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Richard Rorty (1932-2008) was the paradigmatic deflationist re the concept “truth.” He was an epistemic naturalist and historicist, an instrumental pragmatist, anti-realist/essentialist, and postmodern apologist. Truth for him was an epistemic concept of warranted assertability, justified assertion within a conversational community, i.e. an affair of conversational consensus.

As he said in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (p.170): “… [w]e understand knowledge when understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation. “, and believed that aim of knowledge, of inquiry, (the purpose/function of its tools/instruments – from the “faculty” of reason to our senses, to our concepts/words/categories) is not to [accurately] represent the world but to “cope with it.”

According to Rorty, the only use for the concept of truth is a cautionary one, to remind us that though a sentence/proposition may be justified/warranted today, it may not be to some future conversational partner/in some future conversational community. As of the 1970s and beyond he always maintained that “reality”, “the world”, should not be permitted to constrain or restrain human inquiry in the way religion had for many centuries, and liked to say that there are no restraints on human inquiry except the conversational ones provided by our fellow inquirers (Consequences of Pragmatism, p. 165).

Being a naturalist, he admitted that our language was somehow “shaped” by the environment, but vigorously and repeatedly denied “that it is explanatorily useful to pick and choose among the contents of our minds or our language and say that this or that item ‘corresponds to’ or ‘represents’ the environment in a way that some other item does not.” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p. 5). In fact, he denied that knowledge was a matter of “getting reality right,” but rather it was a matter of “acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.” (Id., p. 1).

His idea was we could never attain the “sky hook” or “birds/god’s eye view” of reality/the world to come to know whether we are getting anything about reality right. Hence, because there is no way to know whether one’s concepts/categories represent or correspond with the world/reality, all we can hope to do is use them to cope with it. (i.e. He took the Kantian divide between the noumenon and the phenomenon very seriously, and could not conceive of ever bridging it.)

Then, almost a decade before his death, Bjorn Ramberg challenged (accurately outlining the challenge would require more space than I have available here) and elicited a transformative concession from Rorty:

“[i]t was a mistake on my part to go from criticism of attempts to define truth as accurate representation of the intrinsic nature of reality to a denial that true statements get things right, [and granting Davidson’s point that] most of our beliefs about anything… must be true of that thing – [which means that it] must get that thing right.” (Robert Brandoms, Rorty and His Critics, p.374)

After decades of denying the point, Rorty here (pre 2000) essentially admits that it IS “explanatorily useful” to say that an idea or word “‘corresponds to’ or ‘represents’ the environment in a way that some other item does not.” He admits that there is a non-intersubjective distinction that can be made (despite there being no god’s eye view of the world/reality) between an idea/word that gets [the world/reality] right and one that gets it wrong. Which is something (i.e., the futility of appealing in inquiry to accurate isomorphic correspondence) that on my reading of Rorty has been an essential element of his philosophy since …Mirror of Nature.

So my first question is, once he capitulates here (that true statements do in fact get things right”, and admits that there would seem to be a "fact of the matter”, what distinguishes him from other more contemporary pragmatists, such as Davidson, Putnam, etc., who also deny that “truth is accurate representation of the intrinsic nature of reality” but had for years argued with Rorty about his refusal to accept the weaker versions of "truth", "correspondence", “correspondence”, “representation”? Nothing, as far as I can tell.

Yet, aside from his vague response to Ramberg in that tract, before he died Rorty never really addressed the issue/challenge, and the significance of his concession to his life’s work. So my second question is, has anyone run into any writings, or had any conversations by/with Rorty or other scholars, that address this concern?

  • Do you have a reference for Rorty's response to Ramberg? – Ram Tobolski Aug 30 '17 at 23:06
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    @Ram Tobolski Ramburg's essay, Post-Ontological Philosophy of Mind; Rorty versus Davidson, can be found in Robert Brandom's, Rorty and His Critics (2000), pp 351-370 (the real damage being done at 362-3). Rorty’s response, where he concedes the point, but attempts to minimize the damage it wreaks to his naturalist epistemology, appears at pp. 371-377. – gonzo Aug 31 '17 at 0:11
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    I don't have an answer for you, but +1 and my eternal gratitude for bringing some scholarship to Phil.SE. It's been a while since I've seen a question so well sourced and thought out. – Dennis Aug 31 '17 at 2:42
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I got to read Ramberg's essay and Rorty's response, so I'll try an answer.

This issue requires subtle but sharp distinctions. Ramberg's essay is very cautious. What he attempts, and impressively succeeds in, is to recocile central philosophical views of Rorty's and of Davidson's. Ramberg tries hard throughout his essay to remain faithful both to Davidson and to Rorty.

Ramberg did get Rorty to accept the phrase, and the idea of truth as "getting things right". It is crucial to notice, however, that there is not, either in Ramberg's suggestions or in Rorty's concession, the slightest hint about conceiving truth as "representation" or "correspondence to reality". The whole exchange, including the "getting it right" bit, is entirely embedded in the pragmatist notions of "coping", "tools" and "norms".

(Indeed, where could Ramberg import relations of representation or correspondence from, when what he does is to defend Davidson? There are no such relations in Davidson's philosophy)

Roughly speaking, the change that Ramberg caused in Rorty's views is this: Before the change Rorty was a kind of social relativist, which he also identified as a kind of pragmatism. He believed that the community determined truth and falsehood, although an individual could sometimes choose to alter the community. After the change, Rorty accepted Davidson's "triangulation" view: the self (epistemology), the community (normativity) and the world (causality) jointly and inseperably determine truth and falsehood. Agents are related by linguistic communication, the world is related causally. By contrast, truth as representation and correspondence is not involved.

In terms of ongoing debates, again roughly speaking, after the concession Rorty no longer had any substantial disagreements with Davidson. By contrast, he continued to disagree with any philosophers that held to any degree of truth as "correspondence with" or "opening to" the world. This includes McDowell and Putnam.

In his response to Ramberg, Rorty seems well aware that his concessions to Ramberg about some views raise questions about the consequences for Rorty's other views. He subsequently lists four of his views that are unaffected by his concessions to Ramberg:

How many of my previous positions - positions criticized by McDowell, Dennett and others in this volume - am I now forced to give up? Not many. Here are some doctrines which remain unaffected:

1 No area of culture, and no period of history, gets Reality more right than any other. The differences betewen areas and epochs is their relative efficiency at accomplishing various purposes ...

2 Pace McDowell, there is no second norm given us by the facts, in addition to the norms given us by our peers. Still, McDowell would be right to point out that I should not speak of "norms set by our peers." It was a mistake to locate the norms at one corner of the triangle ...

3 To say that we get snow mostly right is not to say that we represent snow with reasonable accuracy. Talk of representing goes along with talk about sentences being made true by facts, and with talk of "structural isomorphism" between mind and world (such as Dennett's "real patterns"). The holism of intentional ascription forbids any such talk ...

4 My militant anti-authoritarianism, exhibited in my response to Williams and critically discussed by McDowell, remains unchanged. For I can still maintain that there is no such thing as the search for truth, as distinct from the search for happiness. There is no authority called Reality before whom we need bow down ...

  • This is a wonderfully nuanced answer that I have printed out and will read more closely. As well as reread Rorty's concession, and agian compare his reformed position with those notions of Davidson's which Rorty has historically rejected ("truth" etc). – gonzo Sep 29 '17 at 18:51
  • @ Ram Tobolski On first pass, however, notwithstanding the positions he claims were unaffected by his concession, the concession forces him to limit his robust, radically anti-realist position much more substantially than he ever admitted -- to a sort of rejection of the more formal elements of an unduly strict realism -- essentially straw men: Notions like “second morms” and "structural isomorphism between mind and the world." And it seems to me that Rorty always appreciated Davidson's triangulation thesis, albiet on causal and pragmatic (eg, instrumental, “cope with”) grounds. – gonzo Sep 29 '17 at 18:52
  • Your answer appears to be impeccably correct, and thus begs the question of how Ramberg altered Rorty's interpretation/analysis of Davidson's triangulation and radical translation theses (see Section 3 of Rorty’s essay Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth, at page 132 et seq. of the first volume of his collected papers). How would you describe the change? – gonzo Sep 29 '17 at 22:30
  • Also, how does Ramberg's discussion re "salience alteration" of “causal patterns" play into it? (It seems that this portion of Rambergs argument did most of the work forcing Rorty’s concession.) – gonzo Sep 29 '17 at 22:31
  • And in light of this, how would you interpret Rorty's admission that [after Ramberg] he would no longer be able to say that "all our relations to the world are causal relations" and is forced to admit that there are certain word-world relations which are "neither causal nor representational?” What else is there? The normative? Plus intersubjectivity -- of causal patterns or “perceptions” thereof, ie that at we happen to share them, without needing the prop of an “independent world/reality” to guard against friction-less idealism and solipsism. – gonzo Sep 29 '17 at 22:31

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