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Lachs, John. Stoic Pragmatism.

LACHS, John. Stoic Pragmatism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012. 193 pp. Cloth, $70.00; paper, $25.00--Few philosophers writing today have said as much as John Lachs about how philosophy can make life better. That theme is at least as prominent in Stoic Pragmatism as it is in A Community of Individuals and The Relevance of Philosophy to Life, earlier books by Lachs that do not mince words about philosophy's potential for ameliorating practical problems. In Stoic Pragmatism, however, Lachs is explicit that discovering new facts is not one of the ways in which philosophy can improve things. He explains in chapter one that philosophers imitate the sciences at their own risk, in that scientists are equipped to add to the sum of what we know, while philosophers are not.

Lachs's point is not that philosophers are handicapped, but that they should not attempt feats that neither their knowledge nor their methods enable them to accomplish. At the same time, Stoic Pragmatism presents what is perhaps the strongest case ever made by Lachs that the raw material of philosophy is not limited to mental realities, such as ideas. "Philosophy must deal with the whole human being," he writes, "not only with the mind." The cumulative effect of these points is a picture of philosophy as capable of less in one respect bur more in another, equally important one.

Appropriately, the central idea of Stoic Pragmatism is stoic pragmatism. This idea, presented in the first section of Chapter two, is roughly that the focus of much of pragmatism (struggling for improvements) and the hallmark of stoicism (surrendering to the inevitable) are fully compatible, even though a popular bur superficial view of them says they are not. Lachs goes ever farther, however, arguing not only that pragmatism and stoicism are compatible, but that they actually "enrich and complete each other."

Stoicism and pragmatism are compatible in that they are equally appropriate, although under different circumstances. Pragmatism is appropriate when it is possible to do better, stoicism when it is not. As evidence of this compatibility, Lachs observes that pragmatists often behave like stoics and stoics like pragmatists. Seneca, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and many other stoics were "committed to ... social ameliorative action," and William James came close to recommending calm acceptance of the fact that part of the ideal must be "'butchered.'"

Further evidence of deep compatibility between pragmatism and stoicism is that "in every case in which we wish to improve something, we have to accept the conditions that make amelioration possible." This amounts to agreement with James' view that goods can be had only at the expense of others that are equally good. The point is that stoic acceptance of trade-offs is a necessary condition of engaging in activities that are at the heart of pragmatism.

The real difference between stoics and pragmatists, Lachs suggests, is "not primarily in what they do, but in their motivation for doing it." Pragmatists are motivated by the desire for improvement, stoics by the desire for invulnerability and inner peace. But rather than embracing a gospel of improvement to the point of futility, or one of utter indifference to all events, we are better off with stoic pragmatism, which "provides a better attitude to life than either of the two views alone." Pragmatism and stoicism complete each other to form this better attitude: we do not want to retreat into indifference when improvement is possible, yet we invite disappointment if we do not retreat when it is not.

On the pragmatism side of Stoic Pragmatism, there is the less central but no less important theme of the appropriate relation of philosophers to the public. The book's official view is that the public needs and wants what philosophers have to offer: "The public is hungry for thoughtful commentaries on the affairs of life and for guidance on how to deal with its problems." Unfortunately, it is unclear how this comports with a second view advanced in the book, one that is less emphasized but equally clear. The second view assigns a very modest role to intellect in human life. "Our behavior may be intelligible on some level, but it is not controlled by intellect and for the most part is not open to the suasion of reason." In fact, the "central organ" of philosophy is "not reason bur the will, with its infuriating obstinacy."

If the public lacks "thoughtful commentaries" and "guidance," it is hard to see how philosophers can provide them when their activities are not based on reason bur on something altogether different, the nature of which is "infuriating obstinacy." A more fundamental question, however, is whether a public whose behavior is "not controlled by intellect" and "not open to the suasion of reason" would benefit from "thoughtful commentaries" and "guidance" or even want them. Lachs invites this inquiry when he refers to "the nonverbal nonintellectuals who constitute the bulk of humankind." He suggests an answer when he implies that "the vast majority of people" would be happy with a life that does not include "deep thoughts" bur is materially comfortable. If this is true, then philosophers may have something to offer some members of the public, bur "the bulk of humankind" neither needs nor wants what philosophers and other intellectuals might like to give them.

Like all of Lachs's books, Stoic Pragmatism is clear, provocative, and relevant to some of the most pressing problems of our lives. It is a book for engaged intellectuals, philosophers and nonphilosophers alike.---Michael Brodrick, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
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Author:Brodrick, Michael
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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