Pragmatism text

by Maurice Sanders, June 2014

Pragmatism is best understood as a movement rather than as a single, coherent and uniquely defined philosophy. In historical terms, the movement sprawled across the intellectual landscape of late 19th century and early twentieth century America. It drew on the traditions that had been brought over from Europe but aspects of it were new and home-grown. Its impact was felt in many fields not just in philosophy. But in philosophy pragmatism anticipated much important work that only appeared elsewhere much later.

There was not only one pragmatist philosopher. The philosophy is seen as the creation of Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced

Purse) but even that is disputed. He laid claim to the name many years after he had started his work but that may have been at the instigation of his lifelong friend and champion William James. Indeed, naming Peirce as the father of pragmatism was just one of the many favours James performed for his friend. James, who spent his adult life supporting Peirce, both materially and intellectually, developed his own version of pragmatism very different from that of Peirce and, in many ways more influential. Part of the answer to this is that James was a much more organised worker than Peirce who, for all sorts of reasons, seemed to live in crisis most of his life on the margins of the academic and intellectual world of the United States, and it could be argued, on the margins of society. The prophet is without honour in his own country indeed.

But Peirce and James were not alone. The momentum for what might be called a pragmatic approach came from a group of thinkers and intellectuals who used to meet informally in Cambridge , Massachusetts in the 1870s to discuss their work. This group called itself The Metaphysical Club after The Metaphysical Society that had formed in London in 1869. It was a loose grouping of up to ten members but there were, perhaps, three heavyweights whose names, if not works, are recognised today. These were Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Of these three, two would have glittering careers whilst the third died in relatively obscure poverty. What has been said already may attach names to fates.

A fourth name must be added who was not a member of the club but who became known as a pragmatist through his links to James and through his own prodigious output. That man was John Dewey although he never liked the term pragmatism and preferred instrumentalism. Indeed, none of the four so-called pragmatists mentioned here were keen on the term and used others to avoid what they obviously thought important to avoid. Peirce invented the term pragmaticism and used it on the grounds that it was too ugly an expression to be kidnapped. Peirce didn’t always take himself too seriously.

As has already been suggested, there is no one clearly defined body of work that can be called pragmatism and no one philosopher or thinker who would call themselves a pragmatist rather than something else. So, the way in which this paper will proceed will be to look at the work of the four heavyweights mentioned above in order to tease out common threads, if any. Their work can then be examined and assessed for its own internal coherence and in terms of its impact on what came later both in the United States and elsewhere. Whilst this paper will not deal with the background against which pragmatism emerged—a sociology of knowledge type analysis—it is useful to look at the ground in which this set of ideas flourished:

  • the political, social and economic position of the United States in the late 19th century
  • the impact of Darwin’s The Origin of Species on intellectual life—everywhere
  • the religious heritage of the East Coast American intellectual elite
  • the apparent success of science and technology in explaining and exploiting reality

A word of caution. American thinkers were highly sensitive to suggestions, particularly by Europeans, that saw pragmatism as a philosophical gloss on US-style business and personal dynamism. However, readers must make their own minds up on this.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

By any account, Charles Sanders Peirce was an extraordinary man. Born into the East Coast intellectual elite of the mid-19th Century he seemed destined to follow his father Benjamin Peirce, Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University, in enjoying the fame and success of a glittering academic career. He certainly had the brains. As will be shown later, his output was enormous ranging over a wide range of areas including logic, natural science, mathematics and astronomy. In his work for the US Coastal Survey, he led investigations in the field, designed technical equipment and made contributions to geodesy that led to him giving papers to leading European scientific institutions. But Peirce was reviled and spurned by the academic establishment at home through most of his working life and apart from a spell lecturing at John Hopkins University failed to find a position in any US university. This, despite doing work that was years ahead of its time and which anticipated much of what was to come in the 20th Century, particularly in the philosophy of science. He ended his life living on the charity of friends after a time living as a down and out on the streets of New York. AJ Ayer in his book The Origins of Pragmatism says:

He was among the first to see the possibilities of Boolean algebra, he anticipated Sheffer in the discovery of the stroke-function and Wittgenstein in the idea that the laws of logic had no factual content, and he did original and and very influential work in the logic of relations. As a logician in the broader sense, he improved upon earlier versions of the frequency theory of probability, he invented the idea of justifying induction as a method which must lead to success in the long run, if success is attainable at all, and he developed a highly original, intricate and comprehensive classification of signs. He was familiar, to an extent that few philosophers are, with the methods of the natural sciences and himself engaged in scientific research. We shall indeed find that the theory of scientific method for which Professor Popper has become justly celebrated in our own times was very largely anticipated by Peirce. Finally, he had his own branch of metaphysics, which was based on a deep and wide knowledge of the history of philosophy.

And he couldn’t get a job or a grant in or from any American university. It has to be said that Peirce was an extremely difficult man. He had a great gift from making enemies and in modern times he may well have been described as mentally ill. Indeed, his biographer, Joseph Brent, speculates that he may well have been bi-polar evidenced by his rages and depressive episodes. He was a habitual drug (opium and cocaine) user related to the agony caused by trigennial neuralgia. Of course, drugs of this type or any type were freely available at that time. But perhaps the main reason for his social and professional downfall was the scandal surrounding his failed first marriage and his subsequent remarriage. God, and His representatives on earth, were still in a position to punish sinners in 19th Century America and there is little doubt that Peirce fitted the job description perfectly and was punished and punished again for his perceived moral turpitude. But he kept writing.

Peirce was against the idea of a simple correspondence theory of truth. All the pragmatists shared this rejection. The idea suggests that there is an independent reality lying outside human experience of it that can be known by matching up the human mind so that it corresponds to the ‘things’ out there. Thus, on this account, statements about the world are true if they correspond to it in a way that is faithful to this reality. Peirce followed Kant in pointing out that it is not possible to step outside ourselves in order to have access to what is an ultimate reality. Crucially, Peirce developed the Kantian notion that the mind, far from being mirror, is in fact an active shaper of experience. Further than that, ‘mind’ is not some sort of activity going on separate from that of the organism within which it is located. The very fact that the organism is trying to make its way in the world—in the widest possible sense—makes the activity of acting in the world a union of mind and body.

(An appendix is included that explains how Peirce developed a theory of signs that underpinned his theory of knowledge and ultimately a theory of truth.)

Perhaps the key to understanding Peirce’s work is to map out the route by which he had arrived at a study of philosophy. First and foremost, Peirce was a practical scientist used to working in the field, designing and using scientific instruments and handling very large amounts of observational data with all the problems of dealing with error that such activity entailed. Whilst he saw himself as a logician (this was key when he came to set out his scientific method) he earned his living getting his hands dirty with the US Coastal Survey. Peirce himself acknowledged this in an essay called ‘What Pragmatism Is’ published in The Monist in 1905:

The writer of this article has been led by much experience to believe that every physicist and every chemist, and in short, every master in any department of experimental science, has had his mind molded by his life in the laboratory to a degree that is little expected.

This is not to say that Peirce always enjoyed getting his hands dirty and he would complain bitterly about having mountains of calculations to do which, he felt, could be done by a ‘computer’ (human in this case). Nevertheless, he spent a great deal of his life, measuring, calculating, and hypothesising about the features of the external world. The influence in the rest of his work is clear. Indeed, in an early essay (1877) for Popular Science Monthly, called ‘The Fixation of Belief’ he says:

Lavoisier’s method was not to read and pray, not to dream that some long and complicated chemical process would have a certain effect, to put it into practice with dull patience, after its inevitable failure to dream that with some modification it would have another result, and to end by publishing the last dream as a fact: his way was to carry his mind into his laboratory, and to make his alembics and cucurbits instruments of thought, giving a new conception of reasoning as something which was to be done with one’s eyes wide open, by manipulating real things instead of words and fancies.

From this position, Peirce started to build a system for revealing truth, defined in a particular way, by the use of the logic of his scientific method. In the same essay he says:

Logicality in regard to practical matters is the most useful quality an animal can possess, and might, therefore, result from the action of natural selection; but outside of these it is probably of more advantage to the animal to have his mind filled with pleasing and encouraging visions, independently, of their truth; and thus, upon unpractical subjects, natural selection might occasion a fallacious tendency of thought.

Two key ideas that allow his logic to work emerge from this essay. First, the guiding principle of inference, and second, inquiry (his italics).To draw an inference from given premises is a result of a habit of mind:

The particular habit of mind which governs this or that inference may be formulated in a proposition whose truth depends on the validity of the inferences which the habit determines; and such a formula is called a guiding principle of inference.

Peirce goes on to suggest that is the way in which many people proceed in terms of their practical involvement with the world. So, the blacksmith working at his or her forge, will have a complete repertoire of guiding principles that are self-reinforcing and to that extent true. The blacksmith has belief. However, if doubt is introduced then this stimulates a process of inquiry that seeks to recover the situation where belief is restored and doubt banished. Doubt may arise, for example, where materials respond in some unexpected way. But this is not undesirable. On the contrary, for Peirce, doubt is the grit in the oyster that provokes inquiry which is the only way to discover new truths. Or new pearls if violence to the metaphor is allowed.

The irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief.

Peirce develops his ideas further in a follow up paper for Popular Science Monthly written in 1878 and called ‘How to Make Our Ideas Clear’. One of the things that Peirce does in this paper is to defend his notion of truth. Returning to his scientific roots he claims that the process of inquiry is vouchsafed by the beliefs of a community of enquirers:

On the other hand, all the followers of science are fully persuaded that the processes of investigation, if only pushed far enough, will give one certain solution to each question to which they can be applied.


The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth, and the object represented is real. That is the way I would explain reality.

But he seems to waver immediately after when he says:

But it may be said that this view is directly opposed to the abstract definition which we have given of reality, inasmuch as it makes the characters of the real depend on what is ultimately thought about them. But the answer to this is that, on the one hand, reality is independent, not necessarily of thought in general, but only of what you or I or any finite number of men may think about it; and that, on the other hand, though the object of the final opinion depends on what that opinion is, yet what that opinion is does not depend on what you or I or any man thinks.

AJ Ayer, in the book mentioned above, gets Peirce off this hook by saying:

...the extent to which Peirce wishes to tie the truth of a proposition to its acceptance is a matter on which he is not entirely clear, and perhaps not wholly consistent, but I think it fair to say that he does not hold truth to be objective if this is taken to imply that the question whether a proposition is true can be entirely dissociated from the question whether it is believed.

Peirce is not denying the existence of an external and independent reality. He does claim that knowledge of the external world is possible but in a particular sort of way. But this does make him a relativist or, in its recent version, a post-modernist. He is a radical empiricist in believing that reality is always in a position to reveal a new side of itself and that this requires constant inquiry and reinterpretation. However, this truth emerges as a distillate from the public laboratory peopled by a community of enquirers all of whom are working with the equipment—psychological, semiotic, historical—left by previous workers. Physicists work with a modern concept of mass very different from that of Newton but there is a continuity in their thought. Peirce’s theory of truth has it that when we assert P is true, we commit ourselves to experience falling in line with P or with some successor of P. It is not a personal choice what to believe but what is believed is contingent and subject to constant revision.

(At this point, readers may be hearing echoes of a much later work on the philosophy of science by Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced the notion of a scientific paradigm: a general acceptance by a community of scientists that hypothesis and reality are linked in a certain way which structures inquiry until inconsistencies and contradictions force a change of mind. It could be argued that the idea of a scientific paradigm and a community of inquiry are very similar ideas).

TL Short, in his book Peirce’s Theory of Signs explains:

....we have no knowledge a priori of how to inquire—there can never be a time when we will know for sure, that we are proceeding in the right way or even that there is a right way to proceed. We can only go by the evidence we have so far acquired, in faith that there is an impersonal truth, that is a final opinion toward which an an ideal inquiry would tend. The evidence that supports that faith is extensive and compelling and yet conceivably erroneous. It is shot through with uncertainty, unanswered questions, unresolved problems and vague formulations.

William James

William James

Perhaps William James is the person most closely identified with the idea of pragmatism notwithstanding the fact that he gave the credit to his friend Peirce in his Berkeley speech of 1898. The reason for this is not hard to find. James was a tireless worker who published throughout his life and gave endless talks both in Europe and the US. He held prestigious academic positions and was fully engaged in public life. James was born in 1842 and died in 1910. Russell says of him:

His warm-heartedness and his delightful humour caused him to be almost universally beloved.

It was not only his character that Russell approved of. He followed James in renouncing the subject-object dualism that, historically, had dominated Western philosophy since Descartes. Referring to James radical empiricism Russell says:

The distinction of mind and matter, the contemplative ideal, and the traditional notion of ‘truth’, all need to be radically reconsidered if the distinction of subject and object is not accepted as fundamental.

For my part’ I am convinced that James was partly right on this matter, and would, on this ground alone, deserve a high place among philosophers.

But there the approval ends and elsewhere he is highly critical of James’ ideas and seems to suggest that he is, at least in part, responsible for the “subjective madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy”.

As with Peirce, James came to philosophy via empirical science. He trained and qualified as a medical practitioner but never practised. He wrote a definitive book on psychology and became one of the first, if not the first, professor of psychology. His whole approach was deeply imbued with the methodology of science and its processes. In an introduction to James work entitled, Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, HS Thayer acknowledges this:

James’ conception of psychology, its real subject matter and method, is central to all of his other philosophic work. It is the point of departure for his study of religious experience and belief, his view of scientific knowledge, his analysis of the nature of value, meaning, and truth. In this James is able to encompass what, to some thinkers, was inimical: an exceedingly sensitive, open, and liberal view of the operations and flights of our thinking with a biological, evolutionary, and bodily (or physically) centered explanation of all of our mental activity.

Thayer mentions religion. This is the other main preoccupation James had all his life. He did not recognise any fact-value distinction and treated religious experience as open to the same sort of analysis as any other type of experience. James seemed to feel it almost a duty to keep a place at the table for God as underwriter of the reality of moral feeling and behaviour. He never wavered in this.

John Dewey

John Dewey

Bertrand Russell devotes a whole chapter to the work of John Dewey in his History of Western Philosophy. He barely mentions Peirce anywhere in the book. Russell is a fan of the man—Dewey, that is—but not the ideas. Not strictly true. It was Dewey’s big idea that Russell had trouble with:

John Dewey, who was born in 1859, is generally admitted to be the leading living philosopher of America (he died in 1952). In this estimate I entirely concur. He has had a profound influence, not only among philosophers, but on students of education, aesthetics, and political theory. He is a man of the highest character, liberal in outlook, generous and kind in personal relations, indefatigable in work. With many of his opinions I am in almost complete agreement. Owing to my respect and admiration for him, as well as to personal experience of his kindness, I should wish to agree completely, but to my regret I am compelled to dissent from his most distinctive philosophical doctrine, namely the substitution of ‘inquiry’ for ‘truth’ as the fundamental concept of logic and theory of knowledge.

Dewey was not a member of The Metaphysical Club in Cambridge. But he was an active member of The Metaphysical Club that Peirce started in 1879 at John Hopkins University where he—Peirce—was beginning, and shortly ending, his academic career. Indeed, he was present in 1884 when Peirce read his paper on what he called ‘Design and Chance’ which is now seen as the beginnings of his emergent cosmology. Dewey took part in this discussion but had already opted not to take Peirce’s course of the same name. Perhaps this was just as well. Peirce was dismissed form his post nine days later. Subsequently, Dewy was heavily influenced by William James, but in terms of traditional philosophy, Dewey would follow Hegel rather than Mill. However, he left most of European philosophy behind believing that it had taken wrong turnings over its history to the extent that much of it seemed concerned with pointless introspection and empty words. It is important to remember in this context that Dewey was not just a full-time academic philosopher—he had been appointed chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Chicago in 1894 at the age of thirty-five—nor did he want to be.

John J Stuhr in his book Genealogical Pragmatism: Philosophy, Experience, and Community points out the background of Dewey’s work:

Instead, taking his lead from Darwin, Heisenberg, Maxwell, Einstein, Peirce and William James, Dewey views experience in a radically empirical way. The approach is oriented to the evolutionary, transient, uncertain, and open, rather than the supposedly eternal, permanent, secure, and closed. Experience is ‘double-barrelled’ in that it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an unanalysed totality. ‘Thing’ and ‘thought’ as James says in the same connection, are single-barrelled; they refer to products discriminated by reflection out of primary experience. For Dewey, then, experience is a process in which subject and object are temporally unified and constituted as partial relations within this ongoing, unorganized totality.

Dewey saw no point in claiming to be just thinking about things. Perhaps his main concern was with education and the extent to which the practice of pragmatic philosophy could bring about social change. For him, philosophy was a method of analysing and fixing social problems hence his linking of truth and inquiry. Similarly, he saw no problem in using the same method of inquiry to unpack and solve moral problems (perhaps social problems have to be moral problems or they would not be seen as problems?) having stated explicitly that the process of inquiry he advocated was essentially an evaluative process. However, the focus of criticism for Russell was this substitution of ‘inquiry’ for ‘truth’. So, let Dewey speak first and set out this crucial idea which he did in a Chapter VI of a book called Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938):

Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.

What does this mean? An important starting point is to recognise that, for Dewey, humans find themselves in an environment that demands that they act. There is a restlessness in the situation that demands action: contemplation and introspection are not options. Indeed, Cartesian dualism that might objectify a problem as lying outside the mind in some objective sense is seen by Dewey as one of the wrong turnings in Western philosophy. There is no free floating ‘mind’. And there is no independent external reality for this ‘mind’ to observe. From the same book:

It is accordingly a mistake to suppose that a situation is doubtful only in a ‘subjective’ sense. The notion that in actual existence everything is completely determinate has been rendered questionable by the process of physical science itself. Even if it had not been, complete determination would not hold of existences as an environment. For Nature is an environment only as it is involved in interaction with an organism or self, or whatever name be used.

Thus, there is a single indivisible and endlessly restless process of being in the world that every self has to cope with and this is the mainspring of the inquiry that lies at the heart of Dewey’s thought. Successful action: it is this that creates knowledge and allows things to be described as true or not.

In truth, Dewey has little time for traditional notions of truth and substitutes the term ‘warranted assertability’ in its place. This comes about by a process of competent inquiry that sees satisfactory or unsatisfactory outcomes as the basis of belief. At this key point, Russell and Dewey diverge:

The main difference between Dr Dewey and me is that he judges a belief by its effects, whereas I judge it by its causes where a past occurrence is concerned. I consider such a belief ‘true’, or as nearly ‘true’ as I can make it, if it has a certain kind of relation (sometimes very complicated) to its causes. Dr Dewey holds that it has ‘warranted assertability’—which he substitutes for ‘truth’—if it has certain kinds of effects.

Notwithstanding, Russell’s professed admiration for Dewey, he and GE Moore were highly critical of the whole of the pragmatist project and caused a great deal of irritation in The New World. The following passage from Russell perhaps explains why.

Dr Dewey has an outlook which, where it is distinctive, is in harmony with the age of industrialisation and collective enterprise. It is natural that his strongest appeal should be to Americans, and also that he should be almost equally appreciated by the progressive elements in countries like China and Mexico.

To my regret and surprise, this statement which I had supposed completely innocuous, vexed Mr Dewey who replied: Mr Russell’s confirmed habit of connecting the pragmatic theory of knowing with obnoxious aspects of American industrialism... is much as if I were to link his philosophy to the interests of the English landed aristocracy.

Perhaps our American cousins had a point.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr

Oliver Wendell Holmes looms large over the intellectual landscape of late 19th century and early twentieth century United States not as a philosopher but as a jurist. It is arguable that of all the members of The Metaphysical Club, Holmes had the most practical impact on the life of Americans than anyone else. Peirce was virtually ignored in his lifetime excepting for his role as sinner and degenerate, and whilst James and Dewey—Dewey in particular—involved themselves in public affairs, Holmes changed American law in a fundamental and profound way. It is not clear that Holmes saw himself as part of a movement and there is evidence to suggest he was sceptical or even disdainful of ideas not his own, but his work does seem to illustrate pragmatist ideas in action. He also had an extraordinary life.

His father was the first Oliver Wendell Holmes. Its easy to get a sense of the world into which his son was born from this description of the father by Louis Menand in his book The Metaphysical Club:

Holmes’ father, Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr was a unionist. The Holmeses were related to families that had prospered in New England since the time of the Puritans—the Olivers, the Wendells, the Quincys, the Bradstreets, the Cabots, the Jacksons and the Lees—but they were not exceptionally wealthy. Dr Holmes was a professor; his father, Abiel, had been a minister. He regarded himself as a New England Brahmin (a term he coined), by which he meant not merely a person of good family, but a scholar, or what we would call an intellectual. His own mind was a mixture of enlightenment and conformity: he combined largeness of intellect with narrowness of culture.

Dr Holmes earned a living as Dean of Harvard Medical Faculty but he was best known in his lifetime for his poetry and three novels as well as his involvement with the leading intellectuals of the day. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a dining companion and he—Emerson—was to have a profound affect on Holmes Jr who was was born in 1841. After enrolling at Harvard, the young Holmes found himself caught up in the cataclysm of the American Civil War after volunteering for the Union side in the conflict. To say that this left a mark on Holmes would be a massive understatement. At the physical level, he was wounded three times and survived some of the worst battles of a terrible war. On one occasion, after the battle of Antietam and whilst lying in a field hospital which appeared to be on the point of being overrun, he wrote his name on a scrap of paper:

I am Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes 20th Mass. Son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, M.D. Boston.

He kept that piece of paper for the rest of his life. In the same vein, after his death at the age of ninety-three, two Civil War uniforms were found in a closet with a note pinned to them. It read:

These uniforms were worn by me in the Civil War and the stains upon them are my blood.

These were the physical reminders of that war. But perhaps the greater impact, certainly in terms of the rest of the world, was on the thinking of a man who would become not only a member of the Metaphysical Club on his return to Harvard but, more importantly, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Holmes never forgot what the practical consequences of conviction, belief, and commitment to a cause had meant for everyone caught up in the conflict. He became deeply sceptical—some would say cynical—towards those who espoused fixed and unyielding positions. This had an profound impact on the development of American law. Why? Louis Menand explains Holmes’ starting position:

Jurisprudential theories, like theories of literary criticism or historical methodologies, are generally categorized according to the element of their subjects they take to be essential. A legal theory that stresses the logical consistency of judicial opinions is called formalist; a theory that emphasizes their social consequences is called utilitarian; a theory that regards them as reflections of the circumstances in which they were written is called historicist. The problem with all such theories is that they single out one aspect of the law as the essential aspect. It was Holmes’ genius as a philosopher to see that the law has no essential aspect.

In Holmes’ classic work The Common Law he summarises this position by the now famous statement:

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.

For Holmes, judges say what the law is not by drawing on theory but by using experience. The word experience is key to understanding Holmes and it has a quite precise meaning. Indeed, towards the end of his life he acknowledged that culture might have been a better word but a careful unpacking of the word experience will get to the heart of what Holmes was about.

First, experience is not reducible to propositions even though human beings spend a lot of time thinking that they are doing this. Applying logic to a situation to end up with a solution not known or seen beforehand is just a rationalisation.

Second, experience is not individual and internal, it is collective and consensual and the consensual outlook is embodied in the fiction known as the reasonable man. One way of looking at this is to see it as the distillation of the wisdom of the community expressed as an evaluation of particular situations although using the word wisdom may give the process a normative aspect Holmes did not intend. It is difficult to distinguish the descriptive from the prescriptive in Holmes’ writings but judges found solutions to problems that were coming thick and fast in a society being created through rapid social, economic, scientific and political change. Law was playing its part in allowing, channelling and shaping that change in a way that avoided the antithesis of thought, namely, violence. New ideas, new ways of thinking and new sectional interests had to be allowed to have their say. This what Holmes thought the law was about. In that sense he was a pragmatist whilst remaining dismissive of systems of thought, big ideas, eternal verities and absolutes of any kind. Menand again:

Holmes would never have called himself a pragmatist; he associated the term with a desire to smuggle religion back into modern thought under a pseudo-scientific cover. But his belief that life is an experiment, and that since we can never be certain we must tolerate dissent, is consistent with everything James, Peirce, and Dewey wrote. What Holmes did not share with those thinkers was their optimism. He did not believe that the experimental spirit will necessarily lead us, ultimately, down the right path. Democracy is an experiment, and it is in the nature of experiments to fail. He had seen it fail once.

Oliver Wendell Holmes died in 1935, two days before his ninety-fourth birthday after sitting on the bench of the United States Supreme Court for thirty years (he only retired in 1932). He had seen and done lot. It is, perhaps,interesting to speculate about Holmes’ relevance for today. In his book, Focault’s Pendulum, the author Umberto Eco who is also Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna, has one of his characters say:

But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma, that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret as though it had an underlying truth.

Holmes would have understood this perfectly.


Further reading and listening

Political pragmatism