PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday April 4, 2013


[7.] Richard Rorty.[1]


·         1931-2007; born in New York City

·         Rorty began his studies in philosophy at the University of Chicago at age 15. He eventually received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale. He then taught at Yale and Wellesley, after which he spent two years in the army. He then took a position as professor of philosophy at Princeton.

·         He received a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1981.

·         In 1982, he became an interdisciplinary humanities professor at the University of Virginia. His last position was as professor of comparative literature and philosophy at Stanford University.

·         His earliest work was in the central areas of analytic philosophy, including the philosophy of language.

·         In the 1970s his work began to show the influence of classical pragmatism, especially that of John Dewey.

·         He considered Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger to be the greatest 20th century philosophers.

·         Like Putnam, Rorty was a modern pragmatist and is sometimes called a “neo-pragmatist.”

·         He didn’t think very highly of Peirce, about whom he wrote: “His contribution to pragmatism was merely to have given it a name, and to have stimulated James.” (637)

·         His best known book is Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).


Rorty said some radical-sounding things about truth and reality:

·         truth is “what you can defend against all comers” [i.e., against all opponents] (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979, p.308)

·         to call a sentence true is merely to give it “a rhetorical [i.e., verbal] pat on the back”. (Consequences of Pragmatism, 1982, pp. xiii).

·         there is no such thing as “the way things really are” (“Truth Without Correspondence to Reality,” in Philosophy and Social Hope p.27).[2]


Not surprisingly, this has led critics to accuse Rorty of accepting a sort of relativism according to which truth and reality are somehow dependent on human beings. But Rorty always claimed that he was not a relativist.


One of Rorty’s harshest critics, Susan Haack[3], has described his distinctive brand of neo-pragmatism as “vulgar pragmatism.”



[7.1.] “Pragmatism, Relativism and Irrationalism” (1979).


[7.1.1.] No “Theories” of Truth, Knowledge, Etc.


Rorty thinks there is much of value to be taken from the work of James and Dewey—but not from the work of Peirce.


On his view, what is most valuable about James’s and Dewey’s pragmatism is their denial that philosophers ought to have theories of truth, knowledge, or morality...


As long as we see James or Dewey as having “theories of truth” or “theories of knowledge” or “theories of morality” we shall get them wrong. We shall ignore their criticisms of the assumption that there ought to be theories about such matters. (636)


On its face, this claim about James and Dewey just seems plain wrong...

·         James made elaborate philosophical claims about truth (as well as about morality … see ch.11, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”).

·         Dewey had quite a lot to say about the concepts of knowledge and truth (as well as about associated concepts, like experience, and about morality).


But Rorty also says:


[James and Dewey] had things to say about truth, knowledge, and morality, even though they did not have theories of them, in the sense of sets of answers to the textbook problems. (637-38, emphasis added)


In articulating what James and Dewey said about these topics, Rorty distinguishes among three different “sloganistic characterizations of” pragmatism:


1.      “anti-essentialism applied to notions like ‘truth,’ ‘knowledge’ ‘language,’ ‘morality,’ and similar objects of philosophical theorizing.” (638)


2.      “there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and truth about what is” (640).


3.      “there are no constraints on inquiry save [i.e., except for] conversational ones” (642).


We will consider each of these in turn.




[7.1.2.] Anti-Essentialism.


[] Essence and Accident.


To understand the view that Rorty calls “anti-essentialism,” we first need to consider a traditional philosophical distinction: that between essence and accident, a.k.a. the distinction between essential properties and accidental properties[4]


essential properties (a.k.a. essence) (df.): the properties belonging to a thing and without which that thing would not exist; if a thing x has a property F, and F is an essential property of x, then, if x were to cease to have F, x would cease to exist. For example…

·         It is commonly thought that an essential property of a physical object is extension in space. If something does not take up any space whatsoever, then it is not a physical object. If this table were to lose the property of being extended in space, it would no longer be this table (the table would no longer exist).

·         The essence of Socrates is (or is in part) that he is human—if he ceases to be human, he will cease to be Socrates. Being human is thus an essential property of Socrates.

·         Descartes held that minds are essentially things that think, i.e., that a mind that loses the property of thinking is no longer a mind at all.


accidental properties (df.): a thing’s inessential properties, i.e., the traits that the thing could lose and still be the thing that it is; if a thing x has a property F, and F is an accidental property of x, then if x were to cease to have F, x would not necessarily cease to exist. For example…

·         Being black is an accidental property of this table; if the table were painted red, it would still be the same table, just with a different (accidental) property.

·         Socrates’s accidental properties include having a broad nose and being a heavy drinker. Any and all of these could change, yet Socrates would still be Socrates.


The doctrine that there are essences is:


essentialism (df.): there is a single thing (perhaps a property) that all and only examples of x have in common and without which those things would not be examples of x (this thing/property is the essence of x).



[] Essence and Traditional Philosophy.


Within the tradition of western philosophy, the task of philosophy has sometimes been conceived as the discovery of the essence of such things as truth, knowledge, goodness, reality, justice, etc. ... to say what it is for a claim to be true, for a belief to count as knowledge, for an action to be good, for something to be real, etc.


Rorty’s “pragmatism as anti-essentialism” is the denial that there are any such things as the essence of truth, of knowledge, of goodness, of reality, etc. for philosophers to discover.



[] James on Truth: Against Correspondence.


Rorty illustrates anti-essentialism about truth by citing James’s claim that truth is “what is good in the way of belief.” (638)


Rorty is referring to this passage from James’s “What Pragmatism Means”:


The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons. ...

‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we ought to believe’: and in that definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is better for us to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart?

Pragmatism says no, and I fully agree with her. (305-306)


Rorty seems to be less impressed by James’s positive statements about truth than by the fact that these statements are all James says about what truth is:


[James’s description of truth] has struck his critics as not to the point, as unphilosophical, as like the suggestion that the essence of aspirin is that it is good for headaches. James’s point, however, was that there is nothing deeper to be said: truth is not the sort of thing which has an essence. (638, emphasis added)


Rorty takes James to be implying, not simply that truth does not have an essence, but, more specifically, that the correspondence theory of truth is of “no use,” that it is not “enlightening.” Rorty emphasizes the fact that James rejected the correspondence theory of truth.[5]


[James’s] point was that it is no use being told that truth is “correspondence to reality.” Given a language and a view of what the world is like, one can, to be sure, pair off bits of the language with bits of what one takes the world to be in such a way that the sentences one believes true have internal structures isomorphic to relations between things in the world. When we rap out routine undeliberated reports like “This is water,” “That’s red,” “That’s ugly,” “That’s immoral,” our short categorical sentences can easily be thought of as pictures, or as symbols which fit together to make a map. Such reports do indeed pair little bits of language with little bits of the world. Once one gets to negative universal hypotheticals*, and the like, such pairing will become messy and ad hoc, but perhaps it can be done. James’s point was that carrying out this exercise will not enlighten us about why truths are good to believe, or offer any clues as to why or whether our present view of the world is, roughly, the one we should hold. (638, emphases added)


*[An example of a negative universal hypothetical: “It is not the case that if salt is poured into pure water, it will explode.”]


This raises a number of important questions for Rorty:

·         Why does what James says about truth not count as a theory? Rorty says that a theory of truth is something like an answer “to the textbook problems” about truth. Presumably, “what is truth?” counts as a textbook problem. And what James says (“The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.”) at least looks like an answer to this question.

·         Why does James’s view of the idea that truth is correspondence (viz., that it is not useful or enlightening) count as a rejection of the idea that truth has an essence? Rorty seems to be adopting a false dichotomy: either the correspondence theory of truth is useful/enlightening, or there is no essence of truth (and thus no accurate philosophical theory of truth). But there are a number of philosophical theories of truth besides the correspondence theory. That one theory fails does not imply that there is no useful/enlightening theory of truth to be had.[6]



[] Truth as What It Would be Beneficial to Believe.


Having praised James and Dewey for their refusal to give theories of truth (and of knowledge, morality, etc.), Rorty begins making positive claims about truth:


... it is the vocabulary of practise rather than of theory, of action rather than contemplation, in which one can say something useful about truth. (639)


He illustrates the point by describing a spectrum of sentences:


The correspondence theory is more plausible for theories at this end of the spectrum...






... but not at all plausible for sentences at this end.


“This is red”

“Jupiter has moons.”


“The earth goes round the sun.”


“There is no such thing as natural motion.”[7]


“The universe is infinite.”

“Love is the only law.”[8]

“History is the story of class struggle.”[9]


About sentences at the bottom of the spectrum, Rorty says:


The whole vocabulary of isomorphism, picturing, and mapping is out of place here, as indeed is the notion of being true of objects. If we ask what objects these sentences claim to be true of, we get only unhelpful repetitions of the subject terms—“the universe,” “the law,” “history.” Or, even less helpfully, we get talk about “the facts,” or “the way the world is.” The natural ap­proach to such sentences, Dewey tells us, is not “Do they get it right?”, but more like “What would it be like to believe that? What would happen if I did? What would I be committing myself to?”  ... When the contemplative mind, isolated from the stimuli of the moment, takes large views, its activity is more like de­ciding what to do than deciding that a representation is accurate. (639-40)


Rorty’s point seems to be that instead of thinking about truth in terms of correspondence or picturing, we should think about truth in terms of what it would be beneficial to believe.[10]



Stopping point for Thursday April 4. For next time, finish reading Rorty’s “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism” (643-54).




[1] For further information, see Bjørn Ramberg,  “Richard Rorty,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[2] Here’s the context: “Pragmatists—both classical and ‘neo’—do not believe that there is a way things really are. So they want to replace the appearance—reality distinction by that between descriptions of the world and of ourselves which are less useful and those which are more useful.” (p.27)


[4] The distinction between essence and accidental properties dates back to Aristotle. See S. Marc Cohen, “Aristotle's Metaphysics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[5] Recall that although James explicitly rejects “correspondence” as a criterion of truth, he did say some things that sound suspiciously like a version of the correspondence theory. On James’s view, true ideas can be directly verified or indirectly verified, and that direct verification amounts to “copying.”


[6] For a similar criticism of what Rorty has to say about truth in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, see Haack, Evidence and Inquiry, pp.188-9. Haack describes the false dichotomy about truth Rorty draws in that work as an example of his “This-or-Nothingism”: “We seem to be offered a choice between identifying truth with what is defensible against conversational objections, and taking it to be ... something ... rather pretentious, something aspired to despite, or even because of, its inaccessibility.” (188)


[7] The idea of natural motion goes back to Aristotle, who believed that, for example, the natural place of rocks is with the earth, and so the falling of a rock toward the ground is simply the rock’s natural motion.


[8] This is likely a reference to Galatians 5:14: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (It can’t be a reference to the song “Love is the Only Law” by Ziggey Marley, since that song did not come out until 1989.)


[9] Here Rorty is referring to Karl Marx’s claim in his Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

[10] Although at this point Rorty doesn’t refer to any specific work of Dewey’s, what he says here might recall Dewey’s view of truth (as stated in “Truth and Consequences”) as “the way of presenting things which is actually, not merely potentially, effective in securing the consequences with reference to which the things are causes.” (354)


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