Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2178
Article abstract: Rescher not only contributed significantly to logic, philosophy of science, and the history of philosophy but also developed a system of pragmatic idealism that placed him squarely in the mainstream of the history of American philosophy.
In 1938, Nicholas Rescher and his mother emigrated to the United States from Germany to join his father, who had arrived in New York a year earlier. The elder Rescher had made the decision to leave Germany when his law practice began to lose clients after 1933, partly because of his antipathy to Nazism. Rescher quickly became Americanized, a process abetted by the Beechurst community where he lived and the school on Long Island Sound he attended. However, during his adolescence he had an acute awareness of the cultural difference between the Old and the New Worlds and of his being something of a cultural amphibian who belonged to both. He consequently retreated from the life of society to the life of the mind and cultivated the habits of introspection and reflection.
In 1942, the economic conditions spawned by World War II forced his father to sell his business at a considerable loss. That same year, the Reschers moved to Armonk, Westchester County. During high school, Rescher discovered his aptitude and interest in mathematics, particularly algebra. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1944. In 1945, he read Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy (1926), which awakened his interest in philosophy. He went on to read the works of thinkers such as René Descartes, David Hume, and Arthur Schopenhauer. He was particularly interested in logic, where philosophy and mathematics intersected.
In 1946, he entered Queens College in New York, majoring in philosophy and mathematics. He continued to study classical languages and to read extensively in world literature, believing that the culture transmitted by the academy was integral and that inquiry in any one field fed inquiries in others. He eventually chose philosophy over mathematics because, although proficient in mathematics, he felt he lacked that facility in the field that made for true distinction. Philosophy appealed to him because of the importance and challenge of its questions and the beauty and rigor of logic. Furthermore, this field gave him ample scope to indulge his generalist bent and enabled him to integrate his interests in the sciences and humanities. Among his teachers at Queens were Carl G. Hempel, Donald Davidson, and Arnold Isenberg.
Rescher began graduate studies in philosophy at Princeton University in 1949. There he studied logic under Alonzo Church; the philosophies of F. H. Bradley, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell under Walter T. Stace, whose interest in mysticism and deep commitment to philosophy impressed him; and epistemology with Paul Ushenko, whose book on logic he had read in high school.
During his first year of graduate studies, Rescher—stimulated by Russell’s A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz (1900) and philosopher Louis Couturat’s La Logique de Leibniz (1901; Leibniz’s logic)—wrote an essay on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s cosmology, which dealt specifically with Leibniz’s application of science to philosophy. He was intrigued by Leibniz’s multifaceted thought and his method of using logic and mathematical symbols to solve philosophical problems, a method that would become Rescher’s own. His interest lay not so much in Leibniz’s doctrines as in his method. Rescher felt an affinity with this philosopher because he confronted a period of upheaval in philosophy represented by the advent of Cartesianism. Rescher’s The Coherence Theory of Truth was in part inspired by Leibniz. His interest in Leibniz took a practical turn when he became a member of the council of the International Leibniz Society and of the editorial board of Studia Leibnitiana, its official journal, and helped organize the American Leibniz Society. From 1951 to 1953, Church enlisted Rescher as a reviewer for The Journal of Symbolic Logic. In the same period, Rescher collaborated with Paul Oppenheim on an essay that analyzed logically the concept of the gestalt; this represented his entry into the philosophy of science. He received a doctorate in 1952.
From 1952 to 1954, Rescher served in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he was employed in amphibious reconnaissance and in the administration of correspondence courses at the Marine Corps Institute. He attributed his later indefatigableness in writing philosophy to a need to compensate for the time wasted during these two years. However, his military service did give him invaluable practical experience of the “real world” and contributed to his later reflections on the issues of life as well as thought. Between 1954 and 1956, he went to work in the Mathematics Division of the Corporation for Research and Development (the Rand Corporation), a military think tank in Santa Monica, California. His projects were to determine how much damage the U.S. economy could sustain in an aerial bombardment yet remain militarily viable and to assess the human and economic impact of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. His work at Rand helped him lay the theoretical foundations for the Delphi method of expert prediction.
Religion played only a marginal role in Rescher’s boyhood and youth. However, he became increasingly receptive to it because his experiences as a refugee and as a soldier during the Korean War made him realize the radical contingency and vulnerability of human existence. Following his mother’s example, he attended the Friends Meeting in Santa Monica. He was impressed by the warmth of the Quakers, by their idea of a still, small voice calling one to higher things, and by the utter simplicity and silence of their way of worship. He particularly liked the Friends’ lack of any creed that might give a philosophical skeptic pause and their peaceful resolution of conflict (the need for which was brought home to him during his stints at Rand and in the Marines). His increased commitment to Christianity was the highlight of his California years and a factor in his decision to leave Rand. At the think tank, Rescher learned the value of collaboration in research and the usefulness of empirical inquiries in the social sciences as the basis for social philosophy. It also gave him the opportunity to develop an intimate knowledge of the practical issues of public policy.
From 1957 to 1961, Rescher taught philosophy at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There his interest in the pre-Socratic philosophers was reawakened, and he pioneered work in the joint fields of the history and the philosophy of science. The cousin of Rescher’s father, Osker Rescher, a distinguished but eccentric scholar of Asian languages who had converted to Islam and lived in Istanbul, sparked Rescher’s interest in Arabic. Rescher promptly learned the language and used it to read Arabic philosophers, especially logicians such as Al-Farabi. Among the fruits of his research was the restoration of the text of a polemical tract by Alexander of Aphrodisias, a commentator on Aristotle. The original Greek text had been lost, and the work survived only in an Arabic translation. In 1961, he joined the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh.
A signal event in Rescher’s life was his formal reception in 1981 into the Roman Catholic Church. From 1966, he had begun to worship regularly in the Church, being particularly drawn by the drama of its liturgy. His Christian commitment was motivated more by feeling than by thought. On the whole, he felt a greater intellectual and personal kinship with believers, among whom he felt at home, than with nonbelievers. Religion put things in perspective for Rescher and accommodated his insight that life has more questions than answers. His theology was liberal and pluralistic. His membership in the Catholic Church reinforced his belief that adherence to tradition and the observance of traditional rituals and ceremonies were essential to a civilized life.
Rescher was a polymath who, in more than fifty books and two hundred articles, contributed—sometimes significantly—to virtually every field of philosophy. Of his many contributions to the history of philosophy, his The Philosophy of Leibniz stands out. He also wrote works in the fledgling field of medical ethics, logic, epistemology, the philosophy of science, metaphysics, and social philosophy. Rescher began with abstract and theoretical issues in mathematics and logic, moved to the philosophy of the natural sciences (biology, cosmology) and the social sciences (economics), and then addressed issues in philosophical anthropology (human culture).
Like Leibniz, Rescher was more than a cloistered scholar; he was engaged in the practical affairs of founding and editing journals and administering academic societies and organizations. He helped found the American Philosophical Quarterly (1964), founded the History of Philosophy Quarterly (1984) and the Public Affairs Quarterly (1987), and organized The Journal of Philosophical Logic (1971). He served as secretary of the Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science branch of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (1969-1975) and as the administrative director of the Philosophy of Science Center at Pittsburgh. He was named to the board of directors of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies and elected president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (1989-1990). His manifold accomplishments earned him a number of awards, including the Doctorate of Humane Letters from Loyola University and the Humanities Research Prize from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
Rescher’s mission in philosophy was to tackle the perennial questions that were jettisoned by positivism using contemporary and rigorous methods of logical analysis along with the resources of the past. Rescher’s own continuity with the history of philosophy is evident in his rehabilitation of the historical movements of idealism and pragmatism and his implementation of the methodology of Leibniz. A persistent theme in Rescher’s philosophy is human 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.
Perhaps Rescher’s crowning achievement is his trilogy, A System of Pragmatic Idealism, a synthesis and systematization of his multifaceted thought. In this work, he presents a system of pragmatic idealism. This system is idealistic insofar as it affirms the mind’s active role in the construction of reality; however, it also acknowledges that people’s interests and needs, arising adventitiously from their environment, constrain and restrain their subjectivity. It is pragmatic insofar as it values what works well for all human beings as opposed to what works well for one individual or a select group; hence, this pragmatism is objective, not subjective. Undergirding this trilogy is the idea of the dynamic and evolutionary character of human thought, derived from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Charles Sanders Peirce.
Rescher is a quintessentially American philosopher inasmuch as he—like Peirce, C. I. Lewis, and W. V. O. Quine—fused analytic technique with historical concerns and rehabilitated the specifically American philosophy of pragmatism. Moreover, Rescher is intellectually kin to Josiah Royce, a classic American philosopher who was also a pragmatic idealist. Rescher’s philosophical reputation rests on the following achievements: first, the revival of idealism within the analytic tradition; second, a theory of induction and scientific method based on the coherence theory of truth; third, the reconception of pragmatism; fourth, the development of a logic that accommodates inconsistency and the rediscovery of the medieval Arabic logicians’ theory of temporal modality; fifth, a theory of progress in the sciences; and sixth, a critique of utilitarian ethics. With respect to his enormous output and the wide range of his achievements, he has few rivals in the history of philosophy. His philosophical system is a monument of twentieth century philosophy.
Almeder, Robert, ed. Praxis and Reason: Studies in the Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. This volume, which is intended for specialists, considers specifically Nicholas Rescher’s pragmatism and theory of truth.
Marsonet, Michele. The Primacy of Practical Reason: An Essay on Nicholas Rescher’s Philosophy. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1995. This is perhaps the best introduction for the general reader because it deals synoptically with Rescher’s philosophy. It puts the philosopher’s thought in historical perspective as well as locates its place in contemporary philosophical thought.
Pragmatic Idealism: Critical Essays on Nicholas Rescher’s System of Pragmatic Idealism. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1998. This book, addressed to specialists in the field, is a discussion of different perspectives of Rescher’s distinctive philosophical system.
Rescher, Nicholas. Instructive Journey: An Essay in Autobiography. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997. This informative work introduces the man as well as the philosopher and is particularly valuable in showing how Rescher’s distinctive ideas emerged from his life’s experience.
Sosa, Ernest, ed. The Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher: Discussion and Replies. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1979. This book records the discussion of Rescher by Ernest Sosa and L. Jonathan Cohen together with Rescher’s responses to their critique. It is most suitable for advanced readers who already have some background in Rescher’s thought.
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