TITLE: Pragmatism and the Scientific Spirit AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 25, 2012 3:45 PM DESC: ----- BODY: the philosopher William James Last week, I found myself reading The Most Entertaining Philosopher, about William James. It was good fun. I have always liked James. I liked the work of his colleagues in pragmatism, C.S. Peirce and John Dewey, too, but I always liked James more. For all the weaknesses of his formulation of pragmatism, he always seemed so much more human to me than Peirce, who did the heavy theoretical lifting to create pragmatism as a formal philosophy. And he always seemed a lot more fun than Dewey. I wrote an entry a few years ago called The Academic Future of Agile Methods, which described the connection between pragmatism and my earlier AI, as well as agile software development. I still consider myself a pragmatist, though it's tough to explain just what that means. The pragmatic stance is too often confounded with a self-serving view of the world, a "whatever works is true" philosophy. Whatever works... for me. James's references to the "cash value" of truth didn't help. (James himself tried to undo the phrase's ill effects, but it has stuck. Even in the 1800s, it seems, a good sound bite was better than the truth.) As John Banville, the author NY Times book review piece says, "It is far easier to act in the spirit of pragmatism than to describe what it is." He then gives "perhaps the most concise and elegant definition" of pragmatism, by philosopher C. I. Lewis. It is a definition that captures the spirit of pragmatism as well as any few lines can:
Pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action.
This is what drew me to pragmatism while doing work in knowledge-based systems, as a reaction to the prevailing view of logical AI that seemed based in idealist and realist epistemologies. It is also what seems to me to distinguish agile approaches to software development from the more common views of software engineering. I applaud people who are trying to create an overarching model for software development, a capital-t Theory, but I'm skeptical. The agile mindset is, or at least can be, pragmatic. I view software development in much the way James viewed consciousness: "not a thing or a place, but a process". As I read again about James and his approach, I remember my first encounters with pragmatism and thinking: Pragmatism is science; other forms of epistemology are mathematics. -----