A System of Pragmatic Idealism, Volume III: Metaphilosophical Inquiries

A System of Pragmatic Idealism, Volume III: Metaphilosophical Inquiries

by Nicholas Rescher

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This is the third and final volume of A System of Pragmatic Idealism, a series that will synthesize the life's work of the philosopher Nicholas Rescher. Rescher's numerous books and articles, which address almost every major philosophical topic, reflect a unified approach: the combination of pragmatism and idealism characteristic of his thinking throughout his career.


This is the third and final volume of A System of Pragmatic Idealism, a series that will synthesize the life's work of the philosopher Nicholas Rescher. Rescher's numerous books and articles, which address almost every major philosophical topic, reflect a unified approach: the combination of pragmatism and idealism characteristic of his thinking throughout his career. The three related but independently readable books of the series present Rescher's system as a whole. In combining leading ideas of European continental idealism and American pragmatism in a new way, Rescher has created an integrated philosophical position in which the central concepts of these two traditions become a coherent totality.The initial volume in the series was dedicated to epistemology, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of nature, while the second dealt with issues of value theory, ethics, and practical philosophy. In Volume III Rescher examines the nature of philosophical inquiry itself, seeking to affirm the classical conception of philosophy as a significant problem-solving enterprise that draws on the whole range of human experience to attempt to resolve the "big questions."

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"The approach of Rescher to the activity of doing philosophy is that of doing it in the grand manner. . . . A System of Pragmatic Idealism is Rescher's attempt to present an overall and comprehensive philosophy of science."Phenomenology and the Human Sciences

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A System of Pragmatic Idealism

Volume III Metaphilosophical Inquiries

By Nicholas Rescher


Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07394-1


The Mission of Philosophy

The Task of Philosophy

Philosophizing represents the human mind's attempt to bring intelligible order into our often chaotic experience of the world's doings. The history of philosophy constitutes the ongoing process of people's attempts to deploy ideas to make the seemingly endless diversity and complexity that surrounds us on all sides rationally comprehensible. Philosophy's instruments are concepts and theories—ideational structures—and it deploys them in quest of understanding, in the attempt to create a thought structure that provides us with an intellectual home that affords a habitable thought shelter in a complex and difficult world.

The mission of philosophy is to ask, and to answer in a rational and cognitively disciplined way, all the great questions about life in this world that people wonder about in their reflective moments. Aristotle was right on target when, in the first book of the Metaphysics, he said that "it is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize, wondering first about obvious perplexities, and then gradually proceeding to ask questions about the greater matters too, such as ... the root origin of it all" (982b10). Philosophy deals largely with how and whether and why questions: how the world's arrangements stand in relation to us, whether things are as they seem, and why things should be as they are (e.g., why we should do "the ethically right" things). Ever since Socrates pestered his fellow Athenians with puzzling issues about "obvious" facts regarding truth and justice, philosophers have probed for the reason why behind the reason why. What characterizes philosophy h its mission of grappling with the "big questions" regarding ourselves, the world, and our place within its scheme of things. Philosophy strives after the systematic integration of human knowledge that the sciences initially promised to give us but have never managed to deliver because of their ongoing division of labor and never-ending pursuit of ever more specialized detail.

Philosophy accordingly excludes no subject matter altogether. It is too inclusive and all-encompassing to rest content with any delimited range of preoccupation. For virtually everything is in some way relevant to its synoptic concerns, its task being to provide a sort of traveler's guidebook to the lay of the land in reality at large. Dealing with being and value in general—with possibility, actuality, significance, and worth—the concerns of philosophy are universal and all-embracing. Moreover, philosophy does not limit itself to specific mechanisms and routine methods but makes opportunistic use of whatever means come to hand to get the job done.

Those "big questions" that preoccupy philosophy—questions on the order of "Why is there anything at all? Why are things-in-general as they actually are? Why is the law structure of the world as it is?"—clearly move beyond the range of the standard framework of causal explanation. For causal explanations need inputs: they are essentially transformational, rather than formational. They address themselves to specific issues emplaced within an environing manifold of process and cannot proceed holistically to look from an external vantage point at the framework itself. If we persist in posing such global questions, we cannot hope to resolve them in orthodox causal terms.

Does this mean that such questions are improper? Throughout the history of the discipline there have been those who thought that philosophy was asking for too much. This book's principal aim is to show why this is not so—or at any rate need not be.

The Need for Philosophy: Humans as Homo Quaerens

At the base of the cognitive enterprise lies the fact of human curiosity rooted in the need to know of a weak and vulnerable creature emplaced in a difficult and often hostile environment in which it must make its evolutionary way by its wits. For we must act—our very survival depends upon it—and a rational animal must align its actions with its beliefs. We have a very real and material stake in securing viable answers to our questions as to how things stand in the world we live in.

The discomfort of unknowing is a natural human sentiment. To be ignorant of what goes on about one is unpleasant to the individual and dangerous to the species from an evolutionary point of view. As William James wisely observed. "The utility of this emotional affect of expectation is perfectly obvious; 'natural selection,' in fact, was bound to bring it about sooner or later. It is of the utmost practical importance to an animal that he should have prevision of the qualities of the objects that surround him." There is good reason why we humans pursue knowledge—it is our evolutionary destiny. Humans have evolved within nature to fill the ecological niche of an intelligent being. We are neither numerous and prolific (like the ant and the termite) nor tough and aggressive (like the shark). Weak and vulnerable creatures, we are constrained to make our evolutionary way in the world by the use of brainpower. It is by knowledge and not by hard shells or sharp claws or keen teeth that we have carved out our niche in evolution s scheme of things. The demand for understanding, for a cognitive accommodation to one's environment, for "knowing one's way about," is one of the most fundamental requirements of the human condition. Our questions form a big part of our life's agenda, providing the impetus that gives rise to our knowledge—or putative knowledge—of the world. Our species is Homo quaerens. We have questions and want (nay, need) answers.

In situations of cognitive frustration and bafflement we cannot function effectively as the sort of creature nature has compelled us to become. Confusion and ignorance—even in such "remote" and "abstruse" matters as those with which philosophy deals—yield psychic dismay and discomfort. The old saying is perfectly true: philosophy bakes no bread. It is no less true, however, that man does not live by bread alone. The physical side of our nature that impels us to eat, drink, and be merry is just one of its sides. Homo sapiens requires nourishment for the mind as urgently as it does nourishment for the body. We seek knowledge not only because we wish but because we must. For us humans, the need for information, for knowledge to nourish the mind, is every bit as critical as the need for food to nourish the body. Cognitive vacuity or dissonance is as distressing to us as hunger or pain. We want and need our cognitive commitments to compose an intelligible story, to give a comprehensive and coherent account of things. Bafflement and ignorance—to give suspensions of judgment the somewhat harsher name they deserve—exact a substantial price from us. The quest for cognitive orientation in a difficult world represents a deeply practical requisite for us. That basic demand for information and understanding presses in upon us, and we must do (and are pragmatically justified in doing) what is needed for its satisfaction. For us, cognition is the most practical of matters. Knowledge itself fulfills an acute practical need. Philosophy comes in precisely at this point of attempting to grapple with our basic cognitive concerns.

Philosophy seeks to bring rational order, system, and intelligibility to the confusing diversity of our cognitive affairs. It strives for orderly arrangements in the cognitive sphere that will enable us to find our way about in the world in an effective and satisfying way. Philosophy is indeed a venture in theorizing, but one whose rationale is eminently practical. A rational animal that has to make its evolutionary way in the world by its wits has a deep-rooted need for speculative reason.

But why pursue rationalizing philosophy at all? Why accept this enterprise as an arena of appropriate human endeavor? The answer is that it is an integral and indispensable component of the larger project of rational inquiry regarding issues important to us humans This, to be sure, simply pushes the question back Why pursue reasoned inquiry? This question splits into two components

The first component is, Why pursue inquiry? Why insist on knowing about things and understanding them? The answer is twofold On the one hand, knowledge is its own reward On the other hand, knowledge is the indispensable instrument for the more efficient and effective realization of other goals We accordingly engage in philosophical inquiry because we must, because the great intellectual issues of humanity and its place in the world's scheme, of the true and the beautiful and the good, of right and wrong, freedom and necessity, causality and determinism, and so on, matter greatly to us—to all of us some of the time, and to some of us all of the time We philosophize because it is important to us to have answers to our questions After all, a philosophical work is neither a work of fiction nor a work of history Its mission is not so much to enlighten or to inform as it is to persuade to convince people of the appropriateness of a certain solution to a certain problem What is at issue is, at bottom, an exercise in question resolution, in problem solving It roots in human curiosity—in the "fact of life" that we have questions and may need to obtain cognitively satisfying answers to them

The second component of our question is, Why reasoned inquiry? The answer is that we are Homo sapiens, a rational animal We do not want just any answers, but answers that can satisfy the demands of our intelligence—answers that we can in good conscience regard as appropriate, as tenable and defensible We are not content with information about which answers people would like to have (psychologism), nor with information about what sort of answers are available (possibility mongering) What we want is cogent guidance regarding which answers to adopt—which contentions are correct or at any rate plausible Reason affords our prime standard in this regard

Philosophy, then, is an inquiry that seeks to resolve problems arising from the overall incoherence of our extraphilosophical commitments To abandon philosophy is to rest content with incoherence One can, of course, cease to do philosophy (as skeptics of all persuasions have always wanted) But if one is going to philosophize at all, one has no alternative but to proceed, by means of arguments and inferences, to the traditional vehicles of human rationality

Yet why pursue such a venture in the face of the all-too-evident possibility of error? Why run such cognitive risks? For it is only too clear that there are risks here In philosophizing, there is a gap between the individual indications at our disposal and the answers to our questions that we decide to accept. (Science faces the same gap. In philosophy, however, the gap is far wider because the questions are of a different scale.) The positions we take thus must be held tentatively, subject to expectation of an (almost certain) need for amendment, qualification, improvement, and modification. Philosophizing in the classical manner—exploiting the available indications of experience to answer the big questions on the agenda of traditional philosophy—is predicated on the use of reason to do the best we can to align our cognitive commitments with the substance of our experience. In this sense, philosophizing involves an act of faith. When we draw on our experience to answer our questions, we have to proceed in the tentative hope that the best we can do is good enough, at any rate for our immediate purposes.

The question of intellectual seriousness is pivotal here. Do we care? Do we really want answers to our questions? And are we sufficiently committed to this goal to be willing to take risks for the sake of its achievement—risks of potential error, of certain disagreement, and of possible philistine incomprehension? Such risks are unavoidable, an ineliminable part of the philosophical venture. If we lose the sense of legitimacy and become too fainthearted to run such risks, we must pay the price of abandoning the inquiry.

This of course can be done. But to abandon the quest for answers in a reasoned way is impossible. For in the final analysis there is no alternative to philosophizing as long as we remain in the province of reason. We adopt some controversial position or other, no matter which way we turn. No matter how elaborately we try to avoid philosophical controversy, however, it will come back to find us. The salient point was well put by Aristotle. Even if we join those who believe that philosophizing is not possible, "in this case too we are obliged to inquire how it is possible for there to be no Philosophy, and then, in inquiring, we philosophize, for rational inquiry is the essence of Philosophy." To those who are prepared simply to abandon philosophy, to withdraw from the whole project of trying to make sense of things, we can have nothing to say. (How can one reason with those who deny the pointfulness and propriety of reasoning?) But with those who argue for its abandonment, we can do something—once we have enrolled them in the community as fellow theorists with a position of their own. ? ?. Bradley hit the nail on the head. "The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is impossible ... is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles." One can abandon philosophy, but one cannot advocate its abandonment through rational argumentation without philosophizing.

The question "Should we philosophize?" accordingly receives a straightforward answer The impetus to philosophy lies in our very nature as rational inquirers—as beings who have questions, demand answers, and want these answers to be as cogent as the circumstances allow Cognitive problems arise when matters fail to meet our expectations, and the expectation of rational order is the most fundamental of them all The fact is simply that we must philosophize, it is a situational imperative for a rational creature such as ourselves

Against Dismissing Synoptic Questions

On what might be called the rejectionist approach, the entire project of seeking for a reason for the existence of things is simply dismissed as illegitimate Even to inquire into the existence of the universe in the manner of traditional metaphysics is held to be somehow inappropriate It is just a mistake to ask for a causal explanation of existence per se, the question should be abandoned as improper in failing to constitute a legitimate issue In the light of closer scrutiny—so it is said—the explanatory "problem" vanishes as meaningless

Dismissing the legitimacy of synoptic explanation is generally based on the idea that the issue involves an illicit presupposition in that it looks to answers of the form "Z is the (or an) explanation for the existence of things " Seen as committed to this response schema, the question is held to presuppose that "there indeed is a ground for the existence of things—existence-in-general is the sort of thing that has an explanation" This presumption—we are told—is inappropriate on grounds of deep general principle inherent in the very "logic" of the situation A discussion of C G Hempel's has forcefully advocated this point of view

Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing? But what kind of an answer could be appropriate? What seems to be wanted is an explanatory account which does not assume the existence of something or other But such an account, I would submit, is a logical impossibility For generally, when the question "Why is it the case that A?' is answered by "Because B is the case" [A]n answer to our riddle which made no assumptions about the existence of anything cannot possibly provide adequate grounds The riddle has been constructed in a manner that makes an answer logically impossible

But this plausible line of argumentation has its shortcomings The most serious of these is that it fails to distinguish appropriately between the existence of things and the obtaining of facts—and supplementarily also between specifically substantival facts regarding existing things and nonsubstantival facts regarding states of affairs that are not dependent on the operation of preexisting things.


Excerpted from A System of Pragmatic Idealism by Nicholas Rescher. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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