According to pragmatists, in ages of yesteryear the philosophical project aimed at determining the ultimate foundation of knowledge. Interspersed throughout history have been reactions to this foundationalism. Kant, under most pragmatic interpretations, is perhaps the first dude to suggest that the only grounding for all of our knowledge is something internal and something that we contribute: the synthetic a priori. Wittgenstein would later attack the degree of contribution mere tautologies make in our system of knowledge, and Quine would later attack the analyticity espoused by the analytical school at the time, reminding us that none of our knowledge is free from being conditioned by experience. We've wound up with a sort of revisionary, whatever works theory of knowledge.

I'm in a quandary: does pragmatism/anti-realism/idealism (whatever you want to call it) really defeat necessity or does it place it elsewhere, say, in the will?

Seems to me that rather than really get rid of foundationalism pragmatism says the foundation is what we choose (deliberately or otherwise) to do. At best, it gets rid of one kind of foundationalism.

What's my point you ask? My point is this: other foundationalisms have as their support the promise of contrast. There is room for interpretation, for meaningful moves, for doubt and revision, because our foundation is in some way received and interactive with less knowable or less known things received. There is allowed a gap between knower and known. We might even give our own muster to the whole thing (plenty of realisms have recognized this), but the main direction in which human knowledge flows is inward.

For the pragmatist, we just give. And in just giving, everything becomes necessary. The only sense of revision is the literal, surface level shifting of beliefs. This seems problematic to me.

Here's a little paradox to get after what I'm trying to say in a lot of words:

To revise our theories requires in some sense a deficiency in our theories. And to sense a deficiency requires a sense of what should be but is not. My question is after something internal: assuming that we both submit to some given theories and submit to the knowledge that these theories are deficient, what knowledge do we choose to favor and what do we choose to revise? Both knowledges are and have had a history of our submission. Judging solely by the power of our will we are left without a substantive and helpful criterion.

One way out of the paradox is allowing some transcendental influence of an independent reality on the person (of the sort Kant might have proposed). But, here comes in my other question. Pragmatists stress the autonomy of the rational will. It distinguishes itself from realisms on the basis that it doesn't allow a conceptual force to the 'given'. Yet, in what other way can mind-independent reality interact or influence the autonomous rational will?

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    Here is one exposition of possible "strategic" moves that could be at play between concentration on the subject (which Kant still does) and concentration on the object (loosely speaking Thomism). books.google.com/…
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 14:13

3 Answers 3


There are two different dichotomies at play here, ontology (realism/anti-realism), and methodology (foundationalism/anti-foundationalism). Kant was a foundationalist but (almost) an anti-realist, and Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, was a realist but an anti-foundationalist. The idea of foundation, from Plato to Kant, was that we need some basic/self-evident/unquestionable, etc., truths upon which the rest of knowledge is built and/or justified. The usual argument for it is that any knowledge needs justification, and justification can only derive from other knowledge, so unless there is self-justified knowledge (foundation) it will all be unjustified and arbitrary. This is the so-called foundation argument , and the beginnings of it can be found already in ancient skeptics, namely what was dubbed the Agrippa’s trilemma. Rationalists, like Kant and Plato, looked for this self-justified knowledge in the realm of reason, external or ours, empiricists, like Aristotle and Hume, took sense impressions/perceptions as its source.

Unfortunately, all (rationalist) candidates for foundational knowledge, including Kant’s synthetic a priori, were discredited by the middle of 19-th century, and science, seen as the most successful cognitive enterprise, seemed to rely not on justifying things up from unquestionable foundations, but rather by making hypotheses based on prior experience, testing them, and keeping/discarding them depending on the outcome. The entire process of self-correction served as justification, so there was no need for foundation to have justified knowledge, contra the classical foundation argument. Peirce’s pragmatism was a suggestion to import this mode of justification into philosophy, but without restricting it narrowly empirical testing, which is enriched by everyday experience, critical analysis and thought experimentation aimed at potential applications (including theoretical ones). In other words, a pragmatist takes what she assumes to be a fallible, at best temporary “foundation” to be tested, revised and improved upon based on its “practical bearings”. Here is from Some Consequences of Four Incapacities:

We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned… The result is that metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; -- only they can agree upon nothing else. In sciences in which men come to agreement, when a theory has been broached it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is reached. After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because there is no one left who doubts it. We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers…

Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.

Through Lewis, Peirce’s conception of epistemology influenced Quine’s, although he reduced justification to narrowly scientific only, and even suggested to subsume epistemology under psychology, see Is Peirce's pragmatic maxim self-evident? Wittgenstein was influenced through James's writings and Ramsey, his late refrains, "meaning is use" and "grasping a rule that is not an interpretation", rephrase Peirce's pragmatic maxim and habit change analysis, respectively, see Hookway's Truth, Rationality, and Pragmatism, Ch.5.

The problem of “criterion of correctness” at the end of the OP is legitimate. But it actually supports pragmatism more than foundationalism. It is true that in order to improve we need to sense that something is amiss. It does not follow that we must have some sense of how things should be. We may be able to tell that something does not work properly without having any idea how it works or how to fix it, animals react to dangers in their environment instinctively, presumably without understanding why at all, so at times do we. But even if we did always have such a sense it certainly does not follow that we must have unshakably secure basic knowledge to justify the rest of knowledge afterwards. What we need for justification is neither preliminary intuition (although it helps at the discovery stage), nor foundation, but a way to tell success from failure as it concerns our knowledge when applied to our ends. That is genuine doubt, is exactly what Peirce says sets off any inquiry, see How far can/should one press philosophical doubt?

As for mind-independent reality, pragmatists do not understand it in the metaphysical/posit/model sense of traditional realism, with one or another "myth of the Given" serving as the foundation. Reality is rather understood as non-conceptual constraint on our conceptual productions. In this sense pragmatists are not traditional rationalists, but rather "rational pragmatists", as Brandom put it. Peirce argued that concepts ultimately reduce to habits of conduct, or rather conditional forks in them, and it is in the conduct that the "will" confronts reality. Short's Peirce's Theory of Signs describes Peirce's realism in detail.

So was pragmatism successful in moving away from "necessity" (which I take to mean something like a priori principles for grounding knowledge)? It would certainly be an exaggeration to say that pragmatism "refuted" or replaced foundationalism. What it did do is offer an alternative paradigm of justifying knowledge that proved viable so far. In that it removed one of the major appeals of foundationalism: that the alternative is having no knowledge worth the name at all. And that is perhaps as much of a success as one can hope for in philosophy.

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    Conifold, was wondering in light of what you wrote: Is Pierce's Pragmatism close in spirit to the critical rationalism of Popper? Commented Sep 30, 2017 at 16:46
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    @L.M.Student I was surprised myself to find a description of what we now call "hypothetico-deductive method" in Peirce's writings from 1890-s since I assumed that explicit formulations were only given by positivists and Popper 30 years later. Moreover, it comes with criticism of Mill's inductivism, and his presentation is more complete on the account of abduction. But beyond philosophy of science their philosophies are quite different, Peirce's epistemology is far more Kantian than theirs and he combined empiricism with realism, a peculiar form of objective idealism.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 17:51
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    Thank you, @Confilod, for your response. What you share is intriguing and helps me for I too assumed that explicit formulations of the hypothetico-deductive method were given by positivists and Popper, and thus when read your post got confused. Thank you again for this! Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 19:18
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    @Conifold Thanks for the hefty reply. The OP was getting after something which I'm not sure you answered. I said that revision required both a history of belief A and a current recognition of a deficiency in belief A (let's call this recognition 'belief B'). Revision involves an internal conflict between belief A and belief B, and both beliefs can have an equal application history. Looking solely at what can be chosen doesn't constitute a criterion for what should be chosen. Pragmatists typically innocently make the next step and say that what is chosen is what is expedient, or useful, etc.
    – user28843
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 20:22
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    @user28843 Yes, Peirce's descriptions are "resistance", "reaction", or "insistency of reality" (his category of Secondness), but it makes no conceptual input, and hence supplies no conceptual intake of givens. Traditional "objectively" conceptualized "picture" reality is not posited. But I do not see how self-legislation by the will (or by Reason) is a pragmatist claim, it sounds outright Hegelian, and is exactly what Peirce scorned Hegel for, failing to grasp Secondness, see Stern's Peirce, Hegel, and the Category of Secondness.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 23:48

"Yet, in what other way can mind-independent reality interact or influence the autonomous rational will?"

Ha ha. But, this is simple. Kant is only saying that autonomy is identical to the intelect of God. If one reads Plato's presentation of Socrates, the same view is given, without the metaphysical apparatus, in the celebrated thesis about knowing the good and doing it being an identity. In other words, if I want some poison, really really want it, and I get my way, because I am powerful as hell, and all must do as I say, does that do me good? And if I knew it for poison, I should not want it.

It's not "mind independent", the noumena , is the mind. The given, i.e., what is there, Newton's physical laws, are the phenomena (they too have a "mind" or instinct/drive, if you like). There is something one points to, say a chair, that is a "substance" in the older view, we can point to it, that means, we can identify it, as something, and not something else. When Leibnitz speaks of his monads, he speaks of the particular principle of motion governing a particular "material", the material is "inside" each substance. The main point is to uphold the individuality of each thing, over the view of homogeneous laws of motion. The things have their laws of motion, so do humans. There is no problem of saying how the ""transcendental" links with the world, except that we say the same thing about the principle of motion of a stone. Both are the potentia ordinata, i.e., God's law. Transcendental doesn't mean Descartes, where some fanageling about a gland comes in, no such problem comes into the Kantian view.

Kant is only saying "there will be no Newton of the moral things", which means, we can't describe the human things with the reliability that we can the non-human things. Yet, basically, the non-human things, described externally, have their principle of motion in the hidden realm, just as do the human things.

I know there are some considerable extenuating factors, but that is the basic crude gist.


The confusion is due to the superimposition of the notion of "epistemology" onto Kant. This is a post-Kantian way of dealing with things, which at bottom presupposes a logical positivism. I.e, that there are objects which can be represented either by symbols, for their individuality, or, by quantification, for their general characteristics. The split is not present in so sharp a form for Kant. So there is not need to "interact".


? or does it place it elsewhere, say, in the will

NO! Wittgenstein, Whitehead and other process-oriented strategies surely do not put the foundation in the will. Everything is one big feedback loop, and choices are part of the loop. Will can have application only given meaningful things to want, meaning is dependent upon usage, and usage is dependent upon the composite of all the moves people make, which may express their will, but, as noted, that will can act only based upon meaning.

Seems to me that rather than really get rid of foundationalism pragmatism says the foundation is what we choose (deliberately or otherwise) to do.

That is looking at one part of the loop as the basis. A feedback loop has no most important or most stable part. So this is really a non-well-founded structure. Imagining that there must be a foundation, you can claim they have given you one. But you are projecting your viewpoint onto them.

Yes, there is no foundation to a foundationless structure. This is not a paradox, it is a definition. If you have a problem with it, deal with the insufficiencies of some foundational system and elevate it into a foundation. Unfortunately, folks have been trying that forever, and Quine kind of proves this just can't happen.

To revise our theories requires in some sense a deficiency in our theories. And to sense a deficiency requires a sense of what should be but is not.

You vastly overstate what is lost by letting go of a foundation. All that is left is not the surface. By definition that is the surface of something, and that thing is deep and has a lot of ballast that keeps it from shifting around too much. We can note deficiencies not by looking at some ultimate source of truth, but by looking at how things are sometimes easier and sometimes harder, and making moves toward getting rid of the hard parts.

If any individual or collective will got to choose the definition of 'harder', we would indeed have a foundation. But we don't. There is not a collective will, or we would not witness constant contests of will. And since we are all involved in the movement, no one of us is in charge. As Whitehead points out, you can personify the amalgamation of will and define it as God, if you really want to, in which case, yes, God is in charge and He determines everything. But this is not a very useful God, and he remains wholly optional.

And in just giving, everything becomes necessary.

Nor is there any logic behind the notion that without a definition of necessity, everything is necessary. It is like saying without a definition of blue, everything is blue. Anything might be necessary or it might not be. By 'just giving' we accept reality and do not pretend it has to be shaped by some particular force which we can call 'necessity'. Which is what we intended to do.

Yet, in what other way can mind-independent reality interact or influence the autonomous rational will?

There is no mind-independent reality and the rational will is not autonomous, they are locked in a feedback loop. Assuming the two things you have inappropriately insisted pragmatists believe bars an answer. Given that, your question comes down to 'Assuming the impossibility of stability without a foundation, how do we ignore that possibility completely.'

  • I honestly don't know where you pulled most of what you attributed to me from. My question isn't about stability. As far as I see, this almost mythical 'feedback loop' is precisely what I'm contending is impossible on a solely pragmatic outlook (at least where 'pragmatism' really means that truth is entirely a self-action/self-determination). My question was about raising my doubts about the coherency of pragmatism and feedback by way of my little paradox about revision. That is, if truth is entirely a matter of self-action there can be no such feedback.
    – user28843
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 20:41
  • Also, I would admit that there can be a certain kind of feedback. Pretty much everything else in the universe exudes this sort of feedback loop teleologically. What I disagree with is the presumption that all feedback is created equal. In truth, on a pragmatist outlook, we couldn't receive feedback for a determinate concept (even taken as an action) because the pragmatist commits the same error it accuses intellectualists of making; it severs the human will from the intellect and tries to convert or supervene one on the other. I take it that both will and intellect are distinct and wed.
    – user28843
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 20:46
  • I have indicated where I got what I attributed to you by quoting you. Your analysis of this answer lacks any attempt to actually assimilate it. You are pretending I said things like 'All feedback is equal.' Which is not anywhere to be seen and constitutes putting words in my mouth to raise a straw man. Argue or don't but don't expect people to accept bullshit as an argument.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 1:36
  • Upon looking back at my question I can see how you interpreted it. I didn't phrase it the way I wanted. I made several comments such as "everything becomes necessary" but most of these were made in order to build up to the main point trying to be made in the last paragraph as shown in the paradox: if the will is the only criterion of truth (which is what I take pragmatism to be all about), then we are either left without a real and helpful criterion when our will is in doubt or we must welcome the 'given' that pragmatists claim to be mythical.
    – user28843
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 13:45
  • I guess my real point is that only Kant, of the three people you indicate, and all the people I have ever read who would label themselves pragmatists cares about will the way you prescribe to them. Wittgenstein and Quine and other legitimate names here don't consider will foundational, because they are legitimately opposed to foundationalism. Your deduction that they simply must put will in this place is just wrong. So they don't have to be mythical because the 'paradox' does not apply to them.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 22:26

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