PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday April 8, 2015


[5.3.6.] Irrationalism: Why Continue the Conversation?


Rorty does not think that philosophy gets at how “things really are”—he doesn’t view any area of inquiry as doing that.


Rather, philosophy carries on the conversation begun by Socrates, a conversation about knowledge, truth, reality, morality, justice, etc.: “the point of edifying philosophy [i.e., philosophy that improves us, either intellectually or morally] is to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth.”[1]


So the goal is not to discover the essences of knowledge, truth, etc. (remember Rorty’s anti-essentialism: he doesn’t believe there are such essences to be discovered).


Since there no such essences, we do not have a duty to discover what they are—so if there is a reason to keep doing philosophy, that isn’t it.

Rorty coins the term “irrationalism” to mean that view that we shouldn’t keep doing philosophy, that we should end that conversation.


The fear of the “anti-pragmatist” is this: if knowledge, truth, etc. don’t have essences, then there is no point to philosophy and the irrationalist is right that we should give it up.


But Rorty wants to take a middle position between the two extremes, each of which consists of two different claims:

position A

position B

1) essentialism: there are essences of knowledge, truth, morality, etc.


2) philosophy should continue, because it is justified by the attempt to discover these essences.

1) anti-essentialism: there are no essences of knowledge, truth, morality, etc.

The anti-pragmatist fears that this leads to


2) irrationalism: philosophy is not justified by the attempt to discover such essences, and so it should be given up.


Rorty embraces anti-essentialism but rejects irrationalism. His view is this:


[T]he conversation which it is our moral duty to continue is merely our project, the European intellectual’s form of life. It has no metaphysical nor epistemological guarantee of success. Further (and this is the crucial point) we do not know what “success” would mean except simply “continuance.” We are not conversing because we have a goal, but because Socratic conversation is an activity which is its own end. The anti-pragmatist who insists that agreement is its goal is like the basketball player who thinks that the reason for playing the game is to make baskets. He mistakes an essential moment in the course of an activity for the end of the activity. Worse yet, he is like a basketball fan who argues that all men by nature desire to play basketball, or that the nature of things is such that balls can go through hoops. (650-51)

Rorty admits that this is not a decisive argument in support of his view of philosophy or of (his sort of) pragmatism:


I do not think one can decide between [these two competing views of philosophy] save by meditating on the past efforts of the philosophical tradition to escape from time and history. One can see these efforts as worthwhile, getting better, worth contin­uing. Or one can see them as doomed and perverse. I do not know what would count as a noncircular metaphysical or epistemological or semantical argument for seeing them in either way. So I think that the decision has to be made simply by reading the history of philos­ophy and drawing a moral.

                Nothing that I have said, therefore, is an argument in favor of pragmatism. (653)



[5.4.] “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism” (1999).


Our final reading by Rorty, and our final reading of the semester, is an article that appeared in the journal Revue Internationale de Philosophie in 1999.


In it, Rorty compares pragmatism to anti-authoritarianism.



[5.4.1.] Anti-Authoritarianism.


Within politics and government, authoritarianism is a


principle of [unthinking] submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law, and they usually cannot be replaced by citizens choosing freely among various competitors in elections. The freedom to create opposition political parties or other alternative political groupings with which to compete for power with the ruling group is either limited or nonexistent in authoritarian regimes.[2]


Rorty does not use “authoritarianism” specifically to refer to systems of human government.


Instead, he means any situation in which human beings are under the authority of something other than themselves. So, he defines “authoritarianism” as follows:


authoritarianism (Rorty’s df.): “the idea that human beings must humble themselves before something non-human, whether the Will of God or the Intrinsic Nature of Reality.” (658)

·         So as Rorty defines anti-authoritarianism, it is the rejection of this idea.

·         And he thinks that pragmatism is a form of anti-authoritarianism.


Pragmatism’s anti-authoritarianism is related to its anti-representationalism…


anti-representationalism (Rorty’s df.): (i) having a belief is not a matter of having a representation of the world in one’s mind, and (ii) having a true belief is not a matter of having an accurate representation. [This denies two aspects of the Traditional View: representationalism about belief and the correspondence theory of truth.]

·         Rorty takes both James and Dewey to have defended anti-representationalism.[3]

·         He views anti-representationalism, and therefore pragmatism, as a form of anti-authoritarianism.


Rorty begins the article by drawing an analogy between pragmatism’s rejection of Truth (note the upper-case “T”) and the Enlightenment’s rejection of religious morality:


·         The Enlightenment[4] rejected (a) the idea that morality is correspondence with the will of God and (b) the idea of sin. Analogously…

·         Pragmatism (especially Dewey’s) rejected (a) representationalism (about belief in general and about true belief in particular) and (b) the idea of falsehood as failure to represent Reality accurately. [Note the uppercase “R” in “Reality.”]


He views each of these developments as a form of anti-authoritarianism.



[5.4.2.] Secular Religion: Morality without God.


Clearly, Rorty admires both sorts of anti-authoritarianism and is committed to atheism.


But he draws on Dewey’s social and political philosophy to formulate a view that is itself somewhat religious, albeit thoroughly atheistic.


It is captured in the following statement: “the point of a human life is free cooperation with fellow humans.” (658)

·         “[W]hole-hearted pursuit of the democratic ideal requires us to set aside any authority save that of a consensus of our fellow humans.” (658)

·         We have a “duty to seek unforced agreement with other human beings about what beliefs will sustain and facilitate projects of social cooperation.” (658)


This view of human life requires that we abandon the idea of Sin.


But Rorty is not rejecting the idea of morality. He suggests that it is legitimate “to be appalled by the way human beings treat each other, and by [our] capacity for vicious actions.” (658)


But such feelings don’t amount to a feeling of Sin. To have a feeling of Sin,


[y]ou have to believe that there is a Being before whom we should humble ourselves. This Being issues commands which, even if they seem arbitrary and unlikely to increase human happiness, must be obeyed. When trying to acquire a sense of Sin, it helps a lot if you can manage to think of a specific sexual or dietary practice as forbidden, even though it does not seem to be doing anybody any harm. It also helps to anguish about whether you are calling the divine Being by the

name he or she prefers. (658-59)



[5.4.3.] Truth, Reality, and Morality.


Rorty denies that there is “Truth” (note the upper-case initial “T”), in the sense of sentences that represent “Reality as it is in itself” (note the upper-case initial “R”).


But he says that this doesn’t mean that we have to stop “adjust[ing] [our] behavior to the environment: to come in when it rains, or to shun bears.” (659) A similar point applies to our moral beliefs.


Bears and rain, but not Reality

·         We can still believe in rain and bears, and we can still try to avoid both of them.

·         But we should not believe that there is a Reality that “looms behind such things—something august [‘marked by majestic dignity or grandeur’[5]] and remote.” (659) We can have bears, rain, etc. without having “Reality as it is in itself.”


Sentences that are true or false, but not Truth.

·         We can believe that Elizabeth I died in 1603 and that she did not die in 1623. We can even say things like “it is true that Elizabeth I died in 1603” and “it is false that she died in 1623.”

·         But we should not say that a true sentence is true because it “accurately represents the way Reality is in itself” and that a false sentence is false because it fails to do this. (660) We can have true (and false) sentences without correspondence to Reality (and without failure to correspond to Reality).


Right and wrong, but not God.

·         We can recognize that we should not be cruel.

·         But we should not think that it is wrong to be cruel because God has commanded against it. We can have morality without God.



[5.4.4.] Human Happiness is the Only Standard.


Rorty wants us to move beyond the traditional religious, metaphysical and epistemological theories that “add nothing to our ordinary, workaday, fallible ways of telling right from wrong, and truth from falsity.” (660)


But he is not just saying that these old theories are pointless. He seems to be saying that they are harmful, that it is bad for us to hold on to them:


What Dewey most disliked about both traditional “realist” epistemology [i.e., “spectator theories”] and about traditional religious beliefs is that they discourage us by telling us that somebody or something has authority over us. Both tell us that there is Something Inscrutable [i.e., not readily understood], something toward which we have duties, duties which have precedence over our cooperative attempts to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. (660)


Rorty approves of the moral theory adopted by both James and Dewey...


utilitarianism (df.): an action is right to the degree that it increases the overall amount of happiness in the world and wrong to the degree that it increases the amount of suffering; the names most closely associated with this theory of morality are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). well as of their belief that moral inquiry will never reach its conclusion so long as there are human beings who continue to have experiences and to face the inevitable problems of life.


Dewey, like James, was a utilitarian: he thought that in the end the only moral or epistemological criteria we have or need is whether performing an action, or holding a belief, will, in the long run, make for greater human happiness. He saw progress as produced by increasing willingness to experiment, to get out from under the past. So he hoped we should learn to view current scientific, religious, philosophical and moral beliefs with the skepticism with which Bentham viewed the laws of England: he hoped each new generation would try to cobble together some more useful beliefs—beliefs which would help them make human life richer, fuller and happier. (660, emphasis added)



All three thinkers—James, Dewey, and Rorty—emphasize understanding the moral value of actions in terms of the happiness that results from those actions, but they also emphasize the idea that there will never be any final and complete understanding of what it is that makes human beings the happiest.


Ethics will continue its work into the indefinite future, with each new generation making new discoveries about what practices will increase human happiness and decrease human suffering the most. We can think of Rorty, Dewey and James as utilitarians with an experimentalist streak.


Stopping point for Wednesday April 8. For next time, finish “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism” (pp.667-672).



[1] Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p.377.

[2] “Authoritarianism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, URL = < >, retrieved November 29, 2009. The article continues: “Authoritarianism thus stands in fundamental contrast to democracy. It also differs from totalitarianism, however, since authoritarian governments usually have no highly developed guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the entire population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise that power within relatively predictable limits. Examples of authoritarian regimes, according to some scholars, include the pro-Western military dictatorships that existed in Latin America and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century.”


[3] Rorty cites Peirce, seemingly with approval, as having “kicked pragmatism off” by, in part, arguing “that the function of inquiry is not to represent reality … This means getting rid of the ‘copy theory’ of knowledge which had dominated philosophy since the time of Descartes—and especially of the idea of intuitive self-knowledge unmediated by signs. [Peirce was] one of the first philosophers to say that the ability to use signs is essential to thought…” (661) It is deeply ironic that Rorty would emphasize this aspect of Peirce’s thought in connection with his (Rorty’s) own anti-representationalism; after all, a sign just is a representation! On a correct reading of Peirce’s philosophy, humans do have the ability to represent reality and to do so accurately.


[4] “The Enlightenment is the period in the history of western thought and culture, stretching roughly from the mid-decades of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics; these revolutions swept away the medieval world-view and ushered in our modern western world. Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution, in which the traditional hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were violently destroyed and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, ostensibly, upon principles of human reason. The Enlightenment begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but, with it, the entire set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry.” William Bristow, “Enlightenment,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[5] “august,”, retrieved November 29, 2009.

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