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Pragmatism

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 26, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/pragmatism/v-1

3. Pragmatism as anti-representationalism

Putnam is chary, however, of endorsing James’ claim that ‘"The true"...is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, as “the right” is only the expedient in our way of behaving’. That formulation was attacked by James’ contemporaries as at worst an invitation to self-deception, and at best a confusion of truth with justifiability. Dewey tried to avoid the controversy by ceasing to use the word ‘truth’, and speaking instead of ‘warranted assertibility’. But this did not shield him from charges of confusion and inconsistency. Russell, reviewing Dewey, said that ‘there is a profound instinct in me which is repelled by [Dewey’s] instrumentalism: the instinct of contemplation, and of escape from one’s own personality’. He and many other critics complained that pragmatism is unable to take account of the eternity and absoluteness of truth - of the fact that a sentence that contains no demonstratives is, if true, true in utter independence of changes in human needs or purposes. Putnam’s treatment of truth is designed to avoid the appearance of relativism, and to escape such strictures as Russell’s.

Despite its paradoxical air and its apparent relativism, however, James’ claim does bring out pragmatism’s strongest point: its refusal to countenance a discontinuity between human abilities and those of other animals. Pragmatists are committed to taking Darwin seriously. They grant that human beings are unique in the animal kingdom in having language, but they urge that language be understood as a tool rather than as a picture. A species’ gradual development of language is as readily explicable in Darwinian terms as its gradual development of spears or pots, but it is harder to explain how a species could have acquired the ability to represent the universe - especially the universe as it really is (as opposed to how it is usefully described, relative to the particular needs of that species).

In a weak sense of ‘represent’, of course, an earthworm or a thermostat can be said to contain ‘representations of the environment’, since there are internal arrangements in both which are responsible for the reactions of each to certain stimuli. But it makes little sense to ask whether those representations are accurate. Philosophers who take epistemological scepticism seriously (as pragmatists do not) have employed a stronger sense of ‘representation’, one in which it does make sense to ask whether the way in which it best suits human purposes to describe the universe is an accurate representation of the universe as it is in itself (see Scepticism).

The idea that knowledge is accurate representation and the idea that reality has an intrinsic nature are inseparable, and pragmatists reject both. In rejecting these ideas pragmatists are rejecting the problematic of realism and antirealism - the question of whether there is or is not a ‘matter of fact’ about, for example, mathematics or ethics, whether beliefs in these areas are attempts to correspond to reality. Whatever may be said about truth, pragmatists insist, we cannot make sense of the notion of ‘correspondence’, nor of that of ‘accurate representation of the way things are in themselves’ (see Truth, correspondence theory of).

Donald Davidson is the philosopher of language whose work is most reminiscent of the classical pragmatists’ attempts to be faithful to Darwin. Davidson has said that ‘Beliefs are true or false, but they represent nothing. It is good to be rid of representations, and with them the correspondence theory of truth, for it is thinking that there are representations that engenders thoughts of relativism’ (1989). He has argued that we need to get rid of what he calls ‘the third dogma of empiricism’, the distinction between the mind or language as organizing scheme, and something else (for example, the sensible manifold, the world) as organized content - the Kantian version of the dualism of subject and object (1974). In ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’ (1986), an attempt to radicalize and extend Quine’s naturalistic approach to the study of linguistic behaviour, he has suggested that we ‘erase the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way about in the world generally’, and that ‘there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed’.

Davidson does not wish to be called a pragmatist, however, since he equates pragmatism with unfeasible attempts to reduce truth to some form of assertibility, thereby making it an epistemic concept, rather than a merely semantic one. Unlike Peirce and Putnam, Davidson thinks that we should treat ‘true’ as a primitive term, and should neither attempt to revitalize the correspondence theory of truth nor replace it with a better theory of truth. Davidson’s strategy is summed up in his recommendation that we not say ‘that truth is correspondence, coherence, warranted assertibility, ideally justified assertibility, what is accepted in the conversation of the right people, what science will end up maintaining, what explains the convergence on single theories in science, or the success of our ordinary beliefs’ (1990). We should, he says in the same article, not offer an analysis of the meaning of ‘true’, but rather confine ourselves to describing ‘the ultimate source of both objectivity and communication’, namely, ‘the triangle that, by relating speaker, interpreter and the world determines the contents of thought and speech’. The trouble with the correspondence theory, on Davidson’s view, is that it cuts out the ‘interpreter’ side of the triangle, and treats truth as relation of ‘matching’ between speaker and world.

If one follows Davidson’s advice, one can give up the pragmatist theory of truth without giving up the Darwinian naturalism which that theory was a paradoxical-sounding attempt to articulate. Such naturalism, however, entails an abandonment of much of the problematic of contemporary philosophy. If truth is never the name of a relation (‘corresponding’, ‘representing’, ‘getting right’, ‘fitting’) which holds between sentences and non-sentences, there is no point in asking whether this relation holds for some true sentences (for example, perceptual reports or scientific theories) and not for others (for example, sentences about numbers or values). On this latter point, Putnam and Davidson are in agreement (see Truth, correspondence theory of).

Michael Dummett has suggested, plausibly, that the problematic of realism and antirealism is at the heart of the Western philosophical tradition (see Realism and antirealism). If he is right, and if Davidson is right in thinking that we should now abandon that problematic, then James’ and Dewey’s suggestions about how to end the traditional and seemingly sterile quarrels between materialists and idealists, positivists and metaphysicians, theists and atheists, science-worshippers and poetry-worshippers look more promising. The heart of both men’s pragmatism was not any particular doctrine about the nature of truth, of knowledge, or of value, but rather the hope that philosophy could renew itself by moving out from under traditional dualisms (subject-object, mind-world, theory-practice, morality-prudence) which recent science and recent social changes had, they believed, rendered obsolete.

The classical pragmatists saw themselves as responding to Darwin in the same way as the great philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had responded to Galileo and Newton. Philosophers such as Descartes, Locke and Kant attempted to accommodate old, precious, moral and spiritual aspirations to new scientific developments. James and Dewey thought that these attempts had been made obsolete by Darwin’s new account of the origin of our species, and that fresh attempts were needed. If one reads Quine’s and Davidson’s naturalization of semantics as a continuation of philosophy’s attempt to come to terms with Darwin, one can also read these two philosophers as continuing the larger enterprise which James and Dewey inaugurated.

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Citing this article:
Rorty, Richard. Pragmatism as anti-representationalism. Pragmatism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/pragmatism/v-1/sections/pragmatism-as-anti-representationalism.
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