Pragmatism is, roughly, the stressing of actions in talking about the content of knowledge.

Externalism is, roughly, the stressing of dependence on the external public world in talking about knowledge.

Idealism is, roughly, the stressing of self-legislation and creativity of reason in composing the content of knowledge.

It seems like there would be tension between the strains of externalism and idealism in pragmatism. If the content of knowledge genuinely depends upon the external world, one might wonder how we are meant to uphold the concept of self-legislation, where all of knowledge is composed by an autonomous reason.

How is this public world supposed to be considered under an idealist view? How can it genuinely contribute to knowledge which is taken to be composed by the individual's reason?

  • There is, roughly, a position that is able to reconcile both Idealism and Externalism (historically more Empiricism) in saying that the mental faculties that in some sense constitute our knowledge (and are stressed by Idealism) are corresponding with/developed in accordance to the public world to which the biological constituents of perceiving and thinking belong (which is stressed by externalism). It is basically one reading of Kant which provides exactly this without having to rely on mysticism (oh wonder how our mental faculties and categories really correspond to the world!).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 16:19
  • @PhilipKlöcking How can the idealist say that reason is developed in accordance with anything that is not reason, aka the public world? What I'm asking is how the idealist can expect the public world to contribute to the determination of knowledge (externalism) while being dependent upon the constructions of knowledge (idealism). I would think externalism is more in harmony with a direct realism.
    – Goob
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 20:03
  • Deeper/better premises?
    – Marxos
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 1:23

2 Answers 2


I think you may have in mind the problem of reconciling subject's productive role in the acquisition of knowledge, recognized since Kant, with having an input from reality to it. McDowell called reality's contribution to knowledge its "objective purport" in his book Mind and World, which instigated the wide-ranging current debate on the issue. See also collection of essays Reading McDowell, two chapters on him in Pippin's Persistence of Subjectivity, and Sachs's Ideology of Modernity and the Myth of the Given). McDowell frames the existing approaches as a philosophical oscillation between the Myth of the Given and "frictionless spinning in the void", the self-legislated Hegelian coherentism (although his coherentist protagonist is Davidson rather than Hegel).

The Myth of the Given is the traditional belief that the mind "receives" sense impressions (possibly also intellectual intuitions) from the "outside", and they then serve as the basis for more complex concepts and inferences. This belief turned out to be problematic for several reasons. First, to enter inferences impressions/intuitions would have to be judgements, which they are not (the difference between seeing red x and seeing x as red). Second, it is implausible that we have to learn the "impressions" of red or pain, while the colloquial use of "red" and "pain" is most certainly learned. And finally, mastering a concept requires mastering a web of other concepts, that relate to it, and such relating can not be grounded in atomic encounters with "impressions".

In short, the reality simply can not perform the conceptual delivery services that the Myth of the Given asks of it, the conceptualized "objective reality" is a historical and developmental artifact, and one that developed holistically, not piece by piece. This does not mean that we can not or should not use these conceptualizations, indeed we can not do otherwise, but it does mean that we can not have a fundamental epistemological account that posits them, we have to perform a "phenomenological reduction", to use Husserl's term. This applies to objectifying conceptualizations of the community, the "public world", as well. Although the above critique of "immediately given" can be traced to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (§§ 90-110), in the analytic philosophy its import came to be broadly accepted only after Sellars's classic, Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind.

But rejecting the Myth leads to an opposite conundrum: if impressions can not enter propositions of knowledge what possible role can the reality play in its generation? According to Davidson's coherentism, a remote descendant of Hegel's self-legislation, concepts can rationally relate only to other concepts, see Can Perceptions Justify Beliefs? by Atkins, who also discusses "Peirce’s prescient reply" to Davidson. The relation between concepts and reality is purely causal, reality simply causes us to have the concepts we have. There can be no reasoning from sensibility to understanding, the rational aspect only enters in maintaining the overall coherence of the conceptual web. This is what McDowell terms "frictionless spinning in the void", which leads to philosophical recoil back into the Myth of the Given, restarting the oscillation.

The general approach in pragmatism is to diagnose the root cause of the Myth of the Given as the representational theory of meaning, and to replace it with an instrumentalist one. There the basic notions are actional rather than representational: Peirce's "habit", the "ultimate interpretant", Ryle's knowledge-how, Wittgenstein's "custom" and "rule-following", etc. Then it becomes intelligible how reality can act as a constraint on our spontaneous productions without there being any reality intake, in the spirit of impressions and givens. Our actions, individual or social, meet a pushback, which leads to us adjusting them (Peirce called it "insistency of the real"). In the special case of sense perception this process is so routine (in routine situations) that we conflate self-generated but multiply adjusted conceptual reports (which are seen more fundamentally as truncated action templates) with "impressions" that accompany them.

There are variations in emphasis concerning action and adjustment, from more individualist Kantian versions, like McDowell's, to more social Hegelian ones, like Brandoms's. But even McDowell does not assign cognitive autonomy to a single individual (as perhaps Kant did), social norms and customs still exert their influence as internalized "second nature" (the term he borrows from Aristotle). An individual conceptual web would face serious "private language" problems. In the end one could say with Hegel that the "self-legislating" spirit is social, and while it "being itself only as it comes to itself as such a product of itself", it is not as a sole result of itself.

  • "Then it becomes intelligible how reality can act as a constraint on our spontaneous productions without there being any reality intake, in the spirit of impressions and givens" - But if the constraint is causal, we are again with Davidson. And if the constraint is justificatory, we are again with the Myth. So where is the loophole? Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 22:30
  • @RamTobolski As I read Peirce's answer, our perceptual acts adapt to resistance/reaction (his "secondness") and hence fashion a "constrained" response ("habit"). The constraint is not causal because an objectifying frame is not involved, and productive spontaneity is operative in adapting. In Davidson's terms, propositions as truncated acts can be justified not only by other propositions, but also by acts that do not lend themselves to a requisite truncation, adapting justifies adaptations. This might be like McDowell's "conceptual capacities operative in perception", but he is more cryptic.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 0:50
  • 1. What is "an objectifying frame"? How is it related to whether the constraint is causal or not? 2. What are "truncated acts"? I do not recall Davidson using such terms. Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 13:45
  • @RamTobolski "Objectifying frame" is my shorthand for McDowell's "disenchanted nature" of causal laws, the view of natural science where "causal" is meaningful. "Truncated acts" is a shorthand for Peirce's theory of interpretation, where thoughts are indefinitely mediated by other thoughts, but the meaning-giving "ultimate interpretant" is a habit, so propositions "mean" as inserted into activities. He even treats perception as implicit regress of "guess-and-adjust" abductions, which one can liken to McDowell's "conceptual capacities active in judgement are passively operative in perception".
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 17:48
  • P.S. What would be a good (essay-long) source for Peirce's view? Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 22:27

Quoting the preface of the Book Science and Hypothesis, by French mathematician Henri Poincaré:

"(...) we should examine with the utmost care the rôle of hypothesis; we shall then recognise not only that it is necessary, but that in most cases it is legitimate. We shall also see that there are several kinds of hypotheses; that some are verifiable, and when once confirmed by experiment become truths of great fertility; that others may be useful to us in fixing our ideas; and finally, that others are hypotheses only in appearance, and reduce to definitions or to conventions in disguise.

The latter are to be met with especially in mathematics and in the sciences to which it is applied. From them, indeed, the sciences derive their rigour; such conventions are the result of the unrestricted activity of the mind, which in this domain recognises no obstacle. For here the mind may affirm because it lays down its own laws; but let us clearly understand that while these laws are imposed on our science, which otherwise could not exist, they are not imposed on Nature. Are they then arbitrary? No; for if they were, they would not be fertile. Experience leaves us our freedom of choice, but it guides us by helping us to discern the most convenient path to follow. Our laws are therefore like those of an absolute monarch, who is wise and consults his council of state. "

In my humble opinion, that pretty much exhausts the subject, perhaps not for the fine points of philosophy (in which case it would be worth reading the whole book as well as later litterature), but certainly as far as daily needs are concerned.

  • 1
    Hi. Isn't it Henry Poincaré? Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 22:46
  • Yes indeed, thanks for pointing out. Raymond Poincaré is a French politician (1860-1934), President of France during WWI. Raymond and Henri Poincaré were first cousins.
    – fralau
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 11:12

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