Monday, March 9, 2009 at 5:08PM
Kevin O'Neill

This is a blog that attempts to raise and respond to questions that typically come up when one is teaching pragmatism and neo-pragmatism because both generate what appear to many people counterintuitive ideas about such things as truth, moral values and political commitments, as well as sometimes puzzling and disturbing claims about God and personal identity. 


The first and I think the most pressing question that thinkers such as Rorty and James raise is the question of relativism, with respect to both truth and moral values. James writes that we can say, with equal force, that a thing is true because it works and/or that it works because it is true and he also says that the true is what is good in the way of belief. Peirce adds that belief is a "habit of action", a way we do things in the world rather than assent to a fixed thing. Rorty adds fuel to this conceptual fire by arguing that it is no longer interesting or important to write or think about truth, because philosophical theories of truth have not panned out, not added a thing to our understanding of what is true. He also believes that there is nothing to which we must adjust, no final way the world is that we have to discover and to which we must bow.


What could all this mean? Well, first again we have to go back and seriously embrace Rorty's naturalism, by which I mean his commitment to the idea that we are after all smart apes, entirely defined by our existence as developing hominids. This means that we are always already embedded in an environment which surrounds if it does nor define us and everything we do has to do with the fact of our apehood, our worldliness, so to speak. We are not visitors to this earth nor are we hybrids, half-beast and half-angel, as many would like to believe. We are not the stitching together of Reason and Emotion, Soul and Body -- those dualisms are no long interesting or useful for Rorty or for James.If we persist in using them to think we will just get in our own ways.

 We are, rather, unitary beings, smart animals beholden to no higher being, because in our world we do not require such a Being and discussion of one is just not necessary. What does this really mean? If Rorty were pressed and came up with a fuller explanation, which he tends not to do, he might say, as he does in sketchy form in a piece such as "Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism", that traditional "God talk" developed among the smart animals because in a world in which they had minimal control over the environbment and often suffered, people created a power that would protect and/or punish them. To write the story in an absurdly oversimplified form, as humans developed more and more ways to control and perfect their environment(predict and control here used without reference to the effects on the environment, something R. does not appear to consider but which are definitely important)they had less and less need for a controlling protective figure who could provide them, either here in altered states or in another and better world, with the goods and satisfactions that they could manufacture by their own effort and ingenuity, applied collectively.

There is a Marxist underlay to all this and it is useful to know that Rorty was raised by parents who were communists and who entertained radicals and other leftist figures in their homes when he was growing up. The nub of Marx' view of history is that its shape is determinded by what he calls praxis, intelligent, directed labor, and what I have renamed "screwing around."

Article originally appeared on philrun (
See website for complete article licensing information.