Contrarily to most philosophers, pragmatists do not define themselves as searchers of truth. Rorty substitutes the idea of “truths to discover”, of “truths that hide behind appearances”, with “beliefs to explain”.
The process of explanation is done, not in reports to a court of Reason, but relatively to a certain public, according to the principle of utility. Although wherein utilitarians like Mill, utility is measured in function to the gain of pleasure and decline of pain, pragmatists are vague: useful is what enables creation of a better future.
Better according to which criteria? Rorty admits that pragmatists do not have a precise response:
“They do not have a more precise
response than the first mammals had to
specify under which aspects they were
better than the dinosaurs in
extinction. The pragmatists are barely
capable to put forward responses as
vague as this one: what is better is
better insofar where that contains
more of what we consider as good and
advantageous and insofar where that
contains less that we consider as bad
and dangerous.” – Richard Rorty, Philosophy and
And this retort, one of the most popular in philosophy: “Oh! Now we fall into relativism!”; to which Rorty replies that even though there are no absolute truths, we can’t say “anything”, because:
“human belief cannot be detached of
the non-human environment” or, to
recall a word from Davidson, that “we
can never be more arbitrary than the
world lets us be.” – Idib.
For pragmatists, the social context in which a thought is born and interpreted gives its meaning and signpost, hence the uselessness of the seal of the absolute.
Rorty insists on the fact that pragmatism is an “anti-essentialism”. In this perspective, the philosophical undertaking does not consist in a search of the essence of things, but more of the relations that a thing has with the rest of its environment. The anti-essentialists abolish the metaphysical distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, in the sense that, for them, there is no characteristic that is more essential than another in the study of an object. To demonstrate his point, Rorty takes as example the number 17:
“Ask yourself what is the essence of
the number 17 – what it is in itself,
outside of any relation with all the
other numbers. What we are looking
for, is a description of 17 that is
different, in category, of the
following descriptions: less that 22;
more than 8; the sum of 6 and 11; the
square root of 289; the square of
4.123105; the difference between 1678922 and 1678905. What is
irritating in all these descriptions,
is that there is not even one that is
even closer to the number 17 than the
others. Equally annoying, we could
propose an infinite number of other
descriptions of 17, all equally
“accidental” and “extrinsic”. None of
these descriptions, it seems, give us
the slightest idea to what could be
the intrinsic seventeeness of 17 – the
unique character that makes it number
that it is. It is clear, indeed, that
if we choose one of these descriptions
more than the other, it’s in function
to the goal that we pursue – in the
particular case that brought us, in
the beginning, to think of number 17.”
The author invites subsequently to transpose this demonstration at every other object of knowledge. It is as vain to search the seventeeness of 17, than the keyboardness of a keyboard, for example. Henceforth, despite his status of great philosopher, all that Plato can say of it are its properties, namely its relations. And when he arguments that the keyboard that I see at this moment is a copy of the Idea of the keyboard, that does not reveal anything more of its intrinsic nature than to say that it is black or constituted of atoms.
That’s what should be understood: there is no absolute for pragmatism. “Absolute” signifies here “isolated from the rest”. And yet how speak of something that is isolated of everything? It is absurd. All knowledge (or belief) must be registered in a language; as soon as there is language, there is relation.
“A name has sense only in the context
of a phrase, and it is only as a term
of a relation that an object becomes
object of knowledge.” – Ibid.
This doctrine seems moreover in close relation with the perspectivism of Nietzsche. We can very well interpret in an anti-essentialist sense from this affirmation:
“It is impossible for us to see beyond
the angle of our gaze.” – Nietzsche, The Gay
What the German philosopher affirms here is that all our knowledge – that is interpretative – must necessarily be connected to a perspective, that is first and foremost human.
It’s now the turn of the metaphysical distinction between “relative” and “absolute” to fall. Of course, there is very certainly a form of relativism that stays with anti-essentialism. But this relativism must not be understood in the traditional sense that “everything has value”. Admitting the relativity of things, comes to simply say that:
“There is nothing but relations,
everywhere, all along your road and in
all directions.” – Richard Rorty,
Philosophy and Social Hope.
Thus, to avoid all ambiguity, maybe it would be more suitable to replace the term “relativist” by the one Rorty employs to categorize thinkers like William James, John Dewey and Michel Foucault: “pan-relationalism”.
In the ways relativism and absolutism are generally presented, the choice between these two notions come to two dead-ends: “the absence of possible discussion” and “the faith in abstractions”. If we can question the idea of replacing categories in the heart of philosophical tradition, pragmatism nevertheless highlights the necessity in defining them better.