Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not. Protagoras, ca. 490– 420 BC
Pragmatism: an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. Merriam-Webster Dictionary
In the mid-1890s, F.C.S. Schiller failed his doctoral orals at Cornell University and returned to England to take a position at Oxford. Within a year, William James published several books of philosophy that set off a blaze of debate between the defenders of Absolute Idealism and advocates of the new, ethical “practicalism.”
The two men had begun a relationship while Schiller was at Cornell and James at Harvard, carrying on a correspondence that would be of enduring value to both philosophers.
“By the time pragmatism was introduced to the British philosophical public in 1900, Schiller was already well on his way to articulating and defending pragmatism to his peers,” said Mark Porrovecchio, a Center Research Fellow, forensics director, and assistant professor of speech communication at OSU.
Porrovecchio is working on what he describes as a rhetorical biography and intellectual history of Schiller (1864-1937), the foremost proponent of pragmatism at the turn of the century. “This project analyzes, in chronological order, the most substantial and often contested arguments that Schiller engaged in so as to promote, first, Jamesian pragmatism and, secondly, his own pragmatic humanism,” Porrovecchio wrote in his research proposal.
As an early defender of pragmatism, Schiller’s style of argument—repeating key themes, engaging in vigorous and often humorous polemic—was crucial.
“Without it, pragmatism arguably might not have gained the foothold it did against the idealistic strains of philosophy dominant at the time. But that same bold, insistent style proved an irritant to pragmatism’s reputation in the years preceding World War II, and led pragmatists themselves to reject and downplay Schiller’s influence.”
As pragmatism fell on hard times during the 1940s and 1950s, Schiller’s reputation also sank, and even when it was resurrected several decades later, his contri-butions were relegated to a footnote.
Schiller’s pragmatism was of a very specific sort, said Porrovecchio. His humanism traces back to James’s “subjective-centered handling of the objective world,” and points toward what James called “radical empiricism,” that is, to the role individuals play in compre-hending and interpreting the world as they conceive it.
“Having sided with pragmatism, and then with the more expansivehumanism, Schiller set out to demonstrate that the former leads into the latter. To do so, he adopts the exemplar Protagoras and, with him, the dictum ‘man is the measure.’ . . . If James’s psychology provides the mechanism by which to understand the human consciousness, then pragmatic humanism provides the method by which to organize and control its functions.”
James’s death in 1910 forced Schiller to defend the philosopher’s views against competing interpret-ations, plus he was generally marginalized and considered out of touch with current developments. Following World War I, said Porrovechio, Schiller’s “studies in humanism have been translated into problems, not just of contingency but of belief. This is a seemingly Jamesian question of the will and what it can accom-plish, but there is now an edge to such queries of accomplishment.”
In Tantalus, or The Future of Man (1924) and Cassandra, or The Future of the British Empire (1926) “the pragmatic under-pinnings have grown tinny. Humanity’s abilities and the individual’s will are now in doubt. . . Absent the resolve to put forth the potential, or weakened by the shocks of a world in turmoil, the measure of Protagoras is being replaced with the philosopher king of Plato.”
Schiller died in 1937 and soon all but disappeared from the pages of philosophy. “When mentioned at all, he is curtly framed as one who misunderstood pragmatism. When completely ignored, his absence paves the way for a story of pragmatism that is distinctly American and predominantly realist in nature. Both instincts are historically inaccurate even as they have been rhetorically effective.”
Porrovecchio hopes to correct the historical narrative about pragmatism that developed from 1940 through the 1970s by arguing for what Schiller can add if reintroduced to the fold.
“Pragmatism without Schiller has proven, till now, to be a convenient fiction. Pragmatism with Schiller is more honest, more exciting, and more useful.”