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.










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

  1. Thanks for the post.

    What is the major difference between Pragmatism and Utilitarianism — like John Stewart Mill. Are they substantially different? I’m not enough of a student on these topics to make a distinction. I’ve always liked the writings of Mill (what little I’ve read).

    Quine is a first rate mind, but I learned of him, ironically in relation to the Origin of Life question since many ID proponents view living organisms as Quine computing systems. So I didn’t realize Quine was such an influential philosopher too, since I knew him more in the computer science realm.

    Thanks in advance.

  2. In the spirit of countering philosophistry and the denial or outright rejection of devout religious Judaism (e.g. “an eye for an eye” could be seen as rather ‘pragmatic’ by some USAmerican standards), let me offer a reply.

    “A good deal of Western philosophy involves pretend doubt: maybe our senses are unreliable! Maybe our intellect is unreliable! Maybe there is no God!”

    The additional sentence wasn’t needed, once the initial skepticism was given as a broadly construed ‘norm’ of ‘western philosophy’.

    “American pragmatism is a genuine revolution in the history of Western philosophy.”

    I disagree. USAmerican pragmatism has thinned, narrowed & superficialised the thinking of far too many ‘western philosophers.’ Surely this won’t be disputed, will it? If that result is considered ‘revolutionary’ then perhaps US ideological pragmatism is just not a good ‘revolution,’ but rather one that reflects a kind of intellectual decadence in the USA & among those who’ve embraced it. Those who have adopted pragmatism as inevitable or necessary will of course disagree.

    In the article Charles Taylor wasn’t mentioned. William James was skirted. And Charles S. Peirce was the only other religious philosopher mentioned, other than pre-moderns. This wasn’t a pragmatic decision by the OP author, but rather an ideological choice of who to follow; secularists & atheists. https://newrepublic.com/article/91851/gods-pragmatist

    Once one involves sociology beyond philosophy or philosophistry, it is widely acknowledged that we live in a post-modern era, which doesn’t require ideological postmodernism (or USAmerican pragmatism or empiricism for that matter). We are in many ways ‘post-modern’ people in the 21st century, perhaps awaiting a new positive term to replace the requirement of using a ‘post-‘ to distinguish ourselves. However, if one has eschewed *ANY* religious or theological basis for their philosophising, it isn’t difficult to see why falling into ideological postmodernism has become the norm among many, if not most ‘western philosophers’ (Plantinga & Feser, or Saul Kripke, serve as exceptions to that norm). Even those ‘western philosophers’ who might wish to try dancing away from postmodernism, absent a religious or theological basic and distorting metaphysics with epistemology, the result is often the same in the end. If not nihilism, then scientism, & almost complete lack of inspiration and uplift.

    Better is available for those who will put in the effort & seek. I recommend the search beyond pragmatism as ultimately much more rewarding.

  3. stcordova: What is the major difference between Pragmatism and Utilitarianism — like John Stewart Mill. Are they substantially different? I’m not enough of a student on these topics to make a distinction. I’ve always liked the writings of Mill (what little I’ve read).

    Pragmatists are quite critical of utilitarianism as an ethical theory and vary in their criticisms of Mill’s empiricism. But one should, I think, see the pragmatists as taking some important lessons from Mill’s On Liberty and generalizing them. Mill emphasizes that we are finite and imperfect knowers, none of them has a privileged position with regard to ultimate reality, and therefore standing in need of dialogue and criticism so that we can nudged slightly closer to a better understanding of things. In On Liberty this is marshaled as a point in favor of freedom of speech and assembly. But pragmatists — especially Dewey — really think of this is as the very heart of the human condition: we stand in need of criticism and dialogue in all cognitive and conative matters, even those seemingly exempt from such, such as “foundational” issues in epistemology and metaphysics.

    As Sellars summarizes the point, “the data of the positivist must go the way of the illuminatio of Augustine.” The divine illumination of Augustine, like the sense-data of the logical positivist, were supposed to serve as ultimate bedrocks for knowledge, outside of the back-and-forth of the marketplace of ideas. The pragmatist idea, generalizing and radicalizing Mill, is that no such exemptions make any sense. Otto Neurath has the following rather nice metaphor for our anti-foundationalist situation:

    “We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

  4. Gregory,

    Is the complaint that I ignored the religious dimension of American pragmatism? My OP was already too long and I couldn’t cover everything. But of course there’s an important religious strand to the classical American pragmatists — including not just Peirce (whose “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God” is really quite wonderful) and James (“The Will to Believe”, Varieties of Religious Belief) but also Dewey (A Common Faith), Josiah Royce, and many others. I might also add here Putnam’s really quite excellent Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life.

  5. Thanks KN. I enjoyed that but was a bit disappointed it stopped just when it was getting fun — on postmodernism and Rorty’s version of pragmatism.

    I plugging away on Misak’s “American Pragmatists”; I will likely skip ahead to get her views on Rorty, which she foreshadows in earlier sections. I know she is not a fan of his version of pragmatism.

  6. BruceS:
    Thanks KN.I enjoyed that but was a bit disappointed it stopped just when it was getting fun— on postmodernism and Rorty’s version of pragmatism.

    I was getting anxious about how long it was, and I know Torley got some criticism from other contributors for his excessive long OPs. But that right there — the relation between pragmatism and postmodernism and Rorty — is the crux of what I’m trying to work out now.

    One reason why I decided to focus my attention on what Sellars called ‘picturing’ is that Rorty argues (at several places, before and after PMN) that that’s where he broke ranks with Sellars. If Sellars without picturing is Rorty, then more generally (taking my general view of these issues), pragmatism without cognitive neuroscience is postmodernism.

    I plugging away on Misak’s “American Pragmatists”; I will likely skip ahead to get her views on Rorty, which she foreshadows in earlier sections.I know she is not a fan of his version of pragmatism.

    No, she’s not — she thinks that pragmatists ought to be committed to objectivity, not abandon it in favor of solidarity! And to be honest I think she’s right about that, and that Rorty is wrong. But Rorty’s arguments are more sophisticated than she makes them out to be.

    Her chapter on C. I. Lewis is very good, by the way.

  7. Kantian Naturalist,

    The observation is that you chose to highlight secular pragmatism, barely touching on that ideology’s influence on one’s worldview. Putnam & Dewey were both atheists. Why then trust their views about religion as outsiders? USAmerican pragmatists like Dewey aren’t usually inspiring, which is a key point. And Sellers was an atheist sell-out to ideological scientism; which is a simple point of fact.

    The OP wasn’t too long, it was too thin, narrow & superficial. Much better is available for those who would seek a more inspiring (read: non-skeptic) approach. Reading Peirce, James & Taylor offers a quite different ‘perspective’ on USAmerican pragmatism than the OP. And then people can explore beyond pragmatism too.

  8. KN,

    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!

    I can assure you that “Maybe there is no God” is not a “pretend doubt” of mine.

    Also, Peirce’s dictum amounts to elevating intuition over reason, which is a bad idea.

  9. 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.

    How about treating the “real” vs “apparent” and other such distinctions as necessary concepts, instead of quasi-ontological positums? They are conceptual tools dictated by the nature of language.

    Ontologically or metaphysically you may believe whatever you want, but without making distinctions like “real” vs “apparent” etc, how are you going to make yourself understood? Is there anyone besides you who attributes the sort of revolutionary importance to American pragmatism? Who understands what it’s saying? I mean, surely there are readers who understand, say, William James and Charlers Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, but they can do it fine without attributing any imaginary philosophical revolution to them. Is it not enough to acknowledge some insights they have or new ground they explored?

    What specifically did pragmatism revolutionise? Did it really do away with beliefs in foundations? In the face of a positive claim a la “there are no Unjustified Justifiers”, one might ask “Based on what are you claiming this?” If you have a basis for the claim, then you are not really antifoundational. If you have no basis for the claim, then why claim it and expect to be treated as a philosophical revolutionary of note and interest?

  10. KN:

    May I ask if you have read “Against Postmodernism” by Alex Callinicos, and if so, what did you think of it?

    I should say that I am of his political persuasion.

  11. KN, thanks for the OP which I found interesting (as someone who doesn’t know very much about philosophy, even though I had to sit through a brief course on it as an undergraduate – over 45 years ago now). The discussion that it will undoubtedly generate is likely to go over my head, but I have one question: how do you know all this ?

    😉

  12. Neil Rickert:
    Thanks for posting, KN.However, as BruceS suggests, it is tainted — as in: ’tain’t enough.

    Ha, nice joke! Anyway, I was concerned about it being too long as it was. I’m willing to elaborate on the aspects of pragmatism I know about!

    keiths: Also, Peirce’s dictum amounts to elevating intuition over reason, which is a bad idea.

    I can assure you that Peirce does not elevate intuition over reason. If I gave you that impression by not going into sufficient depth about Peirce’s views I apologize.

    faded_Glory: The discussion that it will undoubtedly generate is likely to go over my head, but I have one question: how do you know all this ?

    What is “this” referring to? Like, how do know what the pragmatists said? Because I can read!

  13. timothya:
    KN:

    May I ask if you have read “Against Postmodernism” by Alex Callinicos, and if so, what did you think of it?

    I should say that I am of his political persuasion.

    I haven’t read Callinicos’s book, and I’m quite sympathetic to Marx and to Marxism. But I think the hostility between Marxism and “postmodernism” can be easily over-stated — although there is an important grain of truth to it as well.

    I suppose I think, on the one hand, that Marxists like Frederic Jameson are right when they think of postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism“. The distinguishing mark of postmodern culture is a leveling effect in which everything in aesthetics and ethics is a matter of individual taste or choice: a loss of faith in evaluations of better and worse. I think I came to this attitude at a time when I was reading a lot of cultural conservatives, like Allan Bloom and Roger Scruton, but Alastair MacIntyre and Christopher Lasch showed me how to read cultural conservativism through a Marxist lens — so that one ends up seeing how it’s actually capitalism itself that undermines the cultural valuations that conservatives ardently defend.

    So in that generic kind of way, I’m inclined to think that there’s something more or less recognizably “postmodern” that’s an effect on culture of globalized neoliberal capital.

    On the other hand, I’ve found a great deal of value in many of the theorists who can be easily dismissed as “postmodern” — esp. Michel Foucault, who I think of as one of the most important political theorists of the 20th century (along with Hayek and Arendt). So I wouldn’t want to overstate the opposition between Marx and Foucault or between Marx and Deleuze. (I simply haven’t taken the time to read Derrida or Lyotard so I can’t comment on them one way or the other.) I gather from Amazon that Callinicos is also quite critical of the Frankfurt School, whereas Adorno is one of my favorite 20th-century philosophers (which is of course not to defend him in all respects).

    I should probably read Bernstein’s Praxis and Action, which I have sitting on a shelf somewhere: now that I’m thinking about it, he’s said to be very good at systematically relating Peirce, Marx, and Dewey. I should take a close look at it!

  14. Kantian Naturalist:

    What is “this” referring to? Like, how do know what the pragmatists said? Because I can read!

    Sorry, I was pulling your leg. Doing an FMM on you.

  15. faded_Glory: Sorry, I was pulling your leg. Doing an FMM on you.

    That’s kind of what I thought but I wasn’t sure — since we all go by pseudonyms here I find it hard to remember which handles are attached with which personalities and positions, so it’s really hard for me to tell when someone is being ironic!

  16. keiths:

    I can assure you that “Maybe there is no God” is not a “pretend doubt” of mine.

    Also, Peirce’s dictum amounts to elevating intuition over reason, which is a bad idea.

    KN:

    I can assure you that Peirce does not elevate intuition over reason.

    His dictum does:

    Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.

    Also, do you see my point about “Maybe there is no God”? That’s not a “pretend doubt” — even believers experience it.

  17. Kantian Naturalist: But that right there — the relation between pragmatism and postmodernism and Rorty — is the crux of what I’m trying to work out now…. pragmatism without cognitive neuroscience is postmodernism.

    Is that ending throwaway line a tease for a future OP? In any event, good luck with your research.

  18. stcordova:
    Thanks for the post.

    What is the major difference between Pragmatism and Utilitarianism — like John Stewart Mill.Are they substantially different?I’m not enough of a student on these topics to make a distinction.I’ve always liked the writings of Mill (what little I’ve read).

    Quine is a first rate mind, but I learned of him, ironically in relation to the Origin of Life question since many ID proponents view living organisms as Quine computing systems.So I didn’t realize Quine was such an influential philosopher too, since I knew him more in the computer science realm.

    Thanks in advance.

    Utilitarians believe that value is a strict function of the summation of “utiles” (happiness or pleasure or satisfaction of desires or whatever). What is best is what produces the most utiles for the most people–counting each person as one, and nobody as more than one.

    Pragmatists believe that truth is strict function of usefulness. What works best is true and what is true works best.

    So, not all utlitarians are pragmatists and not all pragmatists are utilitarians. But, as you intuit, there are connections between the views.

    Quine was a kick-ass philosopher. One of the greatest of the 20th Century, IMHO. I don’t think of him as a pragmatist, though.

  19. walto: Pragmatists believe that truth is strict function of usefulness. What works best is true and what is true works best.

    Maybe, but I think that could be open to misinterpretation.

    Here is my understanding, although I hope KB will chime in as well.

    First, all pragmatists agree that any account of truth must start from our human practices of inquiry.

    James and Rorty (at their extremes and according to Misak) say warranted assertability is enough. Further, Rorty says that amounts to whatever you can convince your community of. James sometimes says truth is whatever works for you: eg if it is helpful/useful for you to believe in God, then that belief is true for you. Metaphysically, Rorty is a deflationist about truth (and James too perhaps, if he had knew of this idea — not sure if he read Frege or if Frege’s idea was formalized as deflationism).

    But Peirce and Putnam and others think that is not enough (I am referring to Putnam is his final, natural realism phase). Peirce think truths is what will be indefeasible by any further inquiry. Both think that inquiry must be open to being influenced by the world, not just want you find useful to believe. Both think that our practices of our inquiry mean bare deflationism is not enough, eg it does not explain why we value truth or why we engage in disagreements over truth.

  20. What BruceS says about pragmatists and truth is basically right, but I hope to clarify a few issues here.

    First, and most importantly, there’s what Peirce called “the pragmatic maxim”: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” Peirce introduces this idea in his “How To Make Our Ideas Clear”. The idea is to come up with a practical test for explicating semantic contents. (It’s very close to the verificationism of the logical positivists, but it’s not limited to what can be expressed in first order classical logic.)

    When we apply the pragmatic maxim to the concept of truth, what we get is the idea that truth is what would be agreed upon by all inquirers, if inquiry were to go on for as long as possible.

    This is a “theory of truth” in the following sense: it is a way of specifying what we are pragmatically committed to if we were to fully take on board what the concept of truth means. What is true is what everyone would be committed to if everyone were to inquire without limits or constraints — if someone doesn’t see this, it’s because they don’t understand what the word “truth” means. (The “is” is the “is” of co-extension, not synonymy: “what is true” and “what would be agreed upon by all in the limit of inquiry” are co-extensive concepts.)

    Peirce also argued at some length that the most reliable way of arriving at true beliefs was the method of science, and we can get into Peirce’s philosophy of science somewhat.

    James, for his part, sometimes said things that incautiously sound like “truth is whatever works.” But in context, and read carefully, James is actually saying what Peirce said: truth is whatever works for all of us, in the long run. But this is precisely why James can endorse a modest pro-science stance: science is our best way of figuring out what beliefs are most workable for the most people over the long haul.

    Now, it is true that James was much more sympathetic to religion that Peirce was, and he does think that the person of faith is not (to use Plantinga’s phrase) “shirking his epistemic duties”. That is to say, there’s nothing irrational or unreasonable about choosing to believe in God. But James never says that if you believe in God, then that’s “true for you”. (Also, to clarify, James is not Pascal — it’s not a wager!)

    Perhaps it would be better to say that according to James, one cannot live by truth alone: there are going to be existential crises and decisions and commitments that make up the tissue of our lives that cannot be resolved entirely in terms of evidence and reasoning.

    When we turn to Rorty, the situation is quite different because Rorty is an analytic philosopher, and he’s building on the ideas of Ramsey, Davidson, and others in their ways of thinking about how to do philosophy. The main idea that Rorty gets from Davidson (who in turn is building on Tarski and others) is that truth is a semantic concept, not an epistemic concept.

    For Rorty, all there to say about truth is what there is to say about the semantics and pragmatics of “is true.” Once you’ve figured out how the predicate phrase “is true” is used, there’s nothing else to say. So Rorty would be happy with Ramsey’s redundancy approach, according to which to say “p is true” is just to say “p.” This is the “‘snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white” approach.

    If truth is only a semantic concept, then the only epistemic concept is justification — we have knowledge as justified belief, rather than knowledge as justified true belief. And justification is a social practice — a belief is counts as justified if none of your interlocutors challenge it. That is why Rorty then concludes that knowledge is what your discursive community allows you to get away with. The regulative ideal of knowledge then turns out to be not objectivity (getting the world right) but solidarity (getting as many people to agree with you as possible).

    Rorty has certainly been criticized by other pragmatists for taking this position. For example, Huw Price has argued in “Truth is a Useful Friction” that we couldn’t make sense of our disagreements and agreements without a distinction between what’s true and what we all agree upon.

  21. walto: Quine was a kick-ass philosopher. One of the greatest of the 20th Century, IMHO. I don’t think of him as a pragmatist, though.

    I find that surprising, and maybe speaks to the slight difference in generations between us — in my training it was commonplace to say that Quine was very close to pragmatism! Certainly Quine shares a general ethos of behaviorism, verificationism, and naturalism with Dewey and maybe also Peirce — as well as a great deal of anti-foundationalism, anti-Cartesianism and anti-Platonism that Quine gets not only from Carnap but also from C. I. Lewis.

    Anyway here are some good references: “Quine and Pragmatism” and “Quine and Conceptual Pragmatism

    plus there are chapters about Quine and pragmatism in a lot of recent anthologies. Reference upon request.

    I don’t mind saying that while I acknowledge Quine’s importance, I consider his views to be largely a disaster. Insofar as there’s a substantive debate between Wittgenstein and Quine I am Wittgenstein’s side, though I also believe that Sellars has the better of both of them.

    For that matter, my allusion to Hayek above was certainly not an endorsement. I think that Hayek was an utter disaster for 20th century political thought. Nevertheless he was hugely important and far outshines in significance people who really got the better of him philosophically, such as Karl Polanyi. I found this short article, “Uninstalling Hayek” to be really outstanding. For the past generation (at least) the conservatives have cornered the market on liberty and liberals have been forced to talk about equality. I think that’s been an utter disaster for American politics. Freedom is central to any leftist politics worth taking seriously and defending. This is where I find Arendt, Foucault, and Polanyi necessary for taking on Hayek and the libertarians: the question is not “liberty or equality?” but rather “freedom as non-interference or freedom as non-domination?” The deep insight of Marx is that markets and firms are necessarily places of domination and therefore capitalism is incompatible with the ideal of a modern society committed to promoting the freedom of its citizens.

  22. walto: Utilitarians believe that value is a strict function of the summation of “utiles” (happiness or pleasure or satisfaction of desires or whatever). What is best is what produces the most utiles for the most people–counting each person as one, and nobody as more than one.

    Pragmatists believe that truth is strict function of usefulness. What works best is true and what is true works best.

    So, not all utlitarians are pragmatists and not all pragmatists are utilitarians. But, as you intuit, there are connections between the views.

    Quine was a kick-ass philosopher. One of the greatest of the 20th Century, IMHO. I don’t think of him as a pragmatist, though.

    Thanks Walto. Thanks KN. Very educational!

  23. Kantian Naturalist: I find that surprising, and maybe speaks to the slight difference in generations between us — in my training it was commonplace to say that Quine was very close to pragmatism! Certainly Quine shares a general ethos of behaviorism, verificationism, and naturalism with Dewey and maybe also Peirce — as well as a great deal of anti-foundationalism, anti-Cartesianism and anti-Platonism that Quine gets not only from Carnap but also from C. I. Lewis.

    Anyway here are some good references: “Quine and Pragmatism” and “Quine and Conceptual Pragmatism”

    plus there are chapters about Quine and pragmatism in a lot of recent anthologies. Reference upon request.

    This is good:
    http://www.petergodfreysmith.com/Quine_Pragmatism_PGS_2013_FD.pdf

    1. Introduction W.V. Quine is often regarded as a pragmatist philosopher. Claims of membership in a
    philosophical school of this kind can be based on influence and location in a lineage, on similarity of ideas, or a combination of both. I will discuss influences and similarities in turn. Quine does not appear to have been greatly influenced by the work of the “classical” pragmatists, Peirce, James, and Dewey, though there is evidence of detailed engagement with some work by Peirce. Quine’s central epistemological ideas also differ from those of the classical pragmatists on a matter that they all regarded as of central importance: the link between thought and action.

    Quine himself did not profess to know, or care, about where pragmatism begins and ends. The connection between Quine and pragmatism is important, however, as through a few crucial passages of text, Quine had a significant effect on the perceived importance of a pragmatist outlook in the second half of the twentieth century, and affected also what a pragmatist option was taken to be.

    See also this paper, from Inquiry

    Quine’s Truth
    Lars Bergström
    University of Stockholm
    W. V. Quine has made statements about truth which are not obviously compatible, and his statements have been interpreted in more than one way. For example, Donald Davidson claims that Quine has an epistemic theory of truth, but Quine himself often says that truth is just disquotational. This paper argues that Quine should recognize two different notions of truth. One of these is disquotational, the other is empiricist. There is nothing wrong with recognizing two different notions of truth. Both may be perfectly legitimate, even though, to some extent, they may be applicable in different contexts. Roughly speaking, a sentence is true in the empiricist sense if it belongs to a theory which entails all observation sentences which would be assented to by the speakers of the language in question (and no observation sentences which would be dissented from by these speakers). Various objections to this idea are discussed and rejected.

    As you know, I don’t agree with your general take on Quine. (I also think his views have more in common with Wittgenstein than you suggest.) Re Hayek–I agree that Polanyi is much better.If you want a guy whose views are “a disaster”–Hayek is a much better candidate than Quine.

  24. walto,

    Thank you for that PGS paper! Very helpful!

    I think I hadn’t seen something that PGS emphasizes: that there’s a weird disconnect between Q’s epistemology (i.e. philosophy of science) and his philosophy of language. There’s a lot of behavior in the phil language and a lot of emphasis on predicting future experiences in the phil sci but apparently (!!) not much connection between them.

    I especially like how PGS puts the following crucial points:

    “Thought is prompted by doubt, which typically arises in the context of an impediment to behavior, or a situation that makes an established habit of action inapplicable. Some sort of inquiry – perhaps quick and cursory, perhaps elaborate – results. This ends in adoption of a belief or hypothesis, and the result of that is the production of an action, or perhaps the formation of a habit of action which is not exercised immediately but is ready for future use Important properties of thoughts themselves (justification, truth, and so on) are consequences of the embedding of thoughts in a context which involves both perception and action.”

    “John Dewey gave the doubt-inquiry-belief-action sequence a “wider” environmental embedding. Actions guided by thought transform the agent’s environment. In Dewey there is a kind of “closing of a circle” only partially sketched by Peirce and James. The disruption of habit that prompts doubt and inquiry is due to particular kinds of environmental conditions, and the aim of action is to restore a kind of stability in the organism’s interactions with that environment. Action does not merely transform how the agent is situated in relation to external conditions, but transforms the way things are laid out in the world itself. Craft work and engineering are paradigms here.”

  25. There’s an analogy that’s been forming in my head.

    When I was eleven years old, I was selected for a place at the local grammar school. (This is one way the British class system has operated so successfully) In my first couple of years, science was taught with a historical perspective. Hero of Alexandria’s steam turbine, Magdeburg hemispheres, phlogiston and so on. Then came a revolution in the science syllabus and all that was forgotten. Radioactivity with real isotopes (health and safety came later) chemistry talking about atoms and elements and getting hands dirty with stuff out of bottles.

    I, who never took more than a passing interest in philosophy. have to credit Kantian Naturalist with sparking it. I’m pretty sure the seminal event occurred at Ed Feser’s blog. But what I see as the most obvious difference is that science moves on. Darwin and Newton get their dues as contributors to the endeavour but we don’t need to refer back for support to current scientific hypotheses. They stand on their own merits. Peirce is often described as the father of pragmatism but we don’t talk of Darwin as the father of evolutionary biology. (That title might go to Aristotle!)

    ETA interest

  26. Ignoring the history of an endeavor that builds on the past seem like pedagogical creationism.

  27. petrushka:
    Ignoring the history of an endeavor that builds on the past seem like pedagogical creationism.

    Who’s ignoring? It is very important to remember the contribution phlogiston theory made to science. We remember Becker and Stahl but we moved on to oxygen.

  28. It’s not memorizing the facts of history. It’s reliving the process of discovery. It doesn’t matter who made the discoveries. It’s the process of figuring things out.

  29. petrushka:
    It’s not memorizing the facts of history.

    Sorry, not following, what’s not?

    It’s reliving the process of discovery.

    Same question

    It doesn’t matter who made the discoveries.

    Agreed.

    It’s the process of figuring things out.

    Again, not following. What is?

  30. I must have misread your original post. I thought you said your schools abandoned the teaching of history of science. Before I try to straighten ought my thoughts, I need a more detailed discussion of what happened.

  31. Alan Fox,

    It’s certainly true that scientists don’t constantly refer back to the discoveries of particular scientists, whereas philosophers may seem to — though I certainly hope that no one will generalize from the peculiarities of my ways of doing philosophy.

    I think the more substantive and interesting difference is that in philosophy, there’s no established, discipline-wide consensus on what counts as progress or insight or advancing the conversation. If you think that Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Heidegger are crucially important philosophers and that neglecting them is tantamount to ignoring the discovery of fire, you’re going to be in a really different conversation than if you’re following through on the insights of Frege, Russell, Quine, and Kripke.

    Earlier today I bought and started reading Martin Hagglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. This is exactly my kind of philosophy book in every way (though maybe some cognitive neuroscience would have been nice here and there): Hagglund is arguing for a new and quite powerful interpretation of Marx’s theory of freedom, for why only democratic socialism can satisfy our need for freedom, and why religion and ethics are existentially incompatible. But to understand how Hagglund is going about his project, one needs to have a pretty deep understanding of and sympathy with Hegel and Heidegger (as I do).

    My point is not to derail the conversation with my idiosyncrasies but just to say that I’m engaged in a very distinct kind of philosophy, very different from what most philosophers are doing, and I wouldn’t want anyone to get a generic impression of what philosophy is from what I’m doing — let alone from what I do on blogs!!

  32. Kantian Naturalist:

    Thanks for that helpful addition. Some comments based on my understanding of Misak’s version of Peirce’s truth.

    (It’s very close to the verificationism of the logical positivists, but it’s not limited to what can be expressed in first order classical logic.)

    Peirce would not accept verificationism as a theory of meaning. Nor would he accept the positivists aim to exclude truth-aiming inquiry into non-scientific issues, such as morality. Also, Misak reads Peirce as closer to Quine than (the standard understanding off) the positivists on the analytic/synthetic distinction.

    When we apply the pragmatic maxim to the concept of truth, what we get is the idea that truth is what would be agreed upon by all inquirers, if inquiry were to go on for as long as possible

    Misak does not think “end of inquiry” is a good way to characterize Peirce’s view. She tries to separate her characterization of “indefeasible belief”” from the end of inquiry view. She instead sees it as very close to Wright’s superassertablility.

    Ramsey’s redundancy approach, according to which to say “p is true” is just to say “p.” This is the “‘snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white” approach.

    I think Misak would say Ramsay starts with the deflationist view (and started it too!) but then adds the non-metaphysical properties related to first-order inquiry based on his reading of Peirce.

  33. petrushka:
    I must have misread your original post. I thought you said your schools abandoned the teaching of history of science. Before I try to straighten ought my thoughts, I need a more detailed discussion of what happened.

    Well, it wasn’t as strong as that. It was just a recollection of how the change in curriculum was so inspiring to me at the time and resulted in my deciding on a scientific education rather than the arts. It wasn’t an option to do both, specialization was the goal in the system. Getting kids on to University courses was the main performance criterion Grammar schools were judged by. I’d add that philosophy was not taught as a stand-alone subject at all.

  34. Kantian Naturalist: It’s certainly true that scientists don’t constantly refer back to the discoveries of particular scientists, whereas philosophers may seem to — though I certainly hope that no one will generalize from the peculiarities of my ways of doing philosophy.

    Well, when Origin of Species was published, Darwin considered one particular criticism of his theory of natural selection by Fleeming Jenkin very troubling. With the discovery of genes and the work of Mendel, this criticism is no longer apt and can be forgotten, except as an interesting bit of history. It doesn’t seem so clear-cut when it comes to philosophy.

  35. Kantian Naturalist: I think the more substantive and interesting difference is that in philosophy, there’s no established, discipline-wide consensus on what counts as progress or insight or advancing the conversation. If you think that Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Heidegger are crucially important philosophers and that neglecting them is tantamount to ignoring the discovery of fire, you’re going to be in a really different conversation than if you’re following through on the insights of Frege, Russell, Quine, and Kripke.

    The problem with that is I have lived quite a long time already and have to ration what’s left with all the calls on my time! 🙂 Can’t I take on trust the opinions of later philosophers on earlier thoughts? Wittgenstein managed to be quite succinct.

  36. Alan Fox: But what I see as the most obvious difference is that science moves on. Darwin and Newton get their dues as contributors to the endeavour but we don’t need to refer back for support to current scientific hypotheses.

    FWIW, Wittgenstein studied no other philosophers other than Russell and Frege (maybe Moore too) and explicitly stated he had no interest in citing any others who may be had similar views to him at one point.

    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.

    It is fair to say most other philosophers try to relate their positions to historical ones. But it is probably too strong to say they rely on them for support. Rather, they may cite previous philosophers they agree with rather than repeat their arguments. But scientists do exactly the same thing.

    There is a separate issue about how much role the history of a field should play in education on that field. There does seem to be more emphasis on historical progression of ideas in introductory philosophical courses than in introductory scientific courses, at least going by the undergrad texts I look at.

  37. Alan Fox: Can there be an end to enquiry?

    Exactly. That is one reason to reject that sort of idealization.
    The same issue is raised with physicalism of course when some try to define it as whatever a completed physics would tell us about the world.

  38. BruceS: Wittgenstein studied no other philosophers other than Russell and Frege (maybe Moore too) and explicitly stated he had no interest in citing any others who may be had similar views to him at one point.

    That’s the Quaker way (anecdote available on request). But what about Frank Ramsey? I wonder if there would have been more collaboration if he had not died so young.

  39. Alan Fox: That’s the Quaker way (anecdote available on request). But what about Frank Ramsey? I wonder if there would have been more collaboration if he had not died so young.

    They did collaborate, or maybe better Ramsay explained to him what was wrong with Tractacus (I don’t think Wittgenstein contributed much to Ramsay’s work). But I do not see that the same as studying historical philosophy. Lots of scientist collaborate, obviously.

    Lots of what-ifs on Ramsay. Misak is writing a biography of him, due out later this year. She has a video on YT about him that I can track down if you are interested (or just search for Misak on YT search).

  40. 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 knew Leibniz, Avenerius, etc.

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