The Precision of Imprecision

Charles Sanders Peirce

Louis Menand’s capsule intellectual history of American pragmatism’s initial development, The Metaphysical Club, was an enjoyable read. But even little ol’ me could note he advanced a highly selective narrative, where he chops off C.S. Peirce’s technical discoveries, and, just about erases William James’s “post” transcendentalism. (The latter move was surprising because the only work of James that is widely read is The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Years later, a few weeks ago, I happened upon a discussion at The Valve.

Here the criticisms follow in the comment thread to a review by Andrew Seal in August, Invidiousness and Parentheticals: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. I came across this while searching for something else, and was first surprised to see Menand’s book get any kind of notice eight years after it was published, and then was amused by the interesting thread the late-out-of-the-gate review evoked.

I noted Mr. Menand gets whacked around freely, and, Richard Rorty get dragged onto the firing range too. I’ve clipped a few interesting fragments.

CW – But that position is not the same as saying that the quest for more knowledge should cease. I understand Rorty to be arguing that viewing that quest as having “objective truth” as an ultimate goal has some unfortunate consequences which can be avoided by instead viewing it as seeking new and hopefully better (in the sense of more useful in achieving one’s immediate objectives) “vocabularies”. That view can perhaps be seen as more-or-less consistent with what Peirce might have meant by “chance will remain ‘until the world becomes an absolutely perfect, rational and symmetrical system in which mind is at last crystallized in the infinitely distant future” (from the Haack paper you suggested as a more palatable intro to her work – which it definitely is! Thanks.) Except I suspect that Rorty would have questioned the convergence implicit in Peirce’s quote; he argued against the hopeless quest for a “final vocabulary”, the one supposedly “spoken” by nature.

O – I really like your argumentation here, and I do not entirely disagree with your conclusion. Moreover, I think you are quite correct in your dissection of the ‘truth’ of the issue, however, you do mischaracterize Peirce’s position, which is not far removed from James’ argument that “truth happens to an idea”, truth has no ontological status – then again, to Peirce, nothing has ontological status except process itself, as seen in his cenopythagorean categories. The common claim that truth is what is, confuses being and truth. What is, is; a ‘truth’ is merely a functional (i.e. useful) depiction of the ongoing process, the interaction that is all that actually is. Here I generalize across several arguments. There are differences between James and Peirce on the issue, however, both agree with Wright in that the greatest possible certification of the ‘truth’ of a notion is its usefulness in the furthering of both knowing, and life itself.


Peirce: “Knowledge can only be furthered by the real desire for it.”

This statement strikes me as a kind of American koan. Can a track be grooved between this and the sort of generative process able to elicit more robust vocabularies, as per Rorty?

Peirce, “The first proper significant effect of a sign is a feeling produced upon it.”

I come upon this philosophical thread and I’m immediately the voyeur who has landed in the territory of scholarly marginalia. In its direction, and in one direction, the subject matter is well beyond me. Yet, in the other direction, in the direction I can forge myself, I reckon with really ‘surface,’ intuitions, albeit this is my surface. So, for me, Rorty wanders through Pragmatism; he is a wanderer. He can argue against anything, say representationalism. And, there are sober secondary scholars of the–in actuality–varieties of pragmatism. There is, again, in actuality, a scholarly industry for and against, in this case, ‘Rorty,’ and this is about what he said and wrote.

It’s funny (to me.)

Yet, in this other direction I recognize the connecting thread, what I would call the urging upon provided by the, as Peirce offers, the effect and the incumbent feeling, the incumbent urging upon. The connecting thread is: that which, unknown to us, urges upon us a groping for knowledge, and, granting this as exemplar, the common instance where what is to be useful, what is to be begun to be known, what is not yet reliable, nevertheless comes to be begun to be known. With this turn, or initiation, the terms are not yet precise, fixed, let alone complete.

The secondary appropriation of somebody’s body of work sometimes, maybe often, gets bogged down in interpretation fused to the assumption the work is complete. ‘This is what Coltrane gave us.’ Or,’ this is how we’ll describe Yeats’s journey.’ The echo of provisionality and contingency is silenced. This is a kind of narrative or linear fallacy.

“Knowledge can only be furthered by the real desire for it.” seems to me, (again from the other, ‘surface,’ side,) to be the sturdy connecting thread, and it even allows for, loops in, Louis Menand. The urging upon, the deeply real desire, quickens exploration proximal to that which is not to be completed. This pragmatism is then, a work in progress–always.

I’m not arguing against locating and getting the terms right. My suggestion is that those terms are also, at once, opened up to their own, as it were, future. And this follows from the feeling produced upon their dynamic ‘it.’

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