The Pragmatic Maxim

Time again to take a look at MOOC and other forms of free learning from the perspective of another one of the subjects I’m studying: Pragmatic philosophy.

I’ve been learning about Pragmatism through a second attempt at a self-study course, one which is going much more smoothly than the first, probably because excellent resources are available on the subject (even if they took a bit longer to hunt down since Pragmatism is usually taught as part of a broader subject such as American intellectual history).

Speaking of the US of A, Pragmatism is actually the one great philosophical movement that moved from America to Europe rather than vice versa.  Its founding fathers were Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey and even if you’re only dimly aware of them or their work, Pragmatism underlies many of the things you take for granted today, including much of modern science.

For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus just on the founding principle of this philosophy, Charles Peirce’s “Pragmatic Maxim” which states:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

To understand the philosophical magnitude of this conception, think about a knife sitting next to a stick of butter.  If asked to cut one with the other, every rational person would reach for the knife and use it to cut the butter.  And if asked why we did so we would probably say something along the lines of “because the knife is sharp and the butter is not.”  But what do we mean when we say this?

A Platonist philosopher might propose there exists a “Form of Sharpness,” a metaphysical (i.e., existing beyond the physical world) something that is the ultimate expression of “the sharp.”  And since the knife partakes in this Form of Sharpness more than does the butter, when we say “the knife is sharp,” we are invoking its participation in this metaphysical form.

An empiricist might try to find some type of measurement that would characterize sharpness (some combination of width and hardness, for example) and use it to demonstrate that the knife has more of this characteristic than does the butter.  But the Pragmatic Maxim is making a different claim.  It says that we do not grab the knife because it is sharp but that our act of choosing it to cut something is what defines it as sharp.  In other words, our conception of the effect of actually using the knife is what makes the knife sharp, not some property (measureable or metaphysical) of the knife itself.

So Pragmatism is about ideas in action that assumes the practical consequence of those actions is what gives meaning to our ideas.  And while Pragmatic philosophers ran into trouble when trying to apply their concepts to something less tangible than a knife (notably “truth”), this philosophical approach has proven to be quite fruitful when looking at more, well, pragmatic matters.

For example, if you look at a question I asked a few weeks back about how to define a MOOC, you’ll see that trying to come up with an empirical definition derived by looking at its features (such as massiveness, openness and onlined-ness) ended in a series of contradictions.  Which is why I suggested a teleological definition based a on a proposed purpose for a MOOC (as a form of education that emphasizes research and experimentation alongside teaching and learning).

But a Pragmatist might look at how you, I and everyone else taking a MOOC are using them and see how our actions defined what we use to accomplish those actions.  For example, if most of us are using them to support lifelong learning, then MOOCs are a lifelong learning tool.  But, if instead, undergraduates had flocked to them and schools fell all over each other to give them credit for taking a MOOC, then they would not just seem like an alternative to traditional college, they would actually be one.

In the same way, college is an expensive activity that leads to higher paying jobs because people are willing to pay more to go to one college vs. another while a different group of people are willing to pay graduates of more expensive schools more than they would a graduate of a cheaper one.  But if the people making such decisions start choosing different courses of action, they would not be simply changing a dynamic but changing reality.

That MOOC example a couple of paragraphs back illustrate why Pragmatism underlies so much of the philosophy and science of language.  For the term “MOOC” didn’t exist until a bunch of Canadians cooked it up to describe a specific set of activities (i.e., actions) they were engaged in.  And when people at companies like Udacity et al started doing something else under that same label, the word changed its meaning to describe the actions they were taking.  And the word might change its meaning again (or disappear entirely) based on what actions other groups of people may or may not take over the next ten years.

So if a newly concocted word with just a few people acting under that label can become so unstable so quickly, how volatile are other words that have been the subject of debate and contradictory courses of action for decades, if not centuries?  Words like “education” for example.


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