Pragmatism in History

Sami PihlströmIn the Spring 2008 issue of Perspectives on Science, 16(1), Finish philosopher Sami Pihlström raises an interesting question: How many disagreements result solely from a different perspective of what counts as real? He uses the history of pragmatism as a case to make his point.

Pragmatism, originating with Charles Peirce’s writings on the pragmatic maxim in the 1870s, is a background both for scientific realism and, via the views of William James and John Dewey, for the relativist and/or constructivist forms of neopragmatism that have often been seen as challenging the very ideas of scientific rationality and objectivity. The paper shows how the issue of realism arises in pragmatist philosophy of science and how some pragmatists, classical and modern, have attempted to deal with it…. It is argued that the pragmatist tradition cannot avoid these tensions but is largely constituted by them.

This presents not only an interesting perspective on an aspect of what is typically included in our discipline’s history, but it also suggests some interesting ways to think about how we do history:

The pragmatist tradition in the philosophy of science… provides an example of the complexities involved in any attempt to write the history of this discipline, a case in which several issues are intertwined. These include the issues of (i) realism vs. antirealism (that is, in their various forms, instrumentalism, relativism, constructivism, idealism, etc.); (ii) logical vs. socio-historical and practice-oriented approaches to science in general and to theory-choice and scientific change in particular (as manifested, for instance, in the opposition between traditional scientific realists and their Kuhnian opponents); and (iii) “hard” vs. “soft” naturalism (as epitomized in the conflicting accounts of naturalism we find in Quine and more relaxed naturalists, e.g., Rouse). A reconsideration of pragmatism as an identifiable, albeit somewhat indeterminate and inevitably open, tradition in the philosophy of science may thus deepen our understanding of the historical transformations of these – and many other – issues, only (i) among which has been discussed in some detail here. There is no reason why the historian of the philosophy of science should treat this (or any) tradition as fixed and closed once and for all; keeping the tradition open for constant reevaluation and redescription is itself a most pragmatic attitude.

For those with institutional access to the journal, the issue featuring Pihlström’s paper ought to be uploaded shortly.  For those without, he has kindly provided AHP with the unedited manuscript: Pihlström, 2008.

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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