Pragmatism as a Contribution to Philosophy of Death and Dying


Submission Type: “Paper”



I suggest that pragmatism can make a valuable methodological contribution to inquiry regarding the meaning of our mortality, that is, to philosophical inquiry concerning death. I consider this in relation to the so-called pragmatic maxim, examining its relevance for understanding beliefs about death. Then I look further at the unique configuration of classical American pragmatism and its relevance to issues of death and dying by turning to three of its other historically and thematically defining characteristics: the rejection of philosophical modernism, the affirmation of the plurality and significance of human temperament, and, lastly, the pragmatic emphasis of the social.




I. Introduction


I argue that classical American pragmatism can make a valuable contribution to inquiry regarding the lived meaning of our mortality, that is, to the philosophy of death and dying, a topic that has generally not been addressed by pragmatists, although John McDermott and William Gavin are exceptions to this.[1] I would here like to reintroduce a notion central to the nature of pragmatism and its history, namely, the pragmatic maxim, explicating how that maxim makes a difference in evaluating and comparing beliefs about death with one another in terms of their practical effects or consequences for how we live our present lives. Then I shall look at the pragmatists’ response to modernism and their replacement of skeptical searches for certainty with a commitment to fallibilism, as a way of recovering a philosophical significance for belief. I next emphasize the significance of there being a plurality of human temperaments, and corresponding needs, as James suggested, in relation to varying beliefs about death. Finally, I conclude by turning to the significance of the social dimension of human existence for pragmatism generally and for pragmatic inquiry concerning death in particular.


II. The Pragmatic Maxim

I wish here to discuss what has come to be known as the pragmatic maxim and, more importantly, in light of my broader project, how this “maxim,” which is in general a commitment to inquiry as praxis, provides a helpful approach for understanding our various beliefs about the nature of death. Now John Stuhr has enumerated a somewhat helpful list of seven characteristics of classical American philosophy, the fifth of which is that there is a treatment of the results of experimental inquiry as the measure of theory (like the sciences).[2] This is one way of stating the significance of the pragmatic maxim, which, perhaps more than any other general commitment or theme, defines pragmatism as a philosophical tradition that, in Thomas M. Alexander’s words, “…originated as a movement which sought to clarify meaning in terms of action.”[3] It did so as a way of providing rules or norms for how we think about things, as opposed, say, to instructing us on exactly how to act.

As is well known, we can identify the outset of the pragmatist tradition with Peirce, who, in his series of classic 1877-1878 articles “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, provides the rallying cry of pragmatism with his articulation of the initial and most famous statement of the pragmatic maxim, according to which we are advised to “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical effects, we conceive the object of our conception to have…”, and that “…our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”[4] Belief in this way is not simply that to which we give cognitive assent. Rather, as Peirce later writes, “…to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.”[5] Beliefs give rise to various courses of action, and so we can understand a belief’s or idea’s conceivable effects as its meaning. Similarly, for James, ideas reveal their meaning when we know the conduct to which they lead. An idea is what makes a practical difference to us through our acting on it. As such, for the pragmatist, differences of meaning are constituted by differences of practice. This is why, for example, Nicholas Rescher has characterized the pragmatic maxim by saying that “Meaning, in sum is, as meaning does.”[6] Beliefs, that is, are functional, and are so in that they direct or guide one’s behavior, and this point, I suggest, can apply just as much to beliefs about the nature of death. Beliefs are behaviors, or, perhaps better, a belief is an implicit principle of our habits, rather than simply a proposition to which one cognitively assents.

Peirce explains that a belief is a rule of action.[7] It is, in short, a habit, a point to which we shall now turn. Peirce writes that a belief, as such, has three properties.[8] He says that “First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit.”[9] Now if the nature of belief is that of habit, then varying beliefs are identifiable precisely by the varying forms of conduct instantiated.[10] In short, beliefs, if they are to be distinguished from one another, are distinguished by conduct. This is why Peirce writes that “If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs…”[11] That is, if apparently different beliefs do not give rise to different patterns of behavior, then the beliefs are not in experience different from one another.

            Now regard to the application of pragmatism here to death, we can say that a given theory or belief about death must itself involve the instantiation of a habit, just as is the case with any sort of belief. I suggest that this applies when considering, for example, beliefs according to which death is understood as some portal to another experience (e.g., “Platonism”[12]), death is understood simply as the utter and complete destruction of the person (e.g., Epicureanism), death is understood as an evil deprivation of life (e.g., Thomas Nagel’s position), or whether it is accepted as a natural phenomenon in which there might also be found a kind of immortality. From this perspective, we can see, pragmatically speaking, that beliefs about death, even though it is death that is the “object” of such beliefs, are themselves strategies or ways of living. That is, we might say different beliefs about the nature of death are identifiable as differing from one another only by virtue of their establishing different behaviors or patterns of conduct.

If beliefs about death fail to differ in this respect, that is, if they instantiate the same “rule” or pattern of conduct, then no merely apparent differences between them allow for our identifying them as actual differing beliefs about death, not, as Peirce says about beliefs in general, “…any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes.”[13] In other words, if seemingly different beliefs regarding the nature of death fail to establish differing actions, then, for the pragmatist evaluating such beliefs about death, we are mistaken to say that the beliefs in this case are not themselves identical. That is, if, for example, I believe death to be the annihilation of my personal experience and you believe death to be some portal to another world of experience, and these beliefs lead to different actions in this world, then our beliefs are different, but if the consequences are the same, then we should judge the beliefs as having no real difference. In more Jamesian terms, there is here no difference that itself is making a real difference, or, in James’ own words, “There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere–no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen.”[14] To put it perhaps more crudely, and to expand on Rescher’s earlier characterization, according to the pragmatic maxim, the meaning of beliefs about death is as the meaning of beliefs about death does, with an idea being true insofar as it makes a difference.[15]


III. The Rejection of Modernism and Commitment to Fallibilism


            Pragmatism begins in large part with a rejection of classical modern philosophy, or, as Alexander has put it, “…as a revolt against the dualisms bequeathed by the Cartesian project of modernism, dualisms between mind and nature, reason and feeling, theory and practice, and individual and community.”[16] This is to say, in part, that pragmatism is a revolt against the dualism between knowledge and belief, and this is significant for my own concerns because modernism’s preoccupation with certainty has, I contend, led to an overlooking of the theme of death. We might say that philosophy has had Cartesian certitude as its fetish, but, in any case, there has been a dominant Cartesian strategy of not entertaining beliefs about anything dubitable and uncertain, or, as Dewey put the matter, “…the quest for certainty has always been an effort to transcend belief.”[17] Beliefs about the nature of death, of course, tend, like many beliefs, to be speculative and uncertain. If I believe that death is a portal to some other world than this one, then this, it would seem, is something that only becomes certain upon my actually confirming this by going through the portal of death to, presumably, another world of experience. If, on the

other hand, I believe that death is the complete annihilation of me, with nothing more to it, then this too is speculative.

Either way, these are beliefs, the sort of thing, as Dewey reminds us, that modern philosophers have generally eschewed. So, in short, modernity has undermined our ability to talk about death. It has done so by devaluing belief in general and by creating a false dichotomy between beliefs and knowledge. Thus we must reject the modernist tendency to quest for certainty if we are to conceive of beliefs about death as fallible and experiential. Otherwise, there is no getting a pragmatist investigation of the meaning of death off the ground.




IV. The Significance of Human Temperament

            I wish here to convey the pragmatists’ affirmation of a plurality of human temperaments, which James thinks is fundamental for the very doing of philosophy.[18] In his 1878/82 “The Sentiment of Rationality”, James claims that “Nothing could be more absurd than to hope for the definitive triumph of any philosophy which should refuse to legitimate, and to legitimate in an emphatic manner, the more powerful of our emotional and practical tendencies.”[19] As he sees it, this is because there is a significant interrelation between such emotional and practical tendencies, or, in short, one’s temperament and the philosophy one adopts. This is not simply to say that a given temperament causes a given philosophy, but it is to affirm that individuals need different things from philosophy, or at least from their beliefs. In any case, such consideration is of special significance for my project because, as a part of this, it would seem that one’s temperament greatly influences the manner in which he or she deals with mortality, whether this involves one resolutely confronting or facing death or whether this involves one denying or attempting to somehow escape death. According to James, himself a philosophical pluralist, a given person can be described as somewhere on the spectrum of temperament, the two extremes being the “tender-minded” and the “tough-minded,” with most falling somewhere within this






spectrum as temperamentally mixed.[20]

            In any case, to repeat, I here raise this issue of the importance of pragmatism’s attention to plurality of temperaments because this has direct bearing on the manner in which we go about living with the reality of death, that is, whether, for example, we own up to or run away from our mortality, or perhaps somewhere in between. There are clearly those more tender-minded individuals among us who indulge ourselves with prospects of immortality, that is, with prospects of somehow personally surviving death. On the other hand, there are those more tough-minded individuals among us who have very great difficulties with such notions even being plausible. Those more inclined to tough-mindedness are, as we have seen from James, more rooted in their senses, in the natural as opposed to the super- or supra-natural.

Now varying temperaments indicate varying needs, and thus an individual’s needs differ from another’s insofar as their temperaments are different. There is the question of what one needs to believe. For the Jamesian pragmatist, one believes x because x satisfies a felt individual need, and such needs differ from one another according to temperament.[21] In any case, James says (in “The Sentiment of Rationality”) that personal temperament makes itself felt in that “…all men will insist on being spoken to by the universe in some way, few will insist on being spoken to in just the same way…,”[22] and this is because of the reality of differing personal needs and inclinations, with this being readily converted into terms more explicitly aimed at my own concerns regarding pragmatism and death. According to his or her respective temperament, that is, according to affective or felt needs, one person may need or be inclined to believe in a “portal” view of death, according to which death is simply a portal to a continued or new personal experience, whatever that might be. Another person, according to temperament, may need or be so inclined as to believe that death is simply annihilation of his or her personal experience, and nothing more, with salvation, if there is to be such a thing, as something attainable (if it can be attained) in this world and by our own precarious efforts. Perhaps we could say that the latter person simply has fewer such needs. In any case, the point here is one of temperament, as expressed through needs or inclinations (that is, through habit), as largely constitutive of what one versus another person, in order to live best or most meaningfully, shall believe about the nature of death.[23] There is hence no singularly correct pragmatic view of death, for there is a plurality of temperaments with respect to it.




V. The Significance of the Social

Pragmatism, it is well known, has strong philosophical commitments to the social. The importance of the social or “political,” understood broadly, was of course recognized long ago by Aristotle, who, near the beginning of his Politics (Book I, Chapter 2), famously says “…that man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis…”, and, moreover, as Aristotle continues, that “He who is without a polis, by reason of his own nature and not of some accident, is either a poor sort of being, or a being higher than man…”[24] In any case, it is clear enough that we exist with others and that our habits or modes of conduct are largely formed within such a social realm. For pragmatists, however, our human living is also social in a more fundamental way. As Dewey and his Chicago colleague George Herbert Mead well recognized and described, individuals are constituted by and cannot be fully understood apart from their sociality, that is, from their communal or social relations.

Mead puts it well in the 1934 Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, saying that the self “…is not initially there, at birth, but arises in the process of social experience and activity, that is, develops in the given individual as a result of his relations to that process as a whole and to other individuals within that process.”[25] The very notion of individuality or of self is inextricably linked with that of community. The same goes for death, insofar as death involves the self, to which I shall in a moment return. As for Mead, he says that the individual “…enters his own experience as a self or individual, not directly or immediately, not by becoming a subject to himself, but only in so far as he first becomes an object to himself just as other individuals are objects to him or in his experience…”, and, further, that the individual “…becomes an object to himself only by taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself within a social environment or context of experience and behavior in which both he and they are involved.”[26] In short, the self is thus always a social self, impossible to conceive of as independent of some shared context. This is of significance for considering death, because, from the pragmatist perspective at least, death and beliefs about it constitute not only personal phenomena, but also bear upon and are influenced by such social aspects.

So, pragmatism can here contribute to understanding the problematic of death through its emphasis of the social nature of our existence and the part this plays for our doing philosophy of death and dying. It thus appears particularly valuable in light of the historical consideration that many Western philosophers who have focused attention on death, such as, for example, Epicurus and Lucretius, analytic philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and his followers, and modern Continental philosophers such as Heidegger and Sartre, have on the whole focused on death simply from the first-person perspective and have thereby neglected death’s social dimension and importance. This being said, the significance of the social for our beliefs about death does not immediately entail our completely eschewing first-person approaches to this issue. Yet it does entail our being wary of what Robert Solomon has, for example, called morbid solipsism, which he says is an image of death solely in terms of the self, that is, a view of death implying a

self that is somehow non-social.[27] This is not, of course, to say that acceptance of the social

component of death is necessarily eliminative of rich personal concerns or beliefs regarding death. That is, while we do have personal concerns about it and while philosophers have construed concerns about death from the first-person standpoint (from the standpoint of the subject of death, that is, he or she who is doing the dying), we nevertheless are primarily social creatures, and this is a key emphasis from pragmatists and, for that matter, a lesson from social psychologists and sociologists generally.

From such a pragmatic standpoint, the death of an individual (from his or her perspective, one’s own death), would seem to be almost always a real interruption or rupture of community, that is, a disruption of and within an interrelated system of social and interpersonal relationships. It appears prudent for our beliefs about death, insofar as we reflectively consider them, to take some account of this. For example, when I think about “my” death or operate according to beliefs about what my death will be, if anything, I am already and inescapably doing so within a social context. I cannot even conceive of “my” death apart from some such context, just as I cannot conceive or experience myself in any other way apart from contextual aspects. Put differently, my death is not merely mine, but is also a happening for others, something that many people can probably understand from the standpoint of our tendency of attending consciously to

this through our actions, for example, of purchasing “life insurance.”[28] In this way, “my” death is really not only “mine”, but it is a phenomenon with much broader effects and implications insofar as it is social, and we at least implicitly recognize it as such.



VI. Conclusion

Pragmatism, in sum, can make a contribution to philosophy of death and dying. In this first chapter, I have tried to make this case with regard to the pragmatic maxim, the pragmatic rejection of modernism, the pragmatic emphasis on the plurality of human temperaments, and the pragmatic commitment to the social character of human existence. The pragmatic maxim provides a helpful approach for understanding various beliefs about death in terms of their practical consequences. Pragmatism’s response to modernism indicates its recovery of belief as philosophically significant, a significant development with regard to consideration of death, as opposed to modernism’s preoccupation with epistemological certainty. Pragmatism’s emphasis on the plurality of human temperaments serves as a useful framework for understanding beliefs with respect to the role that temperament plays in how one lives with the fact of one’s own mortality. Finally, pragmatism’s commitment to the social aspect of human existence can serve as a counterpoint to the preponderance of simply first-person perspectives on the meaning of death by showing death not as completely private affair, but as primarily social in meaning and effect.


[1] See, e.g., Gavin’s “Conexts Vibrant and Contexts Souring in Dewey’s Philosophy” in In Dewey’s Wake: Unfinished Work of Pragmatic Reconstruction (ed. Gavin, SUNY Press, 2003), as well as his Cuttin’ the Body Loose: Historical, Biological, and Personal Approaches to Death and Dying (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995). See also, e.g., McDermott’s “The Inevitability of Our Own Death: The Celebration of Time as a Prelude to Disaster” in Streams of Experience: Reflections on the History and Philosophy of American Culture (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), as well as his “Why Bother: Is Life Worth Living” (The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 88, No. 11, November 1991) and “Ill-At-Ease: The Natural Travail of Ontological Disconnectedness” (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 67, No. 6, June 1994).

[2] Ibid, p. 5.

[3] See Alexander’s “Pragmatic Imagination” in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Vol. XXVI, No. 3 (1990), p. 325.

[4] Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, Vol. 3 (1872-1878), ed. Christian J.W. Kloesel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 266. “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, perhaps Peirce’s most famous article, was originally published in Popular Science Monthly, January 1878. As W.B. Gallie has pointed out, Peirce, in an 1871 book review, offered a rough adumbration of his 1878 formulation of pragmatism. Peirce said as follows: “Do things fulfil the same purpose practically? Then let them be distinguished. If I have learnt a formula in gibberish which in any way jogs my memory so as to enable me in each single case to act as though I had a general idea, what possible utility is there in distinguishing between such a gibberish formula and an idea? Why use the term a general idea in such a sense as to separate things which, for all experiential purposes, are the same?” (originally published in the North American Review, 1871). See Gallie’s Peirce and Pragmatism (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1952), p. 14.

[5] Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Vol. 5), eds. Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur Burks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), p. 6.

[6] See Rescher’s Realistic Pragmatism: An Introduction to Pragmatic Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), p. 9.

[7] See “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” in the Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition (Vol. 3), p. 263.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, pp. 263-264.

[11] Ibid, p. 264.

[12] I use this term largely for convenience, while being aware that, as for Plato himself, he dismisses in his famous “Seventh Letter” the possibility of there being any treatise or exposition of his doctrines. At 341c-d, we find the following: “There is no writing of mine about these matters, nor will there ever be one. For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and staighway nourishes itself.” Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), p. 1659 (trans. Glenn R. Morrow).

[13] Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition (Vol. 3), p. 264.

[14] The Works of William James (1975), p. 30. James immediately goes on here to state the function of philosophy: “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.” Ibid.

[15] If, e.g., someone asserts that death is a portal to some other experience (or, alternatively, that death is simply the annihilation of your personal experience), then the pragmatist indeed responds with a kind of challenge: what real difference shall this make for anyone’s life? What real differences shall this make for your life? The difference, if there is one, is the meaning to be had. If belief in such a proposition fails to constitute any real difference, then there is no real meaning to be had.


[16] Thomas M. Alexander, “John Dewey and the Aesthetics of Human Existence” in Classical American Pragmatism: Its Contemporary Vitality, eds. Sandra B. Rosenthal, Carl R. Hausman, and Douglas R. Anderson (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), p. 162.

[17] John Dewey: The Later Works, Vol. 4: 1929, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), p. 21.

[18] This issue of the significance of temperament is one, of course, where Peirce parts company from James.

[19] The Works of William James (1979), p. 74.

[20] The Works of William James (1975), p. 13. James’ notion of temperament can also be found, for example (even though he is not using the word itself), in his discussion of the capacity of the strenuous mood in his 1891 “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”. For that matter, we can find an earlier expression of it in the following passage from “The Sentiment of Rationality”:

“Men’s active impulses are so differently mixed that a philosophy fit in…respect for Bismarck will almost certainly be unfit for a valetudinarian poet. In other words, although one can lay down in advance the rule that a philosophy which utterly denies all fundamental ground for seriousness, for effort, for hope, which says the nature of things is radically alien to human nature, can never succeed – one cannot in advance say what particular dose of hope, or of gnosticism of the nature of things, the definitively successful philosophy shall contain. In short, it is almost certain that personal temperament will here make itself felt, and that although all men will insist on being spoken to by the universe in some way, few will insist on being spoken to in just the same way. We have here, in short, the sphere of what Matthew Arnold likes to call Aberglaube, legitimate, inexpugnable, yet doomed to eternal variations and disputes.” The Works of William James (1979), p. 75.

This notion of the importance of the individual temperament indicates, of course, an emphasis quite contrary to much of traditional philosophy, and James and fellow (at least more nominalistic) pragmatists are not alone in raising the issue of individuality and also the relevant notion of difference or of otherness. For example, Emmanuel Levinas, arguably the most important Continental ethicist of the twentieth-century, is to a large extent in line with James’ reaction to such traditional modern thought. As is well known, Levinas argues that there is a quite influential tendency within Western philosophy to attempt to absorb alterity into the same, that is, to annihilate the singularity or individuality of the otherness or alterity of some other being. See Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969). Originally published in French as Totaite et Infini (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1961).

[21] The significance here of need as felt indicates the importance of the affective dimension for pragmatism, or at least for Jamesian pragmatism. Here we can see part of the significance of radical empiricism for pragmatism.

There is also of course the question of whether the given belief endures or holds up in the face of further experiences, and so this is not a license to hold just any belief.

[22] The Works of William James (1979), p. 75.

[23] While James did not hold that truth is utterly dependent upon temperament, he did assert the pragmatic point that the sort of view a given person shall believe to be true does in fact depend largely upon temperament.

[24] The Politics of Aristotle, ed./trans. Ernest Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 5.

[25] Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1962, p. 135. See also Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems (1927) and his Individualism Old and New (1930). Josiah Royce is worth acknowledging here as well, particularly with respect to his 1916 “The Hope of the Great Community” (in Royce’s book of the same title).

[26] Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, p. 138. Utilizing a helpful analogy, Mead later continues by saying the following: “It cannot be said that the individuals come first and the community later, for the individuals arise in the very process itself, just as much as the human body or any multi-cellular form is one in which differentiated cells arise. There has to be a life-process going on in order to have the differentiated cells; in the same way there has to be a social process going on in order that there may be individuals. It is just as true in society as it is in the physiological situation that there could not be the individual if there was not the process of which he is a part.” Ibid, p. 189.

[27] By here referencing Solomon, I am not, of course, suggesting that he is himself a pragmatist, but rather simply that he provides, in least in passing, a striking affirmation of the significance of the quite social element of death. See Solomon’s “Death Fetishism, Morbid Solipsism” in Death and Philosophy, eds. Jeff Malpas and Robert Solomon (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 175. I thank Matt Sanderson for calling my attention to this article.

[28] To use another example, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton has noted that even suicide is an attempt at achieving something always in relation to this lived world, even if it is simply a cessation of pain. Suicide, while it is indeed the killing of oneself, is still a kind of assertion about human life, which is inevitably related to the social. See Chapter Seventeen (“Suicide–The Quest for a Future”) of Lifton’s The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980).