Rorty's Association with the Pragmatist Tradition: What's the Problem?


In an important sense, Richard Rorty has resurrected pragmatism. Nevertheless, many recent philosophers and scholars associated with this tradition have been, and still are, reluctant for him to be classified as such. Rorty is often accused of misrepresenting or misunderstanding the "classical pragmatism" of Peirce, James, and Dewey. So, his "resurrection" of pragmatism is called into serious question. Is it really "pragmatism" that Rorty calls by the same name? In this paper, I revisit this problem, suggesting in the end that, at least as a problem of classification, it is perhaps not as serious and troubling as some may think.

In short, I wish to discuss Rorty's claim of being a pragmatist, and I conclude that there really is no big problem with him being classified as such. So, I begin by offering a kind of sketch of "classical pragmatism," since this would seem relevant to any understanding of whether or not Rorty misrepresents and misunderstands it. Yet I suggest that it does not lend itself to an easy characterization. It could be that while there are indeed pragmatists, there is not any one coherent, definite, intelligible position known as pragmatism. Next, I identify some of Rorty's main themes and positions in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Consequences of Pragmatism. In the end, and I certainly recognize that this runs contrary to the consensus from scholars of pragmatism, I conclude that the "problem" of Rorty's pragmatism is ultimately a fairly trivial one, and that perhaps there need not be disturbance at the notion of Rorty being called a pragmatist, although I do recognize that there may well be other reasons for being disturbed by Rorty.

In any case, in order to examine the problem of Rorty's claim to pragmatism, we should attempt at least a brief, general discussion and sketch of pragmatism as it has arisen both historically and thematically. There is not any easy answer to the question of what is pragmatism? Yet if it is a distinctive philosophical position or approach, it seems to be a peculiarly American one. Of course, the best known of the pragmatists are C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, with James being the philosopher who first brought fame to the word "pragmatism."[1] So, it is clear that there are pragmatists, or at least philosophers who have and do claim this title for themselves. Yet is there one intelligible, coherent position known as pragmatism, one that is common to all three of these people? If the answer is yes, that there is such a core unitary doctrine, then what is it? Or could it be that what is called pragmatism is still developing, still in a process of being more fully worked out? Could it be, strictly speaking, that while there are indeed "pragmatists," there is really no such thing as "pragmatism"?

Most would probably agree that those known as pragmatists share a kind of general commitment to the practical consequences of knowledge, meaning, and value, and, moreover, that the practical consequences are the very criteria for knowledge, meaning, and value. As such, for Dewey, at least, theory itself is considered to be a kind of practice. Perhaps if there is one core doctrine at the center of what is called pragmatism, then this is it. Other than this, and by no means do I wish to belittle philosophical commitment to consequences, it appears that there is no unambiguous doctrine defining pragmatism. Like some other labels in our philosophical lexicon, "pragmatism," like "existentialism," for example, does not denote any specific position or philosophical approach. Rather, it comes in a variety of forms, as is demonstrated in the case of our three great classical pragmatists. While Peirce, James, and Dewey shared an inheritance of several unresolved philosophical problems, they did have significant differences, and these involve more than just the differences between their respective interests and educations. The differences are constituted by their varying characterizations of pragmatism.

So, while one may sometimes think of pragmatism as a kind of distinctive, well-defined position in philosophy, it might well be that the reality is a bit different and more complicated. Diversity is a key here, and I shall now briefly risk over-simplifying things. For Peirce, pragmatism is a strictly cognitive enterprise oriented toward natural science; for James, pragmatism is a personalistic and psychological affair; for Dewey, pragmatism is communalistic and socially oriented. As such, maybe the best way of understanding pragmatism is not as a particular set doctrine, but rather as a term for a whole range of different views that have a kind of "family resemblance." Indeed, James even remarked that pragmatism is best understood not as a doctrine or set of doctrines, but as a type of method, a way of resolving disputes over metaphysical issues.[2] It may well be that while there are "pragmatists," the situation is such that there is no particular position known as "pragmatism." This appears to be analogous to the fact that while my brother and I clearly have a familial relationship, we are nevertheless unique, distinct individuals. While our existence helps serve to constitute a family, the family as such does not exist apart from those who make it up, but perhaps I am stretching the metaphor a little too much.

In any case, pragmatism does not appear to have achieved any uniform stability. On the contrary, it has received quite different definitions and characterizations by the various philosophers who claim to be pragmatists. For such a reason, it was even said by Quine that "...the term 'pragmatism' is one we could do without."[3] Pragmatism means different things to different people, and recognition of this diversity and variation can be traced back to Arthur O. Lovejoy's well-known 1908 article, "The Thirteen Pragmatisms".[4]

The situation is such that there are various forms of pragmatism, and, as such, "pragmatism" itself resists any simple analysis, for it is not definite enough to constitute one, set philosophical position.[5] In other words, there is not just one pragmatism. Rather, there are many. Maybe there exists the same number of pragmatisms as there are pragmatists. Regardless, it seems clear that there is a variety of pragmatisms.

We should now turn to an examination of Rorty's main meta-philosophical themes. Of course, his mature philosophical project can be understood as starting with his heralding of what he says is a revitalized pragmatism in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, arguably his magnum opus. It is here that Rorty's anti-establishment views become emergent. Both analytical and traditional philosophers are characterized as erroneously believing that their approaches to philosophy have achieved final and privileged vocabularies with which to "mirror" nature. Such belief transforms the human effort of discovery and inquiry into the worship of the icon of Philosophy.

That is, Rorty offers us a hard-hitting critique of "representational" philosophy, and, in doing so, he claims that his heroes are Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. They are the heroes for the reason that they sought " edify – to help their readers, or society as a whole, break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide 'grounding' for the intuitions and customs of the present."[6] These philosophers undermined the prevailing Cartesian and Kantian paradigms and advanced new ways of viewing the nature of philosophy itself. As Rorty says, "...Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey have brought us into a period of 'revolutionary' introducing new maps of the terrain (viz., of the whole panorama of human activities) which simply do not include those features which previously seemed to dominate."[7]It is from this trinity that Rorty appears to get a type of historicist directive, one of eschewing foundationalism. It is clear that he thinks traditional philosophy can be overcome through suspending notions such as universality, rationality, objectivity, and necessity. It appears he does not believe that objectivity is in any way consistent with fallibilism. Instead, we should speak historically about transient practice, revisable theory, and contingent description.

Also, Rorty discusses the triumph of pragmatism as consisting, in part, of the compelling and relatively recent critiques of logical positivism, such as that offered by Quine. Rorty says that, according to such critiques, say that truth and knowledge can only be judged by the standards of the inquirers of our own day is not to say that human knowledge is less noble or important, or more "cut off" from the world," than we had thought. It is merely to say that nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and that there is no way to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence.[8]

Rather, it is social practice that is what counts as justification. It is the push towards this that is what makes Quine a kind of pragmatist. Indeed, Rorty later says, in the Introduction of Consequences of Pragmatism, that "On the account of recent analytic philosophy which I offered in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the history of that movement has been marked by a gradual 'pragmaticization' of the original tenets of logical positivism."[9]Of course, analytic philosophy still has a way to go before being truly pragmatic. Moreover, Rorty contends that analytic philosophy has quite simply outlived any usefulness it may once have had. As he says in Consequences of Pragmatism, "I think that analytic philosophy culminates in Quine, the later Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Davidson – which is to say that it transcends and cancels itself."[10] In other words, it has been the very analysts themselves that bear the responsibility for the crumbling of their way of doing philosophy. Especially significant in this vein is Quine's work at exposing the "dogmas of empiricism," which in the end means that the general project of most, if not all, of analytic philosophy involves a kind of self-refutation.[11] It involves the refutation of what Rorty calls "...academic, neo-Kantian, epistemologically-centered philosophy."[12] It seems that perhaps analytic philosophy has outdone itself.

According to Rorty, philosophy as it has been traditionally conceived, involves the assumption that there are problems that arise whenever we reflect on the grounding of activities that can be central in our lives, activities such as religion, science, morality, or art. The philosophers have understood it as their task to solve these problems and thereby provide these activities with foundations. In order to fulfill this task, the philosophers have taken epistemology as central to their endeavors, and, about this, Rorty says that "...the desire for a theory of knowledge is a desire for constraint – a desire to find 'foundations' to which one might cling, frameworks beyond which one must not stray, objects which impose themselves, representations which cannot be gainsaid."[13] Yet philosophy so construed is misconceived. Indeed, this is why Rorty has a kind of "distrust" about the whole business of doing epistemology.[14] While there may indeed be problems regarding knowledge, such problems are to be left for the life activities themselves to tackle. For philosophy, there are no specifically epistemological problems; they are but illusions.

As such, philosophy as traditionally conceived is itself in a way illusory. This is because it has been embodied by philosophers who have sought to provide solutions to but pseudo-problems. Such pseudo-problems, known as epistemological problems, have the writings of Descartes as their main source. Rorty contends that it was Descartes' unprecedented manner of dividing mind and body that created the problem of how it is that we know things, and after Descartes there is a kind of split between world and mind. In creating this problem, Descartes, Rorty reminds us, had some powerful imagery at his assistance. Again, the imagery is that of a mirror.

The mind is likened to a mirror, reflecting the world. Of course, this is a treacherous image. For as soon as one allows the search for knowledge as involving the representation or reflection of some independent world, one is then led into problems of just how to be certain that this world is being reflected or represented accurately. One might compare a given representation with another representation, but one never has access to a world that is independent of all representations.

Yet the disease has a cure. It is to direct attention to that imagery which results in the problem. So one Rortyian commandment is to eschew the notion that we are to represent or mirror the world. Rather, we adopt the pragmatist view. This is Rorty's link to Dewey. By the pragmatist view, Rorty basically means a non-representationalist view, and, of course, it is Dewey exemplifies this view. We are to cope with the world as opposed to representing it.

In any case, Rorty characterizes some of the ways that the traditional concerns of philosophy have been historically embedded, and he poses challenges to such concerns by looking at their practical value or lack thereof. It is in this way that Rorty has tried to undermine the view that philosophy ought to be viewed as some court in which the claims of various disciplines are adjudicated. Philosophical discourse is not a privileged mode with which to resolve intellectual disagreement, and it appears that philosophers are not very well suited for such a judicial task. That is, we are mistaken in thinking that there is some hierarchy of academic disciplines of which philosophy is on top. On the contrary, philosophy should be viewed as an interpretive, historicist, and pragmatic enterprise, one that undermines the seeming importance of the so-called foundationalist problems in metaphysics and epistemology. Accordingly, in the closing sections of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty continues to outline a creative model for philosophers to emulate. The task of the philosopher is to seek out useful and intriguing themes with which to converse about humans and their situations. As we know, Rorty believes that such a conception of philosophy is congruent with the pragmatist tradition.

This tradition has been somewhat misunderstood, and we have already seen that the issue of what exactly constitutes pragmatism is a tricky question without any one answer. Of course, Rorty himself provides an answer to the question. In his well-known essay "Pragmatism,

Relativism, and Irrationalism",[15] he provides three characterizations of pragmatism. (1) It is "anti-essentialism" with regard to issues of truth, morality, language, and knowledge.[16] (2) It admits of no epistemic distinction between what is true and what should be true, and it admits of no metaphysical distinction between science and morality.[17] (3) It involves the claim that the only constraint on inquiry is a conversational one with regard to the community of inquiry, for there can be no purely epistemological, linguistic, or metaphysical constraints.[18] Speaking of metaphysics, there are accusations that Rorty misunderstands or misreads John Dewey.[19] For example, Rorty contends that in Dewey's 1949 article, "Experience and Existence: A Comment",[20] Dewey retracts what had been his use of the term "metaphysical," and, for Rorty, this would be a good thing, since he claims that Dewey, in using this term committed the philosophical sin of foundationalism (something Dewey himself criticized).[21]However, it seems quite clear that is not the case, given that Dewey makes the following statement in that same article:

The foregoing is not an apology for my use of the word "metaphysical." It is evoked by the misreading of my use of that word...[22]

So, Rorty appears, in what is probably an unintentional irony, to misread Dewey yet again. It is interesting to note that Dewey, referring to Experience and Nature, also says the following: "...the text of my book makes it clear that I was proposing a use of the words so different from the traditional one as to be incompatible with it."[23] It is clear from this, as many would agree, that

Rorty gets Dewey wrong. Of course, the preceding is but one example. As Margolis characterizes the situation, "You cannot really read Rorty for a reliable clue about Dewey's central labors."[24]Yet, returning to my original question, does this mean that Rorty is not at all justified in claiming that he, Rorty, is a pragmatist?

Of course, while Rorty may misread, or even ignore, some parts of Dewey's work, Rorty's and Dewey's respective philosophies do share some aspects in common. For example, they would both reject what Dewey called the "spectator theory of knowledge." Also, Rorty is consistent with Dewey in terms of anti-essentialism and anti-foundationalism. Yet, as I have indicated, there has been a debate about Rorty's use, or abuse, of Dewey. It could be said that Rorty seeks to deconstruct philosophy, whereas Dewey sought to reconstruct philosophy. In any case, he clearly does not feel any special obligation to be some kind of "fundamentalist" Deweyan, sticking just to the letter of Dewey's work. Also, there is no "essential Dewey" if we understand Dewey just as we were advised by him to understand reality. That is, he is in transition, just as reality itself is, and, like reality, his (non-essential) nature may be known only by changing it. Thus Rorty is quite frank in informing us that he is indeed selective in choosing what he does from past philosophers. This is so to interpret and advance authorial intent, as opposed to simple, or complicated, rational reconstruction of philosophical texts. So, Rorty reconstructs Dewey so as to explore whatever is alive in his philosophy and to ignore that which seems outdated and unconvincing.[25] Those commentators who stay too close "to the letter," says Rorty, cannot make concessions to a contemporary audience, and "They maintain purity of doctrine at the price of having to explain disagreement with Dewey, or refusal to take Dewey seriously, as a result of the sad degeneracy of the times, the prevalence of contemptible modern fads."[26] As such, the Deweyan purist has a hard time helping the contemporary audience engage with the "spirit" of Dewey.

Yet is it even necessary for Rorty, as a pragmatist, to get Dewey right? As we have seen, pragmatism has never been given a consistent and abiding formulation. Dewey's formulation is unique, as is James' and Peirce's, and the same goes for Rorty. That is, it seems there is no need for Dewey to be understood as having offered the definitive last words on the nature of pragmatism. Rather, there are varieties of pragmatism, positions exhibiting a kind of family resemblance in relation to one another, but this is not a situation in which each partakes in some core, unitary doctrine. From this viewpoint, perhaps Rorty is just as much entitled to call himself a pragmatist as was Peirce, James, or Dewey.[27]

[1] William James, "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results" in Pragmatism, The Works of William James, Appendix I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). In this 1898 lecture, James cites Peirce for the term.

[2] James said that "The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable." Pragmatism (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), p. 25.

[3] W.V. Quine, "The Pragmatists' Place in Empiricism" in Pragmatism: Its Sources and Prospects, eds. Robert J. Mulvaney and Philip M. Zeltner (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981), p. 23. This paper was originally presented at a symposium on pragmatism at the University of South Carolina that took place on October 31 and November 1 of 1975.

[4] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Journal of Philosophy and Scientific Methods Vol. 5, 1908, p. 5-39. Reprinted in Lovejoy's The Thirteen Pragmatisms and Other Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963).

David L. Hildebrand has just recently reiterated the significance of Lovejoy's article. See the Preface of his interesting Beyond Realism and Antirealism: John Dewey and the Neopragmatists (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003), in which he says about pragmatism that ever since Lovejoy's article was first published, "...any hope of permanently fixing a single meaning went out the window." (p. ix)

[5] Lovejoy, of course, understood such a point as counting against pragmatism: it has a terminal identity crisis.

[6] Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 12. Rorty also is fond of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, James, and Santayana.

[7] Ibid, p. 6-7.

[8] Ibid, p. 178.

[9] Consequences of Pragmatism, p. xviii.

[10] Ibid.

[11] W.V. Quine, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" in the Philosophical Review Vol. 60, 1951, p. 20-43. Reprinted in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Universiy Press, 1964), p. 20-46.

[12] Consequences of Pragmstism, p. 160.

[13] Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 315.

[14] Ibid, p. 181.

[15] This famous, or infamous, essay was Rorty's presidential address to the American Philosophical Association's Eastern Division meeting in 1979. It was then originally published in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association Vol. LIII, 1980, p. 719-738. Reprinted in Consequences of Pragmatism.

[16] " is simply anti-essentialism applied to notions like 'truth,' 'knowledge,' 'language,' 'morality,' and similar objects of philosophical theorizing." Consequences of Pragmatism, p. 162.

[17] "There is no epistemological difference between truth and what ought to be and truth about what is, nor any metaphysical difference between morality and science." Ibid, p. 163.

[18] "It is the doctrine that 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." Ibid, p. 165.

[19] See, for example, Thomas Alexander's "Richard Rorty and Dewey's Metaphysics of Experience" (Southwest Philosophical Studies Vol. 5, 1980, p. 24-35), James Campbell's "Rorty's Use of Dewey" (Southern Journal of Philosophy Vol. 22, 1984, p. 175-187), James Gouinlock's "What is the Legacy of Instrumentalism? Rorty's Interpretation of Dewey" (in Rorty & Pragmatism), and Chapter 6 ("Rorty as Elvis: Dewey's Reconstruction of Metaphysics") of John J. Stuhr's Genealogical Pragmatism: Philosophy, Experience, and Community (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 117-130.

[20] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. 9, No. 4, June 1949, p. 709-713. This article is Dewey's comment on Sholom J. Kahn's "Experience and Existence in Dewey's Naturalistic Metaphysics"(Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. 9, No. 2, December 1948, p. 316-321).

[21] See "Dewey's Metaphysics" (p. 72) in Consequences of Pragmatism. This essay was originally published in New Studies in the Philosophy of John Dewey, ed. Steven M. Cahn (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1977). Before that, it "...was one of a series of lectures on the philosophy of Dewey held at the University of Vermont in 1975, sponsored by the John Dewey Foundation." (Consequences of Pragmatism, p. x)

[22] "Experience and Existence: A Comment", p. 713.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Joseph Margolis, Reinventing Pragmatism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), p. 109.

[25] In response to an essay by Thelma Z. Lavine ("America & the Constellations of Modernity: Bentley, Dewey, Rorty" in Rorty & Pragmatism), Rorty has said the following:

"Every discipline of a great philosopher has a duty to his or her master to distinguish the spirit from the letter of his or her teachings. This duty arises from the fact that not everything the great philosopher says convinced everybody. He or she was not, it always turns out, the Last Philosopher – the one who got everything straightened out, sorted things out so well that no further philosophy is needed. So the followers have to explain why conviction was not unanimous – why everybody was not converted. The only way to do this is to say such things as: the master should have put his point this way rather than that; he should not have gotten hung up on shibboleths (for example, "scientific method"); he should have used another terminology than the somewhat antiquated one he in fact employed; he should not have confused a certain pseudo-problem with a certain real problem. All these critical things are said by disciplines with an eye to keeping the master's thought alive, his image bright, his books read.

This is the sort of thing I say about Dewey all the time. It is the sort of thing that Norman Kemp Smith said about Kant all the time, the sort of thing that Charles Taylor says about Hegel all the time, the sort of thing that A.J. Ayer was always saying about the British empiricists, and, I think, the sort of thing that any admirer of a dead philosopher who wants to make that philosopher look good to a contemporary audience had better say."

"Response to Thelma Lavine" in Rorty & Pragmatism, p. 52-53.

[26] Ibid, p. 53.

[27] I thank Larry Hickman, Kenneth Stikkers, Matt Flamm, Chuck Hudgins, Travis Smith, Dwayne Tunstall, and Robert Ferrell for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.