24 June, 2016

Nicholas Rescher

(Academic Vita)


Nicholas Rescher was born in 1928 in Hagen, Germany, where his father had established a law practice after serving as a German army officer during World War I. He is a cousin of the eminent orientalist Oskar Rescher. His family emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1938, and he was educated there, receiving the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1951, while still at the age of twenty-two. Since 1961, he has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, where he serves as Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and also as Chairman of the Center for Philosophy of Science. In the course of a long academic career, he has published over three hundred articles in scholarly journals, has contributed to many encyclopedias and reference works, and has written some hundred books in various areas of philosophy, including epistemology, metaphysics, value theory and social philosophy, logic, the philosophy of science, and the history of philosophy.


In a productive research career extending over six decades, he has established himself as a systematic philosopher of the old style. His work represents a many-sided approach to fundamental philosophical issues that weaves together threads of thought from continental idealism and American pragmatism. And apart from this larger program Rescher has made various specific contributions to logic (the conception autodescriptive systems of many-sided logic), the history of logic (the medieval Arabic theory of modal syllogistic), the theory of knowledge (epistemetrics as a quantitative approach in theoretical epistemology), and the philosophy of science (the theory of a logarithmic retardation of scientific progress). Rescher has also worked in the area of futuristics, and along with Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey is co-inaugurator of the so-called Delphi method of forecasting.


Some dozen books devoted to various aspects of Rescher's philosophical work have been published in recent years. He has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Academia Europaea, the Royal Society of Canada, the Institut Internationale de Philosophie, and the Academie International de Philosophie des Sciences and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by eight universities on three continents. Its fellows elected him an honorary member of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and in 1983 he received an Alexander von Humboldt Humanities Prize, awarded "in recognition of the research accomplishments of humanistic scholars of international distinction." He was awarded the Aquinas Medal of the American Catholic Philosophical Association in 2007, the Founder's Medal of the Metaphysical Society of America in 2016, and the Helmholtz Medal of the Germany Academy of Sciences (Berlin/Brandenburg) in 2016. His 2005 book, Scholastic Meditations (Catholic University of America Press) was awarded the Cardinal Mercier Prize. A vivid picture of his personal and intellectual development is given in his 2005 Autobiography (Frankfurt: Ontos).


From 1964 to 1993 Rescher edited the American Philosophical Quarterly and for many years the History of Philosophy Quarterly as well. During 1969-75 he served a term as Secretary General of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (an organ of UNESCO). He has served as a President of the American Philosophical Association, the American Catholic Philosophical Association, and the American Metaphysical Society, and also of the Charles S. Peirce Society and the Leibniz Society of America. Over the years his work has been supported by the Ford, Guggenheim, and National Science Foundations.


After first working primarily on topics in formal logic and in the history of logic, Rescher has, since the late 1960's, increasingly devoted himself to problems of metaphysics and the theory of knowledge. In his writings, he has sought to revive and refurbish the idealistic tradition in epistemology and metaphysics in the light of approaches drawn from American pragmatism. His work on this program combines a 19th century concern for large-scale systematizing with a 20th century Anglo-American penchant for specialized investigations using the modern formal tools of philosophical analysis. His approach to philosophy is comprehensively expounded in a trilogy entitled A System of Pragmatic Idealism published by Princeton University Press in 1991-93. Rescher also has diversified interests in the history of philosophy, and has written extensively about medieval philosophy as well as about Leibniz, Kant, and Peirce. Early in his career Rescher made an extensive study of medieval Arabic work in logic and he was the first to bring to light its important contributions to the theory of temporal modalities.

Most recently, Rescher's contributions to philosophy have primarily involved: the rehabilitation of idealism in general and the coherence theory of truth in particular, the revival and reconstruction of pragmatism; the development of inconsistency-tolerant logic, and the development of an exponential retardation theory of scientific progress.

In industrial manufacture, machine tools are tools of the creation of tools. On analogy, Rescher has become common for the creation of philosophical machine tools--concepts and theories useful for the further development of philosophical ideas and theses. These have often proven to be eponymous and in various cases, a particular concept of principle has come to be associated with his name. (See Appendix 1.) The Encyclopedia of Bioethics cites Rescher's much-reprinted 1969 paper on the subject as one of the very first in the field.

A good deal of Rescher's philosophical work has evolve through collaboration with others. Philosophers tend to operate on isolation, but almost uniquely Rescher has over the years produced a quest of collaborative work.

Throughout his career Rescher has been concerned with elucidating the processes by which knowledge--scientific-knowledge in particular--is established and systematized. However, beginning with his 1976 book on Scientific Progress (Blackwells of Oxford, 1978) this concern for the nature of information took the turning of a quantitative approach, eventually resulting in his 2005 book Epistemetrics (Cambridge University Press, 2005), which inaugurated the project of articulating the general theory of knowledge from a quantitative point of view. Rescher has also dedicated considerable effort to exploring the limits of science and of human knowledge in general, stressing in particular the impracticability of gaining a present understanding of future cognitive progress. In epistemology and philosophy of science, he is best described as an analytic pragmatist in placing epistemic priority on the methods of the natural sciences as a source of both understanding the empirical world and directing our action within it. It is part of Rescher's coherentism that he regards science as seeking the best fit between the data of experience and the conjecture we make in our attempts to resolve questions.


Rescher's pragmatic theory of knowledge differs from that of the original "utilitarian" pragmatism, which takes a theory to be true (or justified) it its acceptance is useful. Instead, Rescher's pragmatism is methodological: a theory is taken to be true (or justified) if it is based on the application of methods which have proved themselves by their usefulness--for instance, by successful predictions. So viewed, utility functions only at a remove.


Yet, while Rescher ascribes a certain primacy to plausible and inductive and to the methods of natural science as natural products of cultural evolution, he nevertheless denies that the only legitimately answerable questions are those that admit of answer under the methods of science. He defends metaphysics as a philosophical venture seeking to examine and elucidate the presuppositions of natural science, which natural science cannot do without viciously circular reasoning. He has also claimed that such presuppositions find their ultimate justification in the consequences of accepting them as instrumentalities of need-satisfaction. An emphasis on the role of common sensical presumptions in the development of knowledge is yet another characteristic feature of Rescher's work. On the question of scientific realism, Rescher has argued for a particular form of instrumentalism in science without endorsing instrumentalism as a whole on the issue of factual knowledge. For Rescher, commonsense beliefs (those beliefs so obviously true that we cannot even imagine factual conditions under which they would be false) do succeed in correctly describing the physical world because such beliefs sufficiently vague not to be likely to suffer truth value revision. However, our scientific beliefs forego any such protection imprecision.


Of Rescher's varied contributions, perhaps that of the greatest significance is the theory of technology-geared progress in natural science of this 1978 Scientific Progress as viewed in the context of the wider-ranging quantification of the theory of knowledge of his 2005 Epistemetrics. This epistemological approach has found a widespread resonance, the former work being among the very few books by contemporary American philosophers to be translated into French.


A persistent theme in Rescher's philosophy is man's cognitive limitations and the imperfection (and imperfectability) of human knowledge. However, he does not succumb to skepticism, nihilism, or relativism, all of which he roundly rejects. He argues on pragmatic grounds that there is an objective reality that is intelligible, the truth of which can be obtained by human reason; and though perfect knowledge is impossible, adequate knowledge for the realization of human ends is not.


Rescher's approach is idealistic because it prioritizes the sort of mind-imposed presumptions and because it regards systematic coherence as the criterion of truth; fallibilistic because it denies that knowledge can provide more than an imperfect approximation of reality; and pragmatic because it maintains that the validity of knowledge-claims depends on their utility in furthering human purposes. Rescher's pragmatism envisions an objective pragmatism of what works impersonally, rather than a subjective pragmatism of what works for me or for us. It is applied not only in our factual commitments but also to our value commitments. As he sees it, values secure objectivity because the manner of our human emplacement in reality imposes upon us certain basic projects not constructed or freely chosen, but simply given. About these we cannot properly deliberate.


A further characteristic feature of Rescher's approach is its systematic integration of matters of value (i.e., norms--be they cognitive or affective) and matters of experientially determined fact. For Rescher morality is basically a matter of safeguarding the real or best interests of people and while the identification of such interests involves an irreducibly normative element, the processes of their effective cultivation are something we can only learn about empirically. Morality thus weaves issues of fact and value into a seamless whole. Moreover, the axiology of Rescher's system aims at deriving values from human needs and purposes and evaluating knowledge-claims in the light of them. His concern for human values has led to his position being described as post-positivistic.


As of the 1980's Rescher worked increasingly on issues of metaphilosophy and philosophical methodology. He has argued in considerable detail for an aporetic and dialectical perspective on the development of philosophy. His general theory of aporetics has been applied by Rescher in areas as distinct as metaphilosophy, paradox theory, and the epistemology of conditions/counterfactual reasonings.


Rescher espouses a metaphysical view he calls philosophical standardism. He thinks, for example, that human knowledge is fundamentally and standardly a matter of belief that is justifiably held to be true. Prevalent counterexamples to the classical definition of knowledge as justified-true-belief ignore the fact that our concepts are based on limited generalizations that are subject to revision and thus reflect what is normally and typically the case rather than what is unexceptionally and necessarily so. In consequence traditional philosophy is too preoccupied with abstract necessities of general principle which do not capture our understanding of the world as it is actually experienced, and the price we pay for his more modest construal of philosophical generalizations is to acknowledge the essential open-endedness of our philosophically relevant concepts.


However, Rescher strongly opposes the fashionable nihilism of a "post-philosophical" age. Notwithstanding concession to the pervasive pluralism of the times he maintains a traditionalistic dedication to a philosophical search for truth. Granting that people's views are of course bound to reflect differences in backgrounds of experience and that they are also bound to differ constitutionally as well. The undeniable diversity of the human circumstances do not support scepticism or indifferent relativism because objectivity is preserved through the circumstances that certain issues resolutions are impersonally and objectively appropriate once those circumstances are given.


An extensive anthology of Rescher's collected papers has been published by ONTOS Verlag of Frankfurt. With well over 120 papers in some seventeen volumes, this collection offers a panoramic overview of Rescher's work in many areas of philosophy and conveys a vivid impression of his doctrinal views and philosophical methods.


Now over eighty years of age, Rescher continues to be active in teaching philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He regularly offers courses on Leibniz, Kant, and Metaphysics & Epistemology. He is responsible for the rediscovery and re-creation of Leibniz's machina decyptophoria, a cipher machine that anticipated the notorious ENIGMA of World War II fame.


Rescher is also responsible for two further items of historical rediscovery and reconstruction: (1) the model of cosmic evolution in Anaximander [See Robert Hahn, Anaximander and the Architects (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001), (2) the medieval Arabic theory of model syllogistic (See Tony Street, "Toward a History of Syllogistic after Avicenna: Notes on Rescher's Studies on Arabic Modal Logic," Journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 11 (2000), pp. 209-28.

back to homepage