Richard Rorty and the false charge of relativism in Pragmatism

By | October 22, 2012

Juan Bernal

Recently I have been confronted by various students of philosophy who hold that pragmatism is a hopelessly relativistic philosophy. One sees pragmatism as characteristic of “naturalism,” which denies an objective form of truth, opting instead for practical solutions which work but may not represent truth at all. Another made the statement that, if truth is whatever works, something that he found in William James’ philosophy, then any practice or policy that works for majority (e.g. persecution of minorities) is ‘true,’ insofar as it brings about the results that the majority desires.

The American, twentieth-century pragmatist, Richard Rorty  denied that pragmatism implies that type of destructive relativism.  In a collection of papers titled Objectivity, Relativism & Truth* , specifically in “Solidarity or Objectivity,” (p. 21) and ““Science as Solidarity” (p.35),  Rorty argued that pragmatism is not a relativistic philosophy at all,  and that a pragmatic philosophy is very much in the spirit of a good scientific approach to resolving problems.   What Rorty says about his pragmatism surely applies to other versions of the pragmatists’ approach, and seems consistent with the approach of early pragmatists like William James and John Dewey.


from “Solidarity or Objectivity

“There are two ..ways in which reflective people try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to their lives. The first is by telling the story of their contributions to a community. . . The second way is to describe themselves as standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality. ….stories of the first kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and ..stories of the latter kind exemplify the desire for objectivity.

“The tradition in Western culture which centers around the notion of the search for truth, a tradition which runs from the Greek philosophers through the Enlightenment, is the clearest example of the attempt to find a sense of one’s existence by turning … to objectivity. The idea of Truth as something to be pursued for its own sake, not because it will be good for oneself, or for one’s real or imaginary community, is the central theme of this tradition. It was perhaps the growing awareness of by the Greeks of the sheer diversity of human communities which stimulated the emergence of this ideal. A fear of parochialism, of being confined within the horizons of the group into which one happens to be born, … helps produce the skeptical and ironic tone characteristic of Euripides and Socrates. Herodotus’ willingness to take the barbarians seriously enough to describe their customs in detail may be been a … prelude to Plato’s claim that the way to transcend skepticism is to envisage a common goal of humanity — a goal set by nature rather than by Greek culture. The combination of Socratic alienation and Platonic hope give rise to the idea of the intellectual as someone who is in touch with the nature of things, not by the way of the opinions of his community, but in a more immediate way.

“Plato developed the idea of such an intellectual by means of the distinction between knowledge and opinion, and between appearance and reality. Such distinctions .. (bring about) .. the idea that rational inquiry should make visible a realm to which nonintellectuals have little access, and of whose very existence they may be doubtful. In the Enlightenment, this notion became concrete in the adoption of the Newtonian physical scientist as a model of the intellectual. To most thinkers of the 18th century, it was clear that the access to Nature which physical science had provided should be followed by the establishment of social, political, and economic institutions which were in accordance with Nature. Ever since, liberal social thought has centered around social reform as made possible by objective knowledge of what human beings are like –not knowledge of what Greeks or Frenchmen or Chinese are like, but of humanity as such. We are the heirs to this objectivist tradition, which centers around the idea that we must step outside our community long enough to examine it in light of something which transcends it, namely, that which it has in common with every other actual and possible human community. . . Much of the rhetoric of contemporary intellectual life takes for granted that the goal of scientific inquiry into man is to understand “underlying structures,” or “cultural invariant factors,” or “biologically determined patterns.”

“Those who wish to ground solidarity in objectivity –call them realists — have to construe truth as correspondence to reality. So they .. construct a metaphysics which has room for a special relation between beliefs and objects which will differentiate true from false beliefs. They .. also argue that there are procedures of justification of belief which are natural and not merely local. So they ..construct an epistemology which has room for a kind of justification which is not merely social but natural, springing from human nature itself, and made possible by a link between that part of nature and the rest of nature. On their view, the … procedures which are thought of as providing rational justification by one or another culture may or may not really be rational. For to be truly rational, procedures of justification must lead to truth, to correspondence to reality, to the intrinsic nature of things.”

“By contrast, those who wish to reduce objectivity to solidarity — call them “pragmatists” –do not require either a metaphysics or an epistemology. They view truth as, in Wm. James’ phrase, what is good for us to believe. So they do not need an account of a relation between beliefs and objects called ‘correspondence,’ nor an account of human cognitive abilities which ensures that our species is capable of entering into that relation. They see the gap between truth and justification not as something to be bridged by isolating a natural and trans-cultural sort of rationality which can be used to criticize certain cultures and praise others, but simply as the gap between the actual good and the possible better. From a pragmatist point of view, to say that what is rational for us now to believe may not be true, is simply to say that somebody may come up with a better idea. It is to say that there is always room for improved belief, since new evidence, or new hypotheses, or a whole new vocabulary, may come along. For pragmatists, the desire for objectivity is not the desire to escape the limitations of one’s community, but simply the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of “us” as far as we can. So far as pragmatists make a distinction between knowledge and opinion, it is simply the distinction between topics on which such agreement is relatively easy to get and topics on which agreement is relatively hard to get.” (22-23)

“Relativism” is the traditional epithet applied to pragmatists by realists. Three current views are commonly referred to by this name. The first is the view that every belief is as good as every other. The second is the view that “true” is an equivocal term, having as many meanings as there are procedures of justification. The third is the view that there is nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart from descriptions of the familiar procedures of justification which a given society – ours – uses in one or another area of inquiry. The pragmatist holds the ethnocentric third view. But he does not hold the self-refuting first view, nor the eccentric second view. . . However, it is not clear why “relativist” should be thought of as an appropriate term for the ethnocentric third view, the one which the pragmatist does hold. For the pragmatist is not holding a positive theory which says that something is relative to something else. He is, instead, making the purely negative point that we should drop the traditionally distinction between knowledge and opinion, construed as the distinction between truth as correspondence to reality and truth as a commendatory term for well-justified beliefs. . . ..the pragmatist does not have a theory of truth, much less a relativistic one. As a partisan of solidarity, his account of the value of cooperative human inquiry has only an ethical base, not an epistemological or metaphysical one. Not having any epistemology, a fortiori he does not have a relativistic one.” (23-24)

From “Science as Solidarity

…We [pragmatists] ..would like to substitute the idea of “unforced agreement” for that of “objectivity.”

To say that unforced agreement is enough raises the specter of relativism. For those who say that a pragmatic view of rationality is unwholesomely relativistic ask: “Unforced agreement among whom? Us? The Nazis? Any arbitrary culture or group? The answer, of course, is “us.” This necessarily ethnocentric answer simply says that we must work by our own lights. . . What we cannot do is to rise above all human communities, actual and possible. We cannot find a skyhook which lifts us out of mere coherence – mere agreement – to something like “correspondence with reality as it is in itself.” (38)

“One reason why dropping this latter notion strikes many people as “relativistic” is that it denies the necessity that inquiry should someday converge to a single point – that Truth is “out there,” up in front of us, waiting for us to reach it. This latter image seems to us pragmatists an unfortunate attempt to carry a religious view of the world over into an increasingly secular culture. (38-39) . . . . Pragmatists would like to replace the desire for objectivity – the desire to be in touch with a reality which is more than some community with which we identify ourselves – with the desire for solidarity with that community. They think that the habits of relying on persuasion rather than force, of respect for the opinions of colleagues, of curiosity for new data and ideas, are the only virtues which scientist have. They do not think that there is an intellectual virtue called “rationality” over and above these moral virtues. (39)

On this view there is no reason to praise scientists for being more “objective” or “logical” or “methodical” or “devoted to truth” than other people. But there is plenty of reason to praise the institutions that they [i.e., scientists] have developed and within which they work, and to use these as models for the rest of culture. For these institutions give concreteness and detail to the idea of “unforced agreement.” . . . My rejection of traditional notions of rationality can be summed up by saying that the only sense in which science is exemplary is that it is a model of human solidarity. We should think of the institutions and practices which make up various scientific communities as providing suggestions about the way in which the rest of culture might organize itself. (39)


* Richard Rorty,  Objectivity, Relativism & Truth -  Philosophical Papers, Volume 1, Cambridge U. Press, 1991

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *