August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


16 - Pragmatism

I would like to continue with a survey of the main currents in the contemporary bourgeois philosophy of Europe and America, but through limitations of space I must confine myself to a brief characterization of one of these trends, namely, pragmatism. It is the dominant school in America and has also had a powerful influence in England and, to a lesser degree, in other European countries. I select this particular school because it is the best known of the foreign world-views or philosophies and because it has a particularly progressive, democratic, and unprejudiced quality. It is therefore not so easy for the uninitiated to recognize that the true character of this philosophy is reactionary and idealistic.

The bourgeois philosophy of Europe which followed classical philosophy (in Germany this would mean philosophy subsequent to Feuerbach) still maintains an extensive superficial existence. There is an immense amount of philosophical literature in Germany and in other countries. Every university has one or more professors of philosophy. But Feuerbach marks the beginning of the end of bourgeois philosophy and of philosophy in general in the historical sense of the word. What has appeared since then as bourgeois philosophy of one kind or another must be termed philosophical poems, poems supported by concepts. These have been more or less interesting historically, but they evince no scientific progress. In fact, it will be discovered that all the various schools and sects of bourgeois philosophy after Feuerbach revolve about just one problem, namely, how bourgeois society and the capitalist order can best be defended against the socialist revolution, how in some universal and fundamental way it can be vindicated and supported, how the most powerful ideological enemy of the existing order, dialectical materialism, can be most successfully staved off. Besides fending off its enemy, dialectical materialism, the bourgeoisie must strengthen its belief in its own order. These are actually the problems about which the various schools of modern bourgeois philosophy revolve. They cope with it through deception and by the demand for "unprejudiced science." As a rule the perpetrators of this kind of philosophy are completely unconscious of its objective. The capitalist order and everything that belongs to it is the unexpressed and usually unconscious assumption and purpose behind research - it is the natural matrix. This doesn't help the situation, however; it only makes it more dangerous. To be sure, there are still many individual accomplishments of a scientific nature even in bourgeois philosophy. In this category belongs the accumulation of material on the history of philosophy, the elaboration of certain problems in logic, the mathematical development of logic, etc. But these are only the last buds of a dying stalk. Bourgeois philosophy in its various schools represents just such a dying stalk. One must not be deceived by its extensive superficial existence. The philosophy of the Middle Ages, the scholastic, likewise had a wide influence, and possessed schools, teachers, and literature galore. It too made certain positive contributions. As a whole, however, it was fruitless; it was tied down, the "hand-maiden" of the church, the defender of the church's established dogmas. Modern bourgeois philosophy is no less closely bound to capitalism than this scholasticism was bound to the church and its dogmas. But what was open and understood in scholasticism is carefully concealed and hidden by our modern scholasticism.

Now a few more comments on the general nature of post-war philosophy. Naturally, I refer to both Europe and America. The war and, related to it, the beginning of the world revolution, very profoundly disturbed bourgeois society. We therefore have a universal quest for spiritual supports for bourgeois society, stronger and more potent supports than those offered by earlier philosophy. We have a revival of the various forms of metaphysics. The way was already prepared for this before the war, but after the war it received a much sharper impetus. We have the creation of a transcendental world of fantasy, a much greater concentration upon religious ideas which is in part a regression to the crudest superstition - to spiritualism, for example. There is also an intrusion of such transcendental concepts and ideas into the natural sciences, especially those natural sciences which deal with the phenomena of life. There is the doctrine of vitalism, for example, the doctrine of life-force.

From the point of view of the proletarian revolution or a national revolution one can hardly regret that the bourgeoisie of the principal countries abandon themselves in the name of philosophy to the crudest superstition, to the most absurd religious fantasies and to the greatest spiritual confusion. It is not our misfortune if the modern capitalistic bourgeoisie snatch up the ideas of the Australian jungle. Only we must see to it that these ideas are not carried over to the masses of people. We must help the working masses free themselves from the various forms of bourgeois as well as pre-bourgeois world-views, from both crude and refined forms of religious fantasy. In this connection, a question might be raised: how does it happen that there are still so many schools of philosophy in modern times when the same problem, the same impulse, underlies them all? To this I believe the answer must be: first, the various historical stages of bourgeois society as a whole are involved; then there are the differences in class relations between countries. Take England, Germany, America - the class relations of these countries have their local peculiarities. In the third place, in every country and at any given point in time we must take into consideration the various groupings of the great and petty bourgeoisie, groupings which find expression in this or that philosophical conception. And finally, the ideological traditions of particular countries and the personal whims of philosophizing individuals play an appreciable, if not decisive, role. But in spite of great temporal and local differences between particular schools, the universal counter-revolutionary and reactionary class character of the modern American and European bourgeoisie expresses itself in a host of characteristics which are common to all schools of bourgeois philosophy. Foremost is their aversion and opposition to materialism, especially dialectical materialism, and hence their fundamentally idealistic point of view, sometimes clear, sometimes obscure, but always present. Another common and extremely characteristic feature is the effort to restrict the scope and significance of reason and to extend the province of free will, anarchy, and the unconscious, the province of "irrationality." Since the light of reason reveals to the bourgeoisie only the road to destruction, they prefer to shut or half shut their eyes and give themselves up to more pleasant fantasies - for fantasies they truly are when viewed with the clear eye of reason.

I now come to the school of pragmatism. This school or trend originated in America. It then spread to England and Italy and, in lesser degree, to France and Germany. It reflects the characteristic spirit of the American bourgeoisie. Hence the democratic and pseudo-radical touch, as well as the distortion of cause and effect, and the tendency towards commerce. Pragmatism is literally the philosophy of commerce. The first impulse towards this philosophy came from the American philosopher Peirce. In 1868 he wrote a short paper which can be looked upon as the germ of pragmatism. But the well-known American psychologist, William James, must be looked upon as the founder and leader of this school. For a long period William James was a professor at Harvard University. His father had been a theologian of a school which was partial to spiritualism - a Swedenborgian. William James first taught as a natural scientist. His philosophy is a cross between theological and natural-scientific concepts and methods in which theology has become dominant over natural science. It was the French philosopher Renouvier who gave to James the decisive stimulus which led to the philosophy of pragmatism. In England the chief exponent of pragmatism was a certain Schiller who for many years had been professor at Oxford. In America the best known representative of the school is now John Dewey, formerly of Chicago and latterly of New York. In 1919, immediately after the war, he visited first Japan and then China, where he propagandized for his doctrines, engaging in a higher sort of missionary expedition in the interest of America and Americanism.

We are now to investigate the relation of pragmatism to the fundamental trends of philosophy. Pragmatism, as a philosophic trend, is apparently very radical. Indeed it is sometimes called radical empiricism or the radical theory of experience, and it claims to be superior to both idealism and materialism. But this is a false pretension. Upon closer examination one sees that what the pragmatists call experience, what they consider to be the ultimate and the primary, is nothing but the idealists' ultimate, namely, the mental; the pragmatists merely talk about it in terms of sensation and emotion, that is, in terms of the simplest, most primary psychical functions, whereas other idealists take higher psychical functions as their primary. They maintain that in sensation and emotion the psychical and the physical compose an inseparable unity and that the corporeal cannot be found except in union with the mental. They accordingly deny the existence of an external world independent of human sensations, ideas, or feelings. They carry this marvellous jugglery to the point where they say: the relation of the mental to the corporeal is only a sham problem, not a real one. Naturally, if the existence of a material world independent of human consciousness is reasoned away, there can no longer be a problem of the relationship of such a world to human thought. This utterly simple and staggering "solution" is merely a sleight-of-hand by which the problem itself is made to disappear. In its fundamental conception pragmatism is therefore idealism. The battle which it wages against the idealism of other schools is actually only a sham battle. The true and sincere opponent of pragmatism - the openly avowed opponent - is materialism, and dialectical materialism in ticular. The fundamental conception of pragmatism shows an extremely close affinity with the conception of Ernst Mach, the Austrian philosopher and naturalist, and with Avenarius: the so-called school of empirio-criticism. That we have not done pragmatism an injustice by calling it idealistic, is supported by the testimony of the Encyclopedia Britannica, that great dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon world, which says, in the article on William James, that he defends the idealistic position from the empirical point of view. And the French historian of pragmatism, F. Leroux, characterizes pragmatism as an empirical or experiential idealism.

I should like to cite one more fundamental concept of pragmatism. This is the fundamental concept of a "pluralistic universe. It assumes that the world consists of component worlds which have no connection with each other. I need not labor the point that this concept is a nonsensical self-contradiction. To be sure, it is not self-contradictory to postulate a world which is at the same time a unity and a plurality, but to affirm a world, a universe, which is a plurality without unity is plainly a meaningless contradiction. If one asks oneself how a school of philosophy can achieve such palpable nonsense, one does not have to seek far for the answer: the prototype of the world which consists of parts having nothing to do with each other is the world of the high priests of all schools, a world composed of the earthly vale of tears and the heavenly hereafter which are utterly and absolutely separate and different from each other. The "pluralistic universe" is merely a new "higher" label for this ancient and insipid clerical nonsense. A further characteristic of pragmatism is its concept of truth. For pragmatism there is no objective measure of truth. Since it recognizes no reality external to the human mind, it can have no touchstone for truth. According to pragmatism truth is what "works," what is useful. The measure is thus subjective. The undefined subject who is the measure of truth is not man in general but the bourgeois in particular and his particular ends. The bourgeois mind governed by bourgeois interests is made the supreme judge of truth. That this is very convenient for the bourgeoisie certainly cannot be disputed.

The purpose of all these maneuvers of pragmatism is the "scientific" salvation and vindication of the old religious nonsense. William James himself wrote a sizeable book on The Will to Believe and another on religion experience in which he tries to prove that every form of belief, no matter how insane, contains some element of truth as long as it gives man a certain amount of power and effectiveness. For William James the Christian religion in which he was reared, is such an "effective" truth. For the African Negro it may be a wooden idol studded with nails. The whole trick lies in calling something "experience" that used to be known as belief or fantasy. William James, for example, says that the visible world is a part of a more spiritual universe from which it derives its meaning - a statement that immediately reminds one of belief in ghosts. What William James passes off as religious truth or experience is a conglomeration of the creeds of the hundred or more Christian and non-Christian sects existing in America. It is the laboratory in which the fantastic products of various religions and sects are standardized into a normal or average bourgeois faith. If some sect began to believe that the moon was green cheese and if this belief gave them strength, then pragmatism would mix this ingredient into the general religious brew.

So much for this American. I should now like to give you a sample of the English pragmatist, Schiller. It may suffice to give you his own statements of the contents of certain sections and paragraphs of his book Riddles of the Sphinx. Thus, one section is called "Man and his cause-God. . . . (a) As the first cause, but only of the phenomenal world.... (c) As personal, (d) as finite, because only a finite God can be inferred." In paragraph 24 of the same chapter he says: "God not = 'Nature,' and hence 'Nature' can contain an element which resists God." The "element" that "resists God" used to be called the devil or Satan. Can one ask more of pragmatism than that it prove, in addition to the existence of God, the existence of the Devil? Chapter 12, Paragraph 2: Here we find the kingdom of heaven pragmatically described as seems appropriate and plausible to the average mind of the English philistine. In this paragraph we have "The ultimate aim of the process (i.e., the development of the world) is the perfectioning of a society of harmonious individuals." Paragraph 3: "If so, its starting point must have been a minimum of harmony. This implies a pre-cosmic state when no interaction, and hence no world, existed. It preceded Time and Change and does not admit of further inquiries." Which is quite understandable, for the things which happened when there was no time, no things and even no happenings are of the same nature as the dragons of Chinese fables. Just as good is what this pragmatist and teacher from that most famous English university, pious Oxford, has to say about the end of the world. "The end of the world-process is the attainment of perfect harmony or adaptation - the perfection and aim of all the activities of life."

How does this ultimate state appear?

This state is "distinguished by its metaphysical character from the becoming of the time-process, a changeless and eternal state of perfect being." A wonderful "state," where there is no change, no transformation, no time, and yet everything is wonderfully perfect. One is forced to admit that in comparison the Christian or Mohammedan paradise is backward, for in these something still happens. There are music, dancing, and other "happenings." The pragmatist paradise is prolonged into eternity and filled with eternal boredom - an English Sunday whose bliss, as is well known, consists in absolute boredom. "This includes a solution of all difficulties, evil, time, divergence of thought and feeling, etc." All people obviously think the same in this perfect state. How will they entertain themselves there? This same Mr. Schiller wrote an address for the Pan-Anglican Church Congress (1908) in which he says: "If all religions work, all are true." He recommended pragmatism to the gathered clergy of England as an especially good preservative for religion, as a better protection than idealistic philosophy - the latest American patent, so to speak, for protecting religion.

With this we leave the pragmatist Sunday preachers. I will simply add that the American, John Dewey, is a bit more artful than these other pragmatists, but that there is no fundamental difference between him and the others.

In conclusion, I should like to recommend some literature. Friedrich Engels' little essay on Feuerbach offers the best beginning. This little book contains a very clear and concise exposition of dialectical materialism, its development and its relations to bourgeois philosophy. Then another book by Engels: Anti-Dühring (Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science). So far this is the most comprehensive and forceful presentation of dialectical materialism and its widest application to various fields. I cannot specify any particular book by Marx; all his books are written according to the method of dialectical materialism. Further, I might mention the philosophical writings of Plekhanov. Then there is Lenin's book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. A popular text on historical materialism has been written by Bukharin. Further, I should like to call your attention to the writings of A. Labriola, the deceased Italian Marxist, on historical materialism, as well as the writings of Franz Mehring, who was the most important materialist historian.

Naturally I take for granted that you will not merely study dialectical materialism from books, but that you have already turned to practical activity. This is thoroughly consistent with the nature of dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is born of revolutionary activity; it strives to afford general guidance for revolutionary activity. Karl Marx once said: "The task of philosophy [and by philosophy he meant materialism] is not to explain the world anew, but to change it." No one who lives in a great revolutionary period can remain merely a theorist.