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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Michael Shapiro letter in the NY Times Book Review

Sunday Book Review, July 12, 2012: Letter from Michael Shapiro


An American Philosophy

Published: July 12, 2012

To the Editor:

Anthony Gottlieb’s review of “America the Philosophical,” by Carlin Romano (July 1), seriously mischaracterizes what he calls “America’s principal homegrown school of philosophy,” namely the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Far from being, as Gottlieb caricatures it, the doctrine that our theories “should be judged by their practical value rather than by their accuracy in representing the world,” pragmatism is a theory of inquiry — always emphatically seeking the truth in the long run — that follows what Peirce called the pragmatic maxim: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings we conceive the objects of our conception to have. Then our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”

Gottlieb’s assertion (citing Sidney Morgenbesser’s purported witticism) that “the ultimate fate of this idea . . . was all very well in theory but didn’t work in practice” is belied by its undeniable success in underwriting the worldwide scientific advance in the 21st century of disciplines as diverse as linguistics, biology and applied mathematics, not to speak of philosophy and logic. Traducing pragmatism as “either trivial or incoherent when you try to flesh it out” is not worthy of an otherwise sensible reviewer.

Manchester Center, Vt.
The writer is an emeritus professor of Slavic and semiotic studies at Brown University.

A version of this letter appeared in print on July 15, 2012, on page BR8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: An American Philosophy.

© 2012 The New York Times Company

B.U.: The battle seems unending against the vulgarest interpretations of Peirce's pragmatism. Kudos to Michael Shapiro for keeping it up.