Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fish, Stanley. "Pragmatism’s Gift." NEW YORK TIMES March 15, 2010.

Margolis, Joseph. Pragmatism's Advantage: American and European Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. Like any philosophy pragmatism offers answers to the questions the tradition of philosophical inquiry has been asking since its beginning. What is truth? What is real? How are we to act? What is the source of moral and/or epistemological authority? Pragmatism’s basic move is to declare that the answers to these questions will not be found by identifying some transcendental universal and then conforming ourselves to its normative demands (like “Be ye perfect”). Rather, we must, and can, make do with the “ordinary aptitudes of human beings (ourselves) viewed within a generously Darwinized ecology, without transcendental, revelatory, or privileged presumptions of any kind.” Pragmatism “completely undermines any assurances, empirical or transcendental, that exceed the provisionality of what we may consensually construct (in our own time) as a workable conjecture about the way the world is.” I quote from Joseph Margolis’s new book Pragmatism’s Advantage, which is, he says, that it is among the “very small number of Western philosophical movements … that … never exceed the natural competence and limitations of mere human being.” Why is that an advantage? Because, Margolis asserts, it avoids having to choose between “the alleged necessity of some ineliminable invariance in thought and/or reality” and some wholesale subjectivism or idealism that claims “that the natural world is itself constituted or constructed by the cognizing mind.” On the one hand, no “transcendental faculty” of reason or some other quasi-deity that will guide us infallibly if only we attach ourselves to it (not that there haven’t been any candidates for this honored position; there have in fact been many, too many). On the other hand, no surrender to the “preposterous doctrine” that we just make it all up as we go along. Instead pragmatism, Margolis explains, “favors a constructive (or constructivist) realism … freed from every form of cognitive, rational, and practical privilege … [and] committed to the continuities of animal nature and human culture, confined to the existential and historical contingencies of the human condition, and open in principle to plural, partial, perspectived, provisional, even nonconverging ways of understanding.” Quite a mouthful, but we can make it manageable by asking just what is a “constructive realism”? In the vocabulary pragmatism rejects, “realism” is (among other things) the thesis that (a) the world is independent of us and our thoughts, and (b) therefore our thoughts (or interpretations or calculations) should always be checked against, and evaluated as adequate or inadequate by, that independent and prior world. Pragmatists by and large accept (a), but not (b). They believe with Richard Rorty (a key figure in the revival of pragmatism in the last quarter of the 20th century) that “things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include mental states” — the world, in short, is “out there” — but they also believe that the knowledge we have (or think we have) of the world is given not by it, but by men and women who are hazarding descriptions within the vocabularies and paradigms (Thomas Kuhn’s word) that are in place and in force in their cultures. Those descriptions are judged to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate, according to measures and procedures that currently have epistemic authority, and not according to their fit with the world as it exists independently of any description. If a philosophy doesn’t have a real world payoff, what’s the use of it? While there surely is such a world, our only access to it, Rorty and Margolis say, is through our own efforts to apprehend it. Margolis: “The real world … is not a construction of mind or Mind … but the paradigm of knowledge or science is certainly confined to the discursive powers of the human.” Thus the content of realism — of what the best up-to-date accounts of the world tell us — is constructively determined by the workings of a culture-bound process of hypothesis, experiment, test and calculation that is itself a constructed artifact and as such can change even as it guides and assesses research. In the absence of the alternative pragmatism rejects — something called Mind equipped with something called reason which enables it to describe accurately something called the World (Bacon’s dream) — “realism cannot fail to be constructivist, though reality is not itself … constructed” (Margolis). A constructive realism will still make use of words like “true” and “better,” but these are judgments that a proposition is or is not warranted — has sufficient evidence backing it up — within the prevailing paradigms. (What higher judgment could here be? Kuhn asks.) In the event of a paradigm change — not an event that can be predicted or planned; it takes the form of conversion not demonstration — there will be new canons of evidence and new measures of warrant. Notice how far this is from saying that “anything goes.” At any moment the protocols and procedures in place will enforce a rigor of method and interpretation; it is just that the rigor lives and has its shape entirely within “the existential and historical contingencies of the human situation” and not in a realm of extra-human verification and validation, whether that realm be theological, philosophical or empirical. The implications of the pragmatist argument are at once far reaching and unthreatening. They are far reaching because, as Margolis points out, “If realism takes a constructivist turn, then all the normative features of the sciences (say truth and validity) must be constructivist as well — as … our moral and political norms would be.” These implications are unthreatening because if the pragmatist account is right it is describing what has always been the case. When Margolis announces that there are “no privileged faculties, no preestablished harmony, no exceptionless universals, no assured natural necessities … no escape from the contingencies of whatever we report as ‘given’ within human experience,” he is not ushering in a new age, but describing the necessary condition of all the old ones. It has ever been thus (again, if pragmatism is right), and yet the world’s business has always been done. . . . Read he rest here:

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