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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.

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
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Abstract

It is now widely accepted that philosophers should be historically self-conscious. But what does this mean in practice? How does historical consciousness change the way we philosophize? To answer this question, I examine two philosophers who put historical consciousness at the heart of their projects: Richard Rorty and Paul Ricoeur. Rorty and Ricoeur both argue that historical consciousness leads us to see philosophy as fragmented. It leads us to view our thinking from multiple perspectives at once, perspectives that are often in considerable tension. But Rorty and Ricoeur reach radically different conclusions about how we should respond to this fragmentation. Their disagreement, I argue, is closely connected to their views of identity. Rorty and Ricoeur have different understandings of what it means for something to be unified, and thus different ideas about what it would take for our perspectives on ourselves to be brought together. My argument for this claim has four parts. First, I try to identify the problems that historical consciousness raises for philosophy, and explain why the most common response to them is unsatisfactory. Second, I discuss Rorty’s claim that historical consciousness ought to make us ironists about our philosophical views, and to abandon truth as a goal of inquiry. Third, I contrast Rorty’s position with Ricoeur’s. Ricoeur argues that we can be historically self-aware and still see philosophy as a rational enterprise that aims at truth. I argue that Ricoeur’s optimism on this point is rooted in his view of identity, and specifically in his distinction between idem- and ipse-identity. Finally, I ask what all of this shows about the options available to historically minded philosophers today.

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
In: Journal of the Philosophy of History