John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, characterizes the sensibility of “modernism” (which extended from the end of the nineteenth century through the first three or four decades of the twentieth) as an “awareness of the dualism between nature and spirit that enhances the means of control while diminishing a conception of moral ends.” Gone was the traditional view that human thought mirrored or represented a determinate, and meaningful, extrahuman reality. Modernist intellectuals saw human beings as the products of Darwinian time and chance, not as special creations of God. Modern science probed the atom and found vast natural forces that could be harnessed for technology, but no “purpose” could be read from the pages of nature. Though the human spirit struggled to make sense of the world, in the modernist duality there remained a gap between knowledge and truth, power and (legitimate) authority.
Diggins takes as his touchstone the historian Henry Adams, whose autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (privately printed in 1906 and published in 1918), is in part a meditation on power. Diggins suggests that Adams’ historical investigations led him to despair that there was no “truth” of history. “In essence incoherent and immoral,” Adams wrote, “history had either to be taught as such—or falsified.” Nature, chaotic and random, guided not by the will of human beings but by immense forces beyond their control, was alienated from the human craving for order and historical explanation. If the course of those impersonal forces could be traced (and even, with the advance of science, manipulated), there remained little or no connection with the conscious choices of human beings. That is, science might provide the means for multiplying human power, but not the values that might guide its use. Moreover, one might add, claims regarding the causal efficacy of “values” were themselves problematic. For the later Adams, the exemplar of modernist anxiety, “history remained . . . a vast, cosmic movement without meaning in which truth might be interpreted but never known, an interpretation that could falsify facts with the pretense that the world is being presented as it really is.”
Adams did not engage John Dewey or Charles Sanders Peirce (who believed that the method of scientific “collective inquiry” would yield over time more accurate approximations of the “truth”), but he knew something of the thought of William James, especially his two-volume The Principles of Psychology (1890). Adams was skeptical of James’s optimistic attempt to use psychology and philosophy to form a reconciliation between science and religious belief in which the will could tame and direct the emotions. Mind, James suggested, could understand itself and form its own meaning. Adams would have been critical of James’s insistence that human beings could live without the traditional idea of ultimate truth and the authority that flows from it if they could but believe in themselves. Yet James’s “will to believe,” central to his personalist and volunteeristic form of pragmatism, presented a problem. The will itself may well be unable to act as it realizes that its belief in God, for example, is based only on the utility of that idea. What reason can the mind give that the mind has arrived at truth?
Pragmatism, the only genuinely American philosophy, arose in part as an attempt to answer the challenge of modernism, to overcome the dualisms. Diggins is intrigued by pragmatism, especially the version espoused by John Dewey, and he finds that Dewey “offered the possibility of overcoming the dualisms of philosophy by viewing all thinking as a kind of deferred social interaction rather than immediate autonomous reflection.” That is, “answers” to vexing political or philosophical questions are worked out in a community context, using standards internal to the community, in order to construct a response that, as William James once put it, had “cash value.” Diggins, however, is less than satisfied with the pragmatic method because, since it relies on practical methodology and not theoretical prescription, it can give little guidance to a community, or an individual, on what one ought to do in a given situation. As the author characterizes the process, one “bumps up against some problem,” takes steps to resolve the problem (thus rendering it “determinate”), and gains “knowledge as the awareness and recognition of the specific consequences that result from inquiry.” Truth then is not a correspondence with “reality,” or even coherence with some system of belief, but “warranted assertability,” meaning that propositions are true if what they predict comes to pass or can be verified. Truth is future-oriented and created by a community as that community puts into practice its “plans of action.” The difficulty with this notion is that the knowledge one craves in order to make a present decision is always deferred until one has acted on one’s decision. A history of past decisions and their outcomes is of little use, since the new problems that one “bumps up...
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