The decline of truth from pragmatism to postmodernism
Time: 15:00 - 17:00
This course will be delivered online. See the ‘What is the course about?’ section in course details for more information.
Course Code: HP096
Duration: 11 sessions (over 11 weeks)
What is the course about?
The problem of truth is among the oldest and most difficult in all of philosophy. At is heart is a simple worry: what if there is no way to speak truly? Could it be that every time we think we do so we merely express a subjective opinion or social convention?
Two modern schools of thought have proposed radical responses to these questions. Pragmatists and Postmodernists alike feel forced to abandon the idea of absolute truth, embracing what others have called “relativism”. This course explores how a thinker might be led to such a conclusion and how they might confront its consequences.
We will begin by looking at a precursor to Pragmatism from around 1800: the antinomies of Immanuel Kant.
We then move on to the classical American Pragmatists of a century later: Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey and William James.
In the middle of the twentieth century another strand of American Pragmatism arose, directly influenced by the first, involving such figures as Hilary Putnam, W V O Quine and Richard Rorty. Among these, Rorty in particular proposed an extremely radical position that remains both seductive and controversial. In connection with this we will also look briefly at Berger and Luckmann’s 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality and at issues of relativism arising at the same time in linguistics, anthropology and musicology.
After the 1960s, this strand of thought merged into what has become known as Postmodernism. Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method laid the foundations for a new and controversial philosophy of science in which old notions of the “scientific method” as a quest for truth are set aside. Meanwhile, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition described an emerging world in which the largely agreed-upon sources of truth in society are usurped by an anarchic struggle. We will look at extracts from both.
This is a live online course. You will need:
- Internet connection. The classes work best with Chrome.
- A computer with microphone and camera is best (e.g. a PC/laptop/iMac/MacBook), or a tablet/iPad/smart phone/iPhone if you don't have a computer.
We will contact you with joining instructions before your course starts.
What will we cover?
The course will be based around discussions of the selected texts and driven by your own interests, but we will likely discuss most of the following:
- Kant’s antinomies as an early expression of the limits of truth.
- Ideas about truth expressed by:
- The classical American Pragmatists (Peirce, Dewey, James)
- Mid-century thinkers such as Putnam, Quine and Rorty
- Post-1970 thinkers such as Feyerabend and Lyotard
- Issues of relativism in a selection of other fields, including anthropology, musicology and linguistics.
What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...
• Explain some philosophical motivations for adopting a pragmatic or relativistic attitude towards truth.
• Describe the issues (and even dangers) that such a position can raise.
• Take up a stance of your own in this debate.
• Outline the views of the principal thinkers in the Pragmatist tradition.
What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?
This course has no specific prerequisites. Good English language skills are essential; all texts will be provided in English translations. Some previous study of Western philosophy would be beneficial but is not essential.
How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?
We will use a mixture of presentation and discussion in class, with the emphasis on the latter. To get the most out of the course you will need to do some reading between classes (usually about 20-30 pages per week).
Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?
No, all required materials will be supplied during the course.
When I've finished, what course can I do next?
You might be interested in HP096 - Elegant Radicals, starting in April 2021.
Rich is a programmer, writer and educator with a particular interest in creative practice. In his previous career he worked as a software developer in the CIty, first at a dot-com startup and later at a top-tier investment bank where he worked mostly on trading floor systems and got to play with a wide range of languages and technologies. He now teaches coding and maths-related courses full time. Besides his work at City Lit he also teaches at Central Saint Martins, the Architecture Association and the Photographer's Gallery and is the author of two books about mathematics. His technical collaborations with artists have been shown at, among others, the Hayward gallery, the V&A, the ICA and Camden Arts Centre. He has a BSc in Mathematics from the Open University. He also has a BA in English Literature and a PhD in philosophy (both from Cardiff). He continues to teach a little philosophy and literature, especially as they intersect with his other interests, and as a partner in Minimum Labyrinth he has brought these ideas to wider audiences in collaboration with the Museum of London, the Barbican and various private sponsors.
Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.