Societal norms in many philosophical schools has come to be seen as the end-all determinant of rational life.

This attitude is displayed by Richard Rorty when he says "truth is simply a compliment paid to sentences seen to be paying their way."

Whether something is true, false, good, evil, rational, irrational, etc. is determined by the normative use of those notions in the society which you inhabit.

At the same time, a basic function in rational behavior is justifying your position on things with adequate reasons.

If we apply this call for justification to the before-mentioned position which sees societal norms as the ultimate explanation of everything rational, does it hold up?

That position, shown in the likes of Rorty among others, holds that what counts as a reason for something or not is a matter of the norms in a given society.

And if there are differing societal norms, in light of our sense of a need for justification, what lends support to the position that the ultimate determinant of rationality is societal norms if in another society our normative understanding would contend otherwise?

To Richard Rorty's quote we might say "Sure, let's grant that truth is merely a compliment generated by a society. I live in a society where your suggestion doesn't receive that compliment. What now?"

3 Answers 3


Rorty's response might be that you are presuming some universal notion of "truth" with autonomous "meaning" that extends across societies. And since meaning is established only through social engagement and common practice (he is a pragmatist) such extension is unworkable, and any questions it generates are as a result meaningless. He is quite explicit about his dissolution of epistemology in politics in Truth and Progress:

"...strategy for escaping the self-referential difficulties into which “the Relativist” keeps getting himself is to move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics into cultural politics, from claims to knowledge and appeals to self-evidence to suggestions about what we should try."

This is Rorty's "new pragmatism", see more under How should we choose between different theories according to Rorty, based on Kuhn? and Have any philosophers applied the concept of "underdetermination" to non-scientific contexts? For Rorty even Quine's "old pragmatism" with naturalization of epistemology wasn't radical enough because it privileged science over the rest of culture. I agree with Zammito's assessment in The Nice Derangement of Epistemes:

"In insisting that only moral stipulation animates any of the discriminations that traditionally appeared epistemic, Rorty wraps himself in the final dogma of positivism, the fact-value distinction. For him there are only arbitrary value judgments over against an "ontology" which he deliberately relegates to epistemic inaccessibility... What is left is language and the arbitrary "poetics" of conversation. Rorty dissolves too many distinctions; his new "pragmatism" entails a cavalier disdain for rational adjudication of dispute. "

But one does not need to go down the rabbit hole with Rorty and give up on rational adjudication of dispute, to believe that social norms lie at the root of rationality, because they lie at the root of imparting shared meaning. This position in various forms was held by semantic pragmatists like Quine, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson, and now most explicitly Brandom, who writes in Articulating Reasons and Reason in Philosophy:

"It is a rationalist pragmatism, in giving pride of place to practices of giving and asking for reasons, understanding them as conferring conceptual content on performances, expressions, and states suitably caught up in those practices.

The game of giving and asking for reasons is not just one game among others one can play with language. It is the game in virtue of the playing of which what one has qualifies as language (or thought) at all. I am here disagreeing with Wittgenstein, when he claims that language has no downtown... This is a kind of linguistic rationalism. ‘Rationalism’ in this sense does not entail intellectualism, the doctrine that every implicit mastery of a propriety of practice is ultimately to be explained by appeal to a prior explicit grasp of a principle. It is entirely compatible with the sort of pragmatism that sees things the other way around."

I doubt that most semantic pragmatists would call social norms the "ultimate determinant of rationality", but there are ways of interpreting some of them as constitutive of rationality without falling into cultural relativism a la Rorty. Some arguments for and challenges to semantic pragmatism are surveyed under What arguments support the idea that rational thinking requires language use?

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    It'd be helpful if you could explain in what way the philosophers you listed thought that cultural relativism could be avoided if our accounts of justification ended in societal norms. Rorty was only one example; the question is really about whether the two suggestions listed in the question can be upheld consistently with each other, which isn't directly answered in your response.
    – Mithrandir
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 0:34
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    @Mithrandir There is no "answer" to such questions, some philosophers argue that there is no conflict, others argue the contrary. Arguments on both sides are very long and complex, if you wish to discuss a specific one you'll have to ask specifically, see the link at the end for brief descriptions. Brandom's positive proposal, for example, is expounded in several long books, not to mention papers. There is no "royal road", I am afraid.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 0:47
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    Okay. Let's say that, with Brandom for example, the main determinant of the correct usage of a concept is the way the concept is and has been used by the society that a person is committed to, and which is committed to the individual. While his account is very complicated and includes a great deal about how these commitments work out, it still ends in holding the usage of a concept as used in a society as the determinant of the correct usage of that concept. The frame does not change even if the picture becomes complicated. And I don't see how this frame avoids cultural relativism.
    – Mithrandir
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 1:13
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    So long as any theory about what determines rationality ends only in facts about people, it will be open to the charges of relativism in some way or another. What we really require is an account about rationality that ends in facts about that which is being spoken in the use of a concept but which doesn't fall victim to the errors of foundationalist theories of knowledge.
    – Mithrandir
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 1:16
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    @Mithrandir Not quite. For example, cultural relativism rejects rational adjudication of disputes across different cultures. But on Brandom's view for the "dispute" to even take place the cultures must interact in some way, engage in common practices to share common meanings. This opens up a possibility of giving and asking for reasons, and hence rational adjudication. Of course, one has to give up representational truth and foundationalist justification, but there are independent reasons to give them up anyway.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 1:47

One path to this major shift is underlaid by Lyotard's elaboration of Wittgenstein's notion of language games. If you are worried about conflicts like this it might make sense to move back down the history to that point, because Wittgenstein started out as part of the Vienna Circle, and had very high standards relative to finding things well-based.

For Wittgenstein, the concepts that are socially negotiated are based in a 'game' of feedback loops. Humans rearrange the meanings of terms in response to realistic goals. To really move any deep underlying agreements requires adapting the behavior of large numbers of people, or at least their representatives among the intellectual or cultural elites. Representatives that do not represent lose their power.

So the system decides to whom it gives the compliment of 'speaking the truth' in a very stable and reliable way. The variations we see near the surface may gall our notion of what truth should be like, but they draw our attention exactly because they are exceptions. In general, social norms are as stablized in the same way as scientific theories. They become true if they produce results.

We do not worry that our science is meaningless just because the terms in it are negotiated by humans to cover the data. We realize that the mass of data is large enough, and the standards for covering it and being reproducible are also stringent enough that we go ahead and use it to build bridges.

The 'rules' in organic chemistry are 'different' from those in metallurgy. We pay more attention to some truths, and less to others, because of the domain of work we are addressing. But below them is a consistent basis in bond chemistry, and below that there is a consistent basis in nuclear physics -- which actually changes endlessly without really affecting its ability to prove chemistry stable.

Likewise, cultures have norms that distribute their attention differently, but cultural institutions also get negotiated on multiple levels that focus on detail at different 'scales' or 'resolutions'. The lower levels remain quite stable at various 'nodal resolutions' even as they change above and below them.

Discounting attempts to behave rationally on the basis of the fact norms are relative, and they shift, is like abandoning science because parts of it are continually contested. Withdrawing from the game abandons two things: you lose potential improvements by others and you relinquish the little bit of power that you exert over its direction.

  • To say that social norms "become true if they produce results" raises the question of what you mean by 'produce results'. If you mean they help us carry out our 'realistic goals', then the question returns, this time about what is meant by 'realistic goals'. I would argue that until you specify what is meant specifically by these things your answer remains just vague enough to avoid criticism, but at the cost of avoiding answering the question.
    – Mithrandir
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 22:40
  • Ok, so science as an example in parallel totally lacks goals as well? Just because we cannot state those goals and predict them over time, it is pretty obvious they exist. Do you think there is some basic conflict between the process of science and the fact that it is not ultimately and completely rational? I would argue that no answer can be given to this question because you simply don't want one.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 17:49
  • I'm only concerned with clarifying what is meant by terms. I never said anything about goals. I only asked for a clarification of what qualifies as goals and how it is that we as philosophers actually develop a criterion for this. The whole point of my question is to get after the relationship between what we are doing and presupposing in our philosophizing with what we are concluding in our philosophizing. I contend that we as philosophers invest in our conclusions a value that often betrays our philosophical conclusions (especially relativistic conclusions).
    – Mithrandir
    Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 23:20
  • But the definitions you request would never change the argument. The argument is that rational thought is a social activity that holds together social conventions, so rational thought and social conventions are parts of a single entity and do not contradict. What the two things are used for or what they are directed toward is just framing and motivation. So I am not avoiding (note, a goal, contradicting your comment) anything.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 3:05
  • I have given a model, and shown how its originators addressed each of your counterarguments. Yet you claim that I avoid answering the question. This is not a reasonable thing to say, and your supposed complaint, that some terms ultimately remain undefined, is going to be true of every answer given by every human in every case. You don't have to like the answer. But you do have to argue with some part that matters. Otherwise, I am going to assume you are pushing a point and not asking a question. And that is not what we do here.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 14:15

The trouble with the sentence

"truth is simply a compliment paid to sentences seen to be paying their way."

is in the use of the word "simply". Sentences which consistently pay their way, even across cultures (as would be necessary in Brandom's ideas of common meanings) have a value which sets them apart from other sentences. This value is far from "simple" and Rorty is trying to dress old ideas up in something more sensational by using the term.

It may not be that concepts which work are necessarily true in some objective sense, but they are converging on a smaller and smaller set of possible concepts, by the elimination of those which do not work. Something akin to the mathematical concept of convergence as in 1/x converges to zero as x gets bigger, but never reaches zero (or reaches it when x is infinitely large, whichever approach is taken to infinity).

The fact that the truth is only that to which all concepts seem to converge does not make it relative to the society developing those concepts, but it does make the state of progress towards that convergence relative. A society with certain norms may cling on to concepts which barely work and reject those which work better, purely as a result of culture, but the value of those concepts must still be measured against something outside of that culture, otherwise the convergence we see across cultures (even those which have never met) would have to be explained by coincidence, which seems unlikely.

  • What is your evidence for the convergence across cultures we have never met? This seems imaginary to me, because in cultures we have met, we have seen long periods of divergence from standpoints we now consider more reasonable, toward ones we consequently abandoned. Otherwise we would not have the idolization of Aristotle by Acquinas, for instance, or the Renaissance return to Greek and Roman authors' sense of rationality.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 23:30
  • @Jobermark I should perhaps have been clearer in my answer, but I'm referring to the process of honing concepts which can be readily tested against the world (that an object drops to the ground if you throw it), and suggesting that there is no need to postulate a separate mechanism for concepts less readily tested, only that it will take longer for them to converge and that the culture has more influence over the rate at which this will happen. Basically, I see no reason why Pragmatism, even in the extreme, necessarily discards truth as a concept, as the OP seems to be concerned about.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 7:36
  • I am just saying the way you chose to frame it overcompensates. Things do not converge, necessarily. If we did not decide to be theory-driven, our Western science may have remained frozen in social conventions and inadequate abstractions that just happen to work well enough, like Chinese Medicine for another 2000 years. It could happen. Convergence is not an automatic phenomenon. I think it is better to say that stuff that is truly mandatory stays stable, but the surface over it can shift in gallingly stupid ways forever.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 19:05
  • @Jobermark Yes, I see what you mean, but the OP seemed concerned that Pragmatism would inevitably lead to cultural relativism. I think it's important in that context to be clear that Pragmatism defies cultural relativism where concepts can be readily tested against the real world, and does so to a greater extent in societies where such testing is carried out fairly methodically. Just because there is no "truth" it doesn't mean that the concepts on which we all agree (like the function of gravity) have no real meaning with regards to rational justification.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 12:02
  • If I were to justify my belief that if I throw a ball in the air it will come back down by using the concept of Newtonian Gravity, there would be some sense in which that justification was more rational than "because fairies are pulling it back down again". That sense would be that most cultures have converged on the idea of gravity as frequent testing seems to have failed to falsify it. This despite the fact that Newtonian Gravity appears actually to be wrong, of course.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 12:05

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