[From David Buchanan, frequent blog and Facebook contributor and participant in our ZAMM episode. See if that doesn't make sense after reading this.]
Richard Rorty opened one of his talks by pointing out that as Europeans see it, Pragmatism is just what the Americans could get out of Nietzsche. This joke suggests that there are many similarities but American Pragmatism isn't as deep or as dark as the author of Ecce Homo. In Podcast Episode 61, the partially examined dudes and their guest, Jessica Berry of Georgia State, work hard to identify what Nietzsche is wagging his finger at, to identify the conception of truth that he's attacking. As I'll try to show, the Pragmatists attack this same conception of truth.
The pesky fact-value distinction has come up so often in recent podcast episodes that it could be turned into one of those drinking games wherein everyone has to take a shot whenever "fact" and "value" are mentioned in the same sentence or any time "is" and "ought" are opposed. There is an episode or two where playing this game would lead to a wicked hangover and a few episodes that would get you comfortably buzzed. (Feel free to play this game as you make your way through the rest of this post, dear reader.) The fact-value distinction comes up so often, I suppose, because it can act to derail any discussion of truth, morality and the good life. It's like you can't say much about Truth until you deal with that fundamental distinction.
Radical empiricists like William James, John Dewey and Robert Pirsig each mount an attack on the distinction itself. In his book John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living, David Granger says, "Dewey's main point is that the common belief in the separation of the domains of science and value is ultimately parasitic on a false separation of our cognitive and affective lives, the 'objective' and 'subjective' modes of our relations with the world." (Art of Living 77) This a central point for Pirsig as well. "Value is not at the tail-end of a series of superficial scientific deductions," he writes. "Value is at the very front of the empirical procession." (Lila 365) "Values," Dewey argues, "constitute a vital strand in the fabric of the full lived situation". (Art of Living 70) In other words, they argue that values are an indispensable feature of our experience and are already present at the very roots of perception and thought.
All of these radical empiricists begin with a rejection of subject-object dualism and the correspondence theory of Truth, which says our subjective ideas are true insofar as they correspond to objective reality or represent things as they really are. On the correspondence view, morals and values aren't going to be fully real until somebody spots them under a microscope, detects them with a brain scanner or otherwise establishes them as "objectively" real. Dewey, James and Pirsig's all take the view that subject-object dualism, as well as mind-body dualism and all other dualisms, are the products of thought and not pre-existing ontological realities. They are thought categories that we've carved out because they serve our interests, as Dr. Berry might say.
We don't discover the world's natural joints so much as we invent concepts like "inner" and "outer" as basic categories into which we sort our experience. These conceptual distinctions are secondary additions but they are very often mistaken as referring to mind-independent ontological realities that make experience possible. Dewey and James argue that experience itself is the primary empirical reality, that experience itself is the basic lifeworld in which we feel, think and act. The front edge of experience is what Robert Pirsig calls Quality, what William James calls Pure Experience and John Dewey calls it the Situational Whole. On this view, having an experience directly and immediately is to "know" the experience in the sense of basic familiarity, but this is distinguished from "knowing" in the conceptual sense.
The criticism of dualism is an opposition to objectivity as an epistemological or methodological stance. "There's this pseudo-scientific myth," Pirsig writes, "that when you're 'objective' you just disappear from the face of the earth and see everything undistorted, as it really is, like God from heaven. But that's rubbish." (Lila 32) As Granger notes, this pretense at objectivity is mocked as "methodological solipsism" and, my favorite, "immaculate perception". It's a bit like mocking the "myth of the given", but it's funnier. "Since reflection and inquiry always involve a purposive act of selection from within a larger situational whole, the fact-value distinction is bound to dissolve at some point," Dewey says, "and with it the supposed autonomy of facts and factual discourse."
Pirsig illustrates this point with an analogy wherein the situational whole, the immediate flux of experience itself, is like an endless landscape of awareness while our conceptual understandings are just a handful of sand which has been taken from that endless landscape. That handful has been selected, they argue, not simply given. The obvious implication is that conceptual or reflective consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg and we experience far more than we can deliberately ponder -or even consciously notice. Even for the hardest of hard-nosed physicist, there must be some body of "values or goods informing the scientist as to what constitutes meaningful avenues of inquiry, or even what sort of situations are experienced as problematic," Granger explains. "What is more, values are clearly necessary if inquirers are to establish the pertinent facts or data of analysis." (Art of Living 74) There is also a common sense point to be made here: scientists are people with moral obligations to their own particular practice (no cheating!) and to the larger society. "Both [Dewey and Pirsig] want us to understand that without values, no facts could exist." (Art of Living 74)