Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pragmatic Stoicism

A few months ago I mentioned John Lach's book Stoic Pragmatism.  I've been describing myself as a stoic and a pragmatist in this blog for quite some time, and welcome his book as part of a resurgence of both schools of philosophy.  But what I think about their merger differs somewhat from Lach's view.  Hence the title of this post and the reason for it as well.

The pragmatism I find admirable is that of John Dewey.  His instrumentalism, his notion of inquiry and creative intelligence and his devotion to the scientific method appeal to me.  So does his creed that philosophy should be devoted to the "problems of men" rather than to the problems of philosophers.

The stoicism I find admirable is that of Epictetus and, to a lesser extent, that of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius (the later or Roman stoics as they've been called).  There is wisdom in their focus on things in our control and in abjuring things and events not in our control, particularly given our increasingly interesting world.  Also, their recognition of the fellowship of human beings and emphasis on the divine or semi-divine status of nature is appealing.

Deweyan pragmatism and stoicism are similar in their recognition of the fact that humans are parts of nature, an organism among organisms in a vast universe.  We are unique in some respects (we may learn we're not as unique as we think), but the universe was not made for us--it is not our dominion.  Pragmatism probably contemplates that we take and should take a more active role in shaping our environment than does stoicism, but stoicism recognizes a duty to act in such a manner (according to nature) as to benefit our fellow human beings, at least, as we are by nature social.

Dewey's pragmatism takes what might be called a psychological approach to philosophical problems, in that he seems to address in all his works which I've read the manner in which we interact with our environment and others and uses this as a basis on which to theorize regarding knowledge, logic, ethics and metaphysics.  Although he rejects absolutes of all kinds, this seems to me to be not all that different from the stoic manner of drawing conclusions or making inferences from human nature and our place in the universe, which resulted in the concept of natural law.  Now that I think of it, there are indications natural law theory may be reviving as well.

Perhaps these revivals may be the result of a reaction against nihilism, existentialism and postmodernism--the intellectualization of futility.  Pragmatism has often been criticized as relativistic, but this seems to me to disregard Dewey's emphasis and reliance on the method of inquiry and the use of intelligence and the scientific method or versions of it in resolving problems.  Certain philosophers called neo-pragmatists purport to be disciples of Dewey but they appear to ignore the central role intelligence and problem-solving plays in his philosophy. 

There may be a place in our world for Pragmatic Stoicism.  Philosophers and others are becoming more and more concerned regarding technology these days.  The concern is legitimate, but I'm not convinced the despairing and melodramatic responses of some are either merited or useful.  The claim that technology is somehow alienating us from our own humanity strikes me as particularly misguided, if taken literally, in any case.  Virtually all we do and are involves technology; we wouldn't be humans without it.  Pragmatic stoicism may be a guide in how to control it, as it would necessitate the recognition of dwindling resources and a new emphasis on duties owed to each other and to nature in general, and use this as a basis on which to seek solutions. 

Intelligent involvement in a world full of problems, seeking solutions with respect for nature and our fellow creatures with the wisdom not to be overwhelmed (or obsessed) by things which are beyond our control but instead to seek to improve what is in our control.  It seems a worthy path, to me.

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