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Turxi x· +o Hrrxrxru+ics

On Pragmatism’s Struggle with Subjectivity
Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
Rorty’s Hermeneutics
«All human beings», writes Richard Rorty, «carry about a set of words which they
employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives.» Beyond these words,
we have «no noncircular argumentative recourse […] there is only helpless passiv-
ity or a resort to force.»

This notion of a ‹tnal vocabulary› tgures in Rorty’s at-
tempt to work out an anti-rationalist conception of reason, one that breaks funda-
mentally with the idea of rationality as access to universal principle or as a common
core of all that is properly human. Rorty’s counter-suggestion, as he develops it in
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, is that it is precisely the contingency, variability
and plasticity of our tnal vocabularies that is our glory, because it is in just these
features of our discursive normative resources that our ability to create and recre-
ate ourselves as individuals and as communities resides.
As Rorty makes explicit already in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, his view
of humans as thinking, communicating beings, and his view of philosophy as an
activity of such beings, is indebted to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical herme-

One important aspect of Gadamer’s work is the emphasis on the tnite, situated
and perspectival nature of understanding as a mediation of tradition in which re-
nective, critical consciousness participates, but is not master. This historicist em-
phasis is central to Rorty’s explicit appropriation in Philosophy and the Mirror of
Nature as he sketches his vision of philosophy after epistemology and calls it herme-

Closely related to his account of interpretation as a historical phenomenon,
but not visible in Rorty’s meta-philosophical work, is Gadamer’s multifaceted ex-
ploration and reinterpretation of the dynamics of subjectivity and authority in the
concrete event of understanding. That this aspect of Gadamer’s hermeneutics is not
signitcantly exploited in Rorty’s deconstruction of representationalist epistemol-
ogy is not surprising. The object of Rorty’s narrative attack is philosophical foun-
dationalism, and he deploys a dramatic genealogy of world-historical sweep to
Richard Rorty: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge/New York 1989, 73 n.
Richard Rorty: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton, 1979. Hans-Georg Gadamer:
Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutikk, Tübingen
1965. Quotations
are from H.-G. G.: Truth and Method, New York
1994. With respect to his own endorsing use
of the term ‹hermeneutics›, Rorty remarks that it «is largely due to one book – Gadamer’s Truth
and Method.» (Rorty: Mirror of Nature, 357.)
See ibid., 315.
ZÄK-Sonderheft 11 · © Felix Meiner Verlag 2011 · ISBN 978-3-7873-2166-7
44 Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
bring about its displacement. The actors in this Rortyan drama are large-scale
vocabularies and emblematic idealized tgures. What might be characterized as
phenomenological attention to concrete experience of interpretive success and fail-
ure – of illumination and of impenetrability, of persuasion and of resistance – which
is of such signitcance to Gadamer, simply does not play a role at the level of abstrac-
tion at which Rorty’s meta-philosophical historicist narrative is pitched. However,
in the course of the 1980s Rorty changes his focus. Less concerned with grand
narratives of philosophy, he increasingly attends to the existential and political
predicaments and possibilities of the individual and the individual community. And
here it would seem, on the face of it, that the hermeneutic attempt to recast our
understanding of subjectivity and discursive authority would be of immediate rel-
evance. Yet in Rorty’s most sustained and ambitious enort to articulate pragmatist
historicism in existential and political terms, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, there
is no mention of hermeneutics. Gadamer is entirely absent. Why is this? Might not
pragmatism be better served by integrating this second dimension of hermeneutic
historicism? How might this be achieved? These are questions I will be pursuing
as I interrogate Rorty’s vocabulary of contingency.
Subjectivity: A Pragmatist Agenda
With the idea of a tnal vocabulary – those standards embedded in our articulate
practice beyond which, at the moment, there can be no compelling non-question-
begging appeal – Rorty is explicitly recognizing the situated and malleable nature
of discursive normative force. His emphasis on the contingency and historicity of
any set of practically basic evaluations and commitments has been met with ac-
cusations of relativism and subjectivism. In response, Rorty has claimed that these
charges trade on an implicit allegiance to the scheme-content distinction, in the
form of the idea of the knowing subject as inner spontaneity confronting an outer
reality that is independently there, but not, alas, independently accessible or even
characterizable. The notion of a tnal vocabulary must be seen, Rorty suggests, in
the context of a larger historicist and naturalist revolt against the idea of a meta-
physically basic subject-object opposition. ‹Objectivity›, according to Rorty’s prag-
matist proposal, is to be reinterpreted in terms of rules for social practice – in brief,
solidarity. ‹Subjectivity›, meanwhile, is to be deconstructed – abandoned as philo-
sophical myth. These moves will enable us, Rorty maintains, to preserve the prac-
tical possibility of reasonableness and integrity with respect to our commitments
and beliefs within a thoroughly historicist and Darwinian picture of our capacities
as agents and thinkers.
In what follows it will be an undisputed aim to allow for the possibility of rea-
sonableness and integrity of commitments while at the same time fully acknowl-
edging our situatedness in its historical as well as its biological dimension. Ap-
proaching his reinterpretation of objectivity and subjectivity in that spirit is to
Turning to Hermeneutics 45
engage Rorty in naturalist and historicist terms, assuming a shared stance against
transcendental and metaphysical aspirations. Even here, though, on common
ground, there is reason to worry about the notion of a tnal vocabulary as an image
of our tnitude and situatedness. For one thing, it appears to be cast as a ‹limit› to
discursive resources, a ‹border› that an individual may reach and in fact even cross
– on pain, however, of ceasing to be a dialogical creature, entering a realm where
arbitrary force is the only recourse. What is more, and perhaps worse; Rorty
sketches the idea of a tnal vocabulary as a repository of the ultimate discursive
resources of an individual; and so a tnal vocabulary seems to inherit whatever
arbitrariness may attach to any particular individual’s acknowledged or unacknowl-
edged commitments, rather than serve as a possible means for mitigating such ar-
bitrariness. Breaking with common practice among Rorty’s critics, I oner a diag-
nosis that locates the trouble not with Rorty’s notion of objectivity, but rather with
his treatment of subjectivity. My suggestion is that Rorty’s pragmatist conception
of the mental still remains hampered by dichotomizing presuppositions, and that
these give rise to the worry, just mentioned, that Rorty anords us no escape from
arbitrary individualism. On the positive side, my claim is that by breaking the hold
of vestigial subjectivist assumptions, pragmatists will be better able to exploit the
resources of the hermeneutic conception of understanding as a genuine achieve-
ment of tnite historical beings. Hermeneutics provides an enriched perspective on
the core idea of a tnal vocabulary, and signitcantly bolsters the pragmatist enort
to dislodge the rationalist conception of discursive authority with its pressures
toward a representationalist view of objectivity, justitcation and truth.
If this is so, however, the question becomes; how might a pragmatist respond to
this diagnosis? Is a suitable, non-subjectivist idea of subjectivity something to which
we might simply help ourselves, at wish or whim – as if we were masters of our
philosophical vocabularies? It is a basic insight both of pragmatism and herme-
neutics that we cannot stipulate our way to philosophical signitcance. To speak
dinerently, to mean something else, we must in some way change our perspective.
If a potentially useful side of hermeneutics has faded from Rortyan view, as I have
claimed, then there is a reason for this; the close association of the notion of sub-
jectivity with anti-naturalistic philosophical dichotomies that support representa-
tionalist metaphysical thought. This issue will need to be addressed.
Fortunately, ‹subjectivity› is not only a philosophical term of art; it denotes an
indeterminate range of phenomena of everyday experience, some of which are of
considerable moral and political signitcance, and some also of scientitc interest.
The task for pragmatists with Rortyan sympathies, then, who seek to change their
philosophical perspective on subjectivity, is to exploit such phenomena, or domains
of use, in an enort to readjust our idea of the subjective as a topic of philosophical
doctrine. While attempting to extract the idea of subjectivity from its entangle-
ment with anti-naturalistic conceptions of agents and of philosophy, we must also
try to secure an understanding yielding enough philosophical traction to pull us
away from the threat of subjectivism. In the end, the hope is that pragmatists will
46 Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
recalibrate the relation between nature, subjectivity, understanding and authority
so as to keep faith with the naturalist commitments of pragmatism while allowing
a more decisive response to the worries about arbitrariness and irrationalism than
Rorty’s image of our epistemic and moral tnitude – as speakers of tnal vocabular-
ies – appears to be able to support.
Subjectivity: Naturalism and the Davidsonian Inheritance
I suggested above that Rorty’s naturalistically motivated conception of the mental
makes any substantive idea of subjectivity philosophically unattractive. To make
headway, then, let us consider more closely the salient features of the conception
of meaning and psychological states that Rorty appropriates from Donald David-
son, in the context of Rorty’s general approbation of what he terms Davidson’s
non-reductive physicalism.

Davidson’s basic picture is of a causally structured world of objects and events;
‹objects› are what may undergo change, ‹events› are changes, ‹causation› is what is
displayed when change occurs.

His strategy with regard to putative further onto-
logical kinds is to treat them rather as conceptual categories – or, in pragmatist
terms, as categorizations embedded in vocabularies expressive of some range or
other of human interest. Accordingly, the relation between the mental and the
physical is not taken to obtain between two kinds of entities, but between two
systematically dinerent vocabularies. Both vocabularies apply to objects and events
in the world, and serve to indicate causal relations between events as well as caus-
ally relevant features of objects; moreover, as Davidson argues from premises in-
voking (among other things) the nature of causal statements and of causal laws, if
a mental description is true of a thing, so also must be a physical description. How-
ever, because of systematic dinerences between the respective vocabularies in
which these two kinds of characterizations are made, there is no way to forge
detnitional or strictly law-like connections between them. The argument for
‹anomalous monism›, as Davidson calls it, detnes two distinct vocabularies (or
perhaps groups of vocabularies) by suggesting orthogonal constitutive commit-
ments for each.

The ‹mental› is what we have in view when we describe agents in
terms of the propositional attitudes we invoke to (causally) explain their actions
(including their linguistic actions). Such explanations work, in general, by display-
ing the ‹rationality› that is characteristic of behaviour as it is brought about by
See Richard Rorty: Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Philosophical Papers, Vol. I, Cambridge/
New York 1991, 113–125.
This is rough, and abstracts away from complications. However, a careful treatment of
Davidson’s view would not weaken the fundamental point, which is to insist on the basic inter-
relatedness and interdependence of these three general categories.
See Donald Davidson: Mental Events, in: D.D.: Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford 1980,
Turning to Hermeneutics 47
agents with beliefs about the world and motivating desires. This means that general
norms of rationality are built into the application conditions of the concepts we use
to depict behaviour as the expression of mind. In physical vocabularies, by contrast,
the objects and events under description are depicted as subject to non-rational
regularities of various kinds, from the strict laws of fundamental physical science
to the ceteris-paribus ridden generalities and rules of thumb that govern the fates
of ordinary objects in our practical intercourse with them.
It turns out, on this picture, that all objects and events are physical, in so far as
they are by hypothesis describable in the language that tnds its most precise, re-
tned and inclusive form in the vocabulary of physics. So the fundamental dogma
of physicalism is preserved; all that there is is indeed physical. However, by shifting
the contrast from substances to vocabularies and combining this shift with a dena-
tionary view of properties, Davidson is able to hold that many states and events are
also mental, and that this aspect is no less essentially predicated of them than are
physical properties.

To say of an event that it is mental, is to ‹add something› to
what one would say of that event by giving a physical description of it, no matter
how comprehensive – it is to say that it enters into a pattern of rationality that
physical predicates cannot capture ‹as a pattern›.

The mental vocabulary catches
aspects of thing that only that very vocabulary can express, namely, the intention-
ality evinced in the behaviour of (more-or-less) rational creatures.
The second key element of Davidson’s conception of mind and meaning is the
fundamental commitment to the priority of the third-person stance in a philo-
sophical account of meaning and mind. ‹Contents›, whether of sentences expressed
or of thoughts entertained or of action-explaining attitudes, have their identities
settled by their location in patterns of such contents that are txed in ‹radical inter-

The detning feature of the mental, namely rationality, is on this Dav-
idsonian view an intersubjective phenomenon, and not a feature of intra-cranial
neuronal patterns.
It is hard to overestimate the liberating potential of the combination of anomalous
monism as an interpretation of physicalism and the third-person account of the
nature of intentional states for someone struggling to break out of the possibility-
Doubts are legion; for some basic ones, see Jaegwon Kim: The Myth of Nonreductive Ma-
terialism, in: J.K.: Supervenience and Mind. Selected Philosophical Essays, Cambridge 1993, 265–284.
For an elaboration of this way of characterizing the contribution of the mental, see Daniel
C. Dennett: Real Patterns, in: D.D.: Brainchildren, Cambridge/Mass. 1998, 95–120. Dennett is
another of Rorty’s philosophical allies in philosophy of mind. I oner my take in Bjørn Ramberg:
Dennett’s Pragmatism, in: Pragmatism. Special Issue of Revue Internationale de Philosophie (1999),
ed. by Jean-Pierre Commetti, 61–86.
‹Radical interpretation› is a device set up to specify how one might come to have knowledge
that would sum ce to understand the expressions of a given language, and to isolate what such
knowledge presupposes. In radical interpretation lies the rationale for the rationality assumption.
See Donald Davidson: Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford 1984, 125–139.
48 Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
space detned by philosophy of mind of the 1960s.

A pragmatist could now be a
good naturalist – that is, a good physicalist – yet tnd room for what we care about,
what has value, the human – that is to say, the mind – in the discursive space of
propositional attitude ascription. Moreover, the Davidsonian construal of Quine’s
third-person requirement – in enect inter-subjectivising the mental – meant that
a great deal of Cartesian baggage could be shed. With this achievement, a desire to
get rid of the Cartesian subject, the inner self with problematic external access and
internal transparency, no longer drives one in the direction of eliminativism.
However, while the Davidsonian picture of having a human mind as a matter
of coming to possess language does alleviate the pressure toward strong reduction-
ism that is exerted by physicalism, it also enforces a kind of dualism, where we
regard ourselves either as rationality-constrained speakers (in the wide sense of
being bearers of propositional attitudes), or as physical entities. The idea is that even
if there are not two fundamental kinds of things, there are two fundamental kinds
of aspects of things – as they are captured in physical theory, or as they are described
in the language of propositional attitude attribution.
This dualistic conception places serious constraints on our notion of the subjec-
tive, as Davidson makes clear. In The myth of the subjective Davidson am rms an ex-
ternalist, interpretationist view of content, the compatibility of interpretationism
with physicalism, and the constitutive relation between content states and causal
relations to subject-external objects and thus the public nature of meaning.

rejects the scheme-content division and the concomitant conception of the mind
as a synthesizer of given materials, and denies that there are objects of thought
analogous to sense data or propositional entities. He then asks:
What remains of the concept of subjectivity? So far as I can see, two features of the
concept of subjectivity as classically conceived remain in place. Thoughts are private,
in the obvious but important sense in which property can be private, that is, belong
to one person. And knowledge of thoughts is asymmetrical, in that the person who
has a thought generally knows he has it in a way in which others cannot. But that
is all there is to the subjective.
The «classically conceived» notion of the subjective that Davidson here dispenses
with, is the target of Rorty’s deconstruction in the trst two chapters of Philosophy
and the Mirror of Nature.

It is the idea of an experience-receiving representor, with
a special kind of knowledge of its inner states, including those states that represent
what is outer – the external world. To extirpate this notion from our philosophical
intuition is a major part of the pragmatist struggle to get beyond Cartesian premises
in our conception of ourselves. What we are left with, as Rorty follows through
It is worth noting that Rorty made his reputation among analytic philosophers with a
series of papers in the 1960s arguing for a version of eliminative materialism.
See Donald Davidson: Subjective, Intersubjecive, Objective, Oxford 2001, 39–52.
Ibid., 52.
See Rorty: Mirror of Nature (note 2), 17–127.
Turning to Hermeneutics 49
on Davidson’s lead, is a naturalized subject; a tissue of beliefs and desires, aligning
and realigning its web of attitudes, narrating and re-narrating a self, a mind that is
a mind in so far as it is an organism with language. The intentional realm is natu-
ralized not through reduction to brain states but through identitcation with inter-
subjectively constituted patterns made up of the communicative behaviour of or-
ganisms. The subjective, on this picture, is a perspective on the world characterized
by a particular set of propositional attitudes, expressed in speech and other actions
as these are construed by principles of rationality. It is the outlook of the individual
mind in the community of mutual interpreters, detned as a cluster of attitudes – let
us say, a particular node – in such a community, a node existing only in so far as
there are language-using creatures interacting to create the pattern that makes
locations for individual perspectives available at all.
Against this background, it is easy to think of a ‹tnal vocabulary› precisely as
what marks the characteristic normative protle of some particular perspective,
what identites a node (or a family of nodes) in the pattern as just the node that it
is – the characteristic normative boundary of a specitc subjectivity. As a mind, it
is exhausted by its language; its normative resources and sensibilities are contned
to its vocabularies. As an organism, beyond its capacities to deploy vocabularies, it
is ‹mere› organism; no anect, no interest, no capacities of orientation and locomo-
tion, no goal-directedness, is recognized as manifestation of subjectivity except as
expressed in language.
Now, on the face of it, one might think that this identitcation of mind with
language would serve pragmatism well as a basis from which to meld its horizon
with that of philosophical hermeneutics. Gadamer, after all, following Heidegger,
makes what appear to be similar claims, am rming the essentially linguistic nature
of all understanding. As he famously remarks, «being that can be understood is

And when Gadamer claims that «verbal experience […] embraces all
being-in-itself, in whatever relationships (relativities) it appears»,

it suggests to
many readers the kind of totalizing linguistic idealism that critics have frequently
attributed to Rorty. However, any impression of easy rapprochement on the basis
of a common conception of the mind-encompassing nature of language is deeply
misleading. In so far as Rortyan pragmatism might exploit a hermeneutic concep-
tion of discursive authority, it will be in spite of the pragmatist’s naturalistically
motivated conception of linguistic capacity as the limits of mind, and not because
of it. This will become apparent in due course. Before considering that constructive
possibility further, however, we must marshal some of those elements of the herme-
neutic picture of understanding that Rorty has left unexploited.
Gadamer: Truth and Method (note 2), xxxv.
Ibid., 450. I do think that the commonly made charge of linguistic idealism is based on
bad readings of both Rorty and Gadamer, but it is not my concern here to defend either phi-
lospher on this count.
50 Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
Play, Subjectivity, and the Hermeneutic Idea of Authority
Gadamer develops his hermeneutic account of understanding as a critical response to
what he calls the philosophy of subjectivity. This is a classitcation that includes both
the classic Enlightenment enorts to found rational warrant on renection and self-
renection as well as the Romantic reaction to the rationalist aspirations inherent in
these enorts. As Gadamer puts it in a much-quoted passage from Truth and Method:
Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we
understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society, and state in which
we live. The focus of subjectivity is only a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of
the individual is only a nickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why
the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgements, constitute the his-
torical reality of his being.
It is passages like these that underlie complaints that Gadamer is an anti-rationalist
thinker. However, his target here is not the Enlightenment, per se, but rather the
underlying idea that the authority of reason depends on the nature of the subject’s
access to itself, an idea that the emblematic thinkers of the Enlightenment from
Descartes to Kant share with their Romantic critics. This shared idea means, in
Gadamer’s terms, that both parties to this philosophical confrontation are forms of
‹subjectivism›. In criticizing subjectivism, Gadamer’s point is emphatically not to
promote anti-rationalism. No doubt, Gadamer is fundamentally opposed to the
idea that the critical powers of the individual thinking subject are such as to ensure
– in principle and guided by the right method – understanding and knowledge
untainted by the contingencies of time, place and variable human interest. How-
ever, as Kristin Gjesdal notes in her perceptive reading, Gadamer’s «aim is not to
dispense with renection as such, but to work out a notion of renection that is
critical and historically sensitive at the same time.»

When Gadamer rejects the
subjectivist conception of reason as an antidote to our historical situatedness, our
tnitude and our temporality, it is because he recognizes the force of the Romantic
claim that such an antidote really has no hope of being enective.
Seen from this perspective, hermeneutics is an enort to retrieve the liberating
impulse of the Enlightenment from an entrenched set of framing pre-understand-
ings that leaves it open to relativizing historicist critique. As Robert Pippin argues,
we ought to think of Gadamer precisely as ‹reacting› «against a relativistic histori-
cism that ‹locked› speakers and actors ‹inside› world views», by emphasising the
need to overcome the root of this boxed-in view of thought, namely «the primacy
of self-consciousness».

Ibid., 276 f.
Kristin Gjesdal: Gadamer and the Legacy of German Idealism, Cambridge 2009, 120. I draw
frequently on her exposition and analysis in what follows.
Robert Pippin: The Persistence of Subjectivity. On the Kantian Aftermath, Cambridge 2005,
79 f.
Turning to Hermeneutics 51
To read Gadamer along the lines that both Gjesdal and Pippin do is to emphasize
just the aspect of his hermeneutics that makes this perspective potentially attractive
for pragmatism.

For Rorty, too, in trying to tght on relativism and subjectivism,
aims precisely to break out of and distance himself from the presuppositions of the
boxed-into-a-scheme view of mind, meaning and understanding that, once en-
dorsed, makes relativism inevitable for historicist thinkers. Yet, as I have claimed,
Rorty’s idea of a tnal vocabulary seems captive to this very image. And while
Rorty is adamant about his rejection of a philosophically explanatory scheme-con-
tent distinction, he shows little willingness to follow Gadamer’s constructive ac-
count of reason as ‹depending› on those very aspects of our situation as understand-
ing creatures that rationalism sets itself against. To see what might be keeping
Rorty at arms length here – to his philosophical detriment, if I am right – we must
brieny consider how Gadamer performs this reversal.
A basic point of Gadamer’s critique of the ‹prejudice against prejudice› is that
the prejudices we apply in interpretation are what make understanding possible at
all. Not in spite of but ‹through› our historical immersion, we have a shot at mak-
ing sense of what invites our interpretation.

The task of critical renection is not
to sort prejudice from explicitly and fully warranted belief. Rather, the task is to
strike the appropriate balance of humility and critical distance in determining a
suitable direction for questioning – both of ourselves and that which we are trying
to understand – while retaining awareness that we are always, in judging, relying
on more that we can account for.
It might seem that this is simply a retreat to humble fallibilism, a counsel of
prudence. But there is something more important and fundamental going on in
Gadamer’s development of the idea of reason as a capacity of historical creatures.
The salient contrast is no longer between the subject and the object, between the
thinker and what she may or may not know. In stead, drawing on Hegel and
Heidegger, Gadamer shifts the focus onto the relation between the individual and
the social, and to the forms of mediation to which this relation may be subject. This
is the dimension on which ‹reason› is now understood. That is what Gadamer
means by «the elevation of the historicity of understanding to the status of a herme-
neutic principle».

The shift that occurs here may be usefully approached by way of another, and
earlier, theme elaborated in Truth and Method, the phenomenon of play. «The struc-
ture of play», Gadamer observes, «absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him
from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the actual strain of

This shift of initiative is important. The subjective ability at stake in
While Gjesdal and Pippin join forces against anti-rationalist readers of Gadamer, they
disagree interestingly about his relation to Hegel. Fortunately, that is not an issue I need to take
a stand on for the present basic points.
Gadamer: Truth and Method (note 2), 271 n.
Ibid., 265 n.
Ibid., 105.
52 Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
play is ‹responsiveness›, and responsiveness must be based on ‹recognition›. Gadam-
er’s point, as Gjesdal puts it, is that: «In playing, we submit to a totality of meaning
that transcends the scope of renective subjectivity.»

So play in fact cuts across the
distinction between what we do and what happens to us, between agent and pa-
tient, by way of a notion of participation that, while involving the activity of a
subject is not reducible to an enort of subjectivity. Hence Gadamer asserts as fun-
damental «the primacy of play over the consciousness of the players».

Play engages the
subject, and the subject may decline or accept, but once accepted, the invitation to
play robs the subject of a specitc form of freedom, namely the freedom of critical
renection; «all playing is a being-played», as Gadamer puts it.

Yet the responsive-
ness activated in play is also a kind of freedom; an easy facility in meeting chal-
lenges and taking advantage of transient opportunities as the game ebbs and nows.
It is easy to recognize this as a description of a subject’s way of ‹coping›, not only
with a game, but also with situations of all kinds in which it is immersed. Gadamer
follows Heidegger in suggesting that this form of immersion is our primary mode
of being acquainted with the world.
Gadamer, however, is after a more radical point than the recognizably pragma-
tist idea that practical coping is in some sense a basis for renective beliefs and judge-
ments. Taking play to illustrate the primacy of the relation over the ‹relata›, Gad-
amer is ready to attack what he takes to be subjectivism in the understanding of the
nature of art. And here Gadamer pushes for a view that seems far indeed from the
linguistic naturalism of Rortyan pragmatism. Works of art oner us encounters with
truths, argues Gadamer, that are world-disclosive – the experience of the work of
art ought to lead us to recognize that we are sensitive to claims that are not onered
in propositional form, but nevertheless may reveal how things are, and make de-
mands upon us to which we may respond adequately or inadequately.
Although Gadamer acknowledges – or insists upon – the fact that we as subjects
are open to truth-claims that are not propositional in form, it would be a mistake
to think of this as corresponding to a non-linguistic or pre-linguistic form of

It is rather that as linguistic beings we are capable also of accessing and be-
ing oriented by sources of normativity that are not propositionally presented. It
Gjesdal: Gadamer and the Legacy of German Idealism (note 17), 108.
Gadamer: Truth and Method (note 2), 104.
Ibid., 106.
The tension between what she describes as «Gadamer’s two models of truth» is a central
theme of Gjesdal’s treatment: «The important question», she writes, «is whether or not he can
harmonize his critical-renective intent with his desire to portray the world-disclosive event of
art as paradigmatic for our relation to truth and knowledge at large.» Gjesdal: Gadamer and the
Legacy of German Idealism (note 17), 120. Her conclusion is that he cannot, and that this tension
does real damage to Gadamer’s notion of hermeneutical rationality. Gjesdal’s reading is forceful,
and fortunately it is not a part of my brief to resist it. For my purposes, it sum ces to establish that
there is in Gadamer a clear aspiration to recognize sources of normative force to which we are
sensitive and that are not contained within or exhausted by propositional understanding. And
this is a point that Gjesdal is at pains to emphasize.
Turning to Hermeneutics 53
would also be wrong to think of this aspect of our subjectivity as in any sense cut
on from renective deliberation and propositional judgement. It is rather that as we
bring to articulation and to renective judgement possible standpoints with regard
to some matter, we always tnd ourselves already having taken a basic stand. If we
had not, if we did not already and always stand normatively related to the world,
no renective judgement would be forthcoming, because there would be no basis
for it, no concern with the world in light of which a judgment might make sense.
In a brief but pivotal section of Truth and Method – «The Rehabilitation of Author-
ity and Tradition» – Gadamer makes this critical point with respect to the relation
between critical renection or reason, authority, and tradition.

On the one hand,
what Gadamer calls ‹tradition› is the inexhaustible repertoire of normative orienta-
tions that allow us to make sense of what we encounter, and thus it is the ground
of understanding and judgment. In its inescapability, it is authoritative. At the same
time, however, the authority that it has is something it must be granted by the liv-
ing bearers of tradition in any particular act of interpretation or understanding –
which can always, in the particular case, be directed against some aspect or concre-
tion of tradition, and be critical of it. Thus both as a source of authority and as an
object of criticism tradition is inexhaustible, and we as subjects are, along either
axis, in constant interaction with it. Maintaining or modifying or in some way
giving shape to the tradition and the authority that we also always rely on, involves
our active responsiveness as understanding subjects. As Gadamer expresses this
hermeneutic duality; for any genuine authority, «its true basis is an act of free-

Where does this leave us? The object of Gadamer’s hermeneutic criticism is not
principally rationalism, but a mode of thinking about human understanding that
seems to force us to chose between reason as a power capable of neutralizing the
contingencies of history – and, we might add, biology – and human thinking as
nothing but the conscious manifestation of essentially individual processes happen-
ing to occur in us. His alternative approach draws on an understanding of the in-
terpreting subject as a participator in understanding, participating by virtue of an
ability to draw on resources beyond what she is able to fully articulate or transform
into objects for renective consciousness. This ability, which always exceeds renec-
tion and which includes the capacity to respond to normative claims not renectively
mastered or even fully articulated, is itself onered by language. This is because in
exercising her capacity for language, the individual participates in and draws on
the social, on community, on tradition. Such exercise, moreover, is not merely, not
even primarily, a matter of producing tokens governed by semantic and syntactic
structures allowing propositional truths to be stated. Language, for Gadamer, is a
dynamic medium of participation where the subject’s involvement with a com-
munity of speakers allows the ‹disclosure› of what may be understood, a disclosure
Gadamer: Truth and Method (note 2), 277–285.
Ibid., 280.
54 Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
that makes any explicit understanding possible.

What language anords us, on the
hermeneutic account, involves an ability to be normatively related to the world
that is not itself contned to what, at any given time, is propositionally articu-
For the pragmatist relying on language to naturalize mind this sounds virtually
paradoxical, and that impression is contrmed by the hermeneutic idea of a form of
truth that is supposed to be distinct from, even prior to, propositional correspond-
ence. This seems like a retrograde move, exposing us to the very dim culties that
the appeal to language was supposed to get us out of. If this is where the construc-
tive attempt to overcome the individualism of a subjectivist view of reason lands
us, then better to refrain from constructive views altogether.
The problem with this response, however, is that in refraining from construction
the Rortyan pragmatist risks dwelling in an uncomfortably contned space. The
dinerence between the pragmatist’s position and the hermeneutic perspective lies
in the location of the source of the normativity that comes temporarily and imper-
fectly to expression in the snapshot abstraction of some given tnal vocabulary.
Hermeneutics indicates a source beyond that snapshot. For Rorty, it seems, outside
that frame there is nowhere to turn but to passivity or force. So another pragmatic
response to the hermeneutic line may be worth pursuing.
Animal Subjectivity
What is required to create an opening toward the hermeneutic perspective is a
moditcation of the vocabulary in which we articulate the commitments that make
up Rorty-style pragmatism. Specitcally, we need to dislodge the understanding of
the constraints of naturalism that block the possibility of appeal to a richer notion
of the subjective, a notion that allows for a responsiveness to norms that is not
exhausted by the propositional repertoire of a particular individual subject at a
time. Such moditcation will be achieved, if at all, by attending to phenomena that
might put pressure on the pragmatist vocabulary that we bring to them. This is not
a matter of analysis or stipulation, of detnition or redetnition, but of engagement
with some appropriate subject matter – in this case, what we may call animal sub-
jectivity. Attending to animal subjectivity as a way to stretch and modify intuitions
about the subjective is, in enect, an application of the Rortyan idea of redescription,
carried out, however, with the specitc end in view of altering the terms we make
use of in this very process. This possibility is best regarded as a corollary of the
familiar Rortyan claim that anything can be made to look good or bad by being
As Gjesdal remarks, «in order for there to be objects to be represented, a world in which
objects present themselves must be disclosed in the trst place. In his account, the real problem
of truth […] is whether everything is so presented that it can be presented in speech.» Gjesdal:
Gadamer and the Legacy of German Idealism (note 17), 92.
Turning to Hermeneutics 55
redescribed. In putting the point that way, Rorty (and his critics) emphasizes the
fact that by choosing to use dinerent terms we may bring ourselves to make diner-
ent evaluations of things. That redescription alters the patterns of our engagement
with the world we live in is hardly a controversial point. What may provoke is the
subjectivist spin Rorty’s well-known phrase seems to put on it; it seems to suggest
that we may simply tailor our descriptions to suit our preferences, apparently leav-
ing us with no constraint on permissible desire but our own lack of inventiveness.
It is essential to bear in mind, however, that articulating experience and framing
our understanding of things in novel ways will also anect and alter the use-patterns
of the terms we employ in that enort. So redescription is not a process wholly
under deliberative, renective control. Rather, engaging in redescription we are
venturing our vocabulary; when it comes to meaning, practical application always
outruns theoretical specitcation. This fact is what we must now try to take advan-
tage of with respect to our understanding of subjectivity – considering manifesta-
tions of animal subjectivity we try to nudge ourselves into a dinerent view, to
obtain, as it were, dinerent intuitions. Success in this endeavour, though hardly
available within the scope of a supertcial and largely programmatic sketch such as
the present one, would open for the possibility of a hermeneutical strengthening
of pragmatist historicism by eliminating subjectivist tendencies in its understanding
of the demands of naturalism. Furthermore, success would exemplify a fundamen-
tal pragmatist claim; there is such a thing as a reasoned moditcation of a vocabu-
lary, a response to and a retnement of normative demands embedded in our prac-
tices – in a word, intellectual progress – even with no assumption of transparency
of concepts being made and no appeal to practice-transcending sources of author-
ity imagined.
What we are looking for, then, is a passage into a dinerent view of the subjective
as a natural constituent of the world. In search of leverage that might enable us to
budge pragmatist intuitions about the nature of our normative engagement with
the world, we may well take our cue from Gadamer and consider the phenomenon
of play. Play, as Gadamer also emphasizes, is a marvellous demonstration of the
inter-species nature of subjective capacities, and so a perfect entry point for the
consideration of animal subjectivity. In The Genesis of Animal Play. Testing the Lim-
its, Gordon M. Burghardt detnes his subject thus: «Play is repeated, incompletely
functional behaviour dinering from more serious versions structurally, contextu-
ally, or ontogenetically, and initiated voluntarily when an animal is in a relaxed or
low-stress setting.»

The detnition proves to be strong enough to allow us, as we
follow Burghardt’s investigations, to recognize – and to recognize ourselves in –
the playing activity of a vast range of animals; reptiles, birds, tsh, and mammals.
In play creatures express both natural function and, at the same time, in exercising
the natural function of play, freedom from the instrumental rationality of those
Gordon M. Burghardt: The Genesis of Animal Play. Testing the Limits. Cambridge/Mass.
2005, 82.
56 Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
particular functions that are being played out. Precisely because play expresses
nature both as regularity and as openness or spontaneity, Burghardt’s detailed de-
scriptions and careful documentation is a source of conceptual movement; it isn’t
just that we have come to know something surprising about how much play there
is in the many counties of the animal kingdom, rather, we are left with new insight
into what it is we ourselves are doing when we play, that is to say, we arrive at a
richer understanding of ‹what play is›.
A basic Darwinian lesson to be drawn from Burghardt and similar (though rarely
as comprehensive) projects is that the great salience to us of specitc dinerences
between us and other species depends on interests that go beyond a mere wish to
gain knowledge of how things are. As has been appreciated at least since Darwin,
and as has become increasingly evident over the last three decades, we are well
served in our explorations of the psychological and social make-up of human beings
by our increasing knowledge of other species. A second point to note is that this
body of work suggests that the commonly experienced ability to understand, em-
pathize and communicate with members of other species – that is to say, encounter
their subjectivity – tts easily into a naturalist view of our place in the world (even
if we in this area, as perhaps in others, tend to overemphasize the signitcance of
the lexical in our communicative achievements). Finally, Burghardt brings home
a lesson that concerns the form of the continuity that is brought into view by a
naturalistic approach to the characteristics of subjectivity. It is easy, intuitively, to
imagine this continuity as additive. Thus one might imagine human play as,
roughly, the usual primate repertoire plus some additional factor(s). Similarly with
communication; no doubt, cognitively and communicatively we can by virtue of
being language users achieve dramatically more than the bonobo or the chimpan-
zee. However, even through and by means of language we perform varieties of
social and communicative action recognizable as kinds that are performed also by
other species. As with play, so to talk is to do many dinerent things at once. Some
of the things that we do when we talk and play we may easily remain oblivious to
– until we learn to see those aspects of ourselves by studying other playing, com-
municating animals. It is perhaps here that Burghardt’s study of play is most sig-
nitcant for present purposes. Through its careful and detailed description, showing
constant alertness to the risks of anthropocentric language, Burghardt’s work pro-
vides a concrete instance of the interrelatedness of understanding and self-under-
standing. The increased knowledge of animal behaviour produces also a richer
understanding of what play is, and this, in turn, is inextricably linked to our self-
understanding as beings who play. The point here is that Burghardt’s study may be
taken as evidence for the claim that increased understanding of other species and
of the ways in which human beings and other species relate and interlink, will
alter our self-perception, our understanding of (at least some of ) our own capacities
as subjects.
Recognizing that the point has to remain stipulative, I nevertheless suggest that
the cumulative impact of work like Burghardt and other cognitively oriented ethol-
Turning to Hermeneutics 57
ogists makes it increasingly dim cult to deny animal subjectivity as an integral aspect
of the human capacity for engaging the world and acting in it. This applies no less
to our capacities as communicative agents than to our instrumentally directed
behaviour (to adapt Habermas’s distinction). We are indeed bearers of propositional
attitudes, but we are a great deal more than this, not just as mere organisms or as
objects of physical theory but as agents and subjects. Pragmatism, in so far as it does
not permit itself a view of the mental that embraces this fact, is stuck with a con-
ception of subjectivity divided from what is not subjectivity in a deeply problematic
way. It makes inexplicable the manner in which linguistic behaviour may be treated
as an ‹expression› of our subjectivity, and it makes it inexplicable, perhaps even
invisible, that also in our propositional engagement with the world we routinely
exercise versions of capacities of animal subjectivity that exist in graded form in a
variety of living, experiencing subjects. Nor should there be any strong temptation
for naturalistic pragmatists to stay with this conception – once it is recognized that
what is now feeding substance into the notion of the subjective is not a refurbished
ontological dualism but, rather, careful empirical study of the subtle and complex
biological world in which we tnd ourselves and of which we are an integral part.
Endorsing the idea of animal subjectivity as the core of our own is to assume a
naturalistic attitude that avoids the sharp dualism of the Rorty-Davidson version
of non-reductive physicalism. Such physicalism, in treating ‹mind› as coextensive
with rationality-constituted webs of propositional attitudes, buys irreducibility of
the mental at the price of disconnecting mindedness from essentially embodied
aspects of subjectivity – it simply leaves no room for notions of this kind. This
disconnect is a price we ought not to be willing to pay. And we may resist, more-
over, with equanimity; the temptation of a priori assurances that mind is forever
beyond the reach of physical vocabulary trades on the suspicion – the fear – that
only a metaphysical barrier will keep mind from eventually collapsing into mind-
less, mechanical nature. This fear is ultimately rooted in the idea that there is one
ideal set of concepts that actually renects the intrinsic nature of things. As pragma-
tism dispenses entirely with this idea, and consistently refuses to treat physics as an
ontologically more basic form of description than biology or psychology, there
should remain no such fear of metaphysical disappearance acts. Pragmatists, as
naturalists, ought to rest happily with a gradualist view of subjectivity and mental-
ity, accepting the idea of the propositional as a matter of inter-subjective engage-
ment but including in their conception of agency and subjectivity the capacities
that make such engagement possible and provides it with much of its purpose and
These considerations are intended in a spirit of friendly amendment to the
Rorty-Davidson version of pragmatism. My aim has been to further elaborate a
pragmatist perspective that is fundamentally hospitable to their naturalistic inten-
tions, but without forcing the idea of subjectivity into the dichotomous conception
of the world as compartmentalized, ultimately, into the domains of truth-theories
or of physics, respectively. It remains, however, to reconnect with the initial theme.
58 Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
The possibility of a hermeneutic re-enforcement of pragmatist historicism, a re-
situating of something like Rorty’s notion of a tnal vocabulary in a non-subjectiv-
ist context, was blocked, I suggested, by a limited and constricting notion of sub-
jectivity. I hope that it is now at least plausible that this is not a notion to which
pragmatism is tied, in so far as naturalism does not require it. Even success in this
regard, however, would sum ce at most to remove an impediment to dialogue with
hermeneutics on what our historical situatedness means with respect to the possi-
bility of reason and integrity in our commitments. Still, such dialogue might now
have improved prospects. For the pragmatist need no longer rule out, on natural-
istic grounds, Gadamer’s attribution of substantive, subject-transcending normative
features to language and to the very event of understanding. For the very features
that Gadamer draws on in his account of the subject’s participation in the integra-
tive event of understanding, and the nature of the recognition of authority, presup-
poses that there are genuine capacities of subjectivity that are neither purely me-
chanical (non-interest-guided) nor inherently propositional. And this is exactly
what I have argued that we should, on naturalistic grounds, allow ourselves to
Listening to Hermeneutics
In this paper I have attempted to link up pragmatist thinking about subjectivity
with a nash excursion into Truth and Method. There have been two guiding lines of
thought. One concerns Rorty’s idea of a tnal vocabulary. The problem Rorty faces
is that a tnal vocabulary, as he depicts it, seems somehow to be arbitrary, and for
that reason without ability to supply norms with authority. This, I have claimed,
is an expression of a vestigial subjectivism in Rorty’s view of the subjective as a
node in an inter-subjective pattern of propositional-attitude agency. I then argued
that an ameliorating line of thought in Gadamer’s hermeneutics is available to
pragmatism, provided the naturalist constraint on subjectivity is suitably reinter-
preted. Finally, I suggested how such a reinterpretation might be brought about.
The second leading idea has been that we might regard pragmatism itself as a self-
conscious engagement with a tnal vocabulary, suitably reinterpreted. This granted,
ongoing attempts to rearticulate pragmatism and its commitments may serve to
illustrate the dinerence between reasoned moditcation of one’s tnal vocabulary
and bluntly, subjectively, choosing one’s commitments. If all of this were fully
worked out, the message would be this: Final vocabularies, as structures of com-
mitment and orientation, are – just as Gadamer says of language as such – some-
thing we as thinking agents operate in and through. They are not objects of renec-
tive awareness to be endorsed or rejected or explicitly compared one with another.
‹Reasoned moditcation› of tnal vocabularies happens not through choice, nor
through analysis, but through the judicious, careful and tentative ‹application› of
vocabularies, as something that we as thinking creatures ‹are engaged in and
Turning to Hermeneutics 59
engaged by›, in new ways, or in places where we have not before been. And such
application always involves recognition of some claim made on us to understand,
a claim we invest with sum cient authority that we are willing to yield, and be
changed, if that is what it takes to understand well.
The upshot is a signitcant reinterpretation of Rorty’s notion of a tnal vocabu-
lary. Heeding the hermeneutic emphasis on the generation of authority as a process
in which the subject is engaged through a capacity for appropriate response rather
than through (self ) assertion, we recognize the individualistic conception of a tnal
vocabulary as a distortion. The authority that we draw on and am rm as we apply
in judgement the terms that make up our tnal vocabularies is not one that we by
an act of will or by stipulation or by subjective assertion arrogate to ourselves and
infuse into our personal bottom-line discursive repertoire. Rather, such authority
derives from our recognition of, indeed, our insistence on, the rationality of some-
thing beyond our particular individuality, our specitc subjectivity, be it an inter-
locutor, a text, a human practice – or, in Gadamer’s terms, tradition. Any specitc
application of such authority, even when we stand, for the moment, bewildered and
without further prepared-in-advance discursive moves to make and in that sense
may feel as if we are up against the limits of our discursive normative resources,
remains tentative, subject to challenge, to change, and perhaps to improvement
through dialogue. A tnal vocabulary, then, is not tnal at all. Rather, it is the mo-
mentary shape of our rational responsiveness to the world and our dynamic ability
to engage the world, and to be engaged by it, as thinking and thus ever changing

I thank the editors of this volume, who were also organizers of the Workshop, «Pragmatic
hermeneutics? Richard Rorty’s poetics of cultural politics and its consequences in the Hu-
manities» at the Center of Interdisciplinary Research (ZIF) at Bielefeld University ( June 4–5,
2009), which provided an important impetus to develop this material into a paper. The lively
discussions at the ZiF were not only very enjoyable, but also of great philosophical help, and I
am grateful to all who participated. I should also like to thank participants at two other venues,
whose responses to my presentations of related material provided useful objections and helpful
suggestions; The Nordic Pragmatist Network Workshop, «Pragmatism and Naturalism», NTNU,
Trondheim (May 14th, 2009), and the workshop, «Pragmatism and Subjectivity», American
Philosophy Association Pacitc Division Annual Meeting, Vancouver, British Columbia (April
10th, 2009).