Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth
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Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth

R. W. Newell

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Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth

R. W. Newell

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Originally published in 1986. Wittgenstein, William James, Thomas Kuhn and John Wisdom share an attitude towards problems in the theory of knowledge which is fundamentally in conflict with the empiricist tradition. They encourage the idea that in understanding the central concepts of epistemology – objectivity, certainty and reasoning – people and their practices matter most. This clash between orthodox empiricism and a freshly inspired pragmatism forms the background to the strands of argument in this book. With these philosophers as a guide, it points to new directions by showing how the theory of knowledge can be shaped around our actions without sacrificing reason's control over our beliefs.

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After every circumstance, every relation is known, the understanding has no room to operate, nor any object on which it could employ itself. Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Appendix I.
You can't weed out the human contribution. William James, Pragmatism.
It is an odd twist of circumstance that Hume, who gave so much importance to the psychology of individual agents in the determination of belief, should have prepared the way for a sophisticated attitude in philosophy deserving of James’ rebuke. It is at least generally thought to have been Hume's intention to reveal how it is that beliefs closed to confirmation by observation or logical demonstration must be beyond the scope of reason, their assertion being at best an expression of subjective attitude or feeling. And this limitation has had the effect, which to Hume's mind would have been a curious one, of bringing about a picture of philosophy increasingly requiring the elimination of the ‘human contribution’ so important to James. Even if we deplore this ‘Humean’ picture as just so much flawed verificationism we cannot casually dismiss it, for there is a deep sense in which philosophy has yet to adapt to, and feel at ease with, a conception of rational argument free from the weight of Hume's constraints. Despite the exorcism of positivism from philosophy there is still much plausibility in the thought that, although wrong in many of its details, the general lines of the Humean recipe are sound. We need controls on argument if evidence, justification and proof are to be within reach, and what Hume seems to offer is a cogent defence against an anarchy in which anything goes.
So the recipe still grips firmly, and one sign of its life is the philosophical reception given to certain views of Thomas Kuhn. He is seen to have transgressed the dogma that what is outside logic and observation is outside rationality, and the locus of the offence is his account of theory-choice. Kuhn's strategy, say his critics, makes choices between theories personal, psychological or subjective; they cannot be based on good reasons, there can be no objective control by shared observation or common standards; there is ‘no room for any sort of rational deliberation’ and decisions in science must, if Kuhn is right, be regarded as arbitrary in the end, and ‘are in no better state than those of religion’.1
Strong stuff, but surprisingly it seems to be vindicated by premises which Kuhn himself supplies. For he insists that ‘the issue of paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone’ and ‘debates over theory choice cannot be cast in a form that fully resembles logical or mathematical proof’. With deductive prooof and observation curbed there is ‘an absence of criteria able to dictate the choice of each individual’; and when he claims that in place of appeal to logic and experience we have recourse to persuasion, it is excusable that Humean intuitions should unite in the thought that Kuhn has altogether priced himself outside reason's range.
Kuhn's own defence is disarming. There are indeed more or less standard and rational criteria for evaluating theories – accuracy, consistency, simplicity, scope, fruitfulness and perhaps others. And this is safe enough. But then all seems undermined when he tells us that they function as value judgments influencing choices, like heuristic maxims guiding but not dictating decisions. These criteria are open to varying and individual interpretation; they rely, in part, ‘on idiosyncratic factors dependent upon individual biography and personality’. Kuhn's urbane assurance that nothing in this thesis implies that good and decisive reasons are no longer to be found has seemed astonishing to his critics. And with the door to subjectivism apparently wide open, astonishment is understandable.2
Kuhn's recent adventures were foreshadowed around the turn of the century by William James's protracted struggle to convince his critics of the soundness of much the same point, namely that a commitment to what seems like ‘subjectivism’ is not a commitment to abandoning rationality. W. K. Clifford – in a sense James's Hume – affirmed that it is always wrong to believe anything on insufficient evidence – evidence less than that of experience or valid argument. James's rejection of this claim is sharp and puzzling. On the contrary, he tells us, it can be right to believe things on other than the ‘intellectual grounds’ praised by Clifford.3 With the glove thus thrown down, the pressing question for James is when is it right, and why?
When a proposition, whose resolution has consequences of importance, is not capable of being decided by experience or logic it is right, James thinks, that it should be decided by ‘our passional nature’. Otherwise we run the risk of missing a truth that matters. Appeal to the passions, or to what James was later to call ‘satisfaction’, he saw as a legitimate and rational mode of justification. Of course, the thesis needs the developed support which it subsequently gets in Pragmatism where James's theory of evidence undergoes a major change. The earlier view that psychologically determined judgments stand outside science and logic, which looks back towards Peirce, is abandoned in favour of a thorough-going holism in which the sentiments become evidence on a par with all other evidence. A person may find a belief psychologically satisfactory because it enables him to organize his view of the world in a way that makes sense to him by making ‘advantageous connections’ between the various parts of it. And it does seem right to say that the practical consequences of a belief in facilitating an understanding of experience are no less ‘psychological’ than any consequences it may have for the emotions; the sentiments may rule the head and not just the heart in making adjustments between background and current experience. In a striking anticipation of the holistic elements in Quine's epistemology James argues that the test of true belief is a matter of accommodating fresh observations within a body of existing opinion and in this ‘consistency between previous truth and novel fact is always the most imperious claimant’. Although assimilation may require the revision of old beliefs to preserve new experiences, the converse too may hold; as with Quine, observation and theory may each tug the other and the limits of adjustment are tempered by conservatism.4
The resemblance to Quine abruptly ceases with James's rejection of behaviourism in favour of a central role for, as he calls them, ‘subjective’ reasons in the verification process. And here, as with Kuhn, is where the trouble starts. For James says ‘sometimes alternative theoretic formulas are equally compatible with all the truths we know and then we choose between them for subjective reasons’.5 These reasons turn out to coincide roughly with the standard list which Kuhn gives for theory evaluation and by using them ‘we choose the kind of theory to which we are already partial’. As James sees it, reasons like these remain ‘subjective’ in the sense that their success or failure is a ‘a matter for individual appreciation’. Like Kuhn he insists that they are reasons as much as any other reasons. Once again the astonishment of the critics is understandable.
At issue in all of this is a controversy reflecting a deeply-seated division in philosophical attitudes with fundamental issues at stake. There is a strong temptation to suppose that behind pragmatist and Kuhnian structures are assumptions essentially like those of traditional empiricism. This misconception partly accounts for the irritation often infusing criticism and is largely a consequence of the history of the opposing views. The critics enter the debate armed with an epistemological tradition surviving a century of discussion, one by now second nature. The views of Kuhn and James are buttressed by less rich resources. To be sure, there is a wealth of empiricist theory on which to build, but it is the wrong theory even if it is the most comprehensive one at hand. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn suffered from the lack of an articulated epistemology and the omission, excusable enough, was costly; for the missing background was naturally filled-in by contemporary theorizing of a kind that could lead only to disaffection. It is significant that in quarters outside philosophy where there is no particular commitment to foundationalist ideas Kuhn's reception was enthusiastic.
There is a special reason for paying attention to James. Contemporary interest in pragmatism is largely Peirceancentred or focused on a generalized thesis summed-up recently in Rorty's slogan that there are ‘no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones’.6 Peirce's vision of inquiry is fundamentally at odds with James's and is too close to orthodox outlooks to guide an epistemology breaking away from tradition. To come to grips with James by backward references to Peirce in his early papers is to forget Peirce's own exasperation with the wayward direction he saw James take, and James's waywardness marks a departure from the premises which make Peirce's view so approachable to neo-positivist thinking. Rorty is more faithful to James's instincts but his distillation of the pragmatist core owes less to Pragmatism than to a larger un-Jamesian picture of philosophy. There is no easy model to help us grasp James's view, save in the case of Quine; and it is not surprising that the elements in Quine's philosophy which effectively light up James's rambling presentation should be the ones most in conflict with modern foundationalism.
James's importance lies in his determined attempt to shape epistemology around human actions and practices without sacrificing rational control over the acceptance or rejection of beliefs. The problems which bothered him endlessly centred on the issues of rationalism, idealism and empiricism as they were perceived by his contemporaries at the turn of the century. Pragmatism was at the time an avant-garde philosophy knocking hard, largely through James's efforts, at the door of the establishment with a message that gave no comfort to the established views. It is not surprising that it should have been officially resisted and usually misunderstood, or that Pragmatism should be generously provisioned with James's characteristic brand of polemical persuasion. It is probably true that Pragmatism can be read with justice to James only with the advantage of hindsight separating the domestic issues embroiling him with his contemporaries from a view of permanent importance. His lectures on Pragmatism were given in Boston in 1906 and again in New York in 1907, and they had a curiously ironic fate still influencing their reception. It was James's hope to make philosophy accessible to a general public audience hence the need, as he saw it, for popular and approachable lectures affirming American philosophical conceptions to mainly lay audiences ill-disposed to academic speculation. ‘Some of my colleagues may possibly shake their heads at this’, he writes, ‘but on taking my cue from what has seemed to me to be the feeling of the audiences, I believe that I am shaping my books so as to satisfy the general public need.’7 If philosophy has value it should survive a removal from the ivory tower, James thought, and what its popular exposition may lose in terms of the ‘refinement’ of Europeanbased idealism and rationalism, which his public audiences distained, will be more than made up by a robust respect for reality and by the expression of points in popular idiom. ‘A philosophy that breathes nothing but refinement’, he says, ‘will seem a monument of artificiality. So we find men of science preferring to turn their backs on metaphysics as on something altogether cloistered and spectral, and practical men shaking philosophy's dust off their feet and following the call of the wild.’8 It would be a disaster if practical men rejected philosophy altogether and James viewed his evangelical public lecturing as one way of preventing it. But the scheme backfired badly. The academics despaired at the spectacle of a great psychologist gone astray and condemned the lectures. The lay public acclaimed them with enthusiasm but took away only what they wanted to hear, which had little to do with the message. James complained bitterly, ‘The pragmatism that lies inside me is so different from that of which I succeed in wakening the idea inside other people, that this makes me feel like cursing God and dying.’9
Divisions in attitude are deeper than differences in theory and more diffuse. Because of this they risk going unsaid. The distance separating James and Kuhn from their critics reflects, with some bending of doctrine, a split between pragmatism and foundationalism. The characterization is rough, as needs be, and is of less importance than an underlying difference which really does matter. In its general aspect orthodox empiricism accounts for knowledge of the world through a layer-like structure of linear inference terminating in a base of sense-experience. Observers apprehend, sense, become acquainted with or directly intuit a ‘presentational continuum’ of given perceptual data, sense-contents or representations constituting their immediate experience. The leading metaphor is that of the reception of sensory data by an individual agent; how far the eye of the mind aids the eye itself was always an issue, but one largely unaffecting the picture of a sensory, or sensory-cum-intellectual confrontation with the world as it is perceived. At the base of inference to knowledge, perceiving persons monitor and report their experiences.
There is another way of looking at knowledge because there is another way of looking at persons. We may see them as agents acting in the world and guided by their beliefs, motives, desires and needs; and thus seen, explain epistemological ideas by focusing on human activities and practices. Reasoning, observing, judging and the quality of ‘being objective’ are products of people's activities and we can, as Wittgenstein argued, look to our acting and not to a kind of seeing in explaining certainty. He tapped a rich and underexplored vein by realigning the question ‘What makes rational justification possible?’ as the question ‘What sort of human practices make it possible?’ The epistemological perspective shifts away from the image of the subjective observer facing an objective outside world and towards a conception of consciously active agents acting rationally against a background of acquired belief.
Both these attitudes value the virtues of objectivity, reasoning and the assignment of truth-values by rational methods. The problem for the latter – the ‘humanistic’ attitude, as James sometimes called it – is the difficulty of placing people at the focus of epistemology without rejecting these virtues or placing them seriously at risk. It is not surprising that the attempt should seem misconceived in the light of the orthodox view that subject-related elements accruing from James's ‘human contribution’ undercut interpersonally neutral testing and permit the observer to project his own beliefs onto the world: it seems to dodge the issue of rational control over the conclusions people may reach. The accusation is important. James separated philosophers into people with two sorts of temperament; tough and tender minded, vividly collecting the mental make-up of rival approaches in a memorable image. He says, ‘The one thing that has counted so far in philosophy is that a man should see things, see them straight in his own peculiar way, and be dissatisfied with any opposite way of seeing them.’10 The issue of ‘rational control’ is divided by just such different ways of seeing and defines the distance between the ‘humanists’ on the one hand, and their critics on the other. At stake is a matter of discipline viewed in two ways. We can, with the critics, seek rational control by the independent discipline of rules, standards, general criteria or premises and favour deductive algorithms or unrevisable observational control as a way of securing it. Alternatively we can with the humanists look for self-discipline as a control over the rationality of beliefs and favour discussion, argument, decision and judgment constrained by consistency and the limits of intelligible adjustment.
The unlabelled opposition to foundationalist empiricism is an epistemological coalition with James, Kuhn, Wittgenstein and Wisdom as the front benchers, and the choice of just these four records their own distinctive and original moves to a discernibly joint end. They have no common programmatic doctrine beyond the message that an epistemology from which the human element is persistently ‘weeded out’ is a sad confidence trick. James's warning against weeding out the human contribution in philosophy is a fundamental criticism of the price to be paid for a developed empiricism. It opposes the thought that a subject matter open to uniform testing can be achieved only if the road to objectivity coincides with the road to impersonality, and that true and objective beliefs can be secured by progressively eliminating subject-related factors from the process of verification, those personal factors of background, biography, values, attitude, ability, decision and judgment which are distinctive of ‘oneself’. It was James's profound hope to put people back into epistemology, hence the centrality of his conflict with theories, which, if they are to survive as cogent accounts of what it is to test something, require that people should be eased out of the way.
Broadly speaking, this requirement is implemented in terms of two strategic moves, the shift to generality and the shift to pure perception. Objective control over judgments is sought in universal criteria and neutral observation; one looks up to premises or rules to control identification and inference, and looks down to a base of sensory data to control truth-values. Both act as common measures for testing which will be free from personal idiosyncracy. The generality shift represents the essentialist element which James tirelessly fought. The motive for his opposition was not simply that he thought essentialism to be false, but came from what he saw to be a more insidious danger. One may indeed appeal to premises, rules and general criteria of identification, but one cannot ultimately do so. Appeal to principles to validate decisions takes over the role of individual responsibility for judgment. The burden of decision is shifted from ascribing agents to prescriptive rules and ascribers become operators of a decision-making apparatus in which responsibility is taken out of their hands. James thought that the restoration of human responsibility is essential for epistemological success. Empiricist strategy generates a dichotomy of the analytic-synthetic type in which each direction of discourse has its own mode of validation. When James boasted that his theory was ‘democratic’ he was opposing any such dichotomy in the interests of a uniform account of testing, and the rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction is one identifying mark of pragmatism in all its forms. Yet the core of James’ opposition, of which the scrapping of this distinction is a consequence, remains in his repudiation of the thought that the key to epistemological success lies in increasingly impersonalized judgment.
Like James, Kuhn insists that an account of science is unacceptable if the personal elements of values and background are excluded from it. Both logic and psychology direct choices, he thinks, and the thesis is expanded into a confrontation with essentialist attitudes. The question of how scientists can identify and agree upon terms appropriate to fresh problems is not to be answered by reference to defining conditions but ultimately by appealing to similarities and differences between cases. In his article ‘Second Thoughts on Paradigms’ Kuhn argues that...

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Citation styles for Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth
APA 6 Citation
Newell, R. (2015). Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1642745/objectivity-empiricism-and-truth-pdf (Original work published 2015)
Chicago Citation
Newell, R. (2015) 2015. Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1642745/objectivity-empiricism-and-truth-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Newell, R. (2015) Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1642745/objectivity-empiricism-and-truth-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Newell, R. Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.