I discovered the philosopher Cheryl Misak (link) whilst working on my PhD. Whilst her book Cambridge Pragmatism is mainly intended as a rewriting of the history of pragmatist philosophy, I read it as part of my efforts to gain a stronger understanding of the pragmatist philosophical tradition.
Two key opening statements in the Preface that initially got my attention are the following: first, Misak writes that “the insight at the heart of pragmatism is that any domain of inquiry – science, ethics, mathematics, logic, aesthetics – is human inquiry” (p.viii; emphasis in the original). Second, she writes that the core “starting point” for the classical pragmatists was “the human origins of and constraints upon knowledge” (p.viiii). The latter aspect – human constraints – was later built-on by psychologists who demonstrated the limitations of the human mind, but it’s no surprise that one the major early pragmatists was the psychologist and philosopher William James who wrote the first key textbook on psychology.
Misak’s discussion of pragmatism emphasises “actual human practices and inquiry” (p.191) and argues for a philosophical tradition (pragmatism) that links our philosophical concepts and theories to our actual practices. This position and argument is aligned with the core foci of knowledge practices research.
Additionally, early in the book Misak notes that her sympathies lie with the “truth-affirming pragmatist” who seeks to show us how “beliefs can be both products of human inquiry and can nonetheless aim at truth” (p.x) – that is, Charles Sanders Peirce and Frank Ramsey.
Here I want to note a few other aspects of the account of pragmatism developed by Misak and comment on their relevance to consideration of knowledge practices. I briefly pull out of the text some themes of interest rather than outline or try to summarise the whole text.
The pragmatist account of inquiry and the role of doubt
Regarding the human origins of knowledge, the book discusses the emphasis placed on fallibilism and on the motivating role of doubt in inquiry by the classical pragmatists. Misak put this as follows: “Peirce, James and Ramsey would see harm in any such infallibilism [this refers to a passage from Wittgenstein], for they would argue that inquiry will never be motivated if our eyes are shut to doubt” (p.275). The fallibilist position is that all beliefs must remain in principle subject to revision.
Whilst this perspective ignores other motivations for inquiry, one reason this view is interesting is because it suggests that dogmatic certainty is the core ‘enemy’ of knowledge practices, for dogmatic certainty will prevent us from engaging in inquiry (due to the absence of doubt). That is so important that I’ll state it again: the classical pragmatists believed that in the absence of doubt genuine inquiry is unlikely to be conducted. Some of my experiences where inquiry seemed fatally hampered are consistent with this.
Some classical pragmatists took very strong positions on fallibilism, though they recognised related human constraints. Drawing on Peirce Misak writes that “we can doubt one belief and inquire about it, but we cannot doubt all our beliefs and inquire about them all at once. Some things have to be held constant. Our body of background beliefs is susceptible to doubt on a piecemeal basis” (p.18). This point is asserted more strongly later in the book: “Inquiry and knowledge, for the pragmatist, proceed in piecemeal fashion, always starting from where we find ourselves” (p.74).
Second, this account of inquiry suggests one practical way of orienting and focusing inquiry. It suggests that the process should begin by identifying or noting sources of genuine doubt that impair our ability to act successfully in the world (not simply “‘tin’ or ‘paper’ doubts” as Misak puts it [p.273]) which become the focus of inquiry whist presuming or assuming that the rest of our (background) body of beliefs are true. It also means that we need to be on the lookout for things which raise doubts about our beliefs and/or potential actions, e.g. by things which are inconsistent with our beliefs and can motivate inquiry.
Third, pragmatism emphasises the body of background beliefs human beings develop – their “conception of the world” (p.279) informed by their experience – and their influence on knowledge practices. Here’s how Misak puts it: “In the alternative pragmatist position … we must start from where find ourselves, already possessed of an interconnected body of belief upon which we act, and against which we assess new evidence and potential beliefs” (p.274). The development and stability of a ‘conception of the world’ is a key factor in such practices.
Pragmatist accounts of belief
A key contribution of pragmatism to the study of beliefs is to take seriously the dispositional account of belief (p.18). That is, a belief can in part be understood as “a habit or disposition to behave” (p.286); or, in other words, as a “habit of action” (p.19). Thus, for the pragmatist, beliefs are “linked to a policy of action” and are “connected to our actions and expectations” (p.282).
If “our beliefs must be understood in terms of the expectations that arise from them” (p.242), then the pragmatist argues that their validity can be evaluated in terms of whether the resulting actions are successful and whether the associated expectations are met (p.282).
One reason this is interesting because it suggests that we can logically and objectively infer peoples’ beliefs from their dispositions (or habits, broadly defined) and it suggests that we can objectively evaluate beliefs. It suggests that related aspects of knowledge practices (e.g. underlying beliefs and presuppositions) can also evaluated in terms of the “policy of action” they are linked to and the resulting outcomes.
In my doctoral research I similarly examined how particular beliefs played out in action, and it was a very useful way of examining both beliefs and related taken-for-granted routines.
Pragmatist account of truth
Misak argues that the pragmatist account of truth directly follows from their account of beliefs – that is, “truth is not to be understood as a static or inert relation between a proposition and the world, but must be understood primarily in terms of what is deserving of belief” (p.282). The summary phrase is that we’re after beliefs that work because of the way they are “connected to how things are” (p.282). This account also points to earlier critical discussion of the correspondence theory of truth.
For my purposes two related interesting aspects are the emphasis placed by pragmatists on the “community of inquirers”, and how it ought to be demarcated, and questions around how in-practice we ought to determine what is deserving of belief. Pragmatism points to a practice-oriented perspective where agreed practices are used to argue for (or challenge) the validity of a belief, and where different approaches are needed to evaluate different kinds of belief.
One reason this is interesting is because the pragmatists argued that “all perceptions and beliefs (not just ethical ones) involve interpretation, interests and evaluation” (p.284). This statement points to the need to consider the practices that are typically involved. For example, this account points to the need to explicate and examine practices of interpretation and evaluation (e.g. practice used to evaluate or interpret evidence) with respect to different classes of beliefs.
A further reason is that Misak argues that the pragmatist account of truth can be used to argue that value judgments also often aim at truth and that they can be objectively evaluated. Misak: “the pragmatist, at least in the first instance, must be open to whether ethical and aesthetic commitments might be genuine beliefs aimed at truth” (p.284; emphasis in original text) and, if they do, such beliefs also “fall under our cognitive scope” (p.284). In the context of scientific research this is a particularly interesting argument given the continuing influence of the fact-value dichotomy and related debates and beliefs about the scope of scientific inquiry.
Emphasis placed on the human logic of inquiry and belief
Cambridge Pragmatism is a technical book discussing a wide range of philosophical issues – a tough read for a relative newcomer like myself – but an aspect that is readily understandable (via, especially, Misak’s discussion of Ramsey and Wittgenstein) is the discussion of the goals of philosophy. Misak discusses “the Tractarian quest for certainty and clarity” of early Wittgenstein and contrasts this with an emphasis on “human logic” (p.232) and human action. Elsewhere Misak suggests the classical pragmatists sought to develop a naturalistic account of truth and knowledge, and Neil Gross similarly argues that what makes pragmatism unique is it’s centrally premised on anthropological insights.
I’ve come to agree with the pragmatists that we need both an account of knowledge practices, and approaches aimed at enhancing them, which have a human logic based on (among many other things) insights from relevant sciences such as cognitive science and insights into what leads people to acquire false beliefs. This includes recognition that “error and confusion are standard conditions of the human mind”, as Paul Rosenbaum puts it in his book Observation and Experiment: An Introduction to Causal Inference.