Pragmatist Epistemology and the Post-Structural Turn of the Social Sciences: A New Kind of Non-Aristotelian Logic?

By Romania, Vincenzo | Philosophy Today, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Pragmatist Epistemology and the Post-Structural Turn of the Social Sciences: A New Kind of Non-Aristotelian Logic?


Romania, Vincenzo, Philosophy Today


During the 1980s and the 1990s, philosoph-ical works by Richard Rorty (1979, 1982, 1989, 1991) and by Jü rgen Habermas (1999) focused a strong attention on neopragmatism and the so-called linguistic turn of the new ap-proaches. In the same period, works like Prag-matism and Social Theory by Hans Joas ( 1983) and historical essays on Symbolic Interaction such as the ones of Dmitri N. Shalin (1986, 1991) favored a rediscovery of early pragma-tist philosophers, in particular regarding their epistemology. In my opinion, as I will try to demonstrate further, its relevance is still underrepresented, even if this epistemology has deeply influenced the development of so-cial sciences in the twentieth century. Thus, let me begin by returning to the origins of this American Philosophical tradition.

The origins of pragmatism are convention-ally identified with the foundation of the Meta-physical Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1870s. Here, a group of philosophers iden-tified themselves using a term derived from the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) by Immanuel Kant. In the Transcendental Doctrine of Method, in particular, the German philosopher spoke of the pragmatist character of so-called hypothetic imperatives, those based on empiri-cal principles and responding to a rule of pru-dence. Peirce and James, in particular, start de-bating about pragmatism as the possible way to overcome the categorical a priori of Kantian Critique, but, of course, some of its assump-tion can be found in most of the history of modern Western and Eastern philosophy. For instance, there is a certain consensus in recog-nizing strong affinities between pragmatism and Zen philosophy (Ames 1954; Odin 1996). Indeed, an example of ante litteram pragma- tism is evident the following koan, included in The Gateless Gate collection:

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other,'The flag is moving." The other replied, "The wind is moving."

Huineng overheard this.1 He said, "Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving."2

The two monks and the patriarch Huineng are actually debating about trust, comparing a nominalistic and a realistic vision. I suggest that the same debate appears in the earlier pragmatists.

But, especially for Chauncey Wright and Charles S. Peirce, this debate was not a mere intellectual exercise; it was aimed at construct-ing a new philosophy based on the same rigor-ous procedures of so-called "successful science":

Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sci-ences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premises which can be subjected to care-ful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. (Pierce 1955, 264-65)

For this reason, this philosophical tradition has been accused of empiricism. But as the second part of this citation demonstrates, Peirce and his colleagues were not inspired by an acritical faith in science-as maybe can be affirmed for the Darwinism of Chauncey Wright. Instead, the earlier pragmatists were originally inspired by a critical and relativistic approach to sci-ences. They criticized scientific methods, but looked at them as applicable to philosophy.

In particular, as Dmitri N. Shalin (1986, 1991) has demonstrated, James, Peirce and Dewey tried to apply the methods developed in quantum physics and the theory of relativism to philosophy and the social sciences. In my opinion, their effort produced an implicit and explicit new epistemology that has deeply influenced the development of so called interpretative sciences in the twentieth century (Denzin 1997, 2001, 2003) and that found a bridge to the social sciences in the work of George Herbert Mead. His work represents, indeed, one of the most relevant contributions to the foundation of the sociological and sociopsychological tradition of symbolic interactionism.

The main assumptions of this pragmatic epistemology can be summed up as follows:

1. …

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