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What are the key differences between (classical) pragmatism and conventionalism? I'm reasonably familiar with the first, and have just become aware of the second via a reference to Henri Poincaré's La Science et l'Hypothèse. From my current perspective the two doctrines appear at least broadly similar.

Here is a quote from Charles Sander Peirce on pragmatism:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

And here is Wikipedia on conventionalism:

Conventionalism is the philosophical attitude that fundamental principles of a certain kind are grounded on (explicit or implicit) agreements in society, rather than on external reality.

Both descriptions refer to the practice of human discourse ("practical bearings", "agreements in society") rather than any metaphysical objects, hence the (perhaps) considerable similarity. There are some obvious differences around histories (U.S. vs. France, philosophy of religion in the case of William James vs. natural sciences, individual vs. societal dimension), but I'm mainly interested in (other) epistemological key differences here. I have already checked e.g. SEP, which does seem to address the matter either.

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1 Answer 1

What are the key differences between (classical) pragmatism and conventionalism?

Conventionalism doesn't refer, at least in itself, to practical bearings. It is the view according to which there is no valid certain knowledge, no informational content about the world but only inter-subjective conventions. So it is essentially a claim regarding the nature of what we call knowledge; it is an epistemological stance.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, is an all embracing approach for philosophical conduct. To relate to Conventionalism, one might inquire into the epistemological conclusions of Pragmatism:

  • As a theory of justification, it is the thesis that statements are justified only as a function of how consistent they are with the other statements in the system. Not true for Conventionalism, as the latter isn't dependent upon the consistency of the conventional content; inconsistent as it may be, a convention could still hold firm.
  • As a theory of truth, it is the thesis that the property of Truth of a statement is essentially the property of being practical (or useful) to hold. Again, not true for Conventionalism as it isn't necessary for convention to be practical; it only has to be mutually accepted, be it practical or not.

Both descriptions refer to the practice of human discourse ("practical bearings", "agreements in society")

Good point :)

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@Drux I've edited the answer, thinking it might now be more to the point. Feedback is appreciated. – SkepticalEmpiricist Sep 7 '13 at 22:45

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