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Periodizing Rorty’s Antirepresentationalism

Rorty’s overall goal was how to see the world without representationalism.

  1. PMN, epistemological foundationalism is the result of representationalism, and it is bad.

  2. Gets to social pragmatism about normativity, already in Consequences of Pragmatism. But doesn’t yet know how to use this as an argument for the conclusion he wants.

  3. ‘Vocabulary’ vocabulary undercuts idea of some aspects of our discursive practice being responsible to how things are, as opposed to contingent (relative to how things are) features of our practices. But how does this work, exactly? Urges vocabulary-relativity of everything. But quick argument of that form is retrograde, backsliding Carnapian pragmatism, not post-Quinean.

What more careful antirepresentationalist uses can RR make of the ‘vocabulary’ vocabulary?

  1. Some ideas that get explored in trying to make ‘vocabulary’ vocabulary’s undercutting of Kantian problematic the basis for an argument for antirepresentationalism that goes beyond “that old pragmatist chestnut: when you describe what is represented, you are using another description.”

  2. Antiauthoritarianism. This has some variants, at least one of which (combining social pragmatism about normativity with a normative analysis of representation) yields his best argument

A Closer look at the Various Antirepresentationalist Arguments:

In Incorrigibility as the mark of the mental Rorty had first new response to Mind-Body problem in a generation: eliminative materialism.

  • It’s not like there were some feature of the world (Cartesian mental events) which, before we had practices of giving certain reports incorrigibility, that we weren’t acknowledging. And it’s not like if we stopped those practices that we’d just stop noticing that part of the world. Rather, to say there are Cartesian minds is the same as saying we have these practices.

This is the precursor for his key pragmatist idea, that the ontological distinctions of subjective / social / objective are socially determined (what matters is how we talk about the thing):

  • subjective - the speaker has authority over it
  • social - the community has authortiy over it (e.g. the proper greeting gesture of a tribe)
  • objective - neither individuals nor communities are authoritive.1

Rorty combines this view with “social pragmatism about norms” (all matters of authority and responsibility are matters of roles in social practices).

Rorty clearly aspired to use the pragmatist considerations about language use not distinguishing between what we do to institute discursive norms (fix the language by conferring meanings) and what we are doing when we apply those discursive norms (fix the theory, settle on beliefs). We just defend claims (commitments) by giving reasons for them and challenge claims by giving reasons against them, and what counts as such reasons is a matter of our practice, since we can’t step out of it and “see the world naked.”

RR wanted to use the pragmatist considerations that speak in favor of the vocabulary-in- use vocabulary to undercut the Kantian problematic of assigning responsibility for different features of our discursive practice to what is represented by it and to aspects of our practices of representing it.

The argument has two phases:

  • First we need to establish what the real (holistic) content of expressions / thoughts / commitments.
  • Then we apply the vocabulary vocabulary: “you can’t think about the world in the representationalist way if you appreciate the holistic feature of the contents of our thoughts”.

Vehicleless content

Rorty argues that we cannot pick out “sentence-like bits of the world” (individual facts) to make our sentences true one by one. The whole constellation of our commitments faces the world (as a tribunal) as a whole. This last is a near paraphrase of Quine from TDE, and is a Davidsonian thought.

This is an argument against Fodor’s “LoT”: language of thought hypothesis, that there is something (in our brains) that stands to thinking that things are thus and so, as some noises or marks stand to saying that things are thus and so and writing that things are thus and so. The question is whether intentional states have “sign designs” associated with them.

Pragmatists argue that intentional states are necessarily content without “vehicles”, while realists argue they necessarily have “vehicles”.

Why they seem to have vehicles: if your semantics says things must be explained in terms of configurations of physical matter, then it would be “magical” if I could mean “snow is white” under physical circumstances but I could also mean “the building is 500 ft tall” under the same physical circumsntances . We may not know what the correspondance (from brain states to thoughts) but there must exist some correspondence.

MacDowell (following Davidson and Lynne Rudder Baker) argues that they must be vehicleless.

  1. There’s nothing smaller than the whole person who is the vehicle of the belief (this follows from Davidson’s Interpretivism - we attribute your beliefs to you as a whole person).
  2. Beliefs have no non-intentional specifications. The idea of a vehicle is the idea that you give a non-intentional/non-semantic specification of that belief (specifying the sign design that expresses it).

These are two dimensions of denial that the intentional states can be specified in “subpersonal” terms.

We then apply this argument not just to intentional states,
but to the idea of things that make those states true (or false): truthmakers (Armstrong).

Is there anything less than the whole world that makes any particular claim true?

If we are holists about belief (and meaning), so vocabularies, must we not be holists about objective reality?

What vocabulary would those sentence-shaped truthmakers be specified in? If it is specified in some such terms as “the fact that…” then what vocabulary is the ellipsis to be thought of as filled in with?

  • “Nature’s own vocabulary”?2
  • Or the vocabulary in which the original claim is stated? In the latter case,
  • that is one of our vocabularies, and
  • How is this different from the Fregean option that there are no truthmakers, and “a fact is just a thinkable that is true”? i.e. in the conceptually articulated “realm of sense” rather than the “realm of reference”?

This doesn’t strictly rule out representationalist pictures of meaning, but it rules out atomistic / truthmaker ones.

If a property is just an aspect that two things can share, then there are an infinite number of ways two objects can be similar or dissimilar. But we want to privilege some of those respects as “natural properties” which they do really share. That notion of privilege is normative - the world does not distinguish those properties; it’s a matter of our social practices.

Nelson Goodman asks this same question in in Fact, Fiction, and Forecast: “which properties should we project in our inductive inferences?“. Wittgenstein asks this same question in considering all the possible ways we can follow a rule. Both conclude pragmatically that it is up to our social practices to pick from all the possibilities.

Justification vs truth

Thinking of discursive practice in terms of truth (instead of justification, i.e. in terms of the actual practices of giving and asking for reasons which can sometimes lead to consensus) is due to the desire to have an external, objective standard (set by the world we’re talking about) that serves as an ultimate standard of assessment for how we’re giving and asking for reasons. This is what Rorty objects to.3

For Rorty, the Enlightenment was only half-true to its insights. It was successful emancipating us on the practical side (freeing us in our reasoning about what to do: we are not answerable to a non-human authority4), but not the theoretical side.

Dewey’s story of spiritual progress: we eventually found satisfaction, where we once had to go to an immortal being for, in relationships with our fellow mortal men.

Antiauthoritarian argument

Three considerations at play:

  • It’s not intelligible to acknowledge the authority of anything non-human over our practices.
    • The notion of authority is the notion of a normative status, and those are always conferred by social practices.
  • Even if it’s intelligible, but it’s beneath our dignity to acknowledge the authority of anything nonhuman.
    • seems to presuppose that in fact the authority lies with us both for improving our practices and for saying what improving them comes to or requires. This would be the “social character of ontology” downstream from social pragmatism about norms.
  • Rational authority cannot be dogmatic - it must be subject to criticism (and able to defend itself) according to our practices of giving and asking for reasons.
    • Therefore we ought not grant authority over our reasons to anything that can’t talk—to anything that cannot have its reasons challenged and be required to defend them. Thinking of what we are doing as ultimately “answering” to something of which we cannot demand that it “answer back,” by defending its claims, showing that they are justified.
    • The question is just whether it is not irrational to cede ultimate authority over our practices of defending claims by giving reasons for them and challenging claims by giving reasons against them, to something that cannot in principle take part in those reasoning practices, something whose only involvement with those practices is to set an objective standard for normative assessment of how well we are doing.
    • The argument would be that don’t need such an external standard, and shouldn’t want one, for the same reasons (on the theoretical side) that (on the practical side) we don’t need Old Nobodaddy to set ultimate objective moral standards for our practical undertakings, and shouldn’t want him too. (The Nietzschean thought that “If God existed, we would have to kill Him.”)

Third point a tension between justification and truth.

It is fetishistic (projecting our practices of giving and asking for reasons onto an “objective” world) in the way that Gods commandments are projections of our own socially determined moral rules.

An Enlightment idea is that norms are determined by the community, rather than externally fixed. Prior, the rule of kings and lords was thought of as the great chain of Being with some people naturally ruling over others - social contract theory was developed to show how politicla authority must derive from the attitudes of the governed.

Getting an account of truth from justificatory practices

Whyte’s Success semantics

Beautiful and sublime

A distinction from Kant, which is further articulated by Edmund Burke.

One striking illustration of the difference is that before 1700, passengers in carriages going through the Alps kept the windowshades tightly rolled down, to avoid looking at the horrifying vistas. Over the course of the eighteenth century, landscape painters taught people to see those vistas as “picturesque”: literally, the sort of thing one painted pictures of. By the end of that century, people would get in carriages to go into the Alps specifically to look at what they had previously shunned. The terrible sublime had become domesticated as the beautiful.
Rorty uses this distinction to enrich by redescription the opposition between Platonists and pragmatists that we have seen him make before.

E.H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion, cited on this point by the pragmatist Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art, invokes a psychological experiment in which two contrasting nonsense terms, ‘ping; and ‘pong’ are given a sense by applying them to 6 or 8 cases. It is found that very often, when presented with the same training cases, people learn to “go on in the same way” and will agree on how to apply the terms to new cases.

Gombrich means this as a deflationary, cautionary tale about discerning genres and using classifications in cultural history. (His particular concern is ranking paintings as “realistic” or not.). Such terms, Gombrich thinks, are as meaningless as ‘ping’ and ‘pong’, and all the training on paradigmatic examples does is “engender an illusion of understanding” (to use the phrase Quine applied disparagingly to modal logic).

Brandom thinks the pragmatist does not draw this deflationary conclusion: this is all there is to understanding, rather than an illusion of understanding. Ping/pong is a paradigm case for how concepts work.

Rorty teaches us “beautiful”/“sublime” in a particular way. That is teaching us to notice something, under this redescription, that we could not or would not have noticed otherwise. His deploying of this distinction is filling in the content of his notion of pragmatism.


  1. Brandom thinks this could be refined to be “the facts / things we talk about being authoritative” using his pragmatist-friendly version of representation.

  2. metaphysical objectivists do bite this bullet, say it’s fundamental physics. There must be “natural properties” somehow distinguished from Cambridge properties.

  3. It’s exactly wrong to think of Rorty as an irrationalist; it’s all about giving and asking for reasons, for him. He doesn’t want rationality to answer to something outside of that practice.

  4. See Kant’s What is Enlightenment where he describes the Enlightenment as the emancipation of human beings from their adolesence when we looked outside ourselves for guidance in our conduct. | Authority figure | Domain | Control over our norms of …| |---|---|---| | God | Practical philosophy | What to do | | Objective reality that it’s our job to represent | Theoretical philosophy | What we believe |