A Short Piece
The account of a philosophical journey on how practical questions can help us solve abstract inquiries: it is not an “either/or” decision.
Founded by William James, pragmaticism presents itself as a corrective to the inquires of classical philosophy. It presents itself as “cutting through the nonsense,” a kind of Ockham’s Razor that doesn’t bother with philosophical topics that can’t ultimately be grounded in lived experience. Metaphysics, ontology — all these are viewed with suspicion and, worse, mostly ignored. Richard Rorty, a founder of Neo-Pragmaticism, encourages us to forgo questions of “truth” in favor of “what works,” suggesting that determining what constitutes capital-T-Truth ultimately transcends what we can meaningfully formulate questions about, let alone fathom. And Rorty makes good points: I completely agree that certainty is mostly impossible and that Derrida deconstructed most metaphysical efforts with his “critique of presence.” But there’s more to the story.
For me, the question “How should we live?” embodied the project of Pragmaticism, and that question is often presented as a “corrective” to philosophical life, as if philosophers need to stop worrying about abstract questions like “What is truth?” and focus on how we can get through our daily lives. And there’s some legitimacy to this, but personally I believe the question “How should we live?” is critical for more “abstract questions” to take into account precisely so that the abstract questions can be better addressed: the split between “pragmaticism” and “non-pragmaticism” is a false one. The very fact that x is practical and/or “unfolds” throughout my daily life gives me “reason to believe” that x has something to do with what is true. Personally, I believe “what’s practical” provides insight into “what’s likely true,” that if I have “reason to think” that x has something to do with “living well,” then there would be reason to think x “has something to do” with truth. Perhaps not, but there’s good reason to let questions of “How should we live?” guide the inquiry. In this way, I believe Pragmaticism and the concerns of Continental Philosophy can be combined (in phenomenology, particularly), but the story of how and why is a bit longer.
The book that first awoke me up from my “dogmatic slumber” regarding the importance of pragmaticism was Blackness Visible by Charles W. Mills. Up to that point, I was fairly idealistic and “disembodied” in my philosophical thinking, but Dr. Mills woke me up. He warned me that a lot of philosophy was just meaningless systematizing that served ruling classes, and one section in particular felt like an explosion in my head. He wrote:
‘If your daily existence is defined by oppression, by forced intercourse with the world, it is not going to occur to you to doubt about your oppressor’s existence in any serious fashion as a pressing philosophical problem; this idea seems frivolous, a perk of social privilege.’¹
I was amazed by this insight, for the topic of solipsism just so happened to be concerning me at the time. Instantly, Mills made me realize that “lived experienced” could provide us “reason to think” in favor of one philosophical position over the other, and also help us determine which philosophical questions were “probably” not worth exploring. The fact that a slave vividly felt the reality of others was evidence that others existed; no, it wasn’t conclusive, but it provided strong reason to be confident that others existed. And to demand more certainty indeed felt like a demand from a place of privilege.
Around this same time, I also discovered Homo Hierarchicus by Louis Dumont, which made me realize the possibility of theorizing about “human nature” through sociology and anthropology. In this way, I realized other fields of knowledge could ground philosophy, and in so doing increase the probability that philosophical conclusions were about “the real world.” Permanently, Dumont and Mills shaped my thinking, and soon I was searching for all “the grounded” philosophers I could get my hands on.
In particular, Rorty influenced me to focus on questions of “What works?” over questions of “What’s true? After encountering him, I’ve really focused on grounding questions and answers in “lived experience.” Around the same time, I encountered David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment, which emphasized “common life” and “common sense” as foundations for philosophical thinking. G.E. Moore, Walker Percy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and literature in general also played formational roles, as did economists like Fredrich Hayek. Hayek argued that, even if we were Albert Einstein, we couldn’t determine how many “plastic spoons” the McDonalds down the street needed to order next week unless we worked there, and with this point, Hayek crystalized for me a distinction between “general knowledge” and “particular knowledge” that I felt proved “common life” had a necessary role in optimizing society and thinking. In my mind, Economics and Pragmaticism fit together.
But I encountered other thinkers who kept me from falling “all in” into Pragmaticism, at least as understood by most Pragmatists. I couldn’t get them out of my head, mainly Aristotle, Heidegger, and Edmund Husserl. I found myself caught between Pragmaticism, the Scottish Enlightenment, the “lived stories” of literature, the Philosophy of Language, and Phenomenology, all of which struck me as having something to do with one another, but all of which I approached with hesitancy given the possible pitfalls Charles W. Mills argued Western thought often fell into. Personally, I couldn’t go so far with my “Pragmaticism” as to favor Analytical Philosophy with the likes of Bertrand Russell, for it seemed to me that Continental Philosophy was dealing with real issues that really mattered: Russell blew off Heidegger as a bunch of mystical nonsense, but that move of Russell seemed cheap to me. Generally, I wanted the clarity and precision of Analytical thinking but in service of Continental topics. It’s a vast generalization, but it seemed to me that Analytical Philosophy had nothing to say that it could say well and clearly, while Continental Philosophy had something to say that it couldn’t figure out how to articulate. I wanted to find a middle ground, employing Analytical methods for Continental subjects, an effort that felt like it was taking Pragmaticism seriously but not treating it like a monotheory.
It felt to me like Pragmatists were often “hard materialists,” and that wasn’t a step I could take. Metaphysics always struck me as dealing with legitimate concerns, even if it often poorly articulated itself or sometimes mixed nonsense with the diamonds. More importantly, I didn’t understand how we could be “practical” if we didn’t learn how to think, which made me obsessed with epistemology, and if ideas mattered, what were ideas? How did they operate in our lives? Also, it didn’t seem to me that all philosophers and metaphysicians were equally obsessed with “system-building,” it struck me that what Aristotle did (and thinkers inspired by him) was radically different from what Plato constructed. And, critically, I couldn’t throw off metaphysics and Continental Philosophy because of beauty: in my opinion, aesthetic experiences were not adequately addressed by explanations that maintained a “hard materialist view.” In this way, I ended up someone who wanted to combine Neo-Pragmaticism with Continental Philosophy.
Pragmaticism and fallibilism traditionally have gone together, with fallibilism basically arguing that we can’t say “for sure” that God doesn’t exist, rendering the Pragmatist “open” to metaphysical possibilities. For most Pragmatists, that looked like not saying conclusively that metaphysics didn’t matter but never thinking much about it: Pragmatists practically claimed metaphysics was wrong. I didn’t want to follow that route: I wanted to apply a serous criterion of Pragmaticism to metaphysics, and that lead me to heavily investing in Phenomenology, which ultimately ended up combined with my love of David Hume, as expressed in my epistemological work (The True Isn’t the Rational). Epistemology led to Hume while Pragmaticism led to Phenomenology, both of which led me to emphasizing “lived experience” as a key to understanding deeper truth.
For me, the fact x “works” is reason to think that x has something to do with truth. If Pragmatists want us to give up “metaphysical system-building” and questions for ontological certainty about the nature of reality, then I completely agree with them, but at the same time, I would like to suggest that “Phenomenology” is a way to blend “pragmaticism” with “big questions.” Why this is the case is explored throughout (Re)constructing “A is A” and A Philosophy of Glimpses, but generally Phenomenology demands us to pay very close attention to how the world “appears to us” and to assume that how the world “appears” suggests something about “how the world might be ‘like.’ ” But to determine “how the world appears,” that means we have to be active in the world. We have to be alive and “practicing”: it will prove inadequate to think about the world without being fully embedded in it. If I wanted to figure out how many “plastic spoons” the McDonalds down the road needed to order for next week, per se, I needed to work at that McDonalds. Yes, that meant there would always be more I didn’t know than did, but that humility has always felt part of the “fabulist” package. The only alternative is to not think at all, and Hannah Arendt with her “banality of evil” has convinced me that “thoughtlessness” is deeply consequential.
Returning to my story, for me, given my interest in art and fiction writing, Phenomenology felt like a practice extremely similar to the work of the artist and writer, who generally pays close attention to the world around them. Flannery O’Connor once said that the writer mustn’t be afraid of staring, and it felt to me that the Phenomenologist was in the same business. The writer, the Economist, the Humean, the Phenomenologist — all felt to me like they were deeply concerned with “what happened on the ground,” and it was with this common thread with which I tied them all together in my mind. And with the hermeneutic that arose out of this combination, I tried to think through the concerns of Continental Philosophy and Metaphysics in general. This “hermeneutical method” is basically a combination of Phenomenological, Pragmatic, Aesthetic, Hayekian, and Humean thinking, and I wanted to use it on Metaphysical topics that generally the “hermeneutical method” was assumed to have nothing to do with (if not automatically deconstruct them). In this short work at least, I’ll call the “hermeneutical method” my “hermeneutics of unfolding.”
But there was a problem for me: the “hermeneutics of unfolding” lacked a “point of contact” with the phenomenological world. In other words, I lacked a way to establish that I had “reason to think” that my understandings of the world (and its “unfolding”) had anything to do with the actual world. How did I know I wasn’t in a simulation? How did I know my thinking wasn’t trapped in an unreliable subjectivity? Granted, my fallibilism helped (for if I couldn’t be certain of anything, I couldn’t be certain that my thinking had no relation to the actual world), but that didn’t feel like enough. Sure, I couldn’t be sure my thinking had “nothing to do with the world,” but I also didn’t have “reason to think” my thinking “had something to do with the world”: the scale wasn’t tipped against me, but it wasn’t tipped in my favor either.
Lurking in the background of my entire philosophical journey was my love of the East. I taught English near Chengdu and grew up in love with Japanese entertainment. I concentrated in Hinduism for my major and held a deep appreciation of Eastern thought, but Eastern thinking didn’t take a critical position in my worldview until one night I looked at my hand and realized I couldn’t think about it. I was alone in the space for artists I helped run, Eunoia, just staring at my hand. I turned off my brain. I kept myself from thinking. And I looked at my hand. Just looked at it. And it didn’t vanish. It was there.
This might seem extremely strange that this experience was so critical for me, but it was as if I suddenly realized what so many Buddhist thinkers were trying to articulate. This-ness. Transcendent of thought. A kind of nothingness that was there. This action of what I called “perceiving” felt distinct from thinking and did not feel like it could be identified with the subjectivity which many Western philosophers worked tirelessly to overcome. Yes, my brain made perceiving possible, and so I couldn’t take the step to say perception was “perfect” and “certain,” and I certainly couldn’t perceive everything, so my perception was limited, but it seemed obvious to me that the act of only “perceiving my hand” wasn’t the same as “thinking about my hand,” a distinction which was often concealed to me because thinking was constantly racing in and “covering” what I perceived in order to translate it into terms I could understand. Later on, this experience with perception was reinforced by a “Holy Spirit” experience that made it clear to me that thinking could impede upon experiences of life.
Fallibilism already provided me with a distinction between “certainty” and “confidence,” and so I understood that I didn’t need “certainty” to believe in things. Yes, perception could be mistaken just like thinking, but it felt to me like there was more reason to be “confident” in the experiences of perception than the experiences of thought. No, this didn’t mean my thinking was necessarily wrong, but it did mean that perception needed to be the foundation of my philosophy, for I had “more reason to be” confident in it than thinking. Additionally, what I perceived was (probably) there, while ideas weren’t as there, and so even if I was wrong in my thinking, what I perceived wouldn’t cease to exist: I could always “fall back on it.” It’s like I had a safety net; it’s like I could freely explore without risk of turning into a member of the “intellectual class” that thinkers like Paul Johnson and Thomas Sowell have regularly warned about. No, I couldn’t be assumptive about my “level of safety,” but I could at least believe something was there sustaining and supporting my mind.
The distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving” provided me with a way to confidently believe I myself had a “point of contact” with reality through “perception,” and now that I had this, through perception, I could apply my “hermeneutics of unfolding” to the metaphysical concerns of Continental Philosophy with confidence. The East provided the link.
I believe in Pragmaticism, but I also believe it’s impractical to ignore nonmaterial realities. I think most Pragmatists would agree they shouldn’t “nonmaterial realities” be ignored, but, practically speaking, most Pragmatists in fact do. I didn’t want to be that way, but that meant I had to discover a road that made it possible to achieve a “hermeneutics of unfolding” that could be rightly applied to Metaphysics and Philosophy in general, but that also required “a road” of perception to make the application possible. For me, the East made it possible to “confidently” connect the different shores of the West, and all of that has made it possible to live better by ultimately embedding myself in a “common life.” And it is here I find myself.
¹Mills. Charles W. Blackness Visible. Cornell University Press, 1998: 8.