Richard Rorty fancies himself a pragmatist, and to that end, he says that pragmatism, a la the “good” in Dewey, calls for the never ending pursuit of re-description and re-contextualization in an edifying life of private irony and social hope, one that recognizes the radical contingency of ideas.  With this pursuit in mind he claims that there is no meaningful sense in which re-descriptions and re-contextualizations are more or less true than one another, either across disciplines like poetry, philosophy, literary theory, and science, or within these disciplines themselves.  Ideas can always be used and reused in re-description and re-contextualization, but never un-contextualized for assessment against a permanent, neutral, and abiding framework of non-contextual arbitration, be that a mind-independent reality or whatever else one puts in its place—Being, the noema, the infrastructures of differance, the structures of a episteme, etc..  “Pragmatism” for Rorty thus pertains to limiting oneself to ideas-in-a-context in so far as doing so is useful for ironic detachment from one’s own temptations to have certain knowledge, and for solidarity in public life.  Pragmatism a la Rorty is therefore edification through re-description instead of verification in attempts to know.

Whatever one’s visceral response to this version of “pragmatism” (there are many, and Rorty would probably accept some as reasonable), Rorty at least eats his own dog food.  He borrows ideas from an astonishing diversity of thinkers in order to establish for himself a coherent vision of philosophy, one firmly tolerant of diversity and committed to exposing the contingency of any claim to know anything.  Although he doesn’t directly put forth internal consistency as an ideal, he is for the most part internally consistent, but he explicitly says that he is not concerned with external consistency in his use of others, saying, as it were, that there is no independent context for establishing it, and that establishing it is beside the point anyway.  So he borrows freely and widely from just about anyone, always with an eye toward their functional use in re-description and re-contextualization.  Hence his advocacy for hermeneutics in the place of epistemology.

One can legitimately ask, without violating Rorty’s own maxims: how useful is this hermeneutics?  What is it good for? To that end, it is useful to turn to his use of Dewey.

Rorty correctly finds in Dewey the recognition that ideas are always functional, that they are always used in a context, and that the meaning of these ideas shifts as re-contextualization occurs, always with an eye towards new possibilities to explore.  He also correctly identifies in Dewey the need to form a democratic consensus about the ultimate ends in a liberal society because ideals (i.e. ends) are radically contingent, i.e. because their TRUTH, as it were, cannot be known in any apriori and apodictic way, only their little sense of “truth” as probable ideals derived from real interactions.  Thus when it comes to selecting these ultimate ends, consensus in conversation is substituted for any notion of intuiting intrinsic TRUTH—or more precisely: “truth” becomes an adverb for the place of final ends in the conversational consensus about them.  So this use is of Dewey is accurate as far as it goes, but is it not rather fallow, nurturing as it does only the bare vine of pragmatism, not its fruit?  What of that fruit?

In Rorty’s hands it rots, for Rorty explicitly excludes from pragmatism precisely what Dewey never lost sight of as the goal of intelligently directed inquiry —“warranted assertion,” his term for reliable knowledge. Rorty completely omits that goal; he apparently has no use for it.  Dewey may not have pursued knowledge in the name of a permanent truth apprehended of a fixed reality against which competing knowledge claims can be arbitrated, in principle without the possibility of error.  No privileged representations there; he completely abandons that “quest for certainty.”  His version of inquiry may also always require that investigators be aware of the functional status of ideas in the contexts for which they are used; that these “contexts” shift and change as ideas are developed.  Both true.  But equally for Dewey, ideas in science, the technological arts, and philosophy should always be developed towards the end of reliable knowledge; toward that use alone do they find their fulfilling purpose in a contextualization and re-contextualization as (part of) the means to real solutions to real problems.[1]  In other words, in any attempt to do and know, ideas are never re-contextualized merely for their own sake in “the continuing conversation of humankind”.  Instead they are used to acquire knowledge of the means to achieve whatever ends might emerge from that conversation—albeit “knowledge” conceived in a non-traditional, non-epistemological way.  Rorty simply ignores this emphasis on reliable knowledge in Dewey, and in doing so he collapses Dewey’s recognition of “re-description” and “re-contextualization” as part of the process of knowing into an end in its own right, one pursued for its own sake.  In other words, for Rorty, ideas fulfill their role in re-description only through continuing the conversation of humankind, a conversation taken as an end in its own right, though admittedly one with collateral benefits for the self (irony) and others (solidarity).  Just how Rorty collapses Dewey’s means and ends into one process by ignoring Dewey’s emphasis on reliable knowledge is important to see in some detail, for it bears directly on both Rorty’s reading of Dewey and the uses one might find for the “pragmatism” he derives from that reading.

First, one must consider Dewey on ideas as means towards ends in general, and towards the end of reliable knowledge in particular.  For Dewey, ideas can always be shifted into “new contexts”  as part of the means[2] for generating reliable knowledge– or new paintings, or new stories—whatever ends one wants to generate with them.  Furthermore, this necessary (but not sufficient!) ‘shifting of contexts’ in all the arts and sciences arises, on the one hand, because people have a tendency never to become too comfortable in their current descriptions and contexts (thus they always seek fresh versions of preferred ends), but on the other hand, new means also arise because in a precarious and contingent world, one never can be too comfortable with a given means for a preferred end, because bodies become ill, cars break down, planes crash, revolutions happen, and so forth, often in novel ways.  When such things happen—when the usefulness of a current ‘context’ or ‘description’ breaks down—inquiry kicks in to re-establish a functioning description of the process by which previous ends were established, i.e. it establishes new means in order to re-establish those ends.  But the only known way to establish these new means, for Dewey, is through the mediating role of reliable knowledge.  In other words, ideas take on a new forms, forms that help establish a new ‘description’ as a new means to fulfill the end-in-view, but this description itself is inherently fortified with reliable knowledge.   For Dewey, this constant renewal of ideas (i.e. “descriptions”) in establishing proper means adjusted to meeting ends through reliable knowledge is pragmatism.  Without it, pragmatism has little, if anything, to do.

Now contrast this constant adjustment of means to ends through reliable knowledge in new “descriptions” with what Rorty suggests for pragmatism.  For Rorty, Dewey’s means of ‘re-contextualizing ideas in re-description’ becomes more or less an end in itself.   In other words, re-contextualization and re-description for Rorty is desirable for its own sake, in that they continue the conversation of humankind in its ever renewing process of edification, the effect of which should leave us inherently ironic, more tolerant, and therefore less cruel—at least that is the hope.  But strictly speaking, these hopes aren’t ends in the pragmatic sense; they are rather collateral benefits—or perhaps better, effects—that come with the awareness of the contingency inherent to the ‘conversation’ itself– i.e. the awareness that all deployments of ideas in descriptions are relative to the alternative uses to which they are put. And what’s more: for Rorty, the mediating role of reliable knowledge in any means to these “ends”–if they are even accurately ends–is entirely absent.  It is collapsed, as it were, into a single means-as-end process of re-description for its own sake, one that if possessed of any sense of ‘end’ only contains it as the continuation of itself.  As such, the ‘means’ of re-description is so perfectly and irrevocably fitted the ‘ends’ of conversation that it is essentially nothing more than a restatement of the means-as-end relation itself.  Rorty called this re-description pragmatism, which for him amounts to “the discussion of the utility and compatibility of beliefs,”and more specifically, the discussion of “the various vocabularies in which those beliefs are formulated.”  But as a discussion of vocabularies, pragmatism under Rorty requires little, if any, discussion of adjustment of means towards ends because the two are for Rorty essentially one and the same thing.   In short, for Rorty as long as one is discussing the “utility of beliefs” without any reference to an end other than the one of fulfilling itself, one is doing pragmatism.

Now this characterization of Rorty, while accurate as far as it goes, requires some supplementation, for Rorty, as a pragmatist, surely reserves for re-description a practical use, not just use for its own sake, use that simply finds it proper place by promoting its own furtherance.   That is, re-descriptions must surely be used for something, otherwise there would be no point to discussing the utility of beliefs.  So, at least, one would think, but as far as the anus can tell, Rorty spends little (if any) time specifying what those practical uses are, and no time whatsoever specifying how that practical usefulness is assessed.  Presumably, for Rorty-as-pragmatist– the one for whom discussion of the utility of beliefs and “vocabularies” is central, indeed, paramount—there must be some sense in which vocabularies and beliefs have a practical bearing on thought and conduct, one that makes them more or less suitable for achieving ends, one that makes some a better fitted means than others, and so forth… presumably this would be the case.  But conspicuously this essential element of any pragmatism absent.  And indeed, the anus maintains that it is absent because Rorty is so hung up on re-description as the ‘ends’ of pragmatism itself that he fails to see any role for reliable knowledge as the means to achieving any end, much less as an end itself worth pursuing.  In other words, in a complete dismissal of Dewey, he fails to see that reliable knowledge becomes a worthy end-in-itself because of the central role it plays in all the arts, in all the sciences, and especially in conduct itself.  In short, by conflating as he does re-description and conversation in terms of ends-as-means/mean-as-ends, and then putting this conflation in place of the pursuit of reliable knowledge, Rorty irrevocably parts way with Dewey in a manner that places serious doubt on his claim to any pragmatism worthy of the name.

This contrast between Dewey and Rorty couldn’t be clearer than on the place of  reliable knowledge in pragmatism.  For Dewey—and presumably for anyone else—pragmatism is minimally a matter of fitting means towards ends.  As central to this fitting, knowledge is pursed, reliable knowledge is tested, and then the most reliable knowledge is used—used to fix bodies, to fix cars, to prevent planes from crashing, to build a better government, and so forth.   In this process, tests against consequences take the time honored place of conformity to an antecedent reality, and for that reason all knowledge is only probable.  But despite this probability—indeed because of it—knowledge is still reliable (it’s just not certain).  For Rorty, by contrast, because of “radical contingency,” there is no reliable knowledge per se, only re-description—or perhaps better put, Rorty offers no grounds whatsoever for determining which description is more reliable than any other for meeting any ends to which it might be put.  Instead, he simply maintains, truistically (and irrelevantly), that another description can always be put in its place.  In other words, Rorty, in complete opposition to Dewey, offers no way of testing, or even any reason to test, “descriptions”; no real way or reason to put ideas to use as a means toward an end, other than the ‘end’ of re-description fulfilling itself.   Presumably, any “discussion of the utility and compatibility” of beliefs should have some sense in which the suitability of the “vocabulary” for meeting an end-in-view could be assessed, but Rorty is silent on the issue because for him, in effect, re-description for its own sake takes the place of Dewey’s reliable knowledge.  That is, in place of reliable knowledge there are only re-descriptions.  In fact, reliable knowledge is brought so low in Rorty that for him, science, art, literature, engineering, poetry, depth psychology—all the human arts and sciences—they all have an equal footing as descriptions staking a knowledge claim; as he says, these disciplines are all “on par.”   As “on par,” cross-comparisons between them are ipso facto pointless, and the value-laden re-descriptions made in each one should be judged—if they are judged at all—by whether or not they usefully cohere within themselves.  In any case, they should never be judged more or less reliable or true as types of knowledge—which leaves, of course, how they can usefully cohere something of a mystery.

Of course, Dewey never proposed anything quite so relativistic as all this.  More specifically, Dewey never says what Rorty makes him say in the name of pragmatism, which is probably why in all his assertions about taking “pragmatism” from Dewey he rarely quotes him except in name, and never from his definitive philosophical statement, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.  The closest Dewey ever came to Rorty’s “on par” equivalence is when he said: “there is no kind of inquiry which has a monopoly on the honorable title of knowledge”; that “we know with respect to any subject-matter whatsoever in the degree in which we are able deliberately to transform doubtful situations into resolved ones”; that therefore, “the engineer, the artist, the historian, [and] the man of affairs [all] attain knowledge in the degree they employ methods that enable them to solve problems which develop the subject matter they are concerned with.”[3] But, having recognized the inherent validity of various kinds of knowing, Dewey also pointed out that science embodies “the essential characteristics of any knowing”; that as such it is “the most powerful tool we possess for developing other modes of knowledge”; that physical science, as the most developed of the sciences to date, “affords a sure foundation for other more specialized forms of knowing,” in that it can “supply intellectual points of departure and suggest operations to be deployed.”[4]  For Dewey, then, while all inquiries with the goal of knowledge have an intrinsic validity—and indeed even share a common pattern—they by no means produce, because of that common pattern, equivalent or “on par” results—except in a merely formal, and thus empty, sense of having used a common pattern to attain them.  This divergence from Rorty’s take is both subtle and dispositive, in that Rorty turns an intrinsic validity in Dewey into an inherent equivalency in his own thought, one without any discriminating measure of relative worth—or to put it alternatively, Rorty castrates Dewey’s pragmatism so it will behave more like he wants it to behave.  With that in mind, it is useful to stress again exactly what he cuts off.

In a word, he cuts off knowledge.  In contrast to Rorty, for Dewey, knowledge is real, so real that his ‘epistemology,’ if one would insist on the term, amounts to a simple truism: “we know whenever we do know,” to which he added: we know “whenever our inquiry leads to the conclusions which settle the problem out of which it grew.”[5] From this truism Dewey spent his entire career developing a pragmatism in which there is a common pattern to the ways one can inquire and know, whether that occurs in satisfying biological needs, developing the products of culture, solving practical problems in daily life, or pursuing knowledge for its own sake in physical and social science.  Because of this common pattern, Dewey thought that the logic of inquiry could be particularly refined for understanding how to carry out the pursuit of ‘reliable knowledge as such’—or to put it equivalently, for attaining knowledge in the intelligent direction and control of means-towards-ends generally, whatever the subject matter.   He called this ‘inquiry for its own sake’ philosophy, and he assigned to it not re-description as an end in itself but re-description as a means to the ends of critical knowledge.   In this re-description, philosophy, as pragmatic, steps back via reflection and explicitly and self-consciously develops what it shares with all the other arts and sciences—discriminating evaluation.   It offers, as it were, a “criticism of criticism,” one suggesting a way of judging the relative worth of descriptions as knowledge claims against one another without appealing to an antecedent, neutral, permanent matrix as a final, commensurating, arbiter.   Instead, descriptions, as implicit knowledge claims, are judged by their suitability as means for obtaining reliable results, results always assessed though tested consequences, not through an apriori conformity to the antecedently real.  Rorty completely ignores this functional relationship between knowledge, discrimination, and evaluation, leading him to say– purportedly channeling Dewey– that “nothing has any intrinsic properties”, therefore “philosophy can never be anything more than a discussion of the utility and compatibility of beliefs—and more particularly, of discussion of the various vocabularies in which those beliefs are formulated.”  This ignorance comes at a price.

Simply put, by making redescription the both ends and means of inquiry, Rorty levels all the arts, sciences and philosophy to the same function (achieving re-description), just because they in fact share a common pattern (using descriptions).  In effect, then, Rorty flattens pragmatism into a one-dimensional discussion of utility for its own sake, a discussion solely limited to the coherence of its own terms, something no pragmatist can do and still call himself a “pragmatist,” least of all one following Dewey.   Pragmatism, contra Rorty and in sync with the best in Dewey, is minimally about discriminating the proper kinds of knowledge for fitting means to ends in the solution of real problems, whatever the subject matter in which those problems might arise.  It can and should be opposed to developing the conversation of humankind for its own sake in ever artful re-descriptions and re-contextualizations, with the only ‘standard’ being—if  any standard is applied at all—compatibility among or coherence of beliefs.  Of this leveling re-description for its own sake, a pragmatist a la Dewey can simply demand: what the heck are you going to do when that process of re-description fails? That is, using re-description for it own sake, one un-coupled from reliable knowledge, what can one possibly hope to do when life gets interrupted by disease, a break down, or a revolution?  How will you know how to respond intelligently to reestablish a functioning context or description, one that obtains the ends desired through the appropriate means applied?  Rorty’s pragmatism has no answer because he doesn’t even pose the question; he wants nothing to do with any belief as more reliable than another, more productive than another, or just as better knowledge than another.   To put his pragmatism in the nutshell in which it belongs, Rorty throws out the baby of reliable knowledge with the bath water of absolute justification—or to put the matter more precisely, Rorty rejects as “reliable” (read also: “better,” etc.) any knowledge that doesn’t establish an incontrovertible claim, thus perversely demanding of all knowledge claims precisely what he says no knowledge claim can accomplish, to wit, complete, permanent justification.  In place of Dewey’s reliable knowledge he offers a leveled down shifting of contexts that ultimately yields only the edifying benefits of its own operation, one that never weighs relative worth.  But that’s not pragmatism.[6]

But what’s in a name?  The anus is flexible, and Rorty can call himself whatever he wants and still be consistent with any form of “pragmatism” that reduces means to ends and ends to means in a leveling down of descriptions and contexts with no standard for judging how anything ever gets done.  Perhaps all involved can still agree that the proof of the poo is in its passing.  That is, one can legitimately let Rorty do his own thing and still find in Dewey a better use for the time honored pursuit of knowledge, if one’s own end is the pursuit of reliable knowledge for its function in enhancing use and enjoyment, instead of, with Rorty, reducing that pursuit to “use” and “enjoyment” for its own sake, with the stipulation that irony and solidarity will naturally follow re-description.   Comforting re-descriptions aside, isn’t reliable knowledge more useful both for making ends meet and for increasing the chances of meeting them?   Rorty apparently thinks not; for him, just about anything goes, even though when pressed he admits it doesn’t.   Maybe he’s just a little stopped up.

Either way, one doesn’t need to answer the question of justification before making the attempt to know, so one shouldn’t just give up on arbitratable knowledge simply because this happens to be the case.  That is the spirit of pragmatism that gets lost in Rorty’s castration of Dewey, the one that undermines not just the metaphor of the “spectator view of knowledge” but also the motive for the kind of justification that that spectator demands.  One is far better off with Dewey whole.


[1] “Since knowledge is the mode of experience that puts in our hands the key to controlling our other dealings with experienced objects, it has a central position.” The Quest for Certainty, p. 234.  It should be noted here, but only noted for discussion at another time, that this use is always in conjunction with existential material—that is, facts and ideas are functionally correlative, each never useful without the other.  As important as this is for Dewey, it represents another fish to fry that won’t be thrown into the oil (yet).

[2] Again, the other ‘half’ of these means, facts (or existential materials), will be ignored, as the point here can be made without their consideration.

[3] The Quest for Certainty, pp. 200, 176)

[4] Ibid, pp. 200, 155-6 (emphasis added).

[5] The Quest for Certainty, p. 158.

[6] To put the decisive issue yet another way, for Dewey:  1) things do have intrinsic qualities; 2) these qualities, when valued as such, are immediately had; 3) when put to use instrumentally they bear on the thing’s utility—in fact they become this utility; and 4) discriminating evaluation consists in finding objects with suitable qualities, i.e. utility, for various ends, and so forth.  Philosophy, then, as the “discussion of utility,” is a self-conscious refinement of this perpetual need for discrimination, one that must always discriminate “better” and “worse” in terms of “more suited,” otherwise it has no function.  This applies to the utility of beliefs as much as to things.

For example (and rather obviously), the intrinsic qualities of wood make it suitable for a foot bridge across a stream but unsuitable for a trestle on a suspension bridge across a river designed for tractor trailer traffic. So while wood, when valued of itself for its own qualities is no better or worse than steel when valued for its, when used for a bridge utility requires relative assessment of worth in terms of intrinsic qualities: in this case, steel is worth more than wood for a bridge across a river because of its tensile strength, but wood may be more worth than steel for a simple footbridge across a stream on a trial in a park because of its tensile strength but greater malleability (the reasons can always be contested, but that doesn’t alter the underlying point).  Note that far from not having intrinsic qualities because they are primarily put to use in the context of “human purposes”, as Rorty likes to say, things have utility because of these intrinsic qualities; without an apprehension of them, things could not be tailored to specific ends.  For this reason, discussion of utility must imply a standard of relative worth, a standard weighed against consequences instead of conformance to antecedent reality.  Without that standard, one that minimally accommodates intrinsic properties, discussion of utility becomes the mere exposition of the tautology “utility is useful.”  In other words, it becomes nothing worthwhile.

This example could be multiplied literally infinitely, since there is no end to the purposes to which things can be put.  In fact, for Dewey philosophy can be seen as the refinement of this process of sorting infinite possible utilities, i.e. discriminating among utilities their suitability for ends.  That discrimination is pragmatism.

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