Pragmatism and Two Forms of Naturalism: Guest Post by Danny Krämer

American Pragmatists and the first wave of Naturalism

What I call the first wave of naturalism took place in the early 20th century and includes such philosophers as Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, Roy Wood Sellars and – one of the great figures of American pragmatism – John Dewey. Dewey was the one of the pragmatists that saw himself explicitly as a naturalist. Nowadays there is a debate about how to understand naturalism. What does a naturalist view entail and what not? Is it mainly an epistemological or a metaphysical position?

The situation was even worse at the time of the first wave of naturalism. All these philosophers said was that philosophy should be more closely connected to the sciences and that everything that exists is natural. But of course everything depends on what you mean by the word “natural”. I will argue that Dewey’s naturalism is of a different kind than the one that was made popular by the second wave of naturalism.

Two forms of Naturalism

What I will call the second wave of naturalism is the movement that started with the work of W.V.O. Quine. Quine famously denounced the project of “first philosophy”. The classical aim of philosophy was to build a structure of fundamental knowledge for the empirical sciences to rest on. With Quine’s critique of the analytic/synthetic distinction and therefore of the notion of a priori knowledge that is prior to science, this project was said farewell. Philosophy must talk from inside the sciences. But this rejection of “first philosophy” developed into a more radical way of seeing the things. The main thesis of a – what I call it – “strict naturalism” are as follows:

  • The epistemological thesis: The methods of the natural sciences are the only one that yield genuine knowledge.
  • The ontological thesis: The only entities that exist are the entities of our most well established sciences – especially fundamental physics.

This form of naturalism is a reductive physicalism of a very hard nosed sort. Of course, there are very few that hold such a strong view but some philosophers hold it and it is one picture of naturalism that floats around in the public discourse. The other form of naturalism is nowadays often called “liberal naturalism”. It is non-reductive in ontology and even though it has great respect for the natural sciences, it has also respect for other forms of rational inquiry. (We will come to this in a minute.)

The interesting part of this is that Dewey wrote a paper with Hook and Nagel, where they answered some critiques, which accused them to be crude 1 mechanists. The paper is called “Are naturalists materialists?” and it defends a form of non-reductive materialism, that could stand model for some of the views that liberal naturalists develop nowadays.

The core of Naturalism

What makes these two forms of naturalism forms of naturalism? I think there are three main themes a naturalist position is about:

  1. Anti-supernaturalism: All forms of naturalists deny, that we need things like god, angels, immaterial souls etc. for our best explanations of the world and therefore we should not accept that they exist. Of course there are many other things that seem to be supernatural, for example numbers, moral values, possibilities etc. You could say it in this way – using some phrases from Roy Wood Sellars son Wilfrid Sellars: There are many things in our manifest image of the world that seem to be incompatible with our scientific image of the world. While the strict naturalist tries to eliminate or reduce the things of the scientific image, the liberal naturalist takes them at face value as long as he needs them for the best explanations of the world. Some entities cannot be reduced to entities of the natural sciences, not because they are supernatural, but because they are nonnatural in the sense of dependent on human actions and intentions. So one has to be cautious of not conflating the natural/supernatural distinction and the natural/artificial distinction. The concepts of common sense and the human sciences on the one hand and the concepts of the physical sciences cross classify. (For more details one should see for example Jerry Fodor’s Special Sciences or John Dupre’s The Disorder of Things)
  1. Scientific Realism: Every naturalist should be a scientific realist. (Not every naturalist, actually, is a scientific realist, but I think that is wrong. But that is another discussion.) If you do not belief that the entities of the scientific image really exist, but are only useful fictions for empirical prediction, then the conflict between scientific and manifest image does not even arise. But the manifest image has some supernatural things in it and if you do not want them in your ontology, you should have to say how the world functions without them. But at least every naturalist has great respect of the development of the natural sciences since the scientific revolution. That is one motivation to even become a naturalist.
  1. Second Philosophy: This phrase I borrow from Penelope Maddy. If there is no “first philosophy” left after Quine, what to do? The strict naturalist would say, “Nothing! Let’s just do science!” Penelope Maddy’s answer is we just do second philosophy. We do not try to find a fundamental part of our knowledge that grounds science. Science needs no grounding. But there are still some philosophical questions left. What makes a question to a philosophical one? Well, these questions are the one that scientists do not ask, because they are either too abstract and not of great interest for the practitioner or they are about the interpretation and the integration of scientific theories into our overall theory of the world. Certainly, in questions of physics the physicist has authority. But if it comes to how we understand a physical theory and how we integrate it with our other theories, there is some work to be done.

Two pragmatist traditions

That fits well with the project Dewey had in mind. The empirical method he mentions for example in Nature and Experience, and that he also wanted to use in philosophy, is not what is nowadays known as the search for the scientific method. Famously there was not one method of science to be found, neither by the Vienna Circle nor by Popper or anyone else. And there is also no special philosophical method to be found. Interestingly Quine, who was at times a hardliner, said, in a softer mood, that under science he understands our entire web of beliefs and that he regrets that the word science in English only means natural sciences. As it seems he had a broader field of empirical investigation in mind. And if we take Anti-reductionism seriously, we should take seriously that there are phenomena that cannot be understood in the same way as bosons and fermions.

All of our rational inquiry – natural science, the humanities, social sciences, philosophy – are connected through – to use Wittgenstein’s term – family resemblance. While the strict naturalist only takes natural sciences serious the liberal naturalist also admits that the humanities or literary criticism can provide us knowledge as long as they take place in our family of rational inquiry. The liberal naturalist does not discriminate between evidence of the natural sciences, which is real evidence and evidence from the social sciences which is only derivative. He only discriminates between good and bad evidence, no matter where they come from. (Where the border between rational inquiry and pseudoscience lies, is of course another question.)

This division of perspectives can also be found in the interpretation of classical pragmatism. For Richard Rorty the most important thing the pragmatists did, was to replace the metaphysical notion of truth with a epistemological one. Rorty himself advocated eliminativism about the mental and his pragmatic understanding of truth led directly to his post-modernism. On the other hand there is Hilary Putnam’s work. He rejected the anti-realist theories of truths that the pragmatists got famous for. (At least the early and the late Putnam did. He talked about his anti-realist phase as a mistake in his philosophical career.) What was important for Putnam and why he was interested in the pragmatist tradition was, that philosophical problems should bear a connection to problems of everyday life and the pluralistic picture in ontology and epistemology. So, even Putnam never called himself a pragmatist, Putnam could be seen as a pragmatist and liberal naturalist par excellence.

Danny Krämer holds an MA in philosophy and is now working on a PhD. Danny’s research is on liberal naturalism, and you can find his blog here.