My intellectual history with pragmatism goes way back. My first real exposure to pragmatism was through Richard Rorty’s masterpiece Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In this work Rorty attempted to argue for a position that would do away with the dogmas and philosophical problems associated with either realism or idealism. Rorty’s own position was heavily inspired by James, Dewey, Heidegger, and late Wittgenstein. He saw in this tradition a way to avoid the problematic claims of realism and idealism, which he saw as both relying on a kind of epistemic foundationalism to get off the ground. Foundationalism is the idea that we can secure a solid foundation for building up philosophy and science that rests on self-evident epistemic principles. The most obvious epistemic foundation for Modern Philosophy is subjective experience. This was Descartes position in a nutshell. From the indubitably self-evident principles of subjective consciousness, Descartes wanted to provide a solid footing for the entirety of human knowledge, including science. For foundationalism, the essential project is to build a edifice of knowledge that rests on the epistemic security of our own experience of the world. From our own experience, we can provide a foundation for the truth claims of the sciences.
Rorty found this problematic because it assumed that our essential self was, at bottom, this self-conscious “Glassy Essence” that mirrors the world through representational mentation. Because the mind represents the world, the most secure path to knowledge for foundationalism is to determine whether the contents of the mind match up or correspond to the external world. Since the mind is the foundation for our knowledge, if we can develop a method for determining which mental contents accurately correspond to the world, we can arrive at a concept of truth. True mental states are those that correspond to the external world.
But what is this external world? Kant eventually forbid philosophy from talking about mental states corresponding to the external world. For Kant, the method for securing our epistemic foundations is equally subjective, since the essential task for philosophy is to inspect the mind to make sure its representational mechanisms are working properly. On the Kantian schema, the path to objective, grounded knowledge goes through the self and never really leaks out to the external world. The world which we think is external, is actually internal to our minds, since our experience is but a representation of the noumenal realm. To make sure our mirror is working properly, Kant wants us to polish the mirror rather than inspect the actual world, since we can never get out of our heads.
For Rorty, this whole project of grounding knowledge is doomed to fail from the beginning because it presupposes an awful lot about the nature of the mind, the self, and knowledge. Rorty’s essential philosophical move is to externalize the self such that there is no “inner core”, no real “Glassy essence” except the one we invent for ourselves through cultural accumulation. Rather than starting with the inner world and moving outwards towards the world, Rorty, like Sellars, wants to start with the outer world and move inwards. For Rorty we are first and foremost social creatures inhabiting a public sphere with a public language. Following Heidegger’s move of externalization, Rorty thinks we are first “outside” the mind, in-the-world, and it is only a theoretical move which brings us to the inner realm of subjectivity. Once we as a culture have played this “subjectivity game” for long enough, we actually become convinced that we do indeed have a Glassy Essence which is the foundation for all our experience, along with the appropriate cultural mechanisms for acknowledging our own authority on subjective matters. Rorty thinks this is a delusion generated by philosophical language games. In this respect, we can see how Rorty took up the project of later Wittgenstein, who thought philosophical problems about the mind and body are mere tricks generated by our use of language games.
When I first read Rorty, I bought this hook, line, and sinker. The demolition of the Glassy Essence seems right to me, even to this day. If there is no glassy essence at our core grounding knowledge, then the truth-claims of both realism and idealism are groundless, since they are both founded by the core self (which we know now is a mere delusion). In realism, the glassy foundation allows us to make truth-claims about the world insofar as we can represent the objective world in our mind. In idealism, the glassy foundation allows us to make truth-claims about the human-world correlate. On Rorty’s reading, both positions are problematic since they start off with the isolated, representing self.
So if objective truth-claims are groundless for Rorty, how does he avoid a radical relativism where anything goes? Since Rorty moves the “foundation” for knowledge from the inner self towards the outer community, does this not relegate truth to the community? What is to stop a community of flat Earthers to say it is “true for them” that the Earth is flat because they have a long communal history of talking about the Earth as if it is flat? Nothing. Rorty cannot avoid this relativism. But he can attempt to rob it of its essential force. How does Rorty do this? By recognizing that one of the most dominant and “useful” communal language games is science itself. Science is nothing but a sophisticated communal practice that has developed its own norms of subjectivity and objectivity, and science tells us that the Earth is not flat.
So although Rorty thinks that it is impossible to ground or provide an absolute foundation for truth claims which separate appearance from reality, he does think that science has invented a language game for distinguishing appearance from reality. This is how Rorty responds to the critics who claim that he is a relativist where “anything goes”. Rorty doesn’t think that we can have absolute knowledge of what’s mere appearance versus what’s reality, but he does think that we have highly developed language games for separating appearance from reality. Science is exactly such a game. It’s just that the truth-claims of science are grounded, not by the self, but by the standards and norms of the scientific community. So we are still able to make truth-claims that separate appearance from reality, it’s just that this ability to make claims is itself just a language game, albeit an absurdly successful one.
So why does pragmatism fail? Very simply, it fails because no matter how hard he tries Rorty is unable to stop religious fundamentalists from hijacking this exact argument to show the rationality of faith-based knowledge claims. Reformed Epistemologists like Plantinga want to use this exact same anti-foundationalist argument to bolster the claim that it is rational to believe in God even if there is no evidence or rational argument for his existence. Just so long as there is a religious community with shared communal norms and standards, it is perfectly rational for someone growing up in that community to accept the truth-claims without rational evidence or argumentation. God becomes “properly basic” i.e. not believed on the basis of any epistemic foundations. The Christian community grounds the truth-claims of Christianity and Christians are excused from providing evidence or arguments for their position.
This is unacceptable to me. I discovered this “quirk” of pragmatism when I took an undergrad class on Reformed Epistemology. That class made me realize that pragmatism makes it too easy to bolster the “subjective” truth-claims of religion as being perfectly rational because there are religious communities in which those claims make sense. If science is groundless but ok because it’s useful, then religion can be ok too so long as it is useful to a community of believers.
So what’s the solution? How do you avoid the relativism of pragmatism without collapsing back to a problematic foundationalism wherein truth-claims are grounded by the subject, which always seems to lead to problems of skepticism? I’m not totally sure. I’m still working out my critique of pragmatism and Reformed Epistemology. I certainly don’t want to return to foundationalism. I do think we need to demolish the “Glassy Essence” and acknowledge that we all start off embedded in a community of pragmatic norms. But perhaps we need to rehabilitate the position of naturalistic realism to be compatible with the demolition of the self. Can we develop an ecological realism that acknowledges both the reality of the mind-independent world and the ideality of our embeddedness into a community? Moreover, if the scientific language game is able to give a plausible explanation for how religion evolved in the first place, then we would have rational recourse for rejecting the truth-claims of religion without necessarily collapsing to a dogmatic foundationalism. If we can show that religion evolved as a method of social control based on the hallucination of divine beings, we could actually explain religion without merely claiming it is “false”, for obviously someone hallucinating believes with all their mind that their hallucinations correspond to reality. We could acknowledge that religious people think their claims are true while still having a plausible explanation for how these feelings of certainty are generated by neurological activity in the brain, which have an evolutionary and developmental history. When placed side by side in the intellectual arena, the truth-claims of religion and the naturalistic explanation for how religion contingently developed don’t seem to be on equal footing. If a schizophrenic was convinced that aliens had implanted a device in his brain, the pragmatist would be forced to say it’s “true for him”, especially if the schizophrenic started a cult of followers who developed communal norms of truth based on the reality of alien abductions. The pragmatist could only say “that idea is false from perspective of a scientific language game but true in respect to the standards of the cult”. The naturalistic realist would be able to, in principle, trace the origin of the belief in aliens to either a evolutionary or developmental neurological fact and claim them to be in all likelihood false (although it’s, of course, possible that the schizophrenic is right).
Have I really escaped pragmatism? It’s hard to see how I am avoiding it if I accept anti-foundationalism. It might seem like I am accepting anti-foundationalism but just adding dogma. But I think realism might have a way out of this, and that’s through the method of approximation by guessing. If we wanted to answer the question of where religion came from, we have two competing hypotheses. The religious hypothesis is that religion developed because God actually exists. The naturalistic hypothesis is that religion developed as a contingent fact of evolutionary and cultural development. Now which is the better hypothesis? I.e. , which hypothesis is most likely to be accepted by a community of genuine, truth-seeking inquirers after a million years of sustained inquiry? Given the overwhelming acceptance of naturalism amongst the educated and scientifically literate, we could extrapolate and determine that naturalism’s hypothesis about religion is approximating the truth. Given that the God-hypothesis cannot actually generate any predictions of the natural world (for it is one thing to say God exists, it is another to say what he is going to do), it seems like naturalism is superior as a method of inquiry. And the hypothesis for why that method is superior is that naturalistic realism is actually true. Note how this claim is not presupposed at the beginning of the investigation, but rather, is something that is generated after genuine inquiry into the probability of either hypothesis being true. Naturalism is the result of a long process of thinking and examining the world, not a dogma presupposed on the basis of self-evident knowledge. It seems then that we can accept anti-foundationalism while still being naturalists and realists.