A successor concept to a notion of languages and theories. A vocabulary is a way of talking / what we deploy in discursive practice.


Changing vocabularies

Rorty doesn’t draw a line between speaking in a vocabulary and changing your vocabulary (he thinks almost all speech acts change it due to the Duhem point)1.

In mature sciences, a lot of work is taken to allow for discourse to proceed as if the vocabulary were fixed:

  • The discursive equivalent of “clean rooms”, maintained through heroic social disciplinary measures
  • This is for mature sciences: if you think of the history of temperature, every single time a new way of measuring temperature was discovered, the concept changed.

But it would be a serious mistake to take this extreme, artificial case to be the paradigm on the basis of which we understand the use of language in general.

Sometimes we want to prevent the vocabulary from changing, but not always.

Rorty calls this process Redescription.

Quantifying over all vocabularies

This is a central fallacy of platonists: this is not a determinate or determinable domain. (discursive practice is fundamentally plastic, as Wittgenstein describes, so at best you’ll get a snapshot of the current moment).

One doesn’t try to do this unless they are trying to permanently end some philosophical conversation (by finding the final vocabulary).

Because each vocabulary gives rise to characteristic sorts of facts (e.g. physical facts, culinary facts, theological facts…) we also cannot quantify over all facts.2

Rorty does quantify over all vocabularies insofar as he is a declarativist - all vocabularies have something that plays the role of declarative sentences and thus can be interpreted as purportively fact-stating.

Comparing different vocabularies

If you are a representationalist, then you get for free a notion of one vocabulary being better than another. Rorty’s notion of coping is a pragmatist-friendly subsitute for this.

The vocabulary vocabulary leads Rorty to questioning the distinction of Real properties vs Cambridge properties.



  1. each time we add a new belief we change the meanings in the rest of our vocabulary, since we have changed the inferential relations.

  2. Contrast with Tractatus 1.11: “The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.”