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Pragmatist Epistemology


William James's observation that "when we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself" (1956, p. 17) succinctly expresses one important epistemological theme of traditional pragmatism: accommodation of a thoroughgoing fallibilism with a modest optimism about the possibility of successful truth seeking. Also characteristic of that tradition is its naturalism, its acknowledgment of the biological, and the social as well as the logical elements in the theory of knowledge, and its respect for science as, in Charles Peirce's words, "the epitome of man's intellectual development" (Collected Papers, 7.49). Since 1968 these ideas have been variously worked out by some who are fully aware of their roots in pragmatism and have also entered the thinking of many who are not. More surprising, some self-styled neopragmatists defend epistemological positions (or antiepistemological positions) quite unlike these classically pragmatist themes.

Both fallibilism and naturalism are prominent themes in W. V. O. Quine's epistemology, themes of which he acknowledges the pragmatist ancestry; his fallibilism, furthermore, like Peirce's, extends to mathematics and logic, and his naturalism, like Peirce's, has an evolutionary character. And he shares the pragmatists' regard for science. However, he seems drawn beyond a view of epistemology as resting in part on empirical assumptions about human cognitive capacities to conceiving of it as internal to the sciences of cognition; and thence, under pressure of the implausibility of supposing that psychology or biology could answer the questions about evidence, justification, and so forth, with which epistemology has traditionally been concerned, he seems drawn to a revolutionary scientism that would abandon the traditional questions in favor of questions the sciences can be expected to answer. Unlike his fallibilism and his modest, reformist naturalism, neither his scientism nor his revolutionary displacement of epistemology falls within the tradition of pragmatism.

Nicholas Rescher's approach, from its insistence that we humans "cannot function, let alone thrive, without knowledge of what goes on around us" (1994, p. 380) to its stress on the provisional, tentative character of all our estimates of truth, is unambivalently within the pragmatist tradition. But Rescher takes issue with Peirce's definition of truth, and therefore conceives of progress in terms of improvement over earlier stages rather than closeness to a supposed final stage.

Focusing on criteria of evidence and justification rather than on guidelines for the conduct of inquiry, Susan Haack adapts from the pragmatist tradition: Her fallibilism, expressed in the thesis that justification comes in degrees; her weak, reformist naturalism, expressed in the thesis that our criteria of evidence have built into them empirical presuppositions about human cognitive capacities; her account of perception; and her strategy for the metajustification of criteria of justification.

In stark contrast to Rescher or Haack, Richard Rorty urges in the name of pragmatism that the philosophical theory of knowledge is misconceived; and, in contrast to Quine, that epistemology should be, not replaced by the psychology of cognition, but simply abandoned. Rorty likens his repudiation of epistemology to John Dewey's critique of the "spectator theory." What Dewey intended, however, was to reform epistemology, to replace the quest for certain knowledge of eternal, unchanging objects with a realistic account of fallible, experimental, empirical inquiry. Rorty's revolutionary attitude derives from his conception of justification as a matter exclusively of our practices of defending and criticizing beliefs, not grounded in any connection of evidence and truth. This "conversationalist" conception of justification is motivated by his rejection of any conception of truth as meaning more than "what you can defend against all comers."

Often accused of relativism, Rorty denies the charge. He escapes it, however, only by shifting from contextualism ("A is justified in believing that p iff (if and only if) he can defend p by the standards of his community") to tribalism (" iff he can defend p by the standards of our community" [1979, p. 308]). But tribalism is arbitrary if our practices of criticizing and defending beliefs are, as Rorty holds, not grounded in any connection of evidence and truth.

In not-so-stark contrast to Rorty, Stephen Stich (1990) urges in the name of pragmatism that it is mere epistemic chauvinism to care whether one's beliefs are true, and that justified beliefs are those that conduce to whatever the subject values. True, Stich cheerfully embraces relativism (and rejects tribalism since he thinks our epistemic practices too preoccupied with truth); and he looks to the sciences of cognition to help us "improve" our cognitive processing so as better to achieve what we really value. But, as more overtly in Rorty, the effect is profoundly antiepistemological and "pragmatist" in quite another sense than the traditional one.

See also Dewey, John; Epistemology; James, William; Naturalism; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Quine, Willard Van Orman.


Haack, S. Evidence and Inquiry. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

James, W. The Will to Believe (1897). New York, 1956.

Peirce, C. S. Collected Papers, edited by C. Hawthorne, P. Weiss, and A. Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 19311958.

Quine, W. V. O. "Epistemology Naturalized." In Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Quine, W. V. O. "Natural Kinds." In Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Quine, W. V. O. "The Pragmatists' Place in Empiricism." In Pragmatism: Its Sources and Prospects, edited by R. J. Mulvaney and P. M. Zeltner, 2140. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.

Quine, W. V. O. Pursuit of Truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Rescher, N. "Précis of A System of Pragmatic Idealism," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54 (1994): 377390.

Rescher, N. A System of Pragmatic Idealism. Vol. 1: Human Knowledge in Idealistic Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Rorty, Richard. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Stich, S. P. The Fragmentation of Reason. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Susan Haack (1996)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)

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