Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce, III professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg college. He recently wrote about American philosophy in the January 2016 issue of the journal, “First Things”.
Guelzo wrote that Charles Sanders Pierce, in 1878, laid out what William James called, “pragmatism”. At center this ideation is what as James wrote, “Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action”.
The cynics among us might agree with James in saying, “An idea isn’t good. because it’s true It is good, because the consequences of believing it make life better”. That is very utilitarian, but it is not particularly transcendent.
Is American philosophy merely a way of determining what works best under certain circumstances? In a way, this is a secular philosophy tat would seem to fit our studiously secular society. It has no standards based on Commandments or religious determination.
On the other hand, pragmatism or utilitarianism has an ambiguous set of comparables or paradigms by which decisions about what works can be made. Even utility requires a way to judge whether a things operates or not.
The alternative, basing decision making one religion or another’s standards excludes all other standards, religious or otherwise. But, even pragmatism is more than seeking what works After all, as I asked; how do you know what works?
The philosopher Josiah Royce addressed this by seeking something more than what is limited by one’s immediate experience. In a way that is transcendence of a sort.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as level-headed, practical people. Yet, many of us seek transcendence in a variety of forms. Perhaps, therefore, there really is no one particularly American philosophy of what works.
There has to be more than a philosophy of “what works for me” if we are to exist together as Americans.
Can we explore what that may be? Join me in the coming year, 2016. Until then, (tomorrow), good luck and have a safe New Years celebration.