Alice C. Linsley
The Post Modern Era is characterized by a proliferation of philosophical developments that seek to destabilize traditional views, interpretations and values. The “new thought” goes against the notion that words and narratives have a fixed meaning. Discussions about language raise questions about the meaning of words like “good” and “evil.” Some postmodern philosophers say that these words are meaningless.
Postmodern ethics is not a complete departure from modern ethics. Rather, it is a continuation of modern thinking in “another mode.” To draw an analogy from linguistics, past ethics have been in the indicative mode, and post-modern ethics are discussed in the subjunctive mode. In language, the indicative mood expresses certainly and objectivity whereas the subjunctive mood expresses uncertainty and subjectivity. In art, postmodernism seeks to produce a feeling, not reproduce an image.
Both modernists and postmodernists favor empiricism and logic over metaphysical approaches to “certainty.” From the mid-20th century to the present, ethicists continue to address questions that have been considered from antiquity: human nature, the good life, moral authority, the limits of human knowledge, etc. They have stressed discontinuity, continuity, and difference within continuity, rather than outright rejection of past ethical answers.
Ethics in the 20th century touched on matters beyond human freedom and moral choice. It questioned the very basis for making judgment about human existence, questioning even the ordinary words we use and the common ideas that we take for granted. Science has influenced post-modern ethics in a profound way, especially the social sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology and linguistics.
Modern and post-modern ethics present shifting points of moral reference, idealism, ammoralism, objectivism, linguistic analysis, structuralism, and deconstruction.
Structuralism first developed as an intellectual movement in Europe in the Modern Era. It held that human culture may be understood by means of a structure involving symbols and language. Claude Lévi-Strauss was the iconic structuralist. Through his field studies among primitive people in the Amazon, he came to the conclusion that universal “structures” underlie all human activity, giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and creations. His work had a profound influence even on his critics, the post-structuralists.
A major theme of post-structuralism is instability in the human sciences, due to human complexity and the impossibility of fully escaping structures in order to study them. It is the old adage about the fish not knowing that it is different from non-aquatic creatures.
Pragmatism is an American philosophical development that was strongly influenced by Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Darwin introduced the theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of mutation and natural selection. He speculated that the diversity of biological life arose from a common ancestor through a branching pattern of evolution (nested hierarchies). This theory is based on Darwin’s research did during the Beagle Expedition in the 1830s.
"The study of philosophy consists, therefore, in reflexion, and pragmatism is that method of reflexion which is guided by constantly holding in view its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes, whether these ends be of the nature and uses of action or of thought. It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauung [worldview] but is a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear." (From Peirce's Personal Interleaved Copy of the 'Century Dictionary', CP 5.13 n. 1, c. 1902)
Peirce, William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes interacted with each other during their time at Cambridge, Massachusetts. There they founded The Metaphysical Club in 1872. This group held conversations about the Civil War, logic, empiricism, and Darwin's ideas. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, said, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”
The term “Pragmatism” was not applied to this philosophical movement until1898 when William James first used the term in a lecture. For James, Pragmatism was a way to apply Darwin's theory of natural selection to philosophy. The mid-century Pragmatists believed that humans have survived and evolved because organisms with the ability to reason logically are naturally selected over organisms without reasoning.
William James (1842-1910)
William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. The book comprises James' edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902. These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.
James described religious experience in psychological terms, and believed that religions serve as social value. He even granted the possibility of supernatural experience, though he held that this is beyond the bounds of Pragmatism. Dewey rejected the idea that religious experience reflects a unique supernatural category of knowledge. He agreed that religion might serve a social benefit, but never as a vehicle for verifying facts. He believed that God and religion could be explained entirely in natural or materialist terms.
John Dewey (1894-1904)
Dewey founded the Chicago School of Pragmatism at the University of Chicago. The original group included George H. Mead, James H. Tufts, James R. Angell, Edward Scribner Ames (Ph.D. Chicago 1895), and Addison W. Moore (Ph.D. Chicago 1898). There were half a dozen women in the group also, as shown in the photo below. Dewey is at the center, directly below the light fixture.
The primary influences on Dewey’s thought were Hegel and Darwin. He was both a materialist and an atheist, as evidenced from his first published article (1882) titled “The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism.” He believed that Man stands alone in his efforts to create the world of his dreams. Humans have finally reached the stage of evolution that makes them able to realize an ideal society.
Dewey’s pragmatism profoundly shaped American public education. He insisted that the scientific method is the only reliable way to increase human good. His writings have led to Scientism, the belief that science alone has authority to verify truth. He applied the theory of natural selection to education, insisting that some were more deserving of a higher level of education than others. Likewise, these more evolved thinkers should be the only ones permitted to teach at the higher levels.
Dewey was an atheist. In his view, God is an idea that "denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions." As a product of the human imagination, God has no reality, but Dewey thought that the idea of God might serve as a useful instrument in society.
Dewey’s advocacy of Hegelian materialism and Darwinian evolution made him more of an ideologue than a philosopher. Ironically, his lack of objectivity represents a betrayal of one of Peirce's cardinal rules: “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Peirce wrote in 1896, "Upon this first...rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to believe, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry."
Dewey was determined that American education should be based on his materialist evolutionary worldview. His approach had the effect of enshrining Darwin in the public schools and blocking metaphysical inquiry. Without metaphysics there is no means of integrating the subjects taught in schools. Students learn content in various subjects. However, there is no means of integrating learning so much that is learned is lost.
The English writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, noted in her 1947 speech “The Lost Tools of Learning” that the dismissal of metaphysics from modern education has resulted in students learning more, but knowing less than students under Scholasticism when metaphysics was still part of education. She showed that teaching less in more subjects prolongs intellectual childhood because students are not given the tools for mature (lifelong) learning. Sayers’ speech has had a great influence on the ever expanding classical education movement in America.
An honest assessment of American public education suggests that grades motive more than the desire to learn. Politics plays a greater role in educational policy than sound educational research. At the university level, peer review has the effect of diminishing the influence of paradigm-shifters. More honorary degrees are given to celebrities and politicians than to scholars who make authentic contributions to human knowledge. Every American university has been influenced by Pragmatism. The list of scholars and institutions appears here, but this is by no means a comprehensive list.
A critic of Dewey’s “instrumental pragmatism” was the English writer G.K. Chesterton who wrote about the “suicide of thought” in modernism. He appreciated logical thought and empirical evidence, but not the idolatry of scientism. He wrote, “This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever.”
Wittgenstein argued that language is composed of complex propositions that can be analyzed into less complex propositions until one arrives at simple or elementary propositions. Correspondingly, the world is composed of complex facts that can be analyzed into less complex facts until one arrives at simple or “atomic” facts. The world is the totality of these facts. So a chair is wood (or metal) and nails (or brackets) and fabric components as well as something upon which we sit.
In Wittgenstein's view this mental picture (chair) which we suppose gives us a true account of an object actually “stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is” (PI:305). The picture of one thing, that is in fact many things, leads us to the childish belief that there is a correspondence between the word and the nature of the thing.
According to Wittgenstein’s picture theory, meaning requires that there be “atomic” facts. In this view, meaning can only be found through analysis of propositions that picture facts. By this reasoning, truth claims that are metaphysical in nature, and ethical statements that are not based on empirical observation and analysis of facts, are meaningless. Since the words good, evil and beauty do not represent simple propositions, it is impossible to know what these words mean. Though murder is almost universally regarded as morally wrong, nevertheless the statement “Murder is evil” is impossible to verify as a fact.
Logical positivists, such as Rudolf Carnap, were influenced by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. They rejected all truth claims that could not be reduced to atomic facts. They viewed metaphysics as a waste of intellectual energy. Wittgenstein lost attraction for many Logical Positivists when they discovered that he was a fan of the work of Kierkegaard and a man of religious sentiments. Though only a few references to Kierkegaard exist in Wittgenstein’s writings, Wittgenstein clearly shared Kierkegaard’s religious inclinations. In conversation with his friend Maurice O'Connor Drury, Wittgenstein made the following remark: “Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, ‘To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbor may be benefited thereby.’ That is what I would have liked to say about my work.”
|J. B. Rawls|