Richard Rorty spent much of his career defending his work against accusations of Relativism, and yet his name is often mentioned in such discussions. Are these accusations of Relativism directed at Rorty fair, or is he unjustifiably mischaracterized?

This clip sums up the charges against Rorty fairly well.

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    False dichotomy: maybe he is justifiably mischaracterised. This is certainly possible if someone's writing is obscure, or not carefully phrased. I'd argue that early Kuhn is justifiably mischaracterised as being a bit relativist... – Seamus Jun 20 '11 at 16:05
  • Thanks for the interest, Seamus! I'm not sure I understand, however. What is the difference between "justifiably mischaracterized" and the accusations of Relativism against Rorty being "fair"? – Bonzai Jun 20 '11 at 18:30
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    It might help get answers if you liked to some of the sources. I know we could do a Google search and find out more about Rorty and the Relativists, but it even easier if you point to the best places to see where this question comes from. Just a thought. – Jon Ericson Jun 20 '11 at 18:41
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    @Joe The first link is to the critical responses to Rorty on SEP. I can add more if you'd like. – Bonzai Jun 21 '11 at 3:33

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 Social Hope.

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.” – Ibid.

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 Science

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.

  • Outstanding! I agree with your take here, and my views on Rorty are much clearer now having read your answer. Well done! – Bonzai Jun 26 '11 at 23:16

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