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

4. Pragmatism and humanity’s self-image

By stepping back from its relation to traditional empiricism on the one hand and to the linguistic turn on the other, one can put pragmatism in a larger context. Much twentieth-century philosophy has been devoted to a criticism of the view, shared by Plato and Aristotle, that a capacity to know things as they really are is central to being human. Philosophers influenced by Nietzsche - notably Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida - have argued against the idea that cognition is the distinctively human capacity. Heidegger’s treatment of inquiry as a species of coping, in his discussion of Vorhandenheit in Being and Time (1927), has much in common with Dewey’s and Kuhn’s attempts to see scientific progress as problem-solving - as the overcoming of obstacles to the satisfaction of human needs, rather than as convergence towards a special, specifically cognitive, relation to reality. Both Dewey and Heidegger saw the Greek quest for certainty as debilitating. Neither granted the traditional assumption that, in addition to all the other needs human beings have, there is a need to know the truth (see Heidegger, M.).

Heidegger’s criticism of what he called ‘onto-theology’ - Western philosophy viewed as a series of attempts to find solace and support in the non-temporal - has much in common with Dewey’s criticism of what he called ‘intellectualism’. Both of these men saw the tradition which begins with Plato as a self-deceptive attempt to give the eternal priority over the temporal. So did Bergson and Whitehead, the founders of the tradition known as ‘process philosophy’, a tradition to which James (especially in his Essays in Radical Empiricism) made important contributions (see Process philosophy). This downgrading of the eternal is characteristic of a great deal of twentieth-century philosophy. It is found in James’ criticisms of Bradley, in Putnam’s criticism of Bernard Williams’ claim that we can use an ‘absolute conception of the world’ as a regulative ideal of inquiry, in Heidegger’s criticism of Husserl, and in Derrida’s criticism of Heidegger.

Downgrading eternity means downgrading both the idea of truth as eternal and the assumption that knowledge of eternal truth is the distinctively human activity. From a Davidsonian, as from a Deweyan, point of view, the only point of the doctrine that truth is eternal is to contrast truth with justification (which is obviously neither eternal nor absolute, because it is relative to the composition of the audience to which justification is offered, and thus to historical circumstance). But that contrast can be formulated without treating ‘truth’ as the name of a goal to be reached, or of an object to be admired. Davidson’s treatment of truth forbids us to think of inquiry as subject to a norm of acquiring true beliefs, in addition to the norm of providing adequate justification. There is no way to seek for truth apart from seeking for justification. Justification gets better as the community to which justification is offered becomes more sophisticated and complex, more aware of possible sources of evidence and more capable of dreaming up imaginative new hypotheses and proposals. So pragmatists place the capacity to create complex and imaginative communities at the centre of their image of humanity, superseding the ability to know. Dewey and Putnam agree that the aim of inquiry is what Putnam calls ‘human flourishing’ - the kind of human life which is possible in free, democratic, tolerant, egalitarian societies. These are the societies in which the arts and the sciences proliferate and progress, and within which idiosyncrasy is tolerated.

The obvious difference between James, Dewey and Putnam on the one hand and Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault on the other - between the two most prominent sections of the twentieth-century revolt against the Greek self-image of humanity - is that these three Europeans do not share the Americans’ enthusiasm for, and optimism about, liberal-democratic society. Nietzsche’s, and the early Heidegger’s, insistence on the resolute authenticity of the lonely individual, and their exaltation of will as opposed to intellect, are equally foreign to Dewey and to Putnam (though they have some echoes in certain passages of James). Rather than replace intellect by will, in the manner of Schopenhauer, pragmatists tend to replace knowledge by love, in the manner of Kierkegaard’s contrast between Socrates and Christ (see Kierkegaard, S.A.).

For Dewey, the pragmatist who speculated most daringly, and developed the greatest historical self-consciousness, the glory of human beings is their ability to become citizens of a liberal-democratic society, of a community which constantly strives to see beyond its own limits - both with an eye to the inclusion of presently excluded or marginalized human beings and with respect to innovative intellectual and artistic initiatives. This is the capacity which most clearly sets us apart from other animals. It presupposes, of course, the capacity to use language, but for Dewey the point of having language, and therefore thought, was not to penetrate through the appearances to the true nature of reality, but rather to permit the social construction of new realities. For him, language was not a medium of representation, but a way of coordinating human activities so as to enlarge the range of human possibilities. These processes of coordination and enlargement, which make up cultural evolution, do not have a destined terminus called the Good or the True, any more than biological evolution has a destined terminus called The Ideal Life-Form. Dewey’s imagery is always of proliferating novelty, rather than of convergence.

The naturalist strain in pragmatism, the attempt to come to terms with Darwin, is thus from a Deweyan point of view important mainly as a further strategy for shifting philosophers’ attention from the problems of metaphysics and epistemology to the needs of democratic politics. Dewey once said that he agreed with Plato that politics was ‘the science of the whole’, a remark which summarized the following train of reasoning. Finding out what there is is a matter of finding out what descriptions of things will best fulfil our needs. Finding out what needs we should fulfil is a task for communal reflection about what human beings might become. Such cooperative inquiry into the possibilities of self-transcendence is best accomplished within a democratic society. So philosophers should stop asking about the nature of reality or of knowledge, and instead try to strengthen and improve the institutions of such societies by clarifying ‘men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day’.

Citing this article:
Rorty, Richard. Pragmatism and humanity’s self-image. Pragmatism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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