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Philosophical Reasoning by Nicholas Rescher

James Thomas explores a pragmatic but idealistic book about truth by Nicholas Rescher.

Adopting one or more of the views of F.H. Bradley, a well-known British idealist at the turn of the 20th century, is rather popular today and is an important feature of this work by a contemporary American idealist. Nicholas Rescher defends a view of truth like that of Bradley and other idealists of his time, such as Josiah Royce at Harvard. This sees ‘truth’ as being the character of the most inclusive and harmonious understanding of the world. Rescher adds to this view of truth his own distinctive recognition of the fallibility of the ways we understand things and of the need to make our understanding of things useful. This is a study specifically of the methodology of philosophy.

What is perhaps most topical is its attempt to resolve the effects of the information age on philosophy and the other sciences. As a result of information technology, such a deluge of information is now available that no one researcher in any field is humanly capable of absorbing it. This affects Rescher’s theory, as it means that truth, taken in Rescher’s sense of the most inclusive and harmonious, or ‘systematic,’ understanding of things, is unavailable to any scientist. The conclusion Rescher draws involves his acceptance of the impossibility of any one individual’s mastering all the information in any given discipline, or even any given subdiscipline, such as microbiology as a subdiscipline of biology. Although no individual researcher can hope to have a complete understanding of all that is happening in his or her field, Rescher contends that thedisciplines of the sciences and philosophy are nevertheless systematic, as the various efforts of loosely-aligned researchers are inadvertently collaborative. While each researcher concentrates only on some of the work of others in the field, they enable each other to expand science’s systematic grasp of reality, at least at the edges.

A change results in the outlook for an idealist philosophy. As Rescher remarks, the early 20th century came to distrust the grandiose Victorian systems, such as the ‘absolute idealism’ of Bradley and his contemporaries, with their claim to understand the complete system of the world. In both politics and metaphysics, a state of affairs emerged that makes it impossible for anyone to keep up with the developments in science and humanities such as philosophy. A scientist still needs to consider issues systematically, and this need is met, Rescher suggests, through the efforts of academics working independently, yet working expansively and in accordance with the single consistent purpose of solving focused practical issues in people’s daily experience.

Again, at the turn of the 20th century, William James considered the usefulness of ideas essential to truth in all the sciences. James was a contemporary of Bradley, and in taking account of the significance of Rescher’s pragmatic idealism and his use of Bradley, it is important to remember that Bradley was fiercely opposed to pragmatism. In this period Bradley was the more established philosopher, and he and the revolutionary William James debated publicly and in letters throughout their careers. The pragmatist, Bradley argued, has to consider theoretical issues as well as practical. But the pragmatist’s doctrine can meaningfully contribute to our understanding of truth in the sciences only if to concentrate on useful ideas is to focus more narrowly on practical issues, in contrast to entirely abstract investigations of truth. Rescher appears to turn the table on Bradley and hold that the sciences can meaningfully contribute to life only if the completeness and harmony of theory contribute to the completeness and harmony of our existence.

Theoretical issues, in Rescher’s view, are those of reconciling differing solutions to fundamental questions. While philosophical problems are perennial, this isn’t because they transcend our everyday concerns; Rescher contends that issues in philosophy, such as the nature of knowledge or of free will, have an importance to practical life anywhere and time. As a matter of fact, he draws on Plato and Hegel to support his understanding of the appropriate scientific method. This method is ‘dialectical reasoning,’ and the method is essentially one of entertaining some more or less plausible but conflicting claims about philosophical issue and then dropping some claims or reconciling others by distinguishing the ways they could be true. You may say Angela is in the library, and I think she’s gone to the zoo, and knowledge of truth in this matter depends on our recognizing a difference of times when she is in one and the other place. We develop in this way a more complete and internally consistent picture of Angela’s movements. A controversial but interesting aspect of this approach to science is that it recognises the fallibility of the scientist, the capacity of science to develop radically, and the novelty of nature. Angela might, for example, be out walking her dog.

While we need to be capable of recognizing that our entire way of conceiving of things up to now may be only one of many viewpoints, Rescher insists on the importance of arriving at a yes or a no about issues of fact. He is therefore adamantly opposed to the outlook of the ‘deconstructionists,’ those who adopt the view of the facts as being always open to interpretation, making inquiries about matters of fact fruitless. We never arrive at knowledge of truth if, for example, we admit that Einstein’s physics is opposed to Newton’s as just one more of the many ways we have of looking at the world. The one way of looking at things should be, at least in some respects and for some purposes, an advance in our science.

A genuine advance in science should provide new ways of achieving our goals. To understand how apparently conflicting claims could be compatible is to understand the means of bringing about the coexistence of our aims and reality. A central feature of Rescher’s understanding of truth is that it is never simply a copy of the independent reality of the world. This is ‘foundationalism,’ the view of truth in science as a correspondence of language or ideas to the given facts. Truth is found, rather, in the efficacy of certain perspectives at helping us solve theoretical problems and the issues affecting our lives. Science aims to give us a useful perspective on the world. To this end, it is sometimes a matter of forsaking simplicity over complexity or complexity over simplicity of theory, and the choice always depends on one’s purpose in developing a theory. As a result, Rescher argues, a variety of pragmatic considerations enter into the construction of scientific and philosophical theories, such as “simplicity, uniformity, regularity, analogy, and the like” (p.176), to guide our dialectical reasoning, while systematic understanding remains the criterion of truth, and foundationalism is rejected totally.

Another philosopher well known today, who in his early years challenged Bradley, was Bertrand Russell. He defended foundationalism against Bradley’s, and by proxy Rescher’s, idealism. The rejection of foundationalism is important to Rescher’s approach to philosophical reasoning, and he develops this rejection of foundationalism in the way of Bradley, with Bradley’s own emphasis on the ambiguity of ‘facts.’ This enables an idealist to defend idealism against Russell’s (and most people’s) main objection to the idealist’s theory of truth. Russell’s objection is that this view of truth is in principle capable of giving support to coherent fantasies. For example, a novel could display completeness and harmony, but that wouldn’t make it true. Russell’s example was the execution by hanging of ‘Bishop Stubbs’ for murder; everyone agreed that the actual Bishop Stubbs was so good that the supposed hanging of him for this crime could only be a fantasy, but nonetheless a complete and harmonious story of this nature could be told. Rescher accepts his understanding of Bradley’s response to this issue. While foundationalism involves assuming the truth of the facts as given and basing ideas and language on such truth, the idealist merely assumes the given facts as ‘data’ to be examined. The examination of the given facts leads to changes in our understanding of the nature of the facts. Truth is found, however, in the coherence and inclusiveness of theory and not in the given nature of the facts. Nevertheless, as a result of this initial focus on the facts, the idealist is able to ground his or her ideas in reality.

We never suppose the truth, but only the plausibility, of the data, arriving eventually at the truth of the systematic understanding of these elements of our experience. We qualify or even discard the data, as we would the extra pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and the neat fitting of all the pieces required to gain an accurate, useful picture of things is all that Rescher thinks is needed to define an acceptable idea of reality.


James Thomas has a research professorship at the Dominican College of Philosophy and Theology, in Ottawa.

Philosophical Reasoning: A study in the methodology of philosophizing by Nicholas Rescher (Blackwell, 2001) £17.99/$38.95 paperback ISBN 0-631-23018-1.

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