The Encylopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

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Neo-pragmatist Philosophy of Education

Khosrow Bagheri Noaparast
University of Tehran

Neo-pragmatism refers to the developments of pragmatism of the early 20th 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, Hillary 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 role description and redescription plays 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 above-mentioned 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.”

In what follows, first Quine's and Rorty's versions of neo-pragmatism will be explained very briefly and then these versions' inspirations in dealing with education will be suggested.

How neo-pragmatism is distinct from pragmatism?

Before going into the details of Quine's neo-pragmatism, it would be appropriate to say why Quine can be regarded as a neo-pragmatist while he is famous for being an analytic philosopher. Even though in the broad sense of the word he is an analytic philosopher, in so far as the distinction between the analytic and the synthetic, namely the hallmark of early analytic philosophy, is concerned, Quine calls himself a pragmatist because of the rejection of the distinction:

Carnap, Lewis, and others take a pragmatic stand on the question of choosing between language forms, scientific frameworks; but their pragmatism leaves off at the imagine boundary between the analytic and the synthetic. In the repudiating such a boundary I espouse a thorough pragmatism. (Quine, 1951, p. 43)

In terms of pragmatism, Quine is in full agreement with Dewey in his naturalism and epistemological holism:

Philosophically I am bound to Dewey by the naturalism that dominated his last three decades. With Dewey I hold that knowledge, mind, and meaning are part of the same world that they have to do with, and that they are to be studied in the same empirical spirit that animates natural science. There is no place for a prior philosophy. (Quine, 1969, p. 26)

However, Quine takes part with Dewey in instrumentalism and theory of truth. In a sense, Quine is realist and in fact a “robust” realist (Quine, 1981, p. 21). As far as sense experience is concerned, Quine is a realist and holds that there are realities in the world that our science is going to explore. This is not to say, however, that we have the realities as given but rather we can only know them by means of our theories. Anyway, our best theories tell us (putatively) what realities are there and we can use the term “true” for them. Then, true is not the same as useful. As Hylton puts it, Quine “does not take a pragmatic attitude towards the whole of human experience (in the broad sense); he is not willing to use the word 'true' of everything that contributes to human flourishing. Within the realm of the cognitive, however, his attitude is, in a broad sense, pragmatic” (Hylton, 2010, p. 23).

Quine is basically a naturalist in both ontology and semantics. Naturalism for Quine means that “it is within science itself, and not in some prior philosophy, that reality is to be identified and described” (Quine, 1981, p. 21). In other words, our scientific theories would say what our ontology amounts for. Quine's entire reliance on science can show why his naturalism might include a quasi-Platonism. For Quine, there is no difference between holding objects, sets, and gods in a scientific theory unless in terms of degree rather than kind. These “posits” would be equally acceptable in so far as they are required by our scientific theories (Quine, 1951, p. 41). This is ontological naturalism. Semantic naturalism, on the other hand, commits Quine to a behaviorist theory of language. Accordingly, the meaning of a word or sentence should operationally be sought in the functions followed by them. Quine holds that Dewey had preceded Wittgenstein in paving the ground for a semantic naturalism (Quine, 1981, p. 46).

Quine, however, takes part with the early pragmatists in holding a much more stronger holism expressed in what he refers to as “five milestones of empiricism” consisting of “shift from ideas to words,” “the shift of semantic focus from terms to sentences,”“the shift of semantic focus from sentences to systems of sentences,” “methodological monism: abandonment of the analytic-synthetic dualism,” “naturalism: abandonment of the goal of a first philosophy prior to natural science”(Quine, 1981, 67). The most important characteristic of this view of empiricism should be sought in its epistemological holism. Even though Quine is in full agreement with the early pragmatists in holism, he holds that they were not full-fledged holists. Appreciating James's sentence-oriented semantics, Quine goes far beyond it by appealing to Pierre Duhem's system-centered view. According to this view, a sentence cannot adequately show the empirical content of a theory; instead one should take the whole system of a scientific theory into account. Thus, logically speaking, one cannot conclude that a sentence of a theory is falsified if it is undermined by some counter-evidence. This is because the sentence can be saved by taking its relation to the whole system of the theory concerned (Quine, 1981, p. 71).

On the whole, even though Quine is not quite sure that what can be considered as the basic principles of pragmatism, he takes the behaviorist semantics and man as the truth-maker as the best candidates.

As for Rorty (1989a), he embraces Dewey's emphasis on democracy and replaces objectivity in science by solidarity as a social relationship amongst scholars. Rorty differs from Dewey in two points (Rorty, 1991, p. 16). Firstly, contrary to Dewey who regarded, at least in his early works, science as a role model for other parts of human culture, Rorty undermines science and scientific method so that he talks about “pragmatism without method”. Rorty might accept the Deweyian slogan of “Man the Scientist” but he will change its meaning in terms of solidarity rather than objectivity as such. Thus, Rorty stats:

…all that remains of Peirce's, Dewey's and Popper's praise of science is praise of certain moral values—those of an open society—rather than any specific epistemic strategy. (Rorty, 1999, p. 36)

Rorty explains how early pragmatists had, at best, vacillations in putting science or culture at the heart of their pragmatisms as, for instance, Peirce, at one point, holds that philosophy should use experimental methods but at another point states that logic should be subordinated to ethics and aesthetics. Rorty in his own turn gives the top priority to culture or at least puts both on a par.

Secondly, whereas Dewey's hallmark was experience and experiment, Rorty under the influence of continental philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, and also the later Wittgenstein, put his emphasis on language. This difference shows its impact in dealing with representation. Following Dewey, Rorty even strongly rejects representation as the main characteristic of human knowledge adopted since Plato. However, while Dewey expresses his rejection by appealing to experience and experiment as the basis of human knowledge, Rorty draws our attention to language and tries to show that language is a tool box rather than a photography box. According to this philosophy of language, Rorty holds that language is an instrument for handling our needs. This leads Rorty to put contingency at the heart of language and avoid any “final vocabulary” whatsoever. When the final vocabulary goes out, irony comes in and then you will be able to undermine any current vocabulary and try a new one. The rejection of representation is so vital for Rorty that he regards it as the “core of pragmatism” as it can cut the both horns of truth seeking and methodological obsession at the same time:

If one takes the core of pragmatism to be its attempt to replace the notion of true beliefs as representations of ‘the nature of things’ and instead to think of them as successful rules for action, then it becomes easy to recommend an experimental, fallibilist attitude, but hard to isolate a ‘method’ that will embody this attitude. (Rorty, 1991, pp. 65–66)

Even though Quine himself had no considerable interest in education, his views have been inspiring in philosophy of education. Notwithstanding, he speculates from time to time about matters that relate to education as one can observe a relationship between the following passage and a learning theory:

My concern with the essential psychogenesis of reference would be fulfilled in fair measure with a plausible account of how one might proceed from infancy step by step to a logically regimented language of science… (Quine, 1974, p. 92).

Rorty (1989b), on the other hand, had some explicit interest in education and put forward his particular contribution. That is why his view on education has been put at the center of attention (Peters and Ghiraldelli, 2001). In the following sections, neo-pragmatism’s inspirations for education will be explained.

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 characteristic 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. This is exactly what Quine's opposition to analytical truth indicates:

If the logical truths are analytic — hence true by meanings of words, then what are we to say of revisions, such as imagined in the case of the law of excluded middle? Do we thereby change our theory or just change the subject, change the meaning of our words? This has been a recurrent challenge, and my answer is that in elementary logic a change of theory is a change of meaning. Repudiation of the law of excluded middle would be a change of meaning, and no less a change of theory for that. (Gibson, 2004, p. 60)

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 18th 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, T&M, 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 why while Rorty (1989b) takes the first phase of education as socialization, 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 ‘fuzion of horizens’, 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. Thus, Rorty states:

Pragmatists interpret the goal of inquiry (in any sphere of culture) as the attainment of an appropriate mixture of unforced agreement with tolerant disagreement (where what counts as appropriate is determined, within that sphere, by trial and error). Such a reinterpretation of our sense of responsibility would, if carried through, gradually make unintelligible the subject-object model of inquiry, the child-parent model of moral obligation, and the correspondence theory of truth. A world in which those models, and that theory, no longer had any intuitive appeal would be a pragmatist's paradise. (Rorty, 1991, pp. 41–2)

This passage shows again Rorty’s attempt to explain research in terms of solidarity and reciprocity rather than objectivity and hierarchical relationship.

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 implication for curriculum. While an analytic philosopher of education, such as Paul Hirst (1974), 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 braches 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 towards 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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Encyclopaedia of Philosophy of Education
Received: August 28 2011 — Revised: December 4 2011
Accepted: November 30 2011


EEPAT is published in association with the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia and the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory.