Vital Relevance: Philosophical Reflection and the Pragmatic Tradition


While to my knowledge no pragmatist uses the term, the notion of vital relevance underlies the pragmatic insistence upon looking towards the concrete effects of actions undertaken, of experiences lived and suffered, as an explanatory criterion for concepts as diverse as belief, meaning, truth, and the life worth living.  Serving as a means of self-restraint in the face of reflective, philosophical temptations, vital relevance also provides the basis for understanding the pragmatic tradition as a living, organic unity.  While pragmatism cannot claim unique possession of this concept, nevertheless, the insistence that philosophical speculation must answer to it stands as one of pragmatism's most important contributions to the philosophical tradition.

Vital relevance insists upon paying heed to the pushes and pulls of the world upon the live, reflective creature; it is the sort of relevance that draws upon present, pressing concerns—distressing concerns that emerge as the comfortable, the customary, and the habitual strain or break upon being confronted with novel circumstances, or that stem from the contrary demands of conflicting obligations and loyalties which confront all who, in the words of David Hume, must "act and reason and believe."[1] Vital relevance is a re-minder, bringing the mind back from contemplative tendencies, the string-on-the-finger that breaks off the wild flights and perchings that the philosophical attitude is not only drawn towards, but from which it also receives a part of its daily sustenance; vital relevance delivers us from temptations—the philosophical temptations of system-building or of precision and clarity for their own sake, of the foolish consistencies that "Reason" would weave. 

Vital relevance appears early and often within the classical pragmatic tradition, earlier still in the works of Emerson and Thoreau.  Perhaps its voice is first heard in Emerson's earliest work Nature: "Our age is retrospective.  It builds the sepulchres of the fathers....The forgoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.  Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?"[2]   This call strives to keep certain tendencies at bay—the temptation to fall into the grooves of a well-established habit.  Traditions, particularly scholarly ones "look backward and not forward.  But genius looks forward: the eyes of men are set in his forehead, not his hindhead."[3] Emerson, carrying into his essays the live, electric cadence of the pulpit he left, repeatedly calls out against the weight of dead traditions and dead churches: "men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead."[4]  Emerson's greatest fear is mere existence, he is haunted by the fear that he is simply passing through, but failing to live, that he has, in Thoreau's words, failed to front the essentials of life, failed to reach down into its marrow; he fears that he may in fact be a zombie, having resigned his vitality—voluntarily no less—to join the ranks of the living dead: "one has patience with every kind of living thing, but not with the dead alive."[5]  This calling out for vitality is the same one that is heard in Thoreau, who laments that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,"[6] and who paradoxically, retreats from life to find life, who retreats from the communion of humanity to the solitude of the forest. "Here is life," Thoreau's voice rings out, "an experiment to a great extent untried by me."[7]

The passionate writings of Emerson and Thoreau—that rare mixture of poetry, philosophy, and confession continue on throughout the pragmatic tradition.  Each generation, Emerson and Thoreau teach us, begins the quest anew: the search to hammer out, to forge a system of values that retain what can be salvaged from the past and that establishes the background from which later thought is to distinguish itself given a different set of contingent circumstances: Emerson sings out: "Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this."[8]  We may well wonder now whether there has ever been any other way.  Later, Dewey would take up this point in his moral philosophy: "each generation, especially one living in a time like the present, is under the responsibility of overhauling its inherited stock of moral principles and reconsidering them in relation to contemporary needs."[9] Dewey here invokes the reconstructive role that philosophical inquiry ought to follow, if it is to retain its vital relevance.

Vital relevance has its part to play in pragmatism's very founding.  Peirce's notion of belief—habits of which we are aware that soothe the irritation of doubt—are ultimately cashed out in terms of effective rules for action; this definition of belief, in turn, leads towards his definition of meaning: "what a thing means is simply what habits it involves," and further, "there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice."[10]  For Peirce, there can be no meaningful severance of thought from action, as the former can only be understood in reference to the latter.

James, as well, makes generous use of this notion, in his distinction between "live" and "dead" options, his use of the pragmatic method to overcome philosophical disputes, and his understanding of truth.   To begin, vital relevance lies at the core of his distinction between a live and a dead option in Will to Believe.  A live option for James is a choice between two live hypotheses, where live hypotheses are ones that appear to an individual as real possibilities to be taken up and lived by.  A devoted Christian, for example, may waver between two particular denominations of Christianity, but the proposal to live by means of another faith simply couldn't be entertained while remaining such a devotee.[11]  James further makes use of vital relevance in Pragmatism, as he uses Peirce's pragmatic method to try to resolve a number of traditional metaphysical disputes.  James notes that "in every genuine metaphysical debate some practical issue, however conjectural and remote, is involved."[12]  The ultimate test, when choosing between either of these two options, comes down to "alternative practical outcomes."  If no difference in action can be contributed to either theory, then there is no vital, living difference between the two options, but rather, a semantic confusion.  Additionally, James' controversial view on truth is again indebted to vital relevance.  Calling into question the notion of truth as the mere copying of a fixed reality, James argues that truth is something that is " the course of experience."[13]  Truth for James performs a leading function, it allows for successful coping through the concerns of daily life.  All of these descriptions of truth point back towards vital relevancy; truth matters vitally; devoid of truth's ability to lead our actions towards a satisfactory outcome, truth loses its vital significance.

That Dewey continues on, inspired by vital relevance is readily demonstrated.  Indeed, the well-worn quotation from the "The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy" needs no restating.[14]   Perhaps, though, vital relevance in Dewey is best seen in his conception of primary experienceDewey notes that humans are most concerned in the direct enjoyment of the feast and the dance, that "man is more preoccupied with enhancing life than with bare living," and that "man is naturally more interested in consummations than he is in preparations."[15]   Philosophers, ever prone to privilege the cognitive domain of experience, commit the fallacy of selective emphasis, and thereby ignore this aspect of life—the primary, vital, lived experiences that Thoreau and Emerson celebrate throughout their works.  Poetry, a dance, a marriage celebration; such is the prime matter of which life is comprised, and any philosophy that fails to acknowledge this domain must ultimately fail the criterion of vital relevancy.  It is worth quoting Dewey at length in this regard, for it marks the mature development of the criterion of vital relevance in the pragmatic tradition:

"there is here supplied...a first-rate test of the value of any philosophy which is offered us: Does it end in conclusions which, 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?...It is the fact...that so many philosophies terminate in conclusions that make it necessary to disparage and condemn primary experience, leading those who hold them to measure the sublimity of their "realities" as philosophically defined by remoteness from the concerns of daily life, which leads cultivated common sense to look askance at philosophy.[16]

Failure to heed vital relevance, then, not only results in bad philosophy, but it damages philosophy's reputation in the eyes of layman as well.

Accordingly, vital relevance serves as a unifying theme found throughout the pragmatic tradition; expressed vividly in Emerson and Thoreau, developed by Peirce and James, it reaches its mature expression in Dewey's philosophy. However, the opening paragraphs of this essay described the negative or restraining function that vital relevance plays; pragmatism, though, is of course not the only philosophy that sought to place some sort of self-constraint on philosophical activity: Hume famously committed to the flames any inquiries that delved beyond "abstract reasoning concerning quantity and number" or "experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence."[17]  Kant, as well, sought to limit metaphysical claims by restraining Reason's activity.  The pragmatist's strategy in this regard, though, has distinct advantages, for unlike Hume, it places no topic outside of philosophical consideration, so long as it can have a bearing upon our primary experience in some manner, and unlike Kant, it achieves this self-limiting function without going transcendental.  Nevertheless, all three agree that philosophical activity needs to somehow limit its inquiries, to provide a check against certain tendencies.  What is it about philosophical activity, though, that requires such self-restraint?  An inquiry into the reflective nature of philosophy provides a clue towards understanding the perceived need of providing some sort of restrictions upon philosophical activity.

Philosophical thought as reflective self-inquiry enjoys a long tradition, initiated by Socrates: "know thyself" and "the unexamined life is not worth living" are the classical characterizations of the reflective philosophical quest for self-knowledge, the turn away from the concerns of the natural world that dominated the pre-Socratics towards the moral sphere of action and belief.  But at the same time, if such philosophy is born via a reflective act, this then engenders a new perspective or attitude towards the world; distancing ourselves from the practical exigencies of life, philosophy grants itself a special power.  What power is this? 

Reflection, the stepping back from the immediate—is a form of thought; it is contemplative.  Taken in this sense, contemplation is naturally contrasted with action; the active life, while perhaps necessary to some degree in order to attain phronesis, is somehow less worthy than the life of contemplation, the attainment of sophia.  Such considerations, though, tend to ignore the fact that thought, too, is a form of action.  But already a breach has begun to open: the philosophical act of reflection, pushed far enough, becomes tantamount to the eye of God, all-seeing, the final arbitrator.  Philosophical reflection tempts us to take the view from nowhere, and the detached  spectator converts the live creatures of flesh and bone into other worldly beings—spectral, pale substitutes, ghostly reflections of the beings we were trying to achieve a further understanding of.  The pragmatist's commitment to vital relevance, however, serves to return philosophy to its Socratic roots before reflection is carried too far.


Let us pause for a moment and consider one contemporary investigation of this subject matter.  In a recent work by Bernard Williams, he too returns to the Socratic root of self-inquiry.  Socrates' question: "how should one live?" is the best place for moral philosophy to begin; such a question, Williams argues, takes the least for granted, when compared questions that invoke the concepts of happiness, duty, good, or right.  In tracing the effort to achieve a stable, reflective, and general answer to Socractes' question, Williams concludes that such a quest ultimately leads to skeptical results: that moral knowledge is destroyed by rational reflection.[18]  Reflection runs the risking of destabilizing customary moral knowledge by demanding a reflective justification thereof which may in the end not be found.  Not only can reflective philosophy lead us into speculative temptation as seen above, but it can also be quite unnerving.  Skipping passed, unhappily, the important details, Williams comes to the conclusion that ethical theory, understood as an attempt to reduce the apparent diversity of ethical considerations to one particular foundational consideration, and to further provide normative guidelines for how one should think about ethical matters "has no justification and should disappear."[19]  But Dewey, by both following Socrates, and by submitting his reflections to the criterion of vital relevancy, had long ago come to such a conclusion.  Much like Dewey's metaphysics, the purpose of moral theory is not to provide the one correct answer to a general moral problem, but rather, to provide a ground-map for criticism.  Vital relevance recognizes that current moral conflicts are what need to be resolved and moral theory can neither provide a set of timeless rules towards such resolution, nor can it take the place of personal moral deliberation.  Dewey states three main functions that ethical theory can perform: 1) provide a general account of the types of moral conflicts experienced to date; 2) provide an account of past intellectual considerations regarding such conflicts; 3) make personal deliberation less prejudiced by making it more systematic.[20]  In sum, while Williams makes a strong case for his conclusion, the sort of limits that he wants to set upon moral theory had already been imposed by Dewey's recognition of the importance of vital relevancy.  Furthermore, Dewey's theory of inquiry offers a quick answer to the danger that reflection may serve to undermine customary values; the Deweyian response would simply be that reflection on such customs would never have occurred if there were not already some problematic situation that has called them into question.


Given the claim that moral deliberation is a reflective, first-person process, a further danger arises: the Cartesian turn.  It is helpful to think back again to Socrates' quest for self-knowledge: self-knowledge is attained not by isolated contemplation, as the notions of reflection and self-knowledge may first suggest, but rather, by going out into the marketplace—the quintessential public sphere of haggling, negotiation, and compromise—or in more private moments, by conversation around the banquet table.  Socrates' inquiries consisted of the social practice of giving and asking for reasons to ground moral concepts.  Compare this now to the turn inwards that Descartes initiated: by stepping out of the social sphere to the private inner world, Descartes' feigned doubts in the Meditations answer feigned objections posed by himself alone.  Consider then Thoreau's experiences at Walden: driven by the Socratic quest to attain a life worth living, Thoreau retreats into solitude in order to "front only the essential facts of life."[21] Whereas Aristotle asserts that humans are political animals by nature, Thoreau lends credence to Nietzsche's revised dictum:

To live alone one has to be a beast or a god'—says Aristotle. But there's a third case: one has to be both—a philosopher.[22]

While assuredly many influences lie behind Thoreau's retreat, the ideals of self-reliance, of autonomy, are assuredly modern ones, forged in part by Enlightenment ideals and by the Cartesian turn.  It is a strange idea that alone, one could, as Thoreau suggests "front the essentials of life"—as if the social realm were a mere accidental trait of an independent, autonomous being.  And yet, what is Descartes' turn inward, or Thoreau's sylvan retreat, but an attempt to wish away the condition of its very possibility?  What is it about nature of reflective, philosophical thought that creates such absurd, yet such alluring projects?  For even if such projects were possible, what could ever drive Descartes to share his ideas with others?  Who is the "us" that Descartes is constantly addressing in the Meditations?  For whom is Thoreau writing Walden?  On the other hand, think of the explicitly social forms that the Platonic dialogues employ; there is no separation of self from society.  Bear in mind again the case of Socrates, this time in conversation with Phaedrus:

Phaedrus:, my excellent friend, strike me as the oddest of men.  Anyone would take you, as you say, for a stranger being shown the country by a guide instead of a native—never leaving town to cross the frontier nor even, I believe, so much as setting foot outside the walls.

Socrates: You must forgive me, dear friend; I'm a lover of learning, and trees and open country won't teach me anything, whereas men in town do.[23]

Thoreau takes up the Kantian Enlightenment maxim with complete earnest: "have courage to make use of your own understanding."[24]  But why would isolation of self from society be the means to achieve such understanding?

But now the question needs to be returned to, we need to circle back: what is it about nature of reflective, philosophical thought that creates the questionable, yet alluring projects attempted by Descartes and Thoreau, that the criterion of vital relevance guards against?  The answer seems to point to the fact that with reflection a separation occurs between the immediately enjoyed, suffered, or endured, and the turning back towards these lived immediacies.  The pragmatic reconstruction of the notion of reflection, in particular in the hands of Dewey, however, offers a promising way out of this dilemma: reflective thought is action turned in on itself, one phase of inquiry, the results of which must be returned to primary experience in order to maintain its vital relevancy.

Word count: 2946.


Dewey, John.  1980.  "The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy," MW10, pp. 13-48, ed. J. Boydston.  Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press.

Dewey, John. 1988.  Experience and Nature, LW1, ed. J. Boydston.  Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press.

Dewey, John. 1989.  Ethics, LW7, ed. J. Boydston.  Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  1960.  Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. S.E. Whicher. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hume, David.  1993.  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 2nd ed, ed. E. Steinberg.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

James, William.  1956.  The Will To Believe.  New York, NY: Dover.

James, William.  1987.  Pragmatism, pp. 479-625, in Writings: 1902-1910.  New York, NY: The Library of America.

Kant, Immanuel.  1996.  "What is Enlightenment," pp. 11-22, in Practical Philosophy, trans. & ed. M.J. Gregor.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, Frederich.  1999.  The Twilight of the Idols, trans. R. Polt. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company

Peirce, Charles Sanders.  1992.  "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," pp. 124-141 in The Essential Peirce, Vol. I, ed. N. Houser & C. Kloesel.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Plato.  1989.  Phaedrus, pp. 475-525, in Plato: The Collected Dialoges, ed. E. Hamilton & H. Cairns, trans. R. Hackforth.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thoreau, Henry David.  1986.  Walden and Civil Disobedience.  New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Williams, Bernard.  1985.  Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.  Boston, MA: Boston University Press.

[1] Hume, D.  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding  p. 111.

[2] Emerson, "Nature," p.21.

[3] Emerson, "The American Scholar," p. 68.

[4] Emerson, "Divinity School Address," p. 107.

[5] Emerson, Journal Entry, p. 58.

[6] Thoreau, Walden, p. 50.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, p. 51.

[8] Emerson, "The American Scholar," p.67.

[9] Dewey, LW 7:283.

[10] Peirce, "How to Make our Ideas Clear," p. 131.

[11] James, The Will to Believe, pp. 2-4.

[12] James, Pragmatism, p. 530.

[13] James, Pragmatism, p. 581.

[14] The quote runs: "philosophy recovers itself, when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men."  MW 10:46.

[15] Dewey, LW 1:71.

[16] Dewey, LW 1:18

[17] Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, p. 114.

[18] Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 148.

[19] Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 16.

[20] Dewey, LW  7: 166.

[21] Thoreau, Walden, p. 135.

[22] Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols, p. 5.

[23] Plato, Phaedrus, 230d.

[24] Kant, "What is Enlightenment?" 8:35.