Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Who Needs Pragmatism? Nobody and Everybody.

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I did not pay a lot of attention to the revival of pragmatism in sociological theory in the second half of the twentieth century. One reason was I sensed some chauvinistically American nationalism after the leadership in social theory shifted to Europe in the post-Parsonian period. The implicit claim of pragmatism was “Oh, well there is an important historical tradition in social theory that is quintessentially American”.

But the major reason for my inattention was scientific. The core premise of pragmatic philosophy is that what is true is what works i.e. consequences are what matter. However, a century old philosophy is a poor substitute for the three major selectionist scientific theories – biological evolution by natural selection, individual learning by instrumental or operant conditioning, and sociocultural evolution by social learning, variation and sociocultural selection – all three of which embody that premise. These sciences share pragmatism’s premise, but they are scientific instantiations – each with a large number of related theoretical propositions, derivations, empirical support etc.

Nor did the three have their historical roots in pragmatic philosophy – if anything the reverse is the case. The early pragmatic philosophers were influenced by Darwin (see for example Nungesser 2017). In short, nobody in the social sciences needs a 19th century philosophy, but all need it in one or more of its scientific forms.

Reference:

Nungesser, Frithjof. 2017. “The evolution of pragmatism: On the scientific background of the pragmatist conception of history, action and sociality.” European Journal of Sociology 58(2) 327-367.

Written by Marion Blute

June 2, 2019 at 7:09 pm

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