Code: TP-18


Disagreement or Failure to Understand?

Pragmatism and Religion in Conversation[1]



In this paper I will argue that religious pluralism may not produce the kind of fruit we pragmatists expect to bear from multiple perspectives—not necessarily because of disagreement, but because of a lack of understanding of the religious argument. Utilizing Mead’s theory of role taking, I argue that taking the role of the other is required to understand another in conversation. When we do this, we understand the context in which linguistic novelty emerges, such that novel responses in a conversation are meaningful, although not necessarily predictable. In the case of hearing a different religious argument, if we do not know how a person will "go on," in the sense of understanding his novel responses, then perhaps we do not understand his religiously based view. Several implications of this view are offered.



Despite varying positions on the goal of pragmatic dialogue, most pragmatists agree it is important for dialogue to do some kind of "conceptual work" toward communication. And for this to be a real possibility, a participant must be open to changing her mind. But sometimes, even the most open-minded inquirer becomes close-minded on certain topics. And religion as a topic may be at the top of the list. It has a reputation for being, at best, a topic about which people agree to disagree, and at worst, a topic which divides. As a consequence, many feel it is best left to the private sphere. But this raises questions for a pragmatist. First, for pragmatists multiple points of view typically aid in achieving greater degrees of objectivity. And for pragmatists like George Herbert Mead, conflict from multiple points of view allows us to achieve an understanding of the wider community.[2] So, either religious pluralism does not aid objectivity, or something else prevents religious pluralism from doing what pluralism is supposed to do. And while avoiding certain topics like religion may not jeopardize the benefits of pluralism altogether, the tendency for religious differences to thwart (rather than enhance) dialogue is a real problem. This also raises a further issue for pragmatists who take seriously the collapsing of false ontological dichotomies, such as mind and world and the public and private: should we feel comfortable drawing a strong line between public and private, with religion only in the private, as Richard Rorty does?[3] Such a position would assume a strong line of demarcation between the religious and nonreligious topics—a distinction pragmatists hesitate to make.

My own approach to this problem is to clarify an underlying methodological issue. I will address the fundamental question of what occurs when an argument or position, like a religious one, is offered to an audience who does not succumb to its framework. In particular, I will argue that it is a matter of not understanding the religious position of the other, rather than a matter of disagreement. A common view today is that of Donald Davidson, who argues that to speak to and to understand another means that one knows how the other will go on within a conversation. Understanding another is a matter of learning the rules that the other is following. Contrary to Davidson, I will argue that more in the way of empathy and seeing things from another’s point of view is required to know how another will "go on" in conversation. For this account, I will utilize Mead’s theory of role taking. By taking the role of the other, we may understand the context in which linguistic novelty emerges, such that novel responses in a conversation are meaningful, but not necessarily predictable. Pragmatism suggests a view of the person as a nexus of habits old and new, both biologically conditioned and deeply creative. The person’s novel responses are not completely divorced from his larger habits because the individual is his larger habits and among the most important are adaptation to novel situations. In the case of language, this means that knowing how one will go on in conversation is knowing the overall context of habits in which the response has meaning. When we try to understand what occurs when a different religious argument is given, we may ask whether a person truly understands how the speaker will go on. And if we do not know how he will go on in this deeper sense in which we can understand his novel responses, then perhaps we do not understand the religious person at least on certain topics.


Rorty and "Religion as Conversation Stopper"

Rorty argues against the effectiveness of religious argument in public conversations outside of a community, which shares those religious commitments.[4] In a short article in Philosophy and Social Hope, entitled, "Religion As Conversation Stopper,"[5] he describes religion as just that. Using religious arguments involves appealing to religious notions such as the will of God or the authority of religious texts. But when someone uses such arguments, addressing them to someone who does not accept the framework, Rorty argues that there is nothing left for listener to say. While religion influences people’s political positions, it should not enter into a public conversation on politics because it is not the source of one’s belief that is important, but rather what can be agreed upon in a pluralistic community.[6] And when it comes to religion, there is too much disagreement.

But surely the vast disagreement over religion is not reason enough for it to be restricted from public conversations. Perhaps, instead, Rorty has trouble with religion entering public discussion because its method cannot resolve disagreement. Indeed this was just Peirce’s criticism of a priori metaphysics—there is no mutually acceptable self-corrective. While there are many methods for resolving religious disputes, there is no shared method for resolving religious disputes among various religious and nonreligious groups.

And yet this does not always seem to matter when it comes to other topics for discussion. Disputes among social scientists, politicians, physicists, educators, etc. often stem from differences in methods used for securing their respective beliefs. And in fact, it is this kind of difference to which "pluralism" refers, since disagreements between people who agree on the method for resolving disputes are often a matter of just using the agreed method to resolve the dispute. So Rorty should be more specific as to why religion is more problematic than any of these other topics. After all, there is plenty of "conversation stopping" when someone is dogmatic about, say, education, or when someone holds radically different views about verifying or justifying claims. Yet at the same time, Rorty’s position reflects a common view that religion should stay in the private sphere since there is no hope of agreement.

Now before we get at the distinction between lack of agreement and lack of understanding, it may be helpful to see what Rorty has to say about learning to understand someone from a very different position.


Understanding How to Go On With Another in Conversation

For Davidson, to speak a language at all is to understand another in conversation.[7] And this in turn requires knowing how he will go on in conversation, which amounts to knowing the context and the moves in the game. If I say for example, "2, 4, 6, 8," you may respond with "10, 12, 14, etc"; or if I say this same phrase with a certain tone, you may respond with "who do we appreciate?" We understand another when we have expectations, which may be disappointed, but probably will not be.

Now for Rorty, we are in many senses, the language practices in which we participate. He calls these language practices "vocabularies."[8] And while we may participate in various vocabularies at once and talk to others in different vocabularies, understanding someone from a radically different vocabulary is more of a task. But Rorty follows Davidson on this issue, saying that it is never an impossible task to interpret someone from a different vocabulary. In his essay "Inquiry as Recontextualization," Rorty argues against Charles Taylor’s distinction between "observing" a native culture and actually "participating" in it.[9] Rorty responds by utilizing Davidson’s principle of charity, that there is enough overlap such that we are not mere observers, but participant-observers.[10] Rorty writes that "we learn to handle the weirder bits of native behavior (linguistic and other) in the same way that we learn about the weird behavior of atypical members of our own culture.[11] Rorty includes in his list of atypical members of our culture,  physicists, metaphysicians, religious fanatics, and even psychotics—"all the people who express paradoxical beliefs and desires in (mostly) familiar words of our mother tongue."[12] So, understanding a barbarian in Athens (to use Taylor’s example[13]) we would do the same thing that we would do to understand Max Planck. Rorty writes on this point as follows:

In the case of Planck, we figure out what he’s going on about by asking him questions and listening to the answers, including questions about what he means by a given expression. We are satisfied that we understand him once we find ourselves bickering about quanta with him like a brother. In the case of Malaprop, as in that of someone with a weird foreign accent, we guess what she might be saying, check our guesses by responding to what we think she ought to have said, and so gradually pick up the knack of understanding her without conscious puzzlement or inference. Surely the Persians did the same sorts of thing when trying to cope with the Athenians? If doing this sort of thing counts as "participating" rather than "observing," then the idea of a "mere observer" is a straw man. Quine and Davidson never imagined that the radical interpreter could do his job without stimulating responsive native behavior, any more than the marine biologist could do hers without stimulating her squids. But both might deny that he need have any more empathy with his subjects than she does.[14]


For Rorty, we understand different beliefs, behaviors, and practices in our culture by jumping into language, and by guessing someone’s meanings and intentions, or by asking questions about the view.

But there are varying degrees of understanding another. And in cases in which vocabularies overlap, and speaking meaningfully only requires filling a small linguistic gap, this description works pretty well. Of course, we do not typically consider Planck’s physics to be a small gap to fill, but on the grand scale of interpretation, these are easier translations to make. Yet there is a difference between participating in a language game with Planck on physics and participating in a genuine conversation or dialogue with him. When we begin to understand Planck, we begin to know what kinds of responses are appropriate; but when we understand him in a deeper way, we know what questions to ask, and what questions he may ask. To put the point another way, there is a difference between "knowing how to go on" in a language in Davidson’s sense, and "understanding" in a deeper sense. Of course, I could get by and simply "fake it" in a conversation with Planck or the Athenian barbarian by responding as he does. But beyond mimicking behavior patterns, knowing how one goes on in a genuine conversation requires knowing what questions motivate the person. To genuinely understand that person, we must be able to anticipate more than just his next response in the conversation. We must be able to understand his next question and his next shift in topics or arguments. This requires understanding his hopes, motivations, or commitments. And this in turn requires empathy and imagination. Such a view clearly demarcates itself from Davidson’s and Rorty’s views, which I believe are too minimalist. More is needed for genuine understanding, than mere pattern recognition and short run predictability.

On this point, Mead has an important lesson. For Mead, empathy and role taking are involved in the very learning of language and meaning, and are required for achieving self-consciousness. The socialization of the individual requires her to take the role of other, hear things as others hear them, and to do this through imagination and empathy. In a word, to develop self-consciousness is to understand things as others do.[15] This is how we learn some of our most basic beliefs. They are achievements of role taking, and they are achieved first at a very early age. Mead defines thought as internal dialogue in the self, which is composed of the "I" and the "me." Mead’s account of the self allows for novelty and drive through the "I", whereas the "me" is the part of the self that is more socially influenced. This socialization is intrinsic to the development of the self, who only becomes a self when he learns to view himself as others view him.

Jürgen Habermas has developed a view of Mead on this point emphasizing the importance of socialization for increasing individuation.[16] The idea is that when a person has more social experience, he has more perspectives to feed the view of his self. So, this ability to see things from another’s point of view is something we all have, but it is also something of which we can have more or less. For we can achieve higher or lower levels of role-taking. The higher levels allow for more refined tools for understanding another’s vocabulary, and in turn, enhance one’s individuality.

With Mead’s view in mind, we may begin to understand a person’s more general habits, which condition the more minor ones. These larger habits can be (1) a product of conscious reflection, (2) socially conditioned, or (3) a combination of both. They function as influences on (as opposed to determinations of) one’s other habits. But they differ from other habits in that they are habits of habits—they are, in a word, "meta-habits." Examples of meta-habits include (a) fallibilism, which refers to the habit of doubting other beliefs when evidence suggests it; (b) hope, meaning one’s habit to explore potentially fruitful areas of inquiry; and (c) one’s larger commitments which influence one’s actions. These meta-habits guide many of the person’s other habits, such as the more particular questions and beliefs one develops. But especially important is the meta-habit of hope. This is the overall belief-habit about what is possible in the way of questions and answers, and which influence her novel questions and answers. Indeed, without any hope, she would have no response or question whatsoever. And without an understanding of these meta-habits, one cannot make sense of one’s own or another’s actions and responses.

So while Rorty is correct in following Davidson to suggest that the way we understand a person and how she will go on is by participating-observing, still there is a concern. For Rorty offers a misleading view that participating does not require empathy. Now perhaps empathy and taking the role of the other seem to be high criteria for understanding. Indeed, it may seem more like a requirement for strong agreement. But I think the reason role taking is required for conversation is due to the level of novelty in conversations.

Mitchell Aboulafia has recently described Mead’s notion of the self as socialized, but not reducible to the community. There is always an important and persistent component of novelty in every response of the person.[17] This novelty can never be eliminated, but always remains in every situation. This irreducible dimension of novelty suggests a dynamic view of language, which cannot be reduced to rule following (without reconceptualizing our notion of rules). A Meadian notion of communication goes further in the way of a dynamic model, in that we do not divorce the conversational content from the participants involved, including their biological and social habits. The important point here is that these habits influence a person in conversation. The habits which guide a person’s conversational behavior are dynamic enough to allow for (and in some cases, encourage) novelty. But without an understanding of a person’s meta-habits, each novel response in a conversation would be a problem. It would stop conversation or spin off into another inquiry. Understanding a person’s meta-habits allows a person conversing with another to understand the context in which her novel responses and contributions sit—meaning her overall goals and intentions, because her meta-habit of hope for what is possible influences her novel responses, and, indeed, gives them meaning. To converse with someone in almost all cases is to be engaged in a dynamic activity, which is influenced by habits, which may not be shared. Of course, differences in habits can function as obstacles in conversation. And on this point, the advantage of Mead’s framework is the idea of taking a very different, and even opposing role of another. Doing this, one can understand what is going on in the conversation by understanding the other person’s meta-habits, which motivate him in the conversation. This is key to participating in a deeper sense, because it allows one to continue the conversation throughout novel responses and shifts in the conversation.


Religion, Disagreements, and Failure to Understand

Disagreements in dialogue often regard the participant’s commitments. The difference between disagreement and the failure to understand is this: in disagreements we at least know how someone will go on. We understand what question the participant is trying to answer, and his commitments and hopes for the issue. And we understand the subject of the disagreement. But in not understanding someone, we do not know how he will go on. We cannot carry on a genuine dynamic conversation with him. This is what occurs with Rorty’s religious "conversation stopper." But Rorty misdiagnoses the religious conversation stopper when he explains the problem in terms of methods. For there is good reason to think that in many cases we do not understand the person with different religious commitments, if we do not know how to converse with him on the topics to which he is committed. And this is because we do not understand what motivates his questions and responses. For some reason, we have failed to  take the role of the other.

If this is the case, namely, that different religious arguments stop conversations because we do not know how to converse with a person on the topics about which he is committed, then a different issues regarding religious pluralism may emerge.

(I) First, if religious arguments do stop conversations—and this is a result of lack of understanding—then we must ask why there is that lack of understanding. Can we understand someone from a very different religious background? Are we incapable of understanding someone or simply unwilling? And if we are incapable, why are we incapable? Unfortunately Mead does not offer enough in the way of an explanation for failures to take the role of the other. But it seems that one is needed. For several important questions arise as to how can we overcome the failures to take the role of the other, and whether we should try to overcome these failures. And to engage the other side, could we ever see a failure to take the role of the other as an achievement? For example, is it better not to be able to understand the perspective of a religiously committed terrorist or is it imperative that we do understand his point of view before we can meaningfully say that we disagree with it? The point here is that rather than judging the place of religion by appealing to superior methods of settling disputes (ala Rorty, or Peirce), we may need to turn to methods of understanding.

(II) Second, if we do not understand one another when it comes to religious matters, we are now in need of asking whether relegating them to the private sphere is the best thing to do. Is it the case that by not including it, there is no hope of understanding it?

(III) Finally, at the very least, the view that there may be a great lack of understanding among people regarding religious commitments urges us to proceed cautiously and supports the idea of religious tolerance.



The reason pluralism in religion fails to enhance objectivity and inquiry is because it is not pluralism in the usual sense—it is pluralism without "genuine understanding." Pluralism, in its best form, is an achievement of understanding. That is, we cannot say that we have different views until we understand how they are different. Part of the problem is that it is not clear whether lack of understanding leads us to keep religion in the private or if wiping it from the public discussions contributes to preventing understanding of others because religious views and arguments cannot reap the benefit from pluralism. So the question is whether the "remedy" of leaving it to the private in effect condemns us to misunderstand.



[1] Acknowledgements subtracted for blind review.

[2] George Herbert Mead, "The Social Self," in Selected Writings, ed. by Andrew J. Reck, (New York:

Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1964), p. 406.

[3] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989,



[4] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), p. 171.

[5] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope.

[6] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, p.171-73. Rorty claims to follow Habermas, Rawls, and Peirce on this point.

[7] Donald Davidson, "The Second Person," in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 1992, Vol. 17, pp. 255-267.

[8] For Rorty, we can never get outside linguistic practices, which he calls vocabularies. A vocabulary can be translated only into other vocabularies—it cannot be understood in terms of getting to the essence of reality. As Robert Brandom has described Rorty’s use of the term, "vocabularies" include beliefs and meanings which cannot be separated from one another. See Robert Brandom, "Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism," in Rorty and His Critics, edited by Robert B. Brandom (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), pp. 156-57.

[9] Richard Rorty, "Inquiry as Recontextualization: an Anti-dualist Account of Interpretation" in

Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 93-110.

[10] Rorty, "Inquiry as Recontextualization", p. 107.

[11] Rorty, "Inquiry as Recontextualization", p. 107.

[12] Rorty, "Inquiry as Recontextualization", p. 108.

[13] Charles Taylor, "Theories of Meaning", Philosophical Papers I, pp. 275-279.

[14] Rorty, "Inquiry as Recontextualization", p. 108.

[15] Heather Keith makes the point that taking the role of the other is much like empathy (Heather E. Keith,

 "Feminism and Pragmatism: George Herbert Mead’s ‘Ethics of Care,’ " in the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Spring, 1999, Vol. XXXV, No. 2., p. 340.).

[16] Jürgen Habermas, "Individuation through Socialization: On George Herbert Mead’s Theory of

Subjectivity", Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, translated by William Mark Hohengarten, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 149-204.

[17] Mitchell Aboulafia, The Cosmopolitan Self: George Herbert Mead and Continental Philosophy,

 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp. 17, 51. This is part of Aboulafia’s overall argument for a Meadian account of the development of the self, which is universalistic, but still preserves the individual.