Over in Sandbox I started discussing some of my readings of Sellars, Rorty, and related philosophers, and a few folks said they’d be interested in an OP. So here we go.
Much of my training and scholarship over the past 12 years has been on what’s called (variously) “pragmatism” and/or “American philosophy.” What I want to do here is tell a brief story about the history of American pragmatism, without getting too technical or pedantic. In particular I want to focus on the distinct kind of philosophy that American pragmatism was and is, because it’s very different from the sort of Western philosophy that most people are taught in schools and colleges.
If one is taught “Western philosophy” (a concept of which we ought to be deeply suspicious, but moving on) then one has probably learned about philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant. Or one has gotten a potted history of “the problems of philosophy”: the Problem of Evil, the Problem of Other Minds, the Problem of Free Will, the Problem of the External World. Unless one takes a class or two in political philosophy or philosophy of science, one may easily get the impression that philosophers are concerned with a different kind of knowledge than ordinary empirical knowledge: they are interested in absolute knowledge, ultimate value, in the “foundations” of knowledge and experience. And that’s going to look not only abstract (to put it mildly) but disconnected from the actual difficulties and issues that arise in the lives of ordinary people just trying to get by and make sense of it all. It’s understandable that philosophy gets a bad rap, esp. compared to disciplines that actually make progress in answering questions.
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a polymath and by all accounts irascible genius, began a revolution in philosophy, still ongoing, by trying to make philosophy — even and especially metaphysics — more like the natural sciences. Peirce was influenced on the one hand by the philosophical tradition, especially Hume, Kant, and Reid (and to some extent as well post-Kantian German Idealism) — but on the other hand, by new developments in the philosophy and methodology of science, logic, and mathematics.
In his “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” (1868) Peirce urges that philosophers break with Descartes by taking the empirical sciences, rather than pure mathematics, as the method to employ in doing philosophy. From here Peirce develops a way of doing metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science that is continuous with the empirical sciences and not somehow disjoint from them. John Dewey (1859-1952) followed suit (though in Dewey’s case there was numerous other influences as well!) with a comprehensive philosophical system that begins with the Darwinian observation that human beings are animals with a long evolutionary history that explains how we got to be the way that we are.
One of Peirce’s “Big Ideas” is “let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts”. A good deal of Western philosophy involves pretend doubt: maybe our senses are unreliable! Maybe our intellect is unreliable! Maybe there is no God! Maybe there is a God! etc. Peirce — and following him James and Dewey — would insist that when we doubt in our hearts, it is because there is a good reason to do so.
For example, we would have good reason to wonder if our car can fit into a parking space if we’re not sure if the space is large enough, and we would have good reason to wonder if denial of climate change is done in good faith if the scientists who publicly question it are funded by the Koch brothers. These are cases of genuine doubt — where we have good reasons, motivated by what we know about the real-world conditions in which we operate, for doubt about specific cases.
The pragmatists insist that the kind of doubt that matters to us in philosophy has to be genuine doubt, not merely pretended doubt motivated by simplistic thought-experiments.
For a long time it was thought that American pragmatism basically died off in the US after Dewey’s death until it was revived in the 1980s by Rorty and Putnam. In the past years a new generation of scholars has been contesting this narrative. On the new view, pragmatism was kept alive and kicking in the US after Dewey’s death through philosophers such as C. I. Lewis, Nelson Goodman, Morton White, Wilfrid Sellars, W. V. O. Quine, and Donald Davidson. These philosophers in turn influenced not only Rorty and Putnam but also Churchland, Dennett, Rawls, and many others. Ideas from Peirce and Dewey can be found in a good deal of contemporary political philosophy, philosophy of cognitive science, and epistemology, and Sellars has influenced not only Rorty, Dennett, and Churchland but also the whole “Pittsburgh School” of philosophy.
Along with antiskepticism, pragmatism is also associated with antifoundationalism: the rejection of the modern (and Kantian) assumption that knowledge and meaning require some unshaken, unquestionable foundation from which all else springs. In Sellars’s phrase, a foundation involves “the Myth of the Given”: nothing can be both epistemically efficacious (able to confer warrant) and epistemically independent (not depending on anything other states for being warranted). There are no Unjustified Justifiers — contra to the hopes of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, Russell, and Husserl. Rather, Montaigne was right, Hume was somewhat more right, and Hegel was almost completely right. (This leads to the question of the relation between pragmatism and Ancient skepticism, which is far more interesting than Cartesian anxieties.)
This leads finally to the interesting and difficult question as to whether pragmatism ultimately amounts to a kind of “postmodernism” which eschews not only all foundations, certainty, and permanence but also all objectivity, rationality, reasonable, value, progress, and meaning. Does pragmatism ultimately become a kind of nihilism? These are difficult questions that arise in part because it is Rorty’s postmodern pragmatism that has become much better known today than the classical pragmatism of Peirce and Dewey, and partly because Rorty develops his postmodern pragmatism through a sophisticated internal critique of Sellars, Quine, and Davidson.
Though pragmatism has deep roots in Western philosophy (and not only Western philosophy) it comes into its own in the 19th century when philosophers, reflecting on the success of empirical science and mathematics, finally outgrow the dependence on the Eleatic assumption — the assumption that there must be real stability and permanence underlying all merely apparent flux and change. It is has taken a long time to be recognized as such, but American pragmatism is a genuine revolution in the history of Western philosophy.