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Damn the Absolute!


Apr 14, 2021

Coming to some semblance of consensus opinion is a paramount challenge in a pluralistic world. We disagree on what constitutes truth and how we ought to obtain it, whether our undertaking be moral, scientific, or political. 

It has been a common practice in Western philosophy to focus on uncovering an accurate reflection of reality, in hopes that by showing others these true representations of the world, we can bring our community members into agreement. This view holds that if we can clearly present objective truth, we can create meaningful consensus en route to fostering a more peaceful and thriving existence for humanity.

In reality, people disagree—oftentimes vehemently, and even violently—on what counts as evidence and which methods for discovering truth are most convincing. We pit our chosen experts against one another. Your preferred philosopher or politician may persuade you and your circle of friends, but what do we do when others are unmoved by what seems, to us, to be so obviously true? 

Jeffrey Howard speaks with Justin Marshall, a pragmatist philosopher with a graduate degree from George Mason University. He argues that better understanding how our beliefs are formed can help us to navigate the ways in which truth and divergent viewpoints continually perplex liberal democracies and pluralistic societies. Drawing inspiration from thinkers like William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Richard Rorty, he explains the roles personal temperament, experiences, language, and culture play in shaping truth. He challenges us to practice more intellectual humility and to reconsider the idea that we can know whether our ideas actually hook up to reality in any meaningful or certain way.

To what degree are our beliefs reflections of our temperaments rather than reflections of objective reality? How might it benefit us to view language as a tool for helping us to better cope with reality rather than as a one-to-one representation of the world? If our notions of truth are contingent upon our particular cultures, personal histories, or demographic backgrounds, how do we avoid the trap of philosophical relativism? And, what social and political solutions can philosophical pragmatism offer us in a pluralistic world?

Show Notes

The Fixation of Belief by Charles Sanders Peirce (1877)

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking by William James (1907)

“Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality” by Richard Rorty (1998)

What Is It Like to Be a Bat? by Thomas Nagel (1974)

The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (1781)

Overdoing Democracy by Robert Talisse (2019)

Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy by John Stuhr (2003)

S1E07 Charles Sanders Peirce and Inquiry as an Act of Love w/ David O’Hara (2021)

S1E01 Richard Rorty and Achieving Our Country w/ Adrian Rutt (2020)