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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.1 (2002) 39-49

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Who's a Pragmatist:
Distinguishing Epistemic Pragmatism and Contextualism 1

Joseph W. Long
Purdue University

There is a tendency among contemporary epistemologists to call every social or existential theory of knowledge pragmatism or neopragmatism. In this paper, I hope to show that this tendency is an error. In the first section, I will explore and attempt to define epistemic pragmatism. In the second section, I will explicate an existential alternative to pragmatism, epistemic contextualism, 2 and differentiate it from pragmatism. In conclusion, I will apply my definition of pragmatism and the pragmatism-contextualism distinction in an attempt to codify the theories of knowledge of some of the popular so-called neopragmatists.

Epistemic Pragmatism

The term "pragmatism" (and indeed, the term "contextualism") refers to much more than simply a theory of knowledge. Pragmatism can rightly be described as a complete philosophical Weltanschauung, a plenary and exhaustive view of the world and the human animal's relationship to it. Furthermore, pragmatism is a holistic, organic system in which every part and parcel coheres with and relies upon every other. Thus, it may be in some way inappropriate or illegitimate to partition off pragmatism's epistemology or metaphysics or ethics without talking about the whole. Nevertheless, in this paper I will be focusing only on that narrow section of pragmatism that concerns the theory of knowledge. This, I will call "epistemic pragmatism." 3 Although I will explore [End Page 39] and attempt to define epistemic pragmatism in this section, my definition should not be understood as a definition of pragmatism in general.

Epistemic pragmatism is an existential epistemology or, as Putnam might say, an epistemology with a human face. It is an epistemology that emphasizes the primacy of practice or practices. It is an epistemology that recognizes the social, coherent, and contingent aspects of justification. It is an epistemology that appreciates the importance of language and conceptual frameworks in the human pursuit of knowledge. And it is an epistemology that rejects in total the traditional paradigms of justification as entirely foundational or coherentist. Although this description tells us much that is rare and interesting about epistemic pragmatism, it will not suffice for a definition, because all of these qualities are embodied in epistemic contextualism as well. To uncover the defining characteristics of epistemic pragmatism, it will first be necessary to address one of the central problems of twentieth-century epistemology, the regress problem of inferential justification, because its response to this problem is one of the first things that distinctly sets pragmatism apart from contextualism and all other paradigms of justification. 4

The regress problem of inferential justification 5 is essentially this: Every belief e inferentially justifying a claim c must be supported by at least one further belief f; this belief f must likewise be supported inferentially by another belief g; and so on like this ad infinitum. Of course, it is of little justificatory value to derive a claim from a series of unjustified beliefs. Rather, a claim is justified only if the epistemically prior supporting beliefs are justified. (Claim c is justified only if belief e is justified; belief e is justified only if f is justified; and so on.) What threatens is "an infinite and apparently vicious regress of epistemic justification" (Bonjour [1978] 1986a, 97). Justification (and hence, knowledge, since justification is a necessary condition for almost every theory of knowledge 6) can never be had, for it can never even "get started" (Bonjour [1978] 1986a, 97).

Philosophers have attempted to solve the regress problem in several ways. Peirce denied that the regress was in fact vicious and allowed for an infinite chain of justified beliefs (Moser 1986, 7). 7 The foundationalists 8 have argued that the regress terminates in certain empirically basic or non-inferentially justified beliefs that are capable of supporting the structure of empirical knowledge. 9 Coherentists 10 argue that while all justification is inferential, it is not linear, but rather, circular or weblike. Pragmatism's novel solution, which I will refer to...


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