S1E20 Can Pragmatism Help Us Live Well? w/ John Stuhr

Pragmatists do not hold absolute faith in any particular value, principle, or belief. This applies even to the many concepts affiliated with pragmatists—such as pluralism, fallibilism, democracy, and naturalism.

They focus on experience as the field in which we continually test out and reconstruct our views of the world and determine what works in our particular place and time. Pragmatism is focused on concrete results in experience, judging ideas and beliefs according to their fruits and not their roots.

For a pragmatist, the world is constantly changing—not just our views or understanding of it. The questions that were relevant two millennia ago may no longer be relevant today. This requires new solutions and novel practices.

Pragmatism offers an approach to the human experience that will resonate with some, and not with others. So is pragmatism best understood as a temperament? A method? Is it a theory of truth? Or is it primarily a way of viewing the world?

In the final episode of the season, Jeffrey Howard speaks with John Stuhr. Stuhr is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and American Studies at Emory University, where he chaired the department of philosophy from 2008-2016. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy (2003); Pragmatic Fashions: Pluralism, Democracy, Relativism, and the Absurd (2016); and 100 Years of Pragmatism: The Revolutionary Philosophy of William James (2009). 

Stuhr thinks of pragmatism more as a fashion or “season of belief.” It’s a temporal philosophy. If reality weren’t constantly changing, then we could assert a truth and hold onto it for eternity. Instead, by leaning into experience and viewing truth as provisional, we can continue to adapt to changing circumstances. This provides us with a dynamic means through which we can improve our communities and personal lives just a little more each day.

That is if we’re willing to do the work, because, for a pragmatist, the future is never guaranteed. A few questions to consider. How does pragmatism avoid devolving into reckless relativism? How might a pragmatist approach questions of what it means to live well? What is the future of philosophy and what role can pragmatism play in our pursuit of truth?

Show Notes

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (350BCE)

The Essential Works of Charles S. Peirce by Charles Peirce (2010)

Pragmatism: A New Name for an Old Way of Thinking by William James (1907)

Essays in Radical Empiricism by William James (1906)

A Pluralistic Universe by William James (1909)

The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy” by John Dewey (1917)

Experience and Nature by John Dewey (1925)

The Public and Its Problems by John Dewey (2012)

Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy by John Stuhr (2003)

Pragmatic Fashions: Pluralism, Democracy, Relativism, and the Absurd by John Stuhr (2016)

100 Years of Pragmatism: The Revolutionary Philosophy of William James edited by John Stuhr (2009)

S1E14 A Tool for a Pluralistic World w/ Justin Marshall (2021)

S1E12 Philosophers Need to Care About the Poor w/ Jacob Goodson (2021)

S1E07 Charles Peirce and Inquiry as an Act of Love w/ David O’Hara (2021)

S1E06 Levinas and James: A Pragmatic Phenomenology w/ Megan Craig (2020)

The Power of One Idea” by Jeffrey Howard (2020)

The Pragmatic Truth of Existentialism” by Donovan Irven (2020)

Damn the Absolute!

A podcast about our relationship to ideas. Doing our damnedest to not block the path of inquiry.

7 thoughts on “S1E20 Can Pragmatism Help Us Live Well? w/ John Stuhr

  • What a wonderful and wide-ranging crystallization (can we crystallize, literally “set in stone,” this? is there a better metaphor for me to use here?) of the core (see above) of pragmatism and its possibilities. I especially appreciate the focus less on -ism and more on practice, on philosophy as temperament more than discipline, the concept that no amount of disciplinary training has ever quite clarified to me in a way that is as “hygienic” as university handbooks suggest. Definitely lots to mull over on the dangers of success, the (environmental, material, social) conditions of flourishing, and relativism/subjectivism—on “generating more light than heat” in what often feel like very dark times, and swapping out the “crystal balls” of optimism/pessimism for the rolled-up sleeves of pragmatism. Thank you for the “philophronetic” insights (and ample metaphors)!

    • Sadie, thanks for these comments! Your highlighting matters of temperament rather than doctrine, practice rather than theory, and roll-up-your-sleeves meliorism rather than mindless optimism or hopeless pessimism–all of that is right at the core of pragmatism. And I agree with you that these are dark times–not just that they feel that way but that they really are. I think pragmatism suggests that maybe, no guarantee but maybe, we could do better with a little more evidence-based inquiry, inclusive and community focus (which makes possible the only meaningful notion of freedom), and something beyond short-term thinking. Thanks much.

  • It was refreshing to hear how Dr. Stuhr describes pragmatism as “a philosophy that is attuned to human tragedy” since it demands a melioristic attitude and strenuous practices. However, I think it does not necessarily mean that pragmatism strips away our hopes in challenging conditions. On the contrary, by critically reflecting on past experiences and examining the current practice, pragmatism opens up the possibility to reconstruct our experience and community in a more enduring and meaningful way.

    Personally speaking, pragmatism has always motivated me to be a curious person. It allows me to understand the different perspectives and identify the shared values as I engage with new communities and empowers me to discover the different sides of myself as I embrace new life chapters. I also find pragmatism significant regarding the pandemic and the means to flourish in such a dynamic situation. As we gradually enter into the (not yet) post-pandemic life, we should constantly re-assess the routines and problems we have encountered and re-evaluate the habits and approaches we have developed, although it may require us to give up a sense of comfort and assurance. Thank you for your inspiration!

  • Pragmatism as a philosophy of reconstruction–not just individual self-development but cultural reconstruction–yes, I think that is exactly right, Stella. Your comments about curiosity are important and remind me of the distinction that Charles Peirce made between the desire to find out something new (he thought of this as inquiry) and the desire to profess and hold forth what one thinks one already know (which he rightly viewed as an occupational hazard for philosophy professors–but everyone else too from the media to government to the corporate marketplace). Hopefully we do gradually enter a post-pandemic life (and having learned some things along the way)–and hopefully people can come to see that doing so would be an expansion of freedom, not its restriction. Thanks for these very thoughtful reflections.

  • I think conceptualizing pragmatism as an alternative to the optimist pessimist dichotomy is right on point. I certainly tend to be a relatively pessimistic person but I was only that way because the optimist way of thinking was so off putting. Pragmatism allows one to recognize the facts of reality but also recognize reality’s changing nature. I certainly would agree that this is the most important thing that pragmatism can do for us in these rather bleak times as it gives hope for a better future which is not a blind or foolish hope. All I can hope is that after listening to this more people get curious about pragmatism and start learning about it because I definitely think we could use more pragmatists in the world.

  • Pragmagatism is all about finding practical ways to get things done. That is how engineers are supposed to think, plan, design and do. There are stages involved and when a job needs to be done you need to consult with somebody who has the experience involved with it, or at least has the ability to propose likely solutions. These kinds of persons are not rare, but they have managed to put aside their emotional attitudes to doing the job, once they have appreciated its necessity.

    I am such a person and during my engineering career I used my thinking capacity to solve a number of problems that more emotional managers could not. After I retired I researched how macroeconomics really works and even wrote about how it can be better explained and logically applied without any of the past confusion and pluralism by which it was often characterized. My 310-page book is available for free and I will gladly send you one if and when you request a version, it being available as an e-copy.

    We need more science and cool thoughts and less emotions and politics, so that a wise and thoughtful government can mamage better in its relationships with both the public and the other nations.


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