Many Western philosophers have approached questions of knowledge conceiving of truth as something that is “out there,” unchangeable, abstract, and universal. There is an inherent structure in the universe and we must discover what exactly it is. One merely needs to uncover a segment of the structure of the universe and the rest of truth will reveal itself. In this tradition, truth is viewed as foundational and essential.
Truth can be reasoned to from the solitude of one’s desk. Experience doesn’t change truth, doesn’t touch it. Truths just need to be gathered in. In other words, obtaining truth means getting the concepts in our minds to mirror or correspond to that which exists “out there” in reality. According to this view, an individual’s reason can carry them to the whole of noble, perfect truth.
By contrast, pragmatist philosophers like Charles Sanders Peirce argue that the pursuit of truth is a collective endeavor manifesting in what he calls “the community of inquirers.” No single individual has a totalized view of reality. In a world that is constantly changing and malleable, we must turn toward experience, pushing against the ease of abstractions moving into the messy realities of existence. Inquiry is not just experiential but experimental. We test out the truth qualities and meaning of our ideas according to their practical consequences, and not what is supposed a priori. By expanding our community of fellow inquirers, we expose ourselves to a wider range of experiences that can tell us a bit more about the practical consequences of ideas in the lives of many people, across many times, and within particular places. Lived experiences matter.
Jeffrey Howard speaks with David O’Hara, Professor of Philosophy, Classics, and Environmental Studies at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. O’Hara is also Chair of the Department of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics, and directs programs in Environmental Studies and Sustainability. A scholar of Charles Sanders Peirce, Plato, and C.S. Lewis, his current research focuses on the relationships between fish and forests.
He introduces us to pragmatism, or pragmaticism, as Peirce eventually came to call his philosophy in an effort to differentiate his views from those of fellow pragmatist William James. In addition to elaborating on what the pragmatic maxim offers us, O’Hara emphasizes the communitarian ethos necessary for satisfactory inquiry. Central to Peirce’s notion of inquiry are the values of inclusion, humility, and love, which are for both Peirce and O’Hara informed by their pragmatist views on scripture.
Complete truth is an infinite horizon we’ll encounter at “the end of inquiry,” to borrow Peirce’s term, a future that we’ll likely never arrive at. But who is included in the community of inquirers? How are we to make sense of a plurality of communities? How do we preserve the integrity of the community without becoming exclusionary of other much-needed perspectives? What does it mean to be an expert in a community of divergent viewpoints? And do experts’ views receive greater weight within the community of inquirers?
American Philosophers Read Scripture edited by Jacob L. Goodson (2020)
“How to Make Our Ideas Clear” by Charles Sanders Peirce (1878)
The Future of Religion by Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo (2007)
“The Will to Believe” by William James (1896)
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902)
“A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God” by Charles Sanders Peirce (1908)
“Dmesis” by Charles Sanders Pierce (1892)