Narcissism or Facts?

A Pragmatist Approach to the Philosophy of History

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
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This essay asks whether a pragmatist philosophy of history can make sense of the notion of historical facts. It is tempting to think it cannot, since pragmatists insist, as James puts it, that the trail of the human serpent is over everything. Facts, by contrast, are typically thought of as something untouched by the human serpent, something impervious to what we think and do. I argue, however, that there is a way of understanding facts that is perfectly at home in pragmatist philosophy of history. Drawing on work by Robert Brandom, I propose that facts be interpreted inferentially. On this view, to call something a fact, or to say that the facts make my beliefs true, is simply a shorthand way of saying that a particular sort of relationship exists among certain sentences. I further show that this inferential understanding of facts is fully compatible with the distinctive features of historical inquiry. In particular, it is compatible with history’s irreducibly narrative character, and with the way different narratives can reveal radically different facts. Finally, I use this account of historical facts to respond to a classic criticism of pragmatism: the charge that pragmatism is narcissistic. I argue that pragmatism is narcissistic in only the minimal sense that it cannot countenance theory-neutral givens. But pragmatists can happily grant that there is more to truth than consensus, and that our claims are answerable to facts that everyone can get wrong.

  • 1

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  • 2

    Serge Grigoriev, “Dewey: A Pragmatist View of History.” Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012), 173–194.

  • 3

    Koopman, “Historicism in Pragmatism,” 697.

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    Mark Bevir, The Logic of the History of Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 100. Cited parenthetically hereafter as lhi.

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  • 6

    Richard Rorty, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 193.

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  • 11

    Jeffrey Stout, “On Our Interest in Getting Things Right,” in New Pragmatists, ed. Cheryl Misak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 8. One might think that the charge of narcissism applies only to neo-pragmatism, not to classical pragmatism. After all, neo-pragmatists privilege vocabularies in a way that might seem to court linguistic idealism – that is, the view that inquirers are trapped inside language and do not make contact with a reality outside it. One might think that classical pragmatism, which doesn’t privilege vocabularies in this way, avoids the risk of narcissism. I grant that the charge of narcissism is easier to apply to neo-pragmatism than to classical pragmatism. However, I believe that a (slightly different) version of this charge menaces classical pragmatism as well. Even classical pragmatists conceive of inquiry as, in Stout’s words, “a set of human activities answerable only to human interests” (8). They do not conceive of it as an attempt to get something right that is distinct from human activities. Of course, classical pragmatists often argue that, as it happens, the activities that best serve human interests in the long run are also ones that can be seen as answering to something beyond human interests. (A classic example of this strategy appears in Peirce’s essay “The Fixation of Belief.”) But on pragmatist principles, whether this is indeed so has to remain an open question: there can be no guarantee that such activities will best serve our interests in the long run. Even for classical pragmatism, then, there can be no guarantee that inquiry will “do justice to the objective dimension of human inquiry” (7). That is all that the charge of narcissism amounts to. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for Journal of the Philosophy of History for helping me to clarify my views on this point.

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  • 13

    Stout, “On Our Interest in Getting Things Right,” 6.

  • 17

    Robert Brandom, “Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism,” in Rorty and His Critics, ed. Robert Brandom (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 168. Cited parenthetically hereafter as vp.

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  • 19

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    Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 595.

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  • 25

    Richard Rorty, “Response to Robert Brandom,” in Rorty and His Critics, 186. Cited parenthetically hereafter as rb.

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    Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 3.

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    Richard Rorty, “The Very Idea of Human Answerability to the World: John McDowell’s Version of Empiricism,” in Truth and Progress, 143.

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  • 29

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    Dewey, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” 130.

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    Richard Rorty, “Response to Donald Davidson,” in Rorty and His Critics, 78.

  • 43

    Rorty, “Response to Ramberg,” 376.

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    Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 176.

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