Thursday, October 11, 2007

Pragmatism as Non-Intellectualism

The History of Critiques of Intellectualism

There have been many critiques of intellectualism in the philosophical tradition. Perhaps the earliest critics were the sophists, e.g., if we accept the interpretation of Protagoras in Plato's Theaetetus as a kind of proto-pragmatist relativism[1]. The philosopher who did some of the greatest damage to intellectualism in the modern period was Kant, who attacked three aspects of intellectualism. He attacked the empiricist thesis that sense-impressions are sufficient for knowledge, and the rationalist thesis that thinking by itself is sufficient for knowledge, because, he argued, sensations and concepts are each necessary and only jointly sufficient for knowledge. More importantly, he attacked the pretensions of theoretical reason to pure knowledge of metaphysical truths, e.g., about God, freedom, immortality, etc. Theoretical reason was only legitimate when it was applied to experience. Other philosophers who can be classified as critics of some stripe of intellectualism include Nietzsche, Bergson, Ortega y Gasset, and especially the American pragmatists.

This opposition to intellectualism is perhaps the greatest unifying theme of pragmatism, which runs in different ways through Peirce, James, and Dewey. Peirce, the experimental scientist, attempts to apply the lessons of experimental science, in that the formation and legitimation of belief depends not primarily on theoretical grounds but on pre-cognitively felt doubts. James wants to make room for passional and personal factors in the justification of belief, whereas Dewey is concerned to work both of these factors into his picture of humans as biological-social beings whose thinking consists primarily as a process of problem-solving inquiry.

It is Dewey who perhaps captures intellectualism most fully in "Experience and Philosophic Method" from Experience and Nature:

By "intellectualism" as an indictment is meant the theory that all experiencing is a mode of knowing, and that all subject-matter, all nature, is, in principle, to be reduced and transformed till it is defined in terms identical with the characteristics presented by refined objects of science as such. The assumption of "intellectualism" goes contrary to the facts of what is primarily experienced. For things are objects to be treated, used, acted upon and with, enjoyed and endured, even more than things to be known. They are things had before they are things cognized. (LW 1: 28).

Several ideas are under attack here. One is the empiricist view that all experience is a species of knowledge. Another is the realist idea that things are known just as they are. Finally, the view that inquiry begins with theoretical knowledge is implicitly criticized, because objects are things had before they are things cognized, i.e., known, theorized about, conceptualized. Which is to say, we begin with the world of primary experience, i.e., the world of our practices, and, as Dewey outlines elsewhere, it is the role of inquiry to solve problems that arise within those practices.

The Critique of Intellectualism in the Philosophy of Science

Intellectualism was rampant in philosophy of science in the early part of the twentieth century. While the pragmatists counseled against the fallacies of intellectualism, their message was lost in the positivist heyday that began in the 1920's. The logical positivists held that the activity of science could be boiled down to a set of propositions and logical relations of support or contradiction between them[2]. Even the great critic of positivism, W.V.O. Quine, held a basically intellectualist view in which science consists of sentences connected in a web of belief. The most famous criticism of the positivist tradition (though his status anti-positivist has been rightly questioned by Friedman and others) is Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Philosophers have often focused on Kuhn's alleged relativism, his defense of "incommensurability," i.e. the logical irreducibility of concepts from different scientific theories, and his apparent anti-rationalism about scientific theory change. All of these positions, at least the first two of which can be seen to oppose the views of the logical positivists, are compatible with the basic orientation of intellectualism. It is his opposition to intellectualism in SSR, and his focus on the priority of scientific practice, which has been highly influential in the field of Science and Technology Studies, and which may well be Kuhn's lasting legacy in philosophy of science.

The key chapters for Kuhn's non-intellectualist position are "The Priority of Paradigms" and "The Invisibility of Revolutions." Here he clearly defends the view that in order to understand the activity of science, one must focus not on the explicit, finished products of science, but on the practices and activities that scientists engage in. To focus only on the finished products of science (an example of "the philosophical fallacy" according to Dewey) is to risk being greatly misled, Kuhn argues. Kuhn's insight in "The Invisibility of Revolutions" is of a kind with Marx's insight in Capital v. 1, Ch 1.4, "The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret," where he argues that to look only at the superficial products of an activity, in this case the items produced by an economy for consumption, can be greatly misleading about the activity that produces it. Similarly, Kuhn argues that the focus on scientific articles, practitioners' histories, and especially scientific textbooks masks the underlying activity of science (whose progress, according to Kuhn, is disrupted by periodic revolutions, which are tidied up in or simply left out of subsequent accounts). The role that these products have in education, training, and in philosophy of science have so far made important features of scientific practice basically invisible to laymen, practitioners, and philosophers alike.

In "The Priority of Paradigms," Kuhn makes a non-intellectualist argument, following Wittgenstein, that the paradigm itself, a certain prototypical way of solving a problem, is prior to any explicit rules and assumptions that guide a discipline. Just as, according to Wittgenstein, we can apply the term "game" to a certain kind of activity without having a definition or rules for applicability, explicitly or implicitly, so to we can engage in, say, high energy particle physics without knowing, implicitly or explicitly, what rules or assumptions guide that practice (SSR 44-5). This is a reversal on the intellectualist tradition, which in part attempted to figure out the methodological rules and the assumptions that guide science, whereas rules and assumptions are, according to Kuhn, a post-hoc "interpretation or rationalization" of a paradigm, a kind of prototype of a problem-solving practice. Nevertheless, because they agree on their identification of the paradigm, potential disagreement in interpretation need not undermine the practice. As Kuhn says,

[Scientists] can... agree in their identification of a paradigm without agreeing on, or even attempting to produce, a full interpretation or rationalization of it. Lack of a standard interpretation or of an agreed reduction to rules will not prevent a paradigm from guiding research. Normal science can be determined in part by the direct inspection of paradigms, a process that is often aided by but does not depend upon the formulation of rules and assumptions. Indeed, the existence of a paradigm need not even imply that any full set of rules exists. (SSR 44)

Kuhn makes reference at this point to another critic of positivism and intellectualism, Michael Polanyi: "Polanyi has brilliantly developed a very similar theme, arguing that much of the scientist's success depends upon 'tacit knowledge,' i.e., upon knowledge that is acquired through practice and that cannot be articulated explicitly"(SSR 44n1). While Polanyi's use of "knowledge," which carries a lot of philosophical baggage having to do with conceptualization, conscious cognition, and explicit justification, might not be an entirely perspicuous term for the kind of practical ability or skill to which he refers, the anti-intellectualist import is nevertheless quite clear.

The Varieties of Intellectualism

At this point, it is fair for the reader to think that a better characterization than that offered so far is overdue. Nevertheless, since "intellectualism" is primarily a term of indictment or abuse levied by its critics, it was necessary to have some historical sense of its critics before we could be completely clear on that which is being criticized. At this point, I think we can pick out the following philosophical views or methods as various aspects or versions of intellectualism:

  1. Empiricist Intellectualism - Holds that each and every experience is an item of immediate knowledge. This usually, though perhaps not necessarily, goes along with an atomistic theory of experience as being made up of epistemic atoms, called "perceptions," "impressions," "sense-data," etc.

  2. Conceptualism - Holds that each and every experience is pervaded by conceptual contents. Like intellectualist empiricism, this is usually associated with a view that experience is always of the kind of knowledge or cognition.

  3. Theory-First Intellectualism - Holds that inquiry always begins with a theory or a theory-laden question. For example, one might hold that in science, one is always attempt to confirm, refute, or replace the accepted theory, or one might hold that philosophy is inquiry into a set of two-thousand-year-old questions about knowledge, truth, reality, the good, etc. that have remained essentially unchanged.

  4. Language-First Intellectualism - Inquiry always begins with the terms of ordinary language (ordinary language philosophy) or with the attempt to find the most useful vocabulary (Rorty). More generally, the idea that there is nothing outside the text (Derrida).

  5. Idealism - Like Derrida's linguistic idealism, which regards the text as identical to the real, this form of intellectualism identifies things as they are known, conceptualized, etc. as the way the things are in toto.

In the first two cases, the mistake is the identification of experience with knowledge or cognition. In different ways, this mistake falls on most varieties of empiricism and Kantianism. The second two cases, the mistake is to identify the beginning of inquiry with theoretical starting point (TSP), rather than a practical starting point (PSP)[3]. Inquiry that begins with problems posed by pre-existing theoretical or linguistic concepts is merely addressed to what Peirce called "paper problems." Significant or genuine inquiry ought to begin with concrete problems that arise during or are implicit in actual practice or experience[4]. The final mistake that intellectualism can rise to is the metaphysical corollary of the other mistakes, the identification of the real with the "world" of our concepts, theories, language, or knowledge. It amounts to the denial, in Dewey's terms, of things as they are immediately had, enjoyed, used, suffered, etc., rather than or in addition to being known.

Intellectualism in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy

Contemporary analytic philosophy is often said, by sources as diverse as Richard Rorty and Brian Leiter, to have no particular essence, to have no special methods or subject-matter that mark it out as distinct from other historical or contemporary traditions in philosophy (so, e.g., there is no "analytic-contintental" divide of any substance). At best, we can, as Scott Soames suggests[5], pick out a set of chains of historical influence and certain stylistic features, and even then, we won't get a clear demarcation. So, of course, one cannot lay a general criticism on analytic philosophy as a whole, because it is doubtful that it will apply everywhere. The best one can do, as I will do here, is to pick out cases that either plague some philosophers that are prototypically analytic, or that plague some large swaths of the tradition. In other words, what follow is a short laundry-list of complaints that a non-intellectualist philosopher would level at present-day analytic philosophy.

One clear case of a fallacy of intellectualism that is prevalent in analytic thought today is the evidential role given to use of language, folk concepts, and so-called "intuitions". While analytic philosophy no longer seems to proceed entirely via rigorous analysis of the meaning of concepts or the use of ordinary language, nevertheless, facts about the use of language or the meaning of terms is still used widely as evidence for things that go far beyond issues of philosophy of language and lingusitics, in areas such as epistemology, philosophy of mind, and ethics, for example. This method takes inquiries into these subjects to have a TSP in our folk concepts.

Perhaps worse from the point of view of the non-intellectualist, some philosophers attempt to proceed from people's intuitions, their immediate or considered judgments on either particular or generic matters of the subject at hand. For example, it is common in analytic normative ethics to ask for peoples intuitions, or their considered judgments (sometimes misleadingly referred to as "pre-theoretic" intuitions or judgments) on both concrete cases like, "Should this person switch the trolley from this track to that, and in doing so save five by killing one?" and on more generic judgments, such as, "Is it ever permissible to lie?" The goal, then, is to systematize such beginning judgments into a set of universal principles from which such judgments can be re-derived.[6] The method begins with pre-existing beliefs, a variety of the TSP, rather than concrete problems of practice, and indeed seems to have nothing to say about practices other than the practice of making judgments. It makes ethics itself an intellectual matter, rather than a question of how one acts, lives, or how society organizes itself.[7]

Another common case of intellectualism in analytic philosophy, one that leads us into the next section on philosophy of science today, is the tendency to regard the purpose philosophy as addressing certain "conceptual" questions that come up in the course of science. This may be a somewhat outdated conception in the mind of some, which was held by positivists like Reichenbach, but which has great difficulty accounting for large swaths of philosophy prevalent today, such as ethics, aesthetics, and the history of philosophy. Nonetheless, it remains the self-conception of many philosophers in the discipline. Philosophers of biology are often concerned with theoretical questions that arise in the course of biology, while some philosophers of mind see their task as the interpretation and improvement of results from the cognitive sciences, and even ethicists are often concerned to explicate how we can have a normative ethics in the kind of world that science tells us exists.

This sort of pursuit is not always or necessarily intellectualistic. After all, if genuine problems arise in the course of, e.g., inquiries in biology, there ought to be no general objection to philosophers or anyone else taking up such standing problems. On the other hand, some philosophers are doing quite the contrary: they take up questions that don't at all concern practitioners of the science in question, questions on which little or nothing in the associated field turns. In other words, they take up the ideational or factual materials of an inquiry that is running or has run its course, and raise problems that are irrelevant to illuminating the issue for which these materials were developed. Consider, for example, the way that analytic metaphysicians take up the use of "cause" in various sciences, and attempt to furnish theories of causation, e.g. counterfactual theories, the competing versions of which have no impact on the way that scientists use the term.[8]

In contrast to the mistake of taking the fixed products of science as the starting-point of philosophy, there is the tendency to take the questions of philosophy as internally fixed (perhaps they are the "eternal questions" of philosophy, or perhaps they arise in the course of the progress of philosophy), and to consider the fixed products of science to be the proper tools for addressing these problems (this position is often, and in my view illegitimately, referred to as "methodological naturalism"). When one regards science as a set of unconditional statements in a logical system, it is natural to take the products of past scientific inquiries and use them in new circumstances. On the other hand, if one recognizes that science is a practice, and that it takes place in a context to address a certain problem, then one is more likely to be suspicious that the materials taken from one inquiry will be valid in an entirely different one. Future inquiry in physics cannot take the settled products of past physical theiry as absolutely and unconditionally fixed, and neither can any other kind of inquiry which might try to use it, even if that inquiry be philosophical.

Intellectualism in Contemporary Philosophy of Science ###

Scientific realism is a form of idealism (as defined above) in that it assumes that our (true) theories of the world have a one-one correspondence with the world. That is, it identifies the things as they are with the things as we know them.

We've already discussed the danger of merely interpreting the concepts and theories fixed by science.

Many people assume that the ultimate judge of our scientific theory is itself something already theoretical. Feyerabend is often understood this way (wrongly, in my view) when he says that observation-statements are already fully theoretical. (This is Feyerabend's view, but it is also not the case that he usually regards observations as the ultimate test of the value of a theory.) Kitcher is guilty of this when he tries to give a theory of the significance of scientific projects, because all of the items that figure in his "significance graphs" are already intellectualized products: aims, problems, questions, and theories that have already been formulated prior to reckoning significance.

This section incomplete

Non-intellectualism, Not Anti-intellectualism

From the sustained critique on intellectualism that I've been detailing, one might regard pragmatists like Dewey and others that I've identified as "non-intellectualist" to be anti-science, anti-theory, etc., i.e., anti-intellectuals. This would be a dangerous misunderstanding. No one appreciated the importance, the practical value, even the beauty of ideas and theories more than Dewey, Peirce, and many of the others I've mentioned.[9] Their constant reminder has been that theories and ideas, that intelligence itself must be understood in the context of the practices in which they arise, which ultimately give them meaning, and to which they must return in order to exhibit what value they will have. As has been mentioned anecdotally, Dewey rejected the compliment that he was "practicalizing intelligence," insisting instead that made practice more intelligent. But this would have been impossible without first understanding the practical context of intelligence.


  1. Such a interpretation has been defended in its strongest form by F.C.S. Schiller, but there seems no way around some such interpretation, given the claims in Theaetetus 165e4-168c8 that even though no beliefs are false, some are more or less beneficial.

  2. At least, insofar as the activity of science was relevant to knowledge. To be a little more specific, the positivists usually drew a distinction between context of discovery, into which they lumped all the messy features of practice, and the context of justification, which was the proper concern of epistemology. This distinction remains inherently intellectualist insofar as it assumes that the logic of justification can refer only to the final products of the activity and not the activity itself. In any case, such a distinction has been completely undermined on other grounds.

  3. These terms taken from David Hildebrande, Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism.

  4. The argument for this point will be addressed in Chapter 2, "The Context and Significance of Inquiry" (in my dissertation, Science and Experience).

  5. See his History of Analytic Philosophy in the Twentieth Century.

  6. Though the original judgments need not be regarded as sacrosanct. In the method of "reflective equilibrium" which proceeds more or less as has just been described, judgments in particular cases can be revised in order to accommodate a more plausible universal principle. Presumably, the preferred size of a set of principles is one.

  7. Though contemporary philosophy isn't entirely consistent on this. E.g., Rawls often says that the subject-matter of a theory of justice is the organization of the basic institutions of society, and yet his discussion of reflective equilibrium might lead you to believe that such a theory is meant to help us derive judgments rather than organize institutions. This is an example of another common intellectualist error, idealism or quasi-idealism, the confusing of the judgment for the thing judged, the map for the territory.

  8. Recently, things are looking better for the literature on causation. Nancy Cartwright and others have being trying to turn the field in a direction that addresses actual problems that arise in science based on different notions of causation.

  9. Though perhaps some other critics of intellectualism, such as Nietzsche, might also have more tepid feelings about products of intelligence.