A Pragmatist’s Embrace of Stoicism

Do our thoughts mirror reality?  Or are they just a tool for prediction, problem solving or action?  Well philosophical pragmatists think it’s the latter.  In fact, pragmatists aren’t necessarily interested in whether they think ideas correspond to reality but are specifically interested in whether ideas serve practical purposes in our daily life.  Pragmatism originated from Charles Sanders Peirce and his pragmatic maxim:

“Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

(Peirce, 1878, p. 132)

Peirce is saying that the meaning of any idea that one has is meaningful if it has some practical effects observed in the world.  William James took the pragmatic maxim and expanded it to concern the truth of our thoughts.  Does Stoicism, as a system of thought, mirror reality?  How about all of Stoicism’s various precepts, like “virtue is the only good”?  Or is Stoicism and it’s individual ethical prescriptions simply part of a narrative that helps people cope in their daily lives with come-what-may?  Stoicism, more specifically its precepts, could mirror reality but there’s no denying that it’s a useful system as a whole. What’s  more is Stoicism is part of a coherent worldview that mutually supports Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  It’s a plus that CBT and Stoicism can mesh well since CBT is a scientific therapy that produces effective and evidence-based results.

Stoicism as a whole is a useful system of thought.  It helps its practitioners view all externals without morally judging them.  This allows Stoic practitioners to free their minds of the common conception that externals are either good or bad.  By regarding externals as ethically neutral, practitioners can focus on intrinsic goals.  Their cognitive resources are freed up significantly from anxiety and anger.

Stoicism is also adaptable because it is willing to update its metaphysics wherever a scientific naturalist framework will take it.  As Marcus Aurelius discussed in the Meditation that he could use Stoic ethics, whether “providence or atoms.” Marcus Aurelius could adjust to these circumstances by continuing to live by the maxim that virtue is the only good.  In fact, somewhat radically Marcus Aurelius suggested that if something comes across his mind that is better than virtue, he’ll follow it (Meditations 3:6), which means the core doctrine of Stoicism is falsifiable.

The Stoic ethic, “virtue is the only good,” not only helps individual practitioners but it is socially helpful.  The pragmatist John Dewey thought that morals boil down to maxims that assist humans in achieving social ends that produce a satisfying life for individuals in society (Field, n.d.).  If John Dewey were alive today, perhaps Modern Stoic philosophers could convince him that Stoicism fits that social role.  After all, if society stressed virtue as the sole good and individuals en masse followed virtue as the sole end, then there should be social effects good for individuals in society.

As discussed above, from the pragmatist perspective, it matters not whether Stoicism and its precepts truly correspond to reality-with-a-capital-R.  All that matters is that it works effectively at achieving important social ends.  It helps if Stoicism coheres with existing worldviews that are also instrumentally good, like CBT.  Stoicism as a system works well for the individual, for society, is adaptable, and is falsifiable.  To pragmatists, it should be quite instrumental.

References

Peirce, C.S. (January 1878). “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly. 12, 286-302.

Field, R. “John Dewey.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (ISSN 2161-0002). Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/

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