Skepticism, Pragmatism, and “Postmodernism”

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.










0

65 thoughts on “Skepticism, Pragmatism, and “Postmodernism”

  1. walto:
    One thing I recall about reading Peirce was that I was surprised how explicitly Platonist he was in a bunch of passages. He was quite dismissive of nominalism. That wasn’t how I’d thought pragmatists were supposed to talk.

    I found him much more difficult than James–which I guess most people do. If I ever get a chance, ï’ll get around to reading the book about the Harvard philosophy dept. back then–The Metaphysical Club. One last remark is that it’s not true that Wittgenstein read only the three guys Bruce mentioned. He was fond of Varieties of Religious Experience (as am I) and it’s clear he knw Leibniz, Avenerius, etc.

    What I said on W come from Ray Monk’s “Reading Wittgenstein”, where he says W was “woefully under educated in philosophy” and took no courses in it.

    FWIW, Misak has nothing good to say about the Metaphysical Club’s thesis that pragmatism was a reaction to the emotional toll of the civil war on the American psyche. I did read MC a long time and enjoyed it as a historical narrative (I had no context for the philosophy).

    ETA: I would not attempt Peirce in the original; he is hard to read (although most pre-1900 philosophers would be for me!) and his views changed. I understand Misak is a recognized scholar in him, so I take her views as well-grounded.

    0
  2. BruceS: W was “woefully under educated in philosophy” and took no courses in it.

    I don’t want to gainsay Monk on Wittgenstein, but there’s no question he’d read a lot of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard too. When at Cambridge, he was obsessed with the foundations of logic, so he concentrated on Russell, Whitehead, Frege, and Peano. By the time the Vienna Circle was operating, they all mostly read and thought about Wittgenstein.

    0
  3. I am willing to confess that I’m a committed nominalist and that Peirce’s relentless battle against nominalism has always perplexed me. But I don’t think he was at all a Platonist about abstracta. He sometimes referred to himself as a “Scotistic realist” in the manner of Duns Scotus.

    My general impression is that Peirce thought that nominalism entailed the denial that reality has any tendencies, dispositions, or structures of any sort. He therefore thought that nominalism could not explain how predictions are possible, since (reasonably enough) predictions of the general sort “If A is the case, then if B were to happen, then C would probably result” require that the universe have some degree of empirically detectable causal and modal structure.

    Whereas I’m happy enough to call myself a nominalist because I’m a process ontologist, Peirce would undoubtedly say that my view is unstable: either admit enough structure into the account of processes that I cease to be a nominalist (by his lights) and accept real generals and laws, or deny all structure to processes, everything becomes sheer flux, and it’s impossible to predicate or experience any intelligibility at all.

    0
  4. BruceS: I also understand Quine’e education was as a logician, not a philosopher, and that he learned his philosophy from post-PhD work, often with CI Lewis. He did however engage with other philosophers after publishing his core ideas.

    Quine was a mathematics major as undergraduate at Oberlin, which is when he was told to read Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. He wrote his PhD under Whitehead at Harvard and did take some classes with Lewis there. I think that one could probably write a nice little paper that compares Lewis’s influence on Quine with his influence on Sellars. Sellars was four years younger than Quine and Sellars took classes with Lewis and Quine at Harvard. But Sellars never wrote a dissertation — he took some classes at Oxford and at Harvard but was then hired to teach at University of Iowa, thanks to some good ol’ boy connections (Sellars’s dad was a well-known philosopher of the time).

    0
  5. walto: I don’t want to gainsay Monk on Wittgenstein, but there’s no question he’d read a lot of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard too. When at Cambridge, he was obsessed with the foundations of logic, so he concentrated on Russell, Whitehead, Frege, and Peano. By the time the Vienna Circle was operating, they all mostly read and thought about Wittgenstein.

    True — and Wittgenstein was also deeply influenced by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There’s a religious dimension to his thought that’s very interesting and that can’t be ignored if you want a holistic appreciation of his work. There’s a story that the Vienna Circle invited Wittgenstein to give a talk. He read the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore instead.

    The part of the story that Misak is trying to tell, I think, is about why “the later Wittgenstein” (Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty, but beginning with the Blue and Brown Books) is so close to pragmatism. On her account it’s his friendship with Ramsey. Another influence on the later Wittgenstein was Piero Sraffa, an Italian Marxist economist. There’s a deep convergence between Marx and pragmatism, esp. Dewey, when it comes to giving a naturalistic and materialistic ‘inversion’ of Hegel.

    My suspicion is that the later Wittgenstein’s concerns about the fundamental role of social practices — as we see in his reflections on rule-following and the impossibility of a private language — are influenced by both Ramsey’s pragmatism and Sraffa’s Marxism.

    My suspicion that there’s a deep conceptual gulf between Wittgenstein and Quine is shaped by this remark from Jay Rosenberg, comparing Quine and Sellars:

    “Quine’s philosophical vision is, as it were, purely descriptive. His is a world of ‘is’s without ‘ought’s, and of regularities without rules. It is, one might say, a de facto world. And that makes it, in one clear sense, a world without us in it.”

    The differences (which to my mind are quite decisive) are that for Wittgenstein, it is not even intelligible to describe the constitutive norms of a form of life to those who do not share that form of life, whereas for Quine, we simply can dispense with norms, meanings, rules, and all that stuff — regularities in behavior are all we need, described in an extensional vocabulary, are quite sufficient.

    0
  6. If you’re interested, I think I found a copy of Wittgenstein and Quine free online–after I bought the damn thng in pb. If it’s not there anymore or you can’t find it, and you’d like the pdf, pm me your email address and I’ll send you a copy.

    0
  7. Alan Fox:
    I see Cheryl Misak …available on Google Books.

    I collude with the Russkies to access books priced for people who have academic access.

    0
  8. walto: I don’t want to gainsay Monk on Wittgenstein

    In case I was not clear on my motivation for these comments on Quine and Wittgenstein: they are not intended to disparage the two. Rather, they were in reply to Alan’s comments on the relative roles of history in philosophy and science.

    Two of the great 20th century philosophers did not have a broad or formal education in philosophy before doing their early, influential work.

    0
  9. Leiter does not think much of Rorty.

    In reply to an Aeon article claiming Roraarty tried to turn philosophy away from epistemology and metaphysics, and toward more practical concerns:
    https://twitter.com/BrianLeiter/status/1105244344657813504
    [start of Leiter quote]
    “Rorty’s work was mostly epistemology and metaphysics, although not very original, mostly derivative on misunderstandings of Sellars and Quine. When he turned practical and therapeutic he was a boring bourgeois liberal!”

    0
  10. BruceS:
    Leiter does not think much of Rorty.

    In reply to an Aeon article claiming Roraarty tried to turn philosophy away from epistemology and metaphysics, and toward more practical concerns:
    https://twitter.com/BrianLeiter/status/1105244344657813504
    [start of Leiter quote]
    “Rorty’s work was mostly epistemology and metaphysics, although not very original, mostly derivative on misunderstandings of Sellars and Quine. When he turned practical and therapeutic he was a boring bourgeois liberal!”

    Probably the only two people who ever get slammed like that are Rorty…and Leiter.

    0
  11. BruceS: I collude with the Russkies to access books priced for people who have academic access.

    I only know how to get articles from that site.

    0
  12. walto: Probably the only two people who ever get slammed like that are Rorty…and Leiter.

    I know Leiter gets slammed in the social media for his stance on eg some cases he perceives as illiberal behavior by undergrads or other philosophers. Maybe for his Marxism too, although I have not seen that.

    Does he get slammed in the academic literature for his areas of academic expertise as well (I think they are philosophy of law and (I think) Nietzsche).

    Looks like he is also getting slammed for interview in Vox on free speech.

    ——————-
    Here is a video where Putnam and Rorty diss each other. The philosophical peanut gallery joins in, mostly piling on Rorty as I recall.
    The Putnam-Rorty Debate and the Pragmatist Revival
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlrEbffVVjM

    Lots of Putnam on that channel.

    0
  13. The Wittgenstein and Quine collection is pretty good. I think I read it sometime during grad school.

    I don’t know about his work in philosophy of law, but in my circles Leiter is widely regarded as a competent but not terribly ground-breaking Nietzsche scholar. His Nietzsche on Morality isn’t amazing but it’s definitely the text I recommend to people who are teaching the Genealogy of Morality for the first time and need some basic orientation in the text. And he has a solid article, “The Paradox of Fatalism and Self-Creation in Nietzsche”, which does a good job of articulating a real problem in Nietzsche’s work.

    I think he’s basically right in saying that Rorty was a boring bourgeois liberal, though I think Leiter under-appreciates Rorty’s early work. Rorty saw the moves that Sellars, Quine, and Davidson were making and saw possibilities in those moves that others didn’t. And he helped overcome the stigma against “Continental philosophy”.

    It is true that Leiter has earned a poor reputation in the profession for acting in ways that are serious transgressions of professional norms. He’s said and done things that turned a lot of people against him. But I’m not going to get into details because quite frankly it’s just academic politics, and who the hell cares about that?

    0

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.