home page           'A Theory of Moral Objectivity' contents page

A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 4f - Pragmatism)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

A hard-copy paperback book of this thesis is now available from and also on Amazon, price UK£25 (or equivalent). This relatively high cost is necessary because it is A4 size and has 487 pages (296,000 words). This print version includes an index.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

A downloadable pdf version of this thesis is available from the British Library at (you will need to search the original title 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity', and register with the ethos site, but registration is open and the download pdf is free for researchers). Alternatively you can download a pdf for a small cost from

Join discussion or ask questions on any aspect of the thesis on the new phpbb discussion board


4f)      Pragmatism

i)                    General features of pragmatism


I turn now from the analytic tradition proper to the parallel tradition which developed simultaneously, from the late nineteenth century onwards, in the United States: that of pragmatism. In many respects this movement was a product of similar conditions: the growth of capitalism, science, and consciousness of cultural and temporal relativism. But in the United States perhaps a greater mobility in society enabled at least some thinkers to more readily see beyond both the eternalist and the scientistic absolutisms dominant in Europe and associated with the more rigid social divisions prevalent there, without lapsing into the degree of individualism we will find in Nietzsche. The pragmatists saw themselves as bridging the rigid dichotomies which were being created elsewhere between absolute and relative, art and science, philosophy and religion. This bridging tendency appears in the very lives of the two foremost pragmatists whom I shall be mainly considering: William James, whose career spanned Europe and the United States, art, medicine, psychology, philosophy and religion; and John Dewey, whose life began among the certainties of small-town New England but engaged fully with the rapid changes of urban American life and whose philosophy spanned a broad range of themes. They were, as I shall argue, in some ways subtly scientistic, and this subtle scientism appears to be what prevents them from reaching a consistently non-dualist position, but their degree of non-dualism is nevertheless striking in the context in which it appears.


Non-dualist approaches are explicit in both James and Dewey. James presents pragmatism as a mediation between “tough-minded” (i.e. scientistic) and “tender-minded” (i.e. eternalistic) philosophies[1]. Dewey discusses the dualisms of dominant theories of knowledge and the need for a progressive theory to replace them in a way strongly consonant with the view I have put forward here.

The latter [Dewey’s view] assumes continuity; the former [dominant theories of knowledge] state or imply certain basic divisions, separations, or antitheses, technically called dualisms. The origin of these divisions we have found in the hard and fast walls which mark off social groups and classes within a group: like those between rich and poor, men and women, noble and baseborn, ruler and ruled. These barriers mean absence of fluent and free intercourse. This absence is equivalent to the setting up of different types of life-experience, each with isolated subject-matter, aim, and standard of values. Every such social condition must be formulated in a dualistic philosophy, if philosophy is to be a sincere account of experience. When it gets beyond dualism – as many philosophies do in form – it can only be by appeal to something higher than anything found in experience, by a flight to some transcendental realm. And in denying duality in name such theories restore it in fact, for they end in a division between things of this world as mere appearances and an inaccessible essence of reality.[2]


What enables the pragmatists to both identify, and to consider solutions to, the problems of dualism is the fact that they were not afraid to acknowledge the psychological and affective basis of cognition. Unlike their fellow philosophers in Britain, they were not under the shadow of Frege or obsessed by a priori solutions. Their attitude to science was to broadly advocate its methodology of experiential hypothesis, not to use the authority of its results as the basis of a dualistic dismissal of opposed approaches, and this approach enabled the pragmatists to adopt and utilise psychology for philosophical ends, applying psychological incrementalities to question the dualities imposed by rationalism. James recognises that the distinction between tough-minded and tender-minded philosophies is ultimately one of psychological habit, and it can thus be resolved through the adaptation of habits of thinking. Dewey, spreading the canvas further to recognise the massive social influence on these habits of thought, sees the adaptation of habits as occurring primarily through the social media of education and democracy.


It is this very reliance on psychology, however, which provides the limitations on the non-dualism of the pragmatists. For in embracing psychology they also embrace the assumption made about it by the dualist tradition, that any psychological account of knowledge will also thereby be a relativist one. Peirce alone of the great pragmatists maintained a theory of objective truth, which he attempted to reconcile with a psychological theory of belief. For James and Dewey, however, both cognitive and moral truth are constructions relative to circumstances. This did not stop either of these figures from having strong moral concerns, but their ethics are ultimately descriptive and coherentist.


In this respect perhaps the strongest parallel is with Aristotle. For Dewey, particularly, a strong practical sense is linked to a conception of virtue which stresses the exercise of scientific intelligence by the individual as the key to moral progress. On the whole, as I shall be arguing, the relativism in James and Dewey derives from the belief that scientific knowledge (understood by them more as the exercise of a virtue than a set of results) requires the rejection of universalism in ethics, because any such universalism would be dogmatic[3]. Their psychologies, although they engage with the realities of ethical practice as Aristotle does, do not extend to a psychological characterisation of the universal of the kind which would enable this idea of universalism as intrinsically dogmatic (because based on noumenal assumptions) to be overcome.


However, this question is complicated by the fact that both James and Dewey (and also Peirce) are open to the idea of the adoption of universal religious beliefs on pragmatic grounds. All the pragmatists recognised the psychological importance of a sense of connectedness to the whole. Such religious beliefs could be “true” insofar as they were useful to the believer. The conception of religious belief that emerges, however, is strongly coloured by eternalism, being seen either as cosmic justice or as a mechanism of faith which can release us from an undue sense of responsibility. Religion is still a property of unity and coherence in the universe, even when it is recognised that we are projecting that property onto it, rather than being recognised as a process that also occurs in the psyche itself. For Peirce, this resulted in the idea that an open-minded state of “musement” on God’s existence would justify belief in it by “shaping the Muser’s whole conduct into conformity with the Hypothesis that God is Real and very near”[4]. For James, it meant the advocacy of a “pragmatistic or melioristic type of theism[5] in which belief in God can serve the purpose of letting us “take a moral holiday”[6]. For Dewey, religion can liberate us from “a conceit of carrying the load of the universe”[7].


For James, even after the possibility of the belief in cosmic justice (“monism”) has been recognised, there is a further point of personal decision at which he prefers to reject such a perspective and instead adopt an indeterminist view of the universe together with a pragmatically- justified belief in freewill[8]. At this point he seems to have moved from the scientistic pragmatism of Peirce to something much more like existentialism. His final position suggests a freely-floating self in a constructed universe: a position resembling that arrived at by later pragmatists such as Richard Rorty.


This escalation of types of pragmatic perspective suggests that in dealing with pragmatist thought and its psychological basis we have to think in terms of not one, but three, levels of justification. The presence of these three levels is clearest in James, but I think it can also be applied to Dewey. The first of these is the metaphysical level from which pragmatism, in denying both cognitive and moral truth of an absolute or independent type, appears relativist on grounds which are scientistic because they appeal to the value of scientific method. The second level is an inclusive one at which any belief which can be shown to have a practical function, producing a satisfactory outcome when compared to other possible beliefs, can be acknowledged as pragmatically acceptable. The third level is the personal position which can be developed out of the sphere of the pragmatically acceptable because that position is judged satisfactory in relation to ones own life or the life of ones social group.


When the views of the pragmatists are formulated in this way, parallels with dualistic modes of thinking that I have already discussed become more obvious. The adoption of noumenal beliefs on pragmatic grounds is reminiscent of some readings of Kant, and the individualism or social conventionalism that can arise from the pragmatic requirement to construct truths for ourselves out of the ashes of metaphysics recalls the classical sceptics. What the first level of justification does is clear away the metaphysical junk and the ways in which metaphysical assumptions may predispose us towards the adoption of particular types of dogmatic position. The way in which this is done by the pragmatists is much more genuinely non-metaphysical itself than the analytic type of scientism, because it does not pretend to a neutral position but rather a neutral  method. Thus the first level of thinking clears space not only for individualistic ways of thinking, but for holistic ones to appear at the second level. The possibilities become limitless. But finally, it seems, we do have to make a choice of beliefs within this boundless sphere of possibility, and it is then, given the lack of further moral guidance, that we are likely to choose an approach which is either determined directly by our social context or individualistically counter-dependent on it.


I shall be arguing in the remainder of this section that it is due to mistakes at the first level that the relativism of the third level becomes inevitable. This will be a difficult argument to sustain because the pragmatist appeal to scientific method often comes so close to non-dualism, yet it is important to distinguish the ways in which they differ. I shall do this primarily by examining pragmatist arguments at the first level: firstly for the pragmatist view of truth, and secondly for the psychology which supports it. I shall aim to show that the mere appeal to scientific method without a regulative idea of objectivity which is found at the first level (rather than just the second) leaves us with a field of choice too empty and arbitrary when it comes to determining what our values should be. Ultimately the theories of truth and of psychology cannot be separated, but must be understood as a psychological theory of truth in a form which is only, at best, hinted at by the pragmatists. 


ii)                  Peirce and James on truth


The “pragmatism” first advocated by C. S. Peirce (though not initially given that title) consisted in a theory of meaning and of belief. A statement had meaning insofar as it was capable of expressing belief, and belief is understood in entirely implicit terms as the basis of the establishment of a habit. “What a thing means is simply what habits it involves”, and modification of habits indicates our response to, and anticipation of, empirical observation, for “every stimulus to action is derived from observation” and “every purpose of  action is to produce some sensible result”[9]. Peirce also writes of belief as “thought at rest” in the sense that doubt has been alleviated, although belief is also a rule for action[10]. Such a psychological account of belief, however, was judged by Peirce quite compatible with an absolute view of truth as an ultimate convergence of the beliefs of all those investigating the universe: “The opinion which is fated to be agreed by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real”[11].


Israel Scheffler offers a useful explanation and criticism of this approach.

Peirce is impressed with the control of scientific assertions by objective criteria, and it is this, I have suggested, that drives him to interpret truth as independent of what any particular man may think. On the other hand, he wants to reduce everything to what is accessible to thought. He thus construes truth as the agreed object of ‘thought in general’ – of endless investigation by the community of science. Yet what, in this construction, rules out the possibility that perfect agreement is reached but fastens on a falsehood, and is never reversed? If, for instance, an erroneous account of some particular historical event long past has been propagated and become entrenched, never to be revised until the end of time, must it be true, and must it therefore represent reality?[12]


Scheffler’s criticism identifies both an inconsistency in Peirce’s views and a problematic feature of the representationalist approach which has not been overcome by Peirce. If we are to understand beliefs in implicit and dispositional terms, then beliefs need no longer be representational, yet Peirce’s ideal convergence of views depends on a convergence of representations. Given that representations are themselves not realities, the convergence of representations is, as Scheffler points out, a mere coherence, with no way of meeting foundational requirements for absolute representational truth. Because of Peirce’s attachment to the idea of representational objectivity it thus appears that the advantages of his pragmatic understanding of meaning have been thrown away.


It was perhaps in perception of these sorts of problems that James attempted to apply Peirce’s pragmatism of meaning and belief to a theory of truth, in the process making pragmatism famous and controversial. For James, it was not only belief in general but (pragmatically) true belief which removed the irritation of doubt, which provided us with a point of rest, a satisfactory set of assumptions on which to base our actions. It appears at first that he has merely adopted Peirce’s sense of “belief” and begun to use “truth” in that sense: a mere redefinition. But this redefinition implies some other departures from Peirce, such as the rejection of any absolute sense of “truth” and the representationalism that Peirce’s account of truth implied.

To copy a reality is, indeed, one very important way of agreeing with it, but it is far from being essential. The essential thing is the process of being guided. Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn’t entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality’s whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement. It will hold true of that reality.[13]


In avoiding a representationalist account, however, James was obliged to appeal to affective psychological states for criteria of truth: the notion of “satisfaction”, or at least of the avoidance of frustration, becomes an important part of his account. James asserted strongly that he did not mean that the criterion for truth was what we find pleasant, because what we find pleasant in the short-term is distinct from what we find satisfactory in the long-run. For this reason he stressed also that our beliefs are temporary: “Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas”[14]. Satisfaction, then, provides a guide to a fallible truth which thus amounts to a sort of currency: “Our thoughts and beliefs ‘pass’, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them”[15].


James here appears to have obliterated any distinction between “truth” and “belief”, in the same way that a Wittgensteinian account does when it makes certainty a product of language-games. If a belief is a point of satisfaction, or a temporary equilibrium, on which I act (as in Peirce’s account), so is truth on James’s account, since on his stipulation “truth” is not something that runs ahead of me but is a term which can be applied to my present beliefs. Dewey (or, on the basis of a different kind of argument, Wittgenstein) would lay more stress on the ways in which this “satisfaction” is socially constructed, but would probably be in general agreement with James’s banknote analogy. But if we have no remaining term for a greater “satisfaction” which is not yet achieved, it appears that this stipulation in the use of language no longer fulfils the pragmatic criterion of providing meaningful expression for a set of beliefs which actually or potentially affect our actions. For what is it we fail to do when we reach our point of temporary certainty, which enables us to be conscious of its temporary nature, if we cannot say that we have failed to reach the “truth” or some equivalent expression?


The crucially problematic point here is not James’s use of an psychological criterion for truth, but the assumption that such a psychological criterion must be relative and thus rules out any absolute sense of “truth” as meaningless or useless. A more consistently pragmatic account of the relationship between belief and truth, then, should respect both Peirce’s desire to maintain “truth” as a term indicating objectivity, and James’s desire to offer a consistently non-representationalist account. This would require us to think of truth as an absolute satisfaction, or a state of mind in which our beliefs completely “fit” the world, not in the sense of representing it, but in the sense of being perfectly adapted to it. Actions based on true beliefs would then take into account not just positive representational knowledge but also the degree to which that knowledge is not adequate to the complexity and unknowability of the universe. Truth would then consist not just in a particular degree of knowledge but a degree of recognition of our ignorance sufficient to avoid the experience of frustration as we seek to fulfil ends which cannot be fulfilled.


Further discussion of this non-dualist position must wait until Part 2[16], but in the meantime it needs to be noted that James’s pragmatic view of truth and belief fails only in being not pragmatic enough. It attempts to deny us a term, that of absolute truth, which is of great practical usefulness: not, it is true, by denying its meaningfulness as Wittgenstein did, but through an appropriation of the word “truth” to a purely coherentist position. Part of the reason for this lies in his adherence to the representationalist and scientistic assumption of the relativity of pragmatism, despite his attempts to avoid many other features of this doctrine. Further light can be shed on why James’s pragmatism takes this turn by looking at the discussion of pluralism and monism made in his lectures on pragmatism.


At some points it appears that James fully accepts the pragmatic role of absolute or universal ideas, recognising their interdependence with relative ones. This appears particularly in the striking simile with which he opens his lecture on monism and pluralism:

We are like fishes swimming in the sea of sense, bounded above by the superior element, but unable to breathe it pure or penetrate it. We get our oxygen from it, however, we touch it incessantly, now in this part, now in that, and every time we touch it, we turn back into the water with our course re-determined and re-energized. The abstract ideas of which the air consists are indispensable for life, but irrespirable by themselves, as it were, and only active in their redirecting function.[17]


Though imaginatively striking, this simile nevertheless seems to strongly limit our engagement with the universal to an indirectness which might even make us doubt its meaningfulness. James later explains the approach taken in the simile as meaning that pragmatism “must equally abjure absolute monism and absolute pluralism[18], but nevertheless then feels obliged to come down on the pluralistic side because of his perception that the effects of monism are merely dogmatic.

Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side. Some day, she admits, even total union, with one knower, one origin, and a universe consolidated in every conceivable way, may turn out to be the most acceptable of all hypotheses. Meanwhile the opposite hypothesis, of a world imperfectly unified still, and perhaps always to remain so, must be sincerely entertained.[19]


It seems here that, despite his attempt to avoid “absolute” forms of either approach, James still feels he must make a choice by deciding hypothetically whether the universe actually is one or many. Both the need to make the choice and the direction of the choice seem to depend on a perception of the pragmatic effects of doing so: whether the belief will form a satisfactory and consistent basis of action. James seemed to regard pluralism, with its implied relativism of truth, as a much more satisfactory hypothesis because he thought it instrumental to scientific investigation. If this was his view it seems to be mistaken, since open-minded scientific investigation can proceed without either grand hypothesis, and is as much impeded by false distinctions as by false syntheses.


The need to make a choice also seems to rest on James’s view of the moral implications of adopting pluralism, which he regards as compatible with a “melioristic” understanding of the universe which “treats salvation as neither necessary nor impossible”[20]. It is clearly important to James not to adopt a metaphysical view about cosmic justice, but far from identifying his meliorism with an agnosticism about pluralism and monism he identifies it clearly with pluralism. It can only be assumed that he did this because of the dominance of monism as an expression of dogmatic religion and ethics in his day, and because it was not yet sufficiently clear in what ways pluralism could be equally dogmatic. Like other scientistic thinkers, then, James confuses a metaphysical agnosticism with a negative metaphysical position, applying the former at some points and the latter at others. His inclusion of religious and monistic views as genuinely pragmatic is based on an agnosticism, his embrace of pluralism and the pragmatic definition of truth on a scientism. He uses the agnosticism to support his pragmatic belief in freewill and the idea of moral progress expressed in his meliorism, but at the same time he invokes scientistic criteria in order to combat the dogmatism he perceived in eternalistic philosophies. He thus ends up (as I outlined in the previous subsection) adopting an existentialist position, which is confusingly justified both in the inclusive terms of the second level of pragmatism and the scientistic terms of the first.


This position is incoherent just because James can offer no justification for his meliorism on the purely coherentist grounds of pluralism, or even in the theoretical acceptance of monism at some point in the future when the unity of the universe would become apparent. On what grounds could we talk about moral improvement if not on some criterion of increasing wholeness? We need an idea of wholeness in order to understand its absence. James’s insights were confused by the fact that he could only understand this wholeness as a moral criterion in the universe, not in the psyche, and he therefore assumed it to be inaccessible, even if it could operate as a convenient fiction. When the integration of the whole universe is required to provide a justification for morality, but that integration can only be known, at best, at some extremely remote point in the possible future, we are effectively left without any such justification and have only the conventionalism and individualism which nihilism offers.


iii)                James’s psychology


Another important element of the philosophy of James and Dewey is their functionalist psychology, which brought together an evolutionary perspective with an explanation of psychological processes in terms of their function rather than their nature. In this subsection I shall be considering James as the initial proponent of this view. Although James wrestled inconclusively with the question of the physical reducibility of mental processes, the answer to this metaphysical problem is effectively irrelevant to the functionalism according to which James explained those processes. Although James argued that psychological processes are continuous with physiological ones and fulfil needs which can be understood physiologically, this explanation does not require reduction in the psychological states themselves.


Crucial to this functional psychology, particularly in relation to ethics, is James’s account of habit. As Scheffler writes:

Several of James’s basic ideas converge in his treatment of habit. His teleological emphasis leads him to think of habit-formation, as well as of specific habits, in terms of their functions in dealing with the environment. His appreciation of the selective role of consciousness leads him to consider the possibilities of altering habits through choice. Finally, his recognition of the physiological substructure of habit leads him to see the limitations on such choice in the learning and unlearning of habits.[21]


James’s chapter on habit in the Principles of Psychology[22] is thus a striking combination of scientific explanation in material terms and ethical advice as to how to respond most effectively to the phenomena of habit. James succeeds in building a bridge between science and ethics here because he does not take material explanation to imply determinism. After describing the relationship between habit and the plasticity of organic matter, the ways in which habit consists in worn neural pathways, and that habit serves the evolutionary end of reducing the energy that need be expended on complex activities regularly performed, James also points out the ways in which unexpected blocks may occur in the nervous system to change the pathways, though the way in which this occurs he acknowledges to be mysterious. Such blocks may not only allow us occasionally to defy habit when it conflicts with our ends, but to deliberately mould habit to serve those ends better. In suggesting this James does not underestimate the conditioning effects of habit, but offers four maxims for creating real moral changes: (i) “to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible” by creating supporting conditions for the new habit we want to adopt; (ii) to allow no exceptions to the new habit until it is securely established; (iii) to “seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make” because “no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, and if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, ones character may remain entirely unaffected for the better”; and (iv) to “keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day”.


James here manages to create practical wisdom to an impressive degree by dwelling on the cusp of deterministic description and voluntaristic prescription and remaining at least temporarily content with the mystery surrounding their relationship. At times his ideas bear a striking resemblance to the Buddhist theory of samkhŒra or karmic formations, whereby previous habitual tendencies condition, but do not completely determine, present ones[23].

We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or vice leaves its never so little scar….Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out. Of course this has its good side as well as its bad one. As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work.[24]


James here draws successfully on the inductive evidence from which the metaphysical doctrine of determinism is extrapolated, and from the experiential evidence from which freewill is presumed, without necessarily assuming either. The power of deterministic argument is fully acknowledged both in the complete conservation of physical processes and in the possibility of a physical explanation of the phenomena of choice, but similarly our experience of choice, or our experience of the ownership of our habits which are due to previous choices, is not contradicted. In a society in which this dualistic opposition is so prominent, this is a remarkable achievement.


James here seems to be applying the agnostic rather than the scientistic side of his reasoning, but it remains open whether he is doing this because he really sees the irrelevance of the metaphysical position to explaining either the psychology or the ethics of habit, or whether he would see his view of habit as compatible with the pragmatically-adopted belief in freewill he argues for elsewhere[25]. Whilst James’s view as expressed in his psychology of habit could be desribed as voluntaristic, there are two relevant ways of understanding voluntarism: either as the subservience of reason to freewill, or its subservience to the passions as understood according to a Humean model[26]. James elsewhere expresses the view that a voluntary choice in favour of belief in freewill is necessary on moral grounds, but it is not available on psychological ones[27]. James’s psychology of habit is thus open to an interpretation which does not pre-suppose a metaphysical self exercising freewill, but sees choices as the selection of means by ends according to a Humean model (but leaving it open whether or not the process of selection is determined).


James’s psychology is also open to a non-dualist interpretation in his account of the self. James in many respects maintains a Humean view of the self, taking the starting point of psychology to be impersonal events[28], but nevertheless does not take the connections between such events to be entirely impersonal in the manner of Hume’s formula of  “resemblance, causality and contiguity”. Instead, our sense of the personality of mental events is explained in terms of appropriation by the self: but the “self” is not a metaphysical “arch-ego” standing above all other mental events, being rather one of those mental events itself[29]. The appropriative mental state seems to bear a strong resemblance to what I have called the ego, particularly since its appropriation does not define mental contents a priori like the Kantian unity of apperception, but rather contingently identifies with some mental contents and not others. It is itself transient, but identifies with a whole personal continuum. The implications of this are well put by Graham Bird.

Though no specific passing thought could capture the whole series of a person’s experience, the suggestion is that consciousness of one’s identity can be adequately captured at any time by appeal to some such appropriative thought. At least there are no other items to which appeal can be made. Such particular appropriative thoughts stand as ‘representatives’ of the entire past stream. They provide the cash-value for the complex notion of self-consciousness.[30]


Nor does James have to appeal to Hume’s notion of simple impressions, for “no one ever had a simple sensation by itself”[31]: his impersonal “thoughts” remain theoretical constructions, because he recognises that our experience is always mediated by the appropriative ego. Nevertheless, non-personal mental events remain as a useful explanatory device to explain how we can experience an apparent self without such a self being an intrinsic part of our nature.


If James’s psychology can be interpreted as non-dualist, a problem still remains in its relationship to his philosophy, particularly his moral philosophy. For although James constructs something like an appropriative ego as an explanatory device, he does not recognise this as having particular moral significance. Rather he appears to leave the description of appropriation to a separate factual realm, believing the adoption of a belief in the self as an essential entity to be morally effective. Though he recognises the moral significance of patterns of habit, he considers this separately from the issue of appropriation, since to recognise appropriation as a type of habit would be to undermine the morally-justified distinction he would make between the self and its habits. James’s account of ethics[32], then, is caught in the familiar assumptions of dualism, particularly that no psychological explanation can have universal prescriptive power. James argues that there cannot be a universal system of ethics, but nevertheless argues that we should pragmatically construct a belief in theism. He also argues that ethical beliefs should be judged historically, but shows little awareness of the ethical defects revealed in the history of theism that I have already argued[33]. In this respect the potential non-dualism in James’s psychology remains undeveloped and is contradicted by the dualism of his philosophy.



iv)                Dewey’s psychological ethics


Dewey’s psychology is distinguished in general from James’s by a greater emphasis on both the social aspects of psychological conditioning and on the relationship between psychology and morality. As in James, however, the psychology of habit, explained in a way which is continuous with its physiology, is central. Habits, which in their collective form become customs, are understood as the adaptive mechanism by which an organism or organisms respond to their environment. Dewey also introduces the term “impulse” to signify the energy which is channelled by habit and custom. This impulse is constantly directed by habit until blocked by an obstruction of the accustomed activity and a failure to achieve the end towards which the impulse tended. In all organisms the blocked impulse will lead to new experimental activities which try to reach the end by other means, but in human beings this process is made much more efficient by the imaginative rehearsal of possible actions before they are tried, enabling a choice to be made prefatory to a new habit[34].


However, Dewey’s account of choice goes beyond the Humean model of the selection of means with stability of ends, since Dewey questions the philosophical tradition of discontinuity between means and ends. For him the effects of the means employed are part of the total consequences of the acts performed to bring about a given end, and thus they cannot be separated from it. Any discussion of the justification of an end also requires discussion of means employed, and likewise any discussion of means cannot take the end for granted: there is thus a continuum of means and ends[35]. In this way Dewey overcomes the fact-value distinction promoted by the Humean tradition, since Hume had associated ends with the determined and unavoidable facts of human desire, means with the sphere of reason and hence of choice. Ends now become the flexible “ends-in-view” in relation to which impulse habitually strives. The process of choice is thus a process of reconsidering ends as well as means by redirecting impulse. A choice itself thus consists in “hitting in imagination upon an object which furnishes an adequate stimulus to the recovery of overt action”[36].


It is this experimental process which forms the basis of Dewey’s moral vision. This vision combines the manipulation of social conditioning to improve customs with the personal exercise of “intelligence” to bring the experimental method to bear upon individual moral practice. For Dewey there is thus no rigid separation between the process of gaining factual understanding on the one hand and moral on the other, the method of experimental reasoning being the way in which progress is made in either case. A reflective, as opposed to a customary, morality, begins to develop as a result of dissatisfaction with the consequences of customary morality: the blocking or frustration of habits which are not fully adapted to their environment. This frustration leads to the formation of new ends-in-view as a result of reflection, with these new aims being superior as hypotheses of the good to those which had previously been customarily followed. “The development of inclusive and enduring aims is the necessary condition of the application of reflection in conduct; indeed, they are two names for the same fact”[37].


Dewey stresses that he is not introducing by this account any dichotomy between habit and reflection, or between customary and reflective morality. Rather the two are continuous, since both are understood as levels of response of the organism to its environment, through which impulse is re-channelled. Reflection does not lead to the abandonment of habit so much as its reformation, and such reformation is continuous, both at the individual and social levels, in response to change. If we do not respond to change and ignore the frustrations created by the maladaptation of habits, we can expect the impulse unused by habit and custom to break out suddenly and unexpectedly in the form of conflict and upheaval[38]. Reflection, then, is simply an appropriate response to conditions, and the reform of social institutions an appropriate way of avoiding conflict. Reflection has value only because it has this pragmatic role, however, so that ultimately Dewey recommends, not the simple maximisation of reflection, but the maintenance of a balance between reflection and action similar to that which I suggested above in 2.a.iv.


For Dewey this is clearly the method of reconciling absolute with relative, prescription with description. In this respect he is probably the most successfully non-dualist thinker I have examined so far. But his attempt to reconcile prescription with description is nevertheless built around a certain type of description: a description of the experimental method as it is applied in the processes described by social psychology and history. Like Hegel, by whom he was influenced, Dewey sees the absolute in history itself, in his case in the advancing of a dialectical process through the use of the experimental method. The question must then be whether he has successfully derived moral prescription from description, or whether, like Hegel, he is in any way guilty of a false synthesis. Does the description actually answer the prescriptivist’s question “Why should we follow this method?”? Has he identified in the experimental method the universal values which will provide grounds for universal prescription?


Dewey appears to draw such a sense of the universal from an adapted Hegelian naturalism.

Infinite relationships with man with his fellows and with nature already exist. The ideal means… a sense of these encompassing continuities with their infinite reach. This meaning even now attaches to present activities because they are set in a whole to which they belong and which belongs to them. Even in the midst of conflict, struggle and defeat a consciousness is possible of the enduring and comprehending whole.[39]


Even though he understands the truth of the perceptions of such a consciousness in entirely pragmatic terms, Dewey thus still understands the universal in the naturalistic terms of the unity of the universe itself, mistaking experiences of the integration of the psyche for experiences of a noumenal link with that universe. Since monistic claims about the universe are bound to be dogmatic, as I have argued in chapter 3, Dewey is unable to integrate this understanding of the universal effectively with his understanding of the moral role of the experimental method. On the one hand, the experimental method produces ever-greater coherence, but on the other, this coherence may still be false without some comparison with a foundational recognition of the unknown nature of the universe, the psychological correlate of this unknownness being the non-duality of the psyche. Thus although he is sufficiently advanced towards non-dualism to have both coherentist and foundationalist elements in his philosophical account of moral progress, only the coherentist element of his account is psychological, the foundationalist element remaining cosmological. The non-dualism of the coherentist element of his philosophy thus remains irreconcilable with the dogmatic dualism of the foundationalist element. Experimental reasoning is understood ultimately as tool of cosmic justice, making Dewey’s position at least subtly scientistic.


In scientific terms this need for a psychologically foundational element is seen in the requirement for scientists to be aware of the contingency of their theories in order to be successful in their enquiries: a requirement I have already discussed in chapter 2. Just as the scientist needs to be ready to desert his paradigm, so the individual may be required to relinquish a deeply-ingrained moral belief which, though coherent, is proving inadequate to experience. Such an abandonment can only be justified philosophically through reference to a foundational position which recognises the contingency of all cosmological accounts, whilst psychologically it can only be motivated by a reduction of the egoistic identification with the theory and a recognition of the meaningfulness of what cannot yet be rationally described.


Such a recognition cannot be accounted for solely in terms of biological evolution, because when such evolution develops along a blind alley no further adaptation is possible for an organism thus maladapted: natural selection obliterates such an organism. The reflective capacities of human beings which Dewey identifies are thus not merely an extension of biological adaptation and cannot be explained in purely naturalistic terms, but require a universal and foundational element in order to function effectively as adaptive mechanisms. If this foundational element is not psychological as well as rational, it may only lead us into further blind alleys as we are insufficiently motivated to relinquish maladaptive paradigms.


Scheffler identifies two problems in Dewey’s psychology which may serve to confirm this underlying difficulty. The first of these is the danger that a psychological account which does not offer us more specific guidance about the identifiable nature of the moral balance to be struck  may turn out to be useless. Scheffler complains about the vague language that Dewey uses to explain the nature of the balance.

If the balance between reflection and impulse turns on their respective vices, the very notion of such balance turns out to be empty, or virtually empty, without additional specification. One can interpret the desired balance in various ways, depending on how one independently reads the situation.[40]


Two responses to this could be suggested. Firstly, Dewey’s language may be vague simply because psychological criteria are always indeterminate in terms of philosophical analysis. Such vagueness may be preferable to a philosophical explanation which is precise but inaccurate. Secondly, however, the vagueness may be due to the coherentist nature of Dewey’s psychology. In coherentist terms he can only specify the rough location of the balance, as being between reflection and impulse, because any further specification depends on the nature of the specific situation on which reflection takes place. As Scheffler implies, one can delude oneself as to whether one has achieved such a balance because of the lack of positive psychological specification of its nature. If however, a psychological foundationalism is also introduced, specifying that any balanced psychological state will also be one which is aware of its own contingency, a much more demanding specification has been introduced. The reflection which then takes place in such a psychological state must recognise not only impulse and the possible ends towards which it can be directed for its own satisfaction, but the likelihood that such ends are not ultimate and the satisfaction they can achieve is limited, resulting both in the broadest possible awareness of possible ends and the broadest possible grounds on which criticism can be made of those ends. Whilst the philosophical indeterminacy of such a state cannot be avoided, it is thereby made clearer what such a state would be like if achieved, not removing the scope for self-delusion but increasing the scope for its phenomenological identification[41]. 


Scheffler’s second criticism of Dewey’s psychology is to point out a contradiction between two different conceptions of the relationship between impulse and habit to be found in Dewey[42]. The first of these is discontinuous, as it shows habits breaking down and impulse being released without a clear channel at particular breaking points where the maladaptation of a habit has become critical. At this point impulse must find new ends and new means of achieving them. The second, however, is continuous, because it forms the implied basis of Dewey’s recommendation that we should avoid dramatic breakdowns through the intelligent application of reflection to anticipate them.

Yet how can such thoughtful application be continuous if, by hypothesis, the difficulties releasing needed impulse have not yet arisen, but are only to be foreseen? What energizing influences for reorganisation are available prior to the release effected by breakdowns in habit? Deliberation, after all ‘starts’, according to Dewey, ‘from the blocking of efficient overt action’; how can thought continuously anticipate the difficulties occasioned by such blocking?[43]


The problem Scheffler identifies here is another manifestation of the difficulties in reconciling absolute and relative through a purely naturalistic descriptive approach, even when that approach is psychological. For the discontinuous account of how deliberation is motivated fits easily with a descriptive approach: deliberation is basically a problem-solving activity, a predictable response to a certain type of stimulus. The continuous account, however, is one which requires universalist foundationalism. We cannot anticipate a problem without a recognition of our ignorance of completely satisfactory solutions which extends beyond any particular case, for the reflection involved requires the deductive application of  a general law according to which we anticipate our ignorance and the limitations of previous solutions which attend it. A deterministic explanation according to which our actions are always a theoretically predictable response to stimuli also begins to break down at the point where our reflections anticipate stimuli in a way which assumes this general characteristic of all stimuli rather than a particular causal relationship between stimuli, for though the reflection does make a difference to our responses, that difference could only be differentiated from the inductive application of a particular causal law from a non-existent God’s-eye view[44].


The operation and nature of universal moral deliberation on the continuous account remains mysterious because it involves the operation of a sense beyond the rational explanations of the ego: an openness to the rest of the psyche which is the psychological correlate of a sense of our own ignorance. It is also mysterious, as Scheffler notes, where the energy comes from which impels this reflection in the absence of particular frustrations. This mysterious aspect of our capacity for moral improvement goes beyond the discontinuous explanation and cannot be reduced to it, preventing Dewey from providing an adequate account of moral objectivity which effectively links this universality with an explanation solely in terms of particular problem-solving. The mystery would not be better solved, however, by recourse to the eternalist metaphysics of freewill and impartial reason, since these constructions would as falsely reify the universal continuous account as would the insistence that it can be reduced to the discontinuous one.


To conclude my account of Dewey’s ethics then, it must be said that, despite many promising and helpful features, it does not quite succeed in overcoming dualism or reliance on its categories. The main reason for this appears to be a subtle and residual scientism which attaches to Dewey’s account of the experimental method and leads him to limit his explanation of the psychological process to one which is compatible only with scientific problem-solving or an evolutionary explanation of how organisms develop. His residually Hegelian desire to also produce a universal ethical explanation from this naturalistic account results only in a false synthesis.


v)                  Dewey’s political thought


Before leaving the topic of the pragmatists I want to briefly draw out some of the implications of Dewey’s ethics in his political thought. This was an important aspect of the application of Dewey’s thought, since throughout his career he was actively involved in political life and popular as well as more theoretical writing. The central concern of Dewey’s political philosophy was his view of democracy. This view offers a distinctive kind of justification for the democratic state which is distinguishable from the absolute utilitarian and scientistic types of justification that I have already examined.


The term “democracy” meant more to Dewey than merely a certain system of government: for him it was “a form of moral and spiritual association”[45]. Such a form of association gives full recognition to the fact that all individuals in a group can only make moral progress through their own individual volition. Dewey rejects the aristocratic ideal articulated in Plato’s Republic whereby the power of the higher moral guardians must be imposed on the lower orders, on similar grounds to those I offered above[46], arguing that although its ends were good it is deficient in the means employed: “the practical consequence of giving the wise and good power is that they cease to be wise and good. They become ignorant of the needs and requirement of the many”[47]. Dewey thus recommends an individualism and an equality that is “ethical” rather than “numerical”, and which recognises the infinite potential of each individual through whatever material measures may be required to do so.[48]


Given as an aspect of Dewey’s psychological ethics, this concern to recognise the voice of the excluded (as Dewey carefully delineates it, distinct from foundational appeals to individualistic rights) seems a natural aspect of non-dualism, since it is the political correlate of the psychological need to heed all aspects of the psyche. As I have already commented, Plato’s politics mirrors his psychology, and Dewey appears to recognise this weakness in the Platonic approach. Like Popper, Dewey understands the value of democracy in terms of the experimental method, for knowledge progresses more quickly in an atmosphere where theories can be more easily falsified by the application of the broadest available experience, which is brought about in society by maximising the number of voices that can be heard. Dewey, however, can present this argument more credibly than Popper because he is not attached to the fact-value distinction and can give a psychological as well as an epistemological account of progress.


But if democracy in this sense is the outward application of a psychological doctrine, an important difficulty can be raised with it. As I remarked in relation to Plato, the isomorphism between microcosmic psyche and macrocosmic body politic can only be an approximate one, particularly as the condition of the body politic is interdependent with that of each individual psyche composing it[49]. Though Dewey uses the macrocosm-microcosm analogy to opposite ends from those of Plato, the same difficulties arise. The recognition of the individuality and equality of the disenfranchised voices of the body politic at a social level may not necessarily lead to the integration of those individuals at a psychological level. Plato’s argument against democracy on the grounds that it merely enables the unregulated pursuit of desire is not necessarily overcome here by Dewey’s appeal to the liberty required to pursue the experimental method[50], since liberty will only actually result in the pursuit of that method, rather than entrenchment in dogmatism or scepticism, if the individual has actually adopted it.


Hence, as a psychological ethics appealing to the experimental method, Dewey’s “democracy  does not appear to necessarily imply democracy as a political system: thus in calling it “democracy” Dewey may be guilty of engendering confusion. If “democracy” as a political system simply means the election of political leaders by universal suffrage, and the electorate is composed mainly of those holding dogmatic or sceptical dualist positions, the people’s choice of leaders and their policies (insofar as they actually are under the control of the electorate) are likely to merely reflect those positions. Any genuine use of the experimental method by the government, or any ways in which they encourage the use of the experimental method by the people, will be due to the capacity to use that method in the leaders themselves or their advisors, not due to their method of selection.


Furthermore, even if a particular version of the democratic political system is shown to best serve the experimental method, this would be an entirely abstract point without the means to bring it about, beginning from the actual present psychological and physical situation. That many of the conditions required to bring the ideal system about would be independent psychological ones can hardly be doubted. Much of Dewey’s stress on education can be attributed to his Aristotelian view that moral virtues (the chief of which is the use of the experimental method) are best conditioned early when the nervous system is in a greater state of plasticity. But, as Dewey himself implicitly recognises in his theory of democracy, at least some of the responses required are beyond the control of social engineers, even if those engineers should succeed in constructing an ideal educational system. To make this broadly voluntaristic recognition of the independence of psychological conditions from social engineering is to not necessarily to believe in the “freewill” of individuals, but simply to recognise the limitations of the knowledge and power of social engineers. 


To follow a pragmatic method in political thought thus proves to be a complex matter. As I argued in the previous subsection, a genuine use of the experimental method which avoids the dogmatic adoption of theories (such as is not quite achieved by James or Dewey) involves not just developing an ethical coherentism but holding this in tension with of a psychological type of ethical foundationalism in which the limitations of coherentism are fully recognised. Dewey’s adoption of the term “democracy” to cover both the social application of the experimental method and a particular system for the selection of governments seems to indicate a false synthesis in which the limitations of the former in justifying the latter are not fully recognised. The analogous position in political theory to the ethical foundationalism I find missing in Dewey involves the recognition that it is not particular forms of institution, but particular kinds of beliefs and acts, which can best be described as following the experimental method. Any identification of the experimental method with a particular type of institution thus needs to be heavily qualified.


Dewey’s view thus proves not entirely separable from the scientistic approach to government as a neutral arbiter and the eternalistic approach to government as a natural moral agent, although it concentrates on the justification of government through its method of selection rather than its mode of operation. Later I shall be explaining in more detail what I believe non-dualist alternatives to be in both these areas[51].


[1] James (1981) Lecture 1

[2] Dewey (1944) p. 333-4

[3] E.g. Dewey (1930) ch.10

[4] Peirce (1960) § 6.486

[5] James (1981) p.134

[6] ibid. p.36

[7] Dewey (1922) p.331

[8] James (1956) p.145-183 (or 1995 p.271-297)

[9] Peirce (1960) §5.400

[10] ibid. §5.397

[11] ibid. §5.407

[12] Scheffler (1974) p.102

[13] James (1981) p.97

[14] ibid. p.100

[15] ibid. p.95

[16] This elaboration will not consist in an account of truth, about which little more can be usefully said than is given here. However, the views of belief (5.d), meaning (5.c) and verification (6.c) on which I implicitly depend here will be given much fuller explanation.

[17] ibid. p.61

[18] ibid. p.71

[19] ibid. p.73

[20] ibid. p.128

[21] Scheffler (1974) p.122

[22] James (1905) vol.1, ch.4

[23] See my discussion of karma in the appendix (10.iii)

[24] James (1905) vol.1, p.127

[25] See note 734

[26] See, for example, Blackburn’s definition in Blackburn (1996) p.396. A fully non-dualist account of the relationship between reason and passion should not, of course, be one of subservience but of interdependence (see 4.c.v).

[27] James (1905) vol.2, p.573

[28] ibid. vol.1 p.224-5

[29] ibid. vol.1 p.330-342

[30] Bird (1986) p.82

[31] James (1905) vol.1, p.224

[32] See James (1956) p.184-215 (or 1995 p.298-319)

[33] See 3.f

[34] Dewey (1922) p.181-192

[35] Scheffler (1974) p.229-231

[36] Dewey (1922) p.192

[37] Dewey (1960) p.30. This account of frustration harmonises well with the one I shall offer in 5.b.i.

[38] Dewey (1922) p.101

[39] ibid. p.330

[40] Scheffler (1974) p.222

[41] For some further discussion of the accusation of formalism against non-dualism, see 6.c.ii

[42] Scheffler (1974) p.222-6

[43] ibid. p.224

[44] This is not intended to imply that Dewey necessarily had explicit determinist views when he employed the discontinuous type of explanation.

[45] Dewey (1993) p.59

[46] See 3.d.iv

[47] Dewey (1993) p.60

[48] ibid. p.63

[49] See 3.d.iv

[50] Dewey (1993) p.62

[51] See 8.c.i & ii


Return to thesis contents page

Return to home page



A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



Other books:

A New Buddhist Ethics

The Trouble with Buddhism


List of all books and papers


Objections & responses


Comment on the blog


Home page