Hasok Chang’s “Pragmatism, Perspectivism, and the Historicity of Science”

1. Background information

This essay begins by establishing its broad use of the terms “humanism” and “humanist.” Here, they should not be conceived of according to their historical associations but rather understood as simply designating the things humans do or construct. If science is taken to be humanist, it is through and through something done by humans; it should not be understood as a discipline that comprehends and represents some objective, completely mind-independent reality. This is in the Kantian fashion of transcendental idealism, in which “phenomena”—our experiences of “things-in-themselves”—are separate from “noumena,” or the things-in-themselves.

This is all to say that pragmatism and perspectivism—though Chang is discussing perspectivism seemingly in a different light than Chakravartty did, but more on that in my questions—are philosophies that belong to this “humanist” family. Chang sets out in this essay to demonstrate how scientific perspectivism is vindicated in some sense by pragmatism (though that is not what he says initially), and this project is made possible by their shared humanistic drive.

2. Delving into pragmatism

In general terms, pragmatism seeks to bring abstract concepts into light by examining their practical, real-world applications and expressions. This is a distillation of the “pragmatist maxim” forwarded by C.S. Peirce and William James. Chang states that this maxim led to the semantic interpretation of pragmatism. Semantic pragmatism can be used to put to bed “metaphysical disputes” that are seeking—without foreseeable success—to make fine-grained distinctions. By simply making the distinction and acknowledging the difference in what you and the objector practically mean by a certain concept, a disagreement about that concept can be resolved. But Chang is not interested in semantic pragmatism, or pragmatism that is focused on what we mean in our language about a thing (see the squirrel example discussed on page 12). Instead, he wants to make pragmatism exercise a more normative force on science: it should say what we should mean or do in praxis.

Chang argues that, paradigmatically, truthful thought under pragmatism has been pejoratively put as “whatever is convenient” or advantageous to believe. But he is rather convinced that pragmatism is really a “thoroughgoing empiricism,” with “empiricism” to be taken in the sense in which we have discussed it—a rejection of the pursuit of metaphysical explanations for observable and experienced phenomena.

Using his understanding of operational coherence, or a “harmonious fitting-together or actions that is conducive to a successful achievement of one’s aims” and a form of coherence that pertains to actions and epistemic activity rather than beliefs or propositions, Chang proposes a “coherence theory of truth.” This theory states: “a statement is true in a given circumstance if (belief in) it is needed in a coherent activity (or system of practice).”

Questions/objections: Does this theory of truth not give rise to the same worries to which the “misconception” of the pragmatist version of truth is susceptible? As in, it really does still seem to champion whatever is advantageous to believe in a given moment and to be more relativistic or permissive than many would like to allow of a theory of truth, just as Chang notes is the concern with James’ maxim due to the use of the word “expedient.”

He justifies the “deep empiricism”—the thoroughgoing empiricism—he perceives in pragmatism by noting pragmatism’s empiricism about methods: as in, method is learned/observed/experienced alongside the content of a theory. Another “deeply empiricist” facet of the pragmatist movement that Chang notes is its assessment of a priori judgments as empirically validated, too. A popular pragmatist perspective is that the a priori—or non-empirical—element of knowledge is analytic rather than synthetic. A priori judgements under pragmatism are true under the rules of a conceptual system chosen according to its uses rather than by their relations to the world. Chang points then to the historicity of a priori judgments under pragmatism, for pragmatism allows the a priori to morph as new scientific developments or inventions that change our conception of truth arise, since it makes no claims to some fundamental or incontrovertible truth.

With this in mind, Chang argues that pragmatism is incompatible with “the propositional conception of knowledge that forms the bedrock of epistemology in the analytic tradition”—and I believe that this propositional conception of knowledge is what demands substantiation of a belief claimed to qualify as knowledge, or an adequate (or too stringent, in Chang’s view) relation of a belief to truth or reality. Propositional knowledge is what is embodied by a “copy theory of knowledge,” or a knowledge that perfectly imitates reality. Chang forwards the suggestion that pragmatism needs, instead, knowledge understood as “ability to achieve certain aim”—knowledge as the process of inquiry and the very practice of knowledge-production, which belong among human experiences. This is the deep empiricism Chang ascribes to pragmatism: the notion that everything, down to “abstract” concepts, is related to experience and practice.

3. Now, you may be wondering… How will this all connect to perspectivism (and why did we have to dig so far into pragmatism)?

A product of science being a human activity is that every piece of scientific knowledge is inextricably attached to the context in which it is generated—whether it be historically, in that different instruments, methods, and so on are available in every period, or culturally, in that different instruments, methods, and so on are dominant in every period. But Chang argues that these views of perspectivism are too semantic, and thus, not strong enough; he wants to say that perspectivism is also thoroughgoing, and knowledge claims and the conditions that validate them are both perspectival. Any “perspective-independent” state to which knowledge claims appeal, and by which they are justified, cannot be articulated, though it may exist.


  • But perspectival realism does not necessarily need to be conceptualized this way… I think we’ve seen that Chakravartty thinks of it very differently. It does seem, of course, that Chang is more partial to a theory of use, whereas Chakravartty aims to define what is truly real—and that is how he comes upon the conclusion that reality, and not knowledge, cannot be perspectival. There seem to be deep differences in their understandings of perspectivism that I am eager to discuss in class.
  • Additionally, it is interesting that Chang goes into this conversation about what is really knowable through the entry point of language. I don’t believe he provides enough justification of this decision, if I’m understanding it correctly. He says, “All we can really talk about are conceptualized objects, which are in the realm of Kantian phenomena rather than things-in-themselves” (20, emphasis mine). The things-in-themselves cannot be articulated, but can they be conceptualized? He seems to want to say they “can be.” If they can be conceptualized, how is it that they cannot be articulated? Can they merely not be subject to language? Is it that, if science is a human activity, a non-perspectival reality can exist so long as we understand science in the framework of perspectival realism?

Then, Chang elucidates what he sees as the three layers of perspectivism, and he states that each is consistent with some formulation of pragmatism. But since Chang laid out his views on pragmatism so thoroughly, we are able to see how his “deeply empirical” conception of pragmatism is tethered to the third, “deepest” layer of pragmatism.

  • The first layer: Same content can be expressed in different ways (i.e. in different languages), but connotations will differ and will lead to divergent consequences
  • The second layer: Different perspectives will lead to different specialized focuses (and will lead, naturally, to the inattention to other facets), but this does not put up an insurmountable barrier to truth
  • The third layer (and the one to which his view of pragmatism is connected): The objects we study are not necessarily (here, I mean “necessarily” in a strong sense) “out there” in themselves, independent of our cognition, actions, and concepts within our selected conceptual framework (and selected frameworks are perspectival and may be incommensurable)

It is in this way that Chang argues ontology is perspectival, and he argues that only noumena—things-in-themselves—transcend selected frameworks and pertain to some absolute reality, if one exists. This strong, third conception of perspectivism is clearly pluralistic and values its pluralism.

Questions/objections: So, ontology seems to dually be perspectivist and to have some objective elements in this formulation. Similarly to a question above, I am still interested in if Chang and Chakravartty are conceptualizing “ontology” in the same way. It does not seem fair that Chang charges Chakravartty with simultaneously denouncing perspectivism and being a perspectivist because it seems you can be a perspectivist about what is known or experienced and not be one about what is real—about things-in-themselves. Though, perhaps Chang knows this and only means to validate perspectivism in the sense of what is known.

4. The ultimate aim of this paper: an integrated history and philosophy of science

Chang invokes his discussion of pragmatism as “deep empiricism” to argue that—since all learning comes from experience—then “learning about how to learn can only come from a study of the history of learning.” Inquiry takes on a rather identifiable and consistent structure, and “empirical processes of learning” are self-corrective and iterative in a historical understanding of learning. Knowledge, being the end of inquiry, must be understood historically in this way, as well, since knowledge develops iteratively, too. The relationship between the history of science and the philosophy of science is reciprocal, seeing as the history of science—in understanding how historiography is fundamentally impacted in all directions by the thought of its time—must be impacted by the philosophy of science.

He argues finally that pragmatism and/or perspectivism—rather than “the old internalism,” which focused on theories, diminished the importance of practice, and honed in on a propositional conception of knowledge—should be the philosophies governing our historiography of science, being deeply humanistic.

(I’ve noted some preliminary questions here, but I may post more to the blog tomorrow!)

6 thoughts on “Hasok Chang’s “Pragmatism, Perspectivism, and the Historicity of Science”

  1. Peter Huggins


    This was great! Really interesting stuff.

    My question is similar to Nam’s. I feel like every aspect of science is humanist, if we use Chang’s lens. This paper actually made me think of Nam’s from last week, where there was an identifiable difference between scientists and engineers; I wonder if the same thought process could be applied here? For example, there are scientists who observe the natural world as it is, in an attempt to better understand and explain the world. However, there are also scientists who try to build things that don’t exist yet. Could that be the difference?

  2. Nam Nguyen

    Thanks for the summary Becca.

    I firstly had questions about why a humanist pursuit of science can be understood as an attempt to understand a mind-independent reality. In my understanding, science, even in cases where it is understood as a pursuit of independent reality, is nevertheless “something done by humans”. In fact, it would seem to be that the entirety of the scientific method is “something done by humans” whether in formal science or in the everyday assumptions we hold when living our lives. For example, when we choose to believe in what our eyes perceive, we are acting on a variety of underlying assumptions. These would include: our eyes are generally reliable, the best explanation of what we perceive is that there is some entity that our eyes can capture, and this explanation best encapsulates our available evidence without contradiction. These are similarly applied in the scientific method and for experimentation as a whole. Given this, it seems that our actions are something done by humans and our everyday interactions are also something done by humans. Perhaps this comes from an unfamiliarity with Kant, but it seems to me that this distinction does not hold. It seems that humans and, to the extent that we can recognize outside phenomena, the outside world interact with one another. I don’t see any reason why we could not understand this action to be humanist given that any action with outside forces could be understood in a framework of science.

  3. Nathan Obbard

    Thanks Becca for the excellent summary. I was also a fan of this paper and think it does a good job accounting for the piece of Chakravartty’s argument against strong perspectivism that chafed me the most – namely, the claim that perspectivism regarding scientific claims inevitably falls on one horn or another of his trilemma. Using pragmatism seems to allow us to elide the ontological questions regarding many claims about which there are multiple perspectives such that objections along the line of “but perspectivism can’t actually resolve purportedly incommensurable theories” or stuff like that, by just collapsing the metaphysical and the epistemic (or rather, making epistemic limits congruent with metaphysical ones). Obviously this might not let us be Kuhnians, but it seems like a very neat way to typify scientific claims while not resorting to some claim of context-transcendent knowledge (which make s me intuitively uncomfortable).

    The biggest question for me is similar to Farhan’s – perspectivism is inherently normative when it comes to deliberating between scientific claims. Is this deliberation not captured in some important sense by stance talk, especially if you’re a voluntarist about beliefs/aims?

  4. Farhan Islam

    Thanks for the summary, Becca, it was really explained.

    I am still a bit confused about exactly where the tensions lie between Chang and Chakravartty. This might stem from a misunderstanding of last week’s reading but let’s assume not so that I can write a coherent discussion post.

    Chakravartty seems to have two factors that he wants to use to chop up what goes into the making of our scientific claims: stance and packaging. The two don’t seem to be connected in any particularly meaningful way but it seems like the packaging is how we take our observations and state them with regard to our *values*, that is to say that if we value something, we will package the phenomena to be in service of that value. That’s not to say that we are always bound by our specific packaging, just that that we have to be packaging it in some way if we want to say anything. Our stance then dictates how tightly we take our assertions to be *how reality is*. And importantly, there has to be a stance because no stance in no ontology, and therefore no referent to what you are saying.

    Chang, on the other hand, seems to want to have all of the same conclusions, but just packages it (as it were) differently. Rather than having packaging be the unavoidable part and stance be the untranscendable part, Change just says we have this thing called a perspective that can’t be avoided or transcended. I wonder if Chang’s description of how concepts relate to language relate to reality includes something that can be chalked up to stances (or have stances chalked up to it). This is perhaps a more fundamental question about how much stance is about language and how we choose to use and how much is about belief.

    Something that comes along with that is that would a perspectivist want to be a voluntarist about perspective? There is something about that suggests no to me, since our perspective includes our aims and presumably our aims aren’t something that we can be voluntarists about.

    Another set of thoughts I have is about what the domain of perspectivism is. I am reminded of a paper I wrote for Khalifa’s class back in 2018 where I argued that perspectivism was incoherent because there is no perspective-independent perspective to justify perspectivism. But as I’ve gotten a bit wiser, my immediate defence would be that perspectivism is only *about* scientific claims and that “perspectivism is true” isn’t much of a scientific claim. But how might we cash that out in a way that is satisfying for the the thoroughly empiricist pragmatist? Perhaps there is something in Chang’s discussion of “learning about learning” through doing history of philosophy of science.

    Lastly (boy I really enjoyed this paper), I am curious about how the perspectivist might go about describing what counts as a “good perspective” when Chang says “every good perspective offers a true account that is worth preserving an developing without the need or sometimes even the possibility to reduce or bind it to another perspective” (22). But then how can it be that someone can earnestly say something false. If A looks and there is a squirrel hiding behind a tree we would want to say that it is false when they say “there is no squirrel”, and we would want to say that B standing on the other end has a better perspective with regard to the squirrel and that is why they are able to say the true statement. I would assume that perspectivism doesn’t collapse into relativism by the fact that humans tend to have aims that at least bear some sort of universal resemblance to each other, but I’m curious exactly how that might all work out.

  5. Phin Choukas

    Thanks for this summary Becca! I too am interested in exactly how Chakravarty’s and Chang’s formulations of perspectivism differ, and do think that Chang was a little bit uncharitable in his depiction of Chakravarty actually endorsing a kind of perspectivism while not liking the name. I think you’re right that, as an empiricist, Chang is more concerned with use, whereas Chakravarty seeks to define what is actually real. It may be helpful to go back to the two premises of perspectivism that Chakravarty proposed in our reading last Wednesday.

    P1. Knowledge of scientific ontology is bound within specific contexts because our epistemic abilities do not extend as far as perspective-transcendent knowledge.

    P2. Knowledge of scientific ontology is bound within specific contexts because there are no perspective-transcendent ontological facts or states of affairs to be known.

    At first it seemed to me like Chang endorsed P2, because he claims that “there cannot be any knowledge claim that is not perspectival” (20). However, he then goes on to admit of perspective-independent worldly states that make our knowledge claims true or false, but claims that such states are not expressible. This leads me to believe he endorses P1. It is clear that Chakravarty finds problems with this premise, and rather advocates for a pluralism that does not necessitate perspectivism. In other words, he thinks it’s possible to transcend one’s perspective in making ontological claims. Why is this not true on Chang’s account?

  6. Kenzo Okazaki

    Thanks Becca! This was a great read.

    I wanted to jump in at the concern you raise about Chang’s coherence theory of truth. I found page 14 really interesting where he makes the claim that “coherence is the chief characteristic underlying a successful epistemic activity.” This appears a little odd to me, and perhaps I am misunderstanding, because I thought that most of us would think that truth is the measure of a good epistemic policy. Coherence would seem to mean little if it was completely false regardless of how well the concepts fit together. If I am getting this right, Chang justifies this position with the argument that coherence “is the vehicle through which the mind-independent world is brought to bear on our knowledge” (14). I think I am having some trouble making sense of this claim. Does Chang mean things like causation? And if this claim is true, can coherence tell us anything about things that are real independently of the mind? That is, it seems odd to say that coherence matters because it is how we make sense of the world while not committing to a position about what the world actually is (the idea of adopting perspectivism and convenient theories to account for observations). I am looking forward to discussing this tomorrow.

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