PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday April 11, 2013


[7.1.4.] Conversational Constraints.


The last claim of Rorty’s that we examined was that

·         neither ethical nor empirical inquiry is constrained “by the ahistorical and nonhuman nature of reality itself. ...” (641)

·         in both sorts of inquiry, all we are constrained by, all that we can appeal to, are “the ordinary, retail, detailed, concrete reasons which have brought one to one’s present view.” (642)


This serves as a segue into Rorty’s third and favorite characterization of pragmatism:


there are no constraints on in­quiry save conversational ones—no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of the objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow-inquirers. (642)


In other words, what claims count as acceptable or legitimate outcomes of inquiry is not limited by

·         our minds,

·         the languages in which we make those claims, or

·         the things those claims are about.


The only limit on which claims count as acceptable or legitimate outcomes of inquiry is what other people say.


The pragmatist tells us that it is useless to hope that objects will constrain us to believe the truth about them, if only they are approached with an unclouded mental eye, or a rigorous method, or a perspicuous language. He wants us to give up the notion that God, or evolution, or some other underwriter of our present world-picture, has programmed us as machines for accurate verbal picturing, and that philosophy brings self-knowledge by letting us read our own program. The only sense in which we are constrained to truth is that, as Peirce suggested, we can make no sense of the notion that the view which can survive all objections might be false. But objections—conversational constraints—cannot be anticipated. There is no method for knowing when one has reached the truth, or when one is closer to it than before. (642-43)[1]


Although Rorty does not speak in terms of “justification” in this article, his point seems to be that whether a belief (claim, theory, etc.) is justified depends only on whether the person putting forward that belief (etc.) can defend it against conversational objections, i.e., objections made during conversations with other human beings.


Rorty takes James to have anticipated this point:


In the end, the pragmatists tell us, what matters is our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark, not our hope of getting things right. James, in arguing against realists and idealists that “the trail of the human serpent is over all,” was reminding us that our glory is in our participation in fallible and transitory human projects, not in our obedience to permanent nonhuman constraints. (643)


But it is not clear whether James meant to imply that there are no non-human constraints on inquiry. James made the “trail of the human serpent” remark in discussing the growth of belief. He was making the point that when a person accepts a new belief, she does so for “subjective reasons,” for “human reasons”—and that’s consistent with there being non-human constraints or limits on what counts as legitimate belief.


Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no rôle whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for ‘to be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function.

The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything. (300)



[7.1.5.] Rorty on Relativism.


As mentioned at the outset, Rorty has been accused of being a relativist. In this article, he denies this claim.


He 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)


For example:

·         if you are a relativistRR about morality, you might say that “polygamy is immoral” and “polygamy is morally permissible” are equally good ethical claims, even though they are contradictory;

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


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


His point seems to be that people who call him and those who share his views “relativists” simply misunderstand his view.


Rorty’s view is as follows: “the grounds for choosing between [incompatible] opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.”


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


Rorty seems to mean the following. 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.



[] An Objection.


Rorty is using “relativism” in a non-standard way. Usually, “relativism” is used to label a view according to which 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 exactly what it is that is dependent, and 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 and/or reality are somehow dependent on human thought.


As described above, Rorty’s view seems to be that whether a belief (claim, theory, etc.) is justified depends only on whether the person putting forward that belief (etc.) can defend it against conversational objections.


This view of Rorty’s (or something very close to it) has been dubbed contextualism by Susan Haack, who 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.”[2]


So in the standard sense of relativism, Rorty does seem to be a relativist: he holds that epistemic justification (whether or not someone’s belief that p is justified) is relative to the epistemic standards of a person’s own community.[3]



Stopping point for Thursday April 11. For next time, finish reading Rorty’s “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism” (667-72).



[1] This calls to mind Rorty’s statement that truth is “what you can defend against all comers.” (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979, p.308)


[2] Evidence and Inquiry, p.190.


[3] 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.”


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