9-11 Sep 2015 Paris (France)
Wednesday 9
(Chair: Henrik Rydenfelt)
› 11:00 - 12:15 (1h15)
› EHESS Salle 5
Experience and Critique. Placing Pragmatism in Modern Philosophy.
Volbers Jörg  1@  
1 : Freie University Berlin, Institute of Philosophy  (FU Berlin)  -  Website
Habelschwerdter Allee 30, 14195 Berlin, Allemagne -  Germany

Even though Pragmatism currently enjoys a revival, it is still
contested what this approach actually entails. Pragmatism is well
known for its insistence on fallibilism, its emphasis on communcation
and signs, and of course for its practical conception of thinking and
understanding. But all of this can also be had by other means and
traditions, i.e. Idealism, (Post-) Analytic Linguistic Philosophy or
Post-Positivist Philosophy of Science. How, then, should we treat
pragmatism's contribution to philosophy?

I will argue that Pragmatism offers a distinctive and significant
answer to a central issue of modern philosophy. Its unique
contribution comes into view if we look at the importance of the
notion of 'experience' for the Pragmatist classics -- for James,
Peirce and especially Dewey. The significance they attach to this
concept is, as I will argue, a clear-sighted appreciation of the
importance of experience for modern philosophy as a whole. Classical
pragmatism not only presents a distinct understanding of experience,
by modeling it after the image of experimental scientific practice. By
presenting such a model and seeking philosophical support for it,
Pragmatism also shows that the "Discourse of Modernity" (Habermas) is
essentially an ongoing controversy about the right understanding of
scientific practice and its wider implications. This controversy is at
the heart of the modern project of philosophy - or so I will argue.

The modern philosophical project centers on the question of critique.
This is the question, first explicitly raised by Kant, of how
criticism and critical thinking actually is possible. Criticism and
critique not only become a favorite topic of philosophical
investigation up to our times. They also constitute the essential
method and self-understanding of modern philosophy, which is
characterized by recognition of human finitude and a corresponding
renunciation of traditional metaphysics and "dogmatic" thinking. In
this modern perspective, human reason is no longer a tool or an
objective principle to fully comprehend and contemplate the given
order of the world. It is rather understood as a finite, and yet
self-standing capacity to continuously investigate and correct one's
own beliefs, hopes and expectations. The bulk of philosophy since Kant
implicitly or explicit either defends a variant of this modern vision
of autonomous rationality, or conversely reveals its problematic and
even dark sides.

This enlightenment ideal of reason as critical thinking is, as I will
show, based on a wide-spread modern appreciation of the natural
sciences. The rise and success of the natural sciences, also called
"the scientific revolution", is the one paradigmatic historic event
which gives credence to the modern idea of reason. Critique and
criticism has become such a natural option for modern philosophy since
it seems to be embodied, and to be lived, in the practice of the
sciences. They succeeded in toppling even the most deeply engrained
beliefs by way of argument and rational demonstration.

Arguably, experience is the most important lever to exercise this
power. "A wise man", Hume wrote, "proportions his belief to the
evidence." Modern philosophy, however, has demonstrated that this
advice is difficult to heed. The notion of experience turned out to
incarnate both the hopes and the dangers of the modern understanding
of rationality. On one hand, it is experience, and not tradition or
authority, which is supposed to ground our rational claims. On the
other hand, experience can only acquire such a rational authority if
we are able to understand it. This, in turn, requires us to bring it
under given concepts -- risking that experience, once understood,
loses its challenging "otherness" and critical potential.

This is why in modern philosophy, since Hume and Kant, we can witness
a seemingly endless coming and going of theories of immediate
experience. There are those, like Hume or the Vienna Circle, who
defend the idea that there is no knowledge of the world beyond
experience. And then there are those, like Kant, Sellars or more
recently McDowell, who point out that there is no such thing as an
unmediated, non-conceptual access to the world. Pragmatism's
contribution to this debate is that it refuses to take either side. It
sees that experience is not a way to gain "access" to the world, but
rather constitutes the very form that living in the world assumes for
a finite (biological) being. It reconstructs experience as the
circular motion of articulating, and coming to grips with, experience
and its possible content. Like the hermeneutic tradition, it proposes
to jump into the modern circle of understanding and to accept it as
the proper image of modern finite rationality.

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