From China, With Pragmatism (New York Times article)


Highlights below.  Thanks to dmf for the pointer.
[P]ragmatism. It is centered in the ideas of a small group of late 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers that includes John Dewey, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce (whom James acknowledged as pragmatism’s philosophical founder). American pragmatism’s influence in both academic and intellectual life was significant but not long-lived...
In a 1906 lecture, “What Pragmatism Means,” James said that the pragmatic method sought to “interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.” I would argue that at this moment, that method seems more Chinese than American...
Most Americans are familiar with Beijing’s pragmatism when it comes to foreign policy. Uninterested in moral debates with other nations, China takes the position that its policies are “just business,” and trades with saints and tyrants alike. The United States, at least publicly, looks down its nose at this seeming lack of principle, but it is my view that we fail to understand the deeper pragmatic ethic in Chinese culture...
These days, it seems that pragmatism is more commonly embraced by Chinese intellectuals than by Americans. In China, enthusiasm for Dewey’s philosophy in particular is growing rapidly, while back home interest in it languishes. The dean of my school in Beijing Foreign Studies University, Professor Sun Youzhong, explained that an extensive new translation of Dewey’s voluminous works is underway at East China Normal University in Shanghai, and these will include many lectures that Dewey gave when he lived in China from 1919 to 1921. There have also been recent conferences on Dewey’s philosophy in Beijing and Shanghai, and my own undergraduate students all know his name, while most of my Chicago undergrads back home do not. If such evidence is anecdotal at best, there is some statistical indication that interest in American pragmatism is withering in its own soil: American graduate programs that offer the opportunity to specialize in our homegrown philosophy make up only around 10 percent of degree-granting philosophy departments...
The overarching theme of Dewey’s philosophy, and that of William James before him, is that an experimental approach to life  — one that tests ideas in the realm of action — should guide us in all domains, including religion, politics, ethics, art and, of course, science. Dewey argued against sclerotic ideology, absolutism and essentialism. Too many of us are overconfident about our opinions and tend to view them as gems of certainty, outshining those of other people, cultures and eras. To all this confident certainty, pragmatists pointed out that truth is fallible and we can’t be entirely sure when we’ve arrived at it. William James, in his “Will to Believe,” says, “the faith that truth exists, and that our minds can find it, may be held in two ways. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another. One may hold to the first being possible without the second.”...
Our ethical claims, like everything else, need to be treated as hypotheses that we test in the social realm. Morality does not fall from the sky as eternal truth. We try out notions of the good in the realm of social interaction, and we validate ones that work for us (like sharing) and eliminate ones that don’t (slavery). Dewey, in his essay “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy,” says ethics is not about utopian idealism, but needful matters like how to “improve our education, ameliorate our manners, advance our politics.” Pragmatism, heavily influenced by Darwin, holds that even ethics is an evolving adaptive response of Homo sapiens’ social life...
The current renaissance of Dewey and pragmatism in China stresses the secular ethics dimension as a way to remind a growing wealthy class of the common good.  Chinese people have been atheists for thousands of years, and pragmatism is very congenial with the deeply secular Confucian ethic. When I asked my Beijing students recently to explain Chinese pragmatism to me, I expected them to cite Deng Xiaoping’s famous dismissal of economic ideology: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.” But they went all the way back to Confucius and reminded me that when he was asked how we should best serve the ghosts and spirits, Confucius replied that we should first figure out how to serve human beings. Only after we solve the problems of the here and now should we worry about the supernatural realm...
Link HERE.