Pragmatism: What’s the Use?   /   Fall 2001   /    Articles

Coping and Conversing

The Limits and Promise of Pragmatism

Merold Westphal

Woman walking in front of a infinity mirror. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Is pragmatism the golden mean between dogmatism and skepticism, realism and anti-realism, absolute correspondence and arbitrary convention? We must first ask about the Scylla and Charybdis we seek to avoid.11x[Editor’s note: In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters residing on opposite sides of a body of water, through which ships sailed. The fear was that, in attempting to avoid one, the boat would fall prey to the other.] Just what sort of a monster is the dogmatism that threatens to devour us if we are not careful, and what sort of maelstrom is the skepticism in which we are in danger of being swept away as we flee the monster?


Dogmatism as Realism, Skepticism as Anti-Realism


Dogmatism and realism are closely connected. It is all too often said that realism is the claim that the world is out there, regardless of what we think about it or even whether we think about it. But Kant makes this claim—that is what the thing in itself is all about—and he is the paradigmatic anti-realist. Both in analytic and in continental philosophy, anti-realism is often a series of footnotes to Kant. We need a definition of realism that distinguishes it from Kant’s claims about the world as it is in itself. An adequate definition of realism needs to include the following two claims: 1) the world is and is what it is regardless of what or whether we think about it; and 2) when we have knowledge (the extent of which can remain an open question), we know the world exactly as it is independently of our thought about it. Kant defined dogmatism in realistic terms as the assumption that we can know the object (any object, not just God, freedom, and immortality) as it is in itself. While it is trivially true that we would have no knowledge apart from our thinking, according to realism, our thought plays no constitutive role in shaping that knowledge. The metaphor of the mind as the mirror of nature expresses this realist idea eloquently.22xThus Richard Rorty speaks of “truth without mirrors” in seeking an alternative to classical correspondence theory (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979], 295). This is why the contrast between the absolute and the arbitrary can be interpreted in terms of absolute correspondence.

If dogmatism is construed as realism, in this sense, skepticism would then be anti-realism, the denial of these claims. The middle way we are seeking will be a form of anti-realism, but unlike skepticism, it will not conclude that “all judgment in regard to the object is completely null and void.”33xImmanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A 388–9. It will not accept the all or nothing, either/or, on which the dogmatist and skeptic are agreed. In denying the absolutist claims of the dogmatist, it will not conclude that everything is arbitrary. So our search will be for a viable anti-realism. Since Kant found criticism, or critique, to be a viable anti-realism, a middle ground between dogmatism and skepticism, our question might become whether pragmatism is or can be the critical philosophy, or critique, of our time.

Although it is usually overlooked, there is a distinctly theological dimension to Kant’s Copernican revolution. He regularly distinguishes between, on the one hand, appearances or the phenomenal world as the way reality appears to us, and, on the other hand, the thing in itself or the noumenal world as the way that same reality appears to God as creator of the world.44xFor textual analysis, see my “In Defense of the Thing in Itself,” Kant-Studien 59.1 (1968): 118–41. Divine knowledge is the measure of the way things are, and to know things in themselves would be to know them as God knows them, to see them through divine eyes. The realist may be discoursing about cabbages or kings and need not be talking about God, but whatever the subject matter, the claim is that when we achieve genuine knowledge, we occupy a standpoint as unsurpassable as that attributed to God by the theist. That is why I have identified realism as the theory of absolute correspondence.

Realism need not be a denial of human finitude, but any finitude affirmed will be quantitative and not qualitative. It will consist in acknowledging that 1) we sometimes get it wrong; 2) even when we get it right, it often takes us time to do so; and 3) there are many facts completely beyond our reach. But these limitations are carefully located outside what counts as knowledge. When we know, we hold to a proposition that corresponds to, is adequate to, or perfectly mirrors the fact (or, if you prefer, the event) in question.

This view has many presuppositions. I want to mention two of them, which, if not utterly necessary to every possible realism, are in fact so common that they deserve note. One is the atomic view of facts and propositions. If one can have adequate knowledge of one fact while being mistaken about another and wholly ignorant of a third, the facts must be externally related to each other. This ontological atomism requires a semantic atomism as well. If the meaning of one proposition is internally related to that of another, I won’t know what I mean by the one unless I understand the other, and I cannot be said to believe the one unless I believe the other. Holism, whether ontological or semantic, will be a serious problem for the atomistic ontology and semantics that most realisms presuppose.

The second assumption widely found in realist theories is what I call the “proposition presupposition.”55xI have discussed the “proposition presupposition” in “Taking Plantinga Seriously: Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Faith and Philosophy 16.2 (April 1999): 173–81. If one has been socialized into a certain language game especially widespread among philosophers, propositions will seem like the most harmless and non-controversial of entities. But they involve a Platonism that is anything but self-evident. Sentences and statements are understood to occur within some human language, natural or artificial, such as English, Russian, or Pig-Latin. But propositions are understood differently. We are told that the English, French, and German sentences, “I love you,” “Je t’aime,” and “Ich liebe dich,” all express the same proposition and that it is not itself in English, French, or German—but not because it is in Swahili. Sentences and statements may occur in the cave of human languages, but propositions belong to a heavenly realm uncontaminated by such contingency. The existence of such entities is thought to be evident from the fact that we can translate sentences or statements from one language to another.

But this account of translation is not the only possible one, and it is anything but self-evident; nor is it obvious that when we begin to philosophize we have already transcended the limits of the particular language we speak and ascended to a semantic sunshine of the sort posited by Plato. In assuming without argument that we have immediate access to a world of propositions, to a semantic region not embedded in a language game with all the practices and institutions that give it life, the realist begs too many questions. For if, as many philosophers would now argue, our meanings are relative to the language in which they are expressed, “I love you” will not be semantically identical with “Ich liebe dich.” Where will we find that exact mirror of the world that the realist needs? On this account I do not become a dogmatist by saying that correspondence is the meaning of truth. I become a dogmatist when I claim that some parts of our cognitive life, precisely the ones that deserve the name knowledge, achieve this ideal.

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