A Philosophy of the Possible
Prof. John McGowan (北卡羅萊那大學人文學院講座教授兼院長)
Pragmatism is the one significant contribution to Western philosophy made by American writers. The first group of pragmatists–notably Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey–wrote their major works between 1875 and 1935. The revival of pragmatism in our own time can be dated to the publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979. Rorty, Louis Menand, and Robert Brandom are key figures writing in the pragmatist tradition today.
Pragmatism is best characterized as a philosophy of the possible, one that focuses on neither the necessary (what must be) nor the impossible (what cannot be). In emphasizing what might be, pragmatists call attention to what human action can make happen in the world. Several important consequences follow from this interest in the possible: a movement away from epistemology and truth as central philosophical concerns; an acceptance of probability and fallibilism in place of certainty; an insistence on a dynamic world instead of a static one, and on the creation and re-creation of identities through relational ties to other entities rather than through intrinsic qualities.
I will take the time to unpack these philosophical ideas carefully–and use concrete examples so that they will be clear. (I will also invite questions as I am proceeding in order to aid understanding.) Once I have laid out the basic philosophical commitments of pragmatism, I will devote the last part of the lecture to considering how pragmatism is, in many ways, a position more suited to a literary sensibility than to traditional Western philosophical concerns. Pragmatism is part of the literary challenge to traditional philosophy that has characterized literary theory since 1965.