Analytic Philosophy is often characterized (in the node of that name, for instance) as a philosophical system focusing mostly on theories of truth, language, classical logic (one can't use the term logic here without the qualification if one has already read Freud or Marx and understands the Greek root of logic (logos) as any system of prepared reasoning the emphasis on thought as a systematic process (hence a conceptual link to dialectic (see Socrates and Hegel))), science, knowledge and representation.

George Herbert Mead (sociologist and pragmatist philosopher) looked at the historical roots of analytic philosophy and observed an obsession with the capitalistic exploits of the natural sciences and indeed many are convinced that analytic philosophy is unfairly exclusive in its consideration of the world and its concepts, taking too many cues from the discipline of science, but not only that because many sociologists (e.g., David Bloor or Bruno Latour) have criticized contemporary analytics for presenting an undisciplined view of science ignoring certain factors that contribute to the so-called 'success' of a given scientific theory (they point to 'non-scientific' factors such as prestige (the fame of a scientist on the research team), political relationships (the political outcomes of the scientific theory, e.g., Galileo or Darwin), success in the laboratory (a sterile environment that rarely, if ever, replicates 'real-world' conditions which the theory propounds to explain but sometimes never does (e.g., certain theories in pure physics and chemistry)). Mead interestingly looked at the theory of thermodynamics (as originally propounded by the French scientist Sadi Carnot) and the capitalistic roots of the concept of a calorie, i.e. the unit of work, i.e. a unit of measure that would allow capitalists to compare production of machines versus manual laborers.

Mead taught at the University of Chicago with John Dewey for a few years and greatly influenced his thought as well as that of the most well-known pragmatist, William James who was also critical of analytic philsophers of his day, notably Bertrand Russell for advancing theories of truth that couldn't accurately account for all aspects of practical (from the Greek word pragma meaning action in English) human activity, such as loving, fearing death, acting in an irrational manner, as well as the extreme difficulty that often characterizes moral choice (on this one would be good to read Martha Nussbaum and her writings on Aristotle in the book Love's Knowledge).

James and especially Dewey in turn influenced the contemporary American philosopher Richard Rorty who has perhaps presented the most thorough and convincing critiques of analytic philosophy written in the English language (the French thinker Jacques Derrida has also written a forceful critique of analytic philosophy as did the German fin-de-siecle author Friedrich Nietzsche and the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (once the poster-child for British analytic philosophy departments (a concept deserving of its own node) due to his now-famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). Rorty, beginning with his 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, has attempted to nonsystematically overturn philosophy's image as an arbiter of truth and rightness via a fair and nonbiased judgment of human behavior in favor of a more liberal picture of philosophy as another form of conversation in which we can emphasize those practical values that are important to us. Rorty himself has emphasized the values of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity in the book by that name as well as espousing the concept of hope and its connections to liberalism in his recent political text Achieving Our Country.

Rorty has critiqued the analytics on several front. The most interesting is probably his characterization of analytic philosophy as a representational philosophy in which it is held as metaphysical truth that our language represents reality. Rorty over and over again deconstructs this notion (making use of figures such as Dewey, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida, Nietzsche, Cervantes) as impractical and contrary to our practical involvement in discourse, life, conversation. Rorty wonders how it would ever be possible for a nonlinguistic object to found the veracity of a linguistic utterance. There is the further concern of our epistemic access to this so-called foundation for truth, especially in light of our historical tendency to hold beliefs that turn out in the end to be impractical, that is untrue. If truth occurs independent of practical human activity, then it is the case that we currently believe a whole host of untrue things. (If past performance is any indicator of future results (not Wall Street), then scientists in the year 3000 probably won't hold to any of our current physical, chemical, biological theories for understanding the world. This being the case, it seems that a great deal of our current beliefs are simply untrue.) This seems to undermine truth as a value.

Rorty and the pragmatists instead urge us to see truth as something more like practical efficiency or expediency. The true is the expedient in our way of thinking and behaving (James). This has far-reaching political consequences, explored mostly by Rorty and Dewey, and conceptually akin to the politics of Lyotard, Foucault, and Rawls.

* = inserted since the original writeup.


If 'pragmatism' implies the equation of truth and expediency then it is false or incoherent. Adopting pragmatism in the way expounded above (by jderrida) is not an expedient system of belief.

To explain myself, imagine that Rorty-style pragmatism is literally true. (Not just an interesting story.)* Then according to pragmatism, this just means that it is expedient to hold that truth == expediency. But the latter is patently false by any sensible measure of expediency. Therefore pragmatism is not true.

Thinking a little more: if it was not expedient for anyone to treat Plato's, Newton's or even Wittgenstein's assertions as candidates for TRUTH (i.e. non-expedient truth) then whence would come the development of analytic methods that give the pragmatist a target for their attack? The assumption of nonrelativity in truth is an outstandingly important device in dialectic. It is strange to think that communities which had no preference for truth as TRUTH rather than as expediency would be able to come to largely expedient conclusions about the world on this basis. Although it looks like science says, "P works for us... so (definitionally) it is true", the scientific method is important just because it construes truth as something 'outer'. It would be vacuous for Einstein to say, "It's expedient to believe in relativity... hence it is expedient to believe in relativity". Similarly, I claim, there is real content in philosophy.

Expedient views can be lies or delusions. Possibly*, it's expedient not to think of beggars as human (though it's not particularly cohesive with our overall picture). Is there a calculus of expediency by which we can judge the truth of statements? What could justify such a calculus? How could we judge the expediency of our calculus? And so on. My position seems to amount to, "look, Wittgenstein, when we run out of justifying rules we don't say 'this is just what we do'. We say, these principles are our best guess at the TRUTH".

This is tendentious without a proper argument... of course e2 is a difficult place to argue.

*In response to some of MacDonaldLarry's writeup:

It's clear that what I have written above, though it shall stand for reference, misunderstands the issue somewhat. Can pragmatism can defend its viewpoint on truth as something that is not a theory of truth in, say, Davidson's sense, but remains conspicuously relevant to our understanding of truth?. Russell and I presupposed that one must aim at somewhat essentialist/nonrelativist analyses, or systems of logical necessities. This is at variance with what must be the case, says pragmatism, because the standard of truth is necessarily responsive to our practical criteria: our criteria of utility.

While MacDonaldLarry certainly writes much better than I do, our intuitions seem to be merely different. He says:

A community that only relies on a rhetoric of 'practical success' would yield just as much, if not more, working beliefs as a community that relies on a rhetoric of 'objective and impartial truth'.
But think about such a community. As their (moral, intellectual...) values shifted internally, so the value denoted by 'truth' would shift. But in a case of an internal schism of values (as between political classes, perhaps), it seems that that not only would the people often end up talking at cross-purposes over 'duty' or 'beauty' (as is so often the case) but could be taking truth itself hostage. Weaned on practical-success (again, whose success?) rhetoric, they are relativists. They enter a paradoxical position when it comes to understanding those across the schism, because they do not necessarily grant that those people have any understanding of truth themselves. The fact that human communities rarely face such catastrophic breakdowns in communication is (I intuit) due to their entertaining a more essentialist theory of truth than pragmatism thinks is defensible. This claim is what I'm still trying to justify.

By the by, the rather histrionic defence of pragmatism which picks on purported epistemological failures of analytic philosophy -- its inability to shore up its own methodology -- is probably a little misplaced (or at least OT.) Analytic philosophy can talk well of itself, and can conceive of truth and meaning as responsive to practice. But it does this in a different way to pragmatism, a way which (in my view) better respects the mechanisms of language. (This is Davidson again.)

The analytic view is different because it says the most important mechanisms regulating the use of the word 'true' are external to, rather than internal to, any given language. So analysts can embrace the sensitivity of truth to utility, in a sense of 'utility' that appeals not to human values per se but to natural constraints on the practice of language and community.

The pragmatist seems to divorce (analytic) philosophy from other areas of discourse in an arbitrary way. Now while '... is true' is certainly an odd locution and it is plausible that our understanding of truth will not permit free substitution between 'universes' of discourse, there is no particular reason to think that (word-)meanings vary as much between contexts as the relativist would have you believe. For the analyst, philosophy stands apart from other discourse without dissolving into empty rhetoric. Why is it that philosophy "must take into account" features of discourse from everyday life, and what does this mean? It is important to notice that there are certain practical and linguistic constraints on our theories. But it is also quite possible for our philosophical theories to have their own impact on our practices and values. I sympathize with Nagel: not to say that philosophy has special objectivity, just that it certainly has practical significance. The pragmatists vandalize that significance.

Now my writeup used to say:

The analytic tradition says, "it's not impractical for it to be the case that many of my beliefs are false: it's just unlucky".
This is foolish. Analysis does not establish this, but it does ask us to set better bounds than 'practical utility' on the use of the word 'true': bounds that take their form from outside any given set of practices.

As a final rejoinder, how about this:
If pragmatism is true then the analytic/essentialist view of truth must have been false. But if the analytic view is true then it might have been the case that pragmatism was true.

Disclaimer: even though I quite obviously disparage 'postmodern' criticism, I don't want to say that there is no value in the pragmatic viewpoint, or that any given argument is a knock-down one. I am still very much flailing around.

This is the same criticism as that offered by Bertrand Russell of pragmatism in the early days of both, when the two were similarly-overshadowed by idealism (that of F.H. Bradley and T.H. Green in England and that of Josiah Royce in America). Russell wrote of the pragmatist's supposed conflation of truth with expediency that:

According to the pragmatists, to say "it is true that other people exist" means "it is useful to believe that other people exist." But if so, then these two phrases are merely different words for the same proposition; therefore when I believe the one I believe the other ('Transatlantic Truth' in the Albany Review, 1908, 400).

Russell believes that this equation of truth and belief is ridiculous. This can be highlighted by setting it against the background of an epistemology. Such contextualizing will reveal what we already knew all along: even though it might be true to believe that x, it won't always be useful to believe that x (and vice versa). Though we might, in a particular instance, find it useful to believe that walking under ladders is unsafe, it is certainly not true. Likewise, although it might be true that 'the snake that just bit me is not poisonous' it could be useful to believe this if it were also the case that 'I am the only person allergic to this particular snake's venom', since believing in the truth of the former would indicate that I should not go to the hospital, in which case I would be in a bind despite the truth of the latter (assuming I was not aware of my allergy).

The response to Russell is that the theory of truth proffered by pragmatists is, in fact, not a theory of truth at all, but more of an explanation of how to put truth to practical use in our lives, of how a belief comes to be true. The pragmatist is not concerned with whether or not we believe that x works; rather the pragmatist only wants to indicate that the truth of x is going to be, in the long run, a practical matter, determined by the efficacy (working) of belief that x. In other words, the believer's belief is about the object, and the pragmatic theory of truth is about that process of belief. Believing is discursively seperate from a theory of believing: this is what critics like Russell fail to acknowledge. Thus William James replied to Russell:

When I call a belief true, and define its truth to mean its workings, I certainly do not mean that the belief is a belief about the workings. It is a belief about the object, and I who talk about the workings am a different subject, with a different universe of discourse, from that of the believer of whose concrete thinking I profess to give an account.

The social proposition 'other men exist' and the pragmatist proposition 'it is expedient to believe that other men exist' come from different universes of discourse. One can believe the second without being logically compelled to believe the first; one can believe the first without having ever heard of the second; or one can believe them both. The first expresses the object of a belief, the second tells of one condition of the belief's power to maintain itself. There is no identity of any kind, save the term 'other men' which they contain in common, in the two propositions; and to treat them as mutually substitutable, or to insist that we shall do so, is to give up dealing with realities altogether ('Two English Critics', from The Meaning of Truth, 279).

For the pragmatist, truth is usefulness is not a logical connection, but a practical one that can only be revealed in the complexity of practice. In the long run, we are always going to believe in the truth of what it is useful to believe: to do otherwise would be to contradict ourselves, or submit to a serious form of scepticism or paranoia. Pragmatism does not so much define truth as utility (regrettably, James often put it this way), rather, pragmatists urge that we pay attention to the connection between these two and face up to the fact that, regardless of the metaphysical or epistemological status of x, we're not going to believe that it's true unless there is something, somewhere, to be gained by it (and this practical gain might even be as simple as: consistency in our methodologies of belief).

Many philosophers, Thomas Nagel is one, have also criticized the pragmatists for attempting to deprive our philosophical speculations of an essential ingredient: objectivity. Philosophy sans objectivity, they claim, leaves us with a boring mental exercise and nothing to strive for (the result is even worth for ethical philosophy, they say). The pragmatist rejoinder to this is simple: the philosophical speculations of Plato, Isaac Newton, or Ludwig Wittgenstein are just as interesting if viewed as piecemeal rhetorical gambits devoid of approximation to anything that might be called the Truth. To be interesting or useful, philosophically or scientifically, does not require that we need a notion of objective and nonrelativistic truth that we strive to approximate or represent in our philosophies. Rather, the pragmatists argue, such a notion of truth will only continually frustrate us philosophers, because we will always lack the guarantees and epistemological foundations we so fervently want to discover (a la Cartesian scepticism). There is real content in a pragmatist philosophy; only this content is not dependent upon an 'objective' 'outer' reality that supposedly backs this content up: a reality to which, by the way, we can never have certain access to given all the trappings of the relationships constured by foundationalism in epistemology.

A philosophy without objective content is only a philosophy centered in the communal and social spheres of life: and, a community (or a society) has tests of right and wrong that are just as constricting and compelling as any metaphysical entity might claim to be. Practical beliefs are just as constraining as physical realities. The pragmatist does not know how to reply to the argument that 'It is strange to think that communities which had no preference for truth as TRUTH rather than as expediency would be able to come to largely expedient conclusions about the world on this basis'. The pragmatist cannot imagine what it would be like to live in (or find) a community that strives to develop beliefs that work and are expedient, but nonetheless fails to do this on a consistent basis. A community that only relies on a rhetoric of 'practical success' would yield just as much, if not more, working beliefs as a community that relies on a rhetoric of 'objective and impartial truth'.

The objectivist philosopher is lead to make such bizarre statements as, 'It's expedient not to think of beggars as human (though it's not particularly cohesive with our overall picture)'. It is this 'overall picture' and 'cohesion' with it that concerns the pragmatist, because we realize that it is part and parcel of the practical horizon that informs and constrains our 'web of beliefs' (see W.V.O. Quine). I, personally, don't really think it would be all that expedient to think of beggars as inhuman; because they so obviously are human. Believing this might be expedient for our pocketbooks, but the pragmatist doesn't want to narrow our domain of discourse to only the economic, or only the scientific, etc.. There are also moral sentiments and emotional aspects of our lives that philosophy must take into account. That we feel sympathy for another hungry person is relevant. It is perhaps all that allows us to recognize the humanity in the homeless.

A philosophy (of truth), then, must take this into account. A notion of 'working in practice' always already admits to this complexity. It is perhaps in this that we find advantage of pragmatism over analytic philosophy: the latter is modeled after a scientific notion of human life (which is, of course, severely restricted in scope), whereas the former is modeled after a practical reflection on what humans do and care about. The latter admits to the complexity that philosophy must always strive to gather together within its reflection.

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