Author Archives: Rebecca Amen

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!)