PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday April 13, 2015



[5.4.4.] The Reconciliation of Science and Religion.


Rorty praises James and Dewey for trying to reconcile science and religion, and he criticizes Peirce for not doing enough to reconcile the two:


My main reason for thinking Peirce relatively unimportant is that he does not become engaged, in the way in which James and Dewey did become engaged, with the problem which dominated Kant’s thought and which was at the center of 19th century thought in every Western country: the problem of how to reconcile science and religion, how to be faithful both to Newton and Darwin and to the spirit of Christ. That problem is the paradigm of the sort of conflict between old ways of speaking and new cultural developments which Dewey took it to be the philosopher’s task to resolve. (664)


Rorty thinks that James’s theory of truth was intended to resolve this conflict.


... the underlying motive of [James’s] theory is to give us a way to reconcile science and religion by viewing them not as two competing ways of representing reality, but rather as two non-competing ways of producing happiness. I take the anti-representationalist view of thought and language to have been motivated, in James’s case, by the realization that the need for choice between competing representations can be replaced by tolerance for a plurality of non-competing descriptions, descriptions which serve different purposes and which are to be evaluated by reference to their utility in fulfilling these purposes rather than by their “fit” with the objects being described. (665-66, emphasis added)


But unlike James, Rorty is not saying that traditional mono-theistic religious descriptions of the world should be among the non-competing descriptions we accept today.


Instead, he wants to locate the importance and meaningfulness of religious belief and worship in cooperation among human beings to improve life on earth.


This is another aspect of his anti-authoritarianism: “human beings should regulate their actions and beliefs by the need to join with other human beings in cooperative projects, rather than by the need to stand in the correct relation to something non-human.” (666)


It is also much closer to Dewey than to James:


[Dewey’s] stories about history as the story of increasing freedom are stories about how we lost our sense of sin, and also our hope of another world, and gradually acquired the ability to find the same spiritual significance in cooperation between finite mortals that our ancestors had found in

their relation to an immortal being. His way of clarifying “men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day” was to ask his contemporaries to consider the possibility that weekday cooperation in building democratic communities could provide everything “higher”—everything which had once been reserved for weekends. His way of making practice prior to theory was to say that both philosophy and religion were of value only insofar as they put the traditionally “higher” to everyday use. (666-67, emphasis added)



[5.4.5] “Realism” vs. “Pragmatism.”


At the beginning of section 3, Rorty describes the difference between “realists” and “pragmatists” in a number of different ways:





in terms of their highest hope

“union with something beyond the human” (667)



inquiry will “put us in touch with, if not the eternal, at least with something  which . . . ‘is there anyway’—something non-perspectival, something which is what it is apart from human needs and interests.” (667-68)

a better human future, to be attained by more fraternal cooperation between human beings.” (667)


“the only question is: will human life be better in the future if we adopt this belief, this practice, or that institution?” (668)

in terms of authority and freedom

subjection to an authority-figure is necessary to lead a properly human life”

“a properly human life . . . require[es] freedom from any such subjection”

in ethical terms

in order for morality not to be an illusion, it must consist in something entirely independent of human beings, i.e., moral realism must be true*

in order for morality not to be an illusion, all that’s needed are “the empirical, environmental conditions which shape a human being’s moral identity” (674 n.10)


*As an example of a defender of moral realism (the view that there are moral truths independent of what humans think or feel about morality), Rorty cites Thomas Nagel (b.1937, professor of philosophy and law at NYU):


. . . a self-description, a sense of one’s own moral identity—a sense that one could not live with oneself if one performed a certain action—is not a sufficient account of the reason why one should not perform that action. “The real reason,” Nagel says, “is whatever would make it impossible for him to live with himself. . . .” Nagel goes on to say that unless there is some non-empirical Kant-style, universalistic, account of what moral identity one should have, then “morality is an illusion.” (673 n.10)[1]



Rorty’s pragmatist view of morality: we will have succeeded in overcoming theism and realism when we have “come to treat . . . our collective sense of what counts as a moral abomination, as having no authority separate from that of tradition, and when we treat tradition itself as endlessly malleable and revisable by its inheritors.” (671-72)



Stopping point for Monday April 13. This concludes the lecture notes for this course. Your term paper is due at the beginning of the next class. Remember to bring your draft (the one that I commented on) so that you can turn it in along with the final version.



[1] The reference is to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who maintained that there is a single universally-applicable idea from which all of our moral obligations can be derived: The Categorical Imperative:  “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. For more on Kant, see my Introduction to Ethics lecture notes for April 3, 6, 8, 10 and 13 (


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