Chapter Four Rescher’s Coherence Theory of Critical Reasoning
Strong family similarities are evident between Rescher’s view of philosophical science and those of Dewey and Popper, particularly their fallibilism, their rejection of positivism, atomistic thinking, and their quest for comprehensiveness. They all sought to get as close to the truth as possible even in the realization that an unbridgeable gap separates the most rigorous cognitive processing and a partially elusive reality of which human knowledge is infinitely expandable, yet also limited in potentially grasping. When pressed, each of these authors viewed progress as a myth, but an essential one that is compelled by the human vocation in its shaping of philosophy as well as in giving texture to the challenges and opportunities of daily life. That is, there is a praxeological bent to their respective philosophies designed for real-world consequences whether in the physical or, especially for Dewey and Rescher, the social sciences in application to the “problems of men.” Such progress is determined, according to these authors to the extent that problems identified are significant ones, critical factors related to them are attended, warranted solutions proposed and assessed, and complications and refinement factored in.
In their exacting conceptualizations each of these authors spanned a wide outlook that complements their microscopic examination of key issues in their respective philosophies designed to analyze the relationship of problems within the contexts in which they are (or could be) situated. Illuminating the subtleties and the various dimensions of the context as defined, however precisely or fluidly as the case at hand necessitates, and allows, was a core element of their commonality. Resecher added a focused attentiveness to systematicity, not necessarily as a reflection on reality, but on the cognitive work that is essential in the pursuit of rational, philosophical inquiry. In this respect his philosophical probing is of a methodological rather than ontological nature.
Rescher (2001) based the quest for systematicity and coherence on a biological mooring as something that compels humans in their “seek[ing] to resolve problems arising from the incoherence of the matter of our extraphilsophical commitments.” On this rationale, to “abandon philosophy is to rest content with incoherence” (p. 9). It is this charge Rescher leveled against postmodernism even while sharing its openness to pluralistic interpretations. What he rejected is the tendency in postmodernism to view texts as equal, in which “every interpretation is as good as any another” (p. 58). With Dewey and Popper, Rescher emphasized the need for philosophy to hone in on the better argument based on a set of rational standards that he laid out in Philosophical Reasoning.
At the core methodological level is the need to resolve incompatibilities in reasoning itself or in the analysis of relevant information, which for Rescher “is the only road to comprehension and understanding” (p. 11) available. Thus, in the pursuit of any project in philosophical reasoning, “only a coherent, alternative-excluding resolution is a resolution at all” (p. 11). On this, Rescher made a strong distinction between possible andplausible resolutions. He pressed hard on the latter toward an ideal of maximum resoluteness gained through severe discrimination, which nonetheless remains elusive given the range of contexts that need to be considered in moving toward solutions that are sufficiently sophisticated as demanded by the complexity of the issue under investigation.
This complexity is further compounded on Rescher’s assumption that reality is pluralistic in which more than one solution is plausible consistent with the principles of systematicity as defined in part as coherence with the data. Moreover, Rescher pointed to a built-in tension between plausibility and complexity in which the push toward the latter at some level undermines the former. This tension requires trade-offs in balancing the various criteria deemed essential in achieving a high degree of systematic coherence that grounds his methodology of cognitive reasoning. This calls, in turn for acceptance of imperfection and the need for discerning judgment both in deciding when enough information and analysis is sufficient and what factors to weigh more heavily than others as applicable to any particular line of investigation. There is, therefore, “no alternative but to settle for thebest available estimate [italics in original] of the truth of the matter – that estimate” when all available resources are factored in and calibrated, “for which the best case can be made out according to the appropriate standards of rational cogency” (p. 14).
On this scenario, while data are essential to any philosophical investigation, they serve a functional role in sharpening plausibility, which remains subject “to criticism and possible rejection” or revision and modification as germane to the case at hand. Consequently, while a methodology of systematization and coherence with the data are regulative ideals, on Rescher’s argument, “everything is potentially at risk” (p. 17) in terms of establishing relevant theoretical constructs and the role of specific informational input in a particular investigation.