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FIVE Empiricism versus Pragmatism Pragmatism was developed in large part as a reaction against modern rationalism . This is apparent in some of Peirce’s earliest writings (1868a; 1868b) as well as in the Popular Science Monthly articles (especially 1878a). This is also a frequent theme in James’s discussions of pragmatism and in his “radical empiricism” (the culprit sometimes being labeled by James as absolutism or intellectualism) (1907h; 1909a; 1912). Yet neither Peirce nor James could rightfully be said to be modern empiricists. Of course, few if any recent philosophers can rightfully be said to be modern empiricists, strictly speaking. But what then is the difference between empiricism and pragmatism? Was James a pragmatist or merely an empiricist ? To help answer such questions, we need to contrast the pragmatic method for clarifying meanings with some “standard” semantic methods, represented here by the views of Quine and Carnap. QUINE’S HOLISM The idea that pragmatism in some sense offers an alternative to classical empiricism will not be news to anyone familiar with Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism ” (1951). In that article Quine concluded by espousing a kind of “empiricism without the dogmas”—the two dogmas being, first, belief in a hard-and-fast analytic/synthetic distinction and, second, the principle that “every meaningful statement is ... translatable into a statement (true or false) about immediate experience ” (1953, 38). Quine’s alternative, after carefully arguing for why we should reject these two dogmas, is his well-known “holistic” conception of verification: Taken collectively, science has its double dependence upon language and experience; but this duality is not significantly traceable into the statements of science taken one by one. ... [In] taking the statement as a unit we have drawn our grid too finely. The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science. ... The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs [from casual matters of fact to the laws of physics and pure mathematics] is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. (Quine 1953, 42) The idea here is that conflicts with peripheral experience require adjustments in the field as a whole, respecting, for instance, the inferential interconnections 65 66 / WHAT PRAGMATISM WAS among various statements. Literally anything is subject to adjustment, including the principles of inference themselves. This view allegedly includes a shift toward pragmatism in the (unclear) sense that [e]ach man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation ; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic. ... [This] turns upon our vaguely pragmatic inclination to adjust one strand of the fabric of science rather than another in accommodating some particular recalcitrant experience. Conservatism figures in such choices, as does the quest for simplicity. (Quine 1953, 46) It is not clear what is meant by the term ‘pragmatic’ here, given that one might just as well have used alternative terms like ‘prudent’ or ‘practical’. It is clear, though, that this would be a coherentist version of pragmatism where one’s beliefs are ultimately tied (but are not reducible) to the “continuing barrage” of what Quine has referred to elsewhere as “stimulations of sensory receptors” or “surface irritations ” (1960; 1981). Namely, what is most or best believable is what is most or best workable in preserving and/or strengthening the overall fabric of one’s beliefs. James would surely appreciate these “fabric” and “force-field” metaphors. If Quine’s holism is a form of pragmatism, it is pragmatism in James’s sense of the term. It is just as clearly not pragmatism in Peirce’s sense for at least two reasons—or for one reason that can be explained in two ways. The reason Quine’s view is not pragmatist in an operationalist sense is simply that his view of sensory “experience” is not operationalist. On one hand, the characterization of our engagement with the world as a barrage of sensory excitations or surface irritations includes in some sense the “sensible effects” highlighted in the pragmatic maxim but without mention of any modes of conduct or practices or actions that might yield such effects. We simply are creatures with various banks of sensitive nerve endings, and the world impresses itself upon us by causing excitations or irritations across these otherwise passive peripheral sensory surfaces. (This is essentially an ivory-tower conception...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780253009623
Related ISBN
9780253009548
MARC Record
OCLC
1080549827
Pages
256
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Language
English
Open Access
No
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