RORTY AND NORMATIVITY ALEXANDER KREMER

The paper summarizes some of the main connections of Rorty’s philosophy and shows what kind of views he has about normativity. As a neopragmatic thinker Rorty wants to have as few normativity as possible, but it does not mean that he refuses every type of normativity.

Key words: Rorty, pragmatism, normativity, ethics, solidarity

1

com 2 . D. His e-mail address is: alexanderkremer2000@yahoo. What is The Origin of Obligation?” Why Did Heidegger Become Heidegger?. “Philosophy and Education: Richard Rorty’s Considerations” and “Richard Rorty’s Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Philosophy”. Recent publications include “J. Hungary.Alexander Kremer is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Szeged.” “Foundation of Morals. Caputo’s Hermeneutics.

The quickest way of expressing this commonality is to say that philosophers as diverse as William James and Friedrich Nietzsche. c) Rorty appropriates the standpoint and explains as his own that “everything is a social construction” and “all awareness is a linguistic affair”. etc. and that descriptions are functions of social needs. and Rorty 1999. So both are ways of saying that we should be suspicious of the Greek distinction between appearance and reality. 31-39) b) As every pragmatist knows. 1. Rorty is also a pan-relationist. although the best works being done in these two traditions overlap to an important extent. In contrast to the traditional foundational philosophers. Donald Davidson and Jacques Derrida.) with a picture of a flux of continually changing relations. historicist constructivism. will always be a function of our social needs. Hilary Putnam and Bruno Latour. Richard Rorty was an analytic thinker and only later.” (Rorty 1999. Disregarding here a thorough analysis of his philosophy.” (published in 1994) that the gap between the so-called ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophies shows not too many signs of being bridged. appearance and reality. of course – are anti-dualists. I emphasize here only the five most important ones from the point of view of my topic: a) Pragmatism. as well as of ourselves. never be able grasp reality unmediated by a linguistic description. became a neopragmatist philosopher. and that we should try to replace it with something like the distinction between ‘less useful description of the world’ and ‘more useful description of the world’. Since we create both language and truth about the world. is an anti-essentialist. xvi-xxxii. substance and property. 48) Once we have said that all our awareness is under a description. As is wellknown. Rorty 1989. we should be constantly interested in reconstructing language to make it more useful and rewarding and to make our experienced world more satisfying to our needs and desires. I would like only to emphasize that Rorty walked radically his own way and drew the consequences from his views. John Dewey and Michael Foucault – and Richard Rorty. Rorty hailed first Dewey. according to Rorty. in the 1970s. Ch. Heidegger and later Derrida as the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. He expounds in his article. Wittgenstein. then ‘nature’ and ‘reality’ can only be names of something 3 . From these consequences. Rorty wants to show us the following: “Both (theories – A. “A World without Substances or Essences. To say that everything is a social construction is to say that our linguistic practices are so bound up with our other social practices that our descriptions of nature.Rorty’s Philosophy in general Every concrete view of normativity depends on the whole of a philosophy. They are trying to replace the world pictures constructed with the aid of metaphysical dualisms inherited from the Greeks (essence and accident. (Cf. Kremer) are ways of saying that we shall never be able to step outside of language.

or be out there. To say that the world is out there.’ From all of this. that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. once one has explicated the distinction between justification and truth by that between present and future justifiability. for truth as proportional is given only in language. as a neo-pragmatic. 63) d) Inquire further about Rorty’s truth theory! From Rorty’s above mentioned views. think that both skeptics and foundationalists are led astray by the picture of beliefs as attempts to represent reality. that is. does not emphasize of course the definitive role of the past. etc. do not believe that there is such a faculty. who have been impressed by Peirce’s criticism of Descartes.” (Rorty 2004. our society. needs to be said about truth. like Rorty. Rorty knows well what makes 4 . Since nothing has an intrinsic nature. I think that. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth. but he also claims that there is no such thing as the absolute intrinsic nature at all. 5) e) Rorty. It is a kind of coherence theory of truth: “We pragmatists. that it is not our creation. and only their proportion is different. that sentences are elements of human languages. neither do human beings.unknowable – something like Kant’s ‘Thing-in-Itself. historical process in our world.. truths. are more made than found.” (Rorty 1989. it follows that he represents a kind of nominalism which goes together with the denial of the traditional representational epistemology. is to say. So we become coherentists. The world on its own – unaided by describing activities of human beings – cannot. and by the associated idea that truth is a matter of correspondence to reality. He does not deny the existence of the world: “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. ironic liberal thinker. however. we create them describing and re-describing ourselves. As he wrote: “We anti-essentialists. 4-5) According to Rorty. but descriptions of the world are not. if anything. He claims that the human being is a finite and historical being. But we coherentists remain divided about what. Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist. of course. with common sense. the correspondence theory of truth is untenable. and everything is a timely. In his opinion.” (Rorty 1999. The world is out there. language. but rather the future and our creative activity. These processes always have a continuous and discontinuous dimension. there is little more to be said. objects of inquiry. The anti-essentialists. cannot believe even that human reason would be a special faculty for penetrating through appearances to reality. but he cannot be considered a solipsist philosopher. Rorty draws not only the conclusion that it is hopeless to get behind appearance to the intrinsic nature of reality. and that human languages are human creations.

disastrous. where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity. How does Rorty relate to this fact/value distinction? Not only James and Dewey (cf. Irony and Solidarity that claims that the ‘supporting-pillars’ of our human existence. the normative role of God. in moral. Rorty 1999. the descriptive/normative dichotomy is based on the fact/value distinction. they tempt us to think of 5 .1 It suggests that once “all the facts are in” nothing remains except “noncognitive” adoption of an attitude – a choice which is not rationally discussable. If we would like to summarize most of Rorty’s views. perhaps the best way would be to use one of his short paragraphs from Contingency. These artificial diremptions make it impossible to get the notion of edification into focus. Freud. e. It forces us to pretend that we can split ourselves up into knowers of true sentences on the one hand and choosers of lives or actions or works of art on the other. where we treat everything – our language. g. which comes from Hume’s philosophy.continuity. self and community are contingent in the sense that we do not rely on any absolute. our conscience. But the philosophical fiction that such a vocabulary is on the tips of our tongues is. our community – as a product of time and chance. metaphysical foundation: “The line of thought common to Blumenberg. from an educational point of view. when some philosophico-theological article tries to show e. beliefs and attitudes. he simply emphasizes much more the discontinuous moments of the historical process. Heidegger. 22) Rorty about Normativity What does normativity mean? This concept is used in very different contexts. the trouble with the fact-value distinction is that it is contrived precisely to blur the fact that alternative descriptions are possible in addition to those offered by the results of normal inquiries. epistemological and even in ontological context. g.” (Rorty 1989. g. However. Or. whereas to use another set of true sentences is to adopt a contrary attitude. more exactly.) By all means the most common interpretation of the normative is. and Sartre. language. Nietzsche. 31). Rorty had this standpoint already in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: “…from the viewpoints of Gadamer. look plausible. We can find texts speaking about normativity e. (It is the case. and Davidson suggests that we try to get to the point where we no longer worship anything. but also Rorty ab ovo refuses this distinction because it cannot be harmonized with his neopragmatic views about the human life. when we use it as an opposite of the descriptive. It disguises the fact that to use one set of true sentences to describe ourselves is already to choose an attitude toward ourselves. Only if we assume that there is a value-free vocabulary which renders these sets of “factual” statements commensurable can the positivist distinction between facts and values.

What is Rorty’s suggestion instead of the traditional ethics? He prefers the permanent reinterpretation that is redescription of our moral situations. pragmatists have doubts about the suggestion that anything is. The term “moral obligation” and therefore of course also the term “moral normativity” “becomes increasingly less appropriate to the degree to which we identify with those whom we help: the degree to which we mention them when telling ourselves stories about who we are. I am persuaded that it can be justified not only by his concrete above mentioned arguments directed to this topic. because in 6 . Morality is simply a new and controversial custom” (Rorty 1999. of a world-view decision.2 Rorty refuses first of all the claim of foundation: he regards it as impossible from rational point of view and as unnecessary from moral point of view. It is unnecessary from moral point of view. these traditions are also changing steadily for they are relative and contingent just because of their historicity. Traditionally it means the opposition between the unconditional. because the absolute. but also our everyday thinking is influenced strongly by these traditions. However. He begins with the distinction between morality and prudence. hypothetical ones. Cutting Rorty’s train of thought short he puts it down after his Kant-critique that “moral obligation does not have a nature. different from tradition. categorical obligations and the conditional. that is it can be only a result of confession.3 but on the other hand we do not need it if we act in a concrete moral situation. 363-364) It follows obviously from this. 79).edification as having nothing to do with the rational faculties which are employed in normal discourse. but as such it cannot be considered philosophy any more. In the fight against the real suffering. metaphysical foundation – and Rorty speaks obviously about this standpoint – cannot be rationally justified. or a source. Rorty reinterprets these distinctions in ways which dispense with the notion of unconditionality. or could be nonrelational. that Rorty uses a different vocabulary in which he tries to eliminate the fact/value distinction and therefore also the descriptive/normative dichotomy. I undertake an almost impossible task to sketch Rorty’s new but obviously not unprecedented ethics. We can already guess from Rorty’s above mentioned philosophical views that also his ethics is opposed to the traditional ethics which requires metaphysical foundation and/or claims universal obligations. Rorty refuses also the universal obligation that is the universal form of the moral normativity. but also by his moral views. cruelty and other moral injustice we just need phronesis and the moral traditions of our own social and/or intellectual community. It is impossible. habit and custom. For not only our moral philosophical.” (Rorty 1990. Naturally. because it is true on the one hand that the absolute necessity of moral laws and obligations could be assured exclusively by a metaphysical foundation. 76). the degree to which their story is also our story” (Rorty 1999.

and nothing has eternal. for pragmatists – both old and new – say that theory is also practice. (…) Convinced that there is no subtle human essence which philosophy might grasp. 86-87). xv-xvi) He has sketched here the characteristics of the liberal ironist. can still be thought worth dying for. but it never cannot be determined absolutely. however. rather than specify one great big one. in the relevant sense. metaphysical intrinsic nature. unchangeable. is universal. A postmetaphysical culture seems to me no more impossible than a postreligious one. and equally desirable. Last but not least. I have to mention here one of the confessed social aims of Rorty’s moral philosophy explicated in Contingency. among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance” (Rorty 1989. the difference between blacks and whites in a particular town in Alabama. He tries to promote the realization of a truly liberal democratic society: “One of my aims in this book is to suggest the possibility of a liberal utopia: one in which ironism. However. Irony and Solidarity. 189). It is worth speaking only about relative normativity. the difference between gays and straights in a particular Catholic congregation in Quebec. Life. they hope to minimize one difference at a time – the difference between Christians and Muslims in a particular village in Bosnia. than like getting a clearer vision of something true and deep. Such an interpretation of morals results also a new description of moral progress: “Pragmatists think of moral progress as more like sewing together a very large. and ironist is the sort of person “who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires” (Rorty 1989. In Rorty’s interpretation liberals are the people “who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do”. Although effects of the past and the present influence our practice. As we have seen.” (Rorty 1989. It is as clear as day that according to Rorty there are neither absolute values nor absolute normativity. supernatural and superhistorical essences. For liberal ironists there are no eternal. their common humanity” (Rorty 1999. they do not try to replace superficiality with depth. because our existential world is constituted only by our private and social life. Rather. can be regarded essentially as practice. xv). for liberal ironists are contingent also the main columns of our life: our language.this way we can regularly update and correct our moral views. unchangeable. polychrome quilt. The hope is to sew such groups together with a thousand little stitches – to invoke a thousand little commonalities between their members. we have to keep in mind that nihilism of total relativism does not follow from these contingencies! Rorty emphasizes namely that the “fundamental premise of the book is that a belief can still regulate action. self and community. and it follows from this that only the future’s possibilities are 7 . We humans are always able to re-describe our world in different ways. elaborate. nor to rise above the particular in order to grasp the universal.

but it is obviously a relative normativity.. We have to keep in mind however. the less freedom we have. According to Rorty’s view we can speak about moral progress in this sense. Hence. Normativity of purposes and values drawn from them prevails only within a vocabulary. Rorty intentionally wants to distinguish human solidarity as the identification with „humanity as such” and as the self-doubt which has gradually been inculcated into inhabitants of the democratic states. and it survives only if the new vocabulary. By summarizing my view I can say that Rorty does not speak about normativity in the traditional Platonic sense. After positing the aim it will determine the choice of means and even the implementation of our plan. How do we meet the future in our practice? It is manifested in the practice. Rorty’s considerations about solidarity can be considered one of the clear justifications of his views about normativity of the future. only the future can be really normative for a pragmatist. that aversion to the historically developed and perhaps provisional forms of solidarity does not mean that he should refuse solidarity in general. Rorty 1989. 198). unfamiliar sorts of people” (Rorty 1989.open for us. because the more normativity we establish. language-game also builds this normativity. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. an awkward attempt to secularize the idea of becoming one with God” (Rorty 1989. 8 . in our actions and conduct as an aim. Rorty gives a special meaning to „normativity”. It is a „doubt about their own sensitivity to the pain and humiliation of others. In contrast with this identification the permanent enlargment of our „we-intentions” is possible on the basis of this self-doubt. for the aim is nothing else than the plan of the future. By denying the eternal. superhistorical. intrinsic essences and nature Rorty has to refuse also the traditional form of solidarity. The identification seems to me impossible – a philosopher’s invention. it is only also a tool for realizing a richer freedom in the future. Normativity does not mean for him anything in itself. unchangeable essential humanity but. In the present. It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination.. into its own texture. a language-game. Rorty wants to have as few normativity as possible. doubt that present institutional arrangements are adequate to deal with this pain and humiliation. and this progress goes indeed in the direction of greater human solidarity (cf. We can change our world and we can make it better exclusively by a practice focused on the possibilities of the future. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other. rather: „. when he speaks about the determining role of our purposes whithin the actual vocabulary. That is why and in this extent we can speak about normativity of purposes in Rorty. usually after a transformation. 192). curiosity about possible alternatives. the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Normativity can be only a human phenomenon. xvi). Rorty does not see the basis of solidarity in a previously hidden depths or an eternal.as a goal to be achieved.

. 1990. Oxford: Blackwell.References . 1989. 2004. 9 . Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Philosophy and Social Hope. Blackwell.Rorty. R.Rorty. . by Robert B. Penguin Books. 1999.Rorty and his Critics. Brandom. R.Rorty. Ed. Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press. Contingency. R. .

461ff. Beside that Rorty refuses the idea of foundation at all. L.” 2 Rorty specifies his predecessors in different articles: they are first of all J. 133. unchangeable metaphysical entity.) . Wittgenstein. two. HA No. Vol. but according to Rorty – it follows from his above mentioned philosophical views – we cannot justify any superhistorical. Dewey. 1. metaphysical transcendence (e. 2007. 3 It is clear I think that the relative. nonrelational. unchangeable. g. chap.1 “See Heidegger’s discussion of “values” in Being and Time. and Sartre’s in Being and Nothingness. pt.). Richard Rorty. 4.. pp. and also my earlier article regarding the impossibility of absolute foundation of morals: “What is the Origin of Obligation?”. Philosophy and Social Hope. Compare Gadamer’s remarks on Weber (Truth and Method. (However. p. Nietzsche. M. metaphysical foundation. 13. 10. permanently changing social considerations and values can assure only a relative foundation of morals. because in his opinion it is impossible to get a noncircular argumentation in this case. sec. (See e. 1. Heidegger. it seems to be enough for moral decisions and actions!) Exclusively an eternal. g. F. p. the Christian God) could give an absolute.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful