PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday April 16, 2013


[7.2.] “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.


[7.2.1.] 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.[1]


Anti-authoritarianism is opposition to this sort of system of government.


Rorty uses the notions of authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism in broader ways, so that they are not specifically about systems of human government, but about human beings being subject to the authority of something beyond 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)

·         Accordingly, as Rorty defines anti-authoritarianism, it is the rejection of this idea, and Rorty views pragmatism as a form of anti-authoritarianism.


Rorty takes anti-representationalism to be a variety of anti-authoritarianism…

·         anti-representationalism (Rorty’s df.): having a belief is not a matter of having a representation of the world in one’s mind, and 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.[2]


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[3] 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 an instance of anti-authoritarianism.



[7.2.2.] Secular Religion: Morality without God.


Clearly, Rorty admires both types 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 sounds weirdly circular... we have a duty to cooperate to reach agreement about, i.e., to arrive at shared beliefs about, which beliefs will help us cooperate!]


In rejecting the idea of Sin, Rorty is not rejecting morality itself. He intimates 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)



[7.2.3.] Pragmatism: truth without “Correspondence to Reality.”


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 to deny that there is Truth (correspondence with Reality), we do not have to stop “adjust[ing] [our] behavior to the environment: to come in when it rains, or to shun bears.” (659) We can reject Truth and Reality while still believing in rain and bears and seeking to avoid both of them.


What we can’t believe is that there is a Reality that “looms behind such things—something august [‘marked by majestic dignity or grandeur’[4]] and remote.” (659)


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 what we should not say is 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 sentences without correspondence to (upper-case “R”) Reality.


In the same way, we should recognize that we should not be cruel. And the claim that we should not be cruel is a lot clearer than the claim that there is a God who commands us not to be cruel. We can have morality without God.



[7.2.4.] Human Happiness is the Only Standard.


Rorty—and on his interpretation, Dewey—want 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 Rorty (and, he says, Dewey) is not simply 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 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.): the right thing to do in any situation is whatever will increase the overall amount of happiness in the world and decrease 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)


At this point, Rorty might have quoted from James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891):


...there is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance. We all help to determine the content of ethical philosophy so far as we contribute to the race’s moral life. In other words, there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say. In the one case as in the other, however, the hypotheses which we now make while waiting, and the acts to which they prompt us, are among the indispensable conditions which determine what that ‘say’ shall be. (248, emphasis added)


And he might have quoted from Dewey’s “The Construction of Good” (from The Quest for Certainty, 1929)


A psychological theory of desire and liking is supposed to cover the whole ground of the theory of values ...

I shall not object to this empirical theory as far as it connects the theory of values with concrete experiences of desire and satisfaction. … The objection is that the theory in question holds down value to objects antecedently enjoyed, apart from reference to the method by which they come into existence; it takes enjoyments which are casual because unregulated by intelligent operations to be values in and of themselves. Operational thinking needs to be applied to the judgment of values just as it has now finally been applied in conceptions of physical objects. Experimental empiricism in the field of ideas of good and bad is demanded to meet the conditions of the present situation. (399, 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, like the physical sciences, 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.



[7.2.5.] The Reconciliation of Science and Religion.


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


Whether or not Dewey is the most useful of the three classical pragmatists, Peirce seems to me the least useful. 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 attributes James’s pragmatist theory of truth to his desire to resolve this conflict.


... the underlying motive of that 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)


[Rorty here alludes to an idea that Putnam also seeks to take from James: description pluralism—although unlike Putnam, Rorty might hesitate to say that there are multiple “true” descriptions of the world.]


But Rorty’s own view of the “reconciliation” of science and religion is much more like Dewey’s than like James’s. It seeks to locate the significance and meaning of religious belief and worship in something traditionally held to be much more mundane: cooperation among human beings in the here-and-now to improve life on earth.


This is how Dewey’s reconciliation amounts to what Rorty calls 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)


This is yet another symptom of Dewey’s desire to dissolve the traditional dualism between theory and practice.


[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)





Stopping point for Tuesday April 16. This concludes the lecture notes for this course. Next time, we will review for your final exam and conduct student evaluations.


Your final exam is Thursday, April 25, 8:00am-10:30am.





[1] “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.”


[2] 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 emphatically do have the ability to represent reality accurately.


[3] “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 = <>.

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

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