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The Pragmatists and the Human Logic of Truth

Claudine Tiercelin

Chapter 5

Why we should take a stand, and the stand we should take

Entrées d'index

Texte intégral

  • 1 Putnam, WL, p. 152.
  • 2 Lewis, 1996 (reprint 1999, p. 419).
  • 3 On Wittgenstein’s Pyrrhonism, see Fogelin, Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, 1 (...)
  • 4 James, WB, p. 25 & 32-33.
  • 5 See in particular Ramsey, OT, p. 58 & 63, where he combines this position with an attitude very clo (...)
  • 6 Peirce, CP, 4. 61.

1It is never easy to resist scepticism. It is even harder, I would say, if you are a pragmatist. For being a pragmatist implies you should stick to fallibilism. Now, being both fallibilists and anti-sceptics is, according to Putnam, “the unique insight of American pragmatism”.1 But the “middle way” adopted is also a narrow one. How can one maintain the truth there is in fallibilism without giving everything to the sceptic? As David Lewis urged, if we do not associate knowledge with “infallibility”, we seem to be “stuck between the rocks of fallibilism and the whirlwinds of scepticism” and “both sound insane”.2 In other words, if there is no other way to resist the sceptic than in being a fallibilist, as the pragmatists urge us to be, it becomes almost impossible to avoid him. And to a certain extent, this may explain why, in the various parries the pragmatists propose to the sceptical challenge, we still find many sceptical components. To take but a few examples: Wittgenstein’s criticism of the Cartesian scenario and his attack against radical doubt does not so much comfort a straightforward “realist” or “pragmatist” reading3 than a basically neo-Pyrrhonian attitude: see his diagnosis of the situation (the sceptical illusion is rather “deflated” than “refuted”) or the mobile epistemic status he confers to the “hinge propositions” which seems almost impossible to settle in either sense. For James too, the condemnation of moral scepticism, presented as a sick obsession of the risk of error, is all the more offensive as the threat of epistemological scepticism and of an inaccessible objective certainty is strong. If James blames the sceptics for risking apraxia, it is also because, if we are empiricists, we “believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp” and so “it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell.”4 James the empiricist is never far from Sextus or Montaigne. But neither is Peirce, the experimentalist, in whom the sentimental conservative is indeed close to the Reidian commonsensist, but in whom also (as in Ramsey) one can find elements resembling more a Carneades, in the view that probability is indeed the guide in life.5 But for Peirce, the situation is even worse, for scepticism has not the peaceful outlook of academic scepticism: since epistemological fallibilism goes together with a very extreme ontological fallibilism, it makes it resemble more, at times, mere dogmatic scepticism. If our knowledge is basically conjectural and provisional, and if it may even be the case that nothing corresponds to our idea of what reality is,6 then, we are not far indeed from falling into the sceptic’s well.

  • 7 Putnam, EWO, p. 16.
  • 8 Putnam, CFVD, p. 131-132.

2This may explain Putnam’s emphasis on the narrowness of the way and his decision no longer to apply fallibilism to every kind of topics: in particular, Putnam contends, there are questions which it seems impossible to revise (such as: Slavery is bad), or some values which seem to have the hardness of “facts” (as: Yeats was a great poet).7 In that sense, even if we are cognitivists, not only should we favour other terms than “justifications”, as applied to the ethical domain, but we should also say that justification must end somewhere.8

  • 9 Putnam, RHF, p. 270; Putnam, RP, p. 59.

He may be right. Perhaps the right attitude is to adopt a kind of neo-Pyrrhonism like the one he finally seems to favour, as well as Wittgenstein or James. Maybe, the right pragmatist attitude is to “accept” the “manifest image”, our Lebenswelt, the world such as we experience it; hence concentrate our best efforts in recovering a form of “natural realism” or “second naïveté”, the sense of the ordinary, of the banal which, Putnam holds, “such strange notions as ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ we have inherited from ontology and epistemology have prevented us from doing;”9 perhaps, we should follow Apelle’s recommendation as reported by Sextus, throw the sponge away, burn all our books and prefer to play backgammon and have dinner in a pleasant company, as Hume at times urges us to do.

Perhaps … I am not so sure though.

1. Fallibilism

  • 10 Peirce, CP, 7.326; W 3, p. 40ff. ; CP, 8.41; W 2, p. 8 & 16; Ms 749; Ms 596.
  • 11 Peirce, CP, 5.108; 2.182; 2.204; 5.55; 7.444; 7.457; Ms 692; Ms 453; CP, 8.191, etc.

3However what I am rather confident in, is the following: if we want to know what reality consists in (and Peirce’s inquiry into truth was first motivated by his inquiry into reality), then we should not only aim at truth, but at knowledge. We should aim at explanations and not at mere descriptions. We should be straightforward realists, in ethics, in science, and in metaphysics. Of course, explanation without reduction is also highly desirable. The problem is: is this possible without renouncing, one way or other, to scientific explanation ? Obviously, the classical pragmatists (Peirce and Dewey) offered “maxims” rather than “algorithms” in terms of inquiry, but they were also (or first of all) eager to specify the forms of inquiry and to integrate in one single move deduction, induction and abduction (at times called by Peirce “the logic of pragmatism”), as well as to make out which one among the several methods would be able to help “scientific intelligence” to reach the truth, and this method is indeed called scientific, however “generous” a meaning the pragmatists give to that word, and it is subject not only to observation and experience – a part which is relatively out of the control of our will – but also to the strict controls and criticism of our normative capacity of reasoning, inference, deliberation,10 self-control, criticism, criticism of criticism included.11 This is why fallibilism should suffer no exception, from Peirce’s point of view (which, incidentally, means that you should also be a fallibilist as regards fallibilism).

  • 12 Peirce, CP, 1.171.
  • 13 Peirce, CP, 4.63.
  • 14 Peirce, CP, 8.43.
  • 15 Peirce, CP, 1.644; Ms 602.
  • 16 Peirce, CP, 5.589 (1898). Cf. Skagestad, 1981, The Road of Inquiry; Misak, 1991, Truth and the End (...)
  • 17 Peirce, CP, 1.141.
  • 18 Peirce, CP, 5.168, 5.569, 5.2 & 6.526.

4Peirce’s fallibilism is well known. He defines it as the doctrine according to which our knowledge is never absolute but always “swims”, so to speak, in a continuum of uncertainty and indeterminacy.12 He takes it that we can never be certain not to reach knowledge, but to reach a perfectly sure knowledge.13 On many questions, we have reached the final opinion.14 and rather often, in fact, the beliefs that are established are the best possible we can have in terms of our available evidence. This is why we must place ourselves in the position of he who says: it is far better to let philosophy follow perfectly untrammeled a scientific method, predetermined in advance of knowing to what it will lead. If that course be honestly and scrupulously carried out, the results reached, even if they be not altogether true, even if they be grossly mistaken, cannot but be highly serviceable for the ultimate discovery of truth. Meantime, sentiment can say “Oh well, philosophical science has not by any means said its last word yet; and meantime I will continue to believe so and so.”15 But like Quine, Peirce thinks of science as something which “is not standing upon the bedrock of fact. It is walking upon a bog, and can only say, this ground seems to hold for the present. Here I will stay till it begins to give way.”16 So the fact that our beliefs are in fact most often indubitable (and therefore that many of them have an irreducible vagueness which renders the concept of truth redundant with the concept of belief), does not imply that they are ever or de jure so: truth does not depend on what one believes nor on the conviction with which one believes, but on what one is justified in believing in following the control of reason and the lessons of experience. This is why fallibilism remains the only possible theoretical position. First, because all science shows that it is merely probable and not necessary: It is the laboratory, Peirce says, which taught him that three things are “impossible” to attain through reasoning: absolute certainty, absolute exactitude, absolute universality.17 Furthermore, our knowledge is not merely probable: as a matter of fact, one can start with probability, elaborate a true “logic of consistency”, and the human logic of truth, for Peirce as for Ramsey, has nothing of a second rate logic. But what is characteristic of knowledge is its conjectural and provisional character. If it were only approximate, one could identify the result or truth with a more and more refined value (like the value of π).18 Now, even if Peirce is at times tempted by such a solution (at least in so far as no confirmation can increase the probability that a proposition is true, it can at least increase our confidence in its being true), even then, he is cautious to add that a mere counter example is enough to falsify the proposition: in short, at no time can one exclude the logical possibility of our belief being false.

5Now fallibilism is all the stronger as it is not merely epistemological but ontological. Epistemologically speaking, it means that no empirical observation allows us to conclude that the physical laws are accurate. On the contrary, everything shows that they are not. So to identify knowledge and certain knowledge goes beyond our powers:

  • 19 Peirce, CP, 7.119.

The second order of induction only infers that a theory is very much like the truth, because we are so far from ever being authorized to conclude that a theory is the very truth itself, that we can never so much as understand what that means.19

  • 20 Peirce, CP, 1.137-1140.
  • 21 Peirce, CP, 1. 440.
  • 22 Peirce, CP, 1.138.
  • 23 Peirce, CP, 1.139.
  • 24 Peirce, CP, 1.9 & 6.603.
  • 25 Peirce, CP, 5.589 & 1.85.
  • 26 Peirce, CP, 1.120.
  • 27 Peirce, CP, 5.541.

Living spontaneity and the regular breaks in the course of nature of phenomena renders absolute assertions impossible,20 both those that make us conclude to any ultimate and perfect formulation 21 as those which would make us claim that such a thing cannot be known 22 or that everything is inexplicable.23 Thus dogmatic skepticism is an untenable position. Rather, we are right in thinking most often that most scientific opinions are correct.24 Besides this is what the economy of research prescribes.25 Simply, a proposition may always be refuted and given up overnight26 as much because of the evolution of thought as of the evolution of the laws of nature. After all, a theory which could be absolutely demonstrated would not be a scientific theory.27

  • 28 Peirce, CP, 6.44.
  • 29 Peirce, CP, 1.171.
  • 30 Peirce, CP, 1.171.

6In that sense, it is probably safer to say that fallibilism does not intend to devaluate knowledge and rather protects from dogmatism and dogmatic skepticism, which in the end are but lazy forms of knowledge. But the provisional character of knowledge also depends on the indeterminacy operating in nature. For Peirce, therefore, epistemic fallibilism goes hand in hand with ontological indeterminism, and, indeed, an extreme one. Supposing that our knowledge grows, it would never manage to eliminate the basic indeterminacy of things,28 which is but the reflection of the fluctuations of natural phenomena. This is why it is in the end the job of the synechistic metaphysics (ruled by the principle of continuity29) but also tychistic metaphysics (which gives an irreducible place to the spontaneity of chance) that fallibilism is finally founded: in certain respects, we may even say that the principle of continuity is merely the “idea of fallibilism objectified”.30

  • 31 Peirce, CP, 1.171.

If I were to attempt to describe to you in full all the scientific beauty and truth that I find in the principle of continuity, I might say in the simple language of Matilda the Engaged, “the tomb would close over me e'er the entrancing topic were exhausted” – but not before my audience was exhausted. So I will just drop it here. Only, in doing so, let me call your attention to the natural affinity of this principle to the doctrine of fallibilism. The principle of continuity is the idea of fallibilism objectified. For fallibilism is the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy. Now the doctrine of continuity is that all things so swim in continua.31

  • 32 Peirce, CP, 1.403.
  • 33 Peirce, NEM IV, p. xiii.
  • 34 Peirce, CP, 7.119.
  • 35 Hookway, 1985, p. 73.
  • 36 On this aspect, also see Ramsey’s definition of philosophy: “Philosophy must be of some use, and we (...)

7If indeterminacy does not come only from our ignorance, from our imperfection, but also from nature, from the inexactness of the laws and of the objective reality of chance, as well as of the continuum,32 if our uncertainty has an objective counterpart, it is easier to see why, even if we had reached the truth, we could not even know it. We can surely hope that our hypotheses get closer and closer to the truth if we pursue long enough our inquiries, and once again, such an intellectual hope is a rational requirement;33 but, however justified, necessary, even living that hope may be, we must remain aware of the fact that we can only say of a theory that it looks very much like the truth, and that we are “so far from ever being authorized to conclude that a theory is the very truth itself, that we can never so much as understand what that means.”34 If Peirce’s theory of truth means anything, if it is compatible with fallibilism, it is therefore in the end because scientific pragmatism calls for an ontology and a scientific and realist metaphysics of vagueness. It is not surprising, therefore, that some may have concluded that Peirce was only separated from skepticism by a hair’s breadth35.36

2. The necessary redefinition of epistemology

  • 37 Peirce, CP, 5.525.
  • 38 Peirce, CP, 5.412.

8I have stressed and agreed with the fact that the pragmatists insist on the primacy of ethics. Peirce, for his part, always considered that Kant, whom he “more than admired”,37 was but a “somewhat confused pragmatist”;38 and he described his own development as that of “a pure Kantian” who was simply forced “by successive steps” into Pragmaticism. It is also Kant, whom Putnam refers too in several occasions, and, for example, in opposing the Schuhlbegriff or scholastic concept of philosophy with its cosmological concept or Weltbegriff. But, as is well known, ‘What should I do?’ can be understood in two different ways: either as asserting, as Kant does, the primacy of practical reason, or as asserting the primacy of the question of ‘life’ over the question of knowledge.

  • 39 Peirce, CP, 5.412.
  • 40 Peirce, CP, 1.14.

9Here we have, I think, the two possible major pragmatist readings of what a human logic of truth might be intended to achieve: as far as Peirce is concerned, he was always instinctively suspicious of what might turn into some form or other of idolatry of life, convinced as he was, that if pragmatism was the spiritual heir of Kantianism, it was because Kant, better than anyone else, had been able to detect “the inseparable link which exists between rational knowledge and rational finality,”39 and that the main end of inquiry remained the search of truth and the discovery of what is real. Therefore, he depicted his whole philosophical enterprise as growing “out of a contrite fallibilism, combined with a high faith in the reality of knowledge, and an intense desire to find things out.”40 As I said, his reluctance towards “applying” epistemology to ethics is, indeed, the direct consequence (as is the case with Kant) of his conviction of the primacy of ethics. This is highlighted in his conception of philosophy and rationality, in which one may find all such important epistemological virtues as: betting on rationality rather than on cynicism, modesty, professionalism, discussion, the values of argumentation, intellectual exchange, rather than visionary outbursts, cult of individual or romantic unbound subjectivity, literary conversation; on the contrary, one should always remain close to the laboratory, which is the exact opposite of scientism and dogmatism, but is the promotion of the hypothetical, the fallible, the experimental, hence of the irreducible indeterminacy which necessarily accompanies all thinking activity. Maybe one may criticize Peirce for having paid less attention (contrary to Dewey for example) to the political consequences of pragmatism; or one may simply regret that the exile to which he was condemned did not give him the occasion to prove the contrary. All the same, whatever may be his taste for false exaltations and hasty, thoughtless and adventurous decisions, it is doubtful that a philosopher, any more or less than any other man, should not have, at some point, to meet history, and to take a stand. And this is James’s constant and sound reminder.

10So it may be that Peirce’s disgust for nominalistic individualism and false transcendences drew him too far in that direction of forgetting the necessary engagement of the philosopher within the polis. But this may also be understood in another fashion, namely, the conviction that the best way to promote democracy is and remains to trust the search of truth and to count on the value of knowledge and rationality. To propose to embrace irrationalism – as some neo-pragmatists do – and to liquidate such old-fashioned values as critical or communicative rationality, truth or humanity, is indeed a strange way of conceiving progress, since it amounts to suppress, without any real or efficient counterpart, the last protection that is left to the weakest. For Peirce in particular, no doubt it is through knowledge that philosophy contributes to the “melioration” of human condition, and this is why there is so much to learn, as I have tried to argue elsewhere, from his own contribution (1) to a possible new definition of the territory of epistemology itself; (2) to the kind of solution one could bring to the sceptical challenge from an epistemological point of view; and (3) to the largely debated issue today concerning the exact place of our practical interests in the constitution of knowledge itself, or to such questions as the ones James also raises: whether our beliefs should aim at truth, or at knowledge or at something else, and whether there is an intrinsic value in knowledge.

  • 41 See Tiercelin, 2005, Le Doute en question, p. 259ff.
  • 42 This is an important point, also underlined by Williamson, 2000, Knowledge and its limits, p. 238ff

11Among the various important questions the pragmatists may raise in the necessary re-definition of epistemology itself (and of the questions that should be given more prominence within it) and on the possible contribution of pragmatism to several current epistemological debates,41 are the following: what do we mean by saying that justification is normative? Should we replace epistemology by descriptive psychology? Should we recognize normative facts in relation to which the modes of inference are fine modes of reasoning, while remaining naturalists, and holding that the determination of the nature of those good reasons must go through the study of the way in which we reason and do in fact acquire such belief? Should epistemological recommendations be taken as hypothetical prescriptions (applying only to some) or as categorical prescriptions (applying to all)? To what extent can our beliefs be affected by the actions we undertake? What kind of voluntary control do we have on the formation of our beliefs? Does epistemology provide us with guiding lines to evaluate the beliefs which are ours, or does it also provide us lines for the way in which we are going to form those beliefs? Is epistemology’s sole function to evaluate the legitimacy of our beliefs according to the available evidence, or should it also provide guiding lines on the way to behave as inquirers, for example, in the way to collect evidence, multiplying our sources, controlling our experimentations, caring for criticism, etc. ? And to what extent following or not following them does have an influence on the degree of justification those beliefs have? Up to what point can one be held responsible for one’s beliefs? What links should we draw between justification and epistemic blame or praise? In that respect, the pragmatists contribution to the analysis of knowledge consists, in a large measure, in the emphasis laid on the links to be maintained with experience, in the experiential as well as in the experimental sense of the term, but also, and more deeply, in the way in which knowledge (which always implies risks and commitments) engages more than a mere capacity of discussion and communication but the whole of our assertions and thus implies a precise elucidation of the meaning conditions of our epistemic speech acts.42

2.1. The pragmatist answer to the sceptical challenge

  • 43 On this, Tiercelin 2005, Le Doute en question, p. 263ff.

12As far as the theory of knowledge is concerned, I think we may evaluate the pragmatist contribution to the kind of solution one could bring to the sceptical challenge along the following lines.43

2.1.1. The traditional answers to the sceptical difficulties

13First of all, it is contrary to the answers that have traditionally been provided to the sceptical difficulties, which may be summarized according to three main headings.

(1) A form of “naturalistic” scepticism, of a neo-Humian type (Peter Strawson, Barry Stroud). For Stroud, scepticism is “conditionally” correct, for it is the unavoidable result of any inquiry aiming at knowledge and implies, as a consequence, a break between philosophy and ordinary life. For Strawson, scepticism is irrefutable; if we do not admit this, it is only because, psychologically (naturalistic answer), we are unable to do so, even if (attenuated pessimism) it remains ineffective in ordinary life. But the essential point (its theoretical unshakability) is nonetheless taken for granted.

(2) A form of neo-Pyrrhonism (Robert Fogelin): one still views scepticism as a genuine problem and agrees that an inquiry into justification and knowledge is well founded; but, following Aenesidemus’ and Agrippa’s dialectical techniques, reinterpreted in the light of the teachings of the linguistic turn, one adopts an attitude of Wittgensteinian inspiration: justification is based on non epistemic norms (the “hinges” which allow the door to turn). No (coherentist or reliabilist) analysis avoids the vices of circularity or infinite regress.

(3) A form of answer (more inspired by the kind of probabilism of a Carneades), close to common sense, one of the main inspirers of which is G.E. Moore, but which is also the heir of the Scottish (Reidian) philosophy of common sense, and which can also, to a certain extent, get its inspiration from Wittgenstein (interpreted, this time, more as a “pragmatist” than as a “Pyrrhonian” (cf. Michael Williams, Hilary Putnam): extreme scepticism is taken as unreasonable, in so far as it bets on the overall presence of the risk of error, and leads to agnoiology (or theory of ignorance, Peter Unger); the reality of the risk is recognized (fallibilism), but a theory of justification without any warrant of truth is defended, which, however, enables less to “refute” than to “neutralize” the sceptic.

2.1.2. The pragmatist “constraints” on knowledge

14I show that the pragmatist “parry” or “rejoinder” is a variant of (3). It involves some contextualist components (knowledge depends on the context of the questions being raised about it; cf. Michael Williams, David Lewis), an externalist component allowing the notion of “margins of error” (Timothy Williamson), and a naturalistic and fallibilistic component (Reid, Peirce). Hence, I propose, rather than necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, what I prefer to call pragmatist “constraints” on knowledge, which may be identified along the following lines:

(K) S knows that P if:

(a) S believes that P (belief being less an internal mental state than a disposition to action);

(b) P is true (truth being itself conceived on the model of warranted assertibility at the ideal limit of inquiry (Peirce, Dewey, Ramsey);

(c) S is (most often) justified in believing that P, namely, essentially, that:

(c1) If P were not true in relevant circumstances, S would not believe P (principle of “sensitivity” rather than “safety”: “S would believe that P iff P were true” [Ernest Sosa]);

(c2) If, in other relevant circumstances, P were still true, S would still believe that P (“counterfactual” conditions 1 and 2 formulated by Robert Nozick);

(c3) S is justified in believing that P by a proper reliable causal process (Alvin Goldman: hence, irrelevant counterfactual situations are excluded), the reliability of the process being itself a matter of trust on our part in our cognitive (intellective and active) faculties.

15But, to those conditions, two other, more specifically pragmatist, principles should be added:

(1)The refusal of the principle of radical generality, which goes hand in hand with the sceptical argument. As a consequence, an analysis is required of the conditions of possibility of doubt itself (and not merely of knowledge; cf. Reid, Peirce and Wittgenstein): find a way to distinguish between paper (or chamber) doubt and genuine reasons for doubt; rely either on certain rules or norms (hinge propositions in Wittgenstein’s style) or on principles (closer to Common Sense, but in constantly submitting such principles which, incidentally, are evolutive, to criticism); and show that the sceptical objections are most often strong because they refuse any kind of contextualization. However, invoking contextualism does not amount to hold that the epistemic status of a proposition may vary according to purely conversational, cultural social (or other) factors: it is to hold that, independently of such influences, a proposition has no epistemic status whatsoever. Thus formulated, contextualism implies a form of externalism, for even if proper contextual constraints have to be satisfied in order for such and such a proposition to be able to claim any knowledge, such constraints need not be known, nor even believed, even if some minimal sensitivity to such constraints (because of their causal impact) is unavoidable (Williamson). In that respect, a pragmatist refuses the irrelevant choice (which is due to the erroneous split between the internal and the external) between internalism and externalim. In particular, not to accept the principle of a privileged access to our mental states (access-internalism) does not imply that we cannot (in fact, we must) exercise a critical reflexive control on our beliefs, in order to educate our sentiment of rationality and transform our dispositions into virtues. In the same manner, denying the principle of an independent reality, totally external to our beliefs (metaphysical realism) does not imply that it is impossible to maintain the causal strength of reality upon our beliefs (semiotic abductive realism).

(2) The principle of fallibilism which is closely allied with the presumption of the possibility of knowledge but also with a necessarily non-dogmatic?) definition of knowledge and an epistemic (or even ontological) radical indeterminism But it is a fallibilism which may itself happen to be questioned, and is constantly submitted to the rules of scientific method and to the constraints of inquiry. But I note that it is precisely such a fallibilism (which is consubstantial to pragmatism) which constitutes the ever present risk of the sceptical drift (several times, indeed, the pragmatists come very close to scepticism, in a neo-Pyrrhonian or dogmatic way). This is why it seems advisable to bet on some form of weak foundationalism which, I suggest, might be looked for, along such lines as those proposed by Tyler Burge’s concept of “perceptual entitlement”: our perceptions do not provide us warrants nor justifications, but entitlements to believe what we do believe.

16In summary, we cannot, strictly speaking, demonstrate that we are not dreaming, nor propose any warrant for what we perceive: none of this is sure, but until proven contrary, it remains highly probable. At any rate, it would be insane to ask us to justify it or to pretend that we are in no way entitled to think so. Because we aim at truth, and bet upon it, we presume that knowledge is possible and this is quite sufficient indeed to dispose us to act.

2.1.3. Three major stakes

17From those analyses, I draw three major stakes:

18(1) Such a pragmatist strategy does not subscribe to an answer in terms of a “naturalization” of epistemology (Quine): Quine holds that the question of the definition and of the justification of knowledge needs not be raised and that the only things that should be studied by epistemology pertain to the field of causal (neuronal, biological) transactions between the organism and its environment. For the same reason, Quine rejects sceptical doubts: sceptical doubts are mere scientific doubts. On the contrary, I claim that such a position as Quine’s is unable to account for the normative aspect of knowledge (and, more generally, of rationality [Kim, Putnam]), or for the fact that knowledge relies on beliefs (in a way the pragmatists were alone in measuring all the complexity, underlining as they did both its natural and logical as well as its normative aspects).

19(2) A well understood naturalism must take the sceptical challenge seriously and try to provide an answer to it: in other words, I reject the diagnosis made and the attitude recommended by Stanley Cavell for whom the “truth” of scepticism consists in making clear that our relation to the world is not a relation of knowledge, in consequence of what, one should return to a philosophy of the “common”, the “trite”, or the “ordinary” and simply forget epistemology (or philosophy itself).

  • 44 In that respect, the “pragmatist strategy” which is proposed in Le Doute en question (2005) is to b (...)

20(3) There is no other possible answer to the sceptical challenge than a naturalistic one, but it is a form of naturalism which is very different from Quine’s, for example, and much more inspired by Thomas Reid and Peirce’s pragmatist theory of critical common sense, which attempts to explain, in particular, how the norms emerge from nature, and establishes narrow links between knowledge and belief, and, consequently, between the “intellective” faculties and the “active faculties” (Reid) of man.44

2.2. The constitution of knowledge and our practical interests

  • 45 Stanley, 2005, Knowledge and Practical Interests, p. V.
  • 46 Stanley, 2005, Knowledge and Practical Interests, p. 2.
  • 47 Engel, 2009, “Pragmatic encroachment and epistemic value”.
  • 48 On these issues, see in particular Hawthorne, 2004, Knowledge and Loteries; Stanley, 2005, Knowledg (...)

21About the role of our practical interests in the constitution of knowledge itself, the questions raised by the pragmatist approach are: can we claim that “the difference between true belief and knowledge is not purely epistemic”45 and that “the distinction between practical and theoretical rationality is less clear than one might wish”?46 Does knowledge matter? Is the value of knowledge independent of other epistemic values, such as the value of truth, or the value of having true beliefs? Is knowledge, as an epistemic value, independent of other values, such as the good or freedom, which are practical or ethical values? If we hold, as pragmatists do, that there are substantial relations between our epistemic reasons to believe and our practical reasons to act, are we legitimate in saying (as James, precisely, claims we are) that the latter can sometimes override the former, and even more strongly, that epistemic reasons and values can be reduced to practical reasons and values? Apparently, there seems to be a point of departure, here, between some versions of pragmatism (James, Putnam) who seem to favour the view that epistemic and practical values are interwoven, and that it is very hard to distinguish the question whether a belief is true from the question whether a belief is useful, and other versions of pragmatism, such as Peirce’s or Isaac Levi’s, which seem to maintain a sharp line between concerns about truth and epistemic matters on the one hand, and practical matters on the other. As Engel has recently argued,47 what the latter defend are more conceptions of epistemic utility than conceptions according to which epistemic utility would be of a piece with practical utility. In particular epistemic consequentialism, the view that true belief is the main epistemic value and that it should be maximised, is not touched by the arguments of the pragmatic encroachers, because it is perfectly evidentialist and “purist”. Who is right? There is a whole debate today on those issues and others related to what some have called the “pragmatic encroachment” on our epistemic concepts and on the degree to which pragmatic factors “affect” or “are relevant” to the assessment of knowledge, and may even affect our epistemic evaluation of beliefs or attribution of knowledge.48

22But at the same time, as there is no difference in thinking that should not imply a difference in action, there is always a link between epistemology and ethics, and, together with this idea, there is the view that one should indeed pass from epistemology to ethics, which, in the end, is primary. The question is: what are the best means to realize such a passage? It is doubtful that mere conversational practice would suffice. James himself noted that it is not because one gives up the doctrine of objective certainty that one should give up searching or hoping to find truth itself. If that is the case, the best way to retain the pragmatist heritage while avoiding some of its undesirable “consequences” would certainly be to practice the fallibilist attitude advocated by the classical pragmatists, which is miles away from dogmatic absolutism and sceptical relativism, but also to stick to an ideal of truth accessible enough to be still inspired by reality, and not to rush into some hasty adaptation of knowledge to morals, without a clearer understanding of the links between them, and, in particular, to reject at the outset, the means we might have of justifying at least some of our ethical beliefs.

  • 49 Putnam, MFR, p. 63.
  • 50 Putnam, CFVD, p. 19.
  • 51 Putnam, CFVD, p. 31.
  • 52 James, WB, p. 86, 88 & 188.

23Putnam saw that the pragmatists (and first of all, Peirce) had that vision that what applies to investigation in general applies to ethical investigation too, and that in order to progress, there is but one method: the scientific method, all the others (tenacity, authority, a priori) being doomed to fail. Even if you refuse strict dualisms, even if, for example, you maintain that epistemic values are also “values”, and that norms and values impregnate the totality of you experience, you are not, for all that, going to deny that some value judgements do have “the hardness of facts” (it is a fact that the Nazis were bad, or that Yeats was a great poet, Putnam contends,49 and towards such states of affairs or such statements as “slavery is bad” it even seems difficult to continue to adopt an experimental attitude50); nor does it mean that you should not be prepared to deny that there are “differences between ethical values and epistemic values” just as there are differences between ethical values themselves”.51 I think this is one very important point to evaluate the dividing line among pragmatists, and by the same token, in my view, their respective success in avoiding scepticism and nihilism. Indeed, let us take moral scepticism. What should we be prepared to do in order to have an efficient I will not say “answer” or “solution” but rather “parry” to it, at least if we are a minimal cognitivist about ethics: We should indeed, and, as I said, this is what pragmatists do, reject the argument about the “insoluble moral disagreement”, and in order to do that, several ways are open to us: we can contest the fact value dichotomy, rely on some new definitions of science and knowledge and refuse the supposed dualism between ethics and science; reject the very idea of an impossible consensus in any domain whatsoever, in noting that, in fact, on many points, there is indeed agreement rather than disagreement; object to the inference concluding from the presence of disagreements in some domains to their necessary presence in all domains, or from our selective or sporadic errors and our belonging to a certain background to the general fallibility of our judgements in general; refuse to admit that the possible absence of “moral facts” inaccessible to observation, should be a sufficient reason for preventing our judgements, although not being in strict parlance caused by any fact nor insisted by any particular faculty from being justified. But we should also, for the sake of minimal coherentist requirements, demand the necessary coherence our beliefs should have (hence, incidentally, their necessary confrontation with those of the community), but also indicate that coherence is not enough, that we should confront our ethical beliefs to the teachings and lessons of experience52 and to reality (externalist requirement), that they should, so to speak, track the truth; we should also make sure of the correct functioning of our dispositions to judge (reliability of the process) and finally admit that our deepest beliefs rely on a (however modest) ground of in a sense acritical (albeit always capable of revision and fallible) sentiments and principles.

24But we should also – and this should be all the more true if we are convinced, as the pragmatists are, that what applies to investigation in general also applies to ethical investigation in particular, and that our experience is entirely perfused with (epistemic, cognitive and ethical) values and norms – accept to submit our ethical judgements to the same criteria as the ones to which our epistemic judgements are submitted, or at the very least, explain for what reasons ethical and epistemic criteria of justification should be distinguished: in others words, is ethical justification identical with or a particular case of, or analogous to what is required by epistemic justification? Inversely, could epistemic justification be but a particular case of ethical justification? At any rate, I think we should not be too quick in saying that the term “justification” is decidedly inappropriate in ethical matters.

3. How our perceptions relate us to the real world

25But again, if ethics is primary, if ethics, from a pragmatist standpoint, is also mostly viewed as an education of our moral capacities and dispositions which have more to do with moral perceptions than with either some a priori faculty, moral sense, or normative prescriptions we should follow, then, there is a third obligation a pragmatist seems to have, namely, to find a solid basis for a correct account of how our perceptions relate us to the real world.

Which we could summarize in the three following quotations:

  • 53 Peirce, CP, 5.384.

There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those realities affect our senses according to regular laws, and though our sensations are as different as our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really are.53

  • 54 Peirce, CP, 1.673.

The very first command that is laid upon you, your quite higher business and duty, becomes, as everyone knows, to recognize a higher business than your business…a generalized conception of duty which completes your personality by melting it into the neighbouring parts of the universal cosmos… The very supreme commandment of sentiment is that man […] should become welded into the universal continuum.54

  • 55 Peirce, W 2, 126.

The capital principle (of theism) is this, that nature is absolutely conformed to an end; or in other words, that there is reason in the nature of things. Now…so far as we attain true culture so far will the sum of all our impulses come to the love of reason as it necessarily is, and therefore so far as we are as we ought to be so far are we perfectly gratified by what according to the nature of things, takes place, which is another way of saying that whatever is is best. Now, this is not only a consolation; it is the very sum, quintessence and acme of all consolation.55

26And I think that this can explain why, from the beginning, Peirce thought that the only way to have one’s ideas clear about this was to try and find out a correct account of reality itself (which incidentally was the motivation for his search into truth, and not the other way round) and to opt for a realist position in what he thought was the major point that had to be settled if one wanted to make any progress in thought: namely the problem of universals.

  • 56 Putnam, DL, p. 509.
  • 57 Peirce, CP, 5.503.

For this is not, contrary to what Putnam often claims, a pseudo-problem we are dealing with.56 As far as he was concerned, Peirce was convinced that, if the alternative mental / non mental is a wrong alternative in the realists / anti-realists debate, it does not mean (1) that there are no other possible realist solutions apart from Platonism – and as I said, he chose Scotistic realism, nor (2) that there is no genuine real alternative here: namely the one required by the question whether our thought deals or not with real objects. Does this mean one should go so far as claiming that there is a necessary link between pragmatism and realism, or that “pragmaticism could hardly have entered a head that was not already convinced that there are real generals”?57 Maybe not. Although I am tempted to say: very likely, yes.

27But, at the very least, I think that Peirce was right when he claimed that:

  • 58 Peirce, CP, 8.38.

So long as there is a dispute between nominalism and realism, so long as the position we hold on the question is not determined by any proof indisputable, but is more or less a matter of inclination, a man as he gradually comes to feel the profound hostility of the two tendencies will, if he is not less than man, become engaged with one or other and can no more obey both than he can serve God and Mammon. If the two impulses are neutralized within him, the result simply is that he is left without any great intellectual motive.58

Of course, it is not so surprising that such a controversy should not be very fashionable, for, as Peirce noted, “that path out of the difficulty lies through the thorniest mazes of a science as dry as mathematics.” However, he added,

  • 59 Peirce, CP, 8.38.

[…] though the question of realism and nominalism has its roots in the technicalities of logic, its branches reach about our life. The question whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals, is the question whether there is anything of any more dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, and individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itself, and if so, what the relative value of the two factors is, is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have it in our power to influence.59

28In that sense, I think that if we want to make the best of a “human logic of truth” in the pragmatist sense, and introduce into philosophy all the forms of life, we should always remember that on the side of logic, of epistemology, but also of metaphysics, especially once it has been “purified”, a lot remains to be done.

  • 60 Bouveresse, 1984, Rationalité et cynisme, p. 93.

29In his remarkable book Rationalité et cynisme, the Wittgenstein scholar Jacques Bouveresse, my master in philosophy, noted that “to believe in morals, despite all that we know, is today, more than ever, the moral problem, par excellence.”60. How can one avoid the irrationalist relativism or the complete scepticism, to which the criticism of rationalism, in general, and of moral rationalism, in particular, seem to lead?

  • 61 Blackburn, 2001, Being Good: a short introduction to ethics, p. 29.

30I would have paid my tribute to him, to the pragmatists, to what I have learnt from them, and most of all from C.S Peirce, if I had managed at least to suggest that there is indeed a fruitful way of viewing their real contribution to some of our contemporary debates, both theoretical and practical, and in particular, that pragmaticism gives us efficient tools for blocking some forms of moral scepticism and relativism, or, to use Blackburn’s phrase, provides a genuine “course between the soggy sands of relativism and the cold rocks of dogmatism”.61

  • 62 Ramsey, PP, p. 93.

31“Don’t look for the moon: we’ve got the stars” Charlotte Vales alias Bette Davis says at the end of Now Voyager: it is very likely that we, humans, do not have the moon, and as Ramsey has taught us, in defending his “human logic of truth”, “we should not cry for it.”62

32But for sure, we’ve got the stars. And for us, pragmatists or, rather, pragmaticists, that’s plenty.


1 Putnam, WL, p. 152.

2 Lewis, 1996 (reprint 1999, p. 419).

3 On Wittgenstein’s Pyrrhonism, see Fogelin, Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, 1994, p. 219-222; Tiercelin, 2005, Le Doute en question, chap 3, p. 104ff.

4 James, WB, p. 25 & 32-33.

5 See in particular Ramsey, OT, p. 58 & 63, where he combines this position with an attitude very close to the critical commonsensist position adopted by Peirce.

6 Peirce, CP, 4. 61.

7 Putnam, EWO, p. 16.

8 Putnam, CFVD, p. 131-132.

9 Putnam, RHF, p. 270; Putnam, RP, p. 59.

10 Peirce, CP, 7.326; W 3, p. 40ff. ; CP, 8.41; W 2, p. 8 & 16; Ms 749; Ms 596.

11 Peirce, CP, 5.108; 2.182; 2.204; 5.55; 7.444; 7.457; Ms 692; Ms 453; CP, 8.191, etc.

12 Peirce, CP, 1.171.

13 Peirce, CP, 4.63.

14 Peirce, CP, 8.43.

15 Peirce, CP, 1.644; Ms 602.

16 Peirce, CP, 5.589 (1898). Cf. Skagestad, 1981, The Road of Inquiry; Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry p. 123.

17 Peirce, CP, 1.141.

18 Peirce, CP, 5.168, 5.569, 5.2 & 6.526.

19 Peirce, CP, 7.119.

20 Peirce, CP, 1.137-1140.

21 Peirce, CP, 1. 440.

22 Peirce, CP, 1.138.

23 Peirce, CP, 1.139.

24 Peirce, CP, 1.9 & 6.603.

25 Peirce, CP, 5.589 & 1.85.

26 Peirce, CP, 1.120.

27 Peirce, CP, 5.541.

28 Peirce, CP, 6.44.

29 Peirce, CP, 1.171.

30 Peirce, CP, 1.171.

31 Peirce, CP, 1.171.

32 Peirce, CP, 1.403.

33 Peirce, NEM IV, p. xiii.

34 Peirce, CP, 7.119.

35 Hookway, 1985, p. 73.

36 On this aspect, also see Ramsey’s definition of philosophy: “Philosophy must be of some use, and we must take it seriously; it must clear our thoughts and so our actions. Or else it is a disposition we have to check, and an inquiry to see that this is so; the chief proposition of philosophy is that philosophy is nonsense. And again we must take seriously that it is nonsense, and not pretend, as Wittgenstein does, that it is important nonsense.” (Ramsey, “Philosophy”, PP, p. 1) Or also: “But what we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” (Ramsey, “Law and causality”, PP, p. 146) However, and although somewhat human and anti realistic, as Dokic and Engel have rightly emphasized, “Ramsey’s pragmatism is utterly distinct from the vulgar relativistic or deflationist forms of the so-called neo-pragmatism. […] Pragmatism is not a theory which would dissolve the real into imagery or into the desirable, but it is a merciless criticism of these dissolutions in the name of our real beliefs and desires.” (Dokic & Engel, 2002, Ramsey, Truth and Success, p. 80-81)

37 Peirce, CP, 5.525.

38 Peirce, CP, 5.412.

39 Peirce, CP, 5.412.

40 Peirce, CP, 1.14.

41 See Tiercelin, 2005, Le Doute en question, p. 259ff.

42 This is an important point, also underlined by Williamson, 2000, Knowledge and its limits, p. 238ff.

43 On this, Tiercelin 2005, Le Doute en question, p. 263ff.

44 In that respect, the “pragmatist strategy” which is proposed in Le Doute en question (2005) is to be distinguished also from the strategy which has been defended by many epistemologists and philosophers of cognitive science which most often relies on the mere reliability of our cognitive processes (Alvin Goldman).

45 Stanley, 2005, Knowledge and Practical Interests, p. V.

46 Stanley, 2005, Knowledge and Practical Interests, p. 2.

47 Engel, 2009, “Pragmatic encroachment and epistemic value”.

48 On these issues, see in particular Hawthorne, 2004, Knowledge and Loteries; Stanley, 2005, Knowledge and Practical Interests; Horwich, 2005,“The Value of Truth”; Engel, 2009, “Pragmatic encroachment and epistemic value”.

49 Putnam, MFR, p. 63.

50 Putnam, CFVD, p. 19.

51 Putnam, CFVD, p. 31.

52 James, WB, p. 86, 88 & 188.

53 Peirce, CP, 5.384.

54 Peirce, CP, 1.673.

55 Peirce, W 2, 126.

56 Putnam, DL, p. 509.

57 Peirce, CP, 5.503.

58 Peirce, CP, 8.38.

59 Peirce, CP, 8.38.

60 Bouveresse, 1984, Rationalité et cynisme, p. 93.

61 Blackburn, 2001, Being Good: a short introduction to ethics, p. 29.

62 Ramsey, PP, p. 93.

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