Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

A Pragmatist Vision of Realism

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

A Pragmatist Vision of Realism

Article excerpt

To what extent are we entitled to draw a clear border line between ontology and epistemology? To many philosophers a positive answer to this question looks attractive, mainly because it reflects convictions deeply entrenched in our common sense view of the world. However, anyone wishing to clarify the distinction between the ontological and the epistemological dimensions, without having recourse to unwarranted dogmas, should recognize that such a positive answer poses more problems than it is meant to solve. This is due to the fact that the separation between factual and conceptual is not sharp and clean, but rather fuzzy.1 To this recognition another remark should be added. As long as humans are concerned, the world is characterized by a sort of 'ontological opacity' which makes the construction of any absolute ontology very difficult. Our ontology is characterized by the fact that the things of nature are seen by us in terms of a conceptual apparatus that is inevitably influenced by mind-involving elements.2 All this has important consequences on both the question of scientific realism and the realism/anti-realism debate.

Theoretically, we may admit that a distinction can be drawn between the natural world on the one hand, and the social and linguistic world on the other. But it should not be difficult to understand that we began to identify ourselves and the objects that surround us only when the social-linguistic world emerged from the natural one, and this in turn means that our criteria of identification are essentially social and linguistic. Leaving aside any kind of Platonism, and recognizing - in a pragmatist vein - that the concept of 'truth' is essentially tied to human interests, we need an intersubjective criterion giving rise to the notion of a world which is both objective and mind-independent. In other words, as John Dewey stated, the distinction subject/object is not to be found in nature: it arises when men have such an intersubjective criterion, i.e., within a social world which is created by men themselves.3 But it is important to note at the onset that these remarks do not entail the total identification of the aforementioned two worlds. The conclusion is rather that, of the natural world as such, little can be said. We can admit that a border line between ontology and epistemology really exists but, as long as we are concerned, such a distinction looks less definable today than it was usually thought to be in the past.

There are two reasons which explain why things are so. On the one hand conceptualization gives us access to the world, while, on the other, it is the most important feature of our cultural evolution (which is distinct from - although not totally alien to - biological evolution).4 This does not mean to diminish the importance of the latter, which is specifically geared to the natural world and, after all, precedes our cultural development from the chronological viewpoint. However, it is cultural evolution that distinguishes us from all other living beings. While the idealistic thesis according to which the mind produces natural reality looks hardly tenable, it is reasonable to claim instead that we perceive this same reality by having recourse to the filter of a conceptual apparatus whose presence is, in turn, connected to the development of language and social organization.

All this, once again, prevents a clear distinction between ontology and epistemology. For example, it might be stated that ontology's task is to discover what kinds of entities make up the world ('what there is', in Quine's terms), while epistemology's job is to ascertain what are the principles by which we get to know reality. It is obvious, however, that if our conceptual apparatus is at work even when we try to pave our way towards a non conceptualized reality, our access to it entails anyhow the involvement of mind. Resorting to a paradox, it might even be said that any non conceptualized reality turns out to be an image of the mind (even though, it is worth repeating it, this recognition does not force us to deny the mind-independent existence of a non conceptualized reality). …

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