Pragmatism as philosophical tool design

by Dave Maier

One problem plaguing contemporary anti-Cartesians (pragmatists, Wittgensteinians, hermeneutic philosophers, etc.) is that it can seem that we are competing against each other, trying to do better than everyone else what we all want to do: get past the dualisms and other infelicities of the modern picture while at the same time absorbing its lessons and retaining its good aspects. We waste our time fighting each other instead of our common enemy. Why is it so hard to see ourselves as all on the same team?

One reason is that when push comes to shove, or even before that, we simply follow traditional philosophical practice by providing arguments to show that we are right and they are wrong, thus construing the differences among our views as constituting differences in belief rather than, for example, the practical differences between different tools or perspectives. It is as if we have internalized the traditional criticisms: that we have abandoned objective truth and the objective world it represents in favor of our own subjective purposes. No, we say, watch us talk among ourselves! We care about truth just as much as you! Phenomenology is false and pragmatism is true, as my fully rigorous and entirely professional argument shows! Assent is required, on pain of irrationality!

Even when we’re not fighting among ourselves in this way, that same metaphilosophical ideal can still cause trouble. For instance, I have chosen to present my particular brand of anti-Cartesianism as a characteristically pragmatist philosophy. Naturally I draw inspiration and/or ideas from philosophers who do not identify as pragmatists (after all, we all reject the Cartesian mirror of nature). But in practice this can lead to some discomfort. If while pushing a pragmatist line I help myself to a Wittgensteinian (or Davidsonian or Nietzschean) insight, the question will naturally arise: what entitles me to enlist these people in my cause? Am I saying Wittgenstein or Davidson was a pragmatist? What should I make of the differences between these very different philosophers?

I might at that point try to show how, in this case, I am merely using Wittgensteinian or Davidsonian language to state a point I have already shown to be a pragmatist one. But most of the time that will take us too far afield. Instead, the natural thing to say is that, putting aside the larger issue of the relation of Wittgenstein’s views to pragmatism, I can help myself to this particular insight because it’s true. That is, anyone who agrees with it may, without further justification or contextualization, help themselves to it simply because it gets things right, and getting things right does not depend on why we care or whatever else we might want to say.

I don’t want to reject this thought entirely, as a central aim of pragmatism as I see it is to push back against the sorts of contemporary skepticism which would have us reject the very idea of “getting things right.” On the other hand, we need to be careful not to let back in through the back door the same pernicious conceptions of objectivity and truth that we’re rightly throwing out the window. Specifically, in using philosophical arguments to present our views, we must be careful to align our conceptions of their substance and import, on the one hand, with that of their nature and form, on the other. If metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy, that is, our philosophical commitments should be manifested on both sides of that schema, even when the nature of philosophy is not our explicit subject.

There is naturally a bit of a chicken and egg problem here. How can I mount a philosophical attack on pernicious philosophical doctrines if I’m not even doing “philosophy” in the same sense as my opponent? It seems that if I simply follow my own rules – the ones appropriate for use once my critique of traditional philosophy has gone through – then I can be seen as begging the question. The traditional philosopher will see such a criticism as not really applying to him. The crudest example of this is when we dismiss facile relativism on grounds of self-refutation, saying “well, relativism isn’t true-for-me.” Pragmatism too has been subject to summary dismissal on similar grounds. Why, traditional philosophers ask, should I exchange the traditional goal of objective truth for that of mere subjective utility, since I don’t find the latter to be useful, given my stated goals? Pragmatism can only make progress in its critique by playing the traditional game; but to play that game just is to give the game away at the start, or at the very least to play with a severe handicap.

How to proceed? First, let’s abandon whatever lingering thoughts we may have of using philosophical arguments to force traditional philosophers, on pain of irrationality, to adopt a conception of philosophy according to which it is illegitimate to try to use philosophical arguments to force one’s opponents to accept one’s claims on pain of irrationality. Besides the inconsistency made manifest by that description, let’s recognize that even if traditional philosophy is not what we take ourselves to be doing, there’s quite a bit of useful wisdom and even workable doctrine to be found there. And of course there’s nothing essentially invalid in trying to show one’s opponents to be committed to logical inconsistency, nor should we shrug that possibility off as not worth worrying about. Pragmatists, at least, do consider logical inconsistency as something to be avoided, and pragmatist epistemology isn’t so different from traditional varieties in at least that respect.

Instead, let’s leave traditional philosophers alone, at least for now, and get clear on the advantages and proper uses of the concept of pragmatic utility, as manifested, for example, in the image of the tool. 

1. The self-consistency of the tool image as applied to philosophy

Once the image of the tool is adopted as a model, the issue of self-consistency comes immediately into better focus. Traditional philosophy presents itself as admirably self-consistent: the conception of philosophy as getting reality right, they naturally claim, gets (philosophical) reality right, and one must accept the model of argument as forcing agreement on pain of irrationality, on pain of irrationality. But once we abandon the attempt to play by their rules, we do at least as well ourselves. Viewing philosophy as the design, marketing, and use of philosophical tools isn’t simply useful in terms of bringing about desirable cultural goals, let alone individual desires; it’s helpful in allowing us to see how to take advantage of the multiple distinct strands of anti-Cartesian thought.

Indeed, if we give up trying to force people to accept the pragmatist conception of philosophy, allowing it to take its proper form, it can now show itself to best advantage. Which philosophical positions will be of most use to me – those, though otherwise not particularly attractive, the negation of which I have been unwillingly forced, by what may seem a mere technical infelicity, to abandon? At best such things will be only grudgingly accepted, never used, and disposed of at the first opportunity, like a poorly chosen birthday gift. Much better will be those which have been specifically designed for my use, helping to solve problems for which I have purposely sought out resources. In accepting them, I take myself not simply to shed an inconvenient inconsistency, but instead to meet what I had already regarded as a felt need.

The tool image easily makes sense of this thought. As a salesman (ideally anyway; bear with me here), I have no interest in grabbing people off the street and dragging them into my store. Even if this were ethical, it would be hard to make the sale in any case. Nor am I interested in selling everyone the most expensive or top-of-the-line model. Instead, I want to match my customers to the particular tool which best meets their needs. Essential to this process is understanding what they need it for, their resource budget, the learning curve, which other tools they may already possess, the various tradeoffs in power, versatility, etc., and so on. All of this was prohibited as unacceptably subjective in the old game; but now it is the entire point.

The thought then naturally applies at the other pole of the metaphilosophical schema as well. Every philosophy encounters the same phenomena and is of use only if it helps us make sense of them: agency, language, knowledge, normativity, and so on. Pragmatist philosophy is attractively self-consistent when what it says about agency, objectivity, and so on helps make sense of not simply those things on their own, but the nature of philosophy as well. Just as the objectivist metaphysics of traditional philosophy makes sense of its characteristic method, so should pragmatist reconstruals of objectivity, inquiry, and so on do the same. And that is indeed what we see in, for example, the contextualist flavor of pragmatist epistemology and the nuanced semantic externalism of its philosophy of language, but most of all in the resolute anti-dualism of its metaphysics, to which we now turn.

2. Tools have two ends

As we’ve seen, the traditional knock against all of our philosophical teammates, but pragmatism in particular, is that in privileging utility (or, in Richard Rorty’s formulation, solidarity) over objectivity, we turn away from the world which is its proper object toward a focus on the subjective, which can only lead to bias, error, and indeed sophistry, philosophy’s ancient enemy. Proper use of the tool image shows this accusation to be nonsensical.

Proper tool design recognizes that tools have two ends: I’ll call them the handle and the blade. A knife without a handle cannot be used properly any more than one without a blade. Each has its own proper design principles, but in each knife the handle and the blade must be properly balanced for the tool to be effective. To design the blade, we must consider the nature and properties of the material making it up as well as of the objects in the world which we will be using the tool to manipulate. That is, an improperly designed tool is just as vulnerable to criticism that the designer has failed to get the world right as is any factual statement about it. It is because topaz is an extremely hard substance – an objective fact which one might get wrong – that one must use diamond, an even harder substance, to cut it, or the tool will fail. In diagnosing such a failure, again, we focus not so much on what we were trying to do – the designer got that part right – but instead on how the world really is. We have not turned away from the objective world after all.

To design the handle, on the other hand, we must consider who is using the tool to do what in which circumstances, and so on. This is naturally analogous to the “merely subjective” aspects of our tool; yet they are, first, equally important for its proper use, and second, equally susceptible to being gotten wrong. It is because I am in fact not as strong as an Olympic athlete that a tool designed for my use cannot have the same heft. As even such a committed dualist as Thomas Nagel points out (in a rather different context, not surprisingly) subjectivity is just as “objective” a feature of the world as is objectivity.

Just as important as each is the relation, or balance, between the two aspects. Straightforwardly, a tool designed for delicate work, and whose blade is designed accordingly, must also have the proper handle to manipulate it in the necessary way. (There are of course many other sorts of tools, allowing the metaphor a great deal of flexibility, but you get the idea so I’ll stop.) Similarly, again, pragmatist metaphysics does not abandon objectivity in favor of the subjective, but simply (or not so simply) reconstrues them as no longer dualistically opposed, so that we may focus on each in abstraction as appropriate, while still recognizing their interaction (and indeed, as I like to say, their interconstitutivity).

3. Tools can be designed to work together

Finally (for today anyway), the tool image helps provide a better model for philosophical cooperation than does argumentative jousting. First, paradoxically perhaps, it returns the emphasis back onto what we are trying to do rather than how we are going to do it. We don’t choose our tools first (say, by determining their abstract “truth”) and then go looking for something to do with them. (We all know the story of the kid with a hammer who suddenly decides everything needs hammering.) We size up the task first and then decide how to proceed, by dividing up the subtasks and assembling the proper tools. It is the task which determines how best to allocate our resources to deal with it.

Some tasks can be accomplished by a single person with a single tool, but others require more careful planning. I may use a number of different tools sequentially; if so, they all need to share certain properties relating to their user (me), and each must allow me to make things the way they need to be in order for me to use the next tool to do its job. (I must use the awl to make the hole big enough for me to insert whatever has to fit in there.) A surprising amount of philosophical wisdom can be found simply in attending to proper tool use. I can’t tell you how often I’ve decided that particular problems arise because people either don’t use the right tool for the job, or even more often, don’t put their tools away after each use, but simply leave them lying around to get in the way.

It now becomes easy to see how ideas with different origins can work together, while still allowing constraints on effective interaction, and also how things can go wrong. The problem I have with some otherwise attractive ideas, say the notion of “engaged coping” of which phenomenologists make so much, is that in order to use that particular tool it seems like I have to buy the whole set. Or, shifting the metaphor a bit, maybe some programs I’d like to use don’t run on my machine. On the other hand, when a team works together on a common project, maybe each can use their own tools to perform their subtask, and no one member is responsible for the entire task. This allows some differences to become trivial – I don’t care which particular tool you use as long as the result allows me to do my own job properly – or there may be further constraints, if, say, two things have to happen at the same time: you lift and I’ll push.

Taken together with the point about handles and blades, this again shows how tools designed to work together can reflect the nature of reality just as well or better than do true statements about it. Maybe a tool is designed primarily to hold on to something in order to allow proper access with another tool. Here it’s not even doing the entire task, so it might seem at first glance a poor substitute for objective truth, even more so than tools simpliciter. But again, that it is designed simply to do the one thing, as part of a joint project, can allow modular design options not possible with the necessarily all-in-one “design” of accurate representation. Depending on what I want to do, I can join a pragmatist epistemology with Davidsonian semantics and a Wittensteinian account of philosophical method. For some other tasks, the former may not be compatible with the latter, and I need to use an entirely Davidsonian or Wittensteinian approach. But even that is allowed by pragmatist lights.

Or so says the modular synth geek. But of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let’s see how this helps us as we continue.