a solution to cases in which a proposition could not be proved or disproved and did not violate any role of logic while being of great importance to those who wanted to believe the claim was true. Three such ideas were free will, immortality and the belief in the existence of God. James argued that we are justified in accepting the three claims if they made a difference in our lives when we put them to work. These ideas had intellectual “cash value” in experience. James applied this test with success in his own life.

With the popular acceptance of pragmatism, one hesitates to raise a caution about the theory that good results have the equivalence of truth. However, this is necessary. It must be realized that this test is only proof of workability. There is a huge difference between workability and truth (correspondence and coherence). The active and practical style of pragmatism is appealing to Americans and many are probably comfortable pragmatists without being aware of what it means.

Without intending to diminish the idea that Americans are the world leaders in the field of philosophy, it is important to call attention to the contribution of earlier philosophers that make up the content of so many courses in college philosophy programs. Who in America can match the contribution of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle from Greece; Kant or Hegel from Germany; Locke, Hume or John Stuart Mill from England; or Descartes and Voltaire from France? Numbers that show we excel in quantity are no match for the heritage given to us from other lands. A little humility would make Romano’s efforts more palatable.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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