When is something real? LO23408

Richard Karash (Richard@karash.com)
Sat, 27 Nov 1999 14:49:27 -0500

Replying to LO23399 --

>You've done an excellent job setting up the premise for which William
>James supplied the conclusion. It was just this kind of thinking that led
>him to what has been labeled "pragmatism."


>As you say in your message, such principles have created a lot of
>objectively verifiable progress over many years.

I have not read William James, but on John Warfield's prompting, I have
read some of Charles S. Peirce. Peirce was an important collaborator with
James in pragmatism. (Peirce is very difficult to approach; I would love
to find a good reading list. I don't know where to start in James.)

At has pointed out that it was Newton to opened a revolutionary new way of
knowing, one that everyman could use to determine what to believe about
how the world works, the basis of the scientific method. Newton's method
is consistent with James and Peirce. And, I believe I'm in agreement with
Peirce and James in what I've written.

To me, the next important extension of these ideas is the "action science"
point of view, that the observer is part of the system, not standing apart
from the system being studied. This extension is important when studying
any system involving human beings.

Interesting to me, there's a linkage that goes:
Peirce & Wm. James --> John Dewy --> Shewhart --> Deming --> Senge.

>However, James would be the first to say that if a new theory comes along
>that works out better in the long run, we should act on its basis
>thenceforward. James was no fonder of "absolute scientific truth" than
>any modern scientific thinker is. His notions, like those you propose,
>are based on something one might call "conditional acceptance" founded on
>"the pragmatic test" I have simplified above, and subject to change with
>subsequent experiences.

Thanks for this... I like your articulation here. The notion of
"conditional acceptance" is an important corollary of the process. We
might also say that we hold these theories "provisionally." Both terms
mean that we can use and rely on substantiated beliefs, but we should
always remember that there may be limitations NOT YET EXPERIENCED. When
they arise, we'll need new theories that extend what we have learned to

>Frankly, I have never found a better set of principles. As to why these
>principles haven't reconciled "spiritualists,philosophers, scientists, and
>public thinkers troubled by the tension between (1) and (2)" I have
>several speculations:
> A. Some prominent members of these groups do not, fundamentally, want
>reconciliation. They derive their sense of worth from continuing the
> B. Many people choose to misunderstand William James -- making absurd
>claims for pragmatism that he would never have recognized. These
>misunderstandings have come, in part, from people like those described in
>paragraph A., above, and in part from those who wish to make a name for
>themselves by offering something different and "better."

There's a view that pragmatism includes, "Whatever works is good" and
leads to the extension "Whatever one wants is good." This is NOT right for
me, and I doubt it's in James and Peirce.

> C. There are still those who choose not to accept your basic premise
>that we cannot contact objective reality (in useful or infallible ways.)
>It is uncomfortable for many (especially those who are unsophisticated in
>science) to accept that, somehow, the best we can do is create concepts
>that work (for awhile) until something better can be created. ...snip...

Yes, the notion "cannot contact objective reality (in useful or infallible
ways)" is a little tough to absorb. Part of the problem is people think
it's saying "cannot contact reality at all" and they miss the part saying
"when the process converges, we can have very reliable conclusions that
enable us to act effectively in the world." I think it's an "acquired
taste..."; giving up objective reality is hard, but the "convergence to
reliable theories" is very comforting. Giving up objective reality
without the "convergence to reliable" would be impossible for me.

Your list above is a good start. In addition, some people think there are
absolutes and that we can know them; as a result, they don't like the
notion of "provisional acceptance."

About my question, I think we should distinguish between scholars and lay
people. I was asking my grand question about scholars... Why isn't
pragmatism a satisfactory reconciliation?

But, there's also a question about people on the street: As a successful
species, why do we human beings appear so inconsistent in what we believe
and how we form beliefs? Why such lack of rigor? Lack of reflection. I
think what we are writing about is basic stuff, but somehow it's still an
eye-opener for many intelligent, successful adults today. I envision a
future in which we wouldn't talk about this on LO, and would never
consider including this in a management curriculum... Because everyone
already knows it and acts this way.

Are there viable alternatives. In the limited domain of setting beliefs
about how the world works, I don't see any. (I'm not commenting on other

-=- Rick


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