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.


The Philosophy of Richard Rorty

This is a review from NDPR

The Philosophy of Richard Rorty is the thirty-second volume in the Library of Living Philosophers series, which commenced with a volume on the philosopher with whom Rorty is most often compared, John Dewey. With this volume, the series title serves as a sad reminder of Rorty’s death at the age of 75 in 2007, while the collection was still in preparation. For many who, like the reviewer, were in the early stages of a university career in philosophy at the time, the publication of Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979 was a very significant event indeed.[1] I imagine that the attitude towards Rorty expressed by James Edwards in his contribution to the volume is far from unusual: “I am one of those who admire the work (and the man) almost without reservation; one of those who would not want to imagine what recent … philosophy would have been if Rorty had not been around to shake things up and to forge some unexpected linkages” (658).[2] Of course not everyone, even from that particular generation, reacted to this work, and the stream of writings following it, with admiration. While many saw in Rorty a Socratic gadfly, to another wing of the profession he was closer to an ancient sophist. And even among those who do admire, admiration rarely means whole-heartedagreement — many admirers still find troubling elements within Rorty’s philosophy, as Edwards himself seems to.

With Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and the series of collections of essays that started with Consequence of Pragmatism in 1982,[3] Rorty’s thought-provoking ideas began to find a wide readership beyond the bounds of professional philosophy and started to attract the combination of applause and condemnation that has continued to this day. In fact, collections of critical essays on Rorty, similar in conception and format to theLibrary of Living Philosophers series, have been appearing on a reasonably regular basis since Alan Malachowski’s Reading Rorty in 1990.[4] Even omitting non-English language volumes and ones with very specific themes, such as one on “Rorty and Confucianism”, there have been, on my count, seven prior to this volume. Of these, a number, like the Malachowski volume, have followed the LLP practice of having paired replies by Rorty to the interpretative and critical pieces. Both Malachowski’s collection and the impressive 2000 volume edited by Robert Brandom, Rorty and His Critics,[5] while large at around 400 pages each, are dwarfed by the LLP volume. With the standard introductory “Intellectual Autobiography”, twenty-nine substantial essays, most with replies by Rorty, and an extensive bibliography of Rorty’s writings, it is roughly the size of the other two combined.

So much has already been written about the philosophy of Richard Rorty that one might wonder whether there will be much new left to say. But while it is true that many of the general themes invoked in the essays in this book have a familiar ring, the majority of contributors manage to find new and illuminating ways of articulating their senses of agreement and disagreement to make it a very worthwhile addition to the literature. And as always, Rorty’s replies are masterly in their ability to articulate economically the conceptual structure of the issues under dispute and, typically, to defuse criticisms by questioning distinctions presupposed by them. That there are still avenues of Rorty’s thought to explore and take issue with might alone be taken as testifying to the breadth as well as the richly inventive nature of his philosophizing.

Clearly then, Rorty has been an eminently discussible as well as criticizable philosopher, and one of the reasons for this seems to lie in the fact that since the eighties he has been regarded as a philosopher who, emerging from the heartland of the fast-professionalizing world of American analytic philosophy — the philosophy department at Princeton — started to write about and engage with what he calls the “line of thought that leads from Hegel through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Derrida” (13) — a line of thought clearly outside the bounds of philosophy to many within the analytic tradition. In the late sixties and early seventies, Rorty might have appeared to the casual observer as a philosopher working centrally within the type of analytic philosophy represented by the Princeton department — a mode of philosophy that was to shape the image of what professionalized Anglophone philosophy would become during the next decades. For example, he was anthologized as the advocate of a radical “eliminative materialist” position within the early philosophy of mind and had edited a volume on analytic method, The Linguistic Turn.[6] But from the autobiographical essay with which the volume commences one gets an interesting overview of his early years. Thus he describes his first years at Princeton, where he started as a junior academic in 1960, as ones in which he felt the need “to speak to some of the issues with which [his colleagues] were concerned and to write in somewhat the same vein as they did” (11). The reception of some of this work “made [him] feel that perhaps [he] had a future in the analytic philosophy business” (11), but in the course of putting together The Linguistic Turn, in particular, and in “figuring out what Carnap and Wittgenstein agreed about, the better to highlight their obvious differences”, he bolstered his “own preference for Wittgensteinian dissolutions of philosophical problems over constructive solutions” (12), preferences that had also been acquired by his earlier immersion in the pragmatists. And in the course of the seventies, as he tells it, he was struck

by the fact that Wittgenstein’s debunking approach to philosophical problems could as easily be applied to what my Princeton colleagues thought of as the ‘principal problems of analytic philosophy’ as to the problems of the metaphysicians at whom Ayer had jeered.

“Both sets of problems”, he had begun to think, “were equally artificial”. This then led him “to construct a historical narrative about the development of modern philosophy designed to support Wittgenstein’s suggestion that philosophical problems were just cul-de-sacs down which philosophers had wandered” (12-3). The result was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

On its appearance, many analytic philosophers responded to this work as a betrayal by one of their own, some seeing it as a cynical courting of the emerging “post-modernism” that seemed to be taking over the humanities. But as Rorty tells it, he had already acquired “a taste for ambitious, swooshy, Geistesgeschichte” (6) in his undergraduate years at the Richard McKeon-dominated department at the University of Chicago, and on going to Yale, where he did his PhD, he had been at home in another analytic-lite department, where versions of absolute idealism were still defended along with attempts to synthesize Whitehead and Hegel. A quick survey of the 1960s section of Rorty’s bibliography reveals how his more standardly “analytic” publications were interspersed with articles and reviews devoted to traditional pragmatism as well as thinkers like Blanshard, Hartshorne and Weiss, his erstwhile teachers. Against this background it is easy to see how the more “professional” analytic concerns that were then developing at Princeton could become fodder for an historicizing approach to philosophy that had predated any serious engagement with developments in analysis. But Rorty’s pre-analytic stance now became importantly modified by his assimilation of “what Carnap and [the latter] Wittgenstein agreed about”, giving his thought its familiar “debunking” stamp.

It was this early attraction to Hegel and “swooshy” grand tellings of the history of philosophy that allowed Rorty in the seventies to massage into his ongoing narrative, in a seemingly effortless way, philosophical voices new to the Anglophone scene such as those of the late Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida, creating the sorts of “unexpected linkages” to which Edwards refers. And yet this is not enough to capture just those features of Rorty’s philosophizing that makes him such a fascinating, discussible and objection-attracting figure. Others were reacting against what they took to be the narrowness of the type of emerging professionalized philosophy, with its focus on technical semantic problems, that Rorty complained about at Princeton. Thus “continental philosophy” was splitting away to accommodate types of philosophy that had always been at best marginal to the analytic movement, while some analytic philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Stanley Cavell were going in purportedly “post-analytic” directions. But neither of these movements shared Rorty’s resolutely debunking attitude to the tradition of philosophy itself. Crudely, it might be said that these movements tended to advocate that there was more to philosophy than what was perceived as the narrow technical issues that were coming to define the discipline, but for Rorty there was little worth saving from the “Plato-Kant tradition” that analytic philosophy had displaced. That is, it must be remembered that Rorty’s objections to professionalized philosophy Princeton-style were themselves an extension of the objections of the early analytic positivists to the “Plato-Kant tradition” itself.

This meant that while Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature could compare his “conversational” historicism with the type of Hegel- and Heidegger-inspired “dialogical” historicism of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Rorty’s debunking attitude to philosophy was not that of Heidegger nor philosophers inspired by him. For Heidegger, as Peter Dews makes clear in his essay, freedom from the sorts of linguistic enchantments expressed in the metaphysics from which Wittgenstein (and following him, Rorty) sought to liberate thought was

not so much the driving force, as itself an expression of a fateful failure to respect the ‘ontological difference’ between ‘Being’ and ‘beings’. For Rorty, by contrast, however innovative and insightful a metaphysician may have been in his own day, his ideas no longer carry any live charge; metaphysical theories have ceased to address the problems with which we are concerned, even obliquely (637).

In short, Rorty’s attitude to traditional philosophy had more in common with the views of Carnap than his bête noir, Heidegger.

In her contribution Susan James rightly attributes Rorty’s vast influence to the “scope and grandeur” of his philosophy, “so rich in thought-provoking asides and quickly sketched connections” (415). But I suggest that the set of features alluded to above has also contributed to Rorty’s peculiar status within intellectual life and has prompted the particular combinations of agreement and disagreement that can be seen to play out within the essays in this and other similar volumes. Thus, many of the authors here start from a reasonably-to-strongly sympathetic position but quickly come to what has been bothering them in Rorty’s particular approach to this or that topic. What one tends to find here are critics intent on getting more truth out of philosophy than Rorty is willing to allow, even if they are in agreement with his critique of a model of philosophical knowledge that aims at some divinely eternal over-view.

The essays here are divided up into four sections: “Pragmatism Old and New”, with essays by Cheryl Misak, James W. Allard, Harvey Cormier, Jacquelyn Ann K. Kegley, Robert Cummings Neville, Jean-Pierre Cometti, Aldo Giorgio Gargani, and María Pía Lara; “The World Well Lost: Language Representation, and Truth” with Jaroslav Peregrin, János Boros, Huw Price, Yasuhiko Tomida, Albrecht Wellmer, Michael P. Lynch, David Detmer and Andrzej Szahaj; “Conversation Stoppers: Politics, Progress, and Hope” with Susan James, Richard A. Posner, Yong Huang, J. B. Schneewind, William L. McBride and Jeffrey Stout; and “A Kind of Writing: Edifying Conversations” with Raymond D. Boisvert, Gianni Vattimo, Jolán Orbán, Pascal Engel, Miguel Tamen, Peter Dews and James C. Edwards. The borders between these groupings are understandably very porous with common themes crossing the boundaries. It is impossible, of course, in even a long review to do justice to individual essays and to Rorty’s replies, or even survey all of them. In the remainder of this review I will focus on two or three representatives from each of the sections, although not necessarily in their particular order, in an attempt to give an impression of the sorts of issues raised and pursued throughout this volume.

Rorty is often cited as the most influential figure in the recent revival of interest in American pragmatist philosophy and, as one might expect, the essays in Section I tend to compare the sort of pragmatism revitalized by him in the wake of figures such as Sellars, Quine and Davidson with classical pragmatism and the idealist philosophy from which it emerged. Of the classical pragmatists it is to the work of James and, especially, Dewey that Rorty mostly appeals. In the course of his essay from Section III, and drawing on the work of Robert Brandom, Stout gives a nice thumb-nail sketch of the particularly Deweyan dimension to Rorty’s pragmatism. At the heart of this position is “the social-practical conception of norms that the classical pragmatists took over from Hegel” (540). Rorty’s way of understanding this is to see the source of such norms as “social agreement among human beings” and it is this that ties his pragmatism into his political advocacy of Deweyan democracy and Millian liberalism. To understand that we are the ultimate sources of the norms according to which we think and act is to see claims by particular sections of the community to unilaterally determine those norms as dangerous attempts to dominate the rest, hidden behind a quasi-clerical pretense of access to some ultimate truth existing independently of humans. And for Rorty, as for Mill, the good community is one which maximizes the chances of individuals creating unique lives, which for Rorty implies fashioning the “vocabularies” with which they shape their outlooks and behaviors. To the extent that traditional philosophy seeks a source for norms in something other than human agreement, it is to be regarded as just an extension of religion. In short, to see our ideas or language as trying to represent something essentially independent from us — seeing philosophical knowledge as ideally a “mirror of nature” — is just another instance of thinking of ourselves as responsible to something other than other human beings.

A number of papers attempt to bring out features and shortcomings of Rorty’s brand of pragmatism by usefully comparing him to earlier figures. In “Idealism, Pragmatism and the World Well Lost”, Allard insightfully compares Rorty to the nineteenth-century Scottish idealist Edward Caird, seeing both as responding to the “broken harmony of spiritual life” in their own times. Caird had been concerned to reconcile science with religion, while for Rorty the analogous task is to somehow reconcile science with literary culture regarded as a provider of new vocabularies within which individuals may articulate their values, aspirations and hopes. But while Caird had appealed to idealist metaphysics to do this, Rorty, of course, rejects anymetaphysical solution. Allard, however, like a number of others in the volume, is skeptical of Rorty’s strategy for defending humanistic culture in the face of the sciences’ perceived monopolization of truth by simply abandoning the idea that it is the function of language in any context to truly represent the world. And while Dewey had similarly protested against such a representationalist conception of language, Dewey’s earlier version of pragmatism, thinks Allard, did not face potential incoherencies that Rorty’s Wittgenstein/Davidson-based version of pragmatism does. In his response to Allard, Rorty clarifies how he sees the relation between his pragmatism — which is more a form of “romanticism” — and nineteenth-century idealism. “Like idealism, romanticism resists the claim that natural science tells us how reality really is. But romanticism does not go on to offer an alternative account” (69). And we just don’t need the sorts of answers that Allard says Rorty’s pragmatism cannot provide: “After we cease asking which entities are available to serve as truth makers, we can forget about metaphysics” (70).

Kegley, in “False Dichotomies and Mixed Metaphors: Genuine Individuals Need Genuine Communities”, also has reservations about the capacity for Rorty to do justice to the aspirations he can be seen as sharing with earlier idealists once the metaphysical project is abandoned in its entirely, and to this end she contrasts Rorty with the American idealist Josiah Royce. Like Rorty, Royce rejected any Cartesian conception of the human subject linked to the “mirroring” conception of knowledge and stressed the idea of the self as coming to be through a type of self-interpretation. Thus she quotes Royce’s claim that “my idea of myself is an interpretation of my past — linked also with an interpretation of my hopes and intentions as to my future” (112). This is an idea that looks similar to Rorty’s idea that freedom is a product of constructing narratives of the self in which one frees oneself from the way others try to pin one down in their accounts. But Royce, she thinks, has a more concrete sense of the type of community in which this type of self-creation via redescription can find a place (115). In comparison to the set of criteria Royce comes up with for the sort of genuine community in which self-creation is possible, Rorty’s invocation of the ironist who merely recognizes the ultimate contingency of her values looks too thin (123-4). But Rorty replies that one’s ability to identifythose “anticommunities” unworthy of one’s loyalty will depend on one’s belonging to some other. “But what criterion should somebody raised in the bosom of the Mafia use when deciding whether to rat out her friends and relatives?” (136)

In her essay from Section III, “Politics and the Progress of Sentiments”, James pursues different but linked concerns in the context of Rorty’s political thought. One of Rorty’s important contributions to contemporary political theory has been to revive Hume’s suggestion that sees “social and political advance as a progress of sentiments” (415) and to focus on the role of “imagination, redescription, and narrative” in this process. Integral to “the capacity of more and less powerful individuals to imagine the sufferings and humiliations of others, and to conceive of better ways of life in which these deprivations are overcome” is “redescription — the capacity to reconfigure and re-evaluate existing practices by challenging the terms in which they are normally discussed and by inventing new normative vocabularies” (416). But James questions the “excessively sharp opposition between reason and passion” which leads Rorty to minimize the role of reason here. “Rorty’s emphasis on narratives”, she states, “sometimes blurs the important difference between narratives about mainly imaginary states of affairs and narratives that are already realized in more or less powerful practices” (423). In his response, Rorty reemphasizes that in the light of the failure to rationally ground hope in progress, all that is available for us is a type of ungrounded “romantic, utopian hope” (430) sustained by the types of narratives to which he appeals.

The essays of section II “The World Well Lost: Language, Representation, and Truth” tend to focus on these issues in ways they have come to be discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy. Peregrin, in “Language, the World, and the Nature of Philosophy”, develops a sympathetic sketch of Rorty’s pragmatism while pointing to its dangers. With the claim that pragmatism is a “good servant” but “bad master”, he is concerned lest pragmatism comes to be taken as an “ultimate philosophical doctrine” (226) that does more harm than good. “The point is that pragmatism is powerful only if it is entertained within the context of philosophy carried out as a cooperative enterprise”. Outside this context “pragmatism merely furnishes the combatants with an extra lethal weapon: that of simply dismissing the opponent’s views on the score of not being helpful or interesting” (241-2). In response Rorty enlarges on the role of theorizing within the pragmatist’s practice. “Though sometimes it works best to say ‘that’s a bad question, one that we pragmatists don’t ask’, with some interlocutors it is more effective to reply, ‘here’s an answer to that question, since you insist on asking it'” (248). It is in such contexts that new philosophical theories, like those of Davidson and Brandom, are useful, despite the fact that they don’t claim to say something about the way the world really is.

In her contribution in Section I, “Richard Rorty’s Place in the Pragmatist Pantheon”, Misak appeals to Peirce as an early pragmatist whose “pragmatic elucidation” of truth offers a way around problems found in William James and, by implication, Rorty, given the Jamesian quality of some of his early statements about truth. Rorty had become aware of the problems of James’s definitions of truth and modified his own position by introducing a “cautionary” dimension to truth to accompany the “endorsing” view according to which we apply the term true “to all the assertions we feel justified in making, or feel others are justified in making” (38). By itself, the endorsing view seems to reduce truth to justification, but the “cautionary” use breaks this by reminding us that what we take to be justifications are likely to change in the future, the distinction between present and future justifications now preventing the collapse of truth into justification. But this, she thinks, leads to a thought that Rorty is “loathe to accept. There is something at which we aim that goes beyond what seems right to us here and now” (38). Peirce’s elucidation of this idea is of truth as a belief that would remainforever justified. In his response, Rorty appeals to the Jamesian requirement that conceptual differences makea difference. He cannot see how the Peircean idea amounts to anything more than the “banal thought that we might be wrong… . The Peircean thought seems to me merely to cloak a commonplace in a metaphor (aiming at a far-off target) [that] provides no practical guidance” (45).

Misak’s concerns intersect with those expressed in Lynch’s contribution to Section II, “Truth and the Pathos of Distance”. Lynch also rejects the type of deflationary approach to truth that Misak calls the “endorsement” view and, in ways similar to Allard, wants to defend humanistic culture by ways other than Rorty’s general deflation of the notion of truth. The humanities construct narratives and offer coherent explanations that we evaluate in terms of the notion of truth, and so we need a way of capturing their capacity for truth. Rather than deflate truth, Lynch recommends that we be pluralists about truth and acknowledge that the features that make humanistic narratives truth-apt are different from those that make the natural sciences so. Rorty in reply writes that while Lynch thinks it appropriate to ask the question “what makes it true?”, he doubts that “talk of truth-makers has any useful function except to instill the comforting feeling that we have, somewhere out there in the distance, an invisible friend called Reality” (364).

In his “One Cheer for Representationalism?”, Price is happy to accept the deflationary approach to truth and neatly traces a path to the evisceration of the notion of representation from within analytic philosophy itself. One can extend the early positivists’ “expressivist” treatments of moral claims globally with the aid of deflationary or “minimalist” treatments of truth to a type of antirepresentationalist stance akin to Rorty’s. Price shares Rorty’s generally Wittgenstein-Carnap approach to language, as well as his strong resistance to “metaphysics”, but, parallel to Brandom, he finds more coherence among the functions of the truth predicate than Rorty or Wittgenstein allow, given the fundamental role of assertion within our language games. Brandom’s position, however, threatens to lapse into a metaphysical account of representation, and so Price contrasts his own one cheer for representationalism with Rorty’s none and Brandom’s two. Rorty in his response doesn’t see much difference between the stances of all three, but among other things Price’s approach draws into question Rorty’s consistent identification throughout the volume of his own position with that of Brandom, an issue to which I will return.

Boisvert, in “Richard Rorty: Philosopher of the Common Man, Almost“, finds Rorty’s contributions to philosophy to reside in the historicist, pluralist and anti-foundationalist ideas he so successfully spread, as well as his powerful reinterpretation of the notion of democracy. But like Peregrin and others, Boisvert is concerned about the potential for Rorty’s position to transform into a non-therapeutic dualistic theorizing, noting, as had Kegley and James, the “pairs of ‘either-ors'” pervading some of Rorty’s texts. Rather than Rorty’s “blanket rejection of ‘essences'”, he recommends an attitude to the idea of essence that recontextualizes “what was best about that term” (559).

Boisvert’s criticism allows Rorty to expand on the significance for him of Hegel, whose historicizing approach he constantly invokes throughout the volume. What Rorty exactly recommends of Hegel’s approach to philosophy is hard to pin down, as it is clearly Hegel stripped of the metaphysics with which he is usually identified. Hegel himself portrayed his philosophy as the culmination of the Plato-Kant tradition that Rorty abjures, but for Rorty he is the first name in the series that passes through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Derrida. And many of course will find Hegel an odd precedent for any approach to philosophy that can be found as common to Wittgenstein and Carnap. In his response to Price, Rorty opposes his Hegelian stance to Price’s Humean one, but one might have difficulty with what this distinction could count for in Rorty. Price appeals to a type of “anthropology” as the self-image for philosophy and one might wonder if this term might not often capture Rorty’s position as well, as he commonly portrays the virtues of “history” as residing primarily in the fact that it allows us to grasp the contingency of the ideas we come up with. Might not anthropology do this too?

To the differences Price finds between Rorty and Brandom, one might add their respective attitudes to Kant. For Brandom, Hegel correctly grasps the spirit of Kant, but for Rorty Hegel is Kant’s antithesis. Rorty’s antipathy to Kant is the focus of Boros’s essay “Representationalism and Antirepresentationalism: Kant, Davidson, and Rorty”, where he points to the oddness of not taking Kant as a type of proto-antirepresentationalist. In his reply, Rorty can only find value in the Critique of Pure Reason in that “by exasperating Hegel, it led him to give up on epistemology and to take the historicist turn” (266). Hegel is often taken to be a critic of “dichotomous” forms of thinking, but, in his reply to Boisvert, Rorty justifies his either-orism once again by invoking Hegel:

I think of Hegel as having shown us that promoting such divisions — insisting on sharp either-ors — is necessary to keep the conversation going. Without the great nay-sayers, and what Bosvert calls ‘dreams of radical fresh starts,’ we will not have what Hegel called the ‘struggle and labor of the negative’ (573).

Dews, in his “‘The Infinite is Losing its Charm’: Richard Rorty’s Philosophy of Religion and the Conflict Between Therapeutic and Pragmatic Critique”, places Rorty accurately, I believe, in relation to Hegel by putting him in the company of the nineteenth-century “Left Hegelians”, in particular Feuerbach and Stirner:

It is hard to overlook the parallels between Feuerbach’s effort to define a radically new mode of philosophizing, and Rorty’s advocacy of a post-philosophical thinking, which has abandoned the quest for timeless truths and immutable structures, in favor of cultural-political intervention (640).

But Feuerbach’s anthropology was in turn open to Stirner’s critique of his appeal to “essences”, in this case, anthropological ones. Stirner’s construal of “the very notion of objective truth as an outdated trammel, a redundant constraint on the agency of the self” (644) sounds very Rortyan, and if Rorty’s appeal to the communal basis of knowledge and morals seems to separate him from Stirner’s “rampaging egoism”, there are core elements of his thinking that makes it difficult for him to “hold the line against the Stirnerian anarchist” (645).

Dews wonders if it had been this concern that had led Rorty in the last decade of his life to “a conception of human emancipation able to house aspirations formerly nurtured by religion” (646). If Rorty’s resistance to religion had come to soften, then one might wonder at the persistence of his antipathy to the Plato-Kant tradition, given his essentially left-Hegelian conception of it as no more than a continuation of religion. Stout, in “Rorty on Religion and Politics”, sees only the “smallest possible adjustment in his original secularism” (534) in Rorty’s later attitudes to religion, however. Stout questions the compatibility of Rorty’s “de-divinizing” form of pragmatism — which he shares with Dewey, but with neither Peirce nor James — with other features of his pragmatism. Thus he sees “Rorty’s generalized anticlericalism” as “in tension with his antiessentialism” (536) and his exclusion of religiously articulated claims from the public sphere as in tension with his advocacy of democracy.

As with a small number of other essays in the volume, Dews’s is not accompanied by Rorty’s response because it had been finished too late. With this essay in particular, I had been looking forward to Rorty’s reply, wondering if and how he was going to slip through the nets Dews had fashioned for him. Unfortunately, we no longer have the benefit of his table-turning rejoinders. From the evidence provided from this volume, however, this is unlikely to stop the man and his ideas from remaining, for many, foci of admiration and provocation and a continuing source of both inspiration and frustration.

[1] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[2] Edwards refers here to “American philosophy”, but in the globalized contemporary philosophical culture this qualification is becoming redundant.

[3] Richard Rorty, Consequence of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

[4] Alan R. Malachowski, Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and beyond)(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

[5] Robert B. Brandom, Rorty and His Critics (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000).

[6] Richard M. Rorty (ed.) The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967).

Review of Alan Malachowski’s Richard Rorty – NDPR








Richard Rorty

Malachowski, Alan, Richard Rorty, Princeton University Press, 2002, 202pp, $17.95 (pbk), ISBN 069105708

Reviewed by David Dudrick, Colgate University

Alan Malachowski’s Richard Rorty is an introduction to the work of the philosopher of its title, one on whom the titles bestowed include “most interesting philosopher in the world” (Harold Bloom) and “The Professor of Complacence” (Simon Blackburn). Malachowski is firmly in the Bloom camp; his book is “written on the premise” that Rorty’s work may constitute a “’quantum leap’ in philosophy” (9). As a result, his introduction maintains the heady sense of being in on something that characterizes much of Rorty’s own work. However, his characterization of Rorty’s project is largely a result of an emphasis on views that smack of irrationalism, ones that Rorty has (thankfully) largely come to reject. While acknowledging Rorty’s development would allow for an exposition of his work that addressed the worries of his critics, Malachowski’s reading leads him to dismiss these critics (e.g., as akin to “solid, soulless critics of progressive music” (163)). That said, Malachowski claims to present only a “particular Rorty” (10) and he does so in a book that is both clear exposition and spirited defense.

Malachowski’s account is “’comprehensive’ in that it deals with texts spanning the whole” of Rorty’s career (10). The book’s “narrative” (as opposed to a “topical”) approach allows the central themes of Rorty’s writing to emerge in the context of the works in which they were formulated. Malachowski’s first chapter, “Platonic yearnings,” begins with a discussion of Rorty’s brief intellectual autobiography, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.” Rorty came to philosophy in search of an “intellectual or aesthetic framework” that would exhibit the consistency of his aesthetic values (the “orchids”) and his ethical values. Having become convinced of philosophers’ inability to provide non-circular justification of their views, Rorty considered his search a failure. Without a nongainsayable foundation, Rorty concluded, philosophy is ultimately “a matter of out-describing the last philosopher.” While philosophy as practiced since Plato is a failure, the skills associated with it may be put to good use: they can be used to “weave the conceptual fabric of a freer, better, more just society” (27).

Now, Rorty’s rejection of philosophy since Plato appears more than a little hasty. One would be hard-pressed to find any contemporary philosophers who take themselves to be involved in a search for “nongainsayable foundations.” Even so, Rorty thinks that the search for such foundations is somehow implicit in the tradition of which these philosophers are part. Malachowski’s second chapter, “Conversation,” explains that Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is Rorty’s attempt to show that this is so. Malachowski provides a clear account as to how Rorty, through that book’s Geistesgeschichte of modernity, argues that the representationalism that characterizes the philosophical tradition leads to the search for nongainsayable foundations. In Malachowski’s perspicuous formulation, Rorty shows that traditional philosophical concerns with knowledge and mind are “problematic” – “in the sense that they are pragmatically unfruitful” – and “optional” – in that they are a product of assumptions that, while deeply imbedded, are not rationally “inevitable” (38).

In his third chapter, “Pragmatism,” Malachowski’s discusses Rorty’s views on the realism- antirealism debate and the nature of truth, as well as his appropriation of Dewey and other philosophers, as presented in The Consequences of Pragmatism. Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is the main focus of the following chapters, “Contingency” and “Liberalism.” In his discussion of Rorty’s notion of contingency, Malachowski points out that the fact that a problem is contingent (in that it’s dictated not by the nature of reason or some such) does not imply that the problem ought to be abandoned. His use of the distinction between hypothetical and absolute necessity is helpful here. While Rorty sometimes writes as though philosophers think confrontation of, say, the Problem of Free Will is “absolutely necessary” (dictated by the nature of reason), it is more plausible to suppose that they regard it as a “hypothetical necessity” (given our firmly entrenched – though contingent – concerns, this is a problem we must face). Why then should we turn away from these problems, even if we may do so? Malachowski tells us that “the combination of a lack of historical progress and the internal tensions” that characterize our attempts to solve these problems leads Rorty to suggest that we “take a crack at something else” (115). While Rorty does sometimes talk like this, at other times he offers a potentially more compelling reason: the vocabulary that produced these problems should be superseded by one “better suited for the preservation and progress of democratic societies” (109). Malachowski’s account of Rorty’s discussions of contingency and liberalism would be strengthened were it to explain and evaluate this reason more fully.

I claimed above that Rorty’s critics will find little here to persuade them; there is an important sense in which Malachowski would be unperturbed by this result. He decries what he calls the “hyper-critical approach” characteristic of mainstream Anglo-American philosophy and claims that Rorty’s work should be approached from “an initially sympathetic vantage point” (7). But if this admonition is to amount to anything beyond the obvious, will it not constitute a kind of “special pleading”? It won’t, Malachowski says, because such sympathy is made necessary by the fact that “Rorty is attempting to launch philosophy on a path that takes it into new territory incommensurable with present-day ‘hyper-critical philosophy’” (7). But incommensurability cannot be a reason for sympathy – in fact, it seems to render sympathy by definition impossible. Malachowski is right that a list of philosophers will reject the possibility of such “new territory,” but not, as he says, because they believe their “methods have universal jurisdiction” (whatever that may be), but because they follow Davidson in his rejection of conceptual schemes. But if that’s so, this list should include Rorty himself. It seems, then, that “incommensurability” does not insulate Rorty from criticism in the way Malachowski suggests it does.

Malachowski contends that to take the “hyper-critics” seriously would be to push Rorty’s innovations “back into the dusty bottle of conventional standards” (10). There may be an interesting point lurking here concerning the propriety of norms (one would not, for example, be warranted in rejecting a theorem of theoretical physics because it would make bad poetry), but Malachowski does not pursue it. For it sometimes seems as though he considers any standard by which Rorty might be effectively criticized “conventional.” He calls “small-minded” those critics who think that a “’contradiction’ or anomaly” in Rorty’s work would cause “his whole pragmatist sky [to] fall in” (28). But he later says that his critics are unable “to state their denial in terms that do not beg the question or tacitly assume what Rorty himself denies” (168). But if criticisms that point to an inconsistency among propositions Rorty accepts are inadmissible and criticisms that point to an inconsistency between a proposition Rorty accepts and other propositions which he doesn’t accept (but which the objector thinks are true) are inadmissible, then no criticisms are admissible.

It seems Malachowski ought to admit that if Rorty is, in fact, committed to a contradiction, then the “sky” in question does indeed “fall in.” He should also indicate that there is little reason to think his views are, in fact, inconsistent. Further, the fact that critics often “tacitly assume what Rorty himself denies” is cold comfort: the same might be said of those who criticize radical skeptics, flat-earthers, or convinced Nazis. And Rorty himself has argued (famously, in the case of the Nazi: see the introduction to CP) that the absence of a non-circular argument against such positions provides no reason to doubt one’s warrant in denying them.

This book is generally dismissive of Rorty’s critics – they most often “simply fail to understand what he is trying to do” (163). What they fail to realize, apparently, is that “Rorty’s ‘claims’ … are not designed to instill a fresh set of beliefs derived from the literal content of the statements they encapsulate.” That is, Malachowski thinks Rorty’s ‘claims’ are not claims at all. They are rather attempts “to prod us, by way of ‘edification’ … into exploring fresh ways of describing things.” His statements function simply on a “performative level” (20). Under the heading “Philosophical propaganda,” Malachowski likens Rorty to “Madhyamika philosophy,” saying that

Rorty’s views, and hence his ‘position-free position,’ are ‘edifyingly’ presented ‘to achieve an effect,’ that they should not be ‘tastelessly’ interpreted as further, if oblique and controversial, contributions to philosophy’s age-old quest for the final, truthful picture of reality. (22)

According to Malachowski, then, Rorty makes no claims to truth; he simply offers redescriptions in an effort “to achieve an effect.”

Now, it is undeniable that Rorty has endorsed such views. (Malachowski quotes bizarre passages in PMN to show that this is so.) But it is also undeniable that Rorty comes to reject this understanding of his project. In “Charles Taylor on Truth,”1 Rorty says that PMN was marked by an unhappy tendency to make existentialist noises,” one that resulted from a prior tendency to make

the unhappy distinction between “demonstrating that previous philosophers were mistaken” and “offering redescriptions in an alternative language” instead of briskly saying that to say that one’s predecessors used a bad language is just to say that they made a certain kind of mistake. (TP 92)

But it becomes evident that Malachowski’s endorsement of this “unhappy distinction” on Rorty’s behalf is central to his interpretation of Rorty’s work. To be sure we don’t miss the point, Rorty adds: “I am also happy to say that when I put forward large philosophical views I am making ‘claims to truth’ rather than simply a recommendation to speak differently” (TP 92). Malachowski’s failure to account for the changes in Rorty’s views over the years leaves him defending positions Rorty was right to leave behind.

This failure causes Malachowski to interpret Rorty as being far more suspicious of argument than the above quotes suggest. For instance, he assures us that Rorty “does not believe there is anything wrong with arguments as such” (43); this is, of course, anything but reassuring. Why say this? Because Malachowski takes Rorty to regard as important the fact that “practices, customs, habits, and conventions” play a role in determining a person’s beliefs. Why is this obvious fact significant? Because, he says, many philosophers deny it: though they may not admit it, they believe the following:

When philosophers believe something philosophically significant (say P) they believe it because it is true (and for no other reason). When, over time, they – or their successors – change their minds and come to believe Q instead (where Q now obviously implies that P is false) it is again the truth of Q that does the persuasive work: they come to believe Q because it is true (and for no other reason) (53)

While Malachowski attributes this position to Rorty’s critics, the principle of charity mitigates against attributing this position to anyone, since it’s not simply false, it’s incoherent: one cannot believe P “because it is true” if, in fact, P is not true. At most, one could believe P because one thinks (possibly falsely) that it is true. But this too makes little sense, since to think that P is true just is to believe P, and cannot thereby serve as a reason for (or a cause of) the latter. These concerns aside, the notion that many (most?) philosophers hold that the truth of P can serve as a reason for the belief that P is far-fetched at best. To hold such a position would be to think that when asked “why do you believe P?” a perfectly good answer is “because P is true.”

Malachowski rightly claims that Rorty does not take his rejection of metaphysical realism to imply the rejection of “the vocabulary of critical assessment,” including the distinction between “what is accurate” and “what is inaccurate” (5). However, Malachowski goes on to argue that such distinctions must be made according to “pragmatic criteria.” As an example of what he means, he claims that one account may be judged to be more accurate than another “because it more effectively satisfies certain desires or fulfils such and such a purpose” (5). But something has gone wrong here. Imagine a scenario in which my wife and I are trying to determine how a vase in our house was broken. She suggests that our daughter Emma might have knocked it over this afternoon, and I disagree. If she asks me, “Why is that account inaccurate?” I may respond “Because Emma was with me at the bookstore when the vase was broken.” If, however, I respond, “Because your account isn’t very useful,” then I would deserve her puzzled look. That answer is no more appropriate than “Because it fails to represent the nature of reality as it exists independent of human concerns” or “Because it isinaccurate.”

I take this to show that the language of critical assessment is tied no more to a pragmatic theory of truth than it is to metaphysical realism. To think otherwise is to fail to recognize the significance of the distinction between the first-person and third-person perspectives. To see this, imagine that I relate the above conversation with my wife to a student interested in questions about the nature of truth. If, as we discuss the nature of truth, I am to ask the student, “Why is that account inaccurate?” she might well respond, “Because it isn’t very useful” or “Because it fails to represent the nature reality as it exists independent of human concerns.” When we take up her perspective – not that of an inquirer trying to figure out who broke the vase, but of a third-person reflection on the inquiry – it becomes appropriate to offer theories of truth. As we saw above, however, to do so from the first-person perspective would be nonsensical – to think otherwise would be to regard “because it fails to represent the nature of reality” or “because it is useful” as justifications for a belief. The first-person perspective presupposes only what Gary Gutting calls “humdrum realism” or what Arthur Fine calls “the natural ontological attitude.”2 Metaphysical realism and the pragmatic theory of truth are at home only in the third-person perspective; that is, only when one takes up a standpoint outside that of the engaged inquirer, the perspective of theory or explanation.3 While Malachowski recognizes at one point that pragmatism and metaphysical realism function at the level of “explanation” (81), this recognition is not pervasive. Rorty – by his own best lights – can and should use the language of critical assessment without notions like “usefulness” or talk of “coping.” Such notions are appropriate only when he takes up the third-person perspective. While Fine and Gutting might counsel him to eschew the third-person perspective on truth, Rorty regards it as crucial to the realization of a liberal utopia that

the image of thoughts or words answering to the world … be replaced by images of organisms coping with their environment by using language to develop projects of social cooperation. (RC 263)

Malachowski’s efforts would be better spent were he to explain why Rorty think this is so and whether his position has any merit. His failure to do so leads him to call Simon Blackburn’s suggestion that “the rejectionof questions [is] the distinctive theme of what [Rorty] calls pragmatism” a “silly accusation” (141). In fact, this is neither silly nor an accusation. Insofar as Rorty is committed to maintaining a first-person perspective, he will reject the many philosophical questions – especially those about the nature of truth –that arise only from a third-person perspective.

Lack of attention to these perspectives is one reason that Malachowski’s discussion of Rorty’s critics is unsatisfying. For example, Thomas Nagel says that Rorty seems to be able to modify his beliefs, not due to the force of argument, but “because it might make life more amusing … less cluttered with annoying problems” (164) – that is, because doing so would be useful. If Rorty (or his readers) do sometimes confuse the first and third-person perspectives, Nagel’s attitude is not inexplicable. To Nagel’s request for arguments for Rorty’s views, however, Malachowski states that anyone who understands Rorty will see no reason to offer arguments, since “metaphors, images, and all sorts of historical contingencies” are better explanations of intellectual change (166). But even if this account of intellectual change is accurate, only a confusion of the explanatory with the justificatory would lead one to eschew arguments in favor of “metaphors and images.”

Malachowski’s emphasis on views Rorty came to reject makes the resulting position less plausible than it ought to be. When he decides against what could have been a helpful discussion of Rorty’s views on science, he imputes to Rorty the claim that to say that “science captur[es] the truth about the world” is “no more intellectually justified than the rhetorical pats on the back modern politicians tend to award themselves” (16). He quotes approvingly Rorty’s statement that truth is “a compliment paid to sentences that seem to be paying their way and that fit in with other sentences that do so,” and attributes to Rorty a position he calls “pragmatism without truth” (73). While these statements may reflect views Rorty held at one time, they are among the views we have reason to think Rorty includes among the “dumb things” he “said in the past” (TP 92). Malachowski’s introduction to Rorty’s work – with its fine discussions of contingency, liberalism, and its subject’s “Platonic yearnings” – would have done well to leave them there.


1. In his Truth and Progress, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Henceforth TP.

2. See Gary Gutting, Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp 3ff and Arthur Fine, “The Natural Ontological Attitude” in J. Leplin (ed.) Scientific Realism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Gutting’s account is particularly interesting in this connection, since it comes in the midst of an illuminating critical discussion of Rorty’s work.

3. The importance of the distinction between the first-person and third-person perspectives in Rorty’s work is forcefully argued in Akeel Bilgrami’s “Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry?” which can be found, along with a response by Rorty, in R. Brandom (ed.) Rorty and His Critics, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Henceforth RC.