PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday April 9, 2013


[7.1.3.] No Strict Boundary Between Fact and Value.


Rorty’s second way of characterizing pragmatism is as follows:


...there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and truth about what is, nor any metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science. (640)


Rorty is picking up on a theme we’ve seen in Dewey and that also appears in James’s works: the rejection of the idea that there is a deep distinction between fact and value.



[] The Fact-Value Gap.


The Traditional View (of knowledge, truth, reality, etc.) has frequently been accompanied by the assumption that there is a deep distinction between fact and value...




the way things are

the way things should be


prescriptive / normative

the realm of science

the realm of ethics / moral theory

known empirically (through the senses)

known by some other means,

if they can be known at all


The distinction is illustrated nicely in a famous passage by David Hume (1711-1776):


Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice ... You can never find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, toward this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ‘tis the object of feeling, not reason. (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1738)


Hume’s famous view was that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” The way things actually are implies nothing about the way things should be. A description of all the facts of a murder scene will not include statements like “The murder was wrong,” nor will it imply such statements.



[] James and Dewey.


Both James and Dewey held views that imply that there is no sharp distinction between fact and value.


James’s views that tend to blur the distinction between facts and values include the following:

·         James described himself as a “radical” empiricist, meaning: (1) like a traditional empiricist, he took sense perception to be an important source of our knowledge about the world, but (2) he was open to beliefs about things which could not be perceived with the senses, e.g., religious and moral beliefs. (“What Pragmatism Means,” 293)

·         James’s view of truth as “the good in the way of belief” (305) and “the expedient in the way of our thinking” (322) implies that truths are not limited to claims that can be confirmed empirically. If a claim proves to have some value for our lives, if it shows itself to be useful on the whole and in the long run, then it is true. This counts for factual descriptions as well as for moral claims.

·         James held that moral inquiry relies on experience just as much as scientific inquiry. There is no complete, and completely true, system of morality in the here and now, waiting for us to discover it; ethical inquiry cannot be complete until “the last man has had his experience and said his say.” (“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” 248).


Dewey’s views that tend to blur the distinction between facts and values include the following:

·         According to Dewey’s conception of experience, experience is not limited to sense perception of the world outside the mind. Experience is the interaction of a complex organism with its (equally complex) environment, an interaction in which the organism continually adjusts its own actions in anticipation of thereby changing its environment in order to bring about improved experiences in the future. Traditionally, experience was thought of as being limited to sense perception, and on that traditional view, values are not revealed to us in experience. But on Dewey’s new conception of experience, values are revealed in experience, and are thus real: “If experience actually presents esthetic and moral traits, then these traits may also be supposed to reach down into nature, and to testify to something that belongs to nature as truly as does the mechanical structure attributed to it in physical science.”[1]



[] Rorty on the Fact/Value Gap.


One plausible way of interpreting James and Dewey is as trying to make moral inquiry just as legitimate as scientific inquiry. They are responding to the denigration of moral claims and trying to show that such claims are just as important, have just as much claim on our attention, as factual, empirical claims. Some of Rorty’s description of James’s and Dewey’s pragmatism supports this way of reading those classical philosophers:


The great fallacy of the tradition [i.e., the tradition of Western philosophy from Plato through Descartes and into the early 20th century], the pragmatists tell us, is to think that the metaphors of vision, correspondence, mapping, picturing, and representation which apply to small, routine assertions will apply to large and debatable ones. [Think of James’s example of a true visual image of a clock being a copy of it, but our idea of the elasticity of the springs inside the clock not being a copy in any ordinary sense. See p.311] This basic error begets the notion that where there are no objects to correspond to we have no hope of rationality, but only taste, passion, and will. When the pragmatist attacks the notion of truth as accuracy of representation he is thus attacking the traditional distinctions between reason and desire, reason and appetite, reason and will. For none of these distinctions make sense unless reason is thought of on the model of vision, unless we persist in what Dewey called “the spectator theory of knowledge.” (641)


Again, a  possible reading of James and Dewey is that they are trying to make moral beliefs and judgments, which do not “copy” reality, just as legitimate as empirical, scientific beliefs and judgments, the simplest of which (at least according to James) do “copy” reality (in some sense).


But Rorty seems to be trying to show that scientific inquiry is no more legitimate than moral inquiry. He seems to be responding to the elevation of factual claims over moral claims and trying to show that scientific claims are no more important, should have no more claim on our attention, than moral claims:


Even nonpragmatists think Plato was wrong to think of moral philosophy as discovering the essence of goodness, and Mill and Kant wrong in trying to reduce moral choice to rule. But every reason for saying that they were wrong is a reason for thinking the epistemological tradition wrong in looking for the essence of sci­ence, and in trying to reduce rationality to rule. For the pragmatists, the pattern of all inquiry—scientific as well as moral—is deliberation concerning the relative attractions of various concrete alternatives. The idea that in science or philosophy we can substitute “method” for deliberation between alternative results of speculation is just wish­ful thinking. (640, emphasis added)


·         In ethics, there is no mechanical, purely rational procedure we can follow to figure out, in any situation, what’s right and what’s not. The best we can do is discuss and deliberate about the “relative attractions of various concrete alternatives.”[2]

·         But according to Rorty, the same is true about all other areas of inquiry (including science and philosophy): there is no uniquely rational method available to scientists or philosophers that give them access to truth. The best they can do is what the rest of us do in moral inquiry: deliberate about the “relative attractions of various concrete alternatives.”


In summary:

·         Neither ethical nor empirical inquiry is constrained “by the ahistorical and nonhuman nature of reality itself. ...” (641)

·         In both sorts of inquiry, all we are constrained by, all that we can appeal to, are “the ordinary, retail, detailed, concrete reasons which have brought one to one’s present view.” (642)




Stopping point for Tuesday April 9. For next time, begin reading Rorty’s “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism” (657-67).




[1] “Experience and Philosophic Method,” not in your textbook. This reflects Dewey’s rejection of intellectualism, the view according to which only the objects of thinking or cognition are real.

[2] In saying this, Rorty is very deliberately rejecting the rather mechanical methods of moral inquiry endorsed by Mill (just figure out which of the various options you have will result in the greatest increase in happiness) and by Kant (just figure out whether a rational being an will that a given rule be adopted universally).


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