requiem for certainty

Posts Tagged ‘historiography

Williams on Internal and External Reasons

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I’m not sure I entirely understand Bernard Williams’s views on internal and external reasons.  Fortunately, I’m not sure that most people who read his work (even publish on it) understand those views either.  (Maybe that’s just further blindness on my part but I think his work is rather more complex than is usually admitted.)  I do think that what I understand of his account usefully connects to some of his thoughts about history and how we can best make sense of ourselves and others.  (I proceed with the caveat that what follows is just notes and ramblings and may well be misguided [but I am committed to using this blog to just experiment more rather than to ‘be right’ or ‘show off’].)

Williams’s views are about reasons for actions and when we take reasons for actions to be explanatory of actions.  Here is a key claim in his 1979 piece on the matter: “nothing can explain an agent’s (intentional) actions except something that motivates him to act” (107).  This is reasons internalism, the idea that reasons for actions are internally related to being motivated to act.  The contrast view is reasons externalism, which suggests that sometimes there are reasons for actions which are normatively binding but which have no internal relations to agents’ motivations.

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Written by Colin Koopman

November 10, 2010 at 8:33 am

Pluralism via Williams

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The first few draft paragraphs of a piece on Bernard Williams I am working on are below.  Also (just to self-advertise) my piece “Bernard Williams on Philosophy’s Need for History” just came out in the last issue of Review of Metaphysics (v64n1, Sept. 2010).

On pluralism and liberalism.  One of the most important, and indeed also most interesting, features of twentieth-century philosophical thinking about politics and morals concerns the increasing centrality of value pluralism for political philosophers working across a range of traditions: analytical, phenomenological, pragmatist, genealogical.  It is not entirely clear why value pluralism should have emerged as a topic of such concern at this time.  Of course, concern over pluralism had always been a feature of modern political philosophy.  But whereas canonical political philosophy in past centuries tends to sublimate pluralism in favor of a given philosophical conception of order or justice, the problem of pluralism itself became canonical over the course of the twentieth century, such that no serious political philosopher can today afford to ignore the problem, brush it aside, or dismiss it as either trivial or easily addressed as a purely practical matter.  But pluralism itself, deep conflict over values or ideals or interests as characteristic of both intercultural political life and intrapersonal moral life, has always been a feature of modern moral life.

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Written by Colin Koopman

November 7, 2010 at 4:00 am

Where is all the pragmatist historiography?

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It’s a truism to anyone who has bothered to think even just a little bit about it that philosophical pragmatism is thoroughly invested in locating ideas, practices, activities, and judgments in their historical context. Here is one way to think about this. A key pragmatist commitment is to contextualism (in a generic sense) according to which we can discern the meaning of an idea only by tracing out its effects in the context in which it operates including importantly its historical and temporal (but also its cultural, geographical, etc.) contexts.

One can see this historical contextualism quite clearly across the full range of pragmatisms from Deweyan classicopragmatism to Rortyan neopragmatism. Many of the best books in the pragmatist canon are best read as intellectual histories which do they work they do by ably putting certain philosophical themes into the historical streams in which they flowed. I am thinking of Dewey’s Quest for Certainty or Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and there are countless other works by Mead, Addams, Du Bois, &c.).

If historical contextualism is so central to pragmatism, however, one would have expected pragmatists to have turned their attention to the philosophy of history or what some of us like to call historiography. Yet there is surprisingly little work in this area. Dewey wrote almost nothing sustained on the topic (cf. a few pages in the 1938 Logic). Rorty wrote an article in 1984 (cf. the Philosophy in History volume he co-edited). Harvard intellectual historian James Kloppenberg has a nice piece on this in Metaphilosophy in 2004. Rutgers intellectual historian James Livingston (cf. his blog) gives some sustained attention to broader meta- questions impacting these issues in his 2001 Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy.

This is all great work, but none of it represents a full-fledged pragmatist historiography. This is not a criticism of this work, because that is not its goal.

I find this curious. Nobody seems to have attempted to fully work out the ramifications of pragmatism for historiography. Where is that work? Where is all the pragmatist historiography? Where should someone like myself who is preparing some material on this topic go fishing around next? And, assuming I am correct in hunch that though there may be some more work in this area I have yet to find there is not much of it, why has all the pragmatist historiography gone missing? Why didn’t Dewey or Rorty or anyone else write a paper called “The Theory of History”? (Or did they and I am missing it?)

So far the best resource I have found is work by the mid-century pragmatist (some deny him this label) John Herman Randall, Jr., specifically his 1958 Nature and Historical Experience and 1963 How Philosophy Uses Its Past. I am working through it so more to report soon.

This topic has been of some interest to me for awhile so please comment or email with any thoughts. I have an article entitled “Historicism in Pragmatism” forthcoming in Metaphilosophy which addresses these issues from a general perspective but does not develop a detailed pragmatist historiography. I am also working on a second piece on John Herman Randall and pragmatist historiography in connection with an upcoming event I helped co-organize.

My hunch (unsurprising to anyone who knows me): the pragmatists here have a great deal to learn from the genealogists: pragmatist historiography ought to look like a history of problematization: go Dewey+Foucault!

Written by Colin Koopman

October 9, 2009 at 8:04 am