THEOSOPHY, Vol. 84, No. 12, October, 1996
(Pages 360-365; Size: 13K)

ANCIENT AND MODERN PHILOSOPHY

PRAGMATISM

[Part 5 of a 5-part series]

THE "TRANSITION PERIOD" in Western philosophy during the early part of the Twentieth Century was characterized by a powerful rejection of all dogmatic notions of absolute truth, whether originating in speculative metaphysics or theological doctrines. The work of Nietzche covers one aspect of this reaction but not all were so nihilistic. The other predominant reaction to dogmatism appeared in the philosophical schools of the Pragmatists.

Pragmatism is the doctrine that a statement is true and meaningful according to the practical results that would be experienced if that statement were acted upon. A true and meaningful statement must have some practical benefit. It must help one predict or control nature, or it must be serviceable or beneficial to human beings. If there is no practical difference whether this or that idea is true, all discussion thereon is idle. For all practical purposes the one idea is no more true and meaningful than the other.

This philosophical perspective is not new. In the second chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna presents a viable philosophical alternative to speculative metaphysics:

Thus before thee has been set the opinion in accordance with the Sankhya doctrine speculatively; now hear what it is in the practical, devotional one, by means of which, if fully imbued therewith, thou shalt forever burst the bonds of Karma and rise above them. In this system of Yoga no effort is wasted, nor are there any evil consequences, and even a little of this practice delivereth a man from great risk.
Nevertheless, the Pragmatism that arose in the early part of the Twentieth Century and came to dominate philosophical thought for two decades was a new attempt in Western philosophy to determine for certain if the expression of a philosophical doctrine was the best possible description of the world. It admitted no absolute truth nor did it offer any absolute truth. However, it acknowledged that even a reasoned belief in a relative truth had to be carefully checked, tested and verified by experience. It considered the expression of any relative truth to be subject to the influence of the psychological state of the philosopher and that speculative doctrines were, more often than not, serving the psychological needs of the philosopher rather than in exact correspondence with the state of nature. In this it reaffirmed an ancient and Eastern idea that the state of consciousness determines the perception and expression of even a relative truth.

Returning again to the Bhagavad-Gita, one notices that Krishna, in the Eighteenth Chapter, describes the three qualities of nature and the specific manner in which they effect the perception of truth or wisdom:

Know that the wisdom which perceives in all nature one single principle, indivisible and incorruptible, not separate in the separate objects seen, is of the sattva quality. The knowledge which perceives different and manifold principles as present in the world of created beings pertains to rajas, the quality of passion. But that knowledge, wholly without value, which is mean, attached to one object alone as if it were the whole, which does not see the true cause of existence, is of the nature of tamas, indifferent and dark.
In The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky stresses the influence of the various states of consciousness upon our perception of relative truths and also speaks of the requirements for the perception of absolute truth:
Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached "reality;" but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya (Vol. I, 40).
Clearly, the progressive evolution of consciousness is a very practical matter. States of consciousness provide the fields of experience in which one is able to test, check and verify the truth and meaning of any philosophical proposition.

The first modern western philosopher to popularize the doctrine of Pragmatism was William James. What is so distinctive about his views is his attempt to synthesize the best elements of Empiricism with Idealism. He was as critical of those who dogmatically asserted a priori ideas as absolute truths as he was of materialists who framed all their doctrines exclusively in facts accumulated by the physical senses and ignored or rejected the spiritual and psychic departments of human beings and nature. He opposed the prevailing opinion of his academic colleagues that only scientific methods can lead to an understanding of the human condition. He was equally critical of any extreme reliance on logic as the sole basis of philosophical truth. The following quotations of William James are taken from his classical work, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons...

[Pragmatism] is the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, "categories," supposed necessities; and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, and facts.

Carrying the method of Pragmatism to its logical consequences, James tried to synthesize science and religion.
At the end of my lecture on philosophy I held out the notion that an impartial science of religions might sift out from the midst of the discrepancies a common body of doctrine which she might also formulate in terms to which physical science need not object (Ibid.).
James believed that the common nucleus of doctrine and the common essence of the religious experience was the foundation of the Science of Religions. This idea, that a body of knowledge which is scientific, philosophical and religious in scope underlies and is the essence and source of all religions, is a central Theosophical teaching. James called universal spirit, or Deity, the "More." Furthermore, he believed that all religions agree that the "More" really exists and that something is effected for the better when one relies on it. According to James, the higher part of human nature continuous with the "More" is the Self. The common essence of the religious experience is described by James as follows:
He becomes conscious that this higher part is conterminous and continuous with a More of the same quality, which is operative in the Universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck....

Apart from all religious considerations, there is actually and literally more life in our total soul than we are at any time aware of ... Let me propose, as a hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the "more" with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life. ... The conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come.

The concepts of conscious and subconscious aspects of human experience were recognized and accepted by the scientific community of his time. Applying the pragmatic method James breaks away from the materialism of science and establishes his basis for a real science of religion.
The farther limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely "understandable" world. Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural regions, whatever you choose. ...Yet the unseen region in question is not merely ideal for it produces effects in this world. When we commune with it work is actually done upon our future personality, for we are turned into new men, and consequences in the way of conduct follow in the natural world upon our regenerative change. But that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal.
The philosophic quest for a pragmatic and scientific approach to Religion is one aspect of modern western philosophy, but it is certainly not an exclusive project of western thinkers. One of the most prominent and influential of the Hindu philosophers and statesmen in the Twentieth Century, Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, expressed ideas similar to those of William James. In his book An Idealistic View of Life, Radhakrishnan states that a scientific religion must be founded on individual religious experience and must be in harmony with the observed and proven laws of the universe. As with the pragmatists, he rejects speculative theology as much as dogmatism. He encourages a detached and impartial scientific attitude toward religion.

The most modern expressions of Hindu thought on the nature of the Higher Self and its continuity with the Supreme can hardly be distinguished from those of William James:

While the fullness of spiritual being transcends our categories, we are certain that its nature is akin to the highest kind of being we are aware of in ourselves. ... There is the self of man, at the very center of his being, something deeper than the intellect, which is akin to the Supreme. ...The consubstantiality of the Spirit in Man and God is the conviction fundamental to spiritual wisdom (A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, p. 625).
There is a strong pragmatic element in modern Hindu thought. An idea such as the spiritual nature of the Higher Self is not just a matter of philosophical and metaphysical concern. For Sri Aurobindo, a prominent mystic philosopher of India in the Twentieth Century, the search for truth is a search for a practical psychology, called Yoga in the Bhagavad-Gita. It is not only a quest for truth about Self and human existence but also an application of those ideas to the problems of life.
The problem of thought is to find out the right idea and the right way of harmony, to restate the ancient and eternal spiritual truth of Self, so that it shall re-embrace, permeate and dominate the mental and physical life; ... and to seek for the means and motives by which his external life, his society and his institutions may remold themselves progressively in the truth of the spirit.... (Ibid., p. 577).
Do such ideas as Universal Brotherhood, Human Perfectibility, Reincarnation, Karma and other fundamental principles of Theosophy make any difference practically? Are they serviceable and helpful to humanity? Do they help one predict and control human nature as well as great Nature? It is clear from the writings of H. P. Blavatsky that Theosophy is a body of knowledge that has many practical applications, the most important of which is to open the heart to altruistic service for humanity.


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