Philosophers and the moral life

Claudine Tiercelin

Université Paris XII et Institut Jean-Nicod

(Transactions of the C.S.Peirce Society, n°2, spring 2002, vol. XXXVIII,N°1/2, Essays in Honor of Richard S. Robin, p. 307-326)


Part of the obvious revival of pragmatism, at least in Europe, is linked with the present success or even “boom” of moral philosophy[1]. Although it is still “commonplace to think of pragmatism in terms of its two principal varieties, one of which stems from Charles Peirce and the other from William James”[2], there is also an increasing tendency to identify the classical pragmatists as a common group of writers who, much better than any philosophers coming from other traditions— knew how to define scientific inquiry as an inquiry submitted to norms and principles, and realized that “what applies to investigation in general, equally applies to ethical investigation”[3]. Indeed, for quite some time now, pragmatism has no longer been viewed merely as “the most significant tradition in American philosophy”[4], but (and not only in America, in Europe too), as the right philosophical position to adopt, “a middle-way” as H.Putnam put it, “between reactionary metaphysics and irresponsible relativism”[5]. Indeed, one of the reasons Putnam thinks Pragmatism is not so much “a movement that had its day at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centeury”, but “a way of thinking …of lasting importance and an option (or at least an “open question”) that should figure in present-day philosophical thought” [6] is that he is convinced that the “pluralism” and “thoroughgoing holism” which are ubiquitous in Pragmatist writing (POQ, xii) are able to continue to “value the tolerance and pluralism” promoted by the Enlightment, while avoiding “the epistemological scepticism that came with that tolerance and pluralism”, in other words, avoiding “moral scepticism without tumbling back into moral authoriarianism”(POQ,2). Contrary to the “reactionary metaphysics”, directly generated, according to Putnam, from a certain tradition — mainly the empiricist (and analytical) tradition — and at the same time, contrary to the “irresponsible relativism” it gave rise to (TTC, 5), pragmatism seems  the best available answer to our fear of “the loss of the world”, the best way to “renew” (in the Deweyan sense of the term) philosophy.

Common to the pragmatists, according to Putnam — which allows to rank Wittgenstein and Austin among them— is the view that notions indipensable for everydaylife should be taken seriously. Putnam credits Peirce for emphasizing that practical interest is inseparable from cognitive or theoretical interest: no one could dream of “a discussion  about testing theories or hypotheses that would take place outside certain values or that would assume, for example, the extortion of consensus” (CPNR, 76).  Neverthless, Dewey was the first  philosopher, not only to subscribe to the view that “what applies to investigation in general applies to ethical investigation”, but to have put it into practice: indeed, although the view was originally formulated by Peirce, Peirce did not apply it to the moral domain, because he “categorically refused to deal with ethics” (CPNR, 88).Is it so sure, though? Or how should we understand such a refusal from someone who, at the same time, as Richard Robin saw as early as 1964, was so convinced by the importance of norms and values as to elaborate a doctrine of the normative sciences, a doctrine which, to say the least, did not “come out of the blue”?[7] In what follows I shall try to present some of Peirce’s arguments both against any form of moral rationalism and in favor of a normative conception of rationality, which  are closer to a conception of the possible objectivity of ethics than may appear at first sight, and even closer too, as he now seems more and more inclined to think, to Putnam’s own views on the matter[8].


Against moral rationalism.  

 Pragmatism has always been viewed as a fight against false abstractions and against the clearcut division between the intellect on the one hand and experience and action on the other. But, to a certain extent, this can be also be traced back to the common opposition[9], present in W. James, Peirce but also Wittgenstein to any form of moral rationalization, which has as much to do with theoretical reasons or a strict ethical attitude as with straightforward “conservatism or “sentimentalism”, as is often suggested[10]. For Wittgenstein[11], the essential part of the philosophical effort one should be ready to consent on a topics such as, for example, ethics, should precisely consist in freeing oneself of the temptation of saying  something about it. Indeed, things in ethics are in a way so crystal-clear, so definite and brutal, that there is strictlly nothing  to say about it.  In that sense, what philosophers can say or write about moral conscience, about values, about the possible existence of Good, is of little weight compared to what such writers as Tolstoï, Shahespeare or Balzac managed to show through their writings[12]. Indeed, in what respect is a philosopher more qualified than the common man  to talk about ethics? Is he essentially better, more experienced, or happier than the rest of mankind? What kind of secret does he hold?  What might he know that the other people would not? Obviously nothing. Franck Ramsey, who was very close to the pragmatists and to Wittgenstein also held that as soon as one tries to indulge in such topics of “popular philosophy” as “the relation of man to nature, and the meaning of morality”, “any attempt to treat such topics seriously reduces them to questions either of science or of technical philosophy, or results more immediately in perceiving them to be nonsensical”; and he concluded that “Theology and Absolute Ethics are two famous subjects which we have realised to have no real objects”[13]. Although he is not direct, Wittgenstein also considers that anything that might resemble an ethical “explanation” or “theory” is, by essence, incapable of providing us with what we are looking for when we question ourselves about ethics. As a matter of fact, if ethics cannot be expressed, it is because ethical questions are not really questions, i.e, something one might bring answers or solutions to. In Realism with a Human Face, Putnam comes to a similar view, when he stresses the fact that such terms as “solutions” or “problems” can “lead us astray” by seeming to equate ethiocal problems or solutions with scientific problems or solutions, which they clearly are not[14]. Thus ethics has no pure or essential state: it is more like an anthropological phenomenon, having more to do, as W. James pointed out, with “temperament” than “theory”[15]. In a similar vein, Wittgenstein thought that any philosophy could be scarcely more than the expression of a human  experience, which had to be supported by the human value of his or her author. And, according to him, it was because James was a genuine human being that he could be a good philosopher[16].

The Logician of Milford expresses the same kind of reluctance towards moral rationalism. “In regard to the greatest affairs of life, the wise man follows his heart and does not trust his head” (1.653). “If, walking in the garden on a dark night, you were suddenly to hear the voice of your sister crying to you to rescue her from a villain, would you stop to reason out the metaphysical question of whether it were possible for one mind to cause material waves of sound and for another mind to perceive them? (1.655). In such cases, even the sacred maxim of Ockham’s razor, hawever sound it may be, as a matter of scientific procedure is, compared with living belief, nothing but a ghost (5.60):


“If the captain of a vessel on a lee shore in a terrific storm finds himself in a critical position in which he must instantly either put his wheel to port acting on one hypothesis, or put his wheel to starboard acting on the contrary hypothesis, and his vessel will infallibly be dashed to pieces if he decides the question wrongly, Ockham’s razor is not worth the stout belief of any common seaman. For stout belief maus happen to save the ship, while Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem swould be only a stupid way of spelling Shipwreck.” (5.60).


In the first Cambridge Lecture (1898) “Philosophy and the Conduct of Life”[17], Peirce holds that “in the conduct of life, we have to dinstinguish everyday affairs and great crises”. “In the great decisions”,  it is not “safe to trust to individual reason. In everyday business, reasoning is tolerably successful”, but “it is done as well without the aid of a theory as with it.” (RLT, 109).  In all this, “a  good logica utens  is  enough”. It is often to satisfy our ego that we exaggerate the role of ratiocination in matters of vital importance.


“Men many times fancy that they act from reason when, in point of fact, the reasons they attribute to themselves are nothing but excuses which unconscious instinct invents to satisfy the teasing “whys” of the  ego. The extents of this self-delusion is such as to render philosophical rationalism a farce” (RLT, 111).


 And yet, if we opened our eyes, we would realize that the so-called “lower animals” reason very little, and “very rarely commit a mistake, while we —!” (RLT, 110). What are indeed the “mental qualities we most admire in all human beings except our several selves”: they are “the maiden’s delicacy, the mother’s devotion, manly courage, and other inheritances that have come to us from the biped who did not yet speak; while the characters that are the most contemptible take their origin in reasoning” (ibid.). The very fact, Peirce adds in a very Rousseauistic vein, that “everybody so ridiculously overrates his own reasoning, is sufficient to show how superficial the faculty is”.


“It is the instincts, the sentiments, that make the substance of the soul. Cognition is only its surface, its locus of contact with what is external to it...Thus, pure theoretical knowledge, or science, has nothing directly to say concerning practical matters, and nothing even applicable at all to vital crises. Theory is applicable to minor practical affairs; but matters of vital importance must be left to sentiment, that is, to instinct” (RLT, 110-112).


 Thus “reason, for all the frills [it] customarily wears, in vital crises, comes down upon its marrow-bones to beg the succour of instinct” (RLT, 111). But it is precisely because Peirce “allows the supremacy of sentiment in human affairs”, and does it “at the dictation of reason itself”, that he also refuses “ in theoretical matters, to allow sentiment any weight whatsoever” (RLT, 112).


The necessary separation between philosophy or science and ethics

Indeed, if ethics as “the science of the end and aim of life” is excluded from philosophy, it is because it seems to be exclusively “psychical” and therefore confined to a special department of experience, while philosophy studies experience in its universal characteristics”(RLT, 115-116). It ranks “with the arts, or rather with the theories of the arts”, which “of all theoretical sciences”, Peirce regards as “the most concrete”, while philosophy is “the most abstract of all the real sciences”. Hence, if one should “not allow to sentiment or instinct any weight whatsoever in theoretical matters, not the sligthest” (RLT, 111), it is because to make knowledge an adjunction to ethics, or to allow the intrusion of moral or vital factors in science always makes one run the risk of judging the validity of reasonings according to the impressions they make on oneself: for example, “when men begin to rationalize about their conduct, the first effect is to deliver them over to their passions and produce the most frightful demoralization, especially in sexual matters”. Men “continue to tell themselves they regulate their conduct by reason; but they learn to look forward and see what conclusions a given method will lead to before they give their adhesion to it”. It is then the reign of “sham reasoning”, when “it is no longer the reasoning which determines what the conclusion shall be, but it is the conclusion which determines what the reasoning shall be” (1.57)[18]. “The effect of mixing speculative inquiry with questions of conduct results finally in a sort of make-believe reasoning which deceives itself in regard to its real character”(1.56); even worse: “men come to look upon reasoning as mainly decorative” (1.58).

But why it is so fundamental to dissociate theoretical from vital matters? To a certain extent also, because ethics requires beliefs, and mainly firm and fixed ones: moral conscience, as Robert Musil insisted on demands a sort of “construction on piles”. Now, the unavoidable dogmatism, conservatism, —“morality is essentially conservative” (1.50)— urgency, required by this is incompatible with the disinterest, humility, sense of doubt and probability, uncertainty, refusal of manichean distinctions, respect of fine nuances that are so characteristic of the theoretical (scientific) domain: experience, scientifically conducted, can never reach absolute certainty, exactitude, necessity or universality, whereas moral conscience requires uniformity, regularity, repeatability.  This is why, as Peirce notes, “in more ways than one, an exaggerated regard for morality is unfavorable to scientific progress”, and “as a means to good life, it is not necessarily coextensive with good conduct”(1.50).

Now, this is incompatible with the scientific attitude which Peirce defines less as a corpus of established truths and pieces of knowledge than as a mode of life, a pursuit of knowledge rather than knowledge. In order to be a real scientist, philosopher, or more generally, inquirer, it is necessary to have “such virtues as intellectual honesty and sincerity and a real love of truth” (2.82); the first step towards finding out  being to acknowledge that you do not satisfactorily know already”(1.13). In that respect, a real scientist is not, strictly speaking, a believer, since belief is something upon which a man is willing to act (1.635). He has only hypotheses, which are believed to the only extent that the economy of research prescribes, for the time being, that they should not be doubted, and that on them inquiry shall cease (5.589): but they are revisable, hence provisional. For one should be ready to overthrow one’s whole cartload of beliefs, as soon as experience requires it. Hence, there is nothing common between the man of science, moved by “a hearty and active desire to learn what is true” and “penetrated with a sense of the unsatisfactoriness of his present condition of knowledge” (5.582), and the theologian or professor  who is only moved by the desire to stick to his previous beliefs. Such antithetical attitudes are illustrated by Peirce under the two anti-scientific attitudes of fixing belief embodied by the methods of tenacity and authority, and under the two figures of the theologian (or Hegelian seminarist) and the scientist(1.40). Dogmatism and conservatism, such are the main dangers science has to be protected from: unfortunately, the devotion required by knowledge (such as the years long cataloguing of Peirce’s manuscripts!),  makes it hard to have a mundane life, and “the acquisition of books, instruments, laboratory, etc. depends upon qualifications in which the man of science is usually rather wanting — as welth, diplomacy, popularity as a teacher — so that he is less likely to be provided with them than are men less qualified to use them for the advancement of science”( 1.236). For Peirce no compromission is possible between science and society, morality or practice. Once for all, one should get rid of that “Hellenistic tendency” to “mingle Philosophy and Practice”.(RLT, 107). “True Science is distinctively the study of useless things. For the useful things will get studied without the aid of scientific men. To employ these rare minds on such work is like running a steam engine by burning diamonds” (1.76).

It does not mean that one should remain deaf to the practical effects of science: in some cases indeed, its results have immediate applications to human life (RLT, 107). But even then, “the true scientific investigator completely loses sight of the utility of what he is about. It never enters his mind. Do you think that the physiologist who cuts up a dog reflkects while doing so, that he may be saving a human life? Nonsense. If he did, it would spoil him for a scientific man, and then the vivisection would become a crime” (ibid.). If philosophy is, for Peirce, one of the domains in which the sense of utility is particularly harmful, it is because “touching as it does upon matters which are, and ought to be, sacred to us, the investigator who does not stand aloof from all intent to make pratical applications, will not only obstruct the advance or pure science, but what is infintely worse, he will endanger his own moral integrity and that of his readers” (RLT, 117). Deploring “the present infantile condition of philosophy”, mainly due to the fact that “during is century it has chiefly been pursued by men who have not been nurtures in dissecting-rooms and other laboratories, and who consequently have not been animated by the true scientific Eros, but who have on the contrary come from theological seminaries, and have consequently been inflamed with a desire to amend the lives of themselves and others, a spirit no doubt more important than the love of science,  for men in average situations, but radically unfitting them for the task of scientific investigation”, Peirce regards “any practical applications of it to Religion and Conduct as exceedingly dangerous”. And he adds: “I have not one word to say against the Philosophy of Religion or of Ethics in general or in particular. I only say that for the present, it is all far too dubious to warrant risking any human life upon it. I do not say that Philosophical science should not ultimately influence Religion and Morality. I only say that it should be allowed to do so only with secular slowness and the most conservative caution” (RLT, 107-108.).


The reality of norms

Now it should be clear that if Peirce finds it indispensable to free knowledge from moral, political or religious interests, or if, in a very close attitude, Wittgenstein finds that ethics is finally too serious a subject for letting anybody talk about it, it is because, for both philosophers, rationality itself must obey very strict normative principles. As Jacques Bouveresse has written about Wittgenstein, “one should not mistake his refusal of moral rationalism as a “philosophical” response to a problem of foundation with the rejection of the idea of some rational morals: for him the ideas of “reason”, “rationality” have themselves a character which is so directly and so deeply ethical that it is difficult to say a priori to what extent ethics cand be grounded on reason rather than the opposite[19].

It is the very spirit which, as Richard Robin showed, animated Peirce’s project of a doctrine of the normative sciences, involving logic, ethics and esthetics, all being defined as the purely theoretical sciences of purpose (1.282)[20]. What is of course of particular interest is Peirce’s view of logic as a normative science, and even more, as a particular problem of ethics, which is, in turn, dependent on esthetics(2.197). For the essential problem of ethics is not right or wrong, but “what I am deliberately ready to accept, as the statement of what I want to do”(2.198)[21]. Ethics being a science of ends, logic then depends on it,  since it has to do with thinking as a deliberate activity and with the means to reach that end which is a valid well conducted reasoning. Hence, “it is impossible to be completely and rationally logical except on an ethical basis” (2.198). But in turn,, both logic and ethics depend on esthetics, which is the analysis of the end itself, and of the ideal one would be willing to accept and to conform to. For reasoning is “thinking in a controlleds and deliberate way”(1.573). There are good and bad reasonings that may be submitted to criticism, of which we are responsible, since they are deliberate and controlled, and since, for a pragmatist the way one thinks cannot be distinguished from the way one conducts oneself (5.534), thus from the way one is guided by a purpose or an ideal (1. 573), namely that of the discovery of reality. On the other hand, the pragmatist theory of research or theory of belief,namely, of “being deliberately ready to adopt the believed formula as a guide to action”(5.27) must lead less to a search for origin [22] than to the determination of the norms and ideals  that are to be chosesn for the future conduct (5.35; 5.461). For Peirce, if any conception, any belief must be understood in connection with its practical consequences, practical should not be taken in a “materalistic” or “philistine” sense, but in the Kantian sense of purposive rational action (or “conduct”), submitted to our critical self-control : “For to say that we live for the sake of action, as action, regardless of the thought it carries, would be to say that there is no such thing as rational purport” (5.429).

Correlative to some forms of relativistic pragmatism as those defended, for example, by R. Rorty, is the view that norms are necessarily of two kinds: either transcendent; namely transcultural, or the simple mirror of our present cultural models. Rorty refuses the first ones, and considers that a correct defense of the desired post-philosophical era should start from the (obvious) fact that our norms and standards are contingent through and through, and mere products of convention. The merit of Peirce’s analysis is to emphasize that we are not condemned to such an alternative. If the phenomena of reasoning are, in their general traits, “parallel” to those of moral conduct, it is because, “reasoning is, essentially, just as a moral conduct, a thought submitted to self-control”. (1.606), namely, it follows certain rules which we are able to judge, which we can approve or disapprove. It is true that such norms are in a sense “irresistible”or “self evident” (1.606), but this does not mean that they are merely “derived” from our nature or reducible to psychological features of a system of beliefs or cultural conventions. Nor are they merely transcendent laws or prescriptions which we have to follow. Logical norms are normative because they belong to norms of rationality, they are the rules that must be followed by an ideally rational agent; hence it is not so much a feature that a system of belief or an agent does in fact have, as a trait that governs our interpretation of a system of rational beliefs and behaviour of individuals. As a matter of fact, if we did not suppose that a subject or agent had some traits of “optimal” rationality, we could not interpret him.: for example, we presuppose, following the principle of charity, that he is likely to be, like us, rational, that he has no contradictory beliefs; thus we compare his reasoning with the ones that we know, and wonder whether it satifies the rules and norms of “just reason”. And it is precisely what explains that Peirce distinguishes ethics from mere morality:  he is convinced that human beings are, as S. Blackburn says, “ethical animals”, which means, “not that we naturally behave particularly well, nor that we are endlessly telling each other what to do”, but that “we grade and evaluate, and compare and admire, and claim and justify”[23] . But “an ethical climate” is indeed “a different thing from a  moralistic one. Indeed one of the mark of an ethical climate may be hostility to moralizing, which is somehow out of place or bad form”[24].  It is then easier to see why “if, as pragmatism teaches us, what we think is to be interpreted in terms of what we are prepared to do, then surely  logic, or the doctrine of what we ought to think, must be an application of the doctrine of what we deliberately choose to do, which is Ethics” (5.35). This is a fundamental view, for it helps to understand why the rejection by Peirce (and by James) of moral rationalism does not prevent them from claiming the possibility of some objectivity in ethics.


Against the fact/value dichotomy.

 Putnam often says that what he finds attractive in pragmatism is not “a systematic theory in the usual sense” but rather “a certain group of theses, which can be and indeed were argued very differently by different philosophers with different concerns, and which became the basis of the philosophy or Peirce, and above all of James and Dewey”[25]. Among those theses, there are at least four views, which Putnam takes as decisive:


“(1) Antiskepticism: pragmatists hold that doubt requires justification just as much as belief (recall Peirce’s famous distinction between “real” and “philosophical” doubt); (2)fallibilism: pragmatists hold that there is never a metaphysical guarantee to be had that such-and-such a belief will never need revision (that one can be both fallibilistic and antiskeptical is perhaps the unique insight of American pragmatism); (3) the thesis that there is no fundamental  dichotomy between “facts” and “values”; and (4) the thesis that,  in a certain sense, practice is primary in philosophy. ”(WL, 152).


Before examining how these theses are articulated, it is important to bear in mind why the last two are deemed so important by Putnam. In Words and Life, in the chapter intitled “Pragmatism and Moral Objectivity”, Putnam  claims (rightly) that the classical pragmatists, despite the differences or even disagreements between them, held 1) that “positions on the “abstract” questions of moral objectivity have real world effects”; 2) that “the justifications which are offered for ethical skepticism at a philosophical level will not stand up examination”;  3) that to show that “the foundations of the idea that there is no rationality beyond purely instrumental rationality are in trouble, may help to combat that instrumentalization and that manipulation”(WL,151). In fact, “pragmatists have anticipated an idea that has become a commonplace in contemporary moral philosophy, the idea that disagreement in individual conceptions of the good need not make it impossible to approximate (even if we never finally arrive at) agreement on just procedures and even agreement on such abstract and formal values as respect for another’s autonomy, non instrumentalization of other persons, and such regulative ideas as the idea that in all our institutions we should strive to replace relations of hierarchy and dependance by relations of “symmetric reciprocity” (WL, 155).  “Just “or “injust”, “good” and “evil”, “better” and “worse” are terms that are as indispensable in science as in social and private life, because, for one thing, there is no dichotomy between fact and value, a point which, for Putnam, gets special emphasis in Reason, Truth and History[26], but which he had already stressed in his papers on philosophy of science (especially “What Theories are not”, in terms of his rejection of the theoretical/observational distinction): indeed, far from being devoid of “cognitive value”, value judgements (such as coherence and simplicity) are presupposed in all knowledge: fact and value interpenetrate (POQ, 13-18): for example, the truths of science are relevant, deep, non trivial truths (RTH, 137). But at the same time,  terms supposed to have a function of ethical evaluation  (such as “scrupulous”) also have a descriptive, explicative or predictive function. All scientific choices are based on norms and values, which are not only cognitive, but ethical. “Philosophical issues are mixed with ‘scientific’ ones,  and cultural and even metaphysical preconceptions play a role” (POQ, 15). Hence, one should 1) reject the positivistic opposition between, on the one hand, facts, and “physcial “propositions, the reasons guiding scientific choices, and on the other hand, value or ethical judgments; 2) cease to reduce rationality to mere “scientific” rationality and “broaden the notion of standards of rational acceptability “(RTH, 137); 3) reject ethical relativism[27].

As a consequence, ethical opinions and choices can be submitted to criteria and, just as epistemological opinions and choices are, justified by objective reasons, the basic problem being then to avoid that such an ethical cognitivism should not imply some form or other of ethical authoritarianism. Hence, it should be possible to show how the choice of life of the “rational nazi” is both bad and irrational (RTH, 211-214).

In keeping too with other arguments Putnam develops against externalism (or metaphyscial realism), according to which there is no “God’s eye point of view” no “view from nowhere”, but only different points of view made by different persons, reflecting the interests and objectives of their descriptions and of their theories, it is necessary to admit that all judgements have a double, descriptive and evaluative component. “One cannot choose a scheme which simply “copies” the facts, because no conceptual scheme is a mere “copy” of the world (RTH, 215)[28]. Thus, “the notion of truth itself depends for its content on our standards of rational acceptability, and these in turn rest on and presuppose our values”. Put briefly, “theory of truth presupposes theory of rationality which in turn presupposes our theory of the good” (RTH, 215).

The main objective is then the follwing: how are we to justify that such rational norms are, rather than others, the “acceptable” ones? As Putnam admits: “We can only hope to produce a more rational conception of rationality or a better conception of morality iw we operate from within our tradition “(RTH, 216). But how can we be sure that there exists “a true conception of rationality, a true morality, even if all we ever have are our conceptions  of these?” (RTH, 216).

If Putnam’s more recent works are more and more animated by the “spirit” in which the classical pragmatists wrote, it is precisely because it seems to him that they can offer some solutions to such questions[29].


Is objectivity in ethics possible?

 According to Putnam, the classical pragmatists should be particularly praised for having refused to conclude from their rejection of the idea of a “first philosophy” superior to pratice, of some “Archimedian point” from which we could claim that what is indispenable in lifegilt nicht in  der Philosophie” (WL, 154), from their rejection as well of a clearcut dichotomy between facts and values, that, as a consequence, value judgements are nothing more than mere jugements of taste: on the contrary, they emphasize that we do argue seriouly about them, try to make them hold together in a coherent way, and appeal to the same logical laws, when reasoning on an ethical question as when reasoning on a problem in, e.g., set theory: “Pragmatists do not urge us to ignore sound arguments against what we believe, when such arguments are advanced; they do urge us not to confuse the “intuitions” of metaphysicians with genuine arguments”(WL,156). Among such erroneous intuitions, to which James (and maybe even more, Dewey) never fell into, that of “the (false) opposition between philosophy which is concerned with how to live and philosophy which is concerned with hard technical  questions”(POQ, 22), which is often associated with the “fetichism of a method” following only algorithmic criteria and canons, and with scepticism towards the possibility of objectivity of ethical values. In showing that fact, theory, value, interpretation are all interdependent (POQ, 19),  the central idea of the pragmatist “temperament” is, simply, to promote a “more realistic (vision) than the vision of those who try to convince us that the familiar dualisms must be correct”(ibid.). For Dewey, there is no foundation: “we can only start from where we are” WL, 201), which includes “both our sufferings and enjoyments (our valuings) and our evaluations, the latter coming from our community and from ourselves” (WL, 201).

But to abandon cultural imperialism and absolutism does not imply that relativism remains the only possible choice. To be a “realist” means precisely to reject the view that the value judgements we make in ethics have no cognitive status[30]. On the contrary, pragmatists show that the belief in such a status “underlies an enormous amount of our pratice (indirectly, perhaps, maybe the whole of our practice) and that metaphysical arguments that say that notwithstanding the indispensability of the “realist” stance that we adopt toward value disputes in practice, realism with respect to values cannot possibly be right, are themselves unsupported by anything more than a collection of metaphysical dogmas” (Wl, 160).

Refuting the view B. Williams defends in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, according to which “the idea of ethical objectivity is metaphysically unacceptable” (RHF, 176), Putnam defends what “Dewey and Peirce taught us”, namely that “real questions require a context and a point”(RHF,177) and that “the problem is to keep moral disagreement within the bounds of community and productive cooperatio”, the “challenge” being “to make moral disagreement serve as a stimulus to the kind of criticism of institutions and values that is needed for progress towards justice and progress in enabling citizens to live in accordance with their various conceptions of the good life” (WL, 155).

Therefore we are not confined to choosing between scientism and scepticism. We should only accept “the position we are fated to occupy in any case, the position of beings who cannot have a view of the world that does not reflect our interests and values, but who are, for all that, committed to regarding some views of the world — and for that matter, some interests and values— as better than others. This may mean giving up  a certain metphysical picture of objectivity, but it does not mean giving up the idea that there are what Dewey called “objective resolutions of problematic situations” — objective resolutions to problems which are situated in a place, at a time, as opposed to an “absolute” answer to “perspective-independent” questions. And that is objectivity enough” (RHF, 178).

But it implies more than giving up the idea of “a single theory that explains eveything” of “an absolute conception of the world”[31]: it implies  that one adopts a method which is very far from the inductivist (Carnapian) conception of inquiry (WL, 170-1). For Peirce and Dewey “inquiry is a cooperative human ineraction with an environment, and both aspects, the active intervention, the active manipulation of the environmenet, and the cooperation with other human beings, are vital… Ideas must be put under strain, if they are to prove their woth; and Dewey and James both followed Peirce in this respect” (WL, 171; POQ, 70-71).

Yet, if he credits Dewey of having applied Peirce’s original idea and in particular of having shown how “what applies to intelligently conducted inquiry in general applies to ethical inquiry in particular” (RP, 186), and of having given “the epistemological justification of democracy”, which meant showing that “Democracy is not just one form of social life among other workable forms of social life; it is the precondition for the full application of intelligence to the solution of social problems” (RP, 180), Putnam also considers that Dewey was at times indulging into a “metaphysics of value” (RP, 196-7), but, most importantly, too quick  in concluding from the “overlap” between scientific values and ethical values to their complete identity (WL, 174): in that respect, Peirce was more lucid when he denounced the relativistic or sceptical risk there wass in not maintaining a distinction between the two, and in completely giving up the idea of “pure knowledge” (WL, 204-5).

This may explain why, although Putnam sees James as ”the greatest exponent” of pragmatism (POQ, 6) he also praises Peirce for his acute perception of the depth of the problem of objectivity in ethics: better than anyone, Peirce saw that ethical justifications cannot be understood in a purely instrumental way, precisely because they rest on certains norms of rationality. In at least two places,[32] Putnam analyzes the arguments developed by Peirce in the Doctrine of Chances[33], in which Peirce shows that “instrumental rationality would be impossible if there were not topic-neutral norms whose claim to rational acceptability is not derived simply from the fact that they help us to achieve particular goals a cerain percentage of the time” (WL, 160). Without pursuing the argument here[34], let us just say that the practical choice made by the person confronted to the dilemma of choosing in a package, the card that would bring him eternal felicity in one case, and everlasting woe, in the other case, cannot be performed on a mere utilitarian basis (W3, 282). Even if, in probabilistic (frequentist) terms, we have no reason to choose either solution, in a single case, we do reason in terms of what it would be more reasonablle to believe in the long run, and in the interest of the community as a whole. What guides us in our choice then, is, to a certain extent, indeed, the utilitarian norm (also present in contemporay theories of decision or rational choice): always act so as to maximize the estimated utility (WL, 161), but no appeal to that rule could be understood in case one did not presuppose that what a rational person pursues in any action is not his own benefit, but what might benefit mankind (or the community of rational investigators) in the infinitley long run. To act otherwise would mean to be “illogical  in all one’s inferences”. For Peirce, “one can only be rational if one identifies himself psychologically with a whole ongoing ­— in fact a potentially infinite — community of investigators” (TMFR, 83). Even if Peirce admits he is a bit puzzled by Peirce’s “metaphysically daring” solution (indeed, would such an attitude command all our actions, when facing torture, for example?) (WL, 163), which is in keeping with Peirce’s not only “altruistic” but even “Buddhistic” virtues of self-abnegation[35], it remains the case that Peirce “was the philosopher who called our attention to the importance od the problem and to its depth” (WL, 164). Thus, “even when I seek to attain a goal (in a situation in which risk is involved either way), the rational decision as to what I must do to attain my pratical goal depends upon my acknowledging the binding force of norms which do not possess a satisfactory instrumental justification in terms of my own goals” (WL, 168). Hence, “norms like the estimated utility rule were discovered not by mere trial and error, but by normative reflection on our practice”. This is the reason why “to say that something is rational is not  merely to describe it as in accordance with some algorithm or quasi-algorithm or other…If I say that believing something or acting in a certain way is rational, then other things being equal, I am  recommanding that belief or that course of action” (WL, 167).


Conclusions: Philosophers and the Moral Life.

As the pragmatists show, there are various way in which one can consider the relations between Philosophy and Ethics, and, consequently, the degree of involvement Philosophers should have regarding what William James called “the Moral Life”. Indeed, it is in James’s works that Putnam finally finds the more appropriate attitude:  for James was really unique in stressing the double necessity of appealing, in our practical choices, to “an underived, a primitive obligation of some kind to be reasonable, not a “moral obligation” or an “ethical obligation, to be sure, but nevertheless a very real obligation to be reasonable, which — contrary to Peirce— is  not reducible to my expectations about the long run and  my interest in the welfare of others or in my own welfare at other times”(TMFR, 84-5) and thus, of making the link between obligations and concrete persons. If “the figure of William James…simply won’t go” (POQ, 5), it is partly because he tried to “humanize” the notion of truth, to view it as a human instrument, and not as an idea that dropped from the sky(POQ, 21)[36], also because he elaborated in terms of his radical empiricism an elaborate version of natural reaalism in perception, but most of all, because, “early and late, James’s motivation was ultimately ethical”[37]: “Even in epistemology and metaphysics, the concern with human beings as interdependent members of a community guides James’s every move” (RHF, 231). James shows “that there is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophically made up in advance”[38] and reminds us  that “there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say”(ibid.). Although there is no “abstract moral ‘nature of things’ existing antecendetly to the concrete thinkers themselves with their ideals “(MP&ML, 193), James nevers indulges in pessimism: “James’s moral philosophy has a fundamental principle that is quasi-a priori…facts about what will not make human beings happy are important in determining what our detailed obligations are” (RHF, 217-218), namely that “without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but there is some obligation wherever there is a claim”(MP&ML, 194)[39]. Yet, it is not through some algorithm that we shall satisfy such demands. Rather, “in the casuistic scale, those ideals must be written highest which prevail at the least cost, or whose realization the least possible number of other ideals are destroyed” (MP & ML, 205). It means that we must always submit our principles to correction, according to the new experiences we make: “If a certain formula for expressing te nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand for uniformity of sequence for example” [40]. Whatever our choices are, we must listen to “the cries of the wounded”, to our “moral impulse”. In that respect, James’s individualistic nominalism (who insists more, contrary to Peirce, on the accessibility than on the independance of truth) is more “palatable” to Putnam in its “modesty” and “humanity” than Peirce’s position: for James, truth, humanly speaking, is all we have. Not that James was less convinced than Peirce that being attentive to the “community” could be “enough”: The “truth” of a Khomeiniist sect is not worthy of the name, according to the great pragmatists, because it is not responsive to anything except the will of the leader. A commuity that subjects its beliefs to test is the minimum requirement for the existence of truth” (RHF, 231). James’s remarkable vision of a deep link between truth, reality and community,  is expressed in his meliorist religion (RHF, 231): “Peirce was confident that science would go on progressing if only we remain faithful to the spirit of fallibilism and continue to engage in abduction …and in ethics, James is no less confident that social progress will result from the same spirit of fallibilism and a continued engagement in the construction and passionate advocacy of “ideals” (RHF, 224). But “in ethical cases, compassion corresponds to corrective force of experiment in science”(RHF, 224). In tha sense, James’s pragmatism is closer to existentialism but also different: “Staking one’s life on one’s ideals while recognizing that they are, in the nature of things, not final and may, (we hope, will) be improved on in the progress of the species — this is a twist on existentialism that is deeply American” (RHF,229).

One may judge that it is decidedly too “romantic” (James’s own terms) a version of pragmatism, or consider, with Putnam, that there is no deeper response to scepticism than such a Jamesian perspective of human partaken experience:  at any rate, it is pragmatism with a human face.

In Rationalité et Cynisme, Jacques Bouveresse noted that “to believe in morals, despite all that we know, is today, more than ever, the moral problem, par excellence[41]. How can one avoid the irrationalist relativism or  the complete scepticism, to which the criticism of rationalism and moral rationalism, in particular, seem to lead?

Putnam saw that the pragmatists (and first of all, Peirce) had that vision that what applies to investigation in general applies to ethical investigation too, and that in order to progress, there is but one method: the scientific method, all the others (tenacity, authority, a priori) being doomed to fail . Peirce, for his part, always considered that Kant, whom he “more than admired”  (5. 525) was but a “somewhat confused pragmatist”(5.412); and he described his own development as that of “a pure Kantian” who was simply forced “by successive steps “ into Pragmaticism. It is also Kant, whom Putnam refers too, in several occasions, and for example, in opposing the Schuhlbegriff or scholastic concept of philosophy with its cosmological concept orWeltbegriff: “

But “What should I do?” can be understood in two different ways: as asserting, as Kant does, the primacy of pratical reason, or as asserting the primacy of the question of “life” over the question of knowledge.

Here are two possible readings of the possible relations between philosophy and ethics, which, as,we hope, has appeared, are both present in what I take also, following Richard Robin, “the two” major interpretations of pragmatism (James’s and Peirce’s). For his part, Peirce was always instinctively suspicious of what might turn into some form or other of idolatry of life, convinced as he was, that if pragmatism was the spiritual heir of kantianism, it was because Kant, better than anyone else,had been able to detect “the inseparable link which exists between rational knowledge and rational finality”(5. 412) and that the main end of inquiry remained the search of truth and the discovery of what is real. Therefore he depicted his whole philosophical enterprise as growing “out of a contrite fallibilism, combined with a high faith in the reality of knowledge, and an intense desire to find things out”(1.14). His reluctance towards “applying” epistemology to ethics is, indeed, the direct consequence (as is the case with Kant), of his conviction of the primacy of ethics. This is highlighted in his conception of philosophy and rationality, in which one may find all such important epistemological virtues as: betting on rationality rather than on cynicism, modesty, professionalism, discussion, the values of argumentation, intellectual exchange, rather than visionary outbursts, cult of individual or romantical unbound subjectivity, literary conversation: on the contrary, one should always remain close to the laboratory (which is the exact opposite of scientism and dogmatism, but the promotion of the hypothetical, the fallible, the experimental, hence of the irreducible indeterminacy which necessarily acompanies all thinking activity. 

 Maybe one may critize Peirce  for having paid less attention  (contrary to Dewey or Rorty, for example) to the political consequences of pragmatism; or one may simply regret that the exile to which he was condemned did not give him the occasion to prove the contrary. Yet, As Robert Musil often pointed out, the wisdom and lucidity one can get from intellecutal work can also lead to the incapacity to decide, namely to the “Cacanian” principle according to which it is wiser not to decide than to risk to take a decision which is at any rate too delicate to be really necessary: Now, whatever may be his taste for false exaltations and hasty, thoughtless and adventurous decisions, it is doubtful that a philosopher, no more no less thantany other man should not have, some time or other, to meet history, and to be obliged to take up a stand.

 It is possible that Peirce’s disgust for nominalistic individualism and false trancendencies drew him too far in that direction of forgetting the necessary engagement of the philosopher within the  polis. But this may also bee understood in another fashion, namely, the conviction that the best way to promote democracy is and remains to trust the search of truth and to count on the value of knowledge and rationality: To propose to embrace irrationalism — as some neo-pragmatists do— and  to liquidate such old-fashioned values as critical or communicative rationality, truth or humanity,  is indeed a strange way of conceiving progress, since it  amounts to suppress, without any real or efficient counterpart, the last protection that is left to the weakest.

This is why if some sense may be given to the idea of “philsophy and the moral life”, it should rather be illustrated along such lines as the key idea, present in pragmatism, and in Peirce in particular, that it is through knowledge that philosophy contributes to the “melioration” of human condition, and at the same time, that there is no difference in thinking that should not imply a difference in action: hence there is always a link between epsitemology and ethics, and together with this idea the view that one should indeed pass from epistemology to ethics, which, in the end, is primary. But how should such a passége be realized? It is doubtful that mere conversational practice would suffice. James himself noted that it is not because one gives up the doctrine of objective certainty that one should give up searching or hoping to find truth itself. If that is the case, the best way to retain the pragmatist heritage while avoiding some of its undesirable “consequences” would certainely be to pratice the fallibilist attitude proned by the classical pragmatists, which is miles away from dogmatic absolutism and sceptical relativism,  to stick to an ideal of truth accessible enough to be still inspired by reality, and not to rush into some hasty adaptation of knowledge to morals, without a clearer understanding of the links that may exist between nature and norms.




[References to the Collected Papers of C. S. Peirce  (1931-1958), Ch. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, & A. Burks, eds., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., (8 vols.) are given in the text and footnotes as a decimal number, referring to volume and paragraph.].


[1] Part of it only: among the other reasons, one might mention at least: 1) a deeper knowledge of the classical pragmatists, who were often more or less scorned (James, Dewey) or simply ignored (Peirce), and a considerable amount of valuable scholarship from the mere standpoint of history of philosophy. 2. a certain disappointment, especially among those who had welcomed the analytic trend in philosophy, regarding what they take as an incapacity to adapt to human (ethical and political) ends its undeniable achievements in the domain of philosophy of science, mind or language: pragmatism would be the desirable “middle way”, able to reconcile the two main trends in contemporary philosophy: the “continentals” more inclined to read Heidegger, Foucault or Derrida, and the “analytics”, closer to such philosophers as Quine, Davidson or Fodor.

[2] Richard S. Robin, “Classical Pragmatism and Pragmatism’s Proof”, in The Rule of Reason, J. Brunning & P. Forster eds.), University of Toronto Press, Tortonto, Buffalo London, 1997, 139-152, p. 139. Peirce indeed, kept underlying the necessity of protecting pragmatism from a “humanistic” or “moralistic” reading. This is why he finally decided to “kiss his child good-bye and adopt a new word “pragmaticism”,“ugly enough” to be sage from kidnappers” (5.143-144).  Peirce kept lamenting that the “philosophers of today” (he meant Schiller, but also James) “should allow a philosophy so instinct with life to become infected with seeds of death in such notions as that of “the mutability of truth.” (6.485).

[3] Hilary Putnam, in a conversion with Christian Bouchindhomme, Peut-on naturaliser la raison?  suivi de Entretien avec C. Bouchindomme, (CPNR), éditions de l’éclat, 1992, p.44sq.

[4] H. Putnam, Realism with a Human face (hereafter cited as RHF), Harvard University Press, (J. Conant ed.), Cambridge, Mass., 1990, preface, p.xi.

[5] H. Putnam, The Dewey lectures, Journal of Philosophy, 91, 9, sept. 1994, 445-517, p. 447, reprinted in The Threefols Cord: Mind, Body and World (TTC),  Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 5.

[6] Pragmatism, an Open Question, Blackwell, Oxford, 1995, p.xi.

[7] “Peirce’s Doctrine of the Normative sciences”, in Studies in the  Philosophy of C. S. Peirce, Second Series, (Richard S Robin & Edaward C. Moore eds.), Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1964, 271-288. 

[8] I have developed some of the following views in other papers such as “Un pragmatisme conséquent?”,Critique, août-sept.1994, 642-660, “Peirce on Norms, Evolution and Knowledge”,Transactions of the C.S. Peirce Society, winter 1997, vol.XXXIII, n°1, 35-58., and in the last chapter of La pensée-signe: études sur Peirce, éditions J. Chambon, Nîmes, 1993, p.335-384.

[9] What follows may be part of the explanation why, although Peirce often stressed the “theoretical divergences” between his own version of pragmatism and James’s , who pushed it “to such extremes as must tend to give us pause” (CP, 5.2), he also noticed that the divergence “for the most part, became evanescent in practice”(5.466). On parallels between Peirce’s and James’s respective attitudes, cf C. Hookway, “Logical Principles and philosophical sentiments”, in The Cambridge Companion to William James, (CCWJ), R.A. Putnam ed.,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 145-165.

[10] for ex. C. Hookway as far as Peirce, in particular, is concerned, CCWJ, p. 155. Even if Peirce qualifies his attitude as such, it does not mean that such an attitude is not grounded on strong reasons.

[11] see for ex. Jacques Bouveresse, La rime et la raison, Paris, Minuit, 1973, p.75sq.

[12] or some photographs through their pictures. As Simon Blacburn reminds us in the first pages of Being Good: a short introduction to ethics, Oxford University Press, 2001, where he says that “the “Accidental Napalm Attack”  photo may have done more to halt the Vietnam war than all the writings of moral philosophers of the time put together” (p.5-6).

[13] F. Ramsey,The Foundations of Mathematics  (R. Braithwaite ed.), New York, Harcourt Brace, 1931, p. 291-92.

[14] RHF, chap.12: “How not to solve ethical problems”. As a consequence, Putnam suggests to leave the problem/solution metaphor and to adopt, instead of a metaphor from science, a metaphor of law, the metaphor of adjudication., p.181.

[15]  “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Longmans, Green & Co, 1897, 184-215.  This is also emphasized by H Putnam & R.A. Putnam , RHF, chap. 16, p. 227-228.

[16] Compare with what F. Ramsey writes about the duties of mathematicians, philosophers and archeologists towards their fellow-men.“The Rights and Wrongs of Doing Nothing to Improve the Lot of Fellow Men”, in Notes on Philosophy, Probability and mathematics, (M. C. Gavalotti ed.), Bibliopolis, Naples, 1991, 291-295.

[17]Reasoning and the Logic of Things  (RLT), Harvard University Press, K. Ketner et H. Putnam eds., 1992, p. 109.

[18]  I have developed this in more details in La pensée-signe,  p. 368sq.;  cf. also S. Haack, “The First Rule of Reason”, in The First Rule of Reason (op.cit.), 1997, 241-261.

[19] La rime et la raison, op.cit., p. 11.

[20] I have also developed this in “Peirce on Norms, Evolution and Knowledge”, art.cit., p. 41 sq.

[21] R. Robin, art.cit., p.275-277.

[22] Although Peirce also tries to understand the irresistible attraction of norms in terms of evolution. On this, cf. “Peirce on norms, Evolution and Knowledge”, art.cit., p. 46sq.

[23] op.cit., p. 4

[24] S. Blackburn, op.cit., p. 3. see also R. Robin, art. cit., p. 276. “the ought” is hypothetical, not categorical or moral (p. 277).

[25] Words and Life (WL), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994, p. 152. The italics are mine.

[26] Reason, Truth and History (RTH), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981.

[27]  namely the idea that ethical judgments do not mirror properties but are purely subjective or emotive attitudes, a direct consequence of  subjectivism (for.ex. J. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977), or emotivism (A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 1936, New York Dover).

[28] compare with Peirce: “to be is to be represented”; “the real is what signifies something real”.

[29] I have analyzed the relations between Putnam’s views on ethics and pragmatism in the third chapter of a book (to appear in the coming months) Hilary Putnam, l’héritage pragmatiste, Presses Universitaires de France, collection “Philosophies”.

[30]  cf. Putnam’s critique of J. Mackie’s conception,WL, 156-160.

[31] Renewing Philosophy (RP), Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 2.

[32]  The Many Faces of Realism (TMFR),  Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1988, p. 80sq., and Words and Life,, op.cit., p. 160-169.

[33] W3, 276-289.Writings of C. S. Peirce, a chronological edition (W), 1982-, (6 vols.parus), Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

[34] which is also analyzed by C. Hookway in Truth, Rationality and Pragmatism, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 236-249: Hookway thinks, in particular, (and rightly) that one should not underestimate the role played by sentiment and instinct in Peirce’s account of pratical choice.

[35] I have myself showed the importance of such themes in Peirce’s insistency on the prevalence of “survival” over “personal identity”,  perfectly in keeping with his semiotic realism:  not only thought, but man itself is a sign, which means  that one is more likely to understand what his unity consists in, starting not from a first person point of view (such as a substance or consciousness, or physiological unity) but from a third person point of view, ie. from the unity of thought, which is nothing else than a unity of symbolization (7.592-594), hence, not something individual or private but “a special determination of the generic soul of the family, the class, the nation, the race to which he belongs…”(7.592). In terms close to Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press, 1984), Peirce thus considers that what is important is not so much identity as survival (cf. (5.313), 4.448; 1.349). cf. C. Tiercelin, op.cit., p. 254 sq.

[36]  I have myself addressed that question and Putnam’s argument  for a somewhat more  “humanized” conception of truth in “Peut-on donner un visage humain à la vérité sans la défigurer? sur le pragmatisme de H. Putnam, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 1/1999, n°207 (Le pragmatisme), 37-60. This apparaisal of James does not mean that Putnam accepts James’s theory of truth: on the contrary, he shows that it leads to “fatal” conclusions. cf. “W. James’s theory of truth”, CCWJ, 166-185.

[37] RHF,  231. Robert G. Meyers objected to that interpretation, noting that  James wrote but a single text on ethical matters. cf  “Putnam and the Permanence of Pragmatism”, TCSPS, 1998, vol. XXXIV, n°2, 346-365, and H. Putnam and R. A. Putnam’s answer: “The Real William James: A Response to Robert Meyers”, ibid., 366-381.

[38] “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, (MP & ML), p. 184.

[39] Hence, as Putnam rightly observes, the Kantian themes are at least as important in James as the utilitarian ones. RHF, 218.

[40] “The Dilemma of Determinism”, p. 147.

[41]  Paris, Minuit, 1984, p. 93.