Vossius Center for the History of Humanities and Sciences

Pragmatism and Philosophy of History

Meeting of the study group philosophy of history

21Apr2017 15:00


Speaker: Frank Ankersmit, Professor emeritus, University of Groningen


The roots of pragmatism go back to philosophers such as Peirce, James and Dewey. But pragmatism began its triumphal march only in the second  half of the last century with the writings by Quine, Davidson, Rorty, Sellars and by the nowadays omnipresent Robert Brandom. The basic idea is that philosophy should avoid a priori argument. The philosopher’s only legitimate aim is to analyze how knowledge is in fact acquired, how scientists argue in practice and what kind of  unexpected considerations sometimes were actually decisive. This is why one often speaks of a ‘naturalized epistemology’.

This is, in fact, a questioning  of what philosophy has always been since the days of Plato en Aristotle. It results in the belief that the findings of (cognitive) psychology should be the philosopher’s main guide – a conclusion Quine was willing to accept. It invites the evaporation of the concept of truth and the surrender of normativity in scientific argument. Should a society decide that witches exist, little solace is to be expected from pragmatism. ‘Whatever is, is right’, in the eyes of the pragmatist.

Pragmatism also found its way to philosophy of history, as I’ll show by means of a  brief discussion of Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen’s brilliant Post-Narrativist Philosophy of History van 2015 (awarded the ICHTH-prize for 2016). My claim will be that one should distinguish between two kinds of argument in historical writing. Firstly, there is an ‘informal’ type of argument  that is not specific of historical writing and that can be found elsewhere as well. Pragmatists (and Kuukkanen) tend to leave room for this type of argument only. I shall insist, however, that there exists also a ‘formal’ type of argument having its origin in the ‘form’ in which historical knowledge is presented. It is no different in the sciences.

I will contend that Leibniz’s monadology may give us access to that ‘formal’ type of argument in historical writing. Finally, it will be clear that an appeal to Leibniz’s monadology leaves little room for the pragmatist’s (a priori) rejection of a priori argument in philosophy.

Frank Ankersmit, Professor emeritus, University of Groningen

Venue: Faculty Room Department of Philosophy

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