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A System of Pragmatic Idealism, vol. 1, Human Knowledge in Idealistic Perspective.

The author is a writer of startling productivity: his publisher reminds us that he has written fifty-nine books and two hundred thirteen journal articles. It is not surprising that, as Rescher observes, reviewers of his individual works have generally failed to understand that a systematic whole is at issue. In the projected trilogy of which the present work is the first volume, he intends to present his philosophical ideas "in a sufficiently comprehensive and coordinated form that their systematic interrelatedness becomes clearly manifest" (p. xi). This volume is devoted to epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of nature. It will be followed by a volume dealing with value theory, ethics, and practical philosophy; and a volume dealing with the nature of philosophical inquiry itself. It is thus not easy to give a satisfactory account of the present book in a short space.

"Idealism," Rescher tells us at the outset, "centers on the conception that reality as we understand it reflects the workings of mind." Other telling phrases follow immediately: "Mind itself makes a formative contribution not merely to our understanding of the nature of the real but even to the resulting character we attribute to it"; and, a little later on, "Both the object of inquiry and the inquiring mind ... make a contribution to the character of the picture of nature at which our inquiries arrive," and this "picture of reality is ... constituted by means of the representations of a mind" (p. xiii; emphasis added). The activity of the knower therefore permeates what we know, permeates it "not only in the constituting but also in the constitution of what is known" (p. 271). In due course it becomes clear that Rescher's pragmatic idealism has only a little in common with the older idealisms--those of Berkeley, Fichte, Hegel--that have given us the term 'idealism'. Those classic doctrines, however, are "ontological versions" of idealism in the useful classification Rescher gives as Figure 18.1 (p. 305), while his own "conceptual idealism" belongs with the "epistemic versions." The author is not urging a metaphysics upon us, and the one he appears to incline toward is a guarded version of scientific realism--hardly an ontological idealism, even if some philosophers might agree with Rescher (pp. 318-20) that it is compatible with his conceptual idealism.

Throughout the book it is clear, in any event, that conceptual idealism is meant to be compatible with some version of realism, for although to Rescher the world as known is a "thing of our own contrivance, an artifact we devise on our own terms" (p. 279), it is our intent (pp. 284-5) that our (linguistic) pictures, or representations, should achieve an adaequatio ad rem (pp. 260-4). "We recognize," he says, "or at any rate have little alternative but to suppose, that reality exists and that there is such a thing as 'the real truth' about the mind-independently real things of this world" (p. 298). On the other hand, we have no direct rational awareness of the real as mind-independent; realism is not a discovered fact but rather a regulative principle, or practical postulate, "initially validated by its pragmatic utility and ultimately retrovalidated by the satisfactory results of its implementation (in both practical and theoretic respects)" (p. 270). The real truth just mentioned is a linguistic matter: "Any correct statement in some actual language formulates a truth," and that formulation is the representation of a fact; but a fact "is not a linguistic entity at all but an actual circumstance or state of affairs." Thus, "facts afford potential truths whose actualization as such hinges on their being given a linguistic formulation" (pp. 243-4). But it appears that we can scarcely be said to know a fact, which of course in this setting would be to know that its linguistic formulation were true. Truth itself is a concept and so has its place in the system of "mind-involving" principles that make Rescher's doctrine ultimately a coherentist one. Any "datum-set" of propositions consists of truth candidates; and, even after incorporation into a coherent scheme, candidate truths can at best be "qualified truths" (157-9). We cannot hope to attain that which is true but only that which finds "acceptance-as-true" (p. 57). Truth, like reality, is a regulative ideal: it is not something found and acquiesced in by mind but rather a mind-formed guide to praxis.

Although Rescher constantly invokes both constitutive and regulative principles supplied by mind, his understanding of the function of such principles appears to be ultimately more empiricistic than Kantian: he does not seem to think that mind's formative activity is formative of our experience. Mind is part of nature, and its connection with (postulated) independent reality is but one instance of the causal concourse of nature. The epistemic outcome of this concourse is that mind deals cognitively with empirical data expressed in propositions. (They are data only in a qualified sense, since they are linguistically formulated in propositions: they are data only in the sense that they are accepted-as-true.) Causality itself is intimately tied to law, on Rescher's view--so intimately that causal laws threaten to supersede the causal relation they are intended to codify. On the other hand, if not precisely Kantian, this view of causality and law is certainly idealist in Rescher's special sense: the concepts of cause and law are "conceptually mind involving" (p. 317) rather than found in the real, and the concept of law, in particular, is ideal and regulative in the sense that "lawfulness is the product of the well-founded imputation to empirical generalizations of nomic necessity and hypothetical force" (p. 315; emphasis present in original).

From this perspective, one sees why the scientific realism towards which Rescher tends is a qualified one: something understood to be a picture of reality, a representation of reality, all the while it is believed in. That is probably the only sense in which his scientific realism is compatible, as he supposes, with his conceptual idealism. Just here it is appropriate to observe that the notion of a perfected science--a notion implicit in scientific realism--is also a regulative ideal for Rescher: something not to be found in any actual science, now or in the future, and moreover not to be understood in terms of Peirce's convergentism (pp. 47-52).

Even readers who, like the present reviewer, find some of Rescher's more important premises unacceptable will profit from this book. The author is authoritative, clear, and thorough about the view he defends; he writes, as always, with civility and learning. The trilogy promises to be the memorable culmination of a distinguished career.
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Author:Pols, Edward
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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