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Rorty's Rejection of Epistemology submitted 2009.06.12 04:25 PM by CATAL viewed 2848 times

The following is a paper I wrote for my American Pragmatism class.

Some of you expressed an interest in reading some of my philosophy papers so here it. I've already turned it in, so I'm not really looking for note. Basically, I'm not interested in hearing any suggestions on flow, structure, mechanics and the like.

However, if you want to discuss the IDEAS that's fine.

Anyways, hopefully this doesn't assume too much prior knowledge on the subject, so do your best. If this goes well, maybe I'll post some other papers too.

Here it is:

Epistemology is an undesirable and impossible field. At least that is what Richard Rorty would have you believe. In his article Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism (hereafter PRI), Rorty viciously attacks the grounds upon which we claim to seek both truth and knowledge. He wants to undermine the foundation of the entirety of epistemology, claiming that we can never achieve a transcendent theory of knowledge and we should no longer pursue such dreams. In this paper, I will explain and assess Rorty's rejection of epistemology, addressing both the criticisms and compliments of fellow philosophers and their views of Rorty's assertions. Ultimately, I will provide my own commentary, discussing what I consider to be Rorty's key strengths and weaknesses.

In order to begin, one must understand that Rorty's rejection of epistemology is simply a feature of his own unique brand of pragmatism. In PRI Rorty gives three characterizations of his pragmatism, each of which contribute to his encompassing view of what philosophy should be. The first characteristic of his pragmatism is anti-essentialism. Rorty applies this anti-essentialism "to notions like ?truth,' ?knowledge,' ?language,' ?morality,' and similar objects of philosophical theorizing," (PRI, 638). For Rorty, notions like truth do not have an essence; there is nothing special that must be manifest in order for something to be considered true. From this, Rorty criticizes the "correspondence theory of truth" because in this light there is no use in being told what corresponds to reality (if it is even possible). Rorty wants to know why it is good to believe truths. What good is it? How does it benefit us or our society? These types of questions are not answered by the correspondence theory or any theory of knowledge. Rorty is concerned with the practical qualities of knowledge, not the theoretical ones, which he sees as useless.

What are the practical qualities of knowledge though? According to Rorty, knowledge in practice entails knowing what would happen if you were to believe certain truth-claims. To contrast, what use is it to "know" that the streetlight ahead of you is red in so far as it corresponds to reality? You know that in the ultimate sense of reality (the way the world really is) the light is actually red. That doesn't seem to be of much use. However, if you look at it from Rorty's perspective, through the social and cultural context/vocabulary it would mean for you that traffic is moving through that street perpendicular (or contrary) to your direction and you should stop or you run the severe risk of being hit by traffic. According to Rorty, everything must be taken into the context that produced it because there are no transcendent laws of reality or the universe. All we have to go by is the world in which we live. We can only understand the world and truth-claims insofar as we recognize them as existing within the realm of human thought and language.

David Hall tries to explain Rorty's perspective in his book Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism (hereafter PPP):

"Rorty's New Pragmatism draws upon the so-called linguistic turn, the first phase of which was the substitution of language for mind or consciousness as the tertium quid between self and world. Its second phase involves the dismissal of language as a medium between self and world by virtue of the recognition that both are lacking in essential core characteristics and are rather products of strings of sentences focused by desires and beliefs, which Rorty terms 'vocabularies.'" (PPP, 86)

These vocabularies are created by the world around us, the culture and society in which we live and converse. According to Rorty's model, Hall describes language then as a set of tools rather than a jigsaw puzzle. Language is a form of creation, not representation. When we speak of truth it is only in reference to other propositions within the same vocabulary, not some external, transcendent reality. Truth only exists in a linguistic sense. That is to say, where there is no language there is no truth. Therefore, because language and its vocabularies are human creations, truth is a human creation (PPP, 86). Truth then cannot be representational of "the way the world really is" and the question becomes "What do we do with knowledge?" not "Is knowledge an accurate representation of reality?"
From these arguments, Rorty moves on to his second characterization of his pragmatism that "there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and truth about what is, nor any metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science" (PRI, 640). Again Rorty's anti-essentialism asserts itself. Morality is not the search for the essence of goodness just as epistemology is not the search for the essence of science. All matters of inquiry follow the same pattern for Rorty, which is merely "deliberation concerning the relative attractions of various concrete alternatives" (640).

You see, for Rorty, there is no "ought to be." That would entail an essence of truth. There is no ought to be, only what is. There are neither rules for how things should be nor any abstractions of what it is to be something. He makes no distinction between a fact of truth and what we value to be true. We believe to be true what best suits us to be true. This is his pragmatism coming through: what use is a fact to be true if it doesn't suit our needs or desires or values? These issues cannot and will not be solved by truth-seeking epistemologists trying to find the final answer to the "eternal problems of philosophy." Rorty refuses to ignore our humanness. We cannot look at the world through God's eyes, we cannot see the transcendent; we can only look at the world through human eyes, we can only see the world that we have created for ourselves. Rorty is criticizing the attempt to move past the human realm into a transcendent reality that seeks to put an end to conversation and debate. We cannot find essential truths to plug in like programming and have all of our decisions determined for us by these simple axiomatic procedures.

In a way, this is also a critique on the "spectator theory of knowledge" , which Rorty believes is the only way to make sense of an epistemologically-centered philosophy. According to Rorty though, the spectator theory of knowledge is inherently flawed and unacceptable; it is an attempt to conceive of knowledge as the grasping/envisioning of some externally existing truth. "The idea is to acquire beliefs? in a way as much like vision as possible ? by confronting an object and responding to it as programmed" (PRI, 641). If you accept Rorty's anti-essentialism then, you must reject the spectator theory because there is no "essence" out there to grasp. And if you reject the spectator theory of knowledge, Rorty thinks you must reject epistemology outright.

Let us now move on to Rorty's third characterization of his pragmatism before we begin to critically analyze some of these claims. Rorty states "that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones ? no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow-inquirers" (PRI, 642). To better understand this, one must recognize the influence of Kuhnian paradigms upon Rorty's philosophy. Essentially, Rorty's vocabularies and social contexts are Kuhn's scientific paradigms applied to the entirety of human society and culture including science, philosophy, psychology, literature, et cetera. Therefore, the only constraints that can be applied to an inquiry are the constraints dictated by the paradigm from which the inquiry takes place. Therefore, we humans living together that form these paradigms decide together, through conversation, what to do and what to believe, in the best interest of society. "In the end, [Rorty] tells us, what matters is our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark, not our hope of getting things right" (PRI, 643).

Now though, I think we need to stop and ask, "Does Rorty's argument follow?" Do we really need to reject any theory of knowledge if we accept his anti-essentialist view? Does his paradigmatic view of philosophy preclude epistemology? Let us look then at some of the criticisms Rorty's arguments have drawn.

So far I have outlined Rorty's rejection of epistemology as it appeared in PRI, however the primary manifestation of Rorty's rejection of epistemology appears in his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (hereafter PMN), which has been the target of much of Rorty's critics. In it, "[t]he crucial premise of [his] argument is that we understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation" (PMN, 170). It is this claim and others the Jaegwon Kim attacks in his article Rorty on the Possibility of Philosophy (hereafter RPP). According to Kim, if we were to accept Rorty's claim we would have to accept that "whether you can truly be said to know is not a matter of some relation between you and the thing you claim to know, but a matter of whether your claim to know conforms to a certain social practice, a language game, governing such claims" (RPP, 592). However, Kim believes Rorty makes a radical leap of logic here. It does not necessarily follow that by viewing "justification as a relation between propositions, not a relation between ideas and objects, we are naturally led to see justification as a matter of social practice and approval" (RPP, 593). All we get from this is a ?broad idea of coherence' not the specific ?social coherentism' Rorty is after.

Another criticism of Rorty's conclusions comes from Alan Malachowski in his article Deep Epistemology without Foundations (in Language) (hereafter DEF), which is a response to Rorty's writings in PMN. Malachowski challenges the "assumption that what tells against the notion of ?foundations,' tells against the notion of a ?theory' [of knowledge] in general" (DEF, 144). In effect, these foundations relate to the correspondence theory of knowledge. As I've shown, Rorty makes the claim that without "access" to "the way the world really is" we cannot adopt any theory of knowledge, which Malachowski sees as a jump in logic. He claims that "even if we accept such pre-emptory foreclosures? we cannot automatically draw any grand gloomy conclusions about the prospects of theoretical work in epistemology as a whole" (DEF, 144).

Furthermore, Malachowski challenges Rorty's conclusion "that nothing outside language can be a ground for knowledge" (DEF, 145). Far from flat out refuting him, Malachowski does consider unconceptualized sensory experience as a possible candidate for knowledge. Here though Rorty finds himself in a rather nifty position. Any attempt to refute his claims by producing examples results in conceptualization and thus fitting quite neatly into his own views. However, such a stance is problematic as it lends suspicion due to its inability to be falsified. Usually, it would be considered quite erroneous and definitely questionable to propose any theory that cannot be disproved by the very nature of its structure. This is largely due to the structure of scientific theories though, and Rorty's lack of respect for scientific authority might make this critique incompatible with Rorty's own views. The observation stands though and I believe it lends credibility to the questionability of Rorty's argument.

Another problem that presents itself within Rorty's philosophy is the matter of relativism, which he brings up in PRI. According to Rorty, "?Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view" (PRI, 643-4). However, doesn't it seem that Rorty himself holds this view? According to his social vocabularies and Kuhnian paradigms it seems that anything can be considered true and therefore any belief is as good as another given the proper social context. However, Hall comes to Rorty's defense claiming that "Rorty is prevented from falling into relativism by his? insistence that the freedom to develop alternate views doesn't guarantee that all views will be equally viable as tools for the resolution of particular problems" (PPP, 81). For you see, Rorty doesn't hold that any solution is as good as any other, just that one doesn't need a transcendent theory of knowledge in order to "hook up our views about democracy, mathematics, physics, God, and everything else into a coherent story," (PRI, 646) which is what people want and need. For Rorty, the debate of his pragmatism and the epistemologically-centered philosopher "is not between people who think one view is as good as another and people who do not. It is between those who think our culture, or purpose, or intuitions cannot be supported except conversationally, and people who still hope for other sorts of support" (PRI, 644).

Given all that we've discussed so far, what then is Rorty's goal for philosophy? What would he have us do? I will refer back to Kim's article RPP in order to address this issue. Kim discusses Rorty's transition of the Kuhnian paradigm "to apply to discourses in general, including philosophy, and develop the concept of philosophy as hermeneutic activity ? as an interparadigmatic conversation" (RPP, 593). The Rortyan pragmatist seeks a hermeneutic philosophy of edification rather than systematic philosophy of resolution. That is to say Rorty wants inspire and encourage continual conversation on matters of philosophical interest rather than "the mere attainment of knowledge and acquisition of information, which [embodies]? the metaphor of Man as the Mirror of Nature" (RPP, 593).

However, Kim challenges this "proposal to turn philosophy into a radically noncognitive activity, ?conversation' rather than ?inquiry,' whose aim is not to solve problems but to keep ?the conversation of mankind' going" (RPP, 594). Kim addresses several of what he considers to be Rorty's key arguments in favor of his philosophy, but one specifically stands out. Briefly, it states that an epistemologically-centered "philosophy purports to study eternal problems, but there are no eternal problems; hence [an epistemologically-centered] philosophy is not possible" (RPP, 595). Essentially, because paradigms and vocabularies are in a constant state of flux and problems/issues change according to the wants and needs of the community, no problem/issue is permanent (and likewise no solution). Kim's challenge though is that a lack of permanency does not necessarily preclude a systematic philosophy. Kim suggests a possible solution:

"It views philosophy as an essentially intraparadigmatic inquiry concerning the conceptual, foundational, and regulative aspects of a given paradigm. The assumptions and methodologies of a paradigm are often only implicit in the practice of its adherents, and we cannot always expect them to be internally coherent and consistent. When a paradigm becomes self-reflective, as any sufficiently mature and comprehensive paradigm should, it becomes important for the self-knowledge of its practitioners to undertake the kind of intraparadigmatic inquiry I have indicated." (RPP, 595)

Thus, in this sense, a systematic philosophy can become an edifying practice within a Rortyan paradigm.
All that I have discussed so far has really only scratched the surface of Rorty, his rejection of epistemology, and his idea of an hermeneutic, edifying philosophy. Overall, I remain sympathetic to Rorty's views, however they lack sufficient stability to withstand the problems that result. I believe he is on to something with his anti-essentialism and application of Kuhnian paradigms to philosophy, but within a Rortyan philosophy it becomes difficult and quite nearly impossible to hold views on anything or make claims of any kind. This idea of a post-epistemological philosophy seems to inevitably collapse upon itself. I do think we can draw some important lessons from Rorty's ideas though. I think it is important to maintain philosophical discussion and avoid axiomatic solutions. We should take everything within its own context and reflect upon the historical background of philosophical inquiries. In the end, Rorty wants what is best for society and that is a pursuit to which I take no exception.


Rorty, Richard. "Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism." Pragmatism, Old & New. Ed. Susan Haack. Prometheus Books: New York, 2006. (635-55)

Hall, David L. Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism. State University of New York Press: Albany, 1994.

See The Quest for Certainty (abridged version of "Escape from Peril," chapter 1 of John Dewey's book The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action) in Pragmatism, New and Old. (379-94)

See Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1962.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1979.

Kim, Jaegwon. "Rorty on the Possibility of Philosophy." The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 10, Seventy-Seventh Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Oct., 1980). (588-97)

Malachowski, Alan R. "Deep Epistemology without Foundations (in Language)." Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Ed. Alan r. Malachowski. Basil Blackwell: Cambridge, 1990. (139-55)

That's it. Not necessarily the best paper I've written. I could have done better but had a lot of stuff due the same week. Also, I didn't really check to see how the footnotes transferred over so I just added them as the bibliography/works cited.

Here's a picture of Dick Rorty:

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