Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

1.6. The Unifying Method of the Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences: The Method of Transdisciplinarity
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Josephine Papst (Graz)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Pragmatism, Unification, and Transdisciplinarity

David E. Schrader (Department of Philosophy, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, USA)



When we speak of a unifying method for the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, there are two things we might mean. We might mean a method that provides a unified knowledge content, or we might mean a method that provides a unified approach to gaining knowledge. If we mean a method that aims at a unified knowledge content, then the quest for a unifying method is futile. If we mean a method that provides a unified approach to gaining knowledge, then pragmatism, which by its nature is committed to transdisciplinarity, provides a unifying method that can be used productively in all traditional disciplinary areas.


When recently asked to identify the greatest strength of pragmatism, Jürgen Habermas claimed, quite correctly, that it was "the combination of fallibilism with anti-skepticism, and a naturalist approach to the human mind and its culture that refuses to yield to any kind of scientism"(1) Habermas's characterization portrays pragmatism at the same time as deeply common-sensical, deeply unifying, and deeply transdisciplinary. It acknowledges the fallibility of human cognition, an acknowledgment that must follow from any serious study of the history of science. Yet at the same time, it does not abandon the human quest for knowledge to some form of "anything-goes relativism". It is naturalistic, and hence relies on what we can learn from the study of human experience about the human mind and its culture. Yet it does not retreat into scientism and accept the claim that the natural sciences as traditionally conceived give all the answers to all of our questions.

The kind of pragmatism that I advocate as providing a unifying method for the humanities and the natural and social sciences is not some form of Rortian post-modernism, with it profoundly unpragmatist general dismissal of the entire enterprise of epistemology, but rather a largely classical form of pragmatism, taking its roots primarily in the pragmatism of William James. The hallmark of such a pragmatism lies in the claim, noted by Habermas, that knowledge is possible even without any form of universal foundation.

A few years ago I wrote an article giving an interpretation of James's paper, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.(2) The beginning of that article read:

It is widely recognized that William James's theory of knowledge is fundamentally an "ethics of belief". It is less widely recognized that James's ethics is fundamentally an epistemology of right action.

My claim here that James's epistemology is fundamentally a part of an ethics and that his ethics is fundamentally part of an epistemology should strongly suggest that James's general philosophical perspective embodies a powerful unification of human knowledge and human life. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the unification that is embodied in a broadly Jamesian form of pragmatism is a unification of method, not a unification of substance or content. In fact, the method given in pragmatism implies that we should expect not unification, but a diverse pluralism in the actual content of our various endeavors. As a result of its acceptance of substantive pluralism, pragmatism is particularly suitable in the contemporary world where pluralism, in the absence of some underlying basis for unification, threatens to leave us with nothing but intellectual chaos.

In the remainder of this paper I shall provide brief overviews of the implications of pragmatism for the natural sciences, for ethics, and for law. These overviews should present a picture of a unified mode of investigation that applies well across the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences.


Natural Sciences

First, note that I have used the plural term, >natural sciences< rather than the singular, >natural science<. If there is one term that is anathema to a pragmatist approach to science it is the commonly used text-book term, "THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD", suggesting that there is some kind of common algorithm that is used across the natural sciences, and that anyone who learns "the scientific method" will thereby be able to understand science as a unified enterprise. Pragmatism in science affirms that objective scientific knowledge is possible even in the absence of any kind of universal method.

A pragmatist approach to the natural sciences is, above all, naturalistic. As Hilary Kornblith noted in the Introduction to his anthology, Naturalizing Epistemology, the hallmark of a naturalistic epistemology lies in the recognition that the question, "How ought we arrive at our beliefs?" cannot be answered independently of the question, "How do we arrive at our beliefs?"(3) This implies that epistemology must become multi-disciplinary, taking into account the relevant results from psychology, sociology, politics, and any other pertinent disciplines.

While much of the history of science has been dominated by an ideal of unified science that would give us a compete and comprehensive picture of physical reality, the demise of Newtonian science at the beginning of the twentieth century has left us with a science characterized above all by disunity and pluralism. Yet just as the number of refutations of Aristotelian science in the seventeenth century did not diminish the ideal of a unified science in the seventeenth century, so the refutations of Newtonian science in the twentieth century left the ideal intact for a good part of the century. The central motivation of the philosophers and natural scientists of the Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century was proclaimed in the title of their collective publishing project, The Encyclopedia of Unified Science. The Circleäs hope was that it might provide a methodological base on which the disunity of early twentieth century science might once again be brought back into a unified account of nature. But while the seventeenth century attempts at methodological unification were finally laid to rest by a scientific unification, no scientific unification came forward in the twentieth century. There have been and continue to be attempts at unification within theoretical physics. What appears to be the strongest contender, Super-String Theory, is a highly abstract mathematical structure, relying on a ten-dimensional geometry, that is attractive to some particularly mathematically oriented physicists, but remains so far from the possibility of any empirical test that most physicists seem to regard it as an intriguing, but not very appealing, abstraction.

Additionally, the twentieth century has produced another development in science that distinguishes it in fundamental ways from earlier centuries. In earlier times, from Aristotle almost to the present, physics was the paradigmatic science, and the ideal of unification carried with it the assumption that all other science might ultimately be reduced to physics. The ideal of unification logically implied a hierarchy of science and a consequent program of reductionism. As physics was the science of the physical, and all of nature, as nature, was physical, so a unified scientific account of physics would ultimately include a unified scientific account of all natural phenomena. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the science of biology developed in dramatic ways that seemed to resist its ultimate reducibility to chemistry, and then to physics. Even within biology itself, central notions like that of species resist being given a unifying and univocal account. Biologists investigating certain sets of issues adopt a morphological concept of species. Biologists working in other sub-fields adopt a concept of species based on interbreeding populations. Ecologists tend to adopt a concept of species rooted in ecological function. As philosopher of biology, Philip Kitcher argues, "[c]ontemporary biology seems committed to pluralism as different investigators use the classifications best suited to their needs."(4)

Moreover, by the end of the mid-twentieth century, the unifying program of the logical positivists, the heirs to the Vienna Circle in its project of methodological unification, had run its course. Twentieth century studies in the actual history of science, beginning with Thomas Kuhn's groundbreaking The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, demonstrated that even the most celebrated episodes in the advance of modern science failed to follow anything resembling the methodological strictures of logical positivism. While we still on occasion hear nostalgic nods to reduction and unification in science, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of scientists work to investigate particular areas of inquiry with, perhaps, some thought about how their investigations relate to areas of inquiry in the neighborhood of their own, but without any thought of how those investigations might fit into a unified science. At the same time, the unifying mood among philosophers of science has been replaced largely by kind of pragmatism that sees science as the investigation of particular parts of nature as they relate to concrete problems of human interest.

Many people have seen the demise of the ideal of a unified science as a kind of flight to relativism, a loss of any common world or objective point of reference. In fact, however, the acceptance scientific pluralism, which is another term for the abandonment of the ideal of a unified science, does not incline toward relativism, and is precisely what we should expect of science if we look soberly and pragmatically at our human interaction with nature.

There are two reasons why we should expect a pluralistic or disunified body of scientific knowledge. The first follows from the nature of science. The second follows from the nature of human knowing. In the first instance, we need to recognize that science is not simply an attempt to gain undifferentiated knowledge about the universe. Rather, science is invariably an attempt to gain focused knowledge about aspects of the universe as they relate to questions that human beings raise from their experience. How do we aim our cannons if we want to hit the fortress? Where can we plant our crops if we want them to grow well? How can we direct our ships if we want to go to a particular port? Can I improve the productivity of my cows through a selective breeding program?

Kitcher proposes that we might think of science as something like mapping reality.(5) First, we should note that no map ever maps the totality of places. Rather, maps are always of particular areas, perhaps Europe, perhaps Western Europe, perhaps Austria, perhaps Vienna, perhaps the Vienna Metro. Second, no map ever maps the totality of features of the particular places it does map. Maps most frequently identify major political boundaries. Sometimes they map provincial or local political boundaries. Maps most frequently identify large cities and large rivers. Sometimes they map small towns and smaller rivers. Maps sometimes identify roads, major or minor. They sometimes identify rail lines. Yet sometimes maps identify none of these items. Sometimes maps identify areas in terms of their average amounts of rainfall, or their altitude above or below sea level, or their dominant forms of vegetation.

During my wife's and my current travels in Europe, three maps have been particularly important to us, a map of the London underground and maps of the Moscow and Vienna metro systems. These maps identify none of the things that we normally think of when we think about maps. They identify no streets, no rivers, no political divisions (except those that happen to have lent their names to metro stops). These subway maps do other strange things. Most maps of the London underground, for example, show the Picadilly line from Turnham Green to South Kensington as a straight line. Yet the route that the Picadilly line follows between those two stations involves many curves and turns. Does this mean that the London underground map is inaccurate? It surely would be inaccurate if it were a map designed to show the underground stops in their precise location relative to streets, latitudes and longitudes, and the like. However the London underground map is designed to show travelers how to get from one underground station to others. It is designed to present that information to travelers in the simplest manner, with the least distraction from features irrelevant to the travelers' purposes.

We might also note that maps of the world can be done with different projections. We are probably all familiar, for example, with the Mercator projection maps of the world. The difficulty, of course, is that most maps are flat and the world is not. On the Mercator projection there are systematic distortions that make polar locations relatively larger than they really are. Thus on a Mercator projection Greenland appears to be larger than Australia. Does this mean that the Mercator projection maps are false maps (and that we should therefore not use them)? That would be an odd result, given the prevalence of use of Mercator projection maps by people who clearly are aware of the distorting effects of the projection. Rather, we should say that part of what we do when we learn to read a map is to make compensations for certain distorting features of the map. This is one of the things that school children are taught when they are introduced to Mercator projection maps of the world. This is perhaps not terribly different from the though adjustments we learn to make in coming to understand the nature and scope of scientific theory. We learn, for example, that, while the atoms of which all matter is composed are not solid, there is space between the atomic nucleus and atomic orbitals, nevertheless many material objects composed of atoms are solid.

If Kitcher is right in seeing science as rather like mapping reality, then two things should be clear. First, as we do not find any map that gives a complete and total picture of all places, so we should not expect any science to give us a complete and total picture of reality. Second, as the fact that maps are partial and purpose-driven does not lead anyone to think that the spatial realities that are mapped are relative or less than real, so the fact that scientific theories and models are partial and purpose-driven should not lead anyone to think that the realities that are theorized or modeled are relative or less than real. Drawing and reading maps are both exercises in pragmatism.

The second reason why we should expect a pluralistic or disunified body of scientific knowledge follows from the nature of human knowing. While some of us would want to make the more general claim that all human knowledge is rooted in experience, I rely here only on the more limited claim that human knowledge in the natural sciences arises from experience. Human experience is by its nature given from particular perspectives. What those of you on my right see when you look at me is just a bit different from what those of you on my left see when you look at me. If it makes any sense to speak of God as seeing, it might be the case that God can always see me from every perspective at the same time, and more generally that God can see the whole of reality in one gaze. Human beings, however, are not like that. We never experience more than particular parts of reality.

It is, of course, in principle possible that the various pieces of scientific knowledge that we gain from examining diverse parts of reality might fit together perfectly to give us a fully unified body of scientific knowledge, but it seems far more likely that some of those pieces may fit together wonderfully well, while others of them may come close to fitting together, and others may not fit together at all. We might think of our scientific knowledge on the limited analogy of an infinite jigsaw puzzle. We succeed in fitting together a number of pieces that give us a coherent picture of one part of reality. We succeed in fitting together other groups of pieces to give us coherent pictures of other parts of reality. Given the infinite character of the whole, and given the immense complexity of even the smallest parts, it is, while theoretically possible, remarkably unlikely that the various understandings of large numbers of parts of reality that we have assembled through our scientific knowledge should fit together to give us a finished picture of the whole of reality.



A pragmatist, naturalist approach to ethics must likewise tie together the question of "How ought we determine our actions?" and the question "How do we determine our actions?" It must, accordingly, look to the empirical human activity of valuing. Like pragmatism in the natural sciences, pragmatism in ethics must affirm that objective ethical standards are possible even in the absence of any universal moral foundation. The problems with giving an empirical grounding of values have, of course, long been noted. Immanuel Kant, in particular, argued that attempting to ground morality in empirical considerations would render moral value purely contingent and leave us with nothing but rampant relativism. Kant's evasion of relativism, however, requires a set of metaphysical and epistemological commitments that many of us regard as deeply problematic. The problem facing the pragmatist student of values remains how we can find some plausible path between the Scylla of sloppy relativism that seems so popular particularly among students in the United States and the Charybdis of rigid dogmatism that is often presented as its only alternative.

The best empirical knowledge we have of biological evolution shows that human beings have evolved with a substantial concern to get on well with the humans around them, and also that human beings evolved with the abilities required to develop language. The earliest archaeological data we have concerning human beings and our other close evolutionary ancestors shows us to be highly social creatures. More general considerations about the kind of biological creatures that we are would also seem to support the view that we quickly evolved as herd animals. We lack virtually all other forms of survival assets. It seems that only by working in together in groups can human beings prove capable of survival. These considerations should lead us to expect that human beings should have evolved as social creatures, much as numerous other species of animals, from wolves and coyotes to ants and bees, have evolved patterns of group interaction that have enabled them to survive in ways that would not have been possible for those same animals to survive functioning as solitary individuals.

If these evolutionary claims are right, then it also follows that we should expect that human beings who are egoistically motivated would be a distinct minority within the human population. They would in effect be evolutionarily abnormal individuals, engaging in cooperative enterprises with the rest of us only through systematically deceiving us into believing that they are socially cooperative like most other people. Moreover, we should expect that those humans who are egoistically motivated will tend more often than not to be found out since systematic and large scale deception is difficult to maintain. While they may succeed in advancing their own interests at the expense of the community for a while, sooner or later most of them are likely to be discovered and to suffer the disapprobation of the communities within which they live.

Human beings have also evolved marvelous and subtle communicative abilities. Our ability to speak enables us to exchange messages of great complexity. Language provides one of the ways in which we can let others know of our desires, and in which they can let us know of their desires. It also provides one of the ways in which we can express approval and disapproval of those other humans with whom we engage. Perhaps most interestingly, it provides a way in which we can express conditional approval and disapproval. We can tell others that certain behaviors on their part will meet with our approval and, perhaps, reward. We can also tell them that certain other behaviors will meet with disapproval and, perhaps, retaliation. We can, in short, negotiate.

Note that this pragmatist account of ethics rests on two claims about human evolution. We human beings are herd animals, we live in groups and depend on group activity for our evolutionary success. We are also heard animals, we speak to each other and, with reasonable frequency, listen to each other and react to each other. Also note that the only particular value it has claimed for humans is the evolutionarily based value of getting on passably well with those around us. Beyond that, the things that human beings value may vary wildly. It does not, in particular, depend on the very particular assumptions about human motivation that undergird a utilitarian analysis of value. It also does not depend upon the kind of strong rationality assumptions that undergird Kant's grounding of universality. It assumes neither that humans have the capacity for high and abstract altruism nor that they are purely egoistic. Rather it only holds that human beings are basically social creatures. Moreover, that position is not based on pure supposition, but rather on the best empirical and theoretical information we have about the evolutionary development of the human species.

When we have a number of people living in reasonable proximity and interacting with each other in multiple ways, we have what James called a "moral universe", or what we might call more broadly a "valuing community".(6) Clearly the people in any community will differ in their values in many ways. Yet the crucial facts are that they have to live together, and that in general they share a desire to live together with reasonable comity. What we should expect to happen is that the people living in such a community will engage in negotiation to bring about the best overall balance in honoring the values of those within the community. People will express their desires and aversions to one another. They will give one another indications of the urgency of their various desires and aversions. They will engage in various structures, both informal and formal, to mediate the conflicts that arise due to their desires and aversions.

Clearly this account of the emergence of social values is very local in its approach. The historical emergence of human values occurs through a process of developing equilibria among the values of people who find themselves in concrete engagement with one another. The equilibria will become increasingly comprehensive as people find themselves engaging in negotiation with increasingly broader and more diverse groups of other people. Moreover, this process of historical emergence is generally progressive.

In many ways, this account of value formation sounds more descriptive than prescriptive. It would seem to account for the ways in which particular communities develop their collective, community-relative systems of value, but not to provide for the possibility of criticism of those community-relative systems. James does, however, provide an account that both explains the reason for the common neglect of important desires of certain groups in society and also provides a basis for normative criticism of such neglect. In a seldom-read, but important essay, "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings", James argues that people frequently fail to attend to the values of others whose life experiences differ significantly from our own.(7) James's basic position flows from his understanding of epistemology as it is rooted in human psychology. We learn from experience. At the same time, we are not able to take in everything that is within the range of our senses. This much should be obvious. It is unlikely that any of you saw what color my stockings were, even though they were within the range of vision of some of you when I was walking to the front of this room. James attributes this common phenomenon to two facts about human perception. First, the human brain is an information processing system with certain practical limits on its processing ability. Second, because of the limitations on our processing capacity, we experience those things within the range of our sense to which we pay attention.

Thus, even though we learn from our experience, we experience only those phenomena, among the things that are within the range of our senses, that manage to capture our attention or to which we choose to attend. Our experience in general, and our social experience in particular, then, is systematically limited. I, for example, have experienced my entire fifty-five years of life in a male body, with people relating to me in the manner in which people in my society typically relate to males. If women in my society experience systematic social disadvantages merely because they are women, I may very well fail to see it in my own experience.

It should be expected that those whose values and desires are systematically neglected are likely to cry out against control systems that they see is wronging them. Clearly we have seen precisely this kind of outcry from the voices of women and numerous ethnic and other minority groups. With enough outcry, there is some prospect that those whose values and desires are neglected may capture the attention of the rest of the community. At very least, those forces that control the dominant value structures of society find the outcry of those who feel oppressed annoying. They may well initially be inclined to try to ignore the outcry. However, if the outcry becomes loud enough, those who exercise social control will no longer be able to ignore the outcry and will either have to listen to it or to try to suppress it. The society's systems of resolution will sometimes come to accede to the urgency of the oppressed groups' outcry.

Of course, there will also be times when outcry will be ignored. In such cases, it may be that the values that motivated the outcry were in fact less urgent than those who raised the outcry had initially taken them to be. It may also be that the values that motivated the outcry were vitally urgent. People may sometimes be mistaken about the urgency of their own desires and values, taking some of those values to be more urgent than they in fact are. Even more frequently people may, as James noted, be mistaken about the urgency of the desires and values of other people. Sometimes the conflict will escalate beyond what can be resolved by civil or civic structures of conflict resolution, and violence and even revolution or civil war may produce the ultimate resolution of the conflict.

Here we come to the most difficult point, how can the pragmatist account offered above be critical? The crucial point in this pragmatist analysis that protects against such conclusions of extreme relativism is that the resolution of human value conflict can never be final. Just as the present deliverances of the natural sciences should never be expected to give us the final whole truth in our understanding of nature, the present deliverances of value equilibriation should never be expected to give us the final system of human values. As the progress of science leads us, particularly with the development of new investigative technologies, to deeper, more penetrating, and more precise accounts of natural phenomena, with no end in anticipation, so the progress of value emergence should, when people are genuinely prepared to engage in dialogue with one another, lead us to increasingly more inclusive systems of social value. At any point in any society, the equilibrium of value satisfaction that has emerged to that point should never be expected to be anything more than a starting point for the next stage of equilibrium creation. We may have considerable hope for resolving particular concrete value conflicts, but we have no hope of achieving an eternal and perfect resolution.

It is particularly important to note that, on this account, social values do not flow from some grand abstract ethical theory. They also do not emerge from some mathematical process of maximization. To this extent, the account rejects both the transcendental derivation of values advocated by followers of Immanuel Kant and the utilitarianism of followers of John Stuart Mill. Kant spoke of the "kingdom of ends", in which we might speak of genuinely universal moral laws given by "law-making members" capable of understanding what it would mean for various behavior maxims to be universalized. James, by contrast, spoke of "the ethical republic".(8) The ethical republic is much more local. We can speak of systems of values that are serviceable in mediating the social engagement of people living in practical contact with one another, people who need be no more than capable of engaging in conversation with one another about their various social demands and the differential levels of urgency of those demands. It becomes increasingly less local as human beings are required to interact with increasingly broad and diverse groups of other human beings. The underlying principle of the account is far closer to the fairly pedestrian "golden rule", "do to others as you would have them do to you", then to the grand categorical imperative, "do to everyone as you would have everyone do to everyone else". If the person whose desires and values are neglected can catch the attention of the people neglecting those desires and values, the old question, "How would you like it if someone treated you this way?" may well bear some persuasive weight.


Law (9)

My third and final illustration of a pragmatist approach will be in the area of law. The most prominent application of pragmatism to the law was developed in the tradition of Legal Realism. Certainly not coincidentally, the most prominent champion of legal realism was United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes was a long-time friend of William James, and fellow member of The Metaphysical Club during their days together in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As in the cases of the natural sciences and ethics, pragmatism in jurisprudence must affirm that objective legal standards are possible even in the absence of any universal method for deriving particular legal decisions from abstract principles of law. Again as in the cases of the natural sciences and ethics, the challenge to pragmatism in the law is how to avoid the charge that legal realism leaves us with an unprincipled approach to jurisprudence wherein judges are given free reign to decide cases on the basis of nothing more than judicial "hunch". If law is to serve the role of providing the community with a set of behavioral guidelines capable of giving people a reasonably secure understanding of what they can do and what others can do to them within the limits of law, people must be able to anticipate judgments from courts based on something more predictable than judicial whim. Felix Cohen has argued that the realist, pragmatist judge, like the pragmatist natural scientist or the pragmatist trying to live "the moral life", will appeal to a pluralistic, but not arbitrary, set of considerations. The realist judge

will frankly assess the conflicting human values that are opposed in every controversy, appraise the social importance of the precedents to which each claim appeals [and] open the courtroom to all evidence that will bring light to this delicate practical task of social adjustment. ... It is more useful to analyze a judicial "hunch" in terms of the continued impact of a judge's study of precedents, his conversations with associates, his reading of newspapers, and his recollection of college courses, than in strictly psychological terms.(10)

I will illustrate the role of the kinds of considerations to which Cohen appeals by looking at three well-known decisions of the United States Supreme Court. In Lochner v. New York (1905), from which Justice Holmes dissented, the Court ruled unconstitutional the state of New York's statue limiting the number of hours to which employees could be required by contract to work. The basis of the court's decision was a pure formalism. The court maintained that contracts were entered into freely, and therefore constituted a free private arrangement. Therefore, any state infringement on such free contracting constituted a "taking of property" on the part of the state. Thus a statute limiting the work week violated the right of the contracting parties not to be subject to such "taking" without due process of law.

The realist, pragmatist objection to the principles embodied in Lochner are very simple. The reality of free contracting is not reflected in the formality of free contracting. In the time of Adam Smith, 130 years before the Lochner decision, businesses were small and private. Perhaps in the setting in which Smith set out the theory of free markets, contracts between employer and employee could be presumed to be genuinely free. In the time intervening between Smith and Lochner, the reality of business enterprise had changed. As David Ingram notes,

On the old model, employees were "agents" or "servants" assumed to carry out the will of their "masters"; on the new model they were masses of factory workers, whose connection with management was often impersonal and indirect.(11)

With the rise of large scale, managerial business, the conditions of entering into an employment contract had changed, leaving such contracts formally, but perhaps not really, voluntary. Hence the sanctity of employment contracting, and perhaps other kinds of contracting in the context of modern business might not be protected by the United States Constitution. Holmes, in particular, maintained that states should have broad latitude to experiment through democratic processes to determine the real content of such crucial legal notions.

The second and third cases are related. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools are not acceptable under the United States Constitution. In Brown, the Supreme Court overturned the earlier decision, Plessey v. Ferguson (1895), that held that racially segregated accommodations on trains were permitted under the constitution, as long as the accommodations satisfied the formal requirement of being "separate, but equal".

From a purely formalist point of view, it would seem that the equal protection requirement of the Constitution would be satisfied if people of different groups were separated in various public and private commercial settings, as long as they are receiving equal benefit. Hence the "separate but equal" interpretation of the Constitution would seem formally acceptable. On that understanding, the Supreme Court in 1954 might well have required that, while school districts could maintain racially segregated schools, they would be required to have roughly equal per student expenditures for children of each of the segregated races. The central realist objection, however, is that, in a setting where one group of people is exclusively making the decisions about what kinds of treatment all groups of people will receive, we should know that separate will almost certainly be unequal. Certainly, the fifty-nine years of American experience between Plessey and Brown made it abundantly clear to anyone capable of learning from experience that separate had indeed been anything but equal.

These case considerations should make it clear that the pragmatist analysis of legal realists is not at all unprincipled. Rather the principles that are expressed in law, and the meanings of crucial legal notions, are given not in abstract and universal legal formalisms, but in the development of those principles and meanings as they emerge through the historical and concrete circumstances of human social life. This is precisely "the social importance of precedent" of which Cohen spoke.



I noted at the outset of this paper Habermas's contention that the great strength of pragmatism lay in its fallibilism without skepticism, and its naturalism without scientitism. Tom Rockmore gives a somewhat expanded view of the central contentions of pragmatism:

an effort to stake out a meaningful view of knowledge after foundationalism; a concern with the practice as distinguished from the theory of knowledge; a disdain for absolute claims ...; a stress on future results, or consequences; a concern with a collaborative approach to knowledge ...; and an understanding of the subject as real, finite human beings.(12)

In each of the areas at which we have looked in this paper, the natural sciences, ethics, and law, a pragmatist approach acknowledges a diversity of substantive content. Such a diversity is an inevitable result of the fact that human beings are finite creatures who engage their world in a variety of social contexts. At the same time, such an approach rests on the observation that we live together and that we engage in the vast majority of our material and cultural projects together. Accordingly, the need for us to function together, but as individuals each of whom encounters reality from a distinct perspective, must lead us away from the kind of relativisms that would have us living in our own intellectually and culturally isolated caves.

Yet while pragmatism embraces such diversity at the level of content, the cases at which we have looked should provides some kind of inductive evidence for the broad applicability of a pragmatist approach across the full range of natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Accordingly, pragmatism provides a unification of method. At the same time, it should be clear at this point that pragmatism forces a recognition of the artificial character of our various scholarly disciplines, and is therefore a strong and fundamental assertion of transdisciplinarity.

© David E. Schrader (Department of Philosophy, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, USA)


(1) Jürgen Habermas; Postscript: Some Concluding Remarks, in: Mitchell Aboulafia, Myra Bookman, and Catherine Kemp, eds.; Habermas and Pragmatism, New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 228.

(2) David E. Schrader; Simonizing James: Taking Demand Seriously, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4 (Fall, 1998), pp. 1005-28.

(3) See Hilary Kornblith; Introduction: What is Naturalistic Epistemology? in: Ko rnblith, ed.; Naturalizing Epistemology, 2nd ed., Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994, pp. 1, 3.

(4) Philip Kitcher; Science, Truth, and Democracy, New York, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 48.

(5) See Kitcher; Science, Truth, and Democracy.

(6) William James; The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, in: The Will to Believe, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 147.

(7) James; On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings, in: Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life ' s Ideals, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 132.

(8) James; The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, p. 150.

(9) The following discussion of Legal Realism is largely based on David Ingram; The sirens of pragmatism versus the priests of proceduralism: Habermas and American Legal Realism, in: Aboulafia, Bookman, and Kemp, eds.; Habermas and Pragmatism, pp. 83-112, esp. pp. 92-105.

(10) Felix S. Cohen; Transcendental nonsense and the functional approach , 1935, excerpted in: W.W. Fischer, et al., eds.; American Legal Realism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 222-23; cited in: Ingram; Habermas and American Legal Realism, p. 98.

(11) Ingram; Habermas and American Legal Realism, p. 95.

(12) Tom Rockmore; The Epistemological Promise of Pragmatism, in: Abouglafia, Bookman, and Kemp, eds.; Habermas and Pragmatism, p. 49.

1.6. The Unifying Method of the Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences: The Method of Transdisciplinarity

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TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
David E. Schrader (Washington, USA): Pragmatism, Unification, and Transdisciplinarity. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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