Pragmatism and Relativism: A Defense of Pluralism

Jaime Nubiola1
University of Navarra

What I argue in this article is neither new nor very original, but important, in my opinion, for the organization of the political space and for the intellectual work of each person. I try to defend epistemological pluralism, that is, that problems and things have facets, different faces, and that there are different ways to think about them. At the same time I want to reject relativist skepticism and vulgar pragmatism, with which this view is frequently associated. The rejection of scientific foundationalism or of ethical fundamentalism does not necessarily lead to relativist skepticism. With the help of the best pragmatist tradition, it is possible to try a compromise that supports fallibilism without resorting to skepticism and cooperative pluralism. A pluralist pragmatism holds —with Hilary Putnam— that there is nothing such as a privileged vision of man and the world offered by the Science. Sciences, on the contrary, are cooperative and communicative human activities through which we humans really progress, not without having doubts or making mistakes, in our understanding of the world and ourselves. It is argued that non-relativist pluralism is not only one of the best results of contemporary scientific research but also is an indispensable requirement to achieve a truly democratic social organization.

My paper is divided in three sections. Firstly, pragmatism is briefly discussed; secondly, the connection between relativism, "vulgar pragmatism" and the so-called "neopragmatism" is described; and finally, I will offer an explanation of why the pluralism, which is the legacy of the best pragmatism, is not relativist.

1. Teasing out what pragmatism is

Frequently understood as a peculiar local tradition, American pragmatism is remote from the schools of thought that constitute the center of Western philosophical reflection. Among European philosophers pragmatism has commonly been seen as an 'American way' of dealing with knowledge and truth, but as something alien to the general discussion. Although European philosophers, as Rorty points out, study Quine and Davidson, they tend to give little importance to the suggestion that these philosophers share the same basic perspectives with the American philosophers, who wrote before the so-called linguistic turn.

However in the last decade, in an increasing way, pragmatism and analytic philosophy have been understood as two different aspects of one same general philosophical tradition. A key source for the development of an integral study of both traditions is found in Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), the founder of pragmatism, who was identified by Karl-Otto Apel as the milestone in the transformation of transcendental philosophy into analytic philosophy. Rather than considering the analytic movement as a sudden break with the American pragmatist tradition of the early part of the 20th century, it is more clever to notice the importance of the affinity between them. In a similar way, the recent resurgence of pragmatism also confirms the continuity among both movements: the latter one can be understood as a development or modulation of the previous movement. Hence it is possible to recognize a continued philosophical tradition, that has its roots in the work of the classical pragmatists such as Peirce, James and Dewey, that flourishes in Quine, Putnam and Rorty, and that appears also in the work of Kuhn and the later work of Wittgenstein.

In opposition to the current thesis that analytic philosophy is dead —diagnosed in particular in the writings of deconstructivists and promoters of weak thinking— I suspect that a deep renewal of pragmatist character is happening in the heart of analytic philosophical tradition. The best exponent of this renovation is perhaps Hilary Putnam. In the face of simplistic dichotomies between facts and values, facts and theories, facts and interpretations, Putnam defends with vigor and persuasion the interpretation of all those conceptualizations in the light of our objectives and our human practices. Even taking the risk of being branded as "soft thinking" or to be confused with skeptical relativists, this view approaches thought to life in such a way that the rigor of analytic thought gains in human depth and relevance, which are indispensable to its fruitfulness.

The term "pragmatism" alludes always to the concept of experience, but in Spanish as it does in other languages it is usually linked to a lack of principles, astuteness, cynicism or mere material efficiency. My mentor, Alejandro Llano, told me one day that the worst of pragmatism is its name. Because of this the "second" Wittgenstein, among other reasons, refused to call himself a "pragmatist" when he took positions decidedly pragmatist. Charles S. Peirce in his later years wanted to get rid of the label "pragmatism" because of misinterpretations in its common use in terms of utilitarism, such as the emphasis given by its great propagator William James with regard to its practical effect on actions. In fact Peirce —in spite of being recognized as the founder of pragmatism— coined the term "pragmaticism" to refer to his own philosophical system because the name is "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers".

To characterize pragmatism and to understand its singular attractiveness it was very enlightening for me to realize that some of the most relevant Spanish thinkers of the first half of the XX century are in obvious harmony with it. Both Ortega and Unamuno and very specially Eugenio d’Ors maintained a noted similarity with themes and problems of North American pragmatism, though frequently this affinity has been hidden under the traditional mutual misunderstanding between the United States and Spain. Perhaps the identification of some of the core features of pragmatism will allow a better understanding of my claim.

Before going into this, it is necessary to say that pragmatism since its beginnings at the end of the XIX century was not considered a discipline of strict obedience but a general orientation of thought. Arthur Lovejoy, a disciple of William James in Harvard, identified up to 1908, thirteen different versions of pragmatism. Relying on Wittgensteinian terminology, it is possible to discover a family resemblance among all of them, which distinguishes them from other philosophical traditions. Among these features, two stand out and in a way, are two sides of the same coin: anti-Cartesianism, which implies the approach of thought to life, and fallibilism.

1) Anti-Cartesianism: deals with the full rejection of modern epistemology and its simplistic dualisms which have distorted our way of understanding human problems such as: subject/object, percept/concept, theory/practice, facts/values, human/divine, individual/community, self/others and so on. Pragmatist philosophers do not reject the use of these terms, but recognize that they are sometimes practical and functional. They stand for useful distinctions of reason and not for ontological levels or different kinds of being. For the pragmatists philosophy is not an academic exercise, but is an instrument to progressive critical and rational reconstruction of everyday living. In a world in which daily living is frequently found removed from an intelligent examination of oneself and of the fruits of human activity, the pragmatists think that a philosophy that separates itself from genuine human problems, is a luxury that we can not afford —as it is with the greater part of contemporary philosophy.

"I try to defend —Putnam stated in 1992— the idea that the theoretical and practical aspects of philosophy depend on each other. Dewey wrote in The Need of a Recovery of Philosophy that 'Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.' I think that the problems of philosophers and the problems of men and women are connected, and that it is part of the task of a responsible philosophy to bring out the connection".

2) Fallibilism and pluralism: Fallibilism is the acknowledgement that the possibility of failing is an irreducible character of human knowledge: Errare hominum est. The quest for absolute certainties typical of modernity is a fake. For the pragmatist the search for solid foundations for human knowledge is replaced by a multidisciplinary experiential approach which may seem more modest but that in the long run will very likely be more efficient. A pragmatist does not renounce truth but instead tries to discover it, to mould it, subordinating one’s own opinion to empirical tests and to debate with one’s peers. The pragmatist knows that knowledge is a human activity developed by human beings and therefore it can always be corrected, improved and extended. Fallibilism is not a stance but a result of scientific method over time.

Fallibilism is always intrinsically social: as Peirce highlighted, the researchers are always part of an expanded community in time and space, to which they contribute with their successes and even with their failures because they allow others to advance further than they have and in the process lay siege to the citadel of truth and scamper over the remains of failed theories and experiences. In this way fallibilism is clearly linked to pluralism because human experience always occurs in the plural. We do not find experience in the abstract but incarnated experiences. Pragmatism is a philosophy that always recognizes these differences and endeavors to find its intelligent articulation.

2. Relativism as vulgar pragmatism

What I have described is the heart of pragmatist tradition, but from the beginnings of pragmatism it is possible —following to Susan Haack— to distinguish two radically different stripes of pragmatism, which perhaps explain its so diverse manifestations: reformist pragmatism and revolutionary pragmatism. The former recognizes the legitimacy of the traditional questions linked to the truth of our cognitive practices and tries to reconstruct philosophy. The latter one abandons the notions of objectivity and truth and rejects philosophy as a search, it simply aims to continue the conversation of humanity.

The reader of these pages will have recognized in the above an allusion to Richard Rorty, whose book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) was as revolutionary for the analytic tradition as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had been to the philosophy of science. Rorty, who in 1967 had edited the canonic anthology of analytic philosophy The Linguistic Turn, chided his professional colleagues in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature of being enslaved to Platonic dreams of finding the one true language in which nature was presumably written, and also of having the arrogance to impose on others their preferred language under the guise of official philosophy with pretensions of universal truth. Rorty culminated his exposition defending the dissolution of academic philosophy in the diverse forms of human conversation, art, literature, etc.

This is not the place to carry out a minute study of Rorty’s views, but what has been said already it is sufficient to indicate that a rejection of the search for truth under the accusation that it is only a scientistic dogmatic dream, and the simultaneous appeal to John Dewey in its support, is a total distortion of the pragmatist tradition. For all this, it is not unwise —as Haack does— to describe Rorty’s pragmatism as "vulgar pragmatism". The post-philosophical literary pragmatism which Rorty supports, aspires only to "keeping the conversation going". It declares that ‘true’ means nothing more than "what you can defend against all comers", and 'rationality' is nothing more than "respect for the opinions of those around one". If we take seriously the more radical pronouncements of Rorty —I am paraphrasing Haack— , his position is that sciences do not offer objective truths about the world. "Science as the source of 'truth', —Rorty wrote in Consequences of Pragmatism—, is one of the Cartesian notions which vanish when the ideal of 'philosophy as strict science' vanishes". What scientists do is simply to present incommensurable theories and this is their conversation, in the same way as literary conversation is developed by successive literary products and genres.

In a certain way we can say that Rorty's relativism is more consequent, even to the last details, than most of our fellow citizens are. We all realize with clarity that we find ourselves in a society that lives in an impossible blend of scientific fundamentalist assumptions about facts and a generalized skepticism about values. It is about having a mixture of naïve confidence in Science (with a capital S) and that perspectivist relativism so well expressed by the Spanish poet Campoamor, when he says "there is no truth or lie everything depends of the color of the lens which you use to look at it". To illustrate this it is enough with reading any newspaper or to check how students of journalism are continually reminded to distinguish between information and opinion, between facts and values, or listen to the politicians who assure us that opinions are free and that all deserve the same respect.

To speak about truth without adjectives or to say that we philosophers are searchers of truth, is beginning to be seen as not only naivity but something of bad taste. "It will be truth in any case for you, but you will not believe in absolute truths!". As I have just indicated, the majority of our fellow citizens are fundamentalists when it comes to physics, the natural sciences or even medicine, but on the other hand they are totally relativists when it comes to many ethical questions. The worst is that this ethical relativism is frequently presented as an indispensable prerequisite for democratic communities, both at a local and international level. A consequent relativist simply thinks there are practices that they consider right (or rational) and others that we consider right; that there are things that pass for true among them and others that are considered to be true among us. It does not even make sense to discuss the opposition between divergent practices, because there are no criteria available to decide which practices are better than others.

Although it may be comfortable for those in power to maintain such division between science and values, I think that such a great split between the factual and the normative is at last unbearable. In my view, we humans want to achieve a reasonable integration of the diverse facets of things; flagrant contradiction disrupts our reason, destroys the hinges of our reasoning and finally blocks dialogue and communication. The fact that people and societies hold different opinions about an issue does not imply that there is no truth on that issue. It would be erroneous to deduce that because there are two different opinions none of them would be true, it can only be concluded that at least one of them has it wrong.

The key to understand Rorty's position is found —in my opinion— in his extreme defense of individualism and privacy, as opposed to community values and social reformism of classical pragmatism. Rorty's position is commonly identified as "romantic pragmatism", and more frequently as a "neo-pragmatism". Rorty has a very different conception of cultural politics than the classical pragmatists. For these, the public and private spheres are intertwined, and they see no point in looking at them separately. Rorty on the other hand understands selfhood as a continual creative process where interesting and creative activity can be found, and political activity is relegated to a tepid and traditional liberalism. In this way Rorty maintains that "within our increasingly ironist culture, philosophy has become more important for the pursuit of private perfection rather than for any social task". There can be nothing more distant from classical pragmatist tradition than this.

3. Pluralism, the legacy of the best pragmatism

This Rortyan image of the end of philosophy as a search of truth is not the only possible description in contemporary culture. The pragmatist turn of analytic philosophy in the last decade, is probably capable of confronting this relativist skepticism and also those accusations of sterile scholasticism that have worsened in recent years against analytic tradition. Pragmatism harbors both the desire of an integral vision of reality and the understanding of the essentially communicative and conversational character of language. On one hand this view is in agreement with Rorty in his opposition to scientism still dominant, but on the other hand it is unsopportive of Rorty when he argues that it implies a renouncement of truth.

Analytic philosophy repressed during decades its differences with science, in order to present itself as an extension of science, or as an explanation of scientific knowledge. The present reintroduction of philosophy into the humanities, implies the necessity to rethink again what its goals are, and the best way to achieve them. In this sense, the role of philosophy in this new century depends on the effort made by the philosophers to unite in one single field of intellectual activity, both the logical rigor and human relevance, which during decades have been the differential features of two opposing ways to conceive philosophy. To unite the rigor of academic philosophy with the deepest longings of human beings, is to achieve a genuine form of philosophical life in which the confidence in the capacity of our reason, and the simultaneous acknowledgment of our weakness and limitations, are to be articulated.

Precisely John Dewey’s central intuition is that ethical and social questions should not be kept away from human reason and transferred to religious courts or other authorities. The application of intelligence to moral matters is in itself a moral duty. The same human reason that has been applied with such success to the diverse scientific disciplines, should be applied to throw light on moral problems and on the best ways to organize society. In the same way as the cooperative work of scientists over successive generations has achieved a great control over the forces of nature, such as the discovery of its basics laws and a bountiful technological development, likewise the application of human reason to ethical and social questions can be expected to produce similar results. After all, our moral and scientific beliefs are devices created by human beings to confront our problems and vital needs.

My assertion above does not imply that truth is simply the belief of my fellow colleagues, scientists and philosophers. On the contrary, what Peirce argues is that reality is precisely independent of what we, or any other mind, may think. If we had all the time in the world and all the necessary evidence, truth would be that final opinion to which the researchers would arrive to. Truth is not the fruit of common assent but on the contrary common assent is the fruit of truth.

The objectivity of truth is linked with the public character of thought together with the social character of language and the reasonable character of reality. These three elements —thought, language and world— mutually confer sense from their relationship. If language is the vehicle of thought and with Wittgenstein it is held that language cannot have a private use and that the correct use of words results from communication with others, then and, in the same way, and with the same strength it is possible to affirm that there is no private thought, and that interpersonal communication provides objectivity in the cognitive field. Interpersonal communication is the channel through which that constellation of meaning is established. This is why truth is most communicable and liberating, and it is why we human beings give truth to one another building in this way meaningful relationships among us.

This defense of pluralism does not imply a renouncement to truth or its subordination to a culturalist perspectivism. Quite the reverse, pluralism not only strives to affirm that there are different ways to think about things but additionally, to use an expression of Stanley Cavell, that there are better and worse ways of thinking about things, and that we can recognize the superiority of one way over other thanks to experience and rational dialogue. Theories are built like artifacts, but this does not mean that they are arbitrary or that they cannot be better or worse. The fact that all our theories are human creations means that they should be capable of replacement, correction and improvement according to our discovery of better or more refined versions.

Against Cartesian foundationalism of individualistic stripe and in accordance with the great development of science in the last centuries, it is much more persuasive to recognize, as the medieval scholastic tradition did, that what we know of things is only a part of them, a facet or a partial aspect of them, but not their totality. To be only a part does not mean being false, but that it is unable to explain all. Since reality is multilateral and has a multiplicity of aspects, truth cannot be exhausted by any human knowledge, but it always remains open to new formulations.

Pragmatist tradition provides with clarity the conviction that the foundationalist model is a mistaken way to understand the real scientific activity. Science is not a process of searching for foundations but a process of reasonable problem solving using the data and theories available at the time. There are no foundations in the natural sciences nor in the human sciences. Putnam writes that "Our notions are so intertwined that none of them can provide a 'foundation' for ethics. (…) We must come to see that there is no possibility of a 'foundation' for scientific knowledge, or for any other kind of knowledge". Using a Peircean metaphor we could say that our research activity may be compared with walking in a bog where we would fall if we stop and search for a firm and solid ground instead of going ahead. Using an expression of MacIntyre, what we are trying is to replace the modern paradigm of certainty with the paradigm of truth. According to the paradigm of truth what really matters is not the starting point and the way from it, but the objective and the discoveries made on the way to achieving it. The beginning itself has only a provisional and tentative nature. The search is not obsessed with the past, but is completely open to the future.

The metaphor of the fundamentalist bog brings to my memory the one about two drunken sailors mentioned by Susan Haack in Evidence and Inquiry. A drunken sailor is capable of nothing, but two of them supporting each other and singing together, even if out of tune and meandering and stumbling, are capable of finding their anchored ship in the port. Pluralist pragmatism holds that the search for truth is enriching because truth is perfective. It also holds that there is not only one path, a privileged access to truth. Each person’s argument is a way to truth, but the reasons that other suggest and point to in their turn provide ways that enrich and widen our understanding. The relativist position, on the contrary, affirms that there is no truth but only dialogue and different perspectives which are impossible to account for. In this way it not only refutes its own formulation but ultimately sacrifices the notion of humanity because it denies the capacity for a search for self-perfection and human progress.


1. I am indebted with Gabriel Byrne and Beatriz Montejano for the English translation. Other versions of the paper with bibliographical apparatus have been published in Spanish.

Última actualización: 20 de enero 2015

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