Like many teenagers, I grew up thinking about the big questions: what is God?, where did we come from?, what is the meaning of life?, what happens when we die? I was fortunate to live in a household that welcomed such questions -- and although I wasn't given many satisfying answers, I was always encouraged to keep doubting and investigating. In middle and high school that often meant confronting these questions at church, where I was often given answers I found to be lacking in intellectual rigor. As my doubting became less and less welcomed, I was happy to discover that academia dealt with such issues too. So I started to explore.
In college I had the privilege of studying religion and philosophy full-time, but I couldn't find the answers I was looking for there either. By my senior year I had consciously rejected Christianity and was looking for a philosophy to fill the void that theology once filled. The problem was I had a head full of philosophical theories but no way to choose between them. I was looking for an all-encompassing system that revealed the true structure of reality, but I couldn't come up with any criteria that told me which system to endorse. Did I believe in free will or determinism? Did I think the universe started from a single substance, or was reality fundamentally plural? Which system of moral values should I endorse when it's so easy to concoct situations where supposedly complimentary moral laws contradict one another (e.g. You don't want to lie or kill? -- Do you tell the Nazi soldier at your door that you're hiding a Jewish family in your attic? ..Talk about a lose/lose)? I was neck deep in academic theorem, and coming up empty.
And then I read Richard Rorty. He was confirming the inchoate attitude I had been forming -- that the problem wasn't my inability to choose between Western philosophical systems -- it was Western philosophy's problem for asking all the wrong questions. There's no way any possible experience could tell us what happens when we die, or whether we really have free wills or are wholly determined by material factors. There's no possible way to determine whether the intrinsic nature of reality is physical or spiritual. These questions are meta-physical in that they are by their very nature incapable of being determined by any physical means. There is no test, no evidence -- only speculation.
Rorty introduced me for the first time to the American Pragmatists -- a school of philosophers that I find to be extremely honest in their quest to avoid metaphysical speculation. Striving to avoid such speculation in philosophical inquiry may sound innocent enough, but it's implications are far-reaching, and often radical and counter intuitive. We in Western societies are far from having incorporated the insights of the pragmatists (and those similar to them: Nietzsche, the later Wittgenstein, Emerson, etc.) into our common world-views, and it's possible that we're suffering for it.
Ever since those days in 2006 I have been fascinated with the Pragmatists, and have re-studied the history of Western philosophy in light of their contributions. While I felt it important to go back through the history of Western thought instead of going around it, my goal on this blog is to spell out the cash-value of pragmatism without burying you in intellectual history and philosophical jargon. If you want to ask questions, we can go as deep as you want, but I hope these writings help you make a little more sense of the world around you...Sense that you can explain to any intelligent lay-person...not just obnoxious philosophers.
Or feel free to shoot me an e-mail at Justin@thepragmaticturn.com
And just to be official, here's my CV:
Justin Benjamin Marshall
M.A., Philosophy, George Mason University, 2010
B.A., Philosophy, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, 2006
AREAS OF SPECIALIZATION
Social and Political Philosophy, Ethics, American Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind
AREAS OF COMPETENCE
History of Philosophy, Epistemology, Philosophy of Religion
Journalism and Democracy Semester, Pristina, Kosovo, Miami University, Ohio, 2009
Graduate Epistemology Proseminar (Audit), Dr. Wayne Davis, Georgetown University, 2009
Honors American Thought (Audit), Dr. John Lachs, Vanderbilt University, 2007
Oxford Scholar's Semester, Philosophy and Christianity, Wycliffe Hall, 2005
Philosophy Instructor, Knowledge Commons D.C., 2012-present
Volunteer, United States Institute Of Peace, Ethics Consultant, Peace Media Program, 2011-12
Steering Committee Member, Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy Conference, Washington, D.C., 2011
Table Talk Moderator, Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy Conference, Writing Public Philosophy, 2011
Essay Competition Finalist, Finitude and Human Rights, Georgetown Peace and Conflict Resolution Conference, 2010
Lecturer in Philosophy, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University, 2009-present
Member, Capital Consortium for Neuroscience, Washington, D.C., 2009-2011
Intern, Kosova Live News Agency, Pristina, Kosovo, 2009
Faculty Paper Submission to Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Human Rights, Social Habit, and Imagination, 2008
Proofreader, Philosophy Of Religion by Melville Stewart, Peking University Press, 2005