Update from Control HQ


Hi everyone,

I’m sorry about the dearth of original material on the blog at the moment. I am saving it all up, rather selfishly, for my dissertation. I have now redrafted three chapters and am reworking a fourth. Then it will be on to the next part of the dissertation where I will have to prove my salt and come up with some original and exciting thinking on truth, its practical priority to theory, what a society without a concept of truth might look like and other interesting questions. So, there will be less stuff that you can use in your essays (!) but hopefully some thought provoking material drawn from other blogs, YouTube and the deep dark depths of the world wide web.

Good luck in all that you are doing,



Communicative Vs Subject-Centered Reason (I)

Foucault shows how human sciences and philosophy of subject are entangled. However, he tries to aim for more rigorous objectivity, gets caught in historiography, and thence to relativist self-denial and zero account of its normative foundations.

The problem is that followers of Nietzsche stubbornly refuse to see that the seeds of subjectivity’s counterreckoning were sown in Kant’s original formulation. So Habermas’s tactic is to go back to the starting point and trace other possible directions, since a single focus on power has not got us anywhere.

Each great philosopher could have taken a different direction. Hegel and Marx could have explicated the ethical totality in terms of the model of unforced consensus formation in a communication community. Heidegger and Derrida could have ascribed meaning-creating horizons of world interpretations in terms of communicatively structured lifeworlds that reproduce themselves via communicative action oriented toward mutual understanding.

A more viable solution than labouring under the metaphor for modernity of metaphysical homelessness is to see the endless to and fro between transcendentalism and empiricism as a symptom of exhaustion in the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. Habermas contends that such symptoms should dissolve entirely upon the successful transition to the paradigm of mutual understanding.

In the paradigm of mutual understanding the objectifying attitude is replaced by the perfomative attitude. Ego and alter enter into an interpersonal relationship, structured by a system of interlocked perspectives. On the level of grammar, the system of personal pronouns enables a speaker to take up and transform 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person perspectives.

Transcendental-empirical doubling, which results in the primacy of the subject to the world, is only unavoidable so long as there is no alternative to the observant (3rd) person perspective. This no longer applies. As the ego stands within an interpersonal relationship, it is able to relate to itself as a participant in interaction from the perspective of the alter, thereby escaping the kind of objectification above. Far from being frozen into an object, the 1st person recapitulates, via performative introspection from the 2nd person’s perspective, and thus ‘in the place of reflectively objectified knowledge – the knowledge proper to self-consciousness – we have a recapitulating reconstruction of knowledge already employed’ (297).

What was earlier relegated to the realm of the transcendental is now made explicit in the reconstructive sciences through analysis of successful or distorted utterances, ‘the pretheoretical grasp of rules on the part of competently speaking, acting and knowing subjects’ (298). There is no application for the separation between transcendental and empirical; the to and fro between ‘two aspects of self-thematisation that are as inevitable as they are incompatible is broken’ (298).

Foucault’s point about the unconscious/conscious binary – that the subject moves between reflectively transforming what is in-itself to what is for-itself and opaque backround that resists such transparency – also dissolves in the paradigm of mutual understanding. For participants in speech situations more within the horizons of their lifeworld, which is both context and resource for the process of mutual understanding. What is taken for granted, background, enables participants to ‘draw consensual interpretive patterns in their efforts at interpretation’ (298).

It is only possible to get insight into the lifeworld in general, for the lifeworld must evade thematisation and be present only pre-reflectively. Rule-knowledge present in utterances can only be reconstructed from the perspective of participants. In order to treat communicative action as the medium of reproduction of the lifeworld, we need a theoretically constituted perspective, and then, only formal-pragmatic statements related to the structure of lifeworlds in general, is possible. As such, participants appear as products as opposed to originators; the lifeworld can thus be said to reproduce itself to the extent that three functions, which transcend participant perspective, are fulfilled: ‘the propagation of cultural traditions, the integration of groups by norms and values, and the socialisation of succeeding generations’ (299).

If you want to understand individual biography, you must give up the intention of rational reconstruction and proceed historically. Reflection – self-critique – can dissolve hypostatisation, but only when directed at a single illusion: ‘it cannot make transparent the totality of a course of life in the process of individuation or of a collective way of life’ (300).

There are two heritages of self-reflection that get beyond the limits of the philosophy of consciousness, with two different aims. Rational reconstruction heightens consciousness, but is directed toward anonymous rule systems rather than totalities. Methodical self-critique relates to totalities but with full awareness that it can never illuminate fully the background of the lifeworld. Both heritages can be brought together within the framework of one theory.

In order to be empirically useable in the purpose of social theory, the formal-pragmatic concept of the lifeworld has to be integrated into a two level concept of society. Social evolution and history must be distinguished from one another. Social theory must be aware of the conditions of its emergence, for ‘even basic concepts that are starkly universalistic have a temporal core’ (300). Steering the course between absolutism and relativism means that we are no longer faced with the alternatives of the conception of world history as ‘a process of self-generation’, nor ‘impenetrable dispensation’ (301) that is felt through withdrawal and deprival, a yearning for lost origins.

Rorty on Quietists

Quietists who have no use for the notion of “the world as it is apart from our ways of representing it” will balk at Williamson’s thesis that “what there is determines what there is for us to mean”. But they will also balk at the idealists’ claim that what we mean determines what there is. They want to get beyond realism and idealism by ceasing to contrast a represented world with our ways of representing it. This means giving up on the notion of linguistic representations of the world except insofar as it can be reconstructed within an inferentialist semantics. Such a semantics abjures what Price calls “substantial word-world relations” in favour of descriptions of the interaction of language-using organisms with other such organisms and with their environment. (157)

Rorty, ‘Naturalism and Quietism’ in Philosophy as Cultural Politics

Realism after the Linguistic-Pragmatic Turn

Published in Cognitio, São Paulo, vol.  4, n. 2 (2003), pp. 211-226

Realism after the linguistic-pragmatic turn – Theresa Calvet de Magalhães

I really am very grateful to Professor Ivo Assad Ibri for having not only  invited me but insisted that I participate this year in the 5th International Meeting on Pragmatism and for this unique opportunity after living for the last 25 years in this wonderful country to return to Peirce. It is also for me a great pleasure to be able to meet now not only the members of the Center for Studies on Pragmatism of this University but all the Brazilian and American  Peircean scholars who are attending this Meeting. But I am not going to talk about Peirce. I chose perhaps a sort of strange path to return to Peirce, reading Habermas and Searle. I certainly hope to have better luck now than I had back in the 1970’s when I began, quite innocently, to study  Peirce after reading one citation on symbols in Derrida and Kristeva, and then wrote my PhD dissertation Sign or Symbol which was published some years later[1].

Reading Wahrheit und Rechtfertigung (1999) and more specifically what Jürgen Habermas writes in the “Introduction” to his recent book, not yet published in English[2], I will try to explain his answer to the epistemological problem of realism: how can we conciliate both the postulate of a world that is independent of our descriptions, a single objective world, and the philosophy of language discovery according to which we have no direct access, non-mediated by language, to “naked” reality. Habermas wants to hold on to the moment of unconditionality that is part of the correspondence idea of truth, while retaining an internal relation between truth and justifiability: his aim is to work out a theory of truth that is inherently pragmatic yet retains the idea of an unconditional truth claim. In light of Habermas’s recent criticism of Richard Rorty’s pragmatic turn[3], his early treatment of a pragmatic theory of truth is important. What Searle tries to show in 1995, in The Construction of Social Reality, is that “external realism” is presupposed by the use of large sections of a public language: for a large class of utterances, each individual utterance requires for its intelligibility a publicly accessible reality that he characterized as representation independent. There is nothing epistemic about realism so construed. External realism is not epistemic: realism is the claim that reality is radically nonepistemic. Searle is not saying here “that in order to know the truth of our claims we have to presuppose realism”. His argument is “completely independent of questions of knowledge or even of truth”. The claim, according to him, “is about conditions of intelligibility, not about conditions ofknowledge.”[4] The presupposition of realism is not just one claim among others, but is, he insists, “a condition of possibility of my being able to make publicly accessible claims at all”. Metaphysical realism and conceptual relativism are then perfectly consistent: conceptual relativism as Searle formulates it –our conception of reality, our conception of how it is, is always made relative to our constitution – is meant, he says, “to be a trivial truth to the effect that we only form concepts that we are able to form”[5].

Does the pragmatic turn require an anti-realist understanding of knowledge?

The Christian Gauss Lectures that Habermas delivered at Princeton in 1971 – “Reflections on the Linguistic Foundations of Sociology” [Vorlesungen zu einer spachtheoretischen Grundlegung der Soziologie][6] –  contain the first formulation of his “formal pragmatics”[7] and also mark the beginning of his appropriation of speech-act theory. Taking generative grammar as a model for developing universal pragmatics, we should be able, he writes, “to discover and reconstruct the rule systems according to which we generate contexts of interactions, that is, the symbolic reality of society” (p. 65). Habermas characterizes the level at which a universal pragmatics has to be developed by comparing it with the theory of grammar originated by Noam Chomsky (p. 68-76), and this sort of facilitates his treatment of the two most important theoretical components of a universal pragmatics: one dealing with the cognitive use of language (p.78-82), the other with its communicative use (p. 82-84). Habermas makes it clear that these two uses of language are interdependent. The task of what Habermas called first universal and later formal pragmatics is to identity and reconstruct universal conditions of possible mutual understanding [Verständigung]. Reaching mutual understanding requires a speaker and hearer to operate not only at the level of intersubjectivity on which they speak with one another but also at the level of objects or states of affairs about which they communicate with one another.

The key phenomenon that a universal pragmatics must explain is the self-explicating capacity of language: a natural language, writes Habermas, “has no metalanguage that is not dependent in turn on an interpretation in that (or another) natural language” (p. 73). The illocutionary acts analyzed by Searle after Austin[8] – the illocutionary act is considered here by Habermas as the elementary unit of speech [elementare Einheit der Rede] – are paradigmatic for this peculiar reflexivity of natural languages. The double structure of illocutionary acts – and Habermas following here Searle[9] represents the structure of illocutionary acts as “Mp” where stands for mode of communication [Modus der Kommunikation] or for the different modes of language use (the main clause used in an utterance in order to establish an intersubjective relation between speakers and hearers) and p for propositional content (the dependent clause with propositional content used in an utterance in order to communicate about objects or states of affairs)  – is considered by Habermas as the foundation of the inherent reflexivity of natural languages. The elementary connection of the illocutionary component and the propositional component of speech acts illustrates the double structure of ordinary language communication:

“Communication about objects (or states of affairs) takes place only on condition of simultaneous metacommunication about the meaning of the use of the dependent clause. A situation where it is possible to reach a mutual understanding requires that at least two speakers-hearers simultaneously establish communication at both levels: at the level of intersubjectivity, where the subjects talk with one another, and at the level of the objects (or state of affairs) about which they communicate. Universal pragmatics aims at the reconstruction of the rule system that a competent speaker must know if she is to be able to fulfill this postulate of the simultaneity of communication and metacommunication. I should like to reserve the term communicative competence for this qualification.” (p. 74).[10]

Communicative competence is crucial for Habermas’s social theory[11]. A communicative  theory of society  – a theory of society that accepts abstract systems of rules for generating intersubjective relations in which subjects themselves are formed – must, insists Habermas, “do justice to the double cognitive-communicative structure of speech” (p. 64).

The distinction between the cognitive and the communicative (or interactive) uses of language captures what Austin had in mind with his (later abandoned) distinction between constative and perfomative utterances[12]:

“I call the use of constative acts (…) cognitive, because the performatively established interpersonal relation between speaker and hearer serves the purpose of reaching an understanding about objects (or states of affairs). By contrast, I call communicative the use of language where reaching an understanding about objects (and states of affairs) occurs for the purpose of establishing an interpersonal relationship. The level of communication that is the end in one case is made into a means in the other. In cognitive language use propositional contents are the topic; they are what the communication is about. But communicative use mentions propositional contents only in order to establish performatively an intersubjective relation between speaker-hearers.” (p. 76).

Without a propositional content “­that p”, which is expressed in cognitive language use in the form of a declarative sentence [Aussagesatz] “p”, the communicative use of language would be impossible. In cognitive language use “we initiate communication with the goal of communicating something about an objectified reality”. In communicative language use “we refer to something in the world in order to produce specific interpersonal relations” (p. 64). All speech acts have a cognitive and a communicative dimension. The meaning of a speech act consists of its propositional content and of the sense of the mode of mutual understanding that is sought. For Habermas, this illocutionary element determines the meaning of the validity that we claim for an utterance:

“The meaning of an assertion qua assertion is that the asserted state of affairs is the case. (…) the meaning of a promise qua promise is that the speaker will in fact keep an obligation to which she has committed herself. Similarly, it is the meaning of a command qua command that the speaker wants to have her demand fulfilled. These validity claims that a speaker raises by performing speech acts ground intersubjective relations, that is, the facticity of social facts.” (p. 63).

These claims converge in the single claim to rationality [Vernunfttigkeit]. Truth claims enjoy paradigmatic status as validity claims: “The paradigm of all claims to validity is propositional truth. Even the communicative use of language must presuppose cognitive language use with its truth claims, since standard speech acts always contain propositional contents.” (p. 86). When we raise a truth claim, we use language cognitively. Habermas’s few brief remarks on the pragmatics of cognitive language use (p. 78-81) focus on questions of reference and perception:

“We make two suppositions (…). We suppose the existence of the object about which we make a statement; and we suppose the truth of the proposition itself, that is, of what we assert about the object. Existence and truth represent the conditions that must be fulfilled if the statement is to represent a fact. The first supposition is justified if both speakers and hearers are able to identify unequivocally the object denoted by the subject expression of a proposition. The second is justified if both speakers and hearers verify whether what is predicated of the object in the proposition asserted is in fact true. The referential expression, be it  a singular term or a definite description, can be understood as specification of how an object can be identified. Together with the expression, it constitutes a proposition that is supposed to correspond to an existing state of affairs. (…) The pragmatics of cognitive use shows that any given object domain is structured by particular interconnections between language, cognition, and action.

(…)  Sensory experience leads to the perception of things, events or states that we ascribe to things (we see that something is in a certain state). The communicative experience based on sensory experience leads via perception to the understanding of persons, utterances, or states that we ascribe to persons (we “see”, i.e., understand, that someone is in a certain state). Experiences can have informational content only because and to the extent that they are surprising – that is, to the extent that they disappoint and modify expectations about objects. This background, which acts as a foil and against which experiences stand out, consists in beliefs (or prejudgments) about objects that we have already experienced. In cognitive language use we put our beliefs in the form of propositions. (…)

A similar connection between language, cognition and action is manifest in predication.” (p. 78-82).

In his subsequent articulations of formal pragmatics, Habermas no longer emphasizes perception and reference. In light of Cristina Lafont’s criticisms to the effect that he needs a theory of reference to avoid some form of linguistic idealism[13] and of Herbert Schnädelbach objection to his privileging of the discursive rationality embodied in argumentative practices[14], Habermas’s discussion of cognitive language use in the Christian Gauss Lectures is therefore important.

It is also important because it contains an early treatment of the so-called consensus theory of truth, which emerges from his account of the meaning of truth. According to Habermas, the meaning of truth implicit in the pragmatics of assertions is explicated by specifying the conditions under which validity claims can or could be redeemed. This is the task, he says, of the consensus theory of truth:

“(…) the truth that we claim propositions to have by asserting them, depends on two conditions. First, it must be grounded in experience; that is the statement may not conflict with dissonant experience. Second, it must be discursively redeemable; that is the statement must be able to hold up against all counterarguments and command the assent of all potential participants in a discourse. The first condition must be satisfied to make credible that the second condition could be satisfied as required. (…) The truth condition of propositions is the potential assent of all others. Everyone else should be able to convince him- or herself that I am justified in predicating the attribute p of object x and should then be able to agree with me. The universal-pragmatic meaning of truth, therefore, is determined in terms of the demand of reaching a rational consensus. The concept of the discursive redemption of validity claims leads to the concept of rational consensus.” (p. 89).

We can of course say that the interest of such a theory of truth lies more in what it says about how we reach agreement on claims to truth, and that it is not so much a theory of truth as a theory of justification. However, in light of Habermas’s recent criticism of Richard Rorty’s pragmatic turn, his early treatment of a pragmatic theory of truth is important.

Habermas sees speech-act theory as an attempt to bridge the gap between formal semantics and use-oriented theories of meaning. Austin’s and Searle’s account of meaning recognize both the dimension of saying something – on which, from Frege through the early Wittgenstein to Dummett, formal semantics focuses – and the dimension of doing something – on which the use-oriented theories of meaning deriving from the later Wittgenstein concentrate. A pragmatic reintrepretation of the problem of validity requires a reevaluation of what was originally meant by the illocutionary force of a speech act. What a speaker does in performing a speech act is enter into a relationship of obligation with the hearer: “With the illocutionary force of an utterance, a speaker can motivate a hearer to accept the offer contained in her speech act and thereby enter into a rationally motivating binding and bonding relationship”. This conception of the illocutionary force as a binding force presupposes not only that acting and speaking subjects can relate to more than only one world, but also that when they come to an understanding with one another about something in one world, they base their communication on a commonly shared system of worlds[15].

But does the pragmatic turn require an anti-realist understanding of knowledge? Habermas criticizes Rorty for drawing the wrong conclusions from his critique of the philosophy of language. According to Habermas, Rorty rightly emphasizes “that nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept”, but the conclusion he draws from this  – “that there is no way to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence” – is wrong. Certainly, Habermas responds, “within the linguistic paradigm, the truth of a proposition can no longer be conceived as correspondence with something in the world, for otherwise we would have to be able to “get outside of language” while using language”. Nonetheless, he insists that “the correspondence idea of truth was able to take account of a fundamental aspect of the meaning of the truth predicate”. This aspect – the notion of unconditional validity – “is swept under the carpet if the truth of a proposition is conceived as coherence with other propositions or as justified assertibility within an interconnected system of assertions”[16]. Habermas wants to hold on to the moment of unconditionality that is part of the correspondence idea of truth, while retaining an internal relation between truth and justifiability:

“In everyday practices, we cannot use language without acting. Speech itself is effected in the mode of speech acts that for their part are embedded in contexts of interaction and entwined with instrumental action. As actors, that is, as interacting and intervening subjects, we are always already in contact with things about which we can make statements. (…)

For this reason, the question as to the internal connection between justification and truth – a connection that explains why we may, in light of the evidence available to us, raise an unconditional truth claim that aims beyond what is justified – is not an epistemological question. It is not a matter of being or appearance. What is at stake is not the correct representation of reality but everyday practices that must not fall apart. (…) Reaching understanding cannot function unless the participants refer to a single objective world, thereby stabilizing the intersubjectively shared public space with which everything that is merely subjective can be contrasted. This supposition of an objective world that is independent of our descriptions fulfills a functional requirement of our processes of cooperation and communication. Without this supposition, everyday practices, which rest on the (in a certain sense) Platonic distinction between believing and knowing unreservedly, would come apart at the seams.” (“Richard Rorty’s Pragmatic Turn”, On the Pragmatics of Communication, p. 359).

Are there not, asks Habermas, “plausible explanations for the fact that a justification successful in our justificatory context points in favor of the context-independent truth of the justified proposition?”. His aim, then, is to work out a theory of truth that is inherently pragmatic yet retains the idea of an unconditional truth claim:

“In the lifeworld actors depend on behavioral certainties. They have to cope with a world presumed to be objective and, for this reason, operate with the distinction between believing and knowing. There is a practical necessity to rely on what is unconditionally held-to-be- true. This mode of unconditionally holding-to-be-true is reflected on the discursive level in the connotations of truth claims that point beyond the given contexts of justification and require the supposition of ideal justificatory conditions – with a resulting decentering of the justification community. For this reason, the process of justification can be guided by a notion of truth that transcends justification although it is always already operativelyeffective in the realm of action. The function of the validity of statements in everyday practices explains why the discursive redemption of validity claims may at the same time be interpreted as the satisfaction of a  pragmatic need for justification. This need for justification, which sets in train the transformation  of shaken-up behavioral certainties into problematized validity claims, can be satisfied only by a translation of discursively justified beliefs back into behavioral truths.” (“Richard Rorty’s Pragmatic Turn”, On the Pragmatics of Communication, p. 372).

It is this intertwining of truth in rational discourses and truth in action-contexts that favours the context-independent truth of the belief in question. For Habermas, the critical question for today’s rationality debates is whether communicating subjects are from start to finish imprisoned in epochal interpretations of the world, discourses, and language games. His conclusion is that Rorty’s strategy – his naturalization of linguistified reason – “leads to a categorical level-ing of distinctions of such a kind that our descriptions lose their sensitivity for differences that do make a difference in every day practices.”[17]

Realism as a Background Condition of Intelligibility

In 1991, replying to one of his critics, John Searle offers a sketch of a “transcendental” argument for what he calls metaphysical (and later external)realism  – the view that the world (or alternatively, reality or the universe) exists independently of our representations of it[18]:

“metaphysical realism is the condition of possibility of there being public discourse at all. In order that I should address you and say, e.g., “the cat is on the mat” I must presuppose an independently existing world of publicly accessible objects to which expressions like “the cat’ and the “the mat” are used to refer. A public language presupposes a public world. And when I address you in what I presuppose is a public language, a language which you can understand in the same way that I understand it, I also presuppose that there exist public objects of reference. In normal discourse none of these “presuppositions” takes the forms of beliefs or even, strictly speaking, “presuppositions”. They are part of what I call the Background; in the normal functioning of the Background such elements form the conditions of intelligible representation but are not themselves representations.” (John Searle and his critics, p. 190).

According to Searle,  and he had already said this in 1983, in Intentionality[19], “realism” is not a hypothesis, belief, or philosophical thesis, but theprecondition of having hypotheses:

“Realism is part of the Background in the following sense. My commitment to “realism” is exhibited by the fact that I live the way that I do, I drive my car, drink my beer, write my articles, give my lectures, and ski my mountains. Now in addition to all these activities (…) there isn’t a further ‘hypothesis’ that the real world exists. My commitment to the existence of the real world is manifested whenever I do pretty much anything. It is a mistake to treat that commitment as if it were a hypothesis (…). Once we misconstrue the functioning of the Background in this way (…) it immediately becomes problematic. It seems I could never show or demonstrate that there existed a real world independent of my representation of it. But of course I could never show or demonstrate that, since any showing or demonstrating presupposes the Background, and the Background is the embodiment of my commitment to realism. (…) the very having of representations can only exist against a Background which gives representations the character of “representing something”. This is not to say that realism is a true hypothesis, rather it is to say that it is not a hypothesis at all, but the precondition of having hypotheses.” (Intentionality, p. 158-159).

The presupposition of realism is not just one claim among others, but it is, according to Searle, “a condition of possibility of my being able to make publicly accessible claims at all”[20]Metaphysical realism and conceptual relativism are then perfectly consistent: conceptual relativism as Searle formulates it – our conception of reality, our conception of how it is, is always made relative to our constitution  – is meant, he says, “to be a trivial truth to the effect that we only form concepts that we are able to form”[21]. Searle considers the argument that Hilary Putnam uses in The Many Faces of Realism[22] against “metaphysical realism”, and to defend a view he calls “internal realism”, simply bad argument:

“Putnam thinks that because we can only state the fact that iron oxidizes relative to a vocabulary and conceptual system, that therefore the fact only exists relative to a vocabulary and conceptual system. So, on his view if conceptual relativism is true, then metaphysical realism is false. But the premise of his argument does not entail the conclusion. It is, indeed, trivially true that all statements are made within a conceptual apparatus for making statements. Without a language we cannot talk. It does, indeed, follow from this that given alternative conceptual apparatuses there will be alternative descriptions of reality. (…) But it simply does not follow that the fact that iron oxidizes is in any way language-dependent or relative to a system of concepts or anything of the sort. Long after we are all dead and there are no statements of any kind, iron will still oxidize; and this is just another way of saying that the fact that iron oxidizes does not depend in any way on the fact that we can state that iron oxidizes. (Does anyone really, seriously, doubt this?).”[23]

Searle defends, then, both the view that reality exists independently of our representations of it or the view “that the world exists independently not only of language but also of thought, perception, belief, etc.”[24] – “external realism” -, and the view that all representations of reality are made relative to some more or less arbitrarily selected set of concepts – “conceptual relativity”. Carefully stated, external realism is for Searle “the thesis that there is a way that things are that is independent of all representations of how things are”. This thesis identifies not how things are in fact, he says, but rather a space ofpossibilities for a very large number of statements[25]. Our ordinary linguistic practices presuppose external realism: by making certain sorts of utterances in a public language, we do in fact attempt to communicate with each other, and unless we take external realism for granted, we cannot understand utterances the way we normally do. The assumption Searle is making here is “that there is a normal way of understanding utterances, and that when performing speech acts in a public language, speakers typically attempt to achieve normal understanding”[26]. What Searle tries to show in 1995, in The Construction of Social Reality, is that external realism is presupposed by the use of large sections of a public language: “if you take yourself to be communicating with others in the normal way in the sort of speech acts I have given as examples, you are committed to external realism. I have not shown that there is a real world but only that you are committed to its existence when you talk to me or to anyone else”[27]. For a large class of utterances, each individual utterance requires for itsintelligibility, according to Searle, a publicly accessible reality that he has characterized as representation independent. There is nothing epistemic about realism so construed. External realism is not epistemic: realism is the claim that reality is radically nonepistemic. Searle is not saying “that in order to know the truth of our claims we have to presuppose realism”. His argument, he insists, “is completely independent of questions of knowledge or even of truth. The claim is about conditions of intelligibility, not about conditions of knowledge.”[28]

External realism is not identical with the correspondence theory of truth. For Searle, realism is not a theory of truth and it does not imply any theory of truth:

“Strictly speaking, realism is consistent with any theory of truth because it is a theory of ontology and not of the meaning of “true”[it says that there exists a reality totally independent of our representations]. It is not a semantic theory at all. It is thus possible to hold ER [External Realism] and deny the correspondence theory. On a normal interpretation, the correspondence theory implies realism since it implies that there is a reality to which statements correspond if they are true; but realism does not by itself imply the correspondence theory, since it does not imply that “truth” is the name of a relation of correspondence between statements and reality.” (The Construction of Social Reality, p. 154).

But Searle does offer us a modest version of a correspondence theory of truth in The Construction of Social Reality[29]. We need words for assessing success and failure in achieving fit for representations that have the word-to-world direction of fit, and those words are “true” and “false”.[30] Truth is just a special class of satisfaction: truth is satisfaction of representations with the word-to-world direction of fit.[31] Searle represents the structure of illocutionary acts  – the illocutionary act is the minimal complete unit of human linguistic communication – as F(p) where F stands for illocutionary force (the type of illocutionary act it is) and p for propositional content (the content of an illocutionary act). The general notion of satisfaction is based, according to Vanderveken, on the notion of correspondence:

“Elementary illocutionary acts with a propositional content (…) are directed at objects and states of affairs in the world. They are satisfied only iftheir propositional content represents correctly how things are (…) in the world. (…) the existence of a correspondence between the propositional content of an utterance and the world is a necessary, but not always a sufficient, condition for the satisfaction of that utterance. Indeed, in order that a speech act be satisfied, the correspondence between its propositional content and the world must be established following the proper direction of fit of its illocutionary force. Thus, the conditions of satisfaction of an elementary illocutionary act of the form F(p) are a function of both the truth conditions of its propositional content, and of the direction of fit of its illocutionary force.

First, when an illocutionary act has only the word-to-world direction of fit, it is satisfied in a context of utterance (…), if and only if its propositional content is true in that context (…). Indeed, in such a case, the success of fit between language and the world is achieved by the fact that the propositional content corresponds to a state of affairs existing (in general) independently in the world. Thus the conditions of satisfaction of assertive illocutionary acts are identical with the truth conditions of their propositional content. (…).

Second, when an illocutionary act has the world-to-word direction of fit, it is satisfied in a context of utterance (…) if and only if the speaker or hearer makes its propositional content true in that context in order to satisfy that illocutionary act. Unlike assertive utterances, the commissive and directive utterances have self-referential conditions of satisfaction that are not independent of these utterances. An assertion is true if and only if its propositional content corresponds to a state of affairs that exists in the world, no matter how that state of affairs got into existence. But, strictly speaking, a promise is kept or a request is granted only if the speaker or hearer carries out in the world a future course of action because of the promise or the request. (…) Thus, one speaks of requests which are granted or refused, and of promises which are kept or broken, and not of true or false requests and promises.”.[32]

The illocutionary point of assertive speech acts is to commit the speaker to the truth of the proposition. In one of his most recent works, Rationality in Action, Searle says that there is no way to explain what a statement is (what an assertive speech act is) without explaining that the commitment to truth isinternal to statement making:

“Whenever I make a statement I have a reason to speak truthfully. Why? Because a statement simply is a commitment to the truth of the expressed proposition. There is no gap at all between making a statement and committing oneself to its truth. That is, there are not two independent features of the speech act, first the making of the statement and second committing myself to its truth; there is only making the statement, which is eo ipso a commitment to truth.  (…)

But why is the commitment to truth internal to statement making? (…) What is the big deal about commitment? Well in a sense you can perform speech acts without their normal commitments. That is what happens in works of fiction. In works of fiction nobody holds the author responsible for the truth of the utterances that she makes in the text. We understand those cases as derivative from, and parasitic on, the more fundamental forms, where the commitments are to the truth conditions of the actual utterance. So, to repeat the question, why?  And the answer follows from the nature of meaning itself[33]. The reason why I am committed to the truth of the claim that it is raining when I say that it is raining is that, in making the utterance that it is raining, I have intentionally imposed certain conditions of satisfaction on that utterance. (…) when I seriously assert that it is raining, I am committed to the truth of the proposition, because I have intentionally imposed the commitment to that truth on the utterance when I intentionally imposed the conditions of satisfaction that it be raining on the conditions of satisfaction of my intention-in-action that that intention-in-action should produce the sounds, “It is raining”. And, to repeat, what makes it possible for me to do that in a publicly accessible manner is the fact that I am a participant in the human institution of language and speech acts.”.[34]

In every genuine assertion, the assuming of responsibility must be present: in making an assertion, says Searle, “we take responsibility for truth, sincerity, and evidence”, and these responsibilities are met only, he insists, “if the world is such that the utterance is true, the speaker is sincere, and the speaker has evidence for the assertion.”.[35]

For Searle, all intentionality has a normative structure, but what is special about human animals, he says,

“is not normativity, but rather the human ability to create, through the use of language, a public set of commitments. Humans typically do this by performing public speech acts where the speaker intentionally imposes conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction. These speech acts are made possible by the existence of institutional structures that the speaker uses to perform meaningful speech acts and to communicate them to other speakers/hearers. Using this apparatus the speaker can undertake commitments when he imposes conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction. Indeed there is no way to avoid undertaking commitments. The speech act of asserting is a commitment to truth, the speech act of promising is a commitment to a future action. Both arise from the fact that the speaker imposes conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction. Speech acts commit the speaker to the second set of conditions of satisfaction. In the case of an assertion, he is committed to the truth of the assertion, in the case of a promise, he is committed to carrying out the act that he has promised to perform.”.[36]

But, because promising has the maker of the promise as the subject of the propositional content, it is peculiar among speech acts. Promising has a self-referential component imposed on the conditions of satisfaction:

“the conditions of satisfaction of the promise are not only that the speaker do something, but that he do it because he made a promise to do it. There is, therefore, a self-referential component in promising, and this self referential component does not exist in certain other sorts of speech acts. For example, it does not exist in assertions.”.[37]

“Philosophy in the Real World,” the subtitle of Mind, Language, and Society (1998), captures two important aspects of Searle’s work First, Searle believes that good philosophical inquiry begins by paying close attention to everyday experiences. Second, Searle believes that there exists a reality totally independent of our representations, that the world is not a mere construct of texts and word games, and that we can understand that real world  – a position known as “metaphysical realism”. His refutation of the arguments against external realism and his defense of external realism as a presupposition of large areas of discourse are, he says, the first step in combating  “the attacks on epistemic objectivity, rationality, and intelligence in contemporary intellectual life”. What difference does it really make whether or not one says that one is a “realist” or an “anti-realist”? Searle actually thinks that philosophical theories make a difference to every aspect of our lives.

These brief remarks on Habermas and Searle show that we have to recover our innocence. The tension between the independence of reality and the accessibility of reality to our knowledge is perhaps not so severe. It may be altogether superable if our understanding of ‘independence’ is modest enough and our understanding of ‘accessibility’ fallibilist enough. This is the view of innocent realism[38]. And it might be my way back to Peirce.

* This paper was presented to 5th International Meeting on Pragmatism at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo in November 2002.

[1]. Th. Calvet de Magalhães, Signe ou Symbole. Introduction à la Théorie Sémiotique de C. S. Peirce, Louvain-la-Neuve / Madrid, Cabay, 1981.

[2]. J. Habermas, Wahrheit und RechtfertigungPhilosophische Aufsätze, Frankfurt-am-Main, Suhrkamp, 1999; Vérité et Justification. Translated by Rainer Rochlitz, Paris, Gallimard, 2001; Verità e giustificazione, translated by Mario Carpitella Laterza, Roma-Bari, 2001. The English translation will be published in 2003 [It was published in June 2003: J. Habermas, Truth and Justification (Barbara Fultner, ed.), Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press].

[3]. J. Habermas, “Rorty’s pragmatische Wende”, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, nº 44 (1996) p. 715-741 (reprinted as chapter 5 of Warheit und Rechtfertigung); the English version of this essay (“Richard Rorty’s Pragmatic Turn”) was published in J. Habermas, On the Pragmatics of Communication (edited by Maeve Cooke), Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1998, p. 343-382.

[4].  J. R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, New York, The Free Press, 1995, p. 195.

[5]. E. Lapore and R. Van Gulick (eds.), John Searle and his critics, Cambridge, Mass. / Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1991, p. 190.

[6]. J. Habermas, Reflections on the Linguistic Foundations of Sociology, inOn the Pragmatics of Social Interaction. Preliminary Studies in the Theory of Communicative Action, translated by Barbara Fultner, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2001, p. 1-103.

[7]. Cf. the fourth lecture: “Universal Pragmatics: Reflections on a Theory of Communicative Competence” (p. 67-84). In a footnote to the 1979 English translation of his essay “What is Universal Pragmatics” [Was heisst Universalpragmatik?] (1976), Habermas expresses dissatisfaction with the label “universal” and a preference for the term “formal pragmatics”: “Hitherto the term “pragmatics” has been employed to refer to the analysis of particular contexts of language use and not to the reconstruction of universal features of using language (or of employing sentences in utterances). To mark this contrast, I introduced a distinction between “empirical” and “universal” pragmatics. I am no longer happy with this terminology; the term “formal pragmatics” – as an extension of “formal semantics” – would serve better. “Formalpragmatik” is the term preferred by F. Schütze, Sprache Soziologisch Gesehen, 2 vols, (Munich, 1975).” (J. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society. Translated and with an Introduction by Thomas McCarthy, Boston, Beacon Press, 1979, p. 208).

[8]. For Habermas, Searle’s conception of language as a rule-governed intentional behavior in Speech Acts (1969) – speaking a language is performing acts according to rules: the semantic structure of a language is regarded here as a conventional realization of a series of sets of underlying constitutive rules –  has the advantage of avoiding what he calls the false alternative between a study of the meaning of sentences, on the one hand,  and a study of speech acts, on the other hand: “It still might seem that my approach is simply, in Saussurian terms, a study of “parole” rather than “langue”. I am arguing however, that an adequate study of speech acts is a study of langue. There is an important reason why this is true which goes beyond the claim that communication necessarily involves speech acts. I take it to be an analytic truth about language that whatever can be meant can be said (…) There are, therefore, not two irreducible distinct semantic studies, one a study of meanings of sentences and one a study of the performances of speech acts. For just as it is part of our notion of the meaning of a sentence that a literal utterance of that sentence with that meaning in a certain context would be the performance of a particular speech act, so it is part of our notion of a speech act that there is a possible sentence (or sentences) the utterance of which in a certain context would in virtue of its (or their) meaning constitute a performance of that speech act. The speech act or acts performed in the utterance of a sentence are in general a function of the meaning of the sentence.” (J. R. Searle, Speech Acts: An essay in the philosophy of language, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 17-18). For Habermas, what really is of interest here is that there are constitutive rules underlying speech acts: “Different human languages, to the extent they are inter-translatable, can be regarded as different conventional realizations of the same underlying rules. The fact that in French one can make a promise by saying  “je promets” and in English one can make it by saying “I promise” is a matter of convention. But the fact that an utterance of a promising device (under appropriate conditions) counts as the undertaking of an obligation is a matter of rules and not a matter of the conventions of French or English.”  (J. R. Searle, Speech Acts, p. 39-40).

[9].  Cf. J. R. Searle, Speech Acts, p. 31-33.

[10]. To delineate more sharply his concept of communicative competence, and to delimit universal pragmatics, Habermas proposes here a didactically plausible series of steps ofabstractions: “The abstractions begin with concrete utterances [konkreten Äusserungen]. I call an utterance “concrete” if it is made within a complete determining context. The first step is sociolinguistic abstraction. It prescinds from all those boundary conditions of linguistic rule systems that vary contingently and are specific only to individual speakers-hearers, and retains “utterances in generalized contexts”. The second step is universal-pragmatic abstraction. It prescinds from all spatio-temporally and socially circumscribed contexts and retains only “situated utterances in general”.  In this way we arrive at the elementary units of speech [elementaren Einheiten der Rede]. The third abstraction is linguistic abstraction, which prescinds from the performance of speech acts and retains only “linguistic expressions” or sentences [Sätze]. In this way we arrive at the elementary units of language. The fourth step is logical abstraction, which disregards all performatively relevant linguistic expressions and retains “assertoric propositions” [Aussagen]. In this way we arrive at the elementary units for rendering states of affairs. Utterances in generalized social contexts are the object of sociolinguistics: It takes the form of a theory of pragmatic competence. (…) Situated utterances in general that are not specific to a given context are the object of universal pragmatics: It takes the form of a theory of communicative competence. Its task is reconstructing the rule system according to which competent speakers transpose linguistic expressions into utterances. Linguistic expressions (or string of symbols) are the object of linguistics: It takes the form of a theory of syntactic competence. (…) Finally assertoric propositions [Aussagen] are the object of logic.” (p. 74-75).

[11]. Habermas’s linguistic turn, writes Barbara Fultner in her “Introduction” to these Preliminary Studies in the Theory of Communicative Action, “was initially motivated by the conviction that a critical social theory required a sound methodological and epistemological foundation: hence the project of providing a linguistic grounding for sociology.” (“Translator’s Introduction”, On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction, p. xxii).

[12].  J. L. Austin, “Performative Utterances” [1956], inPhilosophical Papers (J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock, eds.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1970 (Second Edition), p. 233-252; “Performative-Constative” [1958], translated by G. J. Warnock, in: Charles E. Caton (ed.), Philosophy and Ordinary Language, Urbana, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 1963, p. 22-54; How To Do Things With WordsThe William James Lectures 1955 (J. O. Urmson, ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1962 (Lecture VIII-Lecture XII).

[13]. C. Lafont, The Linguistic Turn in Hermeneutic Philosophy [1994], Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1999 (chs. 5-6).

[14]. H. Schänelbach, Zur Rehabiliterung des animal rationale, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1992. In “Some Further Clarifications of the Concept of Communicative Rationality” [1996], Habermas  accepts Schänelbach’s point of criticism and he assumes that “we use the predicate “rational” in the first instance to refer to beliefs, actions, and linguistic utterances because, in the propositional structure of knowledge, in the teleological structure of action, and in the communicative structure of speech, we come upon various roots of rationality. These do not for their part appear to have common roots, at least not in the discursive structure of justificatory practices, nor in the reflexive structure of the self-relation of a subject participating in discourses. It is more probably the case that the structure of discourse establishes an interrelation among the entwined structures of rationality (the structures of knowledge, action, and speech) by, in a sense, bringing together the propositional, teleological, and communicative roots. According to such a model of intermeshed core structures, discursive rationality owes its special position not to its foundational but to its integrative role.” (J. Habermas, On the Pragmatics of Communication, p. 308-309). Habermas makes now a distinction between two sorts of communicative action: “I will speak of communicative action in a weak sense whenever reaching understanding applies to facts and to actor-relative reasons for one-sided expressions of will; I will speak of communicative action in a strong sense as soon as reaching understanding extends to normative reasons for the selection of the goals themselves. In the latter case, the participants refer to intersubjectively shared value orientations that – going beyond their personal preferences –bind their wills. In weak communicative action the actors are oriented solely toward claims to truth and truthfulness; in strong communicative action they are oriented toward intersubjectively recognized rightness claims as well; (…). Underlying communicative action in the weak sense is the presupposition of an objective world that is the same for all; in strong communicative action the participants over and above this count on a social world that is shared by them intersubjectively.” (J. Habermas, On the Pragmatics of Communication, p. 326-328).

[15]. For Habermas, the insights of speech-act theory must be connected up with the communication-theoretic approach expounded by the German psychologist Karl Bühler in Sprachtheorie (1934). This  approach suggests a fruitful line of inquiry for investigations into language as a mechanism of social coordination. Bühler’s schema of language functions that places the linguistic expression in relation to the speaker, the world, and the hearer can be described as a radicalization of the paradigm change in the philosophy of language introduced by speech-act theory (Cf. J. Habermas, “Social Action, Purposive Activity, and Communication” [1981], and “Toward a Critique of the Theory of Meaning” [1988], inOn the Pragmatics of Communication, p. 105-181, and p. 278-305).

[16]. J. Habermas, “Richard Rorty’s Pragmatic Turn” [1996], On the Pragmatics of Communication, p. 357-358.

[17].  Ibidem, p. 377.

[18]. E. Lapore and R. Van Gulick (eds.), John Searle and his critics, p. 190-191; see also J. R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality,  p. 149-197.

[19]. J. R. Searle, Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

[20]. E. Lapore and R. Van Gulick (eds.), John Searle and his critics, p. 190.

[21]. Ibidem.

[22]. H. Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism , La Salle, Ill., Open Court, 1987.

[23]. E. Lapore and R. Van Gulick (eds.), John Searle and his critics, p. 191.

[24].  J. R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, p. 153.

[25].  Ibidem, p. 182. So construed, external realism is for Searle a purely formal constraint.

[26]. J. R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, p. 184.

[27]. Ibidem, p. 194.

[28]. J. R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, p. 195.

[29]. Ibidem, p. 199-226.

[30]. Austin had already said,  in the William James Lectures that he delivered at Harvard University in 1955, that “truth and falsity are (except by an artificial abstraction which is always possible and legitimate for certain purposes) not names for relations, qualities, or what not, but for a dimension of assessment – how the words stand in respect of satisfactoriness to the facts, events, situations, &c., to which they refer.” (J. L. Austin,  How To  Do Things With Words, p. 149).

[31]. For the semantic concepts of success and satisfaction, see Daniel Vanderveken, Meaning and Speech Acts, Vol. I: Principles of Language Use, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 129-136.

[32]. D. Vanderveken, Meaning and Speech Acts, Vol. I: Principles of Language Use, p. 132-133.

[33]. Cf. J. R. Searle, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York, Basic Books, 1998, p. 139-144.

[34]. J. R. Searle, Rationality in Action, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2001, p. 184-186.

[35]. Ibidem, p. 176. According to Charles S. Peirce, an assertion is an act in which a speaker addresses a listener and assumes responsibility for its truth: “What is the nature of assertion? We have no magnifying-glass that can enlarge its features, and render them more discernible; but in default of such an instrument we can select for examination a very formal assertion, the features of which have purposely been rendered very prominent, in order to emphasize its solemnity. If a man desires to assert anything very solemnly, he takes such steps as will enable him to go before a magistrate or notary and take a binding oath to it. Taking an oath is not mainly an event of the nature of a setting forth, Vorstellung, or representing. It is not mere saying, but is doing. The law, I believe, calls it an “act”. At any rate, it would be followed by very real effects, in case the substance of what is asserted should be proved untrue. This ingredient, the assuming of responsibility, which is so prominent in solemn assertion, must be present in every genuine assertion.” (Collected  Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce [CP], ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965, 5.547 [c. 1908] ). Cf. J. Brock, “An Introduction to Peirce’s Theory of Speech Acts”, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 17 (1981), p. 319-326; Ch. Chauviré, Peirce et la signification. Introduction à la logique du vague, Paris, PUF, 1995, p. 142-152; Th. Calvet de Magalhães, Signe ou Symbole. Introduction à la Théorie Sémiotique de C. S. Peirce, p. 83-87, and p. 197-200.

[36].  J. R. Searle, Rationality in Action, p. 183.

[37]. Ibidem, p. 213.

[38]. Cf. S. Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 156-164.

Review of Pragmatism: A Reader


Vulgar Rortyism

by Susan Haack

Review of Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand

How quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals.
—Saul Bellow

Perhaps you know the old joke about the soldiers passing a message down the line— first man to second, “send reinforcements, we’re going to advance”; next-to-last man to last, “send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance.” Well, the history of pragmatism is like that—only more so.

C. S. Peirce, working scientist, pioneer of modern logic, and founder of pragmatism, envisaged a reformed, scientific philosophy which would use “the most rational methods it can devise, for finding out the little that can as yet be found out about the universe of mind and matter from those observations which every person can make in every hour of his waking life.” His philosophy was informed by the pragmatic maxim, identifying the meaning of a concept with “the conceivable practical consequences,—that is, the consequences for deliberate, self-controlled conduct,—of the affirmation or denial of the concept.” Peircean pragmatism is “prope-positivism,” but, unlike the narrower positivism of Auguste Comte, “instead of merely jeering at metaphysics, … extracts from it a precious essence.”

Richard Rorty, most influential of contemporary self-styled neo-pragmatists, proposes a revolutionary shift in which the metaphysical and epistemological territory at the traditional center of philosophy is abandoned and not re-occupied; the old preoccupation with method and argument is given up as we acknowledge that “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones”; and philosophy disassociates itself from science and remakes itself as a genre of literature.

Peirce urged that philosophy be undertaken with the “scientific attitude,” from the “Will to Learn,” a genuine desire to discover the truth—which “is SO … whether you or I or anybody thinks it is so or not.” But Rorty tells us he does “not have much use for notions like … ‘objective truth’”; to call a statement true “is just to give it a rhetorical pat on the back.” It would take serious inquiry to discover what is conducive to the interests of society, Peirce points out, declaring himself one of “that class of scalawags who purpose … to look the truth in the face, whether doing so be conducive to the interests of society or not.” But Rorty tells us that pragmatists see philosophy as “in the service of democratic politics.” Peirce wanted to “rescue the good ship Philosophy for the service of Science from the hands of the lawless rovers of the sea of literature.” But Rorty tells us that “philosophy is best seen as a kind of writing.”

Does Louis Menand, editor of the new anthology Pragmatism: A Reader, try to help us understand how this extraordinary transmutation of pragmatism came about, or attempt a sober assessment of the old message and the new?[1] Hardly. His purpose is to promote a Rortyesque neo-pragmatism.

Menand’s “pragmatism” is “an effort to unhitch human beings from what pragmatists regard as a useless structure of bad abstractions”; the idea that “what people believe to be true is just what they think it is good to believe to be true”; that “the whole force of a philosophical account of anything … lies in the advertised [sic] consequences of accepting it”; that “if we do what is right, the metaphysics will take care of themselves.” Rortyism is vulgar pragmatism; this is vulgar Rortyism.

Rorty dismisses Peirce as having merely given pragmatism its name. Menand offers his readers, for all the world as if it were the full authoritative story, a slanted history of a Rortyesque “pragmatism” founded by William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, continued by John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, and gloriously revived by Rorty’sPhilosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

But when James introduced pragmatism to the philosophical world in 1898, he described it as “the principle of Peirce,” first enunciated “at Cambridge, in the early 70’s.” So Menand discounts both Peirce’s and James’s direct testimony: “James was, characteristically, doing a favor for a friend”; Peirce, already largely forgotten in the philosophical world, deceived himself about his own role in hopes of jumping on the pragmatist bandwagon James had set rolling. In fact, Menand assures us, the evidence that there even was a Metaphysical Club in Cambridge—where Peirce claimed he introduced the key ideas of pragmatism —“is thin.”

On the contrary, the evidence is that Peirce’s recollection was quite accurate.[2] Pointless nitpicking, Menand would reply; for “James and Holmes (and … Chauncey Wright and Nicholas St. John Green …) had already formulated what is distinctively pragmatic in their views before 1872. Peirce may have given James the name, but he could not have given him the idea.” Menand has, however, conveniently omitted from his list of “classic pragmatist essays” Peirce’s articles in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy for 1868–9, which Richard J. Bernstein rightly describes as the first articulation of the key anti-foundationalist themes of the pragmatist tradition.

And Menand’s grip on “the idea” of pragmatism is feeble at best. Sometimes he runs pragmatism together with James’s doctrine of the Will to Believe. But both Peirce and Dewey repudiated this doctrine, and James himself, in a letter to Horace Kallen, struggled to distinguish it from pragmatism. Nor, apparently, is Menand aware of the differences between Peirce’s logical, realist conception of pragmatism and James’s more psychological, nominalist conception—nor of James’s uncomprehending and disturbingly uncharitable reaction to Peirce’s 1903 Harvard lectures articulating Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking.

After cutting Peirce out of the pragmatist family portrait, Menand cheerfully caricatures James and Dewey as Rorty’s philosophical ancestors—fudging James’s pluralistic metaphysics into a trendy cultural pluralism, for example, and Dewey’s concept of experience into culture. Who would dream, from Menand’s account, of James’s assurance that “pragmatism has no objection … to … abstractions, so long as … they actually carry you somewhere,” and that “when … we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself”? Who would guess that Dewey, noting how deeply social Peirce’s theory of inquiry was, had described Peirce as “more of a pragmatist than James”?

Yes, but is this a good anthology with an infuriating introduction, you will be asking, or what? In brief, “what.” Surprisingly, Menand includes quite a lot of Peirce—two pages, even, from those 1868–9 papers criticizing the Cartesian philosophy. But his selections are too scrappy to give readers much sense of that remarkable mind. Mead is here, and Hilary Putnam, and the paper of Bernstein’s cited earlier. But there is nothing from Ramsey, C. I. Lewis, White, Quine, Goodman, Rescher—too analytic, perhaps; nothing from Sidney Hook; nothing from Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional/ triadic theory of reading, with its themes from Dewey and Peirce.

Even from the perspective of his own skewed history of pragmatism, Menand doesn’t do a good job. He includes more from Peirce than from Holmes, and nothing from Holmes indicative of anything like Peirce’s philosophical horsepower; nothing from Wright or Green; nothing from F. C. S. Schiller—whom Bertrand Russell described as the “literary protagonist of pragmatism,” and who misread James in some of the same ways as Rorty; nothing from Kallen, Alain Locke or Randolph Bourne, to whom Menand credits the shift from metaphysical to cultural pluralism; a long paper of Rorty’s on Jacques Derrida (where the only connection with classical pragmatism is that James’s name is dropped once, amid scores of others), but nothing from Rorty’s Introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism, nor anything from Rorty after 1983. Nor, despite Rorty’s breezy observation that “it suits my purposes to define pragmatism as the attempt to do something Davidson approves of,” is there anything from Donald Davidson. (And a reader wanting to fill such gaps will not find Menand’s bibliography much help.)

The priority is to make room for “pragmatist” writings from other disciplines: e.g., Richard Poirier reminiscing about “Hum. 6” at Amherst College; Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels urging the impossibility of a theory of literary interpretation; Richard Posner on legal “pragmatism”– including this gem: “If there is no objective truth, … this makes it all the more important to maintain the conditions necessary for the unforced inquiry required to challenge and defeat all those false claims to have found the truth”; Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob seeking “a philosophical grounding compatible with” their advocacy of “the democratic practice of history.” Perhaps this bit of revisionary philosophy of history—quite a come-down from Dewey’s long-winded but sometimes subtle and savvy reflections on democracy earlier in the book—is included by way of justification for Menand’s revisionary history of philosophy.

Presumably, Menand’s selections were made in the spirit of his fulsome admiration for Rorty’s self-transformation from professional philosopher to “intellectual,” no longer relying on a paradigm but on his genius. The fuzziness of Rorty’s contrast of “pragmatism” versus “professional philosophy” serves Menand well. Though the range of Peirce’s thought, as well as its depth, was enormously greater than Rorty’s, and Peirce’s brief career at Johns Hopkins ended in disaster, he can be dismissed—his pragmatism became “quite technical.” Like Rorty, Menand can’t, or won’t, distinguish between necessary, useful technicality, and jargon or pseudo-mathematics substituting for genuine rigor; nor between the laudable goal of broadening philosophy professors’ intellectual horizons beyond the narrow confines of the Journal of Philosophy, and the intoxicating illusion that “I don’t see why we need/how we can have a theory of ——” constitutes a real contribution to our understanding of ——.

The “pragmatism” Menand admires is not only anti-philosophical; it is also, though more covertly, profoundly anti-intellectual. Repudiating the idea that beliefs are objectively true or false, evidence objectively better or worse, Rortyism induces a factitious despair of the possibility of real inquiry of any kind, misprizes the truths that literature can teach us, and undermines the hope of knowing what would truly improve the condition of society.

The cover design—a book, largely destroyed, with “PRAGMATISM” printed on the remains—makes this covert anti-intellectualism clearer than Menand is willing to do. He seems pleased that “pragmatism … suggest[s] that the real work of the world is being done somewhere other than in philosophy departments”; but leaves it conveniently unclear where he thinks that real work is being done—in departments of literature, history, etc.? in the pages of the TLSThe New York Review of Books, and such? in the real world?

Rorty, in Menand’s judgment, “is a far more exciting writer than Dewey, and his work has served for many people as a model for the kind of wide-ranging engagement with art, ideas, and public affairs that pragmatism might make possible.” Perhaps unaware of Mussolini’s enthusiasm for a “pragmatism” subordinating intellectual life to politics, Menand seems to take for granted that such engagement would inevitably be benign.

And, while his biographical notes on Dewey mention Dewey’s work with Jane Addams’s settlement house, in the founding of the ACLU, on the commission to investigate Stalin’s charges against Trotsky, his notes on Rorty mention only academic books and honors; as do his notes on Cornel West, who, however, tells us that “prophetic pragmatists” like himself are different from those “traditional intellectuals … comfortably nested in the academy.” The effect—presumably unintended, and for all I know quite unfair—will surely be to put some readers in mind of James’s shrewd words about the “nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.”

But I’m not worried about those readers, the ones with the discernment and determination to winnow out the good stuff from the rest. Though hoping against hope that Peirce was wrong that “in the matter of ideas the public prefer the cheap and nasty,” I worry about the readers, especially the students, who will naïvely suppose that Menand has fairly represented what is worthwhile in the tradition of classical pragmatism—and conclude that that tradition is worthless, or, even worse, that vulgar Rortyism is what we should learn from it. It’s a shame.

Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind

Mike Fuller discusses the liberalism of Richard Rorty.

I have to admit that I find Richard Rorty one of the most interesting contemporary thinkers. I like his easygoing, conversational style (although as Norman Geras observes it can sometimes lead Rorty into being evasive and fudging over some key issues). I admire him for being one of the few contemporary philosophers with the ambition – and also the talent and the scholarship – to force a dialogue between Analytic and Continental philosophy. Perhaps most important of all, I find, provisionally at least, his epistemological conclusions immaculate, although hispragmatic arguments for a thoroughgoing naturalist metaphysic (his so-called ‘non-reductive physicalism’) I can’t help regarding as a temperamental bias (and one very at odds with William James’s pragmatic arguments in the other direction inThe Varieties of Religious Experience).

Rorty’s explorations of the post-Kantian era in both Analytic and Continental philosophy are exceptional, whether he is following Immanuel Kant’s legacy through the Anglo- American philosophers James, Peirce, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Quine and Davidson, or whether he is following it through the Continental route of Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Habermas, Derrida. Rorty’s conclusions, which are summed up in his oftquoted slogan that it is systematically impossible to decide at what point humanly ‘making’ the truth ends and objectively ‘finding’ the truth begins, are compelling.

Geras, correctly it seems, says that all Rorty’s views (for instance, about human nature or about his ‘ungroundable liberalism’) follow logically from this basic scepticism about distinguishing ‘making’ from ‘finding’.

Rorty frequently names Donald Davidson as the inspiration behind this, saying that Davidson’s arguments against the ‘scheme/content distinction’ (and so against the tenability of either realism or relativism) lay to rest a third Dogma of Empiricism – so completing Quine’s earlier attack on the two other Dogmas of Empiricism: the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements (and so between necessary and contingent truth) and the tendency to reduce wholes to their constituent parts as the ultimate buildingblocks of knowledge. Quine argues, against this view, that it is whole, coherent bodies of knowledge, rather than isolated terms or propositions, that ‘face the tribunal of reality.’

It is easy to see that Rorty could – and does – equally use the ideas of Continental thinkers to underpin his ‘making/finding’ scepticism, as he could – and does – utilise their ‘attack on binary oppositions’. This is as old as Hegel’s dialectic, and as new as Derrida’s deconstruction, and culminates in casting doubt on whether there is any clear distinction between nature and culture.

To get down to more specific cases, Geras accuses Rorty of being evasive when he comes out with provocative statements like “there is no such thing as human nature.” Geras argues that Rorty means different things at different times by this assertion, some of which are obviously false and some of which are not false, but are innocuous and quite compatible with grounding universal human rights in a foundation of shared human nature (such as is to be found, for instance, in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Geras says: “That there is no human nature may appear to mean that [1] there are no commonly shared traits among human beings; or [2] it may appear to mean that there are none which are distinctively human; or it may [3] appear to mean that there are none which are of universal moral import. Sustainable in the end is something rather more modest: like [4] that all people do not aspire, and nor should they, to one very narrowly specified kind of goal, activity, or character.” (pp.140-141).

Geras further argues that he is happy to grant Rorty meaning [4], but that this is quite compatible with some minimal notion of human nature in terms of shared traits and needs. Geras argues that meanings [1], [2], and [3] are false – and further points out that Rorty, while maintaining each of these theses at some point in his writings, contradicts them at other points. Rorty says in one place that there are no traits that humans share that they do not also share with animals, only to write elsewhere that all human beings share the ability to be humiliated, an ability which other animals do not appear to possess.

While I agree with Geras that Rorty is evasive about what he means by ‘There is no human nature’ (and that, when he does spell out what he means in the above four senses, he can seem to contradict himself), I still wonder if it is possible to offer a coherent defence of the three theses about human nature which Geras seems to regard as false. Although I have never been entirely happy with Rorty’s apparent airy dismissals of human nature, it seems that the three theses can be made to convincingly chime with each other and with Rorty’s general epistemological position. That position is that there are no neutral facts (about human nature or anything else) that do not come ‘under a description’, and that the vocabulary which offers the description can never be justified as true in a neutral way but can only be justified as true in a circular way from within. THESIS 3 ‘There are no commonly shared traits among human being which are of universal moral import’.

This is not obviously false. Even if one grants that there are common traits and needs based on those traits, it does not follow with any necessity that those needs should be respected. If pushed, Saddam Hussein might grant that Kurds have the same needs as himself, but fail to agree that he should respect them. Similarly, many people would no doubt agree that Rwandans have the same needs as they do, but nevertheless declare that Rwandans’ needs are not their problem. In short, needs based on common human traits only carry ‘universal moral import’ – only become rights – within a particular metaphysical and moral vocabulary. THESIS 2 ‘There are no common traits that are distinctively human’.

One might argue that this is true for those who employ a naturalistic, biological, evolutionary vocabulary, and who would claim that what appear to be distinctively human traits – like language or humour – can be found in germ in many animals. On the other hand, this thesis is false for Christians, Kantians, and Aristotelians, whose vocabulary insists that humans have certain distinctive traits – a soul, a ‘moral personality’, rationality, and so forth.

In short, could it be argued that the truth or falsity of the description will finally depend on the vocabulary adopted? THESIS 1 ‘There are no commonly shared traits among human beings’.

Of all Rorty’s ideas, this is the one with which I have felt most uncomfortable. It seems to me that it is hard to get around Hume’s position that all human creatures, by dint of their biological make-up, must share common traits and needs. Any vocabulary would have to concede that all human beings need food in order to survive and will freeze to death without shelter in extreme cold. Of course these may be traits which do not carry ‘universal moral import’ outside of certain kinds of metaphysical and moral vocabularies and may be traits that humans share with other animals.

It could be that I am being parochial in regarding as obvious common-sense fact that which is really the product of our modern biological vocabulary, and it is this vocabulary which makes the description seem so compelling. By analogy, moderns are amazed that Cartesian-inspired vivisectionists could seriously believe that an animal howling with pain was not really feeling anything because it had no soul and so was no more capable of feeling pain than a machine or a vegetable.

Perhaps the assertion that all human beings share common traits could be claimed to be a function of ‘the vocabulary in which the description is offered’. It is, after all, logically possible to conceive of a vocabulary which produces descriptions solely consistent with there being no commonly shared traits among human beings.

We can push this point even further. History offers us many examples of groups who held views like the following: “The poor (or the lower orders, or the dusky races, or the Jews) are less intelligent and sensitive than us and do not feel pain as much as or in the same way that we do.”

Rorty would consistently hold that there is no neutral way to dissuade Nazis from their beliefs that Jews are irredeemably different and perhaps not fully human. If they resist what liberals regard as rational argument and empirical evidence (or, better put, if they reinterpret the evidence in the light of their own standards of rationality), then the only remaining options are either to ignore them, bribe them, or dissuade them by force.

The fact that there are and have been many such groups who believe that the poor, the lower orders, the blacks, etc., are irredeemably ‘different’ is evidence that there are many who deny common traits. As, on Rorty’s basic premisses, belief and fact (scheme and content) cannot be clearly separated, this provides justification for the claim ‘There are no common traits in human nature’ that we can conclusively prove in a neutral way.

Presumably Rorty’s own liberal beliefsystem (with its emphasis on Freedom, Equality, and Rights) does not allow him to subscribe to the ‘no common traits’ sort of view. He, as a member of the liberal community, while believing that all humans do share common traits and needs fundamentally (i.e., the poor, blacks, and Jews feel as much pain and humiliation as the rich, whites, and Aryans) still has no neutral way to persuade those who do not subscribe to liberal views. All he can do is to offer them the carrot or the stick (i.e., “Try being a liberal and see how much nicer the world is” or “As far as we liberals are concerned, you’ve overstepped the mark and deserve a good slapping”).

Geras proceeds to his most central attack on Rorty’s ‘ungroundable liberalism’ in the last chapter of the book. He holds that, although Rorty may be congenial enough as a personality and may even share some similar values with a Marxist like himself,nevertheless Rorty cannot serve humanity well because by denying any universal dimensions to human nature, truth, and justice, he must systematically be committed to a position where ‘anything goes’

Geras attributes, rightly, I think, to Rorty the view that you cannot justify the vocabulary and values of liberalism (or Marxism, or anything else) in a non-circular way. There is no neutral ground on which to stand.

Geras answers:

“An alternative line of thought is that vocabularies and language-games are commensurable. I hope so … If there is no truth, there is no injustice. Morally and politically, anything goes. There are appaling language-games always in preparation, now as much as ever. They will be ‘played’ by those looking for the chances of it in deadly earnest. It remains to be shown that, amongst our defences against them, we have anything better than the concepts of a common humanity, of universal rights, and of reasoning together to try to discover how things are, in order to minimise avoidable suffering and injustice.” (p.143).

I don’t think this does full justice to Rorty’s position. Rorty believes that while different metaphysical, moral, and political vocabularies are theoretically incommensurable (incapable of non-circular justification), nevertheless it is a contingent possibility that they may be pragmatically commensurable.
He holds something like this:

‘We liberals like our way of doing things and think it is the best way of doing things. We would urge you to try it. But, if we are to be intellectually honest, we have no right to urge you to become liberals because liberalism is God’s way of doing things (the religious justification) or Nature’s way or Reason’s way (the Enlightenment justification) or ‘History’s inevitable lesson’ (the Hegelian/Marxist sort of justification). All such justifications are ideological armlocks, so many ways of trying to bully dissenters and make oneself feel good by unprovable appeals to impartial non-human authorities. They are rhetorical devices.

The only honest justification is this: liberalism is perhaps pragmatically the best way to rub along with others, due to its central belief in tolerance. As such, it may be the best hope for the the human race, especially in a nuclear age. It is capable of learning from other views and so developing itself and them in the ‘ongoing conversation of humankind’.

However, if you infringe on our liberal community, or if you do things that outrageously flout our beliefs, we may have to fight you, if all diplomacy and haggling fail (and even though we cannot justify our cause in any absolute way, since there is no neutral place to stand theoretically). We urge you, for pragmatic reasons, to join our experiment in Liberty, Equality, Democracy, Human Rights, and Tolerance. See for yourself if it is satisfactory.’

To which it has to be added that a number of people, from Islamic fundamentalists to Marxists, looking at some of the actual manifestations of the ‘liberal experiment’, are going to reply: “No. It isn’t satisfactory.”

Nevertheless, Rorty’s achievement remains that of showing how, and to what extent, talk of human rights still makes sense even after the ‘crisis of Enlightenment’ and subsequent hard to get around doubts aboutproving anything as universally true. Geras’s achievement in this book remains that of showing how Rorty could spell out some of his complex arguments rather more clearly for his readers.