(Louise Boyle/Cornell University Library)

Rortian Liberalism and the Problem of Truth

The philosopher Cheryl Misak recently wrote, “It is time to abandon [Richard Rorty’s] liberal irony and move on to a more serious, less detached, kind of pragmatism.” On Misak’s account, Rorty wavered when it came to some of his most important, and controversial, opinions—namely the contingency of all our beliefs, the uses of irony, and the notorious public-private distinction Rorty gave us in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). She claims that “Rorty took back his more extreme statements and became the sensible kind of pragmatist” when she pressed him in the 2010 Library of Living Philosophers volume dedicated to his thought, but framing this as a concession is slightly misleading. 

Rorty does admit that it was “incautious and misleading hyperbole” when he said, in 1979, that truth was simply a matter of what your peers will let you get away with saying, but there nevertheless remains a deeper disagreement between Misak and Rorty that is not settled by this rhetorically flamboyant remark. There still seems to be a fundamental conflict over what truth is and whether there really is any difference—in practice—between aiming at justification and aiming at something more called truth.

Read “The Pragmatic Truth of Existentialism

For Rorty, There’s No Neutral, Common Ground in Philosophy

Ever since Rorty moved away from doing traditional analytic philosophy—publishing papers on the philosophy of mind and eliminative materialism—to more laid back commentary on seemingly the whole of Western philosophy, he has been the target of no small amount of criticism.

The bulk of the criticism, past and continuing, has to do with Rorty’s full-scale attack on representationalism. Representationalism is the idea that we can divide the contents of reality between things in the world and things in our minds. Further, it presupposes that the job of philosophers is to tell us how one fits with the other—what contribution the world makes to our ideas and concepts and what contribution our minds make. But more than this, Rorty’s criticism of the traditional epistemological project of Locke, Descartes, and Kant has implications for how we approach ethics, politics, and life in general. The most succinct passage that, I think, sums up why Rorty’s philosophy ruffles so many people’s feathers—including Misak’s—is this:

Our moral view is, I firmly believe, much better than any competing view, even though there are a lot of people whom you will never be able to convert to it. It is one thing to say, falsely, that there is nothing to choose between us and the Nazis. It is another thing to say, correctly, that there is no neutral, common ground to which an experienced Nazi philosopher and I can repair in order to argue out our differences. That Nazi and I will always strike one another as begging all the crucial questions, arguing in circles.  

In this passage, Rorty is describing his commitment to philosophical ethnocentrism: the idea that any claim, argument, or ethical standards we make will always be situated in a particular, local, and contingent audience that has shared norms and practices. That is, there is no getting outside of the particular context we inhabit in order to talk about ultimate truth, since even if we were to talk about ultimate truth it would be saddled with the fact that it would be our ultimate truth and not something ultimately true for all people, times, and places. Between communities, like the Nazi’s and mine, there are differences in evidentiary standards, justificatory practices, and just different epistemological starting points. Because of this, in Rorty’s eyes, we “will always strike one another as begging all the crucial questions, arguing in circles.”    

Read “Truth Is Not Absolute, but That Which Works

Philosophical Ethnocentrism and the Charge of Relativism

This is what leads people to the charge of relativism. Wait, so there’s no neutral place to stand in which to judge competing beliefs? There’s no objectivity? No absolutely right and wrong? No ultimate truth? Every view is just as good as every other?

But Rorty thinks the charge of relativism is misplaced—in the first place because once you do away with the idea of objectivity, it seems its opposite, relativism, should go as well. But the main point is that just because there’s no neutral, ultimately objective view from which we can judge all other views once and for all, does not mean that we have no reasons to choose between one set of beliefs and another; it’s just that those beliefs and reasons will always be ethnocentrically situated. It is here that the fallibilism of Rorty’s brand of neopragmatism shines through: it might be the case that things do not work out for the better, even in the long run, because progress has less to do with insistence about the importance of truth and more about what we can persuade people to think.

So Rortians like myself think that there is not something we can aim at over and above our justificatory practices and any attempt to make sense of something more—ultimate truth—amounts to “empty, useless rhetoric.” Pragmatists like Misak, who follow in the tradition of Charles Sanders Peirce, think we lose something important when we give up on truth as something more than justification since there’s always this lingering feeling to just condemn the Nazi as wrong—objectively wrong. But Rorty is right to point out that the pragmatic burden is on them “to explain what actions are motivated by a desire for indefeasibility [or truth] that are not motivated by a desire for justification.” Any attempt to make this stronger concept of truth stick by talking about it in terms of claims that can be justified to all future communities or in the long run seems not only hand-wavy but more importantly does not seem to change our on-the-ground practices all that much.

As Rorty writes, “I cannot see the practical difference between aiming at beliefs justified to the relevant contemporary community of fellow-inquirers and aiming at getting a belief that will be justified to all future communities.” In the case of the Nazi and me, we might ask what good the invocation of objective truth is when trying to persuade the Nazi that their views are abhorrent and noxious; what difference does it make, practically speaking, if we aim to persuade the Nazi of the rightness of our views (justification) rather than insisting that our views are objectively right and his objectively wrong? 

Listen to “Charles Peirce and Inquiry as an Act of Love w/ David O’Hara

Good Philosophers and Good Liberals

Misak goes on to say that Rorty attempts to stop the see-sawing between his more radical pronouncements about truth and his more “sensible” pragmatic ones by introducing the public-private divide. The divide was Rorty’s way of arguing that we would be better off if we insisted that there are two distinct spheres of action in a liberal society—public and private—that are for the most part irrelevant to each other. For Rorty, to resist the need to fold one of these domains into the other is one of liberalism’s greatest achievements and should not be taken lightly.

Irony for Rorty was banished to the private realm. Misak rightly characterizes Rorty’s position saying, “Ironists . . . are ‘at best useless’ and ‘at worst dangerous’ in the public realm. It is only in their private lives that irony—the sharp awareness of the contingency and flimsiness of one’s beliefs—should thrive. Nothing is stopping the ironist from being committed to liberal values in public.”

Regardless, Misak does not find this to be a compelling argument. She thinks this account makes “philosophy itself one of those useless vagabond thoughts.” She continues:

If the epistemological theses of pragmatism are inert once you leave your study, that speaks ill of those epistemological theses. Indeed, the very idea that one might leave one’s philosophy behind when one enters the public sphere goes against the very grain of the pragmatist insight, which is to make philosophy relevant and to connect it to action. The pragmatist should want nothing to do with Rorty’s idea that the philosopher should be a detached liberal ironist in private.

There are a few things to untangle here. First, it’s not clear that philosophy is all that relevant to politics. I think this is where the real disagreement between Misak and Rorty lies. It’s not clear that epistemological theses about this or that have any relevance to the fact that “[p]opulist governments right now threaten to tip the world into violence and moral darkness,” and where “epidemiologists and climate change scientists are being cast as liars by anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists on the lunatic right.” Misak asks, “Is the Rortian solution really to say that there is really no truth and falsity at stake here, but that one can, if one likes, make a liberal stand in one’s public life? Or, one can, if one likes, take a fascist stand in public life? We need a philosophy that serves us better than that.”

The short answer to these questions is “yes, ” and much like the conversation about truth, the burden is on philosophers like Misak to show how philosophy—or “a philosophy that serves us better”—will prevent any number of the doom-and-gloom problems she raises.

Furthermore, Rorty’s own solution goes some way in addressing these issues and gets most of what Misak seems to want in the end. A dyed-in-the-wool liberal social democrat would have answers to these problems. To resist populism in public, means, on the one hand, to vote for people who do not run on populist anger and resentment and, on the other, to spend much of their time trying to convince as many people of the rightness of this political project (i.e. why populism is bad). The fantasy at the heart of Misak’s criticism is in thinking that if everyone just had the right epistemological tools, then we would not have these grave socio-political problems. Even if this were the case, there’s the very real practical problem of how we might go about making sure everyone is on the same page epistemically—since this is an impossibility in a pluralistic liberal democracy such as ours, it seems we’re thrown back to Rorty’s suggestion that we must attempt to convince as many people as possible to be good liberals.

Listen to “Richard Rorty and Achieving Our Country w/ Adrian Rutt

What Does Philosophy Have to Do With It?

The problem Misak raises about scientists getting called liars by the general public brings up the classic problem of free speech in a liberal society that Misak is uncharitably foisting on Rorty as if he alone has a uniquely terrible response to it due to his deeper philosophical commitments. The problem is the same: if Misak thinks it’s appropriate to regulate this kind of speech—I do not, and neither would Rorty—so be it; she can vote for people who want to enact policies of this kind. But if not, then we’re back to the persuasion game, which Rorty would endorse as a liberal: try to convince as many people as possible that epidemiologists and climate scientists are not part of some grand conspiracy, and that most of the time experts in these positions are genuinely trying to find solutions to complex problems and not just trying to control society.

The compromise Rorty wants to introduce with the public-private distinction is ultimately this: “Privatize the Nietzschean-Sartrean-Foucauldian attempt at authenticity and purity, in order to prevent yourself from slipping into an attitude which will lead you to think that there is some social goal more important than avoiding cruelty.” In other words, we need to realize that individuals and philosophers at their most creative, most idiosyncratic, might, at best, distract us from our broader goals as a society, where our concern should mainly be about eliminating cruelty and suffering.

I have not the slightest clue why Misak thinks Rorty’s liberalism is ill-equipped to handle the things she talks about. What’s more, I’m not sure what she thinks philosophers can bring to the table in order to strengthen the liberal’s position. If there are such things, Misak should be forthright about what those things are and how they are relevant to workaday politics. If the philosophical tools Misak has in mind will help the liberal, for example, end mass incarceration of Black people and other marginalized groups through the passage of certain policies or assist the climate activists knocking on doors and getting signatures, I imagine they would want to hear what they are.

Misak’s overall framing and distaste for Rorty’s philosophical commitments clouds just how much she and Rorty agree in the end. As she writes: 

We need to give reasons for why fascism, old and new, is unacceptable. We need to be able to assert in our philosophy that we are in an age of disturbing moral regress in which we can no longer take it for granted that politicians need even pay lip service to the rights of refugees; to honesty; or to the need to protect the environment for future generations. We need our philosophy to be able to explain how there has been moral progress in many societies regarding, for instance, the rights of women.

Liberals are nothing if not people who are continually giving “reasons for why fascism, old and new, is unacceptable,” in whatever its current manifestation. Why do we need philosophy to help us assert that refugees deserve dignity or to claim that honesty is a value we all should practice a little more; or that we ought to protect the environment. What’s philosophy got to do with any of this other than as one tool among many in order to try and get more and more people on our side? 

But Misak claims that there “are resources within the pragmatist tradition” for helping us think through many of our social problems. She argues:

John Dewey’s greatest insight was that inquiry of any kind requires the ability to offer and criticize hypotheses, and to be heard. Thus, broadly democratic norms are justified, which for Dewey, include equality of education and opportunity, as well as the norms of freedom of inquiry and expression. Dewey offers us a justification for putting in place mechanisms to protect high quality, freely available, information; to ensure equality of income and opportunity; and to criticize those who fail to take seriously the experience of others.

Here Misak makes the same mistake many philosophers do but which Rorty (and others) saw clearly: not everyone reasons in the same way; not everyone is skilled in the art of logic or philosophical argument; not everyone has the same standards of evidence or ways of assessing evidence (philosophical ethnocentrism).

The point, to put it more clearly, is that using John Dewey in order to defend norms of free inquiry and expression is great so long as those people you’re trying to convince think Dewey is persuasive. He may or may not be, but that’s the game. That’s politics. The idea that philosophers or epistemological theses—even pragmatic ones that are ostensibly supposed to lead us back to everyday life and its problems—have something important to say will depend on whether they are convincing or how they are used or whether they are successful. They have no higher status other than as tools we might pick up now and again to, in this case at least, defend liberalism.

Read “The Power of One Idea

Rorty Hopes to Reduce Cruelty and Suffering

In the end, it’s more likely that good liberals will be better off reading The Color of Law (2017) rather than Dewey’s Logic (1938) or The Essential Peirce (1992). To put it another way, if Misak has good things to say about our current political predicaments, it will not be in her capacity as a good pragmatist philosopher—although that might certainly relate in some orthogonal way—but because she’s first and foremost a good liberal who has a solid grasp of particular political issues.

Misak claims that pragmatism “has resources to provide a complex and accurate picture of our familiar moral world and of how we might aim at getting things right in our human inquiries and deliberations,” and that Rorty, in choosing to pin his philosophy on an untenable public-private heuristic, purposefully eschews these resources. She offers the metaphor of a web of beliefs as one of these resources—something to make sense of our belief structure, which beliefs are more revisable than others, etc.—but it’s unclear what Rorty would disagree with here. She claims that some ethical propositions are just “aimed at truth” plain and simple, but offers no further elaboration of this claim. Misak here simply resorts to the common introduction to philosophy trope meant to trap unsuspecting freshmen who have relativistic sympathies: Do you not think it’s wrong—objectively wrong, not just wrong for certain people or cultures—to sexually assault children? Rortians can certainly make sense of this claim without resorting to objectivity or truth, but it will no doubt be immediately cast as relativistic.

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Misak and Rorty just disagree on some fundamental issues: the uses of philosophy for politics, the concept of truth, etc. But by all means, if Misak thinks Rorty’s liberalism is not up to the task of defending those cherished and hard-fought characteristics of a free and open society, then it behooves her to provide us with some stronger resources. In the meantime, Rortian liberals (the few of us that there are) can carry on attempting to build broad, big-tent coalitions in public aimed at reducing the massive amount of cruelty and backwardness through whatever rhetorical or philosophical means they have at their disposal. I’m not sure what more Misak could ask for.

Adrian Rutt

Adrian is a philosophy professor in Cleveland, Ohio, and president of The Western Reserve Philosophical Society, a local group that engages the larger community in important conversations across philosophy and politics. He is also an editor for the publication Liberal Currents.

One thought on “Rortian Liberalism and the Problem of Truth

  • “Pragmatists like Misak, who follow in the tradition of Charles Sanders Peirce, think we lose something important when we give up on truth as something more than justification since there’s always this lingering feeling to just condemn the Nazi as wrong—objectively wrong. But Rorty is right to point out that the pragmatic burden is on them “to explain what actions are motivated by a desire for indefeasibility [or truth] that are not motivated by a desire for justification.”

    I think it’s a crucial mistake to treat fact claims and value claims as if they were the same things. One can agree with Rorty that there are no FACTS, earthly or otherworldly, that make the Nazi wrong, but be a strict Tarskian correspondence theorist for all that. I don’t know whether this conflation of truths with values can be found in Misak or emanates from Rutt’s description of her views of the matter.

    Walter Horn


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