The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

This is an entry in a series called The Oxford History of Philosophy, written by an expert on the philosophical school known as “pragmatism”. Here’s how Oxford University Press describes the book:

Cheryl Misak presents a history of the great American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, from its inception in the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s to the present day. She identifies two dominant lines of thought in the tradition: the first begins with Charles S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright and continues through to Lewis, Quine, and Sellars; the other begins with William James and continues through to Dewey and Rorty. This ambitious new account identifies the connections between traditional American pragmatism and twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, and links pragmatism to major positions in the recent history of philosophy, such as logical empiricism. Misak argues that the most defensible version of pragmatism must be seen and recovered as an important part of the analytic tradition.

According to Professor Misak, “the most defensible version of pragmatism” is the version initiated by C. S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright in the 19th century and carried forward by C. I. Lewis, W. V. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars in the 20th. She argues that it is more defensible because it considers truth to be less subjective. In the caricature or simplification of pragmatism as set forth by William James and criticized by G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, true statements are those that “work for us”. If religious beliefs make your life better, for example, they’re true. By contrast, the tradition that began with Peirce treats truth more objectively. Statements may “work for us” even though they’re false. The Peircean pragmatists see a stronger relationship between truth and how the world is, regardless of human goals or interests.

It isn’t easy to briefly explain what pragmatism is, but Prof. Misak gives it a try in the Preface:

Pragmatists are empiricists in that they require beliefs to be linked to experience. They want their explanations and ontology down-to-earth (natural as opposed to supernatural) and they require philosophical theories to arise out of our practices. As Peirce put the pragmatic maxim, we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them….

[But] pragmatists reject the part of empiricism that says that all of our beliefs originate in experience and that our beliefs can be linked in an atomistic way to discrete experiences…. They reject any naturalism that gives ontological priority to matter or physicality — they want to consider whether value, generality, chance, etc. might be part of the natural world. They are holists, taking their view to encompass all of science, logic, mathematics, art, religion, ethics and politics. Unlike most of their empiricist predecessors, they fence off no realm of inquiry from the principles they set out.

In the Conclusion, she adds:

The core pragmatist thought is about the human predicament. We must try to explain our practices and concepts, including our epistemic norms and standards, using those very practices, concepts, norms and standards. This is the pragmatist’s task and we have found that, within the pragmatist tradition, there are different ways of trying to fulfill it.

I’ll finish with a brief example of pragmatist thinking. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume is sometimes viewed as a skeptic (e.g. he believed there is no rational basis for ever thinking that one event causes another). The pragmatist John Dewey, however, saw Hume as a predecessor:

While in his study, Hume finds skepticism compelling, but as soon as he leaves that secluded place of theoretical philosophizing, skepticism loses any force it might have had. The skeptic’s doubts, as Peirce would put it, are paper doubts [107].

According to the pragmatists, what matters, even from a philosophical perspective, is how our ideas connect with our lives outside the philosophy class.

Update (January 2020): Without realizing I’d already read it, I read it again. More here.

Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind by Wilfrid Sellars

This is actually a long essay, which I read in a collection of essays by Sellars called Science, Perception and Reality. But the essay has been published separately as a book, with an introduction by Richard Rorty and study notes by Robert Brandom, and since I’ve read that introduction and those notes, I’m listing Sellars’s essay as a book.

More to the point, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” is an attack on what Sellars calls the “Myth of the Given”, his term for the view that our knowledge of the world is based on basic or foundational beliefs, and that we derive such basic beliefs from what is “given” to us by sense perception. In particular, Sellars focuses on the philosophical theory that our fundamental knowledge of the world is knowledge of sense data.  Sense data are thought to be the particular impressions that we are aware of when we perceive the world. According to this theory, when I perceive a red apple, for example, I actually experience a red expanse of color, which may or may not represent an actual physical object. Philosophers who accept the sense data theory believe that our knowledge of the world rests on the foundation provided by such sense data.

Sellars criticizes this view in various ways, for example, by arguing that language about how something appears to us (like the language of sense data) is logically dependent on language about how things actually are (like the language of physical objects). Sellars also argues that the sense data theory fudges the clear distinction between non-cognitive impressions (sentience) and cognitive beliefs (sapience) — beliefs belong to the “space of reasons” and sense impressions don’t. In sum, “one could not have observational knowledge of any fact unless one knew many other things (i.e. had the relevant concepts) as well”.  In Brandom’s words, “one can’t think until one has learned to speak”, and one can’t speak until there is a community of speakers engaged in the social practice of speech (which includes giving and asking for reasons).

The last part of the essay is devoted to his own myth, which is supposed to explain how human beings came to talk about sense impressions in an intersubjective way, as theoretical entities. I didn’t find Sellars’s arguments or explanations convincing enough to rid me of the urge to take sense data or foundationalism seriously. But this is a difficult work that seems to deserve detailed study.  (10/13/10)