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Rorty, R. (2000). Pragmatism. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 81(4):819-823.

(2000). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 81(4):819-823


Richard Rorty

The question of which doctrines are central to pragmatism and which peripheral is hotly contested among admirers of the three ‘classical’ pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. My own account of what is most usable and profitable in these men's writings is disputed by many of my colleagues. They often suggest that I put an undesirable, ‘post-modern’, Nietzschean/Heideggerian spin on pragmatist ideas. In the present space, however, I can only sketch my own take on the work of James and Dewey.

As I read these two philosophers, their central contribution is their criticism of the idea that knowledge and truth are to be understood in terms of conformity with, or accurate representation of, the way things really are. I read this criticism as a move towards substituting the imagination, considered as the ability to find new and more profitable descriptions of ourselves and our environment, for reason, considered as a truth-tracking faculty that gradually shapes our minds to the contours of the really real.

Suppose that we have reworked our map of the universe, or our political system, or our sense of the meaning of our lives: we have made it quite different, so that it seems clearly superior to what we had before. Should we then say that we have now got the universe, or politics, or life, right, or at least that we now have a more adequate grasp of it? Or should we simply say what we say of a new costume or a new mechanical device: that we now have something which suits our needs better? Should we try to measure our achievement against something other than our present, fallible, judgement of the advantages and disadvantages of the new over the old? Or should we say that that judgement is the only measure we are going to have?

Pragmatists prefer the latter alternative.

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