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Review of Richard Rorty's "Solidarity or Objectivity?" and "The Contingency of Language"

Review of Richard Rorty's "Solidarity or Objectivity?" and "The Contingency of Language"

7 Mins
March 1, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled "The Continental Origins of Postmodernism."

Richard Rorty’s “Objectivity or Solidarity” is a case study in the use of false alternatives for rhetorical gain. The essay begins by presenting us with an awfully weird and unappealing choice. Rorty claims that there are just two main ways to “give sense” to our lives. Either one can make up a story about oneself in which one’s life figures in the life of a bigger community, or one can think about standing in a certain direct relationship to the mind-independent world. If you go in for the first, then you like solidarity. If you go in for the second, you like objectivity. Now, reader, pick sides!

It really is a weird choice. First, we might not care that much about being embedded in a tradition or community. And so fitting into one might not be central to some people’s sense of meaning in life. But these people don’t thereby have any overriding interest in eyeball to eyeball contact with the world-out-there. I'm sure you can give meaning to your life without questing primarily for either truth-for-its-own-sake or my-place-in-something-bigger-than-me. How about giving meaning to your life by trying to do something that makes you, the individual, happy?

It is important for Rorty to cast his argument against objectivity in terms of the meaningfulness of our lives, because Rorty’s “pragmatism” will forbid him from saying that the ideal of objectivity is objectively unworthy of belief, because false. He will be required to say merely that objectivity is not so good for us to care about, that we’ll be better off if we don’t care about it and care about solidarity instead. His way of setting up the question in terms of what “gives sense” to our lives allows him to plump for solidarity by saying that seeking solidarity (without trying to ground solidarity in objectivity) lends itself better to a meaningful life. As we shall see, he really can’t coherently claim *that* either. But first things first.

Rorty calls those who would ground solidarity in objectivity realists, and those who would reduce objectivity to solidarity pragmatists.

Rorty’s “Objectivity or Solidarity” is a case study in the use of false alternatives for rhetorical gain.

Rorty’s characterization of objectivity is, naturally enough, extremely intrinsicist. He moves in a very cavalier fashion from the realist’s commitment to correspondence-truth to an alleged commitment to “natural” procedures of justification that *guarantee* truth and a grasp of “the intrinsic nature of things.” This is large-scale package-dealing. By glomming all this stuff together, he can use his reader’s inchoate sense that there is no infallible procedure of justification and no way to peer right at the ultimate nature of things to weigh against his bugbear, correspondence-truth. Because we can make mistakes without being irrational and because we have to discover through a messy process what things are really like, correspondence-truth must be false!

Furthermore, his other writings indicate that he identifies correspondence-truth with a radical sort of mirroring of Things-In-Themselves. He offers us either his extreme irrealism about truth, or what Susan Haack calls “grandly transcendental” correspondence-truth. He ignores all the positions in between, such as a genuinely pragmatist Peircian epistemic theory of truth, minimal correspondence theories, like Ramsey’s or Tarski’s, or moderate correspondence theories like Wittgenstein’s, Austin’s, or (what I take to be) the Objectivist theory.

This is Rorty’s way, and it is good to pay attention to it. Susan Haack in a delightful (highly recommended) chapter on Rorty in her Evidence and Inquiry points out Rorty’s constant “this or nothingness” and his habitual use of “grossly false” dichotomies.

And there is no end to the package dealing.

In contrast to realism, which is associated with acontextual immediate infallible knowledge of the ultimate nature of things, pragmatism is associated with contextuality, fallibilism, openness to evidence, and the creation of new concepts with which to think new thoughts. Realism, besides being just fantastic, is also dogmatic, static, and closed. Pragmatism is tolerant, dynamic, and creative. Who wouldn’t want to be a pragmatist! Anyway, once one recognizes that the items in Rorty’s packages come apart--that one can have correspondence-truth along with contextuality, anti-essentialism, and conceptual innovation, Rorty’s attempt to herd the reader in his direction fails utterly.

Rorty is concerned to defend his pragmatism against charges of relativism. “Relativism,” Rorty writes, “is the traditional epithet applied to pragmatism by realists.” He denies that what is true is relative to anything, for *nothing* is true in the realist’s sense. The term ‘true’ means the same thing for everyone. It is a commendatory term for beliefs. Now, different communities may well have different standards for commending beliefs. And we are naturally going to use *our* standards. So Rorty calls his position “ethnocentric,” which one may be tempted to translate as “tribalist”.

I find Rorty’s move disingenuous. I see what he’s up to. He denies that the *nature* of truth is given by local standards, and is thus relative to them, for he denies that truth has a nature. (How can truth be relative to anything if there isn’t any?) But he admits that we have a truth term, and the use of that term figures importantly in our lives. And the standards for applying the term are relative to community standards for belief commendation. And that is relativism enough. For there is nothing to decide between conflicting practices of belief commendation. There is no point of view external to the practices from which to judge them. A large part of the practical worry about relativism lies in the insolubility of disagreement between incompatible community practices. There seem to be just two ways to settle things: conversion (*not* rational persuasion) or elimination. And Rorty’s allegedly non-relativistic non-theory of truth does nothing to allay these worries.

Rorty himself seems to understand norms of community practice to be backed by the threat of force. If the world itself cannot serve as a check on our beliefs, then the cops will have one more thing to do. To say that [cultures] have “institutionalized norms” is only to say, with Foucault, that knowledge is never separable from power. But such institutional backups for beliefs take the form of bureaucrats and policemen, not of “rules of language” and “criteria of rationality.” Rorty is fully a latter-day sophist. There is us, and there is them. And if we ever confront them, there is rhetoric and there is force. It speaks well of Rorty that he tries to get things done rhetorically. But one is not comforted.

Now, I want to leave some details of Rorty’s essay aside, e.g., his invocations of Putnam, Quine, Davidson, and the like, and get at a central point of Rorty’s that gets him in trouble. Rorty thinks that the best we can do in justifying some belief or practice is by looking at its practical advantages.

A thoroughgoing pragmatist theory of truth cannot be made intelligible. According to the Rortian pragmatist, truth is an honorific we apply to beliefs that are good for us to hold, that bring some practical advantage. There does not appear to be any profound confusion right on the surface of the pragmatist’s statement. But a little reflection brings forth the confusion.

Suppose we have two beliefs, P and Q (P could be pragmatism and Q could be realism, if you like), and we want to decide which is most advantageous, which is best for us to hold. And suppose Rorty says that P is better for us to hold than Q. Immediately we’ll want to ask, “Is P’s being better for us to hold than Q a bona fide fact, i.e., is it really TRUE that P is better than Q?” Now, the pragmatist confronts a dilemma. Either he can say that it is correspondence-true that P is better for us to hold than Q, or it is merely pragmatically true that P is better than Q. If the pragmatist grasps the first horn, he loses his pragmatism. One obviously has not offered an alternative to correspondence-truth if one has to smuggle it in to make sense of the alleged alternative.

If the pragmatist grasps the second horn, he is saddled with a vicious regress. If it is pragmatically true that P is good for us to believe, then it is good for us to believe that it is good for us to believe that P. And if that is the case, then it is good to believe that it is good to believe that it is good to believe that P. And so on. The regress is vicious because if one begins on the regress it becomes impossible to give any content to claims about a belief’s goodness or practical advantage. Unless a notion of truth unsusceptible to regress is introduced (the first horn), the pragmatist’s claim that P is good for us to believe turns out to lack content. It fails to be a claim at all.

So, Rorty’s claims about what gives more sense to our lives are bound to be ungrounded and arbitrary. Solidarity can’t really be better than objectivity on the grounds of being better for us anymore than solidarity can be better than objectivity on the grounds of more closely approximating the objective truth. The best Rorty can really do is to try to show that one set of ideals is more *emotionally* appealing, and to get us to accept those ideals on those grounds. And that, in the end, is what I see him as doing.

Perhaps Rorty, in his heart of hearts, thinks his views really are good for us.

It is always fun and often damning to apply a philosopher’s position to itself. Is Rorty’s pragmatism good for us to believe? Well, what would settle that question? Presumably, members of Rorty’s community would need to by and large agree with him. Rortian pragmatism would need to be part of our cultural background, part of what we take for granted, a part of common life, something we just assume when undertake to converse with each other. But it isn’t. Rorty’s views are *controversial*. Rorty certainly sees that the Enlightenment tradition, which is by and large *our* tradition, is deeply realist. There are lots of realists in Rorty’s community, which is why he writes books and essays aimed at them. Are all those benighted realists part of Rorty’s community or not? If they are, then there is no consensus. Indeed, the realists are so prevalent that our standards for applying the truth predicate are *deeply* wrapped up in notions of correspondence. Almost *nobody* in our community thinks ‘true’ is merely a floating term of commendation. If Rorty is trying to use ‘true’ in a different way from the rest of us, then he is simply demonstrating that he is not *really* part of our community after all. He is alien. But if a belief’s being good for us is determined by a kind of community consensus, then Rorty’s pragmatism cannot be good for us. There is nothing even approaching consensus over Rorty’s ideas. And so, insofar as Rorty takes himself to be a member of *our* community, Rorty would have to count his own views as false.

Perhaps Rorty, in his heart of hearts, thinks his views really are good for us, and that they are good for us whether anybody thinks so or not. But, of course, he has sold off the right to think such things.Perhaps Rorty only counts those who agree with him as members of his community. But that would be a little too convenient, no?

As it turns out, it does not look like Rorty is articulating the commitments of liberal, western intellectuals, such that when he speaks to that audience, they are bound by those commitments to endorse what Rorty says. Rather, it looks like he is trying to dictate those commitments, to cause us to revise them. It looks as though he is *pretending* to be a member of our community, but that in reality he is standing outside of it, looking in, and suggesting we change our commitments in rather radical ways to suit *his* ideals. Rorty himself refuses solidarity with the Western Enlightenment ideals and the community centered in those ideals. So he makes up a story that will disintegrate that community and its ideals by persuading its members that it has been committed to Rorty’s ideals all along.

When Rorty says, “There is, in short, nothing wrong with the hopes of the Enlightenment” he means that there is nothing wrong except for the entire picture of man’s relationship to reality through reason upon which the Enlightenment was based. He is saying that there is nothing wrong with the hopes of the Enlightenment, except for those hopes and ideals at odds with his own. Clearly, some notion of objectivity is *essential* to the Enlightenment vision. Rorty’s attack on objectivity just is an attack on the Enlightenment ideals based on its conception of objectivity. But he cannot put the debate in those terms, lest he show himself too clearly as a dissenter to *our* ideals. Rather, he must put the debate in terms that permit him to characterize himself as someone who is articulating Enlightenment ideals and making them coherent from within. But he is, in fact, merely a wolf in Enlightenment clothing.

In conclusion, Rorty’s argument in “Solidarity or Objectitvity” rests on a number of false alternatives and package deals. Once one sees the additional alternatives, and unbundles Rorty’s packages, the force of Rorty’s argument evaporates. Even if Rorty is granted key points it turns out that his view is either unintelligible or internally self-defeating. Rorty, having given up on reason and rational persuasion, is left, like the sophists, with bald rhetoric and force. Despite employing the rhetoric of genuine philosophy, the essay is not a philosophical attempt to rationally persuade, but is a mere piece of rhetoric designed to move the reader to reject the grounds for rational persuasion and thus to feel liberated to accept Rorty’s vision on other, arational, grounds.

Response by David Potts and others

Will Wilkinson
About the author:
Will Wilkinson
History of Philosophy