The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Beliefby Mark Bauerlein
The Pragmatic Mind is a study of the pragmatism of Emerson, James, and Peirce and its overlooked relevance for the neopragmatism of thinkers like Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, Stanley Fish, and Cornel West. Arguing that the "original" pragmatists are too-often cited casually and imprecisely as mere precursors to this contemporary group of American intellectuals, Mark Bauerlein explores the explicit consequences of the earlier group’s work for current debates among and around the neopragmatists.
Bauerlein extracts from Emerson, James, and Peirce an intellectual focus that can be used to advance the broad social and academic reforms that the new pragmatists hail. He claims that, in an effort to repudiate the phony universalism of much contemporary theory, the new generation of theorists has ignored the fact that its visions of pragmatic action are grounded in this "old" school, not just in a way of doing things but also in a way of thinking about things. In other words, despite its inclination to regard psychological questions as irrelevant, Bauerlein shows that the pragmatic method demands a pragmatic mind—that is, a concept of cognition, judgment, habit, and belief. He shows that, in fact, such a concept of mind does exist, in the work of the "old" pragmatists.
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The Pragmatic Mind
Explorations in the Psychology of Belief
By Mark Bauerlein
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Thinking in the Emersonian Way
The opening paragraph of Emerson's Nature has often been taken as a definitive description of the American thinker's situation. Its diagnostic pronouncements of "retrospection," "original relation," "insight," "tradition," "nature," and so on have induced literary scholars to tease out of American Renaissance writings a uniquely American sociohistorical aesthetic, a "literary democracy" that asks American writers to assume a certain posture toward the past, present, and future. Emerson's epigrams articulate a historical and political directive, requiring that Americans adopt an oppositional relation to any ossified social structure—be it Europe, Christianity, America's colonial past, or the Harvard curriculum—and proceed to "demand [their] own works and laws and worship" (CW, 1:7). Because "there are new lands, new men, new thoughts" awaiting a new expression (not just an expression of their newness), American artists are faced with accomplishing a double originality, which is to say, with maintaining a double antagonism. On the one hand, they must counteract those creeping social institutions and personal habits that both delimit the field of expression and domesticate any revelation into conventional social practices. On the other, they must resist any backward-looking attitude that absorbs all face to face beholdings of God and nature into customary genres and obscures the radical content of that "insight" in discussions of taste, rules, and ornament.
This New World mandate requires that self-reliant citizens implant themselves at an inaugural metaphysical threshold: when the natural present gets translated into a social past. Because the latter tends to displace the former or to represent the former only in institutionalized repetitions, individuals must hearken again and again to nature—not, however, to be natural, to live a nonsocial, nonhistorical existence (Emerson disdains such naïvetés), but to maintain an "original relation to the universe," a fruitful interplay of spirit and nature, of humanized forms and native forces. American "representative men" must inhabit a precarious nature-culture transition, an ideal first historical moment that initiates the memorializing tendency yet clings to the natural "floods of life streaming] around and through us." Americans produce "action proportioned to nature," drawing primal power into a human world, an age, but abandoning that social formation the instant it forsakes its original relation and becomes (in the hands of "conformists") related only to its application to various social events. Daily answering nature's restless invitation, whose "every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of mind" (CW, 1:9), Americans should dwell at the site of the "new." And living in perpetual renewal is not just a matter of attaining a unique experience, of undergoing elemental, unmediated apprehensions of nature. The idea of mediation as an inescapable human condition occurs too frequently in Emerson for us to identify originality with immediacy. Instead, the new happens when we discover different and better relations with nature, when we transform these currently foreign relations into "an occult relation" that gives "greatest delight" (p. 10).
For this reason, to characterize Emerson's imperative as a blank antihistoricism is to interpret his project somewhat one-sidedly as a politics of individualism. If this Emersonian attitude were simply a matter of opposition, of an individual American mind rejecting a tradition or institution, then American innovation would amount to a mere substitution of beliefs—democracy for aristocracy, nature for convention, "revelation" for "history." American revisionary action would involve a revaluing of individual experience over traditionalized experience in the name of an ethical principle: the inalienable right to originality. But antihistoricism, individualism, and nativism merely abolish that which tradition, retrospection, and history preserve. Antihistoricism therefore imports simply an inversion of already established values, not a genuine interrogation of the meaning and genesis of those values. The conception of tradition and individuality, the thinking of their relation to self, society, and nature, remains the same in either case.
Although these are fairly commonplace political observations, it is important to appreciate the cognitive dimension of Emerson's proposal. His promptings call for a transvaluation and a new cognition of the things valued: not only a new object of experience but a new mode of experience, a "new thought." Retrospection is a guiding mental habit, a cognitive attitude determining one's relation to the past and present universes. Therefore, escaping the historical passivity that retrospection imposes on us rests on the possibility of realizing a different cognitive attitude. Emerson solicits a method of mind in harmony with nature's temporality, not history's chronology. If prospection is to rescue the living generation from routine imitations of the past, it must perform something other than the flip side of retrospection, other than an opposite looking. Here is Emerson's insight: respect for original relation. Mind should heed the volatility of tradition-insight, history-revelation oppositions and treat the choice of one term over the other as an impoverishment of experience. An either/ or choice narrows experience too much, commits mind to a single course of thinking, a traditional one or a revelatory one. Shunning that foolish consistency, an Emersonian mind cultivates a buoyant mental posture, regards its successive cognitions not as confirmations of a prior choice, but as experiments in living.
In the words of Nature's second paragraph, Emersonian thinking lives in "curiosity," an "apprehension" that poses "questions" and makes "inquiries" (CW, 1:7) but eschews the quick conclusion, the easy answer (which is what tradition supplies). Indeed, it is the inquiries, not the answers, that reveal "man's condition." For a question is not a sign of ignorance or uncertainty. Though it wants an answer, a question also predetermines the shape of the answer and this implicit conditioning no answer can exceed (only another question can do that). The question is a "solution in hieroglyphic." That "we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable" (p. 7) implies that every inquiry already determines the form of its resolution—that is, distinguishes what counts as relevant, what gets recognized as related. An empirical answer indicates an empirical question, an empiricist's thinking. A particular curiosity is always answered through a particular angle of vision. So, to get to the bottom of human curiosity, to answer the riddle of the Sphinx, we need more than just an answer. Rather, we require an exploration of that which awakens curiosity in the first place, namely, nature—"Let us interrogate the great apparition.... Let us inquire, to what end is nature?"
Why nature and not God, man and woman, knowledge, society? First, because nature seems to be the raw material out of which individuals build their own worlds. Second, because nature functions to strip thinking of all "mean egotism," to render all "names," "acquaintances," "streets and villages" "foreign and accidental," "a trifle and a disturbance" (CW, 1:10). While the other terms mentioned above fall too easily into institutional forms (God as the church, man and woman as marriage, knowledge as the academy, society as the gendeman's club, the charitable organization, or the political party), nature by definition remains opposed to all institutions. Keeping nature in mind, individuals prevent themselves from being exhausted by social and political engagements. Inquiring into nature is how individual thinkers mark the limits of human being. Purifying personalities, politicians, servants, and slaves into "transparent eye-balls," "the woods" breaks down that benign passivity that institutions instill in their members and prepares American minds for a redemptive receptivity to new thoughts and new experiences. Although such moments may not happen often, when they do, nature inspires a reverent curiosity about being, the most congenial epistemic stance for knowing ourselves and our meanings.
Taking its direction from nature and applying its thinking to its own activity, this thoughtful interrogation surpasses an epistemological framework whereby knowledge gets categorized into ways of knowing, a category not entirely new. That approach defines experience as a one-way movement from either nature to mind or vice versa. If an inquiry takes nature as simply a material object with which mind works, it neglects an essential constituent of the original relation out of which human being emerges, mistaking mind for an in itself, a self-originating substance projecting its ways of knowing in versions of art and science. On the other hand, if an inquiry takes nature as a dynamic participant in experience but does not query the angle of the inquiry's own curious vision, it fails to recollect mind's initial objectification of nature, the limitation of nature to suit the question. That forgetfulness yields a narrow-minded positivism, "an addition or subtraction or other comparison of known quantities" (CW, 1:39). Also, taking the objectification of nature for granted takes the subjectification of thinking for granted—a weak relaxation of curiosity, for objectification and subjectification mark a simultaneous constitution of the one and the other, this constitution being the operation each onesided inquiry ignores. Of course, with a static subject-object distinction established, such partial epistemologies do have benefits. They quicken the progress of scientific knowledge, bring the knower and the known together in a growing storage of facts. But they also have drawbacks: no longer "an awaken[ed] ... mind," the knower proceeds confidently in a familiar objective terrain, middlingly edified by the experiment. And, no longer "nature ... describing its own designs," the known becomes an object of observation, distanced from "the colors of the spirit" (p. 10).
It is precisely these substantiations before which Emersonian thinking hesitates. It asks if there is a thinking before subjectivity, a nature before objectivity, if there is some relation more original than that of subject-object. And, knowing that all worldly relations are largely mapped out in the asking, that an empirical discovery unveils not a new relation but only a related empirical term, Emersonian thinking prefers not to end its inquiry, pauses before each tantalizing answer. When it does move forward, when it apprehends a "new thought," envisions a "new land," or recognizes "new men," Emersonian inquiry works by posing the question "to what end is nature?" and announcing what the answer might look like. So, while the second paragraph ends with the nature question, the third paragraph proceeds to state how one way of thinking—"science"—would go about answering it:
All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature. We have theories of races and of functions, but scarcely yet a remote approximation to an idea of creation. We are now so far from the road to truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other, and speculative men are esteemed unsound and frivolous. But to a sound judgment, the most abstract truth is the most practical. Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is, that it will explain all phenomena.
Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable; as language, sleep, dreams, beasts, sex. (CW, 1:8)
Beginning by positing a "theory of nature" as a result, this solicitous paragraph seems to espouse "theory" as the pathway to "truth," the corrective instrument that would bring thought and opinion back from the "unsound and frivolous." With a sound "idea of creation" in hand, "dispute and hate" would dissolve into concordance and love, and "religious teachers" would properly act as prophets, not polemicists. Instead of leading speculation into fruitless, sterile abstraction and away from "Commodity," "Beauty," "Language," and "Spirit," a "true theory" would be a "Discipline," would generate action, reform, "worship," and other "Prospects." While various superficial "theories of races and of functions" effect only a factitious relation (because, one might assume, they are bound to the finite "understanding"), this "true theory" would unriddle the human "hieroglyphic" and, paradoxically, propel American thinkers forward into new possibilities of thought and backward to every thought's vital beginnings.
Given these beneficent results, the question then becomes not one of theory per se, but one of truth: How is one to know which theory is true, is fact? What can be the basis of discrimination? Fully aware that his criterion must be extra- or pretheoretical, Emerson's "science" contends that what confirm this theory as true are both its self-evidence and its explanatory capacity. Its authority rests in its intuitive appeal (whereby its truth strikes the soul) and its empirical facility (its universal applicability). It simultaneously meets the contrary demands of the idealist's reflection and the naturalist's experimentation. Being "its own evidence," a "true theory" transcends debate, argument, verification. It makes "the most abstract truth" into "the most practical" activity. Converting frivolous speculation into community action, bridging that problematic epistemological gap between word and thing, sign and meaning, theory and practice, and rationalizing those metaphysical differences (over questions of freedom, faith, death) that instigate controversy and confusion, "true theory" is self-legitimizing. If it were not, if it required proof or illustration for legitimacy, then it would rely on the relations (of correspondence, of abstract-concrete, of rule-example) that it purports to explain. Hence, by definition, "true theory" requires no references: as it is conceived, it happens; as it is realized, it works.
But to say that true theory has an immediate, universal effect, that it lays bare reality and mind, is, strictly speaking, to say that it has no application, that it is its own practice, its own meaning. It dispenses with any follow-up procedures. Again, if it did not, then that procedure itself would have to be accounted for, would have to be corroborated by another theory, a theory of the true theory. This is why true theory produces a total and terminal event. Explaining everything equally everywhere, it compels a constant invocation, in so doing annihilating the structure of invocation. It is not brought to bear on persons, things, or nature, for persons and things and nature are the outcome of "true theory's" simplifying action. "True theory" discharges the possibility of human projection, explanation, interpretation. There is no pretheory world on which to be projected, for the projection is the world, and every world encountered as not your projection is someone else's projection (reified into "tradition," the fathers' "sepulchres").
So the whole notion of legitimacy or confirmation, of a secondary testing, is irrelevant to it—it simply is true. "True theory" justifies—it needs no justification. Peremptorily setting all other theories to rest, it commands immediate assent. It "explain[s] all phenomena," thus restoring to the world its candor and lucidity. A true theory does not curtail mind's inquiries into nature, but rather opens nature to mind's curiosity, makes nature into a limpid window to Spirit, a resplendent viewpoint congenial to the visionary's vision. At this point, nature is not composed of phenomena—it is immanence. Henceforth, mind does not interpret: it sees.
What the Emersonian scientist hopes to find in his search for total explanation and "simplicity and truth" (CW, 1:30) is a theory to end theorizing—a theory that would bring us face to face with nature and transform each individual into a representative visionary. While some inquirers would covet that theory as an ultimate solution, an end to speculation and vision, the Emersonian scientist implements that theory to put skepticism and alienation to rest and free mind for new cognitions of the universe. Object-oriented science wants a theory that will reduce human thinking to routine attachments to demystified objects (which are, in Emerson's thinking, despiritualized objects). Emersonian science wants a theory that will reveal the demystification of nature as but one possible direction of experience. It seeks a theory in whose context demystification will mark but one relation that mind has to the universe.
Emerson wishes to avoid a science that allows for only one experiential attitude—"objectivity"—an attitude that develops at the expense of spirit. Or, if it acknowledges spirit, objectivity reduces spirit to mere immaterial substance. It limits experience to a single relation, one original perhaps in Newton's time but restrictive in our age. To correct that impoverishment, Emersonian thinking tries to posit another relation, a new set of experiential terms and distinctions. It yields original and better relations, and it also remains attentive to the relation-making process, the latter being the proper haunt of spirit. An Emersonian theory of nature not only proposes "theories of races and of functions," models of human beings and their tools. It also strives toward "an idea of creation," a concept of conception adequate to spirit's capacity to evolve. This is why there is no one true theory. Spirit is creation, not created. Any particular relation that claims to exhaust spirit's potential makes the perverse claim of comprehending that which gives rise to it in the first place. A "true theory" and its idea of creation underscores the partiality of any created relation—not in order to condemn relatedness per se, but in order to explode any single relation's claim to privilege and to allow spirit a freer exercise in the world.
Excerpted from The Pragmatic Mind by Mark Bauerlein. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of several books, including Literary Criticism: An Autopsy.
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