I frequently argue the virtues of anti-epistemological pragmatism(neopragmatism) with people who hold more traditional epistemological views. The most common argument that I hear is:

Well, if we take a 'true fact' to be a useful fact, then doesn't that force us to define some absolute ground for truth, usefulness, which in turn requires an epistemic grounding?

I'll admit, I have a tough time dealing with this criticism. My usual response is to argue that:

  1. A sufficient explanation of why the idea that we need this sort eternal epistemic truth is flawed.

  2. That the idea that this kind of truth needs an epistemic ground is an assumption baked into the modernist epistemological framework that began with Descartes(PMN).

  3. And that the usual prephilosopher doesn't seem to have any particular desire for a highly rational epistemic framework that will ground all truth forever(Dewey).

This is barely an argument. I'm wondering how other pragmatists would respond to this kind of critique.

  • 1
    This is not a critique of American pragmatism, it is only a critique of James's theory of truth specifically, "the truth is what works", that already Peirce called "disastrous". It was his bastardization of the pragmatic maxim which Peirce proposed as a theory of meaning, not truth. So the best response to "take a 'true fact' to be a useful fact" is "don't". As for a pragmatist response to "epistemic ground first" it comes, surprisingly, from Quine in Epistemology Naturalized, grounds are as revisable as the rest.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 18 at 16:09

2 Answers 2


There are two main replies I think are important to point out:

  1. In pragmatism, a truth is an assumption that has predictive value when acting upon it. We know from experience that acting upon that assumption brings exactly the results we expect. That's where its usefulness comes from. It has been tested against nature or it would not be experience proper (in Deweyan terms). What grounding, epistemic or otherwise, should be needed beyond that?
  2. No matter whether you are a pragmatist or something else, you need some kind of epistemic grounding. The question is: does this have to be foundationalist, starting from some absolute ground, or is it possible to hold a holistic view as well? Empirical studies in language (and concept) learning suggest that holism is what our brain does.

All in all, the objection you present begs the question, in a way, since it assumes epistemic foundationalism and uses this assumption to point out that pragmatism lacks such absolute foundation. Yet, this position itself is highly problematic both philosophically and empirically (see e.g. Quine, Sellars, and deVries).


I'm not sure labelling pragmatism as 'anti-epistemological' is the best approach here. Pragmatism is anti-idealist or anti-Platonic; or perhaps better put it's Bayesian, not normative. It certainly has a theory of knowledge and method (epistemology), it merely has no use for absolute knowledge or perfect method.

At any rate, pragmatists will cede the argument the moment they allow the phrase 'true fact' to enter the discussion; that phrase disrupts the core feature of pragmatism. A pragmatist might accept that there are 'truths' somewhere out there in reality, but wouldn't think they are necessarily (or even commonly) knowable or important. At best a pragmatist might suggest that a theory is a functional approximation of some unknown and unknowable truth. More likely, though, they'll say: "this theory works well enough, so we'll use it until something better comes along."

If you want to argue against this:

Well, if we take a 'true fact' to be a useful fact, then doesn't that force us to define some absolute ground for truth, usefulness, which in turn requires an epistemic grounding?

There are a few things to do:

  1. Ask what the phrase 'epistemic grounding' means. As best I can tell, that is word-salad pointing at the idea of some Platonic ideal.
  2. Point out that 'usefulness' is not an abstract concept that needs grounding. 'Usefulness' means that a theory can be used to produce a desired outcome within the constraints of a system. We don't need to go further than that.
  3. Clarify that within a pragmatist worldview the term 'fact' is more or less synonymous with 'observable event' or 'data point'. Facts are neither true nor false; they merely are. The epistemological work comes in building a model which organizes or accounts for those facts. But such models (theories) are never themselves 'facts', since they can't be observed.

That should liven up the discussion a bit…

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .