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Reviewed by:
  • Pragmatist Metaphysics: An Essay on the Ethical Grounds of Ontology
  • Megan Doherty
Pragmatist Metaphysics: An Essay on the Ethical Grounds of Ontology. Sami Pihlström. Continuum Series in American Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2009. 240 pp. $130 cloth. (Reviewed by Megan Doherty, University of Chicago)

Pihlström’s book, Pragmatist Metaphysics, offers what he feels “no previous book-length study” (viii) has accomplished: as the title suggests, he sketches how metaphysics would look when done from a pragmatic perspective. This involves rejecting two assumptions: that metaphysics is necessarily “realistic” and that pragmatism is necessarily antimetaphysical. Taking his bearings from pragmatists both classic (e.g. Peirce, James, and Dewey) and contemporary (e.g. Putnam), he argues for a “pragmatic realism” that examines the basic characteristics of our human reality. A good primer for those with some background and interest in pragmatism and metaphysics, and who would like to see the latter tailored to the former, Pihlström’s book makes for a good resource.

Suggesting that traditional metaphysical issues (such as truth, transcendental argument, ethics, modality, and God) need to be approached pragmatically, Pihlström also insists on the necessary entanglement between metaphysics and ethics: far from being distinct, ethics actually grounds metaphysics since anything “reality” could be is always already constructed from valuational perspectives. [End Page 281] To assist him in his project, he calls upon both Kant’s transcendental and practical philosophy and refers to this giant of the field as “the first pragmatist metaphysician” (159). Although a distinctively American philosophical movement, Pihlström locates pragmatism’s true source in Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics and his “Copernican” turn to the subject. Pragmatism improves upon its Kantian inheritance, however, by exchanging a priori, fixed categories for historically changing ones, which, Pihlström continues, inherently involve moral elements. Pihlström does well to highlight the connections and influences between American and European philosophy, and those interested in projects that span the “anglo-continental” divide will appreciate the degree to which he follows this thread.

This work assumes that metaphysical realism, from Aristotle to contemporary thinkers (e.g. Armstrong, Lewis, and Lowe) is incapable of solving even the most basic metaphysical problems. The chapters of the text start from that assumption and proceed to outline how they can be answered from a transcendental-Kantian “cum pragmatist” approach. The book concludes by connecting his pragmatic approach to metaphysics with ethics more explicitly.

Pihlström begins in chapter 2 by identifying two paradigmatic representatives of the pragmatist and metaphysical versions of “realism” in order to highlight their differing approaches. For this, he chooses Armstrong and Putnam, and he isolates the concept of “truthmaking” as a case study of how a pragmatist transformation would look—and, furthermore, to show that a concept taken to be distinctively “realist” can be pragmatically transformed. Here, he must make the case that truthmaking is metaphysically neutral—that is, it is not necessarily realist, and so it is not necessarily the world itself that “makes” truths true.

Beginning his contrast with a realist account of truthmaking, Pihlström claims that a pragmatic account is not committed to the notion of truths being eternally true and, so, a “timeless, abstract, unchanging relation eternally obtaining between a true idea and something that exists independently of it” (19). Since he does not attribute this particular conception of a realistic/correspondence version of truth to anyone, it seems to be a generalization that stands in for all metaphysically realist accounts of truth. Since, however, realist conceptions of truth are various and no contemporary metaphysician worth his or her salt would endorse the view that all truths are of this “eternal” variety, his characterization is more a straw man easy to knock down than an accurate reflection of much stronger examples of how truth looks from a metaphysically realist perspective. His own argument for a pragmatic account of truth can only be as strong as the strongest alternative he argues against, since it would not be difficult to find twentieth century examples of a metaphysically realist account [End Page 282] of truth that agree with his appreciation of James’s point: truths become true, because the world is “constantly in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2156-4795
Print ISSN
0194-3448
Pages
pp. 281-285
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-26
Open Access
No
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