Pragmatism, the Given, and Dewey’s Notion of Experience



            That pragmatism is anti-foundational is a familiar enough thesis.  Often it is taken that pragmatism’s anti-foundationalism also requires or is posited upon a rejection of the Myth of the Given.[1]  Here, I will argue that the pragmatist rejection of the Given is mistaken on two counts.  First, that the standard pragmatist arguments against the Myth of the Given are inconclusive – they either beg the question against, equivocate on conceptions of, or, when properly understood, presuppose the Myth.  Second, that the Myth of the Given is consistent with and, in fact, entailed by a Deweyan pragmatic theory of experience and the broader pragmatist commitment to inquiry.



To avoid the unfortunate rhetorical difficulties of defending a theory termed a ‘myth,’ let me first propose that we, for the purposes here, call the theory of givens a ‘doctrine.’  There are two constitutive features of the doctrine of the given (DG).[2]  They are:

DG1: Subjects have direct non-inferential cognitive awareness of the content

and/or character of some of their non-doxastic representations, experiences, and apprehensions.

DG2: Some, if not all, of a subject’s beliefs are justified on the basis of that subject’s

awareness of her representations, experiences, and apprehensions.

A few notes need to be made about the DG so as to hold off the straw-manning afoot in many responses to it.  Though the DG is consistent with a strong epistemic foundationalism, it does not entail it.  DG2 does not require infallible, incorrigible, or indubitable access to the Given, nor does it require full reduction to the Given for semantic or justificatory status.  The doctrine of the given is consistent with modest foundationalist, (impure) coherentist, contextualist, virtue-theoretic, and instrumentalist theories of justification.  So, anti-foundationalist arguments do not, by themselves, demonstrate that DG is false.  In fact, I will argue that the DG is required for pragmatism’s instrumentalist epistemology.

Admittedly, there’s something ironic about any argument that there is a Given.  If there is, it should go without saying, yes?  The fact of an argument for it effectively concedes that there isn’t.  It’s a performative contradiction.[3]  But let us not lose our heads over this.  To hold the performative inconsistency at bay, allow me to characterize arguments about the Given as arguments that it is required  for justification and arguments that its role in our cognitive life is not mysterious or unintelligible.  A good deal of arguments against the existence of the Given proceed along these lines, so take my arguments as addressing them.

            But the old performative problem may dog the modest solution: surely if there is a Given and if it’s required and if it’s intelligible, then wouldn’t that be given?  It’s here that it’s not longer a performative problem, though.  It may not be a given that the Given is intelligible for some theories.  It may be intelligible for the theorizers, but they themselves may not think it is.  Or they may be confused about what they’ve got philosophical theories about.  We may, though we appeal to it, not notice it.  Resistance to the Given on this puzzle is a levels-confusion of epistemic assessment, as there is a difference between having it a given that p having it given that it is given that p.  It surely is possible to have reasons to believe something but not see them as such.  The DG is only a commitment to there being epistemically independent reasons provided by experience, not to our assessment of them as such.

            A further response to such challenges to the Given is to say things like the following.  Sentient beings qua sentient beings must have some direct, non-inferential access to some of their experiential states (what else would sentience be?).  That’s the Given.  Insofar as you’re conscious, you’re conscious of something.  Without some content or other being perspicuous to you, you wouldn’t be conscious.  That’s the Given.  Close your eyes, and think the following: there’s a piece of paper in front of you.  Next, open your eyes, and look at the paper in your hands (yes, the one you’re reading right now).  Now think there’s a piece of paper in front of you.  The two thoughts have different support, and the second had support from a visual experience.  That’s the Given.[4]

We are all familiar enough with the epistemic inferential regress problem.  One way to solve it is to say that some premisses for inference (and some inference rules) recommend themselves in ways that others do not.  The proposition <This is my hand>, though it may not by necessity (with the closure principle) refute the skeptic, certainly, under certain experiential conditions (namely, the conditions of having the visual impression of having my hand in front of me), has more going for it than the propositions <This is a pumpkin> or <My dog is very large>.   Presumably, this is because the impression I have in my visual field is something like being-appeared-to-hand-ly, and I have some other kinaesthetic awareness of what I’m doing with myself.  It’s not got the kind of representational content that would ground the other two kind of propositions.

Virtually nobody, of course, denies whether experience gives us knowledge about the world and that we have a special relation to our own experiences.  I’m the one who’s in the best position to know when I’m thirsty, I can’t have somebody else’s headache, and so on.  The issue with the Doctrine of the Given is how such a status is possible.  Recently, a variety of challenges to the DG concerning it as an epistemic theory have arisen.  Sellars (1963) and Davidson’s (1983) dilemma for a theory of the Given is exemplary.[5]  The dilemma is simply that one may buy DG1, but only at the price of DG2, and vice versa.  On the one hand, so the dilemma runs, if the contents of our experiences are non-doxastic, then they require no further beliefs for their epistemic status, but they, because they are not beliefs, cannot stand in inferential relations to propositions.  Only propositional contents can be premisses or conclusion for inferences.  As a consequence, they may be justified, but they cannot justify.  On the other hand, if they do have content, then, if they are to have any epistemic status, they must have it on the basis of some other contents.  As a consequence, they can justify, but must be justified.

            The dilemma, however, elides two important distinctions.  First, DG requires only that the given be non-doxastic, which leaves open the possibility that it be conceptually or propositionally contentful.  If the Given is conceptually articulated or propositional, then it most certainly is capable of standing in inferential relations with beliefs.[6]  If the Given is non-conceptual or non-propositional, it does not follow that it may not stand in stand in a loosely inferential or cognitive relation.  Such relations may be interpretive (BonJour 2002), abductive (Moser 1989; McGrew 1995), or proprietary (Chisholm 1957; Feldman 2002) between beliefs and their correlate non-propositional contents which may yield justification.   To hold otherwise is to yield entirely to the doxastic presumption that only beliefs may justify, which, given what is at issue here, begs the question outright.[7]  The bottom line: simply because what’s given in experience is not a belief, it does not follow that it may not bear an epistemic relation to other beliefs.

            Secondly, the dilemma elides the pragmatics of a subject’s (S) use of ‘seems’ talk with the semantics of such talk.  There is a difference between someone saying aloud, “That truck looks red,” or “That truck seems red to me,” and the truck seeming red to that subject.  The difference can be captured by the following considerations.  S utters the sentences above only in circumstances where the claim <the truck is red> is in some question – relevant defeaters may obtain… perhaps the light is strange (it is dusk) or the truck went by very quickly.  So, the claim, if it has the requisite pragmatic content, has it because it’s been inferred from commitments about the wider surroundings.  And if it has default justificatory status, it has it only because it cannot be directly challenged.  Moreover, on the Sellarsian story, our subject is justified in saying it seems this way on the basis of an inference from the details of the context.  ‘Seems’ talk, then, is not inferentially autonomous. 

But the semantic background here is belied.  A Gricean (1975) story easily clears up the confusion.  The rule that S should use ‘seems’ talk only in conditions of defeat derives from the rules of quality and quantity.  S would break the rule of quality were she to fail to use ‘seems’ in circumstances of imminent defeat, as she would propose something for which she lacks evidence.  She would break the rule of quantity were she to use ‘seems’ talk in unproblematic circumstances, because, there, she is warranted in saying more.  To use ‘seems’ talk in such unproblematic contexts would not be formally wrong or false, but unpragmatic, unwieldy, obtuse, inefficient.   Because we normally take our perceptions to be reliable guides to what we see, we just report in the object-language rather than about our perceptual experiences.[8]  The claim that ‘seems’ talk is inferentially dependent on judgments of defeat conflates the pragmatics of self-attributions of ‘seems’ with the seemings being attributed.  As a consequence, the Sellars-Davidson dilemma either begs the question or is equivocal.  For the given to be a myth, of course, it needs to be false, not just obtuse.

Moreover, the elision of pragmatic considerations with semantic-epistemic considerations belies a deeper point – namely, that the speaker in such a situation knows that she has an inclination to say that something was red.  Sellars does not have a story to tell as to how the speaker had to infer this.  On Sellars’ account, such a position is our speaker’s starting point, and it is precisely what those who argue for the existence of the Given have been pointing to all along.  So, the use of ‘seems’ talk may be inferential, in that one must make inferences about the context to index the utterances with ‘seems’ qualifications correctly, but that does not imply that one must make an inference about what one seems to see.  In fact, the story presupposes it.[9]  So, though Sellars’ account successfully shows that ‘seems’ talk is pragmatically inferential, it depends on the thought that the seemings themselves are epistemically non-inferential. 

A further Quinean challenge awaits this strategy, though.  Translation between competing languages or conflicting forms of life yields a good deal of resistance to the semantic atomism driving DG2 and this defense against Sellars’ dilemma.   According to DG2, a subject can access the content and justificatory status of a representation by attending only to it, not by considering anything else.  This thought runs afoul of the doctrine of holism – namely, that a representation (or cognitive state) has meaning and epistemic status only in the case that it is relevantly connected to a variety of other states, and the meaning of that state is constituted by those relations

            So take, for example, the classic Quinean argument from radical translation.  Our field linguist translates the utterance ‘gavagai’ as ‘rabbit.’ We might at first think the matter is secured only by simple ostension… I mean that by ‘gavagai.’ But things are slippery, because such pointings do not settle questions as to the ontology of what’s been ostended – rabbits, undetached rabbit parts, rabbit stages, etc (1969, 29-32).  The issue here is not of the ontological ambiguity of natural languages (as if we were to have to distinguish Heraclitus from Democritus to do the work of translation).[10]  Rather, there is no fact of the matter or museum of meanings in the speaker’s mind to which our translator must be true.  Such meanings are inscrutable, because there’s nothing to scrutinize.  As a consequence, DG1 is in real trouble – there is no content with which a subject is capable of being in direct contact.

            But how this Quinean point is relevant to DG generally is only by equivocation.  There is a difference between ‘significance’ in terms of meaning or reference, and ‘significance’ in terms of importance, or value.     So far, the holist style argument only warrants a holism of the second kind of significance – things have the behavioral importance they do only when they are means in a life with ends.[11]  Without those ends, they have no instrumental value.  But it is unclear how this yields the former kind of significance (reference).  Take the following toy example:  In Shakespeare’s England, people (and presumably Shakespeare, too) thought that tomatoes were poisonous.  They avoided tomatoes, and this is even part of why people threw rotten ones at bad playwrights (I actually don’t know that this last part is right, but it’s my thought experiment).   Given that Shakespeare and I have such different relevant inferences associated with the concept ‘tomato,’ it would seem to follow that if someone held up a bulgy, red, fruity-looking object and asked us what it was, we may both say, “It’s a tomato,” but we’d mean  different things.  (If the holism is true, then we would.)  If that’s the case about reference significance, would we be in disagreement about whether tomatoes are poisonous?  On the holist theory, it seems we wouldn’t, because what Shakespeare means by ‘tomato’ is that red, poisonous, bulgy, red fruit, not what goes on my sandwiches.[12]  But Shakespeare was wrong about tomatoes.  Certainly it isn’t right to say that there’s no fact of the matter as to what people can mean in this situation.  If that’s so, then not just these disagreements aren’t intelligible, but also that between Democritus and Heraclitus. 

            The consequence, then, is that the semantic autonomy of some features of cognitive life is necessary for translation between schemes of belief.  For me to say that folks in Elizabethan England were wrong in their belief that tomatoes are poisonous, there has to be some feature of that belief (and something semantically relevant to that feature) that doesn’t depend on a relation to all the other beliefs those folks had.  Insofar as people can disagree, there needs to be some inferentially independent and sui generis source of information in cognitive life.  Otherwise, the deeper and more widespread the disagreement, the less intelligible they would be as disagreements.[13]  

A further point is that the Quinean holism itself is implicated in the theory of the Given.  For example, take Quine’s classic case for fallibilism and holism in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”:

Any statement can be held true come what may, if we take drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.  Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws.  Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision (1963, 43).

Note that ‘pleading hallucination’ is not a case of revising a commitment about the contents of an experience, but rather a revision of its veridicality.  Quine seems to concede here that we don’t change the content of what we hallucinate, but only that we change our minds about how such experiences can support other beliefs about the world.  Surely this is no argument against the theory of the Given, since arguments for a Given element of experience often proceed from the fact of hallucinations – namely, that there is a non-doxastic element of experience that is not constrained by the norms of belief.  Such a fallibalist-holist point is, in the end, not at all inconsistent with, and even presumes, that there is such an element to experience.  The point of Quine’s fallibalist holism is to show how one may hold that any statement is true in the face of “recalcitrant experience” with revisions to other beliefs and principles, and it seems plausible that one may do so, but what is necessary for the story at all is the background notion of recalcitrant experience to which our subject’s beliefs must in the end either accord with or explain away.  As long as Quine’s own account leaves the recalcitrance of the experiences alone, it seems that they themselves are not subject to the same holist requirements for their meaning.  That and what they are must be givens.




Pragmatists can accept the DG.  I’ll use Dewey as my test piece, but I think the conclusions can be generalized.

            Dewey’s theory of experience is designed to give a unified account of cognitive and practical activity – the two are not only mutually supportive, but mutually implicated.  We do not have disjointed sensory events, disembodied representations, then turn to theorize, and then finally bring ourselves to act.  Rather, there is a continuum of perception, experience, and action.  The seeing-that informs the doing-that, and vice versa.

            Now, the Given, from this perspective, is a postulate, a product of analysis and reconstruction (LW 1:116).  Dewey leaves it at that – because we’ve ended up, say as a response to the regress problem, with postulates, it doesn’t follow that we start with them.  The inference that we always start with such states is an instantiation of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, a mistaking our experience to be “primarily a knowledge-affair” (MW 10:6).  Dewey offers the following model in its place:

On the active end, experience is trying – a meaning which is made explicit in the connected term experiment.  On the passive, it is undergoing.  When we experience something, we act upon it, we do something to it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences.  We do something to the thing and it does something to us in return. (MW 9:146).

Experience is simultaneous doing and suffering, and it is a continuous process.[14]  But this theory of experiential soup is not incapable of accommodating the thoughts behind DG. 

            First, it seems the theory that all experience is experimental is an overstatement.  Here’s how.  Fred has a headache.  It’s hard to see how that’s an experiment.  Fred’s taking some aspirin may be an experiment, but the headache?  Now, the point may be that headaches qua headaches are part of experiments, say the part where, as Dewey said before, “we suffer the consequences.”  But this is now a different theory.  If headaches are parts, then some experiences don’t have this global-experimental feature, but are consequences of or lead us to experiments.

            Further, Sally and Fred both have headaches.  Perhaps as a result of an experiment with a bottle of cheap Scotch.  They are both severely hung over, so let’s agree that they are having relevantly similar experiences.  Throbbing head, light sensitivity, the nagging desire to drink a pot of coffee and eat of plate of bacon.  Let’s say Sally and Fred use different hangover cures.  Advil and Sprite for Sally.  Apple juice and a nap for Fred.  Now, insofar as it’s right to say that Sally and Fred have different solutions for the same kind of problem, it’s right to say that their hangover experiences have at least some content accessible independently of the experiment of hangover cure.  Otherwise, we’d have to say that hangovers are uncomfortable because we try to cure them, instead of we try to cure them because they are uncomfortable. 

As a consequence, for the experiment to even make sense, the experiences have to have some form of independent character accessible only by looking to them.  Headaches are uncomfortable no matter how you get them… whiskey, a bump to the head, lectures on (fill in the blank blowhard philosopher)  And they are uncomfortable no matter how you cure them… more Advil, more sleep, more cheap Scotch.

            So far, all of this is consistent with a non-overstated Deweyan theory of experience.  Further, take Dewey’s contrast with the empiricists:

            Empiricism is conceived as tied up with what has been, or is ‘given.’  But experience in

its vital form is experimental, an effort to change the given; it is characterized by

projection, by reaching forward into the unknown; connection with the future is its ‘salient trait’ (MW 10:6, emphasis mine).

First, the theory is not a rejection of the given, but placing the given in a broader, future-oriented context.  Experience in its vital form, experience when we are doing something, is the crucial qualification.  In fact, Dewey’s claim is analytic so far:  The experience of doing is characterized by activity.  My point here, though, is not to unmask a tautology behind Dewey’s theory of experience, but to show that even with the emphasis on action, futurity, and experimentalism, a feature of cognitive life as given may (and must) persist.  The point of futurity in the contrast with empiricism is not that the pragmatist must reject givens, but rather that the pragmatist theory is about how vital experience is devoted to changing what’s given.  Now, for someone to change the given, it seems pretty clear that there has to be a given.  As such, the contrast with empiricists shouldn’t be recognized as a contrast which runs: they have the given and pragmatists reject it.  Instead, the contrast should run: empiricists are interested in what we can understand (synchronically) in terms of the given, pragmatists are interested in how it can be (diachronically) put to use.

            The Deweyan conception of experience is one that is inherently active, and one that construes experience as not exclusively a knowledge affair.  But surely it does not follow, then, that it is exclusively not a knowledge affair.  As the notion of experience is tied to intelligent action, it is important for those agents to know what they are doing, to what they are responding, what the consequences of their actions are, and so on.  As such, experience is at least partially a knowledge affair, and the DG is an explanation of how that is so.

            The bottom line: the pragmatist theory of experience as experiment, when stripped of its overstated implications, is consistent with (and entails, if the argument from contrast is right) the DG.  For experiments to be experiments, there needs to be some non-inferential cognitive input, else we couldn’t tell the difference between success and failure.  Imagine hungover Fred believing his hangover is gone because he trusts his cure… it oughta work.  Surely Fred has another means of finding out if it has.

A final point is that a notion of the given is necessary for the pragmatist notion of inquiry.  For example, Peirce holds that  the common flaw to the three early notions of inquiry in “The Fixation of Belief” is that none appeal to something external to the believer to fix the belief.  There must be a method which forces inquirers to look to something other than another one of their beliefs to fix their beliefs.  We correct our opinions by subjecting them to the test of experience, and for experience to play that role, it must not be beholden to our opinions.



There is one final hurdle.  From my own perspective, the hurdle is a consequence of pragmatist inferentialism, best exemplified, in Peirce’s case, as the theory that the proper model for cognition is that of valid inference.  If this is the case for pragmatists, then the thesis of inferential autonomy driving DG1 and DG2 is in trouble.   Dewey captures the resistance to atomism as follows:

            [E]xperiences, taken free of the restrictions imposed on them by the older concept (of

inference), is full of inference.  There is, apparently, no conscious experience without

inference; reflection is native and constant. (MW 10:6)

The earlier thesis that all experience is experimental is an overstatement, and this thesis here that all experience is inferential runs the risk of equivocation.  The Deweyan notion of inference is not limited to the psychological process of following logical relations between propositions.  This is the point of contrast with the older concept of inference.  It also extends to the direction of behavior, plans for action.  As a consequence, not all inference in experience is epistemic in the way that would undermine the doctrine of the given.  Insofar as the experimental theory is that there are autonomous experiences, and we run experiments off them, this theory, that there are no experiences without plans for action, is capable of being consistent with the DG.  The difference here is the different concepts of inference.  There’s a logical or epistemic inference, and there’s a practical inference.   Dewey’s claim here is that there aren’t experiences without correlate practical consequences. 

This thesis is not inconsistent with the thesis that there are experiences whose content is (at least partially) determinable independent of logical or epistemic inference.  The thesis that all experiences are potential reasons to act is not inconsistent with the thesis that not all experiences are the conclusions of arguments.  In fact, given the problem of deliberative regresses familiar to instrumentalism, some non-inferential input seems necessary.[15]  As such, Dewey’s account of experience as experimental and inferential is capable of being consistent with DG.  If the contrast argument here works, the Deweyan notion of experience entails DG.   Whether the conclusion generalizes should be of no small import, but that is an issue for another time.  The case for extending the conclusion beyond the Deweyan tradition should start with these DG-style features of the following pragmatists:  Peirce on those truths of experience on which all philosophy is founded (CP 3.560), James’s claim that we can never invent new forms of conception not already suggested by experience (1996, 8), Wittgenstein on overlooking things that are simple and already familiar (PI 129), Cavell’s requirement that speakers need no evidence for what is said in a language (1969, 4), Rosenthal’s use of ‘anteceptive experience’ (1990, 69), Meyers’s emphasis on the denotative method (2004, 47), and Alexander’s (2004, 252) interpretation of the method as beginning and ending with primary experience. [16]  The bottom line, of course, is that pragmatism’s anti-foundationalism needn’t itself entail a rejection of the doctrine of the Given, as the doctrine is clearly implicated in the very project of pragmatic inquiry.  The Given ain’t a myth, and that’s not just something that pragmatists can live with, it’s something they must.





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[1] See: Rorty (1979, 159 and 1991, 57), Margolis (1984, 69), West (1989, 230), Murphy (1990, 111), Hickman (1990, 461) Rockmore (1992, 111), Siegfried (1992, 151), Colapeitro (2000, 266), Rosenbaum (2002, 67), Long (2002, 42), and Stuhr (2003, 155).

[2] These features are reflective of work on the Given including Lewis (1946), Chisholm (1964), Alston (1983) and (1999), Fumerton (1995), Fales (1996), and BonJour (1999) and (2002).

[3] This feature is noted by Fales (1996, 1-6), Skidmore (1997, 127), and BonJour (2000, 469-70) and in the phenomenological tradition by Marion (2002 [1997]).  In fact, for the phenomenological tradition, a version of this issue has plagued the research program as the paradox of phenomenology – if things show themselves, doesn’t phenomenology as a commentary either stand in the way or as a return to the things themselves concede that things don’t show themselves?  See Merleau-Ponty (1998, 207), Husserl (1970, 38), and Henry (1991, 74).

[4] See Alston (2002, 72) for a version of this sort of argument from the fact of awareness.  Others have used the argument in conversation – Laurence BonJour recently (at the Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference in 2004) held up a piece of yellow paper for the paper experiment.

[5] Versions of the dilemma can be found in (among many others) BonJour (1985), McDowell (1994), Brandom (1994), Hetherington (1996), Sosa (1997), and Rorty (1997).

[6] See Fumerton (1995) and Fales (1996).

[7] See Pollock (1986) for a discussion of how the Sellars-Davidson (and BonJour 1985) arguments unjustifiably turn the dialectical situation on its head.

[8] See Bonevac (2002), Pollock (1986), Alston (1983), and Rescher (1974) for arguments that the reliability of our sensory organs is the cognitive default.

[9] Thanks to TZ for helping me formulate this  point.

[10] Cf. John Murphy (1990, 85) for a discussion of the difference between the indeterminacy and ambiguity of translation.

[11]  It should be noted that the Quinean point here follows only if behaviorism in psychology and semantics is true.  Quine is clear about this requirement (1969, 35-37).  It is unclear that most current pragmatists would accept this methodological constraint, and as a consequence, it seems they are not entitled to the conclusion. Again, see Murphy (1990, 91-92) for a discussion of this requirement.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

[12] Cf. Fodor and Leplore (1992).

[13] See Arthur Murhphy’s (1993, 167) discussion of the ‘ruinous price’ of holist theories for pragmatic conceptions of inquiry.

[14] For recent versions of the pragmatist commitment to the experimental model of experience, see: Thayer (1990, 441), Hickman (1990, 461), Rosenthal (1996, 403), Stuhr (1997, 159), and Rosenbaum (2002, 63).

[15] See Thayer (1990, 456): “Inquiry is a transformation of immediately experienced qualities and events into objects of knowledge.”