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How (Not) to Write the History of Pragmatist Philosophy of Science? Sami Pihlström Professor of Practical Philosophy University of Jyväskylä, Finland E-mail:

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Presentation on theme: "How (Not) to Write the History of Pragmatist Philosophy of Science? Sami Pihlström Professor of Practical Philosophy University of Jyväskylä, Finland E-mail:"— Presentation transcript:

1 How (Not) to Write the History of Pragmatist Philosophy of Science? Sami Pihlström Professor of Practical Philosophy University of Jyväskylä, Finland E-mail:,

2 Introduction Is there a distinctive tradition of pragmatist philosophy of science? C.S. Peirce & scientific realism W. James, J. Dewey & empiricism, instrumentalism W. James, J. Dewey & relativism, constructivism (cf. neopragmatism: H. Putnam, R. Rorty) The issue of realism (and truth) is at the center of these interpretations of pragmatism. Other important philosophers’ of science contributions to the pragmatist tradition (W.V. Quine, T.S. Kuhn, P. Feyerabend)?

3 Instrumentalism in James’s and Dewey’s pragmatism Peirce’s influence on 20th century philosophy of science is obvious: abduction, scientific progress (toward truth?), etc. –N.B. Peirce was also a speculative metaphysician (contrary to the spirit of the Vienna Circle). I will focus (among the classical pragmatists) on James and Dewey, whose relevance to later philosophy of science is more problematic. Cf. Popper: pragmatism = instrumentalism (antirealism: theories are not true or false but more or less useful). Misleading!

4 James: theories are instruments “[A]s the sciences have developed farther, the notion has gained ground that most, perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations. The laws themselves, moreover, have grown so numerous that there is no counting them; and so many rival formulations are proposed in all the branches of science that investigators have become accustomed to the notion that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of them may from some point of view be useful. Their great use is to summarize old facts and to lead to new ones. They are only a man-made language, a conceptual shorthand [...], in which we write our reports of nature [...].” (James, Pragmatism, 1975 [1907], p. 33.)

5 James (continued) “[W]e are witnessing a curious reversion of the common-sense way of looking at physical nature, in the philosophy of science favored by such men as Mach, Ostwald and Duhem. According to these teachers no hypothesis is truer than any other in the sense of being a more literal copy of reality. They are all but ways of talking on our part, to be compared solely from the point of view of their use. The only literally true thing is reality; and the only reality we know is, for these logicians, sensible reality, the flux of our sensations and emotions as they pass.” (James, Pragmatism, 1975 [1907], p. 93.) “There are so many geometries, so many logics, so many physical and chemical hypotheses, so many classifications, each one of them good for so much and yet not good for everything, that the notion that even the truest formula may be a human device and not a literal transcript has dawned upon us. We hear scientific laws now treated as so much ‘conceptual shorthand,’ true so far as they are useful but no farther. Our mind has become tolerant of symbol instead of reproduction, of approximation instead of exactness, of plasticity instead of rigor.” (James, The Meaning of Truth, 1975 [1909], p. 40.)

6 James (continued) Theories are ”instruments, not answers to enigmas” (Pragmatism, p. 32). Their ”truth” lies in their usefulness, not in their accurate representation (”copying”) of an independent reality. However, Jamesian pragmatism is not simple phenomenalism. James accepts Berkeley’s criticism of the material substance (ibid., ch. 3) but rejects phenomenalism on the grounds that ”the category of trans-perceptual reality is … one of the foundations of our life” (ibid., p. 43). Realism is pragmatically true. James’s ”pragmatic theory of truth” is not thoroughly antirealist, either: truth is ”agreement with reality”, but this agreement must be pragmatically explicated.

7 Dewey’s instrumentalism and experimentalism “There is something both ridiculous and disconcerting in the way in which men have let themselves be imposed upon, so as to infer that scientific ways of thinking of objects give the inner reality of things, and that they put a mark of spuriousness upon all other ways of thinking of them, and of perceiving and enjoying them. It is ludicrous because these scientific conceptions, like other instruments, are hand-made by man in pursuit of realization of a certain interest – that of the maximum convertibility of every object of thought into any and every other. [...] [W]hen the physical sciences describe objects and the world as being such and such, it is thought that the description is of reality as it exists in itself. [... However, the] business of thought is not to conform to or reproduce the characters already possessed by objects but to judge them as potentialities of what they become through an indicated operation. [...] [T]o think of the world in terms of mathematical formulae of space, time and motion is not to have a picture of the independent and fixed essence of the universe. It is to describe experienceable objects as material upon which certain operations are performed.” (Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, 1929, pp. 135-137.)

8 Dewey (continued) Compare: P. Bridgman’s ”operationalism”. Dewey frequently speaks about ”operational thinking” almost synonymously with ”instrumentalism” or ”experimentalism”. ”Scientific conceptions” are ”instrumentalities which direct operations of experimental observations” (ibid., p. 192). They are not intended to reveal to ultimate structure of an antecedently given reality an sich. Is this antirealism? The ”Eddington tables”: does Dewey claim that the ”scientific table” (the scientific image of reality) is secondary to the commonsense (experienceable) one?

9 Dewey (continued) Realism & empiricism: the objects of science are experienceable objects, not experience-transcending noumena. Realism & constructivism: the objects of science are ”constructed” in and through inquiry, not ”ready-made” prior to inquiry. (Yet, we do not construct reality ex nihilo. There is a natural world we are parts of.) Realism & naturalism: ”unnatural doubts” about the reality of theoretical entities postulated in science ought to be abandoned as foreign to scientific practice. There is no first philosophy prior to scientific inquiry itself. These different elements of scientific realism (and antirealism) form a harmonious whole in Dewey’s philosophy of science. None of them is prior or absolute.

10 James & Dewey (conclusion) In some respects, the Jamesian and/or Deweyan forms of pragmatism are realistic; in other respects, they are antirealistic (e.g., instrumentalist, constructivist, or even idealist). There is no way to determine in general terms whether classical pragmatism is a form of realism or not. A pragmatic realism reconcilable with moderate constructivism (with an undeniable threat of relativism) is a plausible interpretation (or reconstruction) of James’s and Dewey’s views. Piecemeal approach: no general solution to the realism issue; attention to particular cases (cf. Wittgenstein). Yet, realism is not ”dead” (pace A. Fine).

11 Quine’s ”more thorough pragmatism”? W.V. Quine’s naturalism: ”there is no first philosophy”. (Deweyan background, with little explicit influence.) Quine, ”Two Dogmas” (1951): a ”more thorough pragmatism” – compared to what? –Compared to Carnap (”Empiricism, Semantics, Ontology”, 1950)! –Quine speaks about ”pragmatism” only in the sense in which Carnap did. He doesn’t claim to be influenced by, or continuing, the pragmatist tradition, though he does recognize a connection with Dewey’s naturalism (and though he respects Peirce’s logic). Neopragmatist criticism of Quine, e.g., by Putnam: Quine’s naturalism is too reductive, or even eliminative, in comparison to the pragmatists’ (including Dewey’s) non-reductive naturalism. Normativity sacrificed. Quine is more clearly a positivist than a pragmatist.

12 Neopragmatism and the emergence of scientific objects Putnam & Kuhn: constructivism, ”internal realism”: there is no ”ready-made” reality, but (scientific) objects are constructed within, or emerge from, scientific theorization and practices. There is no ”God’s-Eye View”, no paradigm-transcendent perspective on the world as it is in itself. This is not antirealism in the sense of empiricist instrumentalism, but is it antirealism in the sense of constructivism, relativism, or even idealism? (Reality is mind- or paradigm-dependent? There is only ”theory- internal” truth, no theory-external correspondence truth?) Close to Rorty’s more radical neopragmatism, with only ”conversational” constraints for inquiry?

13 Neopragmatism (continued) Both Putnam’s neopragmatism (internal or pragmatic realism) and Kuhn’s view on paradigms as constitutive not only of scientific rationality but of the reality investigated are (re)interpretable as contemporary forms of Kantian transcendental idealism: paradigms, conceptual schemes, frameworks, etc. provide the practice-laden context within which scientific objects, including the unobservable theoretical entities postulated in scientific theories, can be said to be real (or unreal). Kantianism without incognizable ”things in themselves”, historicized and pragmatized transcendental philosophy: Kant’s fixed set of a priori concepts is replaced by dynamically developing scientific practices (paradigms).

14 Neopragmatism (continued) Cf. Kant: empirical realism is possible within (and requires) transcendental idealism. Kuhn & Putnam: pragmatic realism about scientific objects is possible (and requires) constructivism at the transcendental level (”transcendental pragmatism”). Putnam is explicit about his Jamesian and Deweyan (and Peircean) influences, but Kuhn very seldom refers to the classical pragmatists. Both acknowledge their Kantian background and Wittgensteinian connections, however. –Wittgenstein’s role in the development of the pragmatist tradition? (A large issue to be set aside here.) Pragmatists (early and late) should be more explicit about the fundamentally Kantian character of their views. –Cf. the debate over the status of transcendental arguments: comparison to abductive, naturalized arguments? –Transcendental idealism can be ”updated” by reconceptualizing it as Kuhnian constructivism.

15 Neopragmatism (continued) Other (post-Kuhnian) pragmatic philosophers of science: –Feyerabend? If Rorty is entitled to ”pragmatism”, then why not Feyerabend, too? –Fine? NOA: cf. Deweyan naturalism? (Too antiphilosophical to qualify as true pragmatism!) –Hacking? ”If you can spray them, they are real.” –Laudan? Attacking ”convergent realism”, emphasizing the practical success of theories. –Rouse? Defending (non-reductive) naturalism and the inherent normativity of scientific practices – close to Dewey!

16 Conclusion As our survey reaches recent neopragmatism, our picture of ”pragmatist philosophy of science” becomes pluralistic and vague. There is no essence to the pragmatist tradition in the philosophy of science (or anywhere else), other than the highly general idea (shared by many non-pragmatists as well) that philosophers of science should turn toward scientific practice. There are only family resemblances. Cf. the vague boundary between philosophy of science and science studies. The classical pragmatists made the ”practical turn” decades earlier than science studies. Key issues: realism vs. antirealism (in its many forms); logico- epistemological vs. socio-historical approaches to science (cf. Popper vs. Kuhn as a paradigmatic 20th century controversy). –Transcendental concerns can, and must, be maintained in both! –Kant as the crucial background figure of pragmatism – and of 20th century philosophy of science more generally.

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