PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday April 6, 2015



[5.3.5.] Rorty on Relativism.

As mentioned at the outset, Rorty has been accused of being a relativist. But here, he denies that he is a relativist.

However, he is using the word “relativism” in a non-standard way. Usually, “relativism” is used to label a view that says that one thing is relative to (depends on) another in some important way. There are multiple varieties of relativism; to arrive at a specific variety, you must specify (a) exactly what it is that is dependent and (b) exactly what it is that it depends on. One form of relativism is what we have been calling “relativism” from the start:


relativism (df.): the view that truth or reality (or both) are somehow dependent on human thought.

But Rorty begins his discussion of relativism with this definition:

relativism (RR’s df.): “the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other.” This implies that “two incompatible opinions on an important topic [can be] equally good.” (643-44)

If this is how “relativism” is defined…

·         if you are a relativist about morality, you might say that “polygamy is wrong” and “polygamy is not wrong” are equally good opinions, even though they are contradictory;

·         if you are a relativist about every topic (not just morality), you might also say that “the earth is flat” and “the earth is not flat” are equally good beliefs about the shape of the earth, even though they are contradictory.


But, says Rorty, no one actually believes this kind of relativism (“[e]xcept for the occasional cooperative freshman”).

What Rorty believes is that “the grounds for choosing between [incompatible] opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought” (644).


An algorithm is a mechanical computational procedure—a list of step-by-step instructions that anyone should be able to follow and, using the same inputs, arrive at the same result.


The process by which inquirers decide which claims to adopt is less mechanical, less automatic, than philosophers have traditionally assumed. Inquiry is not a purely automatic process, a matter of following some established procedure at the end of which one will have successfully represented (“mirrored”) the real world in her mind. This is something that an inquiry-robot programmed by God might do. But it is not something that we do.



[] Haack’s Criticism: Rorty’s Contextualism.

As described above, Rorty’s view seems to be that whether a belief (opinion, claim, theory, etc.) is justified depends only on whether the person putting forward that belief (etc.) can defend it against conversational objections. The only constraints on what counts as a legitimate outcome of inquiry are conversational constraints.

Susan Haack calls this view Rorty’s contextualism. She states it as follows:


‘A is justified in believing that p’ is to be analysed along the lines of ‘with respect to the belief that p, A satisfies the epistemic standards of the epistemic community to which A belongs.[1]

So in the standard sense of relativism, Rorty does seem to be a relativist: he holds that epistemic justification (whether or not someone’s beliefs are justified, i.e., whether they are supported by good reasons) is relative to the epistemic standards of a person’s own community.


Stopping point for Monday April 6. For next time, begin reading Rorty’s “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism” (657-667).


[1] Evidence and Inquiry, p.190. One of Haack’s criticisms of Rorty amounts to saying that he is also a relativist in something like his own sense of the term, on which it means that incompatible statements are equally good. For his contextualism to make sense, it requires (a) the assumption that different communities have different standards of justification (since, if all communities had the same standards of what counts as good evidence, there would be no point in saying that whether an individual’s belief is justified depends on whether it meets his own community’s epistemic standards) and (b) (what Haack calls) conventionalism, according to which there are no objective standards of justification, and thus no community C* whose own standards match up with those objective standards (since, if there were such a community, then Rorty would have to acknowledge that S’s belief is justified, not if it lives up to his own community's standards, but if it lives up to the standards of C* (whether or not those standards are shared by his own community). Conventionalism is, in short, the view that the epistemic standards of all communities are on a par—none are better than others. And this is quite similar to Rorty’s own definition of “relativism.”

American Philosophy Homepage | Dr. Lane's Homepage | Phil. Program Homepage

This page last updated 4/6/2015.

Copyright © 2015 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.

UWG Disclaimer