Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Neo-pragmatist Philosophy of Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_145



Neo-pragmatism refers to the developments of pragmatism of the early twentieth century originated by Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey. These developments are introduced by people like Nelson Goodman, Willard Van Orman Quine, Richard Rorty, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Bernstein. Neo-pragmatism shows an important development of the early pragmatism because of the emphasis that neo-pragmatism puts on language, which shows its accommodation to the linguistic turn in the philosophy of the twentieth century. While according to pragmatism action is what should be at stake, neo-pragmatism shows the importance of language in dealing with action. Thus, neo-pragmatism draws our attention to the roles description and redescription play in the actual change of problematic situations.

What makes neo-pragmatism important for education is the very emphasis it puts on language in addition to action as the language is a pivotal point in educational relationships. While the early pragmatist philosophy of education put action at the center and analytic philosophy of education replaced it by language, neo-pragmatism can be considered as a middle way in integrating both action and language. Among the abovementioned figures, Quine and Rorty are chosen exactly because of the importance language has found in their views even though in different ways. This is not to say that the other figures’ views do not have significant implications for philosophy of education. Even though I use the famous term “philosophy of education,” it should be noted that the term turns to be rather infamous in the hands of Quine and Rorty. This is because both of them oppose the view that philosophy, philosophy of education included, is a distinct branch from science or other human interests. As Wain (2001, p. 173) aptly points out, we should take it that Rorty (and Quine as well) talks about education philosophically: “The important distinction needs to be made here between writing about education philosophically and having this discipline called philosophy of education.”

Rorty has been at the center of attention in philosophy of education compared to Quine (e.g., Peters and Ghiraldelli 2001). However, Quine’s ideas have also been inspiring in the realm of philosophy of education (e.g., Walker and Evers 1988). In what follows, implications of Quine’s and Rorty’s versions of neo-pragmatism will be explored briefly.

The Main Concept of Education

Each one of the two philosophers would have his own insight on what education is. In dealing with Quine’s view, it is better to say first what education is not. Regarding Quine’s rejection of analytic/synthetic distinction, as well as his dissatisfaction of necessity in modal logic, one can conclude that any kind of definition of education in terms of some necessary components will not be acceptable in neo-pragmatism. Thus, essentialist and quasi-essentialist definitions of education should be excluded from a neo-pragmatist philosophy of education. Such definitions can be found in the works of analytic philosophers of education such as Richard Peters. Looking for some necessary conditions of using the word education, he states that it would be a logical contradiction to say that a person is educated while no positive change has occurred to him or her (Peters 1966, p. 25). In other words, Peters considers the positive change as a necessary condition for a true usage of the word education.

Quine, however, would not accept such a definition because, on the one hand, it rests on the analytic/synthetic distinction since Peters is looking for a priori characteristics of education. On the other hand, he appeals to the modal logic where he talks in terms of necessity.

Now, what definition would a Quineian suggest for education? Quine’s holistic stance requires that a definition is understood in terms of the theory that includes the definition. Even though, accordingly, a particular definition can be compatible with more than one theory, it does not follow that the definition is theory-free; rather, one should only conclude that the definition can have more than one theoretical position.

According to Quine’s holism, the analytic adequacy in defining education is dependent on the empirical adequacy of the theory in which the definition is advanced (Evers 1979). For instance, the behaviorist theory defines education in terms of “shaping” behavior by means of the so-called conditioning laws. One cannot decide about the adequacy of this definition independent of the fate of the behaviorist theory as an empirical theory.

Rorty’s contribution in defining education is inspired by Gadamer’s (1989) concept of Bildung. According to Rorty, while it was a dominant view in the Western philosophy to consider knowledge as the aim of thinking, Gadamer takes the aim of thinking as Bildung or education and self-formation. Even though speculation about Bildung dates back to the eighteenth century, Gadamer, following Hegel who has had special influence on Gadamer, gave an epistemological dimension to Bildung; what, according to Gadamer, thinkers of that century were “unable to offer any epistemological justification for it” (Gadamer 1989, p. 15). Gadamer brings Bildung to the same point where he makes horizons meet (“fusion of horizons”) and thereby opens up a less biased sphere for human thought:

That is what, following Hegel, we emphasized as the general characteristic of Bildung: keeping oneself open to what is other — to other, more universal points of view. It embraces a sense of proportion and distance in relation to itself, and hence consists in rising above itself to universality. To distance oneself from oneself and from one’s private purposes means to look at these in the way that others see them. This universality is by no means a universality of the concept or understanding. This is not a case of a particular being determined by a universal; nothing is proved conclusively. The universal viewpoints to which the cultivated man (gebildet) keeps himself open are not a fixed applicable yardstick, but are present to him only as the viewpoints of possible others. Thus the cultivated consciousness has in fact more the character of a sense. (Gadamer 1989, pp. 15–16)

This Gadamerian step toward opening up ways for closed minds in order to relate to one another provides Rorty with a new glass to look at education in terms of “edification”:

Since “education” sounds a bit flat, and Bildung a bit too foreign, I shall use “edification” to stand for this project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking. The attempt to edify (ourselves or others) may consist in the hermeneutic activity of making connections between our own culture and some exotic culture or historical period, or between our own discipline and another discipline which seems to pursue incommensurable aims in an incommensurable vocabulary. (Rorty 1979, p. 360)

Thus, by suggesting edification, Rorty intends to consider education as a process by which we can save ourselves from a dominant paradigm and its normalcy and approach other paradigms and thereby innovate ourselves. Rorty holds that Gadamer rightly differentiated instruction from education because the former by looking for objectivity goes under the dominance of normal science, whereas the latter by taking distance from objectivity can save us from normalcy:

Gadamer’s attempt to fend off the demand (common to Mill and Carnap) for “objectivity” in the Geisteswissenschaften is the attempt to prevent education from being reduced to instruction in the results of normal inquiry. More broadly, it is the attempt to prevent abnormal inquiry from being viewed as suspicious solely because of its abnormality. (Rorty 1979, p. 363)

Rorty’s drive in embracing Gadamer’s view is due to Rorty’s pragmatist tendency to undermine representation in knowledge and to look for communication, understanding, and solidarity as the aim of knowledge. When communication, rather than truth, becomes the aim of knowledge, then risk taking in approaching other paradigms turns to be a component of education as edification. That is while Rorty (1989) takes the first phase of education as socialization, he considers the second phase, namely, the period of university, as an opportunity for individuation and irony in undermining current norms. Rorty considers the two elements of solidarity and individuation as two parallel aspects of education that need to be taken as incommensurable. In the meantime, the first element is a necessary background for the second element. According to Rorty, irony and critique requires that something is assimilated and accepted in the first place. Thus, along with Gadamer, he would consider the initial biases and prejudices during the first phase of education, namely, socialization, as inevitable. However, when it comes to the second phase, the educated person would be expected to take an ironic standpoint against the very norms assimilated in the first phase. In the second phase, Rorty is somehow different from Gadamer. While Gadamer talks about “fusion of horizons,” Rorty’s ironist is subversive and ruthless in undermining the norms assimilated in the first place.

Educational Research

One of the questions a philosopher of education should deal with concerns the natures of educational research. Walker and Evers (1988) state that a Quineian would reject both “oppositional diversity thesis” and “complementary diversity thesis.” By the former, they mean the research strategy inspired by Thomas Kuhn in which paradigms, being incommensurable, are the bases for doing a research. The latter is an integrative research strategy in which different views are accepted side by side as complementary. Integration of quantitative and qualitative research strategies is an example.

However, according to Walker and Evers, a Quineian would embrace a “unity thesis” as the research strategy. This is due to Quine’s holistic view according to which the unit is the total of science. For Quine, philosophy, logic, mathematics, physics, etc., are interwoven as a “seamless web.” Quine’s view, as a pragmatist orientation, puts the emphasis on problem-solving capability of a theory. Being a materialist, Quine tends to naturalize any mentalist conceptualization as it is clear in his tendency to naturalize epistemology. In this way, however, any belief can in principle be used in the structure of a theory in so far as it can lead a theory to a more capable one in solving problems. According to Quine, Homer’s Gods and electrons are “posits” and in this regard are at the same bar. The vital point is whether a theory being inclusive of its own posits becomes more capable in dealing with problems.

These general lines of Quineian view pave the ground for realization of the characteristics of educational research. Accordingly, there is no basic difference between an educational and non-educational research. What is important is to use the guidelines such as providing coherence within a theory as well as between a theory and evidence in a bilateral way (adjust the theory to evidence and vice versa) and, at the top priority, empirical adequacy in problem solving.

This top priority for problem solving is also acceptable for Rorty. As a pragmatist, he also tries to get rid of representation as the aim of research and, instead, evaluate beliefs in terms of their consequences in providing a better condition for living.

As far as research “method” is concerned, Rorty takes the stance of “against method” along with Gadamer and Feyerabend. Rorty prevents us from the obsession of objectivity and invites us exclusively to communication and solidarity and looks in it for every desirable thing expected in doing research. Thus, while epistemology undermines the usual dialogue, Rorty undermines epistemology by emphasizing on research as a usual dialogue: “From the educational, as opposed to the epistemological or the technological, point of view, the way things are said is more important than the possession of truths” (Rorty 1979, p. 359).


Quine’s holistic view of knowledge has also implications for curriculum. While an analytic philosopher of education can talk about curriculum in terms of forms of knowledge that leads to providing distinct subject matters for curriculum, a Quineain neo-pragmatist would reject it by relying on Quine’s view on the web of knowledge as a seamless web. A neo-pragmatist can of course accept different subject matters in so far as they fulfill a pragmatic purpose, but this would be no more than a division of braches of knowledge that a librarian uses in providing a practically useful library. However, any kind of essentialist view on knowledge branches will be rejected in a neo-pragmatist curriculum:

Names of disciplines should be seen only as technical aids in the organization of curricula and libraries; a scholar is better known by the individuality of his problems than by the name of his discipline. (Quine 1981, p. 88)

Even though ironically Quine talks about the organization of curricula in terms of disciplines, this should be understood as referring to the current way of organizing curricula. However, taking note of the neo-pragmatist’s conception of knowledge, one can conclude that what is preferable for a neo-pragmatist is to organize the curriculum around problems without committing oneself to disciplines. By putting problems at the center, a neo-pragmatist would recommend more an interdisciplinary approach than a disciplinary one.

Rorty will surely support this preference for problem solving in organizing curriculum because he also understands subject matters in terms of practical matters:

The line between novels, newspapers articles, and sociological research get blurred. The lines between subject matters are drawn by reference to current practical concerns, rather than putative ontological status. (Rorty 1982, p. 203)

But what is notable in the case of Rorty’s view is his suggestion for providing a new language in the second phase of education, namely, in university:

One way to change instinctive emotional reactions is to provide new language which will facilitate new reactions. By “new language” I mean not just new words but also creative misuses of language—familiar words used in ways which initially sound crazy. Something traditionally regarded as a moral abomination can become an object of general satisfaction, or conversely, as a result of the increased popularity of an alternative description of what is happening. Such popularity extends logical space by making descriptions of situations which used to seem crazy seem sane. (Rorty 1994, p. 126)

Examples of Rorty here are homosexuality and extirpation of minorities. While the description of homosexuality as expression of devotion was considered crazy in the past, the scene changes in the present. Likewise, the description of extirpation of minorities as purification is taken at most times as crazy, but at certain times, e.g., under the Nazi, it sounds sane by using a new language. Rorty’s emphasis on providing a new language in education is in line with his insistence to include individuation and irony in education.


To conclude, neo-pragmatism pushes the early pragmatism toward either a stronger holism, as is the case with Quine, or a more linguistic orientation in dealing with action as Rorty urges us to believe. The holistic trend in the realm of education lessens the entire emphasis on changing “the world” during problem solving and shows the importance of “the word” in line with Quine’s “semantic ascent.” The holism invites us to understand the concept of education in terms of the encompassing theory, as it shows the vital role the coherence between theory and evidence plays in educational research and blurs the boundaries among subject matters in curriculum. The linguistic trend, in its turn, undermines any “final vocabulary” and embraces redescriptions and “new languages.” Thus, the concept of education needs to be understood in terms of edification, as educational research should be carried out in the way of a dialogue and consensus and curriculum should be saved from rigidity due to the illusion of objective differences among subject matters.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Psychology and EducationUniversity of TehranTehranIslamic Republic of Iran