Some Sources of Hilary Putnam's Pragmatism


This paper considers some sources, mostly within the pragmatist tradition, for the full-fledged pragmatism that Putnam set out in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in The Many Faces of Realism and Realism with a Human Face.  In considering Putnam's views about metaphysics, I pay particular attention to his pluralism (and hence in a way to the conference theme of diversity), which I trace back through Nelson Goodman to William James.  In considering Putnam's idea that facts and values are intertwined, I discuss both John Dewey and that neglected middle-generation pragmatist, C. I. Lewis.  I briefly consider James's essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," where metaphysical pluralism and a pluralistic ethics of toleration come together, and I  conclude with some suggestions about the relation of Putnam's pragmatism to the very different American philosophy developed by his Harvard colleague Stanley Cavell.

Some Sources of Hilary Putnam's Pragmatism

Hilary Putnam's inheritance of pragmatism can be found in his explicit discussions of pragmatist thinkers, especially William James and John Dewey, but just as much in his statements of his own position in such works as The Many Faces of Realism, Realism with  a Human Face, and The Threefold Cord.  In this paper I draw on all these sources in looking at Putnam's engagement with and inheritance of pragmatism.  The paper has three sections.  The first and longest considers some sources of the humanistic pluralism Putnam develops in the attempt to avoid the problems of "scientific realism."  The second part of the paper considers some pragmatist strains in Putnam's ethical philosophy, specifically his project of  showing the entanglement of facts and values.  In the third section I step back and briefly consider the relation of both these projects to the work of Putnam's Harvard colleague Stanley Cavell.

Putnam's pragmatism takes its most unbridled form in The Many Faces of Realism, a book that begins with a discussion of scientific realism in the form of Eddington's argument that the table on which he writes is really not solid, but mostly empty space.  The argument, based on contemporary physics, promises an account of reality, but it is a disconcerting account which Putnam compares to stories of "the Seducer" in nineteenth century American melodramas.  The Seducer promises "various things to the Innocent Maiden," but fails to deliver. Scientific realists propose that they alone can give us "independent" reality, and criticize many other alternatives as forms of idealism.  But the reality they promise to give us turns out to be unavailable, for it is defined as, in Putnam's words: "what 'finished science' will say there is—whatever that may be" (MFR, 4). Putnam wants to honor the Innocent Maiden's desire for the real with the help of a pragmatism conceived as a philosophy in a broad "neo-Kantian tradition" that also includes Husserl and Wittgenstein.  For all these writers, Putnam maintains, "commonsense tables and chairs and sensations and electrons are equally real....". (MFR, 12). Putnam wants to perform a rescue  of the real and achieve a return to common sense.

In this first section, I want to consider some sources for Putnam's position, mostly in the pragmatic tradition.  If one looks back from the distance of a century and a quarter in which we now stand to those first papers of Charles Sanders Peirce we find an incredibly resilient tradition, with its detractors all along, but sustained by a set of major figures we still read (Peirce, James, Dewey), and a new set of major figures, in its raucous revival in the late twentieth century, among whom Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam are the leaders. These newest figures, like James and Dewey if not Peirce, weave a story of pragmatism that takes it back to the canonical texts of its founders.  A key text for Putnam's discussion, and for understanding why he takes James to be part of a neo-Kantian tradition despite James's antipathy to Kant and Hegel, is James's chapter on "Pragmatism and Humanism," in Pragmatism.  It is there that James propounds the "humanist" claim that becomes a slogan for Putnam:  "the trail of the human serpent is over everything." (cf. MFR, 16 ff.).  Putnam sees James as following Kant in understanding reality to be something available to us precisely because of its entanglement with the human.

James himself realizes his closeness to Kant, not in his mode of argument, but in the position at which he arrives.   Although he brings up the point himself, it is certainly an unwelcome comparison to James, because he thinks of himself as working in the empirical tradition of Mill and Hume, and as an opponent of rationalist and particularly Kantian philosophies that posit transcendental machinery behind or beyond experience.  Yet James is too good a philosopher not to note the similarities to Kant, precisely the similarities that Putnam brings out.  James writes:

When we talk of reality "independent" of human thinking, then, it seems a thing very hard to find.  It reduces to the notion of what is just entering into experience and yet to be named, or else to some imagined aboriginal presence in experience, before any belief about the presence had arisen, before any human conception had been applied. ...Superficially this sounds like Kant's view;  but between categories fulminated before nature began, and categories gradually forming themselves in nature's presence, the whole chasm between rationalism and empiricism yawns. (P, 68).

In this passage James concedes the closeness to Kant by speaking of "categories," even if he at the same time holds that these categories evolve.  Indeed, earlier in Pragmatism, in the chapter on "Pragmatism and Common Sense" James gives an account of the evolution of these categories.  He speaks of "our fundamental ways of thinking" of "conceptions" and "systems of concepts" that "rationalize" our experience.  "All our conceptions," he writes, "are what the Germans call Denkmittel, means by which we handle facts by thinking them." (J, 560, 1).  He names these concepts of "common sense," and enumerates them as follows:  "One Time, One Space, Causal influences, Minds, The same or different, the fancied, the real" (561-2).  Yet James differs from Kant in two ways:  first he sees these concepts as evolving:  "There is not a category, among those enumerated, of which we may not imagine the use to have thus originated historically and only gradually spread" (563).  Second, he holds a pluralism  of categories.  The One Time and One Space are useful constructions, he states, but "the great majority of the human race never use these notions, but live in plural times and spaces, interpenetrant and durcheinander."   Indeed, James finds "various types of thinking, each so splendid for certain purposes, yet all conflicting still, and neither one of them able to support a claim of absolute veracity."  In this pluralism of useful denkmittel, James finds support for the pragmatist view that "all our theories are instrumental, are mental modes of adaptation to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma[.] (571).

The picture of historically evolving categories that James sets out is developed in various ways in such later pragmatist works as C. I. Lewis's Mind and the World Order, John Dewey's "Logic:  The Theory of Inquiry," W. V.  O. Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" and The Web of Belief, Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and Putnam's Reason, Truth and History and Realism with a Human Face.  As one might infer from its title, Putnam takes an historical approach to our "categories" in Reason, Truth and History, and he states in Realism with a Human Face that "our norms and standards of warranted assertability are historical products;  they evolve in time."

(RHF 21). 

If we assert that categories (Putnam's words are "norms" or "schemes") evolve, there will be different categories at different times, perhaps in different places at the same time.  These categories may not conflict but if they do, there may be no satisfactory scheme for uniting their disparate takes on things.  For Putnam, there may be something to learn even from such a conflict of categories—more perhaps than from a reductive reconciliation. This is an outlook I shall call pluralism, and it shows up in Putnam's already quoted statement that "commonsense tables and chairs and sensations and electrons are equally real...." 

The title of the work in which this quotation appears—The Many Faces of Realism—says it all in a way, for the expression "many faces" suggests that one can be a realist and a pluralist at once.  Putnam puts the point by speaking of "conceptual relativity" and states that his pragmatic realism is "just the insistence that realism is not incompatible with conceptual relativity."  This "realism with a small 'r'," as he also calls it is the "view that takes our familiar commonsense scheme, as well as our scientific and artistic and other schemes, at face value, without helping itself to the notion of the thing 'in itself' (17).  It is from the standpoints of these "schemes" that one can say both that there are tables and ice cubes as well as electrons, moments of beauty and horror as well as meter readings.

Putnam's pluralism reaches back to James's pragmatism, as we shall see in a moment, but it has closer sources in the work of two rather neglected pragmatists The first of these is C. I. Lewis, who, like Putnam, was a pragmatist, a logician, and a Harvard professor.  In his 1940 paper "Logical Positivism and Pragmatism" Lewis wrote, in his precise, sober way:  "It is one thing to say that scientific formulation is always pertinent and possible;  it is a quite different thing to say that no other than scientific formulation is meaningful." (p. 100).  Lewis thereby defends a plurality of significant formulations against logical positivist reductions to scientific discourse—against what Putnam would later call "scientism."

Another pluralist and, after his move from Penn in the mid nineteen sixties, a colleague of Putnam's at Harvard, is Nelson Goodman. Putnam discusses Ways of Worldmaking, Goodman's most explicit pragmatist work, in Realism and Reason, and he praises Goodman in Reason with a Human Face:  "Goodman's great contribution, I think, has been to urge that reconstructive reflection does not lose its value just because the dream of a total and unique reconstruction of our system of belief is hopelessly Utopian;  we can learn a great deal from partial and even fragmentary reconstructions, and we can learn a great deal from reconstructing our beliefs in alternative ways." (RHF 25).

A full consideration of Goodman's relation to later pragmatisms would have to take into account his work on alternative epistemologies in The Structure of Appearance, his invention or discovery of the "new riddle of induction," his work on "languages of art," and of course the explicit pragmatism of Ways of Worldmaking.  In keeping with my current focus on pluralism, however, I want to consider a powerful little article entitled "The Way the World Is", originally published in The Review of Metaphysics in 1960, then reprinted in Goodman's Problems and Projects.  Goodman reduces to absurdity various ways of understanding "the way the world is," advocating instead that the world is not one way but many.  We may think that the one way the world is is the way it is given in experience, but this turns out to be impossible to specify.  We may instead think that the way the world is is the way it is seen through the camera.  But there are different ways of doing this.  Shall we say that a photograph of a man with his feet towards me, so that his feet appear as large as his torso, is not the way the man is to be seen? (27).  Such a photograph shows something about reality.  As Goodman puts it, such a photograph "reveals new facts and possibilities in visual experience" that a more conventionally composed photograph does not..  Goodman makes the same point about paintings, about which he holds that there are many realistic styles, that of Picasso as much as that of Rembrandt. Even the most realistic way of depicting, Goodman argues, amounts merely to "one kind of conventionalization" (30).  If one asks what is the food for human beings one should hesitate:  for people eat tortillas or lenguado al vino Albariño or hamburgers or poi, but there is no one food they eat.  Similarly if asked what is the way the world is, Goodman answers "none."  Rather, "there are many ways the world is and every true description captures one of them.  (31).  Nelson Goodman is in this sense, what Putnam calls himself:  "both a realist and a conceptual relativist." (MFR,17). 

In a symposium with Goodman and Quine, and in a paper that repeats Goodman's title, "The Way the World Is," Putnam gives credit to Goodman for the "pluralistic note" (RHF, 265) he strikes in Ways of Worldmaking and Art as Experience.  He concludes his paper not only with an acknowledgment of the influence of Goodman and of Quine on his own work, but with the statement that  "all three of us have been shaped by a continuous tradition of American thought—one that can be traced from its beginnings in the debates at Harvard between Royce and James, as well as in the work of Peirce and Dewey, through the writings of our teacher C. I. Lewis, up to and including some of the most recent developments in American professional philosophy (RHF, 267).

The ultimate source for the pluralism in the pragmatic tradition is, of course William James, and I would like to spend a few minutes considering how extensive a theme it is in his work, for it enters not only James's epistemology but his metaphysics and his moral philosophy. Putnam himself mentions in this connection Pragmatism's chapter on "The One and the Many" where James aligns himself with "the pluralistic side," (556) as opposed to the side of absolute unity.  As usual, James tries to stake out a position in the middle, allowing some unity, or connection to the universe but no one string or system of connection unifying everything.  As a radical empiricist James believes that relations are as much experienced as the things related, so he is perfectly happy to point to real connections in experience.  But these connections do not form a system and they may conflict.  Putting the point metaphysically, James writes of the

innumerable little hangings-together of the world's parts within the larger hangings-together, little worlds, not only of discourse but of operation, within the wider universe.  ...the same part may figure in many different systems, as a man may hold several offices and belong to various clubs. (545).

 James also takes a pluralistic slant in the "Pragmatism and Common Sense" chapter of Pragmatism, where he speaks of "rationalizing" the "everlasting weather of our perceptions" (562) through various "conceptual systems" (561),  of which science and common sense are two (or more).  James considers the question, so important for Putnam, of which of these schemes is the true one, and he answers that they are each useful for one sphere of life or another, but that there "is no ringing conclusion possible when we compare these types of thinking, with a view to telling which is the more absolutely true....  Common sense is better for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third;  but whether either be truer absolutely, Heaven only knows" (569).[1]

These differences among conceptual systems are memorably exemplified, and given a moral slant, in a wonderful essay entitled "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," published in James's Talks to Teachers in 1899.  The blindness James has in mind, he explains, "is the blindness with which we are all afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves" (229).  One of James's examples is from his own life.  Traveling by wagon in the mountains of North Carolina he encounters a scene of devastation:  forest ripped up, ugly scars in the land and clumps of trees between which grew small patches of corn.  James cames to see, however, that to the settlers who were living there, the clearing meant a "personal victory" over nature by virtue of "honest sweat" and "persistent toil."  What to James was an environmental disaster was to the settlers a symbol of "duty, struggle, and success."  "I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions," James summarizes, "as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge." (233-4).  Notice that these differing viewpoints on the world are to some degree accessible to each other, for James learns to some degree to see things as the mountaineers do.

Another set of cases James discusses concern forms of blindness less easily  overcome, those  between species: 

Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world;  and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!—we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art.  As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior?" (230)

Here is an example of the partial connections and comprehensions James was to speak of in Pragmatism.  Our dogs are indeed connected to us by "a tie more intimate than most ties in this world" but they are also in some ways entirely alien to us, an alienation that can not be made up as easily as James's alienation from the North Carolina mountaineer. It's not just that the dogs miss something we apprehend but also that we miss things the dogs apprehend, not just the smells of the trees and lampposts but the "rapture" of the bone under the hedge.[2]

There is both a metaphysical and a moral side to James's pluralism in the "Blindness" essay, for the plurality of perspectives on the world, he holds,

commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us.  Hands off:  neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.  Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. (TT, 264).[3]

Notice that in James, as in Putnam, Goodman, and Lewis, there is no suggestion of irrealism, for James's pluralism is at the same time a form of realism.

I have been considering some antecedents of the humanism and pluralism that Putnam includes within his pragmatic realism, and I now want to consider a third element, action.  In The Many Faces of Realism Putnam writes:

The heart of pragmatism ...—of James's and Dewey's pragmatism, if not of Peirce's—was the insistence on the supremacy of the agent point of view.  If we find that we must take a certain point of view, use a certain 'conceptual system', when we are engaged in practical activity, in the widest sense of 'practical activity', then we must not simultaneously advance the claim that it is not really 'the way things are in themselves'.  (MFR, 70).

So it is through the human specifically as revealed in what we do that Putnam finds reality.  Putnam is quite right to say that the insistence on this point lies at the heart of classical pragmatism.  Consider in the first place the word "pragma," meaning an act or fact—from the Greek verb meaning "to do."  Consider secondly what is widely considered to be the originary statement of pragmatism, Peirce's statement "there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything other than a possible difference of practice." Peirce doesn't use the word "pragma" or "pragmatism" here but he does employ the related word "practice."  Variations on these terms run through the subsequent history of pragmatism, for example in James's idea that we "ride" on truths and that language is a program for "work," and in Dewey's idea that knowing is a form of doing.  "We have to do a doctrine," Dewey writes, "to know its truth" (83). In fact Dewey extends pragmatism from a doctrine of significance, past its Jamesean epistemology, to a doctrine about reality that anticipates Putnam. In his important essay  "Does Reality Possess Practical Character" (1908), Dewey  defines pragmatism as the "doctrine that reality possesses practical character" (81).  Reality includes what is revealed in our interactions and practices, the "genuinely vital" and the "personal." "Why," Dewey asks, "should what gives tragedy, comedy, and poignancy to life, be excluded from things?"[4]  Putnam speaks in the same vein when he writes in The Threefold Cord that "what has weight in our lives should also have weight in philosophy"  (TC: 70), and when he states in The Many Faces of Realism that the world includes not only electrons and space-time regions, but tables and chairs, prime numbers, "moments of beauty and transcendence" and "people who are a menace to world peace."

Of course Putnam is not just repeating Dewey.  What is new in Putnam's neopragmatist reformulation of Dewey's and James's ideas is in part the result of the intervening fifty years or so of analytic philosophy (in which Putnam played his own major role). I would simply mention two figures crucial for Putnam's neopragmatic formulations.  The first is Quine, who in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" holds that we have a choice in how to adjust our theories to the data we receive and that when rational these choices are pragmatic.  Quine therefore connects our statements about what is real—our ontology—to what works for us in our lives and in our thought. (cf. MF, 21). From both Quine and Wittgenstein Putnam derives an emphasis on language that is not at all present in classical pragmatism.  Wittgenstein of course focuses on language as an activity, which in some broad sense—as Wittgenstein himself noticed—makes his philosophy akin to pragmatism.[5] "The term "language-game," Wittgenstein writes, "is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life."  Wittgenstein's picture of language is akin to pragmatism not only in its emphasis on action, but in two other ways:  in Wittgenstein's idea that language evolves historically, and in his pluralism about language games. There are "countless" kinds of sentence and uses of language, Wittgenstein writes, adding that "this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all;  but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten" (PI, 23).

I want to say something quite brief now concerning some pragmatist roots of Putnam's moral and political philosophy.  Here the point is that Putnam's pluralistic realism embraces what one might call moral facts, and the truth of moral statements. Putnam states that it is "a fact, for example, that Yeats was a great poet, and a fact that the Nazis were evil (MFR, 63).  It is true that such facts cannot be established beyond controversy, Putnam concedes, but many facts in science, e. g., the age of the earth, are not beyond controversy either (MFR, 65).  Even if we grant that there is a theoretical end to controversy in science and not in questions of value, it does not immediately follow that science deals with truths and facts while morality does not.  That inference would require the premise that the more controversial is the less objective.  Echoing William James, Putnam asks:  "What would be the consequences for our lives" of believing in the subjectivity of such statements as that the Nazis were evil.  "What," he continues, "is the 'cash value' of believing that only what can be established beyond controversy has anything to do with 'cognition', knowledge, understanding?" (65).  In a later paper, written with Ruth Anna Putnam, Putnam returns to this theme, and rejects the position of such philosophers as Bernard Williams and David Wiggins, who distinguish "truth in morality" or "truth 'humanly speaking'" from the "absolute truth" that we allegedly obtain in science.  Pragmatism, he states, "urges that truth humanly speaking is all we've got."  (RHF, 226 ).

Now in refusing to draw an ultimate distinction between statements of value and statements of fact, Putnam revives a position taken by that middle generation pragmatist C. I. Lewis, who states that for "the pragmatist, there can be no final division between 'normative' and 'descriptive' (112).  Lewis defines  pragmatism as "the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, and all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical from practical, so there can be no final separation of  questions of truth of any kind  from questions of the justifiable ends of action" (108).

Lewis, like Putnam, draws on the philosophy of John Dewey, who is explicit in his refusal to draw a sharp line between facts and values, between "the ideal and the material" as he puts it. (QC, 225).  In "The Construction of Good," a well-known chapter in The Quest for Certainty, Dewey calls for experimental methods as applied to questions of value.  "A moral law," Dewey writes, "like a law in physics, is not something to swear by and stick to at all hazards;  it is a formula of the way to respond when specified conditions present themselves.  Its soundness and pertinence are tested by what happens when it is acted on." (QC 222).  Dewey holds, as Putnam has stressed in a recent paper, that we debate and experiment, that to use his word, we inquire, not only about means but about ends. (Response to Brandom in Hilary Putnam: Realism and Reason, ed. James Conant and Urszula M. Zeglen, Routledge, 59-65).

Putnam follows Dewey not only in refusing to draw a line between questions of fact and questions of conduct, but in his concern with democracy—one of Dewey's main themes not only in his political writings but in such works as Democracy and Education.  Putnam's wonderful paper, "A Reconsideration of Deweyan Democracy," defends the Deweyan thesis that, as he puts it, "democracy is a precondition for the full application of intelligence to solving social problems."  Drawing on both Peirce and Dewey, Putnam reminds us of the pragmatists' allegiance to experimental methods (P, 189), and characterizes Dewey's understanding of that method as "experimental inquiry combined with free and full discussion—which means, in the case of social problems, the maximum use of the capacities of citizens for proposing courses of action, for testing them, and for evaluating the results" (190).  This is to say that democracy is not just a method of expression (of, for example, an antecedently existing "will of the people"), but a method of thinking and of social transformation.  The community of scientists can only pursue objective truth if everyone in the community is free to criticize its beliefs, knowing that those criticisms will be heard and discussed.  But this is just the condition of democracy as Putnam and Dewey understand it:  a system of critical   reflection and action in which everyone has an equal right to participate (193).

It is important to see that for the pragmatists, values are built right into inquiry. As Dewey learns from Peirce and James, inquiry begins with a "problem situation," a sense that something is not in order.  (Peirce had called this "the irritation of doubt" (P, 40)).  In his classic discussion of "the practical character of reality," Dewey defines a problem situation as something inherently "unsatisfactory," in which something is "amiss."  The first stage of solving the problem is identifying it, moving from a somewhat vague state of dissatisfaction or irritation to a definition that leads to a particular experimental action.  If intelligence has been properly applied the action leads to a consummation or satisfaction.  Notice how, in the following statement, Dewey speaks of all this as a "situation" rather than as a private subjective experience;  and that he mixes value-laden descriptions—e. g. "crisis," "out of gear," "menaced"—and more neutral descriptions of the situation:

Awareness means attention, and attention means a crisis of some sort in an existent situation;  a forking of the roads of some material....  It represents something the matter, something out of gear, or in some way menaced, insecure, problematical and strained.  This state of tension, of ambiguous indications, projects and tendencies, is not merely in the "mind," it is nothing merely emotional.  It is in the facts of the situation....(87).

Notice that Dewey is not speaking particularly about morality, but about experience generally, insofar as it involves awareness, inquiry, and growth.

Dewey's project of intensifying and enhancing the values that are present in experience from the first is central not only to his pragmatism but to his educational philosophy, and it reaches a culmination in his late great work on aesthetics, Art as Experience.  In that work, Dewey writes that the aesthetic is "the clarified and intensified development of traits that belong to every normally complete experience" (46). He calls for a reconstruction not only of philosophy but of normal human life, which he characterizes as "stunted, aborted, slack, or heavy laden."  Dewey sees the ultimate goal of our inquiries as "conditions through which the ideal is capable of embodiment and realization" (27).

It is at this point—in the idea of a reconstruction or redemption of our experience—that pragmatism as I see it appears as a form of romanticism.  And it is in this context that I wish, in concluding the paper, to briefly consider Putnam's pragmatism in relation to the philosophical romanticism developed by his Harvard colleague Stanley Cavell in the mid-nineteen eighties, at just the time when Putnam's neopragmatism reached its full flowering.  Although their approaches are in many ways dissimilar, they are comparable on the following points:  1) they share the quest for a return to the ordinary within a Kantian problematic (giving prominence to the active role of the human mind);  2) they are nevertheless profoundly dissatisfied with the Kantian settlement on three fronts:  Kant's banishment of the thing in itself beyond experience, his related acceptance of Newtonian physics as giving the basic forms of that experience, and his banishing of value from the world;  3) they both owe an enormous debt to the later philosophy of Wittgenstein—on whose philosophy they taught classes together at Harvard in the 1990s.

Cavell sets out the idea of a broad, rich transcendental empiricism in his early book on Thoreau, The Senses of Walden (1971), where he writes that "what is wrong with empiricism is not its reliance on experience but its paltry idea of experience" (SW 126).  Cavell's richer conception of experience includes not only sense perception but "human forms of feeling, objects of human attraction, our reactions constituted in art."  In an explicit revision of Kant, Cavell writes that such forms of experience "are as universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics" (SW 104).[6]  Although Cavell had thus been considering the American form of romanticism known as Transcendentalism in the nineteen seventies, it was not until the end of the decade, in Part IV of The Claim of Reason (1979), and then in the early nineteen eighties in his Beckman Lectures, that he began to theorize romanticism as a philosophical topic.  This turn to romanticism arises from Cavell's work on skepticism about other minds, which he conceives not as the academic philosophical problem of what evidence one has for the presence of consciousness in another person, but as a problem of our lives with others.  We live our skepticism concerning other minds, Cavell comes to say, and he finds examples of such lived skepticism in Shakespeare's tragedies, specifically Othello and King Lear.[7]  By the early nineteen eighties, Cavell had come to the thought that we live not just our skepticism about other minds but our skepticism about the world.  This is the problem he comes to think of as romantic—how to recover from our lived skepticism about the world;  and this is the place where his philosophy comes close to that of John Dewey.[8]

In his 1988 book  In Quest of the Ordinary, Cavell characterizes the work of romanticism as "the task of bringing the world back, as to life" (IQO, 52-3). He complains that Kant negotiates away the possibility that you can "experience the world as world, things as things;  face to face, as it were, call this the life of things" (IQO, 53).  The idea that we've lost and can recover "the life of things" is depicted, according to Cavell, in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and addressed in Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.  It is, he holds, given a twentieth century interpretation in Wittgenstein's goal of bringing "words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use" (PI, 116).

Cavell's quest for a vital, humanly entangled ordinary, resonates with Putnam's quest for a recovery of the ordinary from the clutches of the scientific realist, and with his sense that the world is as much valuable as it is factual.  Putnam and Cavell both operate with the sense that there is something missing in philosophy, and that this has something to do with something missing in our lives.  Putnam's title Words and Life alludes to Wittgenstein and to Husserl's idea of the "life-world," but it also lies in the broad stream of romanticism, in which "life" is perhaps the central concept.  I see Putnam, like Cavell but also like Dewey and James, and Thoreau and Emerson before them, as members of a romantic tradition in American thought that always calls for a renewal of philosophy[9] and operates with the sense that philosophical problems are, no matter how abstract, at the same time intimately connected with the way we live our lives.


Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1979.

---------------In Quest of the OrdinaryLines of Skepticism and Romanticism.  University of Chicago Press, 1988

John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty. Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press.  (QC).

Nelson Goodman, "The Way the World Is," in Problems and Projects.  New York:  Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

-----------------Ways of Worldmaking.  Indianapolis and Cambridge, Hackett, 1978.

Russell B. Goodman Pragmatism:  A Contemporary Reader, Routledge, 1995.  (P).

William James, Writings 1902-1910, Library of America.  (J)

---------------Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals  (Henry Holt, 1899.  (TT).

C. I. Lewis "Logical Positivism and Pragmatism" (1941), in The Collected Papers of C. I. Lewis. ed. John D. Goheen and John L. Mothershead, Jr. Stanford University Press, 1970.

Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (Open Court, 1987).  (MFR).

---------Realism with a Human Face, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.  (RHF)

---------------The Threefold Cord. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe.  New York:  Macmillan, 1953.


[1] Thanks to Robert Schwartz for calling these passages to my attention in connection with James's pluralism.

[2] James returns to dogs in A Pluralistic Universe, where he writes:  We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all." (771).  Here human beings occupty the position of the dogs in the "Blindness" essay.  Just as the dogs have difficulty understanding our novel-loving ways, so we may have little idea of the more encompassing beings with whom we share the universe. James postulates the existence of beings greater than ourselves but still limited, whose actions we occasionally encounter but have no way of comprehending.

[3] Cf. a statement near the end of A Pluralistic Universe: there may ultimately never be an all-form at all, that the substance of reality may never get totally collected, that some of it may remain outside of the largest combination of it ever made, and that a distributive form of reality, the each-form, is logically as acceptable and empirically as probable as the all-form commonly acquiesced in as so obviously the self-evident thing. (PU 645).  For another passage about dogs see James's remark in "Pragmatism and Common Sense," in Pragmatism (l of a, 562-3).

[4] Cf. James's statement in The Will to Believe that we will accept no "philosophy whose principle is so incommensurate with our most intimate powers as to deny them all relevancy in universal affairs"  (The Will to Believe, Harvard U.P., 70-1).

[5] See my Wittgenstein and William James (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[6] Cf. Goodman's idea that art contributes to understanding in Languages of Art, and Putnam's embrace of his views at RHF, 266.

[7] See my American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1990), Chapter One.

[8] See American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Chapter Four.

[9] As in the title of one of Putnam's books, Renewing Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1992).