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Pragmatism’s Deliberation

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A pragmatic understanding of deliberation avoids philosophical theories of deliberation; it does not yield one theory of practical reasoning among others.  The conceptual tools pragmatists use to think about human choice and action are beliefs and desires understood, following Peirce, as habits of action.  Understanding belief and desire in this pragmatic Peircean way means respecting the wide diversity in particular human experiences of choice and action.  The phenomenology of choosing and acting becomes paramount in pragmatic accounts of choice and action.  Todd Lekan’s recent account of deliberation (Making Morality, Vanderbilt University Press, 2003) rightly puts pragmatic thought about belief and desire at the center of his understanding of deliberation, but he does not sufficiently attend to the human experiences of choice and action. 









Pragmatism’s Deliberation


Deliberation is the process by which one decides what to do in a problem situation.  Problem situations are those that disable one’s normal patterns of activity.  If I am accustomed to stumbling blearily into my kitchen at four in the morning to make coffee, I am supported by habitual patterns of behavior that normally get me to alert fullness of function.  Any number of things might interrupt my normal pattern of habitual activity.  The electricity might be out because of a thunderstorm; a strange cat, having found its way through the cat door, might be curled up on the kitchen rug; or a copperhead might have found its way through the cat door.  Such unusual events are rare in my experience, as I hope they continue to be.  Nevertheless, these or similar unexpected events find their way into everyday life and require deliberation beyond normal patterns of habitual activity.[1]

            These unusual situations are occasions requiring that one be deliberate about one’s action; they are situations in which one cannot rely on habitual responses to achieve a satisfactory outcome.  One must choose among an indefinite number of possibilities what course to pursue in order to effect a desirable outcome, and the content of one’s choice depends on resources at one’s disposal as well as on one’s resourcefulness at employing those resources.  If one is accustomed to dealing with animals then one has resources for facing the cat or the copperhead that are unavailable to those who have no experience with animals; if one is a zookeeper by trade, then one has an increased array of resources, accompanied by heightened relevant resourcefulness, for facing those animals; if one is allergic to cat hair or has a phobia of snakes, then one has diminished resources and resourcefulness.  This particularity of available resources and of individual resourcefulness characterizes every human in every situation requiring deliberation.

                  Pragmatists should acknowledge this radical particularity of occasions requiring deliberation.  When philosophers seek to understand or to give general account of practical reasoning, they diminish, and sometimes eliminate, the possibility of recognizing the radical particularity of occasions requiring deliberation.  Insofar as philosophers of practical reasoning do not acknowledge this radical particularity they also do not acknowledge the phenomenology of deliberation that faces the facts of available resources and individual resourcefulness at making use of those resources.[2] 

            Even Todd Lekan, committed as he is to the traditions of pragmatism and to a pragmatic understanding of deliberation, does not fully embrace the radical particularity of situations requiring deliberation.  Lekan seeks to "schematize the process of practical deliberation" in a way that captures in full generality what happens on occasions of deliberation.  Lekan’s account of the general schema for deliberation is useful for understanding some situations requiring deliberation but not for understanding all such situations.  Furthermore, Lekan’s account unintentionally distorts our understanding of the phenomena of deliberation by seeking more system than our considered understanding allows.  The example that undergirds his account of the general schema for deliberation is Jane Addams’s lengthy deliberation that led to her founding of Hull House, a deliberative event that consumed two years of Addams’s life.[3]  When one seeks to apply Lekan’s account of the general model for deliberative events to the example of wandering into the kitchen at four in the morning and finding a strange cat or a copperhead, that account seems superficial primarily because it misses the specific urgency of the situation.  What do I have here?  What can I do now?  Who might help me?  These questions frequently take on urgency when one is deliberating, urgency so specific that it eludes the general schema Lekan finds embedded in his example about Jane Addams’s decision to found Hull House.  Another limitation of Lekan’s general schema for deliberative events is that it misses the fact that sometimes deliberations have a different kind of urgency from that of sudden situations involving cats or copperheads; indeed, it misses the fact that urgency comes in a wide assortment of varieties.  An attorney may practice successfully as a well-respected member of the legal profession for twenty years, after which a nagging dissatisfaction with that profession may yield a sudden retirement and an application to a school of divinity; this kind of urgency, an urgency visible only to the attorney and only in light of a particular self-concept, is different from and more extensive than the urgency of Addams’s turn toward the founding of Hull House.[4]   

            Situations requiring deliberation are highly particular.  Some such situations appear to fit Lekan’s account of a general schema for deliberation and some do not.  Pragmatic empiricism is committed to saying the useful things that can successfully be said about deliberation, but primarily it respects the phenomenology of deliberation.  One general thing that can successfully be said about deliberation, because it is phenomenologically accurate, is that deliberation happens on those occasions when one’s habitual patterns of activity are interrupted in some way, either by external events or by some internal conflict within an agent focused on that agent’s own habitual patterns of activity.  Beyond this general observation, however, one may find little of useful generality to assert about situations requiring deliberation.

            I also said that Lekan’s model for deliberation unintentionally distorts our understanding of the phenomena of deliberation.  Seeing how his model distorts our understanding of deliberation requires a quick look at the model itself.  Lekan’s model of deliberative events has six phases:

(1)     There is an indeterminate situation, including a felt sense of trouble due to a failure of habits.

(2)     There is a preliminary interpretation of the problem, including a view of what important goods and evils are at issue.

(3)     Action plans are created that attempt to take account of the important goods and evils at issue.

(4)     These action plans are tested in imaginative trials.

(5)     The most promising plan is tested in actions bringing about change in the situation.

(6)     These steps can be repeated by others or used to explain to others what was learned.[5]

As noted already, this model for deliberative events seems generally to fit many occasions requiring deliberation.  What it distorts, however, is the phenomenal embeddedness, the situatedness, of the individual doing the deliberating.  To put the point in the way Dewey put a similar point in his early essay, "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," the "response is not merely to the stimulus; it is into it."  Likewise, one deliberates or responds into the situation requiring deliberation.  To represent deliberation situations in the general schematic way Lekan does misses the "into" of the deliberation situation; it misses the fact that one is fully engaged in the unfolding of a problematic situation in order to secure a favorable outcome.  I think it is fair to say about Lekan’s model for deliberative events approximately what Dewey says in his 1896 essay about the reflex arc concept in psychology, that it fails to account for the "continual reconstitution" of the problem situation in virtue of one’s engagement with it.  Even in Jane Addams’s case, the two year "deliberative event" that eventuated in her founding of Hull House is not helpfully illuminated by mentioning, for example, phase (3) of Lekan’s model that says, "action plans are created that attempt to take account of the important goods and evils at issue."  Jane Addams is fully engaged in the process of constituting herself in response to pressures of her unfolding situation, pressures that are not only "external" in her environment, but are also "internal" to her.  The reality of the situation phenomenologically is that Addams is fully engaged, embedded, in her deliberation situation.  She is deliberating into it, as Dewey puts it.  Lekan’s general schema for what he calls deliberative events distorts this basic fact about deliberation situations.

            What can one usefully say about how one deliberates?  A passage from Dewey’s Ethics is a starting point for discussion.

            Deliberation is actually an imaginative rehearsal of various courses of conduct.  We give way, in our mind, to some impulse; we try, in our mind, some plan.  Following its career through various steps, we find ourselves in imagination in the presence of the consequences that would follow; and as we then like and approve, or dislike and disapprove, these consequences, we find the original impulse or plan good or bad.  Deliberation is dramatic and active, not mathematical and impersonal; and hence it has the intuitive, the direct factor in it.[6]          

Deliberation is imaginative rehearsal.  Deliberation is seeing possibilities for problem situations and trying them out before acting.  If a copperhead is on my kitchen floor at four in the morning, my dramatic rehearsal is sudden and urgent; it involves a quick survey of resources and a projection in imagination about how to employ those resources to achieve a successful outcome.  My dramatic rehearsal under these circumstances has, as Dewey puts it, "the intuitive, the direct factor in it;" my resourcefulness in seeing and employing available resources is beyond finding algorithm or general system in it. 

            The outcome I desire in all situations, especially in sudden and urgent situations, is a function of who I am in many different ways.  Do I love animals?  Do I have irrational fear of snakes?  Am I a biologist, a philosopher, or a farmer?  My specific characters and habits are present in all of my deliberations and actions, from the most urgent and pressing to the least urgent and pressing.

            To say that favorable outcomes are functions of the characters of agents is only roughly to agree with fashionable ways of speaking philosophically about such situations; it is to agree that what one does is a function of one’s beliefs and desires, as well as a function of one’s course of life.  To agree even roughly with this way of speaking philosophically about such situations, however, is not to embrace any typical bifurcation of persons into rational parts and emotional parts, into reason and passion.

Beliefs and Desires

            A prominent view among pragmatists, following Peirce, is that beliefs are habits of action.[7]  To think of beliefs as habits of action is to think of beliefs as fully embedded in individual character.  One’s beliefs are as fully individual as are one’s habits; they are expressions of one’s individuality in as distinctive a way as are one’s physical features.  As no two people have exactly the same physical features, so no two people have exactly the same beliefs.  One’s habits are as highly specific and individual as any other dimensions of one’s character.  To be sure, people do share vaguely general tendencies of behavior.  We say, for example, that some people are abstemious, and when we say this we are referencing a vague tendency toward self-depriving behavior that comes in as many varieties as do the many individuals who bear the "family resemblance" to one another that enables that vague generalization about their various tendencies of behavior.[8]  To think, when asserting that some people are abstemious, that we are referencing a characteristic, an item those particular people share that is missing from others, is to think in a misleadingly abstract and conventionally philosophical way.   To speak of someone being abstemious is to speak loosely, but usefully, about that person’s habits.  So it is with other tendencies of character.  Being reliable, ostentatious, garrulous, just, shy, and extroverted are indefinite tendencies of myriad and subtle nuance, tendencies only vaguely and imprecisely captured by the general terms that point vaguely, but usually effectively, in their directions.[9]

            To think of beliefs as habits of action is to think of beliefs also as vague general tendencies that may exhibit an indefinite range of nuance in individuals’ characters.  This pragmatic way of thinking about belief is definitively different from the traditional way of thinking about belief as a psychological relation to an "intentional content" or a "proposition."  Just as abstemiousness is not a single character that is present in all who are abstemious, so believing that God exists is also not a single state of relatedness to a single proposition or intentional content.  As abstemiousness is a vaguely observational tendency of action, so believing that God exists is a vaguely observational tendency of action, as are believing that Roosevelt is president, believing that there are quarks, and so on for various attributions of belief.

            Once one thinks of beliefs as habits of action, then one gains relief from typical philosophical problems about the nature of belief, the nature of justification, the nature of the relatedness to intentional content that is belief as opposed to the different sort of relatedness to intentional content that is hope, and so on.  Thinking of beliefs in this pragmatic way changes everything philosophically.  The epistemological and ontological worries that follow other conceptions of belief disappear in the context of the kind of thought that is natural to pragmatism.

            The same is true of desire or passion, the other part of the traditional bifurcation.  For pragmatists, desires like beliefs are habits of action, and desires like beliefs come in specific and particular versions that have roots in individual character.  To want to live in the city, for example, is as various a want as the people who have it; it is a vaguely specifiable desire as various as the characters who express it.  Philosophers may have been misled in their thought about desire and belief by their tendency to think of these as typified by such jejune examples as the desire for chocolate rather than vanilla or the belief that here is a table.  Thinking more extensively about examples of belief and desire undermines traditional conundrums of theory about belief and desire, for it makes evident the variety and diversity of phenomena that appear in the guise of belief and desire.  Thinking of desires and beliefs as habits of action-thinking pragmatically about them-undermines the presumptions of traditional philosophical thought about belief and desire.

            For pragmatists, no longer is the problem of reconciling rational beliefs with intractable passions a philosophical issue.  That particular problem becomes optional because it is rooted in a particular, historical way of understanding believing and desiring.  Once one sees that thinking of beliefs and desires pragmatically as habits of action is as viable as thinking of them as psychological relations to propositions, then one sees also that philosophical concern about beliefs and desires changes constructively.  The concern to have rational or justified beliefs yields to the concern to have useful and constructive beliefs; the concern to find a way to get desires to defer to reason yields to the concern to have useful and constructive desires.  Philosophical concern may focus more productively on the personal, family, and community phenomena that typically produce habits of desiring and believing.  Such philosophical concern may differ little from psychological and sociological concern about personal, familial, and communal integrity, about what those things are, and about how to make them more pervasive.

            Some philosophers are accustomed to seeking general accounts of the nature of practical reason and to relying as they do so on a traditional concept of belief and desire as distinct kinds of psychological directedness toward propositions, and they may object to the Peircean understanding of belief and desire; they may want to ask, "Which of these understandings of belief and desire is correct?"  These philosophers may seek philosophical justification for the suggestion that they abandon the concept of belief as a distinct kind of directedness toward an intentional content, toward a proposition.  The main problem in joining their search for philosophical justification for the correctness of one understanding of belief in preference the other is that joining their quest requires relying on their own understanding of belief.  One cannot even try to answer their question about which understanding of belief is correct without favoring their preferred account.

            What might such circular, ineffectual dialectic look like?  Here is a possibility for how it might begin:  "You say that a belief is a habit of action.  You must have a reason, an argument, for thinking so.  Since we care for truth as much as you do, we ask that you produce this argument so that we may understand and assess it.  If your argument is successful, we will gladly admit what you urge, that all beliefs are habits of action; if your argument is unsuccessful, we will urge that you give up your mistaken understanding of the nature of belief."  Notice that this apparently generous, even deferential, reasonable offer to engage in neutral dialectic cannot be taken up without granting the conclusion this side of the dispute accepts, the conclusion that beliefs are a particular psychological directedness toward intentional contents.  If pragmatists accept this invitation to present an argument, they do so only by assuming the truth of the proposition that beliefs are habits of action.   But pragmatists do not believe in propositions, so they must refuse to suggest an argumentative defense for their understanding of belief.  Pragmatists should refuse to engage in this kind of inevitably circular dialectic that will allegedly show them the mistake in their thought about belief.  Pragmatists can offer reasons why their understanding of belief is preferable to the understanding of belief as directedness-toward-intentional-content, but these reasons they must not attempt to formulate in the argumentative way philosophers expect.

            What then are pragmatists’ reasons for accepting the Piercean idea that beliefs are habits of action rather than a special kind of psychological relation to propositions?  A key reason is their embrace of the historicity of all human phenomena.  Not only are political and social institutions and practices rooted in contingencies of human history and culture, but so also are the most obvious and intuitive principles of thought.  The things that seem most obvious, inviolable, and patently true—even those things philosophers think of as "a priori"—seem so because of cultural and experiential conditions within which such obvious truths achieve their unquestioned epistemic status.  Nothing, not even the most patently obvious a priori truth, escapes the web of contingency that is human history and culture.[10]

            Another reason, nominally different from but obviously related to the first, for accepting Peirce’s suggestion that beliefs are habits of action is that suggestion’s coherence with a broadly Darwinian understanding of humans and their larger environments.  Part of this broadly Darwinian understanding of humans is the commitment to showing how even the most minute details of human intellectual history succumb to genealogical explanation.  In his Gifford Lectures, The Quest for Certainty, Dewey shows in subtle detail how most of the history of intellectual concerns we think of as Western philosophy—concerns with justification, justice, goodness, rightness, and generally with "finding a place for value in a world of fact"—have explanatory roots in a larger cultural context.  Many contemporary thinkers take for granted in all of their work this pragmatic view that all human phenomena, even the most subtle intellectual phenomena, have explanations in human needs and interests as these find expression in human culture and history. 

            These broadly Darwinian, historicist perspectives are the most significant larger context in which pragmatists’ commitment to understanding beliefs as habits of action becomes vital to their wider philosophical perspectives.  The net effect of the Peircean understanding of beliefs, along with these larger philosophical perspectives, is to undermine the idea that belief and desire are appropriate tools for understanding human choice.  A conceptual turn toward the ideas of habit, resourcefulness, imagination, and creativity as underlying human choices opens toward more constructive intellectual agendas than the defensive, apologetic tasks characteristic of the Western philosophical tradition.  In the context of pragmatic thought, how to become who we might more ideally be takes precedence over more traditional philosophical tasks of showing that humans already are loci of specific moral and religious value.

            Where does all of this discussion about belief, desire, and habits of action leave us with efforts, like Todd Lekan’s, to provide a pragmatic theory of deliberation or of morality?  Lekan is right to try to shift philosophical thought about action and choice in the direction of pragmatism; his account of deliberation is preferable to customary accounts that split persons into parts, reason and passions, that must somehow find reconciliation in philosophical theory.  But Lekan’s pragmatism is too philosophical in the sense that it too seeks more system than is properly allowed by the respect for phenomenology that is part of pragmatism’s radical empiricism.  Philosophical theory about action, even when it tries to respect basic intellectual commitments of pragmatism, is still too much an "a priori"-seeming theoretical enterprise to respect adequately human experiences of choice and action.  The turn toward habit and imagination that Lekan wants is the right turn to make in thinking about choice and action; it is not, however, justified by a philosophical analysis of situations of choice.  The turn is rather pragmatically justified, justified in terms of the productive consequences of making it.  A genuinely pragmatic turn in thought about action refrains from philosophical theories that need philosophical defense.      





















[1] For an extensive and generalized account of this idea of habit and the deliberation normally accompanying it, see Todd Lekan, Making Morality (Nashville:  Vanderbilt University Press), 2003.  Chapter 1 of Lekan’s book, titled "A Pragmatic Account of Practical Knowledge," is the relevant portion of Lekan’s discussion.

[2] Elijah Millgram’s survey of theories of practical reasoning for the Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind (See is evidence for this claim.  According to Millgram, "Practical reasoning is no longer the handmaiden of ethics, and today theories of practical reasoning are not normally advanced merely as components of some favored moral theory.  The fortification and defense of a very small number of entrenched positions inherited from the great dead philosophers has given way to a healthy profusion of competing and largely new views.  Important ideas and arguments turn up annually or semi-annually—a rate that marks a philosophical subspeciality as rapidly developing."  I do not share Millgram’s enthusiasm for a profusion of new views about what is mistakenly called "practical reasoning" or for the rapid development of a new subspeciality in philosophy.  These things are, in my view, symptoms of philosophers’ refusal to take seriously the phenomenology of ordinary deliberation.  Pragmatists as radical empiricists do take seriously the phenomenology of deliberation.

[3] See Lekan’s already cited chapter, but especially 36-41.

[4] I should acknowledge that Lekan declines to assert that the schema he presents on his page 37 is universal for all occasions of deliberation.  He notes in footnote 27, p 182, "I do not want to argue that every time a person deliberates, she must represent the event in precisely the way that I set out above.  The important point is that the basic features of the deliberative event are somehow represented by the person."  I remain convinced, however, that deliberative situations vary almost indefinitely in the kinds of urgency they present, as well as in the available resources and in the resourcefulness of the individuals involved in those situations.  These dimensions of radical particularity in deliberative situations and in the persons in those situations undermine the idea that general schema for such situations might be philosophically useful.

[5] Lekan, 37.

[6] (LW 7:  275)

[7] See "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" for Peirce’s discussion of this account of belief. 

[8] The use of the term "family resemblance" here is no accident; it should recall the Wittgensteinian resistance to universals, or abstract characteristics, that may be subject to philosophical analysis of their "conceptual content."

[9] John Dewey shares this understanding of habit, character, and virtue.  See, for example,  John Dewey, The Middle Works, 1899-1924, Volume 14, Human Nature and Conduct 1922, Edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press), 1988.  See especially page 16.

[10] For accounts of these radical empiricist perspectives, see Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty [Put in SIU edition standard reference], especially chapter 6, "The Play of Ideas;" See also Dewey’s Logic:  The Theory of Inquiry [Again Standard SIU reference].  A more contemporary figure who holds similar views about this issue is W.V. Quine; see From a Logical Point of View...