F. C. S. Schiller

F. C. S. Schiller books and biography

Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller

Western Philosophy
19th/20th century philosophy
Name: F.C.S. Schiller
Birth: August 16, 1864
Death: August 9, 1937
School/tradition: Pragmatism
Main interests: Pragmatism, Logic, Ordinary language philosophy, Epistemology, Eugenics, Meaning, Personalism
Notable ideas: Attacks on formal logic, Justification of axioms as hypotheses, his version of a pragmatic theory of truth, Intelligent design
Influences: William James, Protagoras
Influenced: William James

Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (August 16, 1864 - August 9, 1937) was a German-British pragmatist philosopher. Born in Nord-Schleswig, Denmark, Schiller studied at the University of Oxford, and later was a professor there, after being invited back after a brief time at Cornell. Later in his life he taught at the University of Southern California. In his lifetime he was well-known as a philosopher; after his death his work was largely forgotten.

Schiller's philosophy was very similar to and often aligned with the pragmatism of William James, although Schiller referred to it as humanism. He argued vigorously against both logical positivism (e.g., Bertrand Russell) and absolute idealism (e.g.. F.H. Bradley).

Schiller was an early supporter of evolution and a founding member of the English Eugenics Society.


Riddles of the Sphinx

In 1891, F.C.S. Schiller made his first contribution to philosophy anonymously. Schiller feared that in his time of high naturalism, the metaphysical speculations of his Riddles of the Sphinx were likely to hurt his professional prospects. (p. xi, Riddles) However, Schiller’s fear of reprisal from his anti-metaphysical colleagues does not suggest that Schiller was any friend of metaphysics. Like his fellow pragmatists across the ocean, Schiller was attempting to stake out an intermediate position between both the spartan landscape of naturalism and the speculative excesses of nonsense metaphysics. In Riddles Schiller both, (1) accuses naturalism (which he also sometimes calls “pseudometaphysics” or “positivism” ) of ignoring the fact that metaphysics is required to justify our natural description of the world, and (2) accuses “abstract metaphysics” of losing sight of the world we actually live in and constructing grand, disconnected imaginary worlds. The result, Schiller contends, is that naturalism cannot make sense of the “higher” aspects of our world (freewill, consciousness, God, purpose, universals), while abstract metaphysics cannot make sense of the “lower” aspects of our world (the imperfect, change, physicality). In each case we are unable to guide our moral and epistemological “lower” lives to the achievement of life’s “higher” Ends, ultimately leading to skepticism on both fronts. For knowledge and morality to be possible, both the world’s lower and higher elements must be real; e.g. we need universals (a higher) to make knowledge of particulars (a lower) possible.

Foe to naturalism and metaphysics

In Riddles, Schiller provides us with historical examples of the dangers of abstract metaphysics in the philosophies of Plato, Zeno, and Hegel. Of the three, Schiller portrays the last, Hegel, to be by far the worst offender in the area of abstract metaphysics: Hegelianism never anywhere gets within sight of a fact, or within touch of reality. And the reason is simple: you cannot, without paying the penalty, substitute abstractions for realities; the thought-symbol cannot do duty for the thing symbolized[.] (Schiller p. 160, Riddles; 1891)

Those “facts” that Hegel never “gets within sight of,” are the facts of our lower world. Hegel’s system is unable to account for the fact that in my office an off-white colored desk stands decaying at its base from a damp floor caused by a leak in the foundation. All of these mundane facts seem to be out of reach of Hegel’s abstract world, and Schiller thinks he has no choice but to condemn them as illusionary. The flaw of Hegel’s system is the same flaw of all systems of abstract metaphysics. The worlds they construct always prove to be unhelpful in guiding our imperfect, changing, particular, and physical lives to the achievement of the “higher” universal Ideals and Ends. For example, Schiller argues that the reality of time and change is intrinsically opposed to the very modus operandi of all systems of abstract metaphysics (including Hegel’s system). Of course, the possibility to change is a precondition of any moral action (or action generally), and so any system of abstract metaphysics is bound to lead us into a moral skepticism. The problem lies in the aim of abstract metaphysics for “interpreting the world in terms of conceptions, which should be true not here and now, but ‘eternally’ and independently of Time and Change.” The result is that metaphysics must use conceptions that have the “time-aspect of Reality” abstracted away. Of course, “[o]nce abstracted from,

the reference to Time could not, of course, be recovered, any more than the individuality of Reality can be deduced, when once ignored. The assumption is made that, in order to express the ‘truth’ about Reality, its ‘thisness,’ individuality, change and its immersion in a certain temporal and spatial environment may be neglected, and the timeless validity of a conception is thus substituted for the living, changing and perishing existence we contemplate. [….] What I wish here to point out is merely that it is unreasonable to expect from such premises to arrive at a deductive justification of the very characteristics of Reality that have been excluded. The true reason, then, why Hegelism can give no reason for the Time-process, i.e. for the fact that the world is ‘in time,’ and changes continuously, is that it was constructed to give an account of the world irrespective of Time and Change. If you insist on having a system of eternal and immutable ‘truth,’ you can get it only by abstracting from those characteristics of Reality, which we try to express by the terms individuality, time, and change. But you must pay the price for a formula that will enable you to make assertions that hold good far beyond the limits of your experience. And it is part of the price that you will in the end be unable to give a rational explanation of those very characteristics, which you dismissed at the outset as irrelevant to a rational explanation. (Schiller “The Metaphysics of the Time-Process”; 1894, republished on p. 98-99 of Humanism; 1903)

While abstract metaphysics provides us with a world of Beauty and Purpose and various other “highers”, it condemns other key aspects of the world we live in as imaginary. The world of abstract metaphysics has no place for imperfect moral agents who (1) strive to learn about the world and then (2) act upon the world to change it for the better. In fact, abstract metaphysics denies that the world of change we live is even real! Consequently, abstract metaphysics condemns us as illusionary, and declares our place in the world as unimportant and purposeless. Where abstractions take priority, our concrete lives collapse into skepticism and pessimism.

In making the case that the naturalist method also results in an epistemological and moral skepticism, Schiller looks to show this method’s inadequacy at moving from the cold, lifeless lower world of atoms to the higher world of ethics, meanings, and minds. As with abstract metaphysics, Schiller attacks naturalism on many fronts: (1) the naturalist method is unable to reduce universals to particulars, (2) the naturalist method is unable to reduce freewill to determinist movements, (3) the naturalist method is unable to reduce emergent properties like consciousness to brain activity, (4) the naturalist method is unable to reduce God into a pantheism, and so on. Just as the abstract method cannot find a place for the lower elements of our world inside the higher, the naturalist method cannot find a place for the higher elements of our world inside the lower. In a reversal of abstract metaphysics, naturalism denies the reality of the higher elements to save the lower. Schiller uses the term “pseudo-metaphysical” here instead of naturalism—as he sometimes does—because he is accusing these naturalist philosophers of trying to solve metaphysical problems while sticking to the non-metaphysical “lower” aspects of the world (i.e. without engaging in real metaphysics):

The pseudo-metaphysical method puts forward the method of science as the method of philosophy. But it is doomed to perpetual failure. [….] [T]he data supplied by the physical sciences are intractable, because they are data of a lower sort than the facts they are to explain. The objects of the physical sciences form the lower orders in the hierarchy of existence, more extensive but less significant. Thus the atoms of the physicist may indeed be found in the organization of conscious beings, but they are subordinate: a living organism exhibits actions which cannot be formulated by the laws of physics alone; man is material, but he is also a great deal more. (Schiller p. 152, Riddles; 1891)

To show that the world’s higher elements do not reduce to the lower is not yet to show that naturalism must condemn the world’s higher elements as illusionary. A second component to Schiller’s attack is showing that naturalism cannot escape its inability to reduce the higher to the lower by asserting that these higher elements evolve from the lower. Schiller does not see naturalism as anymore capable of explaining the evolution of the higher from the lower, than naturalism is capable of reducing the higher to the lower. While evolution does begin with something lower that in turn evolves into something higher, the problem for naturalism is that whatever the starting point for evolution is, it must first be something with the potential to evolve into a higher. For example, the world cannot come into existence from nothing because the potential or “germ” of the world is not “in” nothing (nothing has no potential, it has nothing; after all, it is nothing). Likewise, biological evolution cannot begin from inanimate matter, because the potential for life is not “in” inanimate matter. The following passage shows Schiller applying the same sort of reasoning to the evolution of consciousness:

Taken as the type of the pseudo-metaphysical method, which explains the higher by the lower […] it does not explain the genesis of consciousness out of unconscious matter, because we cannot, or do not, attribute potential consciousness to matter. [….] the theory of Evolution derives the [end result] from its germ, i.e., from that which was, what it became, potentially.

Unable to either reduce or explain the evolution of the higher elements of our world, naturalism is left to explain away the higher elements as mere illusions. In doing this, naturalism condemns us to a skepticism in the both epistemology and ethics.

Concrete Metaphysics

Both abstract metaphysics and naturalism portray man as holding an intolerable position in the world. If there is to be a world that doesn’t lead to such a pessimism about our existence, we need a method that not only recognizes the lower world we interact with, but one that will also take into account the higher world of purposes, ideals and abstractions. Schiller:

We require, then, a method which combines the excellencies of both the pseudo-metaphysical and the abstract metaphysical, if philosophy is to be possible at all. (Schiller p. 164, Riddles; 1891) How can this be? Simply by basing our metaphysics on our science. Our metaphysics must be concrete, and not abstract; they must be the inquiry into the ultimate nature of concrete realities, and not of thought abstractions. [….] And so the method of philosophy must utilize the results of science; metaphysical theories must be suggested by scientific researches, and must approve themselves by in their turn suggesting scientific advances. Their principles of explanation must be systematically based on the sciences, and not picked up at random, and their function must be to systematize the fundamental principles of the various sciences. Metaphysic, in short, must again become what it once was in the time of Aristotle—the science of ultimate existence, the science of the first principles of the physical sciences. (Schiller p. 165, Riddles; 1891)

Schiller is demanding a course correction in field of metaphysics, one that puts it at the service of science. Furthermore, Schiller is demanding that shallow-end naturalists no longer fear treading into deeper metaphysical waters. So long as it is done with the results of science in mind, metaphysics is a fruitful and necessary field of inquiry. For example, to explain the creation of the world out of nothing, to explain life out of lifelessness, to explain consciousness out of the unconsciousness, or to explain the emergence or evolution of number of other “higher” parts of the world, Schiller introduces a Divine Being who might generate the End (or Final Cause) which gives nothingness, lifelessness, and unconscious matter the purpose (and thus potential) of evolving into higher forms. Nothingness evolves into the world not because of a cause before it, but because of a final cause at the end of the evolution of the universe:

And thus, so far from dispensing with the need for a Divine First Cause, the theory of evolution, if only we have the faith in science to carry it to its conclusion, and the courage to interpret it, proves irrefragably that no evolution was possible without a pre-existent Deity, and a Deity, moreover, transcendent, non-material and non-phenomenal. [….] [T]he world process is the working out of an anterior purpose or idea in the divine consciousness. (Schiller p. 198, Riddles; 1891)

This re-introduction of teleology (which Schiller sometimes calls a re-anthropomorphizing of the world) is exactly the thing that Schiller thinks the naturalist has become afraid to do. Schiller’s method of concrete metaphysics allows for an appeal to metaphysics when science demands it—as evolution does in this instance. This is not the same as the capricious metaphysician, who shifts to metaphysical explanation just for the sake of doing metaphysics. That sort of metaphysics, the naturalist was right to avoid:

[T]he new teleology would not be capricious or random in its application, but firmly rooted in the conclusions of the sciences [….] The process which the theory of Evolution divined the history of the world to be, must have content and meaning determined from the basis of the scientific data; it is only by a careful study of the history of a thing that we can determine the direction of its development, [and only then] that we can be said to have made the first approximation to the knowledge of the End of the world process. (Schiller p. 205, Riddles; 1891) [This] is teleology of a totally different kind to that which is so vehemently, and on the whole so justly dreaded by the modern exponents of natural science. It does not attempt to explain things anthropocentrically, or regard all creation as existing for the use and benefit of man; it is as far as the scientist from supposing that cork-trees grow in order to supply us with champagne corks. The end to which it supposes all things to subserve is […] the universal End of the world-process, to which all things tend[.] (Schiller p. 203, Riddles; 1891)

By the end of his text, Schiller finally reveals what this “End” is which “all things tend”:

If our speculations have not entirely missed their mark, the world-process will come to an end when all the spirits whom it is designed to harmonize [by its Divine Creator] have been united in a perfect society. [To put it another way], when the individual has become a perfect individual, and has been developed to the utmost of his powers, and is in perfect harmony with and completely adapted to the whole of his environment. (Schiller p. 436, Riddles; 1891)

By concluding that the ultimate End of the world-process is the continued evolution of individuals into beings perfectly adapted to their environment and society, we can see why Schiller considers his metaphysics to be more closely aligned with the sciences than the metaphysicians who deny the reality of time and imperfection. By today’s standards, Schiller’s speculations may seem wildly metaphysical and entirely disconnected from the sciences. However, compared with the metaphysicians of his day (Hegel, McTaggart, etc.), Schiller saw himself to be radically scientific.

Will to believe

Schiller had argued that both naturalism and abstract metaphysics lead to an epistemic and moral skepticism. Schiller has also developed a method of philosophy that he argues can mix the elements of both methods in a way that allows us to avoid the twin skepticisms each method collapses into when followed on their own. However, Schiller does not assume that all this is enough to justify his method of concrete metaphysics over the other two methods. Perhaps naturalism is correct and the higher elements of our world are illusionary, or perhaps abstract metaphysics is correct and our entire lower world of change, striving, and physicality are all illusionary. In short, perhaps skepticism and pessimism are true.

For Schiller to occupy the middle ground between naturalism and abstract metaphysics, he required from himself more justification than simply showing that the other two methods lead to skepticism. To fulfill this requirement, Schiller makes a move that anticipates James’ will to believe doctrine:

And in action especially we are often forced to act upon slight possibilities. Hence, if it can be shown that our solution is a possible answer, and the only possible alternative to pessimism, to a complete despair of life, it would deserve acceptance, even though it were but a bare possibility. (Schiller p. 5, Riddles; 1891)

Schiller contends that in light of the other methods’ failure to provide us humans with a role and place in the universe, we ought avoid the adoption of these methods if at all possible. By the end of Riddles, Schiller can offer his method of concrete metaphysics as the only possible method that results in a world where we can navigate our lower existence to the achievement of our higher purpose, and hence Schiller asserts that it is the method we ought adopt regardless of the evidence against it (“even though it were but a bare possibility”).

While Schiller’s will to believe is a central theme of Riddle of the Sphinx (appearing mainly in the introduction and conclusion of his text), the doctrine holds a limited role in 1891. In Riddles, Schiller only employs the will to believe doctrine when he is faced with overcoming skeptic and pessimistic methods of philosophy. In 1897, William James published his essay “The Will to Believe”, and Schiller was influenced to drastically expand his application of the doctrine. For a 1903 volume titled Personal Idealism, Schiller provides a widely-read essay titled “Axioms as Postulates” in which he sets out to justify the “axioms of logic” as postulates adopted on the basis of the will to believe doctrine. In this essay Schiller extends the will to believe doctrine to be the basis of our acceptance of causality, of the uniformity of nature, of our concept of identity, of contradiction, of the principle of the excluded middle, of space and time, of the goodness of God, and more. Arbitrary picking an example that long from the list for examination, in Schiller’s discussion of the uniformity of nature he notes that we postulate that nature is uniform because we need nature to be uniform:

[O]ut of the hurly-burly of events in time and space [we] extract[ ] changeless formulas whose chaste abstraction soars above all reference to any ‘where’ or ‘when,’ and thereby renders them blank cheques to be filled up at our pleasure with any figures of the sort. The only question is—Will Nature honour the cheque? Audentes Natura juvat—let us take our life in our hands and try! If we fail, our blood will be on our own hands (or, more probably, in some one else’s stomach), but though we fail, we are in no worse case than those who dared not postulate [….] Our assumption, therefore, is at least a methodological necessity; it may turn out to be (or be near) a fundamental fact in nature [an axiom]. (Schiller p. 111, “Axioms and Postulates”; 1903)

For doctrines like the uniformity of nature, Schiller stresses that they must first be postulated on the basis of need (not evidence) and only then “justified by the evidence of their practical working.” Schiller spends a significant amount of “Axioms as Postulates” attacking both empiricists like Mill who try to conclude that nature is uniform from previous experience, as well as Kantians who try to conclude that nature is uniform from the preconditions on our understanding. Schiller makes a forceful argument that preconditions are not conclusions, but demands made on our experience that may or may not work. On this success, hinges our continued acceptance of the postulate and its eventual promotion to axiom status.

It is this last step—the step where in “Axioms and Postulates” Schiller vindicates the postulation by its success in practice—that marks an important shift from Schiller’s Riddles of a Sphinx. In Riddles, Schiller is concerned with vague aim of connecting the “higher” to the “lower” so he can avoid skepticism, but by the 1903 publication of “Axioms as Postulates” Schiller has clarified the connection sort of connection he sees these two elements of the world to hold to one another. The “higher” abstract elements of the world are connected to the lower because they are our inventions for dealing with the lower; therefore their truth depends on their success as tools. Schiller dates the entry of this element into his thinking in his 1892 essay “Reality and ‘Idealism’” (a mere year after his 1891 Riddles).

The plain man’s ‘things,’ the physicist’s ‘atoms,’ and Mr. Ritchie’s ‘Absolute,’ are all of them more or less preserving and well-considered schemes to interpret the primary reality of phenomena, and in this sense Mr. Ritchie is entitled to call the ‘sunrise’ a theory. But the chaos of presentations, out of which we have (by criteria ultimately practical) isolated the phenomena we subsequently call sunrise, is not a theory, but the fact which has called all theories into being. In addition to generating hypothetical objects to explain phenomena, this process of the interpretation of reality by our thought also bestows a derivative reality on the abstraction themselves with which thought works. If they are the instruments wherewith thought accomplishes such effects upon reality, they must surely be themselves real. (Schiller “Reality and ‘Idealism’; 1892, reprinted on p. 120 of Humanism; 1903)

Schiller goes on in the essay to restate many of the same of objections against the abstract metaphysician that he made in Riddles, only now Schiller has begun a shift in his thinking that makes his valuing of the “higher” world as mere instruments for dealing with the “lower” world. This shift continues in his next published work, “The Metaphysics of the Time-Process” (1895): The abstractions of metaphysics, then, exist as explanations of the concrete facts of life, and not the latter as illustrations of the former [….] Science [along with concrete metaphysics] does not refuse to interpret the symbols with which it operates; on the contrary, it is only their applicability to the concrete facts originally abstracted from that is held to justify their use and to establish their ‘truth.’ (“The Metaphysics of the Time-Process”; 1895, also on p. 102–103 of Humanism; 1903)

The accusation Schiller makes against the metaphysician in Riddles can now be seen in a more pragmatic light. His objection is similar to one we might make against a worker who constructs a flat-head screwdriver to help him build a home, and who then accuses a screw of unreality when he comes upon a Phillips-screw that his flat-head screwdriver won’t fit. In his works after Riddles, Schiller’s attack takes the form of reminding the abstract metaphysician that abstractions are meant as tools for dealing with the “lower” world of particulars and physicality, and that after constructing abstractions we cannot simply drop the un-abstracted world out of our account. The un-abstracted world is the entire reason for making abstractions in the first place. We did not abstract to reach the unchanging and eternal truths; we abstract to construct an imperfect and rough tool for dealing with life in our particular and concrete world. It is the working of the higher in “making predictions about the future behavior of things for the purpose of shaping the future behavior of things for the purpose of shaping our own conduct accordingly” that justifies the higher. (p. 104, Humanism; 1903)

To assert this methodological character of eternal truths is not, of course, to deny their validity [….] To say that we assume the truth of abstraction because we wish to attain certain ends, is to subordinate theoretic ‘truth’ to a teleological implication; to say that, the assumption once made, its truth is ‘proved’ by its practical working [….] For the question of the ‘practical’ working of a truth will always ultimately be found to resolve itself into the question whether we can live by it. (Schiller p. 105, Humanism; 1903)

A few lines down from this passage Schiller adds the following footnote in a 1903 reprint of the essay: “All this seems a very fairly definite anticipation of modern pragmatism.” Indeed, it resembles the pragmatist theory of truth. However, as we will see next, Schiller’s pragmatism is very different from both Peirce and James.

The Biologic of Judgement

As early as 1891 Schiller has adopted a version a James’ Will to Believe Doctrine (which Schiller will later consider a part of his pragmatism). As early as 1892 Schiller has put forth his own pragmatist theory of truth. Concern with the meaning of a statement, however, is a concern Schiller entirely imports from the pragmatisms of James and Peirce. Later in life Schiller musters all of these elements of his pragmatism to make a concerted attack on formal logic. Concerned with bringing down the timeless, perfect worlds of abstract metaphysics early in life, the central target of Schiller’s developed pragmatism is the abstract rules of formal logic. Statements, Schiller contends, cannot possess meaning or truth abstracted away from their actual use. Therefore examining their formal features instead of their function in an actual situation is to make the same mistake the abstract metaphysician makes. Symbols are meaningless scratches on paper unless they are given a life in a situation, and meant by someone to accomplish some task. They are tools for dealing with concrete situations, and not the proper subjects of study themselves.

Both Schiller’s theory of truth and meaning (i.e. Schiller’s pragmatism) derive their justification from an examination of thought from what he calls his humanist viewpoint (his new name for concrete metaphysics). He informs us that to answer “what precisely is meant by having a meaning” will require us to “raise the prior question of why we think at all.” (1930, p. 51) A question Schiller of course looks to evolution to provide.

In searching Schiller’s many published works for a justification of his pragmatist theories of truth and meaning, the most detailed defense Schiller provides is from a chapter titled “The Biologic of Judgment” in his 1935 Logic for Use. The account Schiller lays out in many ways resembles some of what Peirce asserts in his “Fixation of Belief” essay:

Our account of the function of Judgment in our mental life will, however, have to start a long way back. For there is much thinking before there is any judging, and much living before there is any thinking. Even in highly developed minds judging is a relatively rare incident in thinking, and thinking in living, an exception rather than the rule, and a relatively recent acquisition. […] For the most part the living organism adapts itself to it conditions of life by earlier, easier, and quicker expedients. Its actions or reactions are mostly ‘reflex actions’ determined by inherited habits which largely function automatically […] It follows from this elaborate and admirable organization of adaptive responses to stimulation that organic life might proceed without thinking altogether. […] This is, in fact, the way in which most living being carry on their life, and the plane on which man also lives most of the time. Thought, therefore, is an abnormality which springs from a disturbance. Its genesis is connected with a peculiar deficiency in the life of habit. […] Whenever […] it becomes biologically important to notice differences in roughly similar situations, and to adjust action more closely to the peculiarities of a particular case, the guidance of life by habit, instinct, and impulse breaks down. A new expedient has somehow to be devised for effecting such exact and delicate adjustments. This is the raison d’etre of what is variously denominated ‘thought,’ ‘reason,’ ‘reflection,’ ‘reasoning,’ and ‘judgment[.]’ […] Thinking, however, is not so much a substitute for the earlier processes as a subsidiary addition to them. It only pays in certain cases, and intelligence may be shown also by discerning what they are and when it is wiser to act without thinking. […] Philosophers, however, have very mistaken ideas about rational action. They tend to think that men ought to think all the time, and about all things. But if they did this they would get nothing done, and shorten their lives without enhancing their merriment. Also they utterly misconceive the nature of rational action. They represent it as consisting in the perpetual use of universal rules, whereas it consists rather in perceiving when a general rule must be set aside in order that conduct may be adapted to a particular case. (Schiller p. 197-198, Logic for Use; 1929)

This passage of Schiller was worth quoting at length because of the insight this chapter offers into Schiller’s philosophy. In the passage, Schiller makes the claim that thought only occurs when our unthinking habits prove themselves inadequate for handling a particular situation. Schiller’s stressing of the genesis of limited occurrences of thought sets Schiller up for his account of meaning and truth.

Schiller asserts that when a person utters a statement in a situation they are doing so for a specific purpose: to solve the problem that habit could not handle alone. The meaning of such a statement is whatever contribution it makes to accomplishing the purpose of this particular occurrence of thought. The truth of the statement will be if it helps accomplishes that purpose. No utterance or thought can be given a meaning or a truth valuation outside the context of one of these particular occurrences of thought. This account of Schiller’s is a much more extreme view than even James took.

At first glance, Schiller appears very similar to James. However, Schiller’s more stringent requirement that meaningful statements have consequences “to some one for some purpose” makes Schiller’s position more extreme than James’. For Schiller, it is not a sufficient condition for meaningfulness that a statement entail experiential consequences (as it is for both Peirce and James). Schiller requires that the consequences of a statement make the statement relevant to some particular person’s goals at a specific moment in time if it is to be meaningful. Therefore, it is not simply enough that the statement “diamonds are hard” and the statement “diamonds are soft” entail different experiential consequences, it is also required that the experiential difference makes a difference to someone’s purposes. Only then, and only to that person, do the two statements state something different. If the experiential difference between hard and soft diamonds did not connect up with my purpose for entering into thought, the two statements would possess the same meaning. For example, if I were to blurt out “diamonds are hard” and then “diamonds are soft” to everyone in the coffee shop around me right now, my words would mean nothing more than to show that words can only mean something if they are stated with a specific purpose.

Consequently, Schiller rejects the idea that statements can have meaning or truth when they are looked upon in the abstract—away from a particular context. “Diamonds are hard” only possesses meaning when stated (or believed) at some specific situation, by some specific person. It is the consequences the statement holds for that person’s purposes which constitute its meaning, and its usefulness in accomplishing that person’s purposes that constitutes the statement’s truth or falsity. After all, when we look at the sentence “diamonds are hard” in a particular situation we may find it actually has nothing to say about diamonds. A speaker may very well be using the sentence as a joke, as a codephrase, or even simply as an example of a sentence with 15 letters. Which the sentence really means cannot be determined without the specific purpose a person might be using the statement for in a specific context.

In an article titled “Pragmatism and Pseudo-pragmatism” Schiller defends his pragmatism against a particular counter-example in a way that sheds considerable light on his pragmatism:

The impossibility of answering truly the question whether the 100th (or 10,000th) decimal in the evaluation of Pi is or is not a 9, splendidly illustrates how impossible it is to predicate truth in abstraction from actual knowing and actual purpose. For the question cannot be answered until the decimal is calculated. Until then no one knows what it is, or rather will turn out to be. And no one will calculate it, until it serves some purpose to do so, and some one therefore interests himself in the calculation. And so until then the truth remains uncertain: there is no 'true' answer, because there is no actual context in which the question has really been raised. We have merely a number of conflicting possibilities, not even claims to truth, and there is no decision. Yet a decision is possible if an experiment is performed. But his experiment presupposes a desire to know. It will only be made if the point becomes one which it is practically important to decide. Normally no doubt it does not become such, because for the actual purposes of the sciences it makes no difference whether we suppose the figure to be 9 or something else. I.e. the truth to, say, the 99th decimal, is ' true enough ' for our purposes, and the 100th is a matter of indifference. But let that indifference cease, and the question become important, and the ' truth ' will at once become ' useful '. Prof. Taylor's illustration therefore conclusively proves that in an actual context and as an actual question there is no true answer to be got until the truth has become useful. This point is illustrated also by the context Prof. Taylor has himself suggested. For he has made the question about the 100th decimal important by making the refutation of the whole pragmatist theory of knowledge depend on it. And what nobler use could the 100th decimal have in his eyes? If in consequence of this interest he will set himself to work it out, he will discover this once useless, but now most useful, truth, and—triumphantly refute his own contention! (p. 384; 1906)

We might recognize this claim as the sort of absurdity many philosophers try to read into the pragmatism of William James. James, however, would not agree that the meaning of “the 100th decimal of Pi is 9” and “the 100th decimal of Pi is 6” mean the same thing until someone has a reason to care about any possible difference. Schiller on the other hand, does mean to say this. James and Schiller both treat truth as something that happens to a statement, and so James would agree that it only becomes true that the 100th decimal of Pi is 9 when someone in fact believes that statement and it leads them to their goals, but nowhere does James imply that meaning is something that happens to a statement. That is solely an element of Schiller’s pragmatism.

Schiller's Theory of Meaning and Truth

While Schiller feels greatly indebted to the pragmatic works of William James, Schiller can at times seem outright hostile to the pragmatism of C.S. Peirce. Neither Schiller nor James had a very good handle on what Peirce intended with his pragmatism, and they were both often baffled by Peirce’s insistent rebuffing of what they both saw as the natural elaboration of the pragmatist cornerstone he himself first laid down. On the basis of his misunderstandings, Schiller complains that for Peirce to merely say “‘truths should have practical consequences’” is to be “very vague, and hints at no reason for the curious connexion it asserts.” Schiller goes on to denigrate Peirce’s principle as nothing more than a simple truism “which hardly deserves a permanent place and name in philosophic usage[.]” After all, Schiller points out, “[i]t is hard […] to see why even the extremest intellectualism should deny that the difference between the truth and the falsehood of an assertion must show itself in some visible way.” (p. 236; 1905)

With Peirce’s attempts to restrict the use of pragmatism put aside, Schiller unpacks the term “consequences” to provide what he considers as a more substantial restatement of Peirce’s pragmatism:

For to say that a [statement] has consequences and that what has none is meaningless, must surely mean that it has a bearing upon some human interest; they must be consequences to some one for some purpose. (p. 236 “The Definition of ‘Pragmatism’ and ‘Humanism’”; 1905)

Schiller believes his pragmatism to be more developed because of its attention to the fact that the “consequences” which make up meaning and truth of a statement, must always be consequences for someone’s particular purposes at some particular time. Continuing his condemnation of the abstract, Schiller contends that the meaning of a concept is not the consequences of some abstract proposition, but what consequences an actual thinker hopes its use will bring about in an actual situation. The meaning of a thought is what consequences one means to bring about when they employ the thought. To Schiller, this is what a more sophisticated pragmatist understands by the term meaning.

If we are to understand the pragmatic theory of meaning in Schiller’s way, he is right to claim that James’ theory of truth is a mere corollary of the pragmatist theory of meaning:

But now, we may ask, how are these ' consequences ' to test the ' truth ' claimed by the assertion? Only by satisfying or thwarting that purpose, by forwarding or baffling that interest. If they do the one, the assertion is ' good ' and pro tanto ' true '; if they do the other, ' bad ' and false '. Its ' consequences,' therefore, when investigated, always turn out to involve the ' practical' predicates 'good ' or 'bad,' and to contain a reference to ' practice' in the sense in which we have used that term. So soon as therefore we go beyond an abstract statement of the narrower pragmatism, and ask what in the concrete, and in actual knowing, 'having consequences ' may mean, we develop inevitably the fullblown pragmatism in the wider sense. (p. 236-237 “The Definition of ‘Pragmatism’ and ‘Humanism’”; 1905)

Notes and references

Recommended Reading

  • "The Ethical Basis of Metaphysics" reprinted in F.C.S. Schiller's Humanism (1902)
  • "Useless 'Knowledge'" reprinted in F.C.S. Schiller's Humanism (1902)
  • "Axioms as Postulates" published in the collection Personal Idealism (1902)
  • "The Pragmatic Humanism of F.C.S. Schiller" in Cornelis De Waal's On Pragmatism (2005)
  • Pragmatic Humanism of F.C.S. Schiller by Rueben Abel
  • Humanistic Pragmatism: The Philosophy of F.C.S. Schiller edited by Rueben Abel

[edit Selected works

  • Riddles of the Sphinx (1891)
  • "Axioms as Postulates" (1902, published in the collection Personal Idealism)
  • Humanism (1903)
  • Studies in Humanism (1907)
  • Plato or Protagoras? (1908)
  • Riddles of the Sphinx (1910, revised edition)
  • Humanism (1912, second edition)
  • Formal Logic(1912)
  • Problems of Belief (1924, second edition)
  • Logic for Use (1929)
  • Our Human Truths (1939), published posthumously)

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