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Preludes to Pragmatism: Toward a Reconstruction of Philosophy by Philip Kitcher (review)
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Reviewed by
Philip Kitcher. Preludes to Pragmatism: Toward a Reconstruction of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 456 pp with index.

Reading Philip Kitcher's new collection Preludes to Pragmatism: Toward a Reconstruction of Philosophy, one can't help but think "well, we're all pragmatists now." Indeed, the list of prominent philosophers who've embraced some form of pragmatism seems to grow longer every year. This list includes not only 20th century greats such as Quine and Rorty (among others), but also living philosophers such as Hilary Putnam, Robert Brandom, Jürgen Habermas, Simon Blackburn, and Huw Price, to name just a few. With this collection of papers Kitcher places himself firmly in the pragmatist camp.

Sometimes "pragmatism" is used in ways that are at best vacuous and at worst misleading; and, of course, pragmatism comes in many different flavors and strengths. The danger of dilution makes Kitcher's collection all the more notable. In this set of 17 essays—most written in the last five years, most but not all reprinted from other sources— Kitcher does two noteworthy things: first, he clearly articulates a robust theoretical position, which he calls "pragmatic naturalism" and, second, he gives sensitive and thoughtful readings of classical American pragmatists (particularly Dewey, whom he calls "the most important philosopher of the twentieth century" (211), but also James).

Kitcher made his reputation for work in the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology. His earliest writings critiqued sociobiology and creationism; later work aimed to give a clear-eyed account of how science could be a rational, objective enterprise, notwithstanding the cultural critiques of the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, he has argued for how science can play a responsible role in democratic societies—and, conversely, how democracy can play a responsible role in guiding scientific inquiry. With this more recent work (from approximately Science, Truth and Democracy (2003) onward) there is a clear connection to Dewey and his focus on the relation between science, democracy, and philosophy. [End Page 443]

In defending a "pragmatic naturalism" Kitcher makes several specific commitments. He is committed, first of all, to what he calls "real realism": a "piecemeal" and "modest" approach "that grants a license to take seriously the claims of the most successful sciences at face value" (128). Rejecting anti-realism and constructivism, Kitcher defends the "natural epistemological attitude" (72) which holds that in fact we do spend a lot of time actually representing the world around us and that these representations can be more or less accurate. Second, he is committed to a "modest correspondence theory of truth" that, while entailing an objective reference relation between our words and the mind-independent reality they refer to, does not "suppose there are entities, facts, to which true sentences correspond" (111). Kitcher argues that a modest correspondence theory is necessary to explain why we act as we do, especially when engaged in real-life inquiries that are more complex than the typical set pieces used in philosophical writing. Third, Kitcher is committed to a kind of naturalism, particularly a kind of epistemological naturalism, that blurs the distinction between philosophy and science so that science can provide support for philosophical theories as well as be an example of how successful inquiry is organized.

Finally, Kitcher is committed to pragmatism in at least two senses. First, pragmatism is anti-metaphysical:

It eschews any grand metaphysical premises in favor of a return to the everyday experiences of ordinary people: in the spirit of James and Dewey, it attempts not to substitute a new, improved metaphysics for a faulty one, but to strip away the metaphysical trappings that impede a satisfactory appraisal of inquiry.


Second, pragmatism provides an account of "the epistemic good" that is the goal of inquiry. Kitcher credits pragmatists with grounding "the epistemic good" in the common good and, given how the common good evolves and changes over time, this means that:

There are many different ways to identify the boundaries of objects and their divisions into kinds, and that these should appropriately evolve in the course of inquiry, so as to facilitate achieving the kinds of knowledge that have become most important to people.