Philosophy’s (pragmatic) function

“Pragmatism cuts across [the] transcendental/empirical distinction by questioning the common presupposition that there is an invidious distinction to be drawn between different kinds of truth.”

Platonists, Positivists, and Pragmatists
from Introduction, Consequences of Pragmatism, by Richard Rorty


Philosophy’s (pragmatic) function is
• to mediate between old and new vocabularies*
• to discover (or create) new vocabularies
not to search for “secure dogmas” in the form of “necessary truths”

“Whitehead, Rorty, and the Return of the Exiled Poets”, David L. Hall
in Whitehead’s Philosophy: A Documentary History (pg. 95)
J. A. Polanowski, D. W. Sherburne (eds.)

* Pragmatist philosophers’ use of the term vocabulary is analogous to domain-specific language (or DSL). Sometimes a DSL/vocabulary makes its way from a philosopher into a science, its philosophical “mother” left behind.

“[E]very specific theoretic view comes to be seen as one more vocabulary, one more description, one more way of speaking.”
(pg. 57)
Contingency, irony, and solidarity, Richard Rorty

Philosophers are the vocabularists — of science, culture, … .

Philosophers’ vocabulary-making-mediating role is not forever separate from the “business” of scientists.

“Quine saw philosophy as continuous with science, and Rorty saw philosophy as continuous with art. I think they were both right.”
Daniel C. Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University

This is in contradiction to (platonist) philosophers’ claims:
“[Philosophy] simply is not in the same business as science.”
“I have no doubt that some issues in, say, ethics will forever remain free from science.”

The first is contradicted above, and in the newer sciences of natural/unconventional computation, artificial intelligence, machine consciousness, computational creativity, data science, network science, … .

Regarding the second, one can also claim that ethics will forever remain free from (unresolved by) philosophy.

If scientists are philosophers even when they don’t think they are, the reverse can also be the case.

In the end, I think the endeavor to separate what’s the domain of science vs. what’s the domain philosophy is not a pragmatic one. They both may have developed their vocabularies (languages), frameworks, and paradigms, but these can overlap, migrate, and intermingle.

Philosophy, as the foundry and critics’ corner of vocabularies, is distinct in that it is the place for the study of the nature of vocabularies in themselves.


Philip Thrift


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