A Pragmatic Option

by Jay Jeffers


American Pragmatism has been controversial from the start. It was accused of “cosmic impiety” by Bertrand Russell, a founding father of Anglophone analytic philosophy. Rifts developed quickly even within the young school of thought, with the original pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce renaming his approach “pragmaticism,” which he thought was “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.” From inside or out, the rifts tended to form around how seriously to take matters of truth and rational justification and how much to discard. When criticisms are lobbed in from the outside, the rifts are easy to see, but when rifts occur between philosophers who largely agree on important philosophical matters, people tend to assume that the disagreement is due to the narcissism of small differences. To find out what all the fuss is about inside the pragmatist camp, we’ll have to call upon figures from more recent philosophical history, representing two historical positions within pragmatism, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam.

Richard Rorty is the rock star in the story. He refused to show the typical deference to the idols of truth and rationality, produced lucid accounts of why he refused, and received accolades even from outside academic philosophy. Rejoicing at the thought of having pedantic Anglophone philosophers off their backs were many in literature, in the humanities in general, and among rivals of the analytic tradition from Continental Europe. The fresh air also removed the stigma from inquiry into the then-stale pragmatic tradition, starting with inquiry into the thought of William James and John Dewey, Peirce’s inheritors. Putnam acknowledged Rorty’s contribution saying, “he did an important job in getting people to read the pragmatists again. He was influential in getting me to read James and to start teaching James, so I’m grateful,” and the philosopher Thomas Alexander, “once again you could say Dewey’s name in public without people acting as if you had farted in an elevator.”

This is all part of the story for why post analytic philosophy emerged in the first place. If analytic philosophy can be tagged here with the trope of a furrowed Anglo-American brow, demanding precise terms, writing sprinkled with formal logical symbols, and declaring whole traditions of thought “nonsense,” then the Continental tradition is profligate and sexy, making sweeping pronouncements about the meaning of history in total, in less precise but more poetic language. The post-analytic school sits somewhere in between, having gone through the refiner’s fire of what’s known as “the linguistic turn,” referring to the discipline’s turn toward making language itself the object of study, rather than just assuming that it represents nature perfectly.

The trajectory of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thought follows the pattern: attempts to nail down meaning through strict control of the medium of communication (language) runs into all sorts of intellectual trouble and finally surrenders, and in the aftermath, a respect for the limits of rational thought and linguistic precision grows. In spite of the success of occasional counterrevolutions and returns, the frequency with which philosophers simply assume that they can get to the essence of reality through a neutral medium of communication has fallen considerably since the early days of analytic philosophy, whether formally inside the pragmatic tradition or not.

The problems encountered during the search for unvarnished rational truth were from inside the house, as it were. Evacuation is forced from discoveries in the form paradoxes, mysteries, and limits found in the earnest search for truth, all from the standards of the analytic school itself, not from the vague pronouncements of some salty French postmodernist (though such pronouncements gained market value in some circles after the aforementioned evacuation). Hope is lost that a final truth can be won through purely logical and epistemic methodology, but the style of thinking remains in a demonstrated commitment to consistency and clarity in presentation.

Rorty and Putnam, then, can be placed, at least temporarily, as post-analytic philosophers as much as pragmatists, which will help situate them more broadly without losing much. The terms attached to each philosopher’s point of view here will be the improvised and clunky “view from within” in the case of Putnam and “view from without” for Rorty (the more obvious “internal” and “external” are already heavily protected properties of other areas of philosophy). Rorty looks from without, Putnam from within. This already will be controversial, and part of the disagreement springs from the fact that both points of view often repeat the same formulations of their own positions, so how can their disagreement be anything other than superficial?

The first clue is that Putnam is much more of a stand-in representative in the dispute than Rorty. Putnam was famous in his own right, but roughly speaking, only from inside philosophy. In terms of fame, Putnam was a poor man’s Rorty. Rorty introduced forms of pragmatism and perhaps even relativism into much more realist and stuffy intellectual circles. He isn’t the first person to have such thoughts, but he is a definite pivot point in Anglophone philosophy. Putnam’s role in the conversation comes with the leverage of a philosopher pushing back not only with adequate weight but with sufficient credibility.

Of course, no one pulled their punches in attacking Rorty’s project, especially if they saw themselves as committed to the ultimate essence of truth or in deep sympathy with a Bertrand Russell. From Rorty’s perspective, these criticisms could easily be seen as missing the point. That similar criticisms come from inside the camp, however, is especially interesting. Even people who would otherwise be Rorty’s ideological allies sometimes thought he went too far.

As for Putnam’s stand-in status, plenty of pragmatists, post-analytic thinkers, and even the occasional Continental fellow traveler lodged objections to Rorty. Susan Haack accused his philosophy of licensing cynicism, while Donald Davidson, John McDowell, Jurgen Habermas, Akeel Bilgrami, and even Rorty’s disciple, Robert Brandom, all engaged in interventions with Rorty on the grounds that he had discarded truth too quickly. It’s technically possible that Putnam indulged in a narcissism of small differences, and it’s also possible that these exaggerated differences spilled out onto others, but the plausibility that there was nothing of interest between the two camps falls significantly in the face of the shared and prolonged nature of the dispute.

But that’s just the inductive case. The substance of the disagreement can be understood through examining a quarrel between the aforementioned Donald Davison and Willard Van Orman Quine, another post-analytic philosopher. Quine invites us to look from outside into an imagined and situated use of language. We are among a tribe with no knowledge of their language, embedded and subject to their linguistic mores. “Gavagai!” we hear someone shout at the sight of a rabbit. We see this occur several times, and assume this word refers to rabbits as one would. But Quine shows how the context is consistent with the term referring to “undetached rabbit part,” “food” or even, in the case of an event rather than a substance ontology “it’s rabbiting right now,” etc. There is no neutral fact between us that can determine which imagined use of ‘Gavagai’ is being employed. Quine’s point was not that no one can ever know the proper referent of words, but that words lock into place, to the extent that they do, only within a conceptual scheme. In this case, we do not share such a framework with the native speakers of the language that includes “gavagai.”

A conceptual scheme draws a clear distinction between the scheme itself and the content within it, at least in the hands of Quine. The question of what we’re referring to, from the unfamiliar realm outside the scheme, is radically indeterminate. There is no getting outside your own culture to make the comparison. In these cross-scheme comparisons, there is no place to stand. At first glance, Quine’s stance may appear to come “from within,” but I propose the opposite, because Quine was asking us to look “from without,” inviting us to conceive of linguistic behavior that by his own admission we could not rightly comprehend.

“The view from within,” as I’m calling it, was ably represented in a response to Quine by Davidson in the essay “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Davidson says, “Conceptual schemes, we are told, are ways of organizing experience; they are points of view from which individuals, cultures, or periods survey the passing scene.” But Davidson observed that when we talk about radically different possibilities, we manage to do so just fine within our own vocabulary. Panning Quine’s historic essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Davidson said the idea of a “dualism of scheme and content, of an organizing system and something waiting to be organized” is the “third dogma” of empiricism. Pulling Thomas Kuhn into the conversation on the side of Quine, Davidson writes, “Kuhn is brilliant at saying what things were like before the revolution using – what else? – our post-revolutionary idiom.”

There’s not a total overlap between the Quine-Davidson dispute and the gap between Rorty and Putnam, and the concerns related to conceptual schemes, both pro and con, have taken on a life of their own. But the overlap is more than sufficient to illustrate the point for our purposes: Rorty and Quine cluster together against Davidson and Putnam. Accordingly, Putnam’s retort to Rorty is similar to Davidson’s to Quine. Putnam complained that Rorty tries to say, “from a God’s eye view that there is no God’s eye view.”

Again, this will be disputed, because Rorty was openly sanguine on Davidson’s view that scheme and content are constantly bleeding into one another, and part of Quine’s motivation was to draw the attention back to the overriding importance of the conceptual vocabulary. But the within/without distinction compares those who took that lesson literally to those who didn’t fully manifest it in their worldview. In other words, between those who took it too far or with the pinch of salt it warranted (the point is that whether either side is good or bad depends upon your philosophical priors).

For now, it will suffice to show how the clusters belong together, starting with Rorty’s similarity to Quine, via Rorty’s recommendation to handle radical doubts about one’s vocabulary by adopting “ironism.” This form of irony recognizes and reconciles oneself to the break between radical doubt about one’s own conceptual vocabulary and the reality of workaday participation in language. Rorty emphasizes that we can’t get outside our vocabulary, and therefore have no resources with which to evaluate other vocabularies with radically different commitments than ours, or even to know whether we’re getting through to reality as it actually is. It is a negative assessment of our ability to pierce through to the essence of reality itself.

An explicit categorization is in order to situate a few key factors. This is a loose grouping, different relationships could be drawn in different ways, and caveats could be given all around, but nevertheless it will be instructive for our purposes:

Peirce and Haack give the requisite nods to dependence on theory and vocabulary, proceeding then to pursue truth in a more or less undisturbed fashion, with less throat clearing than Putnam or Davidson. Putnam (with Davidson) and Rorty (with Quine) take different lessons from our vocabulary-dependence. From Putnam’s perspective, if we can’t get outside our vocabulary to make any positive assessments of its success in capturing reality as it is, neither can we make any negative assessments of this sort. Rorty’s view, the modest twist on the view from without, gives a much stronger impression of anti-realism. On the other hand, Putnam’s view — the modest twist on the view from within — leaves the original questions from traditional philosophy unanswered. The modest view from within is almost infinitely agnostic on the deeper division of epistemic labor between mind and world.

If you, like countless others in the past, want to know whether we’re accessing the actual world or just the projected categories from our minds, Putnam’s answer is “The mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world.” Of course, a lot more could be said, but that’s pretty much all you’re going to get in the way of an answer. Here Putnam could fall under a common complaint lodged against Wittgenstein: that of putting us into a prison-house of language where the question of whether we’re operating in or out of our vocabulary cannot be sensibly asked. One might feel a little existential claustrophobia in this system. Rorty lets the sun in and paints a vague picture of a vista on the cliff’s edge of our vocabulary, from which we can see radical nothingness, but as in the implicature of Buddhism, is actually functioning as some sort of wonderful something.

In doing so, Rorty provides a clear antithesis to Russell and Moore’s thesis. They were crucial in shaping early analytic philosophy’s dream of decisively answering the traditional questions of philosophy through science and logic. To say that this pursuit wasn’t successful would be an understatement. Witnessing its failure years later made a deep cut in Rorty, as he explicitly stiff-armed even modest attempts to provide accounts of truth and reason, suspecting that they would eventually lead us back to the dead ends and wasted time of the early analytic dream.

If this all sounds like inside baseball for philosophers, a foothold can be found in the fact that in post-analytic and pragmatic thought, an emphasis has long been placed on getting back to the “ordinary.” This school of thought is sometimes said to provide “therapy” to those in thrall to the deep questions of traditional philosophy, and “common use” is often bolstered in the hands of thinkers like Wittgenstein. Eschewing epistemic puzzles to return to ordinary ways of talking is a central plank of Rorty’s thought. But his philosophical treatment gives us a view into radical nothingness, into the noumenal, if you will, which arms us with a secret “ironism” with which to handle our rare insight into the radical indeterminacy of our worldview’s vocabulary. This is meant to free us to act with spontaneity with our fellows when engaged in everyday ways of talking. It is from the private side of this public-private split that we see, as philosophy is where this purifying prep work is taking place. Rorty wants to arm us with a secret irony, reminding us of the radical emptiness of our vocabulary when viewed from a completely objective perspective, which then helps us converse with our fellows with no axes to grind leftover from traditional philosophy. This is certainly a unique use of the word “ordinary.” It would make sense to everyone in the matrix above, aside from Rorty, to ask whether this is a proper use of “ordinary” in any previously established sense at all, in which case, the question of who’s the real pragmatist would present itself. No matter how it comes out in the end, this is a genuine disagreement. We might have to squint a bit at first to see it, but it’s definitely there.

8 thoughts on “A Pragmatic Option

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  1. I’ve always found it remarkable that Rorty seems to share a certain sensibility with Thomas Nagel, of all philosophers.

    Consider the final sentence of Nagel’s paper, “The Absurd”: “If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

    Nagel’s recommendation here is a response to (what he argues is) the inescapable incongruence we feel that arises from (1) our inability to avoid caring deeply about the course of our lives and (2) our inability to avoid seeing our reasons for so caring as radically contingent. The unavoidable perspective in 2 — the perspective from which we see our lives as radically contingently arranged — is, I take it, something like what you call the view from without.

    I wonder if Rorty thought the view from without was as inescapable as Nagel thought it was.

    1. That is remarkable! I hadn’t run across that from Nagel but it’s something you’d expect.

      What you present from Nagel (2) does seem very much in line what I called the view from without in my piece. I’m not sure if Rorty is correct that it’s inescapable, but I know I can definitely relate to embodying that point of view. Nagel, though, has a wide-open ontology that Rorty denied himself.

      I’m still trying to see if that perspective can do some work if it’s more contained, because I’d like to attempt some kind of synthesis between the two views (within and without).

  2. Have considered my views pragmatist for years. More so since reading much material proffered by those mentioned herein, excluding Quine and Putnam. Is the term, American pragmatism, justified? I suppose so, if the fact that its’ founders are/were primarily Americans is the major criterion. I recall Rorty’s definition of pragmatist as someone interested in things more useful, not less. My ancestors include European and Native American people…pragmatic, to a fault. And then some.

        1. 😉 It was quoted (disapprovingly) by Brandom in his lectures which summarize Rorty’s stance as Romantic Pragmatism “completing the Enlightenment project.”

          But I am unsure about Putnam, who seems to move around a bit. By 2015, he says he is a “liberal naturalist” and
          “metaphysical realist” and “rejects every form of verificationism, including the author’s one-time ‘internal realism’, and insists that our claims about the world are true or false and not just epistemically successful or unsuccessful…” Maybe he is kind of like early and late Wittgenstein in reverse.

  3. Thought a little more on this. What is cosmic impiety anyway? How can anyone be impious towards the cosmos and, moreover, how and why would the cosmos care.? This sounds like something long ago and far away.

    1. My understanding is that Russell was specifically replying to the pragmatic theory of truth conjured up by William James, which is something to the effect of “true is what’s useful.” That idea has caused all sorts of headaches and I wouldn’t identify it as some sort of test for pragmatist thought, but it is a part of the story. Russell:

      “The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness–the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.”

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