Born in Hagen, Germany, where his father had established a law practice after serving as a German army officer in the First World War (1939–1945), Rescher's family emigrated to the United States in 1938, and he was educated there, receiving his PhD from Princeton University in 1951 at the age of 22.
Since 1961 he has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, where he serves as University Professor of Philosophy and also as vice chairman of the Center for the Philosophy of Science.
He has published more than 300 articles in scholarly journals, has contributed to many encyclopedias and reference works, and has written more than 100 books in various areas of philosophy, including epistemology, metaphysics, value theory and social philosophy, logic, the philosophy of science, and the history of logic.
In various publications Rescher has developed a detailed and systematic theory on the nature and limits of human knowledge along with its central implications for metaphysics and for the theory of values and ethics broadly conceived. Best viewed as an analytic pragmatist, Rescher has sought primarily in many books and essays to revive and refurbish the idealistic tradition in epistemology and metaphysics.
Although he has written extensively on metaethics and issues of value and justice, his primary efforts in epistemology and metaphysics constitute the central focus, and his approach to philosophy is comprehensively expressed in a trilogy titled A System of Pragmatic Idealism.
Generally, Rescher affirms the centrality of the natural sciences as the privileged source of understanding the nature of the empirical world and as directing our actions within it. He emphasizes, however, that the presuppositions of the natural sciences cannot be directly defended in natural science without circularity; such presuppositions, therefore, fall into the realm of metaphysics and are to be defended philosophically, philosophy being distinct from, but inextricably dependent on the deliverances of, natural science.
Rescher also sees the scientific method(s) as the product of an evolutionary process of rational selection, which leaves us with only those methods that have been proven to work by way of providing reasonably precise predictions of our sensory experience.
In short, the methods of natural science, as well as their presuppositions, find their justification ultimately in the fact that we have a deep need for the products of natural science and epistemology, thereby underscoring the deeply practical or pragmatic nature of the whole of the cognitive enterprise, and whatever theoretical conclusions we reach therein (Rescher 1992–1994, 2001).
Regarding foundational beliefs or basic knowledge, Rescher affirms that basic beliefs, like all factual beliefs, are fallible and hence subject to revision in the light of ongoing evidence. Such beliefs begin as working presumptions about how things generally are, and are accepted as true until experience requires their rejection, but until experience forces such rejection they qualify for acceptance as items of human knowledge and serve as evidence for other beliefs, nonbasic beliefs.
On the question of nonbasic knowledge, or scientific knowledge, he has consistently argued in Methodological Pragmatism and elsewhere that while particular scientific theses established by the inductive methods of science may be false (although we must presume them to be true when strongly confirmed), rationality requires us to use such a method because they generally tend to produce more effectively supplementable beliefs about the physical world than any other methods available.
Rescher construes truth in terms of any classical formulation of the correspondence theory of truth satisfying Alfred Tarski (1902–1983) biconditionals, and he argues that the criterion for it is fully warranted, assertible belief.
The satisfaction of this criterion in any given case, however, does not entail logically that the proposition is true rather than our best estimate of, or approximation to, truth; and it would be irrational to ask (as skeptics do) for anything more in the pursuit of truth, for nothing more can be had (Rescher 2003).
At no time, then, can we be sure of having the truth, rather than a reliable, but fallible, estimate of how things are, and it is this essentially fallibilistic conclusion that leads to Rescher's antirealistic view that we cannot be sure at any given time whether science actually succeeds in correctly describing an external world, although indeed we have good reason in this fallibilism to suppose that there is an external world.
And this same fallibilism leads, with the support of various arguments, to the essential incompletability of our knowledge of the world (Rescher 1978, 1999, 2000a, 2001, 2003). His idealism is consciously not an idealism affirming that all properties are linguistic in nature, but it does emphasize the fact that all systems of knowledge are the products of pervasive and profound human cognitive construction (Rescher 2001).
By way of philosophical methodology Rescher adopts a view he calls philosophical standardism. He thinks, for example, that human knowledge is fundamentally and standardly a matter of justified true belief.
Prevalent counterexamples to the classical definition of knowledge as justified true belief are maximally distortive of the fact that philosophical explanations are based on limited generalizations that are subject to revision and we seek what is normally and typically the case rather than what is unexceptionally and necessarily the case (Rescher 1994, 2003).
For Rescher, then, traditional philosophy is too much given over to abstract necessities of general principle that 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.
By way of compensation for this less demanding view of philosophical methodology, Rescher urges that we can resolve a host of philosophical problems, such as the Gettier problem that have lingered too long because of the mistaken and pervasive belief that philosophical generalizations will be adequate only if they do not admit of exception in any context (Rescher 1994, 2003).
Rescher argues, then, for a different view of conceptual analysis, a view allowing us to resolve the Gettier problem as well as the problem about the concept of meaningfulness in empiricism.
For example, he argues that the classical definition of knowledge in terms of justified true belief has led to a hopeless set of counterexamples and counter-definitions simply because people think mistakenly that counterexamples refute a concept defined, and this mistaken belief roots in a faulty concept of analysis that is traditional and aprioristic.
Rescher's proposal is that we construe the relationship between knowledge and justified true belief not as a definition, but as a merely standardistic or generalized linkage under which "Standardly, knowledge is justified true belief" is a perfectly acceptable generalization, not only plausible but largely unproblematic.
For Rescher, in the context of an epistemological standardism, interpreting such generalizations in a standardistic way does not allow the definition to be annihilated by counterexample. After all, as he says, knowledge is pretty standardly justified true belief. This same approach he applies to the empiricist criterion of meaning.
Although Rescher ascribes a certain primacy to induction and the methods of natural science because they are the products of the evolutionary process, he has not argued that the only legitimately answerable questions are those that admit of answer under the methods of science.
He in fact has argued against that view when, among other arguments, he defends metaphysics as that philosophical venture seeking to examine and criticize the presuppositions of natural science, which natural science cannot do without viciously circular reasoning. He also has claimed that such presuppositions find their ultimate justification in the ultimate consequences, formal and material, of accepting them and their capacity to satisfy human needs for practical adaption.
On the question of scientific progress Rescher has aggressively argued in various places that unto eternity science is progressive and revolutionary, meaning thereby that there will never be a time when we would be justified in believing that we had answered all answerable questions about the world.
Owing to an inevitable exponential decay in our economic capacity to fund scientific technology, scientific progress will accordingly slow, without stopping, to increasingly infrequent theoretical and factual advances. But it will always be an open-ended and unfinishable affair (Rescher 1978, 2000a, 2000b, 2003).
With regard to scientific realism, Rescher advances a cautious form of scientific instrumentalism 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 standardly describing the physical world because such beliefs are not in any way likely to suffer truth value revision (Rescher 2003). Scientific beliefs, however, have no such property and must, for that reason, be regarded as instrumentally reliable beliefs that we can plausibly presume true when strongly confirmed.
Otherwise, Rescher's fundamental metaphysical view on the question of reality originates in what he calls his pragmatic idealism, which he also sees as an antirealist implication of fallibilism and is an idealism only to the extent that it emphasizes the constructive role of cognitive processes in structuring our beliefs about an external and independent world about which we have knowledge in terms of our capacity to estimate the truth in the light of available evidence and in terms of what we can reasonably ascertain as typically and generally the case.
But, it is not an idealism denying the existence of an external world. That such a world exists fundamentally roots in the essentially fallibilistic limitations and incompletability of our knowledge of the world, as has been demonstrated time and again in the history of science and elsewhere (Rescher 1992–1994, 2000a, 2001, 2003).
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In several cases philosophers have associated Rescher's name with a particular concept or principle broadly discussed, most notably in Rescher's Law of Logarithmic Returns, The Rescher Quantifier, Rescher's Effective Average Standard in the theory of distributive justice, The Dienes-Rescher Inference Engine in nonstandard logic, and The Rescher–Manor Mechanism in non-monotonic reasoning theory.