SAAP March, 2002
Commentary on Myers’ "Pragmatist Metaphysics: A Defense" (DP-12)
The role of metaphysics in pragmatism historically has been and continues to be a vexing, contentious and often divisive issue among pragmatists. Bill Myers’ spirited defense of the legitimacy of metaphysics within the pragmatist philosophical project, by way of a criticism of a recent paper by Charlene Seigfried, 1 serves as a reminder of the centrality of this question in defining the very character of the tradition, in interpreting its historical meaning and prospect. My commentary will consider the conflict between the metaphysical and anti-metaphysical strains of pragmatism by a reconstruction, first of Seigfried’s case for abandoning metaphysical tasks and metaphysical language, and then of Myers’ critique. This debate is remarkable, in my view, because of the scope of its implications, and the vigor with which both thinkers have staked out strong positions at the furthest polarity of interpretation on a difficult issue within a pragmatic perspective.
In "Pragmatist Metaphysics? Why Terminology Matters," Seigfried contends that pragmatism is to be interpreted as "an original and creative alternative to metaphysical thinking," 2 and not as providing a metaphysical alternative (however reformed or "reconstructed") to traditional essentialist thought. The latter interpretation, in her view, grossly understates the ground of difference between pragmatic and nonpragmatic philosophy. The pragmatic turn, it is true, did condemn positivism with its hostility to metaphysics and indeed anticipated postmodernism. It has, therefore, historically attracted those opposed to the positivist agenda while at the same time it continues to be a refuge for those unwilling to embrace "pernicious" forms of postmodernism. Thus the tradition has been and continues to be interpreted metaphysically. Yet, we are mistaken, she claims, if we think that to reject positivism on the one hand and Rorty-esque postmodernism on the other, requires, or even suggests that pragmatism affirms a metaphysical orientation:
Stangely ignored in the longstanding misconception are the pragmatists’
emphatic assertions that metaphysics was the problem, and not the solution. The
centuries-long philosophical efforts to develop a metaphysics was considered by
them at least a distraction from the concrete concerns of everyday life and at
most a tragic detour away from everything that gives value and meaning to
Not only thus, is metaphysics avoidable, but we ought, if we are to be true to the philosophical originality and radical vision of pragmatism, to avoid it at every turn. Now, if I understand Seigfried correctly, she is making the case that metaphysical discourse per se is inherently different from the kinds of analyses we ought properly to call pragmatist. This follows, it seems, less from an interpretation of pragmatism that one might find questionable (or idiosyncratic) than from a construal of metaphysics that some (including Myers) find unnecessarily restrictive. Nevertheless, an unbiased reading of the tradition discloses more than a little ambivalence concerning the role of metaphysics, and to her credit, Seigfried freely acknowledges this. She notes, for example, Peirce’s lifelong interest in metaphysics, James’ characterization of his own work as a "metaphysics of radical empiricism"--to which we might add his contemporary, Horace Meyer Kallen’s, characterization of James as "the first democrat of metaphysics" and his project "a democracy of metaphysics." 4 Moreover, Dewey , especially Experience and Nature, provides a role for metaphysics as that inquiry which seeks the "generic traits of existence," and affirms its value in the realm of criticism. Pragmatists have been by turns contemptuous, indifferent and accommodating (albeit cautiously) of metaphysics. There is no doubt that the inherited tradition of metaphysics as a conceptual temperament is problematic within pragmatism. Yet, the impulse to interpret the tradition metaphysically is understandable.
Yet, according to Seigfried, we must stay this impulse. Notwithstanding a tendency among pragmatists historically to use language borrowed from the metaphysical tradition, she argues, we need to recognize that pragmatist appropriation of this language involves philosophical activity distinct from and incommensurable with characteristically metaphysical tasks:
…various pragmatists continued to talk about what had been first conceived as
metaphysical subjects—God, cosmology, Being, substance, and the good, even
though the actual terms often used were more likely to be: not God, but varieties
of religious experience or a common faith; not cosmology, but a Darwinian view
of nature; not Being, but the many ways of experiencing reality; not substance or
essence but experience or selections from the flux of experience; not the good, but
goods and concretely grounded values.5
Unlike traditional metaphysicians, pragmatists "grounded their analyses in the concrete conditions of everyday life." Thus, "it is time to recognize that the formulation and analysis of these concrete conditions is a genuine alternative to metaphysics."6 Seigfried notes, with some subtlety, however, that despite the adoption of goals and methods substantially distinct from those of metaphysics, pragmatist analyses, whether they be those of James’ "radical empiricism," or Dewey’s "denotative method," or "immediate empiricism," etc., grounded their further philosophical investigations in a way that is functionally similar to traditional metaphysical concepts, principles and categories. Thus, it is not surprising that pragmatic method, though radically different from metaphysics in its orientation toward a criticism of the conditions of everyday life derived from its origins in "concretely grounded values," has been misconceived as offering an alternative metaphysics. Moreover, pragmatists, no less than other philosophers, have inherited a rich textual tradition in which to talk about the things they wanted to talk about (and do the things they've wanted to do) have had to reach down into the sediment of philosophy's history where these terms and their meanings are deposited and use them at the same time they would radically transform them to achieve, what in effect, is a radical departure from metaphysics.
Since I cannot possibly hope to do justice to the richness and scope of Seigfried’s approach in a brief commentary, I will move on to what I take to be her salient point. Metaphysical reflection, because it tends to elevate rationality to the status of something independent of and sovereign to lived experience, cuts against the pragmatic grain:
What does it matter? Is this just a debate about terminology? In James’s words,
what difference in concrete experience would it make if this or that world-view
were true? What difference of actual practice? The difference is that we turn to life,
to experience, to test and implement the facts we seek and the values we cherish.
Theoretical clarity or consistency is not enough; intellection which is not carried through
to action is incomplete. If only developed and studied independently of the feed-back
mechanisms available in action, it will actually be a means of distortion rather than
clarification. The difference is also that reality is not ready-made or available in the same
way to everyone. Since it is always reality for someone, then the plurality of
interpretations cannot, in principle, be eradicated, although they may be mediated.
Testing our hypotheses about reality requires coming to agree on and then seeking
common goals. Sympathetically understanding multiple perspectives therefore, is a
requirement for intelligible insight into any realm of reality. 7
Because metaphysics seeks "a coherent, comprehensive, veridical understanding of the world," it is incompatible with the pragmatic "attitude," which affirms the hypothesis that reality is grasped in irreducibly plural ways, through a multiplicity of perspectives themselves irreducibly tinged with value. Metaphysics is out of character for a pragmatist in part because "there is no possible point of view from which the world can appear as an absolutely single fact." 8 Moreover, she implies, metaphysics is a philosophical orientation or attitude that valorizes the autonomy of principles and categories, disembodied rationality and the architecture of concepts. It is constitutionally innutritive, empty and sterile.
Now, Seigfried realizes that traditional metaphysical notions can have pragmatic value (e.g., James insight that the "absolute" gives us the license to take a needed moral holiday, etc.), but that use of the tradition is not metaphysical, or rather, is anti-metaphysical; it is properly speaking, originally pragmatist. Moreover, the tug of the tradition is so powerful in the direction of categorial self-sufficiency and its dialectical trapeze-artistry that what little we may gain from an investigation into generic traits of existence, (or experience) is far outweighed by the temptation to empty concrete fact of its many-textured meanings. Metaphysics inevitably pulls us in the direction of the abstract. It is at best a distraction, at worst a tragic evasion of our task of transforming experience through social intelligence.
Needless to say, any metaphysics that does so is incompatible with pragmatism, but does that mean that a pragmatist metaphysics is impossible? The burden on Seigfried’s argument is to show that the very genuine ambivalence in the tradition ought to be resolved in the entirely in direction of an abandonment of metaphysics rather than its reconstruction. Myers argument, on the other hand, is an attempt to show that that this same ambivalence should be resolved on the side of an affirmation of metaphysics. Not only is metaphysical inquiry inevitable when properly reconstructed, it is both unproblematic and necessary for the fulfillment of pragmatist project.
If my reading of Myers is correct, he has two salient claims: (1) that because any philosophical project involves generality in order to be efficacious, metaphysics is inevitable; and, (2) Seigfried’s critique has force only against essentialist metaphysics, not every metaphysics. Notwithstanding her claims to the contrary, she requires metaphysical concepts to carry on her pragmatic inquiry, and thus her position is inconsistent. Following these claims, Myers sketches out the contours of a metaphysics that meets what he takes to be critical meta-theoretical criteria of pragmatic analysis. Let me say at this point that I am sympathetic to Bill Myers point of view and have argued similar positions in the past. I admire his clear and unequivocal support of the metaphysical strain in American thought. I must admit, however, that Seigfried’s paper has made me less sanguine about the robustness of such an orientation. I now have greater respect for the view that the metaphysical attitude and the pragmatic attitude are, to a certain extent in conflict. This is not to say that I wholly endorse Seigfried’s position against Myers, only that I have come to see how deeply rooted is the ambivalence.
At any rate, Myers takes Seigfried to task for failing to show "how an analysis of the concrete is an alternative to metaphysics and not itself a metaphysics." (Myers, p.2)
The test, then, is not whether we remain within concrete experience, but, rather,
does our inquiry ‘end in conclusions with, when they are referred back to ordinary
life experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to
us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful’ (LW 1:18). Moving beyond the
concrete is part of the pattern of inquiry. The question is, not whether the inquiry will
move beyond the concrete, but how far will it go before it returns to concrete experience
for checking and illumination. Metaphysical inquiry is not to be condemned simply
because it takes us beyond the concrete—all inquiry does that—it is to be condemned
when it 1) starts somewhere besides the concrete, 2) doesn’t go back to the concrete,
and/or 3) takes its results to represent supreme reality, i.e., commits the philosophic
fallacy. The results of metaphysical inquiry are not inherently different from the results of
other sorts of inquiries—they are still hypothetical and subject to revision. The only
differences between metaphysical and other inquiries lay in the degree of generality and
in the designation of the subject matter. But then again, any inquiry requires
generalization and designation. (Myers, pp.2-3)
According to Myers, not only is metaphysics necessary but that it is, properly done, crucial to the pragmatist enterprise. Our pragmatist (open, pluralistic, radically empiricist nonfoundational, process) metaphysics must be seen simply to be opposed to 'their' (closed, rationalistic, monistic or reductionistic, foundational, substance) metaphysics. We need only to adopt the right entities, principles and categories, those which give us sustenance in our efforts to transform experience intelligently. Not only can this be done without violating the pragmatic spirit; in fact it must be done in order that we become intelligently critical. The fact that we validate metaphysical principles (or, the search for generic traits) by reference to concrete fact and their possibilities for a more satisfying experience is a sufficient ground of difference between pragmatic and nonpragmatic thought.
This way of framing the issue has a certain appeal, as it has had in my case. Yet, Seigfried could be excused, I think, if she judged it to be in a sense part of the problem pragmatic analysis attempts to overcome. That is to say, the debate over which metaphysics is the right one has the same kind of problematic character as the debate over realism v. anti-realism, or rationality or objectivism v. subjectivism. It has no satisfactory intellectual resolution and therefore is carried on in a vacuum of concern over the real problems of men and women of flesh and blood, to paraphrase Unamuno. Moreover, she might add, to say that we can conceive of a metaphysical inquiry whose results are to be validated by concrete fact, adds nothing to the possibilities of pragmatism, because validating concepts by means of concrete fact is precisely what pragmatic methodology does without the need for a metaphysics. Given the perils of abstraction and over-generalization and the distortions they introduce to lived experience, the effort to construct a metaphysics, albeit an ideologically congenial one, hardly seems worth the effort for a pragmatist. Myers’ second point, that Seigfried is inconsistent for rejecting metaphysics while doing it in the grand manner, is potentially serious to her position. The primary evidence he cites for this lies in his analysis of the passage in James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, quoted by Seigfried, where James gives a description of "full fact," as " a conscious field plus its object, as felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object, plus the sense of self to whom the attitude belongs." Myers responds:
How this (correct, to my mind) fascination with concreteness is taken to be anti-
metaphysical is troublesome. On the contrary, this is metaphysics…James is giving a
description of any concreteness, of any actual occasion. As a generic, general
description, this is metaphysics par excellence.(Myers, p. 3)
Myers develops this theme a few pages further along in his paper, comparing Seigfried’s treatment of James’ account of relations in her book Chaos and Context, to "the sort of metaphysical analysis [that] Whitehead sees as being the purpose of metaphysics." (Myers, 6)
This is a powerful strategy, but I do not see it fulfilled by within Myers’ text. I reread Chapter 3 of Chaos and Context in preparation for this session. It is not impossible to see Seigfried pursuing a metaphysical analysis, that is, in the sense of a description of generic traits of concrete fact in the required sense, but it is equally valid, if not more so, to characterize her method as "phenomenological." Why, in other words, are we compelled to accept the claim that Seigfried or James, for that matter, is engaged in metaphysical generalizations, unless we also have good reason to say that such a phenomenology of concrete experience is also a metaphysics? In fact, what I question in Myers’ reductio is just its failure to provide a cogent account of different species of conceptual generality. His one effort, as far as I can see, was quoted earlier: "The only differences between metaphysical inquiry and other inquiries lay in the degree of generality and in the designation of the subject-matter." (Myers, p. 3) This is not very helpful. Absent reasonable criteria to distinguish metaphysical generality from empirical generalizations or the kinds of descriptions that issue from phenomenological or other methodological analyses, for example, the assertion that Seigfried contradicts herself lacks force. Myers, I would say, does raise the possibility in a provocative way, but unless I am mistaken, the case is far from being clinched. There is, in other words, a greater need to distinguish metaphysics from other theoretical activity.
While I do not believe that Myers’ frontal assault on Seigfried’s position succeeds, his analysis of Dewey’s account of metaphysics in Experience and Nature does seriously challenge Seigfried’s assertion that there is no place for metaphysics in a pragmatic account of the world. As a result, the question of whether we ought to resolve the pragmatic ambivalence towards metaphysics entirely on the anti-metaphysical side remains open. Seigfried's dismissive treatment of the metaphysical language in Experience and Nature is perplexing in that Dewey is a major pragmatist and appears to give legitimacy to metaphysics as a discipline that seeks the generic traits of existence (or experience) and has a role to play in criticism. It is true that EN contains no metaphysics as such; it is too unsystematic and fragmentary. Dewey’s description of the generic traits of scientific inquiry (pluralism, interaction, change, etc.) do not lend themselves to architecture, they are only too difficult to envision, and too readily embodied to count as the elements of a categorial structure. I would agree with Tom Alexander that they are to be seen as "ways of being" and not simply descriptions of what there is. 9 Metaphysics as inquiry into generic traits of existence discriminated by scientific inquiry functions thus as a "keeping faith," a cautionary discipline reminding us of the necessity for contextualizing all our discursive efforts, a "pophylactic" against a host of fallacies generated by self-sufficient reason. Thus the "ground-map" metaphor, in which metaphysics sets "base-lines" for the more "intricate triangulations" of practice. This is not a Metaphysics in the full-blown sense; it is rather metaphysics-in-the-lower case. Myers does not improve his argument, in my view, by making Whitehead the paradigm of a metaphysics of concreteness, to be followed by those who would rehabilitate metaphysics within a pragmatic perspective. This metaphysics-in-the-upper-case is indeed alien to the grain. Nevertheless, the possibility of a lower-case metaphysics appears to remain open.
1. Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. "Pragmatist Metaphysics? Why Terminology Matters." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 37 (2001), pp. 13-21. Cited as PM.
2. PM, p. 13.
3. PM, p. 13.
4. Horace Meyer Kallen, William James and Henri Bergson: A Study in Contrasting Theories of Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1914), p.11.
5. PM, p. 14.
6. PM, p. 14.
7. PM, p. 19.
8. PM, p. 17.
9. Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience & Nature: The Horizons of Feeling. New York: SUNY Press, 1987, pp. 84-94.
Penn State Abington College