DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 25, 2019, from

2. Pragmatism after the linguistic turn

Peirce was one of the first philosophers to emphasize the importance of signs. ‘The word or the sign which man uses is the man himself,’ he wrote, ‘... my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought’. But, with the exception of C.I. Lewis and Charles Morris, philosophers did not take Peirce’s work on signs very seriously. Indeed, for decades Peirce remained largely unread: he had never published a philosophical book, and most of his articles were collected and republished only in the 1930s.

By that time philosophy in the English-speaking world was already in the process of being transformed by admirers of Frege, notably Carnap and Russell. These philosophers accomplished what Gustav Bergmann was to baptize ‘the linguistic turn’ in philosophy. They thought that it would be more fruitful, more likely to yield clear and convincing results, if philosophers were to discuss the structure of language rather than, as Locke and Kant had, the structure of the mind or of experience. The early analytic philosophers, however, accompanied this turn with a revival of the traditional empiricist idea that sense-perception provides foundations for empirical knowledge - an idea which, at the beginning of the century, the idealists and the classical pragmatists had united in rejecting. These philosophers also insisted on a strict distinction between conceptual questions (the analogue of Kant’s ‘transcendental’ questions), now reinterpreted as questions about the meaning of linguistic expressions, and empirical questions of fact.

It was not until that distinction was questioned by Willard van Orman Quine in his groundbreaking ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (1951) that pragmatism was able once again to obtain a hearing (see Quine, W.V. §8). James and Dewey had been viewed during the heyday of logical positivism as having prefigured the logical positivist’s verifiability criterion of empirical meaningfulness, but as unfortunately lacking the powerful analytic tools which the new logic had made available. However, Quine’s suggestion that empirical observation of linguistic behaviour could not detect a difference between necessary, analytic truths and contingent, synthetic, yet unquestioned truths helped revive the pragmatists’ combination of holism, anti-foundationalism and naturalism.

That suggestion was reinforced by other publications which were roughly simultaneous with Quine’s. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein mocked the idea that logic is both ‘something sublime’ and the essence of philosophy, an idea which the younger Wittgenstein had shared with Russell (see Wittgenstein, L. §9). That book also reinvigorated the pragmatists’ claim that most philosophical problems should be dissolved rather than solved. Wilfrid Sellars’ ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ (1953) renewed both Peirce’s assault on the idea of ‘immediate experience’ and his claim that the intentionality of the mental is derived from the intentionality of the linguistic, rather than conversely (see Sellars, W.). In America, this article had the same devastating effect on the notion of ‘sense-datum’, and thus on the empiricist roots of logical positivism, that J.L. Austin’s work was simultaneously having in Britain (see Austin, J.L.). The work of Sellars and Austin conspired to deprive empiricism of the prestige which it had traditionally enjoyed in the Anglophone philosophical world.

Somewhat later, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) broke the grip of the positivist notion that natural science, because it offered paradigmatically rational methods and procedures, should be imitated by the rest of culture (see Kuhn, T.S.). The effect of these various anti-empiricist and anti-positivist writings was to make many post-positivistic analytic philosophers sympathetic to Dewey’s suspicions of the Cartesian-Kantian problematic of modern philosophy. Hilary Putnam, the best-known contemporary philosopher to identify himself as a pragmatist, has written appreciatively about all three classical pragmatists, praising their refusal to distinguish ‘the world as it is in itself’ from the world as it appears in the light of human needs and interests.

On Putnam’s account, ‘the heart of pragmatism...was the insistence on the agent point of view. If we find that we must take a certain point of view, use a certain ‘‘conceptual system", when we are engaged in practical activity...then we must not simultaneously advance the claim that it is not really the way things are in themselves’ (1987). Putnam holds that our moral judgments are no more and no less ‘objective’ than our scientific theories, and no more and no less rationally adopted. He agrees with Dewey that the positivists’ attempt to separate ‘fact’ from ‘value’ is as hopeless as their pre-Quinean attempt to separate ‘fact’ from ‘language’.

Putnam has also come to the defence of the most notorious and controversial of the classical pragmatists’ doctrines: the so-called ‘pragmatist theory of truth’. Peirce said ‘the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real’. Putnam has revived this idea, arguing that even if we cannot follow Peirce in defining ‘true’ as ‘idealized rational assertibility’, the latter notion is, as a regulative ideal, inseparable from an understanding of the concept of truth. He has criticized the correspondence theory of truth by arguing that any such correspondence of a belief to reality can only be to reality under a particular description, and that no such description is ontologically or epistemologically privileged. Putnam follows Nelson Goodman in saying that ‘there is no one Way the World Is’.

Citing this article:
Rorty, Richard. Pragmatism after the linguistic turn. Pragmatism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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