Pragmatism and the Cultural Worker: The 19th Century

For the purposes of this project, three dimensions of nineteenth-century pragmatism are particularly relevant. The first dimension, most fully developed in the work of William James, treats life as experimentation, with all certainties accepted, provisionally, “on credit,” and subject to change. As Isabelle Stengers argues, James replaced the skeptic’s emphasis on “habit” with a new focus upon “trust”: a trust that “is paradoxically exercised in a world of indeterminacy, what James calls the ‘plastic zone, the transmission belt of the uncertain, the meeting point of the past and the future.'”

Or, as David Lapoujade writes of James: “It is indeterminacy that makes us need trust, but it is also because we have trust that we take the risk of the indeterminate.The feeling of trust makes experience a field of experimentation. It is therefore the condition for every form of creation.” We call this first dimension of pragmatism: “fallibilism.”

Second, we seek to foreground pragmatism’s innovations in the theorization of meaning (most thoroughly explored in the writings of Charles S. Peirce). We call this second dimension of pragmatism its “semiotic” impulse. Thirdly, we highlight pragmatism’s proto-cinematic understanding of attention and perception, a theme to which both James and Peirce devoted considerable attention, as did John Dewey (particularly important here is Dewey’s early work Psychology). We call this third dimension pragmatism’s concern with “duration.”

Of the three themes, fallibilism enjoys a certain priority. Pragmatism’s turn to fallibilism marked the embrace of an experimental, provisional, and open perspective on truth. It was fallibilism that allowed pragmatist to develop a semiotic theory of meaning and to explore in new ways the nature of attention and perception. Important political consequences followed from these commitments. Although the attitudes of Peirce, James, Dewey, and Holmes towards democratic politics varied widely from one another, and changed a great deal over time, pragmatist thinking was, without question, radically social in orientation and implicitly egalitarian in practice. Peirce, who often expressed elitist sentiments in correspondence, yet redefined reality as “what a community of inquirers would discover, given adequate resources and time,” and protested fellow philosophers’ “absurd disregard for others’ opinions.”  Peirce insisted that “nothing less than an infinite, evolving community can offer the epistemic authority needed to fix beliefs, at least for social beings such as humans.” Here Peirce renounces the philosophical premise that has dominated Western thought since Plato: the notion that only the privileged few are capable of apprehending the truth.

It is important to stress that  “experience,” for pragmatists, is more than a kind of all-American faith in prudence and know-how. “Experience” does not function for pragmatists as it might in an advertisement for a job opening. Instead, and emphasis on “experience” led pragmatists to an unusually indeterminate vision of thought, and attracted them to metaphors of malleability and alterability. For Peirce, for example, the mind was “infinitely plastic.” The texture of everyday life was characterized by processes of bending and straightening, hardening and softening, flux and fixation. William James picked up on Peirce’s fallibilism, painting truth as “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate.” Or, as James put it in Pragmatism: ‘the absolutely true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge.”


Peirce stressed, in particular, the centrality of the “symbolization” process: “the imaginary operations by which novel symbols are generated.” For Peirce, the human imagination imagination is irrepressibly “symbolific.” If  “symbolization” could be understood as a species of work, then nothing remained to distinguish modern audiences and consumers from authors and painters: all could be seen as involved in the same conceptual activity of making and interpreting signs and symbols.The “woof and warp of all thought and all research is symbols,” Peirce famously wrote in “The Ethics of Terminology,” and “the life of thought and science is the life inherent in symbols.”

Vincent Colapietro notes that Peirce’s investigation of signs built on three convictions. First, thinking is always dialogic, if only, at a minimum, between anterior and posterior moments of an interior monologue. Second, thought cannot be severed from its modes of expression: Peirce rejected the supposition that thought is something apart from its possibility of expression or articulation. Signs are all we can know of thoughts. Thus, every philosopher is a semiotician. Third, Peirce was convinced that every symbol is a “living thing,” in a strictly literal sense. Peirce was aware that such a claim is likely to strike many people as “stark madness, or mysticism.” But for Peirce, thinking about the mental work of symbolization led inexorably to a vitalist take on the nature of signs. In a Darwinian key, Peirce treats the mind as having adapted to acquire diverse modes of symbolization. As Colapietro summarizes, for Peirce, “the distinctive character of the human mind is the capacity to use inherited signs in innovative ways and, more dramatically, to fashion novel signs.”

Peirce’s thinking about signs led him to develop a semiotic theory. Peirce characterizes “sign-action” as triadic, on the model of gift-giving (in which giver, gift, and recipient are bound together in a single act): signification links, in Peirce’s terms, object, sign, and interpretant. At the same time, semiosis is open-ended and multiple; the interpretant, Colapietro reminds us, “very frequently serves as a sign generating yet another interpretant.” Within the various levels of signifying activity, Peirce identifies numerous subdivisions and permutations of meaning, the most influential of which is the trichotomy of icon, index, and symbol. Iconicity relates to the study of similarity and difference (as in the relationship between a portrait’s “likeness” and a person); indexicality addresses causal connections between objects (as between the wind and the weathervane); symbolization concerns the process by which signs relate to other signs and objects as a function of repetition and habit (the way, for example, a hexagram has come, rather arbitrarily, to signify “Judaism”). This terminology, in Peirce, overlaps with a variety of other interpretive rubrics, the most important of which, for our purposes, is the mapping of reality into the categories of  “firstness,” “secondness,” and “thirdness.”


The final category we will look at is “duration”: pragmatism’s new attentional economy, its novel vision of experience as a ceaseless flow of stimuli and of perception as always involving provisional attempts to attain some temporary organization amidst the chaos of information.

Peirce sees thinking as the province of “constant flux.” Within this flux, the mind arrived at meaning by way of processes of “fixation” (compare with the image of plastic materials hardening and loosening in Peirce’s discussion of habit and doubt), signaled by the title of an important early essay “Fixation of Belief.” Like Peirce, William James held that experience is a continuous stream the elements of which have no distinct boundaries, and hence that the relations between things are as real, as directly experienced, as the things themselves. As Ellen Kappy Suckiel writes, “James argued that if philosophers acknowledged that if philosophers acknowledged the continuous and flowing nature of experience, they would be able to discard the prevalent and long-standing ontological dualisms which had led them into unnecessary paradoxes and quagmires” (Companion, 33). James’s “radical empiricism” invoked the image of “fixation” (in his terms, “distinction”) within a “stream of experience” as the model of thought, adding the pragmatist proviso that the only important questions to ask about this process were those that were in some way useful.



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