The Impact of Pragmatism on Epistemology


February 20, 2011

Two preeminent philosophers during the Enlightenment era, Renee Descartes and John Locke, led the debate over epistemology on whether or not humans gain knowledge from sensual perception or innate ideas.  Descartes believed that humans rationalize and can deduce reason, meaning that there are innate ideas which everyone  have.  John Locke on the other hand, denied anything he perceived as pre-conceived notions about understanding knowledge using reason and innate ideas, but endorsed empiricism through sensual experience.  Rationalism and empiricism came from opposite spectrums on the matter of understanding knowledge, with empiricism being the more revolutionary of the two.  Empiricism relied upon understanding your surroundings through what was sensually experienced, not through any universal innate ideas that were achieved through mere reason.  This concept was elucidated by Locke when he wrote, “how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties, may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions”(Locke, Essays Book One Chapter 2).  Yet empiricism and rationalism fell short in explaining epistemology as comprehensively as William James’ explanation of pragmatism, revealing “pragmatism [as] a mediator and reconciler [and] that she ‘unstiffens’ our theories”(James, What Pragmatism Means).  James meant “our theories” to mean the classic empiricism pitched against rationalism battle, and he believed his theory on pragmatism to arbitrate the incendiary conflict between rationalist and empiricist thought.
Rationalism was the preliminary theory of epistemology that was propounded by Descartes in early 17th century Europe.  Descartes’ Meditations introduced his rationalist philosophy quite unexpectedly by commencing with Descartes writing that he, “rid [himself] of all the opinions [he] had adopted” because he did not trust what he knew purely from his senses which have fooled him in the past(Descartes, Meditation 1).  Descartes rationalism was influenced by Plato which can be seen from The Allegory of the Cave in which men are tricked by their senses into believing that shadows are the only reality.  Descartes’ rationalism was unique because he attempted to rid himself of all former knowledge that was based upon the senses, but it was still derived from notions of philosophy influenced by classical viewpoints on innate ideas and the religious perception on God being the eternal source of all truth.  Descartes proposition “I think, therefore I am”, was his solution to not knowing the certainty of all things.  From this grain of truth Descartes saw a budding conviction that was the first and foremost innate idea- existence.  If one could confirm one’s own existence, which one could according to Descartes, through thinking, then one proved that innate ideas exist in which they could deduce through rationalization.  Descartes expounded that a human was a thinking thing, and it “is a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives”(Descartes Mediation 2).  Thus, to Descartes, rationalism proved the existence of God through the fact that God was the originator of innate ideas and thus the provider of man’s ability to think.
Empiricism was enormously revolutionary during the Enlightenment because it differentiated from status quo religious thought that there were undeniable truths that, as Descartes pronounced, were “stamped upon the soul” by the creator, or God. One did not have to be a deist or a christian in order to comply with empiricism, they simply had to believe that human experience or experimentation could reveal the truth without there ever being innate ideas.  This is why empiricism catered to skeptics and those who were irreligious, which brought about organized religious structures to persecute some of those who supported empiricism and were believed to be atheists.  Although John Locke did not claim to be an atheist, and through his Essays he exclaimed the point he was focusing on was that there are no innate ideas.  Locke did not want to prove that there was no God, but that God did not create universal truth that could be found through rationalization.  Locke believed that everyone was born with a “blank slate” and that there could not be any innate ideas because “No proposition can be said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of”(Locke, Essays Book 1 Chapter 2) and he used the example of “children and idiots” to deter the notion that everyone can have the capacity to understand innate ideas.
Yet with psychology’s development came psychoanalytic concepts explored by Sigmund Freud that seemingly proved by the 20th century that there are concepts that the mind does not consciously understand: the subconscious and the unconscious.  William James was a contemporary of Freud and thus had an understanding of epistemology quite different from the aforementioned philosophers, which of course, made his understandings in relation to rationalism and empiricism more comprehensive than Locke and Descartes.  James was able to correlate empiricism and rationalism through understanding truths in different lights, which James designated as pragmatism.  Pragmatism as understood by James put a person in a less challenging position to prove or disprove an argument than by rational deduction or heuristically.  Pragmatism more or less focused on whether something was truthful based upon the circumstances of what was happening.  James’ example about whether or not does a man go around a squirrel rotating around a tree explains that it “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel”(James, What Pragmatism Means).  He then goes on to explain two distinctions that could be made based upon the English definition of “going round” and that the meaning of the “pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences”(James, What Pragmatism Means).
Thus, both rationalism and empiricism could be regarded as two distinct approaches to finding “practical consequences” that the pragmatic method requires.  Although, James decided that pragmatism “is at a great advantage both over positivistic empiricism, with its anti-theological bias, and over religious rationalism, with its exclusive interest in the remote, the noble, the simple, and the abstract in the way of conception”(James, What Pragmatism Means).  Pragmatism, as James has portrayed it, has had superlative qualities to rationalism and empiricism because it has had more scope in considering truth through a more versatile understanding of it, thus designating pragmatism as the quintessential democratic philosophical method.  To put it simply, rationalism had the intellectual advantage because it allowed man to deduce reason from things which his body could not understand through perceiving using the senses.  Empiricism on the other hand, relied upon truth through hypothesis and experimentation, while the pragmatic method used both rationalism and empiricism in order to make a more comprehensive understanding of what is right and wrong.  James was able to resolve the conflict between rationalism and empiricism through philosophical compromise that allowed more viewpoints to be determined and ultimately more arguments to be arbitrated by simple pragmatic method revealing that truth depended on the surrounding circumstances.

About Sean William Lynch
Sean William Lynch is a poet from New Jersey who was born in 1992. Lynch's first book of poems "the city of your mind" was published in 2013 by Whirlwind Press. Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, called Lynch's debut poetry book "visionary." CA Conrad claimed that the book was "marvelous!" S.W. Lynch's writing has been featured in numerous publications online and in print, including Milkfist, Poetry Quarterly, and Tincture Journal.

3 Responses to The Impact of Pragmatism on Epistemology

  1. By The Pin says:

    Interesting post. I’m in grad school for philosophy, and I was just teaching Descartes to my students last week. I was surprised that you didn’t mention David Hume. In my mind, he’s the “real” empiricist in that (1) Locke still holds onto some rationalist notions and (2) Hume was the first to really bite the bullet on the skepticism that lurks in empiricism.

    He argues that we are not rationally justified in holding any beliefs about the world or what exists in it beyond what is in our sensory range right now or in our direct memory. That, of course, undermines the entire basis of scientific reasoning and thus all scientific knowledge. So Hume argues that science lacks rational justification, and to date there is no good response to him on this. Don’t tell the Creationists…

    If you dig this stuff and if you’ve never read some Hume, I highly recommend it. His *Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding* is less than 100 printed pages and could be read in an afternoon.

    Here’s a link to a free version:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9662/9662-h/9662-h.htm

    He lays out his skepticism in Section 4.

    • Sean Lynch says:

      I’ve read Hume and I actually read excerpts of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I don’t remember why I didn’t include him in the paper when I wrote it last year, but I’ve read much philosophy through gutenberg, the link you included. I will read this today, thank you very much for your knowledge and direction. I’m looking forward to conversing more about philosophy with you in the future.

  2. By The Pin says:

    Always up for conversation about philosophy. I work on political philosophy and social justice (feminism, race theory, etc). I look forward to future posts.

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