And Now for Some William James
Advice for social scientists asked about metaphysics or ontology. Say you are a #pragmatist and call it a day.
— Per Smith (@PerDSmith) September 6, 2013
Yesterday I tweeted that comment because of an ongoing discussion at Org Theory about critical realism. Allow me to be blunt. I don’t find critical realism very appealing and in general I’m not sure that the social sciences need to be this concerned with ontology and metaphysics. I certainly am not myself, and can’t figure out what I would gain if I were. Pragmatism came up in the discussion thread at Org Theory and I’ve had a couple of back and forths with Phil Gorski and Mark Austen Whipple about it, because I do find Pragmatism appealing…precisely because I believe pragmatism is not particularly concerned with ontology and metaphysics, or at least wants to transcend many of the concerns of those philosophical branches. Anyway Gorski mentioned William James’ A Pluralist Universe while trying to convince me (and others) that James and Dewey took ontology more seriously than contemporary pragmatists. I have conceded somewhat on Dewey (who I am not that fond of anyway), but not James. Because of this exchange I wanted to share a couple of paragraphs from A Pluralist Universe that speak to my fondness of James. There are better quotes out there for sure, but these are fresh on my mind. Enjoy.
For pluralism, all that we are required to admit as the constitution of reality is what we ourselves find empirically realized in every minimum of finite life. Briefly it is this, that nothing real is absolutely simple, that every smallest bit of experience is a multum in parvo plurally related, that each relation is one aspect, character, or function, way of its being taken, or way of its taking something else; and that a bit of reality when actively engaged in one of these relations is not by that very fact engaged in all the other relations simultaneously. The relations are not all what the French call solidaires with one another. Without losing its identity a thing can either take up or drop another thing, like the log I spoke of, which by taking up new carriers and dropping old ones can travel anywhere with a light escort.
For monism, on the contrary, everything, whether we realize it or not, drags the whole universe along with itself and drops nothing. The log starts and arrives with all its carriers supporting it. If a thing were once disconnected, it could never be connected again, according to monism. The pragmatic difference between the two systems is thus a definite one. It is just thus, that if a is once out of sight of b or out of touch with it, or, more briefly, ‘out’ of it at all, then, according to monism, it must always remain so, they can never get together; whereas pluralism admits that on another occasion they may work together, or in some way be connected again. Monism allows for no such things as ‘other occasions’ in reality—in real or absolute reality, that is.
In case it isn’t clear James was arguing against monism. Unlike Dewey he had no fondness for Hegalian idealism whatsoever.