Pragmatic Perspectives
eBook - ePub

Pragmatic Perspectives

Constructivism beyond Truth and Realism

Robert Schwartz

  1. 194 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Pragmatic Perspectives

Constructivism beyond Truth and Realism

Robert Schwartz

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Anteprima del libro
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Informazioni sul libro

For a good part of the 20th century, the classic Pragmatists—Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey—and pragmatism in general were largely ignored by analytic philosophers. They were said to hold such untenable views as whatever best satisfies our needs is true and that the end justifies the means. Despite a recent revival of interest in these figures, spurred largely by the work of Richard Rorty, it is not uncommon to continue to hear claims that pragmatism is a subjectivist, anti-realist position that denies that there is a mind-independent world, and fails to place objective constraints on inquiry.

In this book, Robert Schwartz dispels these traditional views by examining the empiricist and constructivist orientation of the classic pragmatists. Based on updated and expanded versions of his influential papers, as well as a number of previously unpublished essays, in this book Schwartz demonstrates the relevance of pragmatic thought to a wide range of issues beyond concerns over truth and realism that currently dominate discussions. The individual essays elaborate and defend pragmatic, instrumentalist, and constructivist conceptions of truth and inquiry, moral discourse and ethical statements, perception, art, and worldmaking. Pragmatic Perspectives will appeal to scholars interested in the history of American philosophy and pragmatic approaches to contemporary issues in analytic philosophy.

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Part I

Whatever Happened to Pragmatism?

Perhaps the best way that teachers have to promote interest and develop understanding is to ask their students good questions—and in the various classes in ethics and in the history of philosophy that I had with Elizabeth Flower, she used to confront us with some very beautiful ones. At the same time, one of the best ways students have to help remove confusion and puzzlement is to ask their teachers questions. This is what I propose to do here, for on the topic that concerns me, I can think of no one whose thoughts I would rather hear than Flower’s. But before asking my questions, I would like to recall some relatively recent history.
Whether one agrees with Richard Rorty’s sweeping stories of intellectual history, or with his particular views of mind, reference, and incommensurability, or with his proposals for the future direction of philosophy, his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is on to something real in its account of the changes and ferment in the field (Rorty 1979).1 We have slowly, if not surely, been experiencing a breakdown, if not abandonment, of many of the assumptions and problematics that have occupied center stage in analytic philosophy. Even those who protest that the tradition is still quite hearty allow that the last 20 or 30 years have brought a growing appreciation that in various areas, business need not, should not, or cannot go on as usual. A brief catalog of these trends and tendencies might read as follows.
1. Language: The “museum of ideas” theory of meaning, as W. V. Quine calls it, is unacceptable. In turn, the accompanying dichotomies of the analytic versus the synthetic, truths of fact versus truths of definition, truths of reason versus empirical truths, cannot be relied on to underpin significant philosophical theses. Language lies at the nexus of cognition and social interaction, and no study of language cut off from these anchoring points will prove very insightful. Furthermore, there is no apparent need nor clear place for “philosophical” or “linguistic” analyses of concepts that are not part and parcel of the formulation of empirically adequate theories for the given area under study.
2. Truth: Although Alfred Tarski has shown that it is possible to talk about truth without metaphysical embarrassment, Truth with a capital T remains an illusive notion. We can, in good conscience, all admit that ‘P’ is true if and only if P, and that true sentences are those that say what is so. But none of this should make us sanguine about our grasp of the idea that truth is a matter of correspondence between abstract propositions and eternal ready-made facts or that we can say anything informative about just what such a relationship might be like. Nor is it obvious that the charge to “seek the truth” tells us much more about the nature of inquiry than the injunction to “do as best as you can”.
3. Epistemology: Not only is the Cartesian quest for certainty dead, but also hopes that the techniques of modern logic can provide a basis for updating the Rules for the Direction of the Mind have all but vanished. It would seem unreasonable to think that we can come up with time- and subject-independent principles that once and for all will enable us to separate “real” knowledge from fake substitutes. Similarly, once we recognize the elusiveness of the notion of a pure “given”, and further appreciate that this sort of “sensory core” is not what scientists typically turn to when testing their theories, the search for fixed empirical foundations of knowledge seems like an unpromising undertaking.
Epistemology, if there is to be such a subject, must be naturalized. We have to pay attention to how organisms with the kinds of minds, resources, and interests humans actually possess go about acquiring information. Furthermore, a concept of knowledge wholly divorced from use—from human activity and practice—would hardly seem worth bothering about. But because human endeavors, both intellectual and practical, most commonly involve the problematic, the unsettled, the doubtful, and the unclear, knowledge must find its proper home in the realm of probabilities rather than in the domain of assured truths. A model of knowledge that takes the mathematically certain as its paradigm or ideal will be far removed from human decision and action, rooted as they are in the probable.
4. Science: The fact that philosophers are primarily interested in the so-called context of justification does not mean that they can afford to avoid careful study of actual scientific practice. Models of scientific method and rationality that pay no heed to the course of historical developments in science are not likely to be very satisfactory. Although it may be possible to proclaim, on a priori grounds, the scientific necessity of such broad principles as being objective, being open-minded, and testing one’s hypotheses, what these directives amount to itself changes as science progresses. Our concepts of evidence, good reasons, appropriate use of data, etc. are not constants but are evolving notions. There can be no neutral point outside of ongoing inquiry from which we can rule on what is or is not an allowable line of argument.
We also have no grounds for thinking that science must or will come up with a single overarching theory that can meet all the goals we have in pursuing inquiry. Instead, we find in practice an assortment of theories, not readily reducible one to another, yet each representing a justified way of describing and organizing our experience. In studying scientific methodology it is thus a mistaken strategy to focus exclusively on tidied-up areas of textbook physics. The theoretical flux and empirical instability found in the social sciences may, in fact, provide even more fertile soil for philosophical investigation.
An examination of actual scientific practice also shows that the majority of workers devote their time to devising piecemeal solutions to localized problems and not to propounding grand theories. But even where the scientist’s goal is of a more global nature, it is accurate to characterize the work in instrumental terms. In both cases, the attempt is to develop more elegant and more empirically adequate concepts and principles. To go on to describe science as seeking theories that copy reality, or correspond to the hidden but eternal truth, adds nothing to our understanding of the enterprise.
5. Mind: The proper way to study mind is to examine its place in nature. What such a study discloses is not an ethereal soul or self-contained consciousness but mind as one of the organizing forces within an adapting, socially dependent, biological organism. Mind shows itself as an evolving set of skills, enhanced perceptions, and developed learning capacities that enable the organism to deal more intelligently with its environment. Understanding the nature of mind will not result from introspective reflection on felt qualities or subjective experiences. It will depend on the careful study of how we interact, grow, and adapt to a changing world.
Mental states must, therefore, be construed functionally, in terms of the roles they play in organizing and integrating our activities. This stress on the functional does not mean, however, that mental life can be reduced to sets of reflexes or simple stimulus-response chains. Human response to the environment is always mediated by the developed understandings and evolving meanings given to present experience. Any attempt to explain human behavior must take into account this fuller cognitive content and the social aspects of its acquisition, elaboration, and use.
When mind is thus treated functionally, and the study of mind is placed in its appropriate biological, psychological, and social context, much of the traditional mind/body problem loses its grip. The dilemma is not so much solved as dissolved. What remains of the old dichotomy is perhaps a distinction between the kinds of vocabularies and principles that show up in astronomy, physics, and chemistry and those central to psychology, biology, and the social sciences. Although these differences are real and significant, they do little to support claims for a metaphysical or ontological gulf between the mental and the physical.
6. Ethics and social philosophy: Efforts to deny cognitive significance to questions of value, morality, and social policy, to declare talk about these issues to be merely emotive or empirically meaningless, can be sustained only by adopting theories of language, mind, and inquiry that are themselves wholly inadequate. Such disparagement can, moreover, have pernicious effects, since it tends to preclude the serious experimentation and testing of alternative modes of social, political, and economic organization, leaving us at the mercy of entrenched habits. It is a misconception to conceive of ethics and social philosophy as a priori studies aimed at formulating fixed standards and rules, valid for all times and places. Enjoinders to “seek the good” or “act justly” are empty verbiage when separated from the psychological, social, and ethical contexts that give them meaning. Abstract principles gain significance when they are applied to problematic moral situations.
There is no reason then for philosophers to avoid dealing with substantive ethical issues, limiting their investigations to metaethical analyses. What’s more, such meta-analyses will have little intrinsic interest unless they are located within and constrained by the demands and possibilities of life as it may be lived. By critically sifting accepted values, by exposing inconsistencies in settled practices, by uncovering weaknesses in political and legal institutions, and by laying bare the hidden assumptions that constrict our understanding of the nature of work, power, education, etc. the philosopher can help society clarify what it finds worthwhile and coherently articulate its goals—and by proposing, testing, and evaluating alternative institutions, social structures, and patterns of interpersonal relations, the philosopher can play a role in enabling society to pursue more perspicaciously its aspirations for human growth and flourishing.
Although it would be overstating matters to claim that nowadays everyone accepts each of these points, it is not an overstatement to say that it would be difficult to do serious philosophical work while ignoring them. One would question the adequacy of preparation of any new Ph.D. who took uncritical refuge in a meaning–fact distinction; who paid no heed to empirical evidence on the grounds that his or her analysis was “philosophical”; who blithely accepted “the given”; who made pronouncements about the ahistoric standards of inquiry found in all scientific practice; who identified mental life with either subjective experience or stimulus-response bonds; who simply declared aesthetic, religious, and moral discourse meaningless; or who assumed that questions of medical ethics were obviously unfit subjects for “philosophical” concern. I believe Rorty is surely right that many of the programs and problems that have been the “hot” topics in 20th-century analytic philosophy are beginning to look more and more like played-out, if not impossible, projects.
Now, I do not find surprising that what was once considered firm, has been abandoned, that many problems once thought to be “the” central topics of investigation no longer seem worth pursuing, or that important questions have not been so much resolved as dissolved. Rather, what I find surprising is that this denouement has worked its way into mainstream analytic philosophy so relatively recently. For as any student of American pragmatism knows, such shifts in approach, assumptions, emphases, and interests were what the pragmatists’ revolution was all about. These ideas were not hidden beneath the surface of their work, or found only in a short phrase here or there. Nor does it require the hindsight of the 1980s to read these claims into this earlier work. The points sketchily catalogued earlier were just some of the main themes James, Dewey, and others labored long and hard to impress on the intellectual consciousness of their day. (The essays that follow in this volume flesh out my understanding of the Pragmatists’ views on these matters.)
This then leads me to the puzzle that I would like some help in resolving, namely, whatever happened to pragmatism? Why were its lessons not learned? How could so much work go on assuming as rock bottom the very dualisms the pragmatists had shown to be so fragile, if not untenable? Why did so many of the traditional “problems of philosophy” still maintain their prominence in face of the pragmatists’ onslaught on their essentialist presuppositions? Most puzzling of all, even if the pragmatists’ tenets did not take hold and win the day, why did their work, in a comparatively short period of time, drift into philosophical oblivion?
Not only were the pragmatists’ ideas and projects soon off center stage, but also one could go through undergraduate and graduate training at many of the most prestigious centers of philosophy without so much as reading a single of their major works, let alone studying them in detail. To not know Bertrand Russell, George Edward Moore, Moritz Schlick, and Rudolf Carnap would have been a scandal. To have run into James only as an aside in an introductory class, as the proponent of some bizarre doctrine that if it is useful to believe P, then ‘P’ is true, would not have been unusual. Even today, with the push to make philosophy more “relevant”, I would be amazed if one out of 100 new Ph.D.s have read Dewey’s Democracy and Education, in spite of the fact that the book probably had more influence and impact on our culture and institutions than any philosophical work by an American before or since.
The obliteration or disappearance of pragmatism from the philosophical scene might be more understandable had it been an esoteric movement whose ideas never gained much currency and whose proponents were obscure intellectuals working at remote universities. But nothing like this was the case. James and Dewey were recognized then, and still are, as among the best and brightest of their time; they taught at major universities; and their ideas were much discussed and debated in professional circles, as well as in the culture at large. So again my puzzle is, whatever happened to pragmatism?
As I indicated at the start of this essay, my intention has been to raise questions, not to answer them. Before concluding, however, I would like to canvass a few answers that have been suggested or may come to mind.
In “Dewey’s Metaphysics”, Rorty speculates that the decline of pragmatism can be explained if one is willing to grant that writers like Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, A. J. Ayer, and Max Black were doing a better job of showing the “pseudo-ness” of pseudo problems than Dewey had been able to do. They could do so because they had the virtue of their vices. What now seems to me to be the dogmatism and artificiality of the logical empiricist movement was precisely what permitted this movement to criticize the tradition so sharply and so effectively. Following Kant in wishing to put philosophy upon the secure path a of science and writing as if Hegel had never lived, the logical empiricists carried assumptions of Descartes, Locke, and Kant to their logical conclusion and thus reduced the traditional problematic of philosophy to absurdity (Rorty 1982).
On this account, the positivists bought into the tradition. Working from within the tradition, they attempted both to criticize it and, using the tools of modern logic, put it on a more rigorous scientific basis. But under the weight of their own failures and prodded by the likes of Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and John Langshaw Austin, it eventually became apparent that logical empiricism was not a scientifically cleaned-up version of the tradition but a reductio of it. So Rorty concludes that “the narrowness and artificiality of the dualisms which logical empiricists presupposed enabled them to do what Dewey, precisely because of his broader scope and his ability to see the tradition in perspective had not” (Rorty 1982, 75).
This explanation, however, seems to me to raise as many questions as it settles. In particular, in light of the thoroughgoing critiques that James and Dewey had made of “the narrowness and artificiality of the dualisms which logical empiricists presupposed”, why did the positivists find it so easy to presuppose these dualisms and drag several generations of analytic philosophers along with them? Why did the pragmatists’ positive projects not attract attention, while those of the logical empiricists flourished? Scores of the ablest philosophers worked on epistemological foundations, ontological reductions, a priori conceptual analyses, and the demarcation of science...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series Page
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Dedication
  7. Contents
  8. Acknowledgments and Sources
  9. List of Figures
  10. Introduction
  11. PART I Background
  12. 1 Whatever Happened to Pragmatism
  13. 2 Pragmatic Inquiry and the “Go” of Truth
  14. 3 Epistemology: Inquiry or Knowledge
  15. 4 Pragmatism, Inquiry, and Knowledge
  16. PART II Constructivism
  17. 5 I’m Going to Make You a Star
  18. 6 Starting From Scratch: Making Worlds
  19. 7 The Power of Pictures
  20. 8 Creating Art, Creating Reality: A “Wild(e) View of Art”
  21. PART III Values and Ethics
  22. 9 The Facts About Facts
  23. 10 Pragmatic Constructivism: Values, Norms, and Obligations
  24. PART IV Perception
  25. 11 Veridicality in Berkeley’s Theory of Vision
  26. 12 Pluralist Perspectives on Perceptual Error
  27. 13 Perceptual Veridicality
  28. Index