All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1965

The Flight From Reality: 7. The Pragmatic Sanction of Flux


Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania. Among his earlier writings in THE FREEMAN were his series on The Fateful Turn and The Ameri­can Tradition, both of which are now avail­able as books. 

… A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solution, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards… facts, towards action and towards power.

-William James, 1907

Instead of a closed universe, science now presents us with one infinite in space and time, having no limits here or there, at this end, so to speak, or at that, and as infinitely complex in internal structure as it is infinite in extent. Hence it is also an open world…. And change rather than fixity is now a measure of “reality” or energy of being; change is omnipresent.

-John Dewey, 19²0

How difficult it was to launch the bulk of Americans on the flight from reality! What obstacles were met with in the efforts to turn Americans into the path of melio­ristic reform! Only a reformer of some years back can really appre­ciate the immense energy and in­genuity that went into providing a new outlook for Americans and getting them to accept it. Utopian visions appealed to some, but there was still the difficulty of convinc­ing people that these dreams could be turned into reality. Philosophi­cal thought could be cut loose from its moorings in reality, but the generality of men, probably even intellectuals, did not know about it. European ideologies proliferat­ed, but Americans, when and if they heard of them, tended to re­ject them. No great violence will be done to the reality to describe it figuratively. Hence, Americans clung tenaciously to constitutional­ism, to private property, to free enterprise, to the individual way, and to the belief in an order in the universe.

The tasks of those who advanced reformist ideas in the late years of the nineteenth century and the early years of this century were manifold. They had to overcome the inertia which blocks the ac­ceptance of any innovation. They had not only to implant a new ver­sion of reality but also to convince many people that they had based their lives upon an illusion rather than upon reality. Moreover, they had to counter the intellectual trends of the times. In our day, we are accustomed to the bulk of pro­fessors, teachers, preachers, jour­nalists, and so on being favorable to reform. It was not so in the period under consideration. Col­leges, schools, religious denomina­tions, and publications had not yet been won to the melioristic view.

The Trend Toward Nationalism

Indeed, the leading trend in so­cial thought in the latter part of the nineteenth century was dia­metrically opposed to meliorism. This trend has been called by sev­eral names—naturalism, social Darwinism, rugged individualism, among others. Naturalism may be a better generic name for a whole range of thought at the time, em­bracing the arts and sciences as well as social thought. Social Dar­winism may be understood as nat­uralistic thought in its relation to society. One historian says that the cosmology of the naturalists “was compounded out of the nebu­lar hypothesis of Kant and La­place, the uniformitarian geology of Lyell, and the organic evolution of Darwin. It assumed universal change under natural law.”¹ Social Darwinism, on the other hand, is usually applied to the particular social application of evolutionary ideas by Herbert Spencer and his American disciple, William Gra­ham Sumner. Since this particu­lar usage is common, it may be ap­propriate to discuss the natural­istic view first, and social Darwin­ism as a variant of it.

In essence, naturalism was an account of reality in natural terms. That is, the earth, man, life, inanimate matter, and the universe were viewed as the result of nat­ural processes. As evolutionists, naturalists turned away from any enduring reality and focused upon change. But they took with them an interest in natural law from the older outlook. The major impetus of scientists for several centuries had been the quest for natural law. Naturalists were full to overflow­ing with the scientific (or scien­tistic) animus, and they continued the search for laws. But a most important change had oc­curred in the conception of nat­ural law. To earlier thinkers, in­deed to virtually the whole tradi­tion of Western thought, natural law had been something fixed in the universe. It was that enduring order in the universe as it is known to man. To naturalists, nat­ural law was the law by which changes occurred, the law, or laws, of evolutionary development.

Natural law was active rather than fixed or passive. It was felt through forces at work in the uni­verse. Naturalists gave their at­tention either to discovering and expounding the stages of develop­ment or to describing the forces which produced the changes. In short, they were greatly concerned with what was determining the course and direction of changes that had been and (presumably) were occurring. Naturalists were determinists, then; they pictured man’s actions as products of forces within or without him but, which­ever, beyond his control.

These interpretations amounted to a radical transformation of the significance of natural law. Nat­ural law as order-in-the-universe has ever been a liberating concept. It has served as the basis for lim­iting governments, for freeing economies, as foundation for posi­tive law, as the basis of govern­ment by law, and as the substruc­ture for peaceful relations among nations and peoples. But natural laws as forces are tyrannical, though not necessarily arbitrarily so. That is, natural laws then be­come active rather than passive, subject to change rather than en­during, founts of change rather than bases for rational order. Nat­uralism pervades the thinking of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Emile Zola, William Graham Sumner, John W. Draper, Frederick Jack­son Turner, Theodore Dreiser, and many other writers and thinkers. The point that concerns us here is the opposition of such an out­look to reform. If change occurs as a result of forces, if the course and direction of change is deter­mined by processes beyond the power of man to alter, if social changes are the product of such processes, reform is impossible. Human intervention in the process is virtually impossible, and, were it possible to any extent, it would be undesirable, for it would only deter the beneficent course of evo­lution—or so the more optimistic naturalists thought.

William Graham Sumner

The social view of the signifi­cance of evolution that was most congenial to the prevailing Ameri­can way, and to many Americans, was that of William Graham Sumner. His views, as I have sug­gested, are often cited as the epit­ome of social Darwinism. Sumner was a thoroughgoing Darwinian, naturalistic in emphasis, and his works are replete with references to “forces” at work upon and within society. Yet the views which he set forth appeared to be in keeping with American institu­tions and basic beliefs. For ex­ample, in defending a higher stage of civilization, he said:

It sets free individual energy, and while the social bond gains in scope and variety, it also gains in elastic­ity, for the solidarity of the group is broken up and the individual may work out his own ends by his own means….2

He defends private property, and praises virtues which are undeni­ably those admired by many Americans of his day. Thus,

The only two things which really tell on the welfare of man on earth are hard work and self-denial (in technical language, labor and capi­tal), and these tell most when they are brought to bear directly upon the effort to earn an honest living, to accumulate capital, and to bring up a family to be industrious and self-denying in their turn.3

Moreover, he conceived that soci­ology would provide facts and theories which would support the American system. It could answer one of the most important ques­tions, he thought. “Shall we, in our general social policy, pursue the effort to realize more com­pletely that constitutional liberty for which we have been struggling throughout modern history…?”4

Short Shrift for Reformers

Most important for the matter under consideration, Sumner held an uncompromising position to the effect that melioristic reform was practically impossible. Of utopians and socialists, he said: “These per­sons, vexed with the intricacies of social problems and revolting against the facts of the social or­der, take upon themselves the task of inventing a new and better world. They brush away all which troubles us men and create a world free from annoying limita­tions and conditions—in their imagination.”5 Why can’t men simply conceive a world of the sort they want and then set out to build it? Sumner offers many rea­sons—human nature, the nature of the world, natural law—but the primary one was of a different order. This was the argument from the evolution of society.

Specifically, society had reached an industrial stage of development. Sumner conceived society as an organism, and industrial society-­as-organism was highly and com­plexly organized. To talk of alter­ing this organization and institut­ing another by taking thought was utter folly. Men do not control it; It controls us all because we are all in it. It creates the conditions of our existence, sets the limits of our social activity, regulates the bonds of our social relations, determines our conceptions of good and evil, suggests our life-philosophy, molds our inherited political institutions, and reforms the oldest and toughest customs, like marriage and property.

In short, “the industrial organiza­tion” exercises an “all-pervading control over human life….”6 He offers a technological explanation of how this all-pervading organi­zation came about. “The great in­ventions both make the intension of the organization possible and make it inevitable, with all its con­sequences, whatever they may be.”7 The only thing that men can constructively do is this: “We have to make up our minds to it, adjust ourselves to it, and sit down and live with it.”8

The Sociologist Emerges

The perils of the sociological mode of thought are great; Sum­ner’s premises had led him to a strange conclusion. In the first essay cited, originally published in 1881, he had boldly asserted that sociological knowledge would expose the tyranny of reformism and demonstrate the blessings of liberty. Yet, in the second essay cited, published in 1894, he was opposing reform by proclaiming that all of us are caught in the web of the social organization, and he did so in words and phrases that would have been worthy of Karl Marx. Sumner’s thought is confused and contradictory. Much that he wrote has an individualis­tic tenor, but he was committed by his mode of the search for truth to the study of thought in terms of society. His confusion was further complicated by the use of analogies drawn from the biological thought of Darwin, thought concerned rightly with organisms, but which could not be appropriately trans­ferred to the consideration of so­ciety. Natural law had been moved into the historical stream to be­come force. Thus, Sumner’s con­clusion derives from the premises he was using, but it was hardly propitious for human freedom. His assumptions had induced my­opia—the myopia which perceives society-as-organism and natural‑law-as-force—and he was op­posing flights from reality by arguments drawn from a distorted view of reality.

Be that as it may, the evolu­tionary premises had been used to erect an apparently formidable argument against reformism. The Darwinian modes of progress—competition for available re­sources, struggle for life, surviv­al of the fittest—natural law in­terpreted as force, and the pre­vailing trends ran counter to re­form. If one rejected these, he was hardly nearer to a position which made reformism intellectually fea­sible, for the traditional view of reality was an even more formid­able obstacle to such reformist vi­sions than social Darwinism.

The Turning Point

But could the evolutionary ideas not be turned to the advantage of meliorism? They could be, and were. Moreover, those who turned the arguments could appear to be on the side of the angels—that is, in favor of freedom, in favor of the amelioration of circumstances, in favor of humanity. The chances are good that reformers did not generally see this clearly at the time, but social Darwinism made an excellent target, and the re­pudiation of this pseudo-philos­ophy could bring down with it much of the traditional philosophy which it had subsumed. At any rate, something like this did oc­cur.

Before examining these latter developments, however, it is in order to show how the evolution­ary obstacle to reform was over­turned. Social Darwinism carried with it a heavy freight of assump­tions about continuous change, stages of development in civiliza­tion, and organicism. Who could say what the next stage of de­velopment would be like? Some­thing that was impossible at one stage could become highly prob­able, even inevitable, at the next stage. Sumner admitted as much in his discussion of private prop­erty. He believed that the develop­ment of protections to private property had been a great ad­vance. However, it “may give way at a future time to some other in­stitution which will grow up by imperceptible stages out of the efforts of men to contend success­fully with existing evils….”9

Lester Frank Ward

Lester Frank Ward, a contem­porary of Sumner, a sociologist and meliorist, proclaimed that a new stage in evolution had been emerging for millennia, and he believed that it was ready to be brought to fruition. The new stage was the “advent with man of the 9 Sumner, “Sociology,” thinking, knowing, foreseeing, cal­culating, designing, inventing and constructing faculty, which is wanting in lower creatures….” It repealed “the law of nature and enacted in its stead the psycho-logic law, or law of mind.”10 He held that men could now take over the direction of social develop­ment, and that they could shape it to human ends. His work was a call to men to take up their rightful place in the universe and bring nature and natural law to heel:

… When nature comes to be re­garded as passive and man as ac­tive…, when human action is recognised as the most important of all forms of action, and when the power of the human intellect over vital, psychic and social phenomena is practically conceded, then, and then only, can man justly claim to have risen out of the animal and fully to have entered the human stage of development.11

Ward retained the evolutionary frame, the focus upon society, the progressive tendency of natural­ism, but he turned the argument against the possibility of reform and opened the way for the advance of meliorism. He drew at­tention away from the enduring features of man and the universe even more emphatically than Sum­ner had done. The alternatives which he offered can be put this way: either men in society are controlled and determined by nat­ural laws of social development or they are free to alter and control the development of society.

Probable Errors

It should be emphasized that the analysis of both Sumner and Ward is gross. Ward had no more proved that any particular melio­ristic reform was possible than had Sumner proved that it was impos­sible. Both of them were at least three removes from the relevant reality. In the first place, the arg­uments are conducted at too gen­eral and abstract a level. One is reminded of Zeno’s paradox which purports to prove that there can be no change. The problem lies in the premises upon which the argument is based, not in reality. Second, both arguments rely upon a most dubious extension of evolu­tionary ideas. Third, both thinkers conceived society organically rath­er than viewing the matter from the point of view of individuals. Moreover, both appear to have been confused, or at least confus­ing, about the nature of natural law.

Even so, Ward had opened the way to reformist efforts within the contemporary outlook. Other reformers took advantage of the opening to press through the de­fenses and advance their reforms.

Developing a New Philosophy of Pragmatism

But reformers needed more than the vision which utopia provided and the theoretical possibility of reform. They needed a philosophy to replace older views and one which would buttress meliorism. Such a philosophy was provided by pragmatism. Pragmatism of­fered refutations of traditional philosophy by proclaiming its ir­relevance, was futuristic in its orientation, and made boundless reconstruction the aim and pur­pose of thought. Most important, it made meliorism intellectually respectable, a necessary step to draw in the bulk of the intellec­tuals, and it made it possible for thinkers to advance reform with­out avowing any particular ideol­ogy.

Pragmatism stands for an ap­proved method and attitude today. Not only are intellectuals proud to be known as pragmatists, but they bestow what they conceive to be one of the highest accolades upon politicians by describing them as pragmatic. The word has long since passed into the vernacu­lar, and many people use it with­out any clear conception of its meaning. It is sometimes employed as if it were a synonym of prac­tical, and it is adopted as a mode of thought by those who have given little or no thought to phi­losophy.

The word was given philosophi­cal currency by Charles Sanders Peirce, a rather obscure American thinker of the latter part of the nineteenth century. But it was popularized by William James. When this had occurred, Peirce abandoned the word, “pragma­tism,” for a new formulation, “pragmaticism.”12 John Dewey, who was the most prolific writer of this school of thought, called his variant of pragmatism, “in­strumentalism.” This left James as the only major exponent of pragmatism who used that name for his philosophy. There were important differences, particularly between Peirce and the other two, but these do not concern the basic meaning of pragmatism. Each of them contributed to its development. As one writer says, “It suffices… to say that if Peirce may be regarded as the Socrates of pragmatism, and James as its Plato, Dewey is certainly its Aristotle.”¹³ This may be taken to imply, also, that pragmatists claimed to be constructing a new philosophy as important for the future ages as the ancient philos­ophy had been for those from that time.

Peirce “framed the theory that a conception, that is, the rational purport of a word or other expres­sion, lies exclusively in its conceiv­able bearing upon the conduct of life; so that, since obviously noth­ing that might not result from ex­periment can have any direct bear­ing upon conduct, if one can define accurately all the conceivable ex­perimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the con­cept, and there is absolutely noth­ing more in it.”¹4This was what he meant by pragmatism. With his gift for simplification and clarity, James defined pragmatism in the following way:

To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable ef­fects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what re­actions we must prepare. Our con­ception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all.¹5

Dewey defined the same concept instrumentally:

If ideas, meanings, conceptions, notions, theories, systems are instru­mental to an active reorganization of the given environment, to a re­moval of some specific trouble and perplexity, then the test of their validity and value lies in accomplish­ing this work. If they succeed in their office, they are reliable, sound, valid, good, true.¹°

A Radical Departure

How radical pragmatism was (and is) may not appear from these definitions. There is an am­biguity in these formulations of the method. Conceivably, it might be a method for discovering truth, finding principles, uncovering laws that are in the universe. One might proceed from “effects” to their causes, and from thence to the order which makes for regu­larity of the operation of cause and effect. If this were what is in­volved, pragmatism would be only a particular formulation of the in­ductive method of reasoning. It must be made clear, however, that pragmatism was not intended by its proponents to be fitted into any traditional mode of thought, that it was not intended as a means for finding truth, order, or regularity, that it was founded upon a counter view of reality.

Pragmatists were not concerned to discover any fixity or absolutes, nor were they building upon tra­ditional philosophy. On the con­trary, a part of the work of all three men under consideration was devoted to refuting (and denounc­ing) absolutes, fixities, and tradi­tions. Peirce declared that prag­matism “will serve to show that almost every proposition of onto­logical metaphysics is either meaningless gibberish… or else is downright absurd….”17 In making expositions of his philos­ophy, James alternated between repudiations of rationalism, ideal­ism, objectivity, and metaphysics and affirmations of pragmatism. Of the belief in the Absolute, he said, “it clashes with other truths of mine…. It happens to be as­sociated with a kind of logic of which I am the enemy; I find that it entangles me in metaphysical paradoxes….” Therefore, “I per­sonally just give up the Absolute.”¹8Dewey points out that in the older philosophy truth and falsity “are thought of as fixed, ready-made static properties of things themselves…. Such a no­tion lies at the back of the head of everyone who has, in however an indirect way, been a recipient of the ancient and medieval tra­dition. This view is radically chal­lenged by the pragmatic concep­tion of truth, and the impossibility of reconciliation or compromise is… the cause of the shock occa­sioned by the newer theory.”¹9

Ever-Changing “Truth”

Truth is not something pre­existing to be discovered, accord­ing to the pragmatists; it is brought within the evolutionary frame of the continually changing. It is not fixed, but changing; not pre-existent, but evolving; not dis­covered, but made. Peirce says that the summum bonum consists “in that process of evolution whereby the existent comes more and more to embody those gen­erals which were just now said to be destined…. ²0 James says, “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It be­comes true, is made true by events.”²¹ Elsewhere, he makes clear the relationship of this notion to the concept of evolution: “When the whole universe seems only to be making itself valid and to be still incomplete (else why its ceaseless changing?) why, of all things, should knowing be exempt? Why should it not be making itself valid like everything else?”²² John Dewey says “that there is change going on all the time, that there is movement within each thing in seeming repose; and that since the process is veiled from percep­tion the way to know it is to bring the thing into novel circumstances until change becomes evident. In short, the thing which is to be ac­cepted and paid heed to is not what is originally given but that which emerges….”²³

To the pragmatists, then, the universe was open. Reality was not something given, something to be discovered, something with fixed feature; it was open, alterable, and changing. For Peirce, according to one interpreter, “laws, like habits, are ‘emergent’ principles which characterize only certain limited phases of the evolutionary process. In this sense, laws themselves are mutable…. There is, however, no universal law of development…. The universe as a whole is funda­mentally open-ended….’,²4

According to Dewey, fixity, where it apparently existed, was not some­thing to be observed, recorded, and admired. “Rather, the experi­mental method tries to break down apparent fixities and to induce changes. The form that remains unchanged to sense, the form of seed or tree, is regarded not as the key to knowledge of the thing, but as a wall, an obstruction to be broken down.”²5 What were once conceived as enduring realities Dewey would have us view as tem­porary obstacles.

Primarily a Method

Pragmatists agreed with one another that theirs was primarily a method. In terms of the above elucidation, it should be clear that it was a method for operating in a world of flux and change. Change and development do not adequately describe the world view of these pragmatists. The universe must also be described as in a state of flux, for there is no necessary di­rection to its development. Men located in a world where things are forever fluctuating may be likened to someone embarked on a voyage into perpetually uncharted seas. There would be great need, in these circumstances, for some­thing by which to steer. Peirce, James, and Dewey proposed that pragmatism should be that guide.

They accepted a method, then, to replace the knowledge they had repudiated. The model for that method, or so they believed, was the scientific method. Someone has observed that pragmatism is not so much a philosophy as a way of doing without a philosophy. With equal justice, it should be observed that pragmatism is not so much a method for acquiring knowledge as a means of operating in lieu of knowledge and certainty. At any rate, pragmatism resulted from the efforts of the founders to render the scientific method, as they understood it, into a philos­ophy. These men were conscious that this latter was what they were doing. Peirce declared that after the “gibberish” of meta­physics had been swept away, “what will remain of philosophy will be a series of problems cap­able of investigation by the obser­vational methods of the true sciences….,,²6

Confusion of the Scientific Method with Technology

It should be made clear, though, that the scientific method James and Dewey, at least, had in mind was not the method as it received its classic formulation in the seventeenth century. That was a method designed for and aimed at discovering and describing the laws in the universe—what is to­day vestigially referred to as “pure” science. Rather, the con­ceptions of the pragmatists were based on the technological applica­tions of science. The scientist, as technologist, is concerned with ways to reshape, reform, and re­order natural things. Such tech­nologists have had (and are hav­ing) remarkable successes. It has been stated so often that it is now a cliché—but it will bear repeat­ing in this context—that these technological achievements rest upon prior achievements in “basic” science. The meaning is, or should be, that technologists achieve their effects because of a knowledge of underlying laws which preceded their labors. Their work rests upon a foundation of laws, regularities, and established connections.

This is precisely the point which James and Dewey, particularly Dewey, missed. They apparently thought that the technologist was doing what he appeared to be do­ing—experimenting at random until he came up with something, then going on to other modifica­tions and experiments. Dewey con­ceived of the scientist not as dis­coverer but as innovator. Scien­tific knowledge is obtained, he de­clared, by the “deliberate institu­tion of a definite and specified course of change. The method of physical inquiry is to introduce some change in order to see what other change ensues; the correla­tion between these changes… constitutes the definite and desired object of knowledge.”²7 He made clear that he thought that there was only one valid scientific meth­od, and it was the method used both in laboratories and in indus­tries. “Moreover, there is no dif­ference in logical principle be­tween the method of science and the method pursued in technologies.”²8

At any rate, James and Dewey took what they thought was the scientific method from the limited arena of applied science and gave it universal application as the method. They attempted to make experimentation into a way of life. Ideas and concepts were conceived, in this context, as a scientist was believed to conceive of hypotheses, that is, as instruments of change. As James put it, Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on oc­casion, make nature over again by their aid.²9

Dewey spells out the implications of this belief:... Here it is enough to note that notions, theories, systems… must be regarded as hypotheses. They are to be accepted as bases of actions which test them, not as finalities…

They are tools. As in the case of all tools, their value resides not in them­selves but in their capacity to work shown in the consequences of their use.³º

As tools, then, ideas are relative to the uses to which they are put. If the point does not emerge, it must be stated: pragmatists are relativists.

John Dewey Spells It Out

The importance of pragmatism for social reform was made abun­dantly clear in the numerous works of John Dewey. The indica­tions are that Charles Sanders Peirce was interested in technical philosophy rather than reform. William James was more con­cerned with the psychology of be­lief than with social reform. It was left to Dewey, then, to apply pragmatism to ameliorative re­form. He is best known as an edu­cational reformer, but he was much concerned with all sorts of reform. He may well have been the central figure in the promotion of reformism in America.

Dewey openly advocated that philosophy should be reoriented so as to perform a social function, that is, to make over men and so­ciety. Too long, he thought, philos­ophers had pretended to have some special method for arriving at truth, to be concerned with Reality beyond reality. The time had come for philosophy to come out in the open and get on with the task it had been covertly performing all along. “Philosophy which surren­ders its somewhat barren monopoly of dealings with Ultimate and Absolute Reality will find a com­pensation in enlightening the moral forces which move mankind and in contributing to the aspira­tion of men to attain to a more ordered and intelligent happi­ness.”³¹ More bluntly, and in the form of rhetorical questions, he proclaimed what he conceived to be the real end of philosophy:

… But would not the elimination of these traditional problems permit philosophy to devote itself to a more fruitful and more needed task? Would it not encourage philosophy to face the great social and moral defects and troubles from which hu­manity suffers, to concentrate its attention upon clearing up the causes and exact nature of these evils and upon developing a clear idea of better social possibilities; in short upon projecting an idea or ideal which… would be used as a method of understanding and recti­fying social ills? ³²

Despite the appearance of caution in formulating the ideas, there should be no doubt that Dewey thought philosophy should per­form a melioristic function.

Reshape the Environment

In sum, then, the pragmatists had denigrated and repudiated traditional philosophy. They held forth the vision of a universe in a continuous state of flux. Such order as existed would have to be wrought by man, and no order would be final or complete. Man’s task was to reshape and remake himself and his environment. There were no pre-existing rules—no fixed principles, no enduring laws, no underlying order—to guide or restrain him in his en­deavor. Traditionalists had been wrong in believing that there were static natural laws; natural­ists had been wrong in thinking there were forces-as-laws govern­ing development. Pragmatists af­firmed a radical new freedom—the freedom to reshape reality accord­ing to how they would have it be. The method for operating in this flux was to be pragmatism, the method of continual experimenta­tion in moving toward their in­definite goals.

A philosophy had been formed to buttress and promote melioris­tic reform.

One other point needs to be made. It has often been claimed that reformism is alien to Amer­ica. There is a sense in which this is true. That is, it is alien to the system of constitutionalism devel­oped in America, and to the be­liefs by which it was buttressed. But it was not alien in the sense of being foisted upon Americans by foreigners. Instead, the reform­ist bent was established by citi­zens of America, in the main. This is most important to un­derstanding the nature of reform­ism in America. Insofar as it waspragmatic, it was not specifically socialism nor communism. Prag­matists do not define goals in such rigid fashion as this. Of course, the reforms have been socialistic in tendency, but this can be as­cribed to the utopian visions which reformers imbibed, which were so­cialistic, rather than to a con­sciously worked out program to achieve socialism. Of course, other assumptions, to be taken up later, bent the reformer toward social­ism. But the pragmatist, qua pragmatist, just continues to ex­periment, not toward a final goal but toward the general goal of growth and improvement which is never to end.

The next article in this series will concern “The Deactivation of History.”

 

***

Source of Natural Law

This tendency to the conservation of society, which we now expressed in a rude manner, and which tendency is in agree­ment with the nature of the human intellect, is the source of Jus, or Natural Law, properly so called. To this Jus belongs the rule of abstaining from that which belongs to other persons; and if we have in our possession anything of others, the resti­tution of it, or of any gain which we have made from it; the fulfilling of promises, and the reparation of damage done by fault; and the recognition of certain things as meriting punish­ment among men.

HUGO GROTIUS, On the Rights of War and Peace (1625)

Foot Notes

1 Stow Persons, American Minds: A History of Ideas (New York: Holt, 1958), p. 222.

2 William G. Sumner, “Sociology,” American Thought: Civil War to World War I, Perry Miller, ed. (New York: Rinehart, 1954), p. 81.

3 Ibid., p. 87.

4 Ibid., p. 91.

5 Ibid., p. 73.

6 William G. Sumner, “The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over,” in ibid.,p. 94.

7 Ibid., p. 95.

8 Ibid.

ibid., p. 82.

¹º Quoted in Henry S. Commager, The American Mind (New Haven: Yale Uni­versity Press, 1954), p. 206.

¹¹ Lester F. Ward, “Mind as a Social Factor,” American Ideas, Gerald N. Grob and Robert N. Beck, eds., II (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 129.

 12 See Charles S. Peirce, “What Prag­matism Is,” Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, William Barrett, ed., I (New York: Random House, 1962), 138-40.

13 Henry D. Aiken, “Introduction,” ibid., p. 49.

14 Peirce, op. cit., p. 138.

 15 William James, “What Pragmatism Means,” Pragmatism and American Cul­ture, Gail Kennedy, ed. (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1950), p. 13.

16 John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt, 1920), p. 156.

17 Peirce, op. cit., p. 144.

18 James, op. cit., p. 22.

19 Dewey, op. cit., pp. 158-59.

20 Peirce, op. cit., p. 149.

2¹ William James, “Pragmatism’s Con­ception of Truth,” Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, I, 194.

22 William James, “A World of Pure Experience,” ibid., p. 235.

23 Dewey, op. cit., p. 114.

24 Aiken, op. cit., p. 62.

 26 Peirce, op. cit., p. 144.

 27 John Dewey, “The Quest for Cer­tainty,” The Golden Age of American Philosophy, Charles Frankel, ed. (New York: George Braziller, 1960), p. 414.

28 Ibid., pp. 414-15.

29 James, “What Pragmatism Means,” op. cit., p. 15.

³º Dewey, Reconstruction in Philos­ophy, p. 145.

31 Ibid., pp. 26-27.

 32 Ibid., p. 124.


  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.