Philosophy Talk: The Blog: William James and the Squirrel Example.

Philosophy Talk: The Blog: William James and the Squirrel Example.
Yes, James does seem to be confounding a number of issues in that lecture
His resolution of the squirrel dispute (“Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel") looks more like linguistic analysis than anything else, and his description of of the 'pragmatic' principle in the second paragraph as 'If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle' sounds more like a version of positivism.

It is only later in the piece that he identifies pragmatism with the kind of provisionalism that most scientists take towards their theories as being useful pro tem until they need to be refined in order to accommodate further observations 'less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed'.

3 Responses to “Philosophy Talk: The Blog: William James and the Squirrel Example.”

  1. Mickey McConnell Says:

    I do not understand this. Is it possible, for a moment to take the tree out of the equation? A man confronts a standing squirrel. What would amount to the man "going around the squirrel?" He would first see the squirrel's face, then the squirrel's right profile, the back of his head, left profile and his face again. Now impose the tree. The tree prevents the man from seeing the squirrel's face, but at some point he would have to see the back of the squirrl inorder to "go around" the squirrel. The man would have to make at least one more lap around the tree than the squirrel, and if the squirrel keeps his belly button pointing at the man, the man cannot have lapped the squirrel. It does not come to the same thing. To lap an opponent in a race is all the differnce in the world.

  2. alan Says:

    Yes, if the squirrel always turns to face you, then you never see his back so, in one sense you never "go round him". But you may still succeed in building a fence to contain him which is another sense of what it means to "go round him". Since the two people arguing in James' story were using two different interpretations of "go round" they were not really contradicting one another.

    James resolution of the apparent conflict between the observers by pointing out that they were using the same phrase to mean two different things is reminiscent to me of the approach to philosophical problems that is taken by those who call themselves "linguistic analysts", and not so much related to his subsequent discussion of Peirce's idea of "pragmatism" which he seems to identify primarily with accepting an approximate or provisional theory or idea as being " ‘true’ so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives".

  3. Mickey McConnell Says:

    I do not understand this. Is it possible, for a moment to take the tree out of the equation? A man confronts a standing squirrel. What would amount to the man "going around the squirrel?" He would first see the squirrel's face, then the squirrel's right profile, the back of his head, left profile and his face again. Now impose the tree. The tree prevents the man from seeing the squirrel's face, but at some point he would have to see the back of the squirrel inorder to "go around" the squirrel. The man would have to make at least one more lap around the tree than the squirrel, and if the squirrel keeps his belly button pointing at the man, the man cannot have lapped the squirrel. It does not come to the same thing. To lap an opponent in a race is all the differnce in the world.
    On the other hand, again without the tree, the chase can be imagined as a small circle-the squirrel-and a larger surrounding circle-the hunter. No matter how fast the inner circle spins, a point on the larger circle will eventually "go around" the inner circle. The tree is the circumferance of the inner circle, the path of the hunter the circumferance of the outer circle. Yipes! I get it. Never mind...sigh.

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