Pragmatic Philosophy, Verification, and Research Quality

1. The Revolution of Modern Philosophy

1.1 Most of the history of philosophy has been strongly associated with theology and metaphysics; allinvolve making universal claims about the nature of reality with the traditional classification in Aristotle consisting of ontology (the study of being and existence), theology (the study of the Gods, the existence of the divine, creation, etc), and logic. But much of metaphysics came under criticism with modernity; David Hume argued that much was merely "sophistry and illusion". Many metaphysical questions - considered important for hundreds of years - were considered unprovable, especially following Kant's limits to knowledge.

1.2 In the late 19th century there were the first rumblings of a major revolution in philosophy; American pragmatism (pragma - deed, act from prasso, "to achieve). Consider Peirce's axiom "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object." (Popular Science Monthly, v12, 1878). It is a philosophy that make propositions which work, with derivations from empiricism and utilitarianism; it links practice and theory. Initial advocates includes William James, (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907), John Dewey (Democracy and Education, 1916, Knowing and the Known, 1949), George Herbert Mead (Mind, Self, and Society, 1934). William James encapsulated the pragmatists opposition to metaphysical speculations with the remark: "If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle."

1.3 In the 1920s in Europe a similar group arose in the midst of the rise of nationalism, racism, and militarism - logical positivism. Following developments in science (again), they sought to apply and demand verifiable meaning to propositions. Main members included Hans Reichenbach (The Philosophy of Space and Time, 1928., The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, 1951), Moritz Schlick (Problems of Ethics, 1930, Meaning and Verification, 1936), Rudolf Carnap (Philosophy and Logical Syntax, 1935., Meaning and Necessity, 1947), and A. J. Ayer (Language, Truth, and Logic (1936), The Problem of Knowledge (1956)).

1.4 The pragmatists came under some criticism for significant divergence in basic positions that all claimed to be pragmatic (maybe they all "work"), (Lovejoy, "The Thirteen Pragmatisms", 1908) The problem with was the verification theory of meaning itself is not verifiable and neither is the verification theory of meaning is not susceptible to a priori proof. Early critics of logical positivism said that its fundamental tenets could not themselves be formulated consistently. The verifiability criterion of meaning did not seem verifiable; but neither was it simply a logical tautology, since it had implications for the practice of science and the empirical truth of other statements.

2.0 Verification and Rational Propositions

2.1 Logical positivists became associated with linguistic philosophy as it attempted to deal with the problem of meaning. Ludwig Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, 1952), J. L. Austin (Sense and Sensibilia, 1962), John Searle (Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969)). Wittgenstein would later describe his task as bringing "words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use"

2.2 Contemporary neopragmatism and contemporary critical theory expresses a working union of rational verification. Neopragmatism is a broad philosophical label that includes those contemporary philosophers. Willard Quine, logician and mathematician (especially set theory), rejected of the analytic-synthetic distinction (Two Dogmas of Empiricism, 1951) on the grounds that the former was circular. Hilary Putnam, mathematician and computer scientist. Argues that that mathematics is not purely logical, but "quasi-empirical" mathematics. Famous thought experiments, "brain in a vat". Richard Rorty (1979, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature). Exposing philosophical problems them as pseudo-problems that only exist in the language-game of analytic philosophy. In a pragmatist gesture, Rorty claims that philosophy must get past these pseudo-problems if it is to be productive. Jürgen Habermas, social theorist, critical theory, discourse ethics, universal pragmatics (Legitimation Crisis, Theory of Communicative Action).

2.2 A common error is to assume that because logical positivism failed to establish that empirical values are the only meaningful statements that one can return to pre-modern metaphysics as a field of inquiry. The point instead is to elaborate logical positivism's verification theory so it does not apply just to positive values but also to normatives and expressives. This project has been carried out in particular by Habermas' "formal pragmatics" which creates "rationalisation complexes" from orientations (constatives, normatives and expressives) and worlds (objective, intersubjective, subjective). By cross-referencing the two the potential for verification is elucidated, pragmatically bound in language and thought of all sapients. e.g., a constative approach to the objective world is a rationalisable scientific question, a normative approach to the subjective world is rationalisable moral question and so forth. In particular there are three irrationalisable (i.e., unverifiable) complexes; constative/subjective, normative/objective, expressive/intersubjective.

2.3 Verification too strong (Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959., Objective Knowledge, An Evolutionary Approach, 1972.). Statements must be falsifiable (which means subject to disproof). Any scientific proposition must be falsifiable, in other words it must at least be possible to imagine an experiment whose outcome would disprove the hypothesis. Related is Critical rationalism, holds that scientific theories and any other claims to knowledge can and should be rationally criticized, and (if they have empirical content) can and should be subjected to tests which may falsify them, and evolutionary epistemology, representing improvements of knowledge.

2.3 Habermas' rationalisation complex posits ontological worlds with epistemological orientations (derives, in part from Popper's late formulation of world of physical objects, mental world, world of products of the human mind). Some statements from these complexes can be verified against the appropriate orientation and world e.g., Thus it is quite possible to use logic to evaluate propositions of scientific facts (true, false), social facts (accurate, inaccurate), legal norms (legal, illegal), moral norms (right, wrong), sensual expressions (pleasurable, painful), and aesthetic expressions (beautiful, ugly).

Orientations/Worlds 1. Physical 2. Social 3. Personal
1. Statements of Truth Scientific facts Social facts Unverifiable
2. Statements of Justice Unverifiable Legal Norms Moral Norms
3. Statements of Beauty Aesthetic Expressions Unverifiable Sensual Expressions

3.0 Research Quality

3.1 Documentation, research, and experimental recordings are meant to represent a systematic attempt to improve the stock of knowledge and the distribution of that knowledge. But this is only the case when (a) the reporting is accurate and (b) argumentation has been applied to test the validity of the claims, (c) ensuring the claims are rationalisable.

3.2 Misquotations and incorrect or otherwise misleading attributions, are examples that damage research quality as a result of inaccurate reporting. Such misattributions can harm the reputation of the author (as libel or slander if intentional), and on a social level they can distort the ability of a community to make rational decisions. They are often deliberately introduced for political reasons (for an excellent collection see: They Never Said It : A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions, Oxford University Press, 1989). One of the great dangers of misquotations is that they have flow-on effects to others who, due to their own lack of intellectual rigour or research competence, repeat the falsehood.

3.2.1 An example: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful" (Seneca The Younger). There is no evidence that Seneca ever said or wrote this. Also, it is quite out of character; Seneca was a Stoic, who believed in an ascetic life and argued instead that "religion does honour to the gods, while superstitions wrongs them" (On Mercy). A similar quote, also without any reference to primary sources, is misattributed to Lucretius some fifty years prior . Both, it seems, actually are derived from a remark by Edward Gibbon, some seventeen hundred years later when referring to the period of Antonines, themselves around one hundred years after Lucretius or Seneca. Ironically, it is perhaps just as well the latter coined the phrase; "Errare humanum est" - to err is human.

(Futher examples can be found at, "The Damage and Repair of Misattributions")

3.3 Argumentation must be undertaken to verify or falsify the validity claims raised. If a statement makes a claim to facts, it should be evaluated according to objective truth. If it makes a claims of norms of morality, it should be evaluated according to normative rightness, if it makes an aesthetic claim, it should be evaluated according the sincerity of the expesser. This is no simple request; for example a claim of a historical fact becomes subject to the process of interpretation there is the issue of sources (Ernst Bernheim, Textbook of Historical Method, 1889, Torsten Thuron, Source Criticism 1997), external and internal criticism, and the application of historical reasoning, and a synthesis of explanations and probabilities. There is a fairly pragmatic and consistent approach to the historical method (Gilbert Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, 1946, and C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, 1984).

3.3.1 An example: there is an ongoing debate on the number and causes of deaths during Stalin's rule of the Soviet Union. Historians previously listed gave highly variant numbers, depending on ideology. With the greater availability of primary evidence there seems to be a move towards around fifteen to twenty million. Robert Conquest (author of The Great Terror, 2008 [FP 1968] and The Harvest of Sorrow, 1986) is perhaps the most acclaimed, although for contrast one might want to read Arch Getty (e.g., Stalinist Terror New Perspectives, 1993., Origins of the Great Purges, 1996 [FP 1985]) and in particular Stephen Wheatcroft (The Years of Hunger, 2004). The difficulty is arguing a specific number often depends on whether you attribute deaths due to malice or incompetence. The definition of murder requires both the killing and 'malice afterthought', the deliberate intent to kill.

3.4 Propositions can also be irrationalisable. Initially in the presentation we saw how both the pragmatists and the logical positivists at least sort to avoid the trappings of debating metaphysical propositions (as difficult as this proved to be). In the section on the rationalisation complexes of formal pragmatics, we saw how some statements can't be verified by any means whatsoever (e.g., The moral claim of the statement "The sky is blue"). As has been also illustrated the correctness of statements is on a continuum, ranging from the absolutely correct which are invariably abstract (e.g., A=A) to degrees of incorrect (Issac Asimov's "wronger than wrong"). A further category was coined by Wolfgang Pauli in response to a research paper; "That is not only not right, it is not even wrong!", where there are category errors and the conclusion does not follow the premise (e.g., 2 + zebra / glockenspiel = homeopathy works!)

3.5 A concern is raised that with the contemporary social media the capacity to distribute such falsehoods is amplified. The combination of a general sense of information overload plus an enhanced capacity in distribution provides opportunities for an enticing quote (subject to confirmation bias, or the inability to doubt; the Dunning-Kruger effect "Unskilled and Unaware of It", Betrand Russell's "The Triumph of Stupidity"). The number of misquotations, the quality of argumentation, and the use of irrationalisable propositions evident in online discussions certainly provide anecdotal evidence of these claims (e.g., the attributed quote to Albert Einstein: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left"). However very recent research (Garry Small, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind) argues that increased exposure to massive online communications encourages participants to be skeptical, and efficient at spotting vague claims and inconsistent assertions - and are faster at referring to more accurate source material (original papers, snopes, sourced references, etc).

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, April 07, 2013