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Critiques of Richard Rorty (and postmodernism)

Rorty was a perverse and mediocre thinker.

[Here are notes I took many years ago while reading Richard Rorty’s famous book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. As you’ll see from the mockery, I wasn’t impressed. The postmodernist polemic against the notion of objective truth, or the correspondence theory of truth, is wholly unconvincing and indeed self-refuting, as many writers have argued. It's also pernicious—intellectually and politically—for the assumption that objective truth exists is a strong pillar of leftist analyses of society. Chomsky's Enlightenment-derived position is, as always, more defensible.]

Rorty, chapter 1: “I hope I have said enough to have incited the suspicion that our so-called intuition about what is mental may be merely our readiness to fall in with a specifically philosophical language-game. This is, in fact, the view I want to defend. I think that this so-called intuition is no more than the ability to command a certain technical vocabulary—one which has no use outside of philosophy books and which links up with no issues in daily life, empirical science, morals, or religion.” My intuition of the difference between body and mind is merely an ability?? How can an intuition be the same thing as an ability? The first is a specific event, the second a descriptive extrapolation, something vaguely like a disposition. (This is of course one of the problems with behaviorism. Mental events are not behavioral dispositions or abilities.) Granted that Rorty expressed himself badly, his position still doesn’t make sense. When I intuit the body/mind dichotomy, I’m not using concepts. Indeed, that’s the distinguishing mark of an intuition: it isn’t discursive. Furthermore, is it likely that, for example, people in the Kapauku tribe in Papua New Guinea are “commanding a certain technical [philosophical] vocabulary” when they intuit the mind-body dualism?[1] It may—possibly—be true that in some cultures the dualism is unintuitable because of primitive social conditions and a corresponding unsubtlety of thought (John Searle remarks that in a certain African language it’s impossible to communicate the mind-body problem—which, incidentally, doesn’t imply that the people can’t intuit [or at least ‘vaguely understand’] the issue), but given the sophistication of our culture, the mind-body division is most definitely intuitable outside philosophical language-games, and most definitely links up with issues in daily life, science, morals and religion.


Here’s Rorty on the ontological dualism implicit in the mind-body problem (specifically on the question of why we think of qualia as immaterial, to which he gives the silly answer “because we think of pains as universals (and universals are immaterial)”):

As long as feeling painful is a property of a person or of brain-fibers, there seems no reason for the epistemic difference between reports of how things feel and reports of anything else to produce an ontological gap. But as soon as there is an ontological gap, we are no longer talking about states or properties but about distinct particulars, distinct subjects of predication. The neo-dualist who identifies a pain with how it feels to be in pain is hypostatizing a property—painfulness—into a special sort of particular, a particular of that special sort whose esse is percipi and whose reality is exhausted in our initial acquaintance with it. The neo-dualist is no longer talking about how people feel but about feelings as little self-subsistent entities, floating free of people in the way in which universals float free of the instantiations. He has, in fact, modeled pains on universals. It is no wonder, then, that he can “intuit” that pains can exist separately from the body, for this intuition is simply the intuition that universals can exist independently of particulars. That special sort of subject of predication whose appearance is its reality—phenomenal pain—turns out to be simply the painfulness of the pain abstracted from the person having the pain. It is, in short, the universal painfulness itself. To put it oxymoronically, mental particulars, unlike mental states of people, turn out to be universals.

This is the sort of sophistical trash that passes for philosophy. Trying to argue that a pain isn’t the particular feeling of being in pain! Whatever Rorty might say, the fact is that Descartes was right: matter is extended and sensations, as such, are not. This is the source of the dualistic intuition.

In a passage on the Greek image of the Eye of the Mind as a metaphor for knowledge—“knowledge [is interpreted] as looking at something”—Rorty says he doesn’t know how the image originated or why it caught on. He doesn’t even offer a suggestion. Being Richard Rorty, he’s content to admit it’s a mystery to him. In a book whose main purpose is to criticize the “mirror” image of philosophy—i.e., representationalism and the correspondence theory of truth—this is quite a lacuna. I’m a nice guy, though, so I’ll do Rorty’s thinking for him. He should have been struck by the parallel between Plato’s metaphor and Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning. And then he should have realized that the essence of both is correspondence (both a picture and sight are of something). And then he should have noted that language has a representational, self-transcending character,[2] that every statement (even an imperative) posits a state of affairs[3]. And then he should have noted that knowledge itself is always of or that something, that it implies correspondence with something external to it. And finally he should have seen that the ocular metaphor is the best possible one, related as it is to pictures (of states of affairs), to representations of an external world and thus to knowledge and the correspondence theory of truth. At this point he should have stopped writing his book.

I get the feeling that Rorty is succumbing—or is going to succumb later in the book—to the common mistake made by readers of Thomas Kuhn and postmodernists in general, that because certain modern ideas are (arguably) products of “gestalt switches” that occurred between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, they have only relative validity. This conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise, unless you add the further premise that no revolutionary idea that partly bypasses previous questions rather than directly answering them can be true outside the culture in which it arises. But this is absurd. It implies, for example, that the theory of general relativity, if true, is true only in Western culture. (Alternatively, it implies that general relativity can’t be true, for the simple reason that it resulted from a so-called gestalt switch.) In any case, the rejection of an old “vocabulary” and adoption of a new one whose categorial framework is, to an extent, incommensurable with the old one[4] and thus leads to very different questions may after all signify a more adequate conceptualization of the subject-matter and thus an advance towards truth. The whole point of philosophy is to find the subtlest, most fine-grained conceptualizations of phenomena so that our “representations” of them can have the most explanatory power. This is also, of course, the goal towards which Rorty and all postmodernists are (despite themselves) looking: they want to represent their subject-matter in the truest way possible.

The farthest I’m willing to go down the road of relativism is to say that there are degrees of truth. But I’ve always said this, and anyway it isn’t relativistic. The implicit goal of theoretic progress remains correspondence with that towards which the given utterance transcends itself (i.e., that which it represents).

Ultimately I have to agree with Rorty that “‘sensation’ and ‘brain process’ are just two ways of talking about the same thing”—which isn’t a third thing (in addition to mind and body), since ‘sensation’ is just an emergent aspect of bodily processes [see my paper on the mind-body problem]—but his claim doesn’t make sense except on the basis of my arguments [in that paper]. For he doesn’t suggest any way to conceptualize it. He simply says, “It would be better at this point to abandon argument and fall back on sarcasm, asking rhetorical questions like ‘What is this mental-physical contrast anyway? Whoever said that anything one mentioned had to fall into one or other of two (or half-a-dozen) ontological realms?’” (That isn’t sarcasm, by the way.) He does admit that that tactic seems disingenuous, since “it seems obvious that ‘the physical’ has somehow triumphed”, but in the end he leaves it at that. His final argument is that “if knowledge is not a matter of accuracy of representation, in any but the most trivial and unproblematic sense, then we need no inner mirror, and there is thus no mystery concerning the relation of that mirror [viz., the mind] to our grosser parts [viz., the body]”. Oh-so-cleverly he thus connects the mind-body problem with epistemology, which is conveniently the subject of the next part of his book. (He also has cleverly obscured the fact that his solution to the mind-body problem is the prosaic materialistic one, namely by arbitrarily and inexplicably declaring that we have to drop the “whole cluster of images” inherited from the seventeenth century. If we just “drop the images”, the problem will be solved![5])

Rorty: “I shall try to back up the claim (common to Wittgenstein and Dewey) that to think of knowledge which presents a ‘problem’, and about which we ought to have a ‘theory’, is a product of viewing knowledge as an assemblage of representations—a view of knowledge which, I have been arguing, was a product of the seventeenth century. The moral to be drawn is that if this way of thinking is optional, then so is epistemology, and so is philosophy as it has understood itself since the middle of the last century.” It’s optional? Granted. There is indeed such a thing as history, congratulations on the discovery. But it’s a non sequitur to go from “optional” to “wrong”.

The crucial premise of [my] argument is that we understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation. Once conversation replaces confrontation, the notion of the mind as Mirror of Nature can be discarded. Then the notion of philosophy as the discipline which looks for privileged representations among those constituting the Mirror becomes unintelligible. A thoroughgoing holism has no place for the notion of philosophy as “conceptual”, as “apodictic”, as picking out the “foundations” of the rest of knowledge, as explaining which representations are “purely given” or “purely conceptual”, as presenting a “canonical notation” rather than an empirical discovery, or as isolating “trans-framework heuristic categories”. If we see knowledge as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature, we will not be likely to envisage a metapractice which will be the critique of all possible forms of social practice.[6] So holism produces, as Quine has argued in detail and Sellars has said in passing, a conception of philosophy which has nothing to do with the quest for certainty.

I agree with him that the quest for certainty, for foundations of knowledge, should be abandoned. But I think he sets up a false dichotomy between an implausible realism and an anti-representationalist pragmatism. The notion of truth as correspondence is implicit in all theorizing, but our philosophical self-understanding can incorporate the fact that the social sciences are less exclusively ‘representational’ or ‘mirror-like’ than the natural sciences, in that the reality they purport to describe, lacking a physical aspect, doesn’t clearly and directly confront us in the way physical things do. We have more freedom, so to speak, in the social sciences; we can’t constantly test our theories in the crucible of physical nature. Still, in the end even our self-understanding has to make room for ‘truth-as-correspondence’, because, after all, we are trying to describe an external reality, albeit an invisible one. (It asserts its presence in the form of logical and inductive persuasiveness, regularities in human behavior, empirical evidence for theories, etc.)


Sorry to be repetitive, but I can’t help it: Rorty refutes himself. The methods he uses contradict his conclusions. Like any theorist, he makes use of rational argumentation, logic, induction and so on to adjudicate between competing positions. He necessarily approaches his material from a “common ground”; the problem is that he’s arguing for the impossibility of a common ground. Even someone arguing for a paradigm shift, as he’s doing, adopts a meta-level perspective outside the two competing paradigms. To quote Scheffler (who’s commenting on Kuhn): “the comparative evaluation of rival paradigms is quite plausibly conceived of as a deliberative process occurring at a second level of discourse....regulated, to some degree at least, by shared standards appropriate to second-order discussion”. Rorty himself “deliberates”—necessarily—“at a second level of discourse”. This is the trap into which every relativist falls. Even anti-correspondence theorists and anti-representationalists fall into the trap of self-contradiction, though less obviously than Rortyan pragmatists. (In the latter case the contradiction is between the form of argument and the content of the theory; in the former case it’s between the form of language and the content of the theory. Language, and our use of it, itself implies correspondence and representation.)

Oh great, here we go with the “winner writes history” argument for relativism:

We are the heirs of three hundred years of rhetoric about the importance of distinguishing sharply between science and religion, science and politics, science and art, science and philosophy, and so on. This rhetoric has formed the culture of Europe. It made us what we are today. We are fortunate that no little perplexity within epistemology, or within the historiography of science, is enough to defeat it. But to proclaim our loyalty to these distinctions is not to say that there are ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ standards for adopting them. Galileo, so to speak, won the argument, and we all stand on the common ground of the ‘grid’ of relevance and irrelevance which ‘modern philosophy’ developed as a consequence of that victory. But what could show that the Bellarmine-Galileo issue ‘differs in kind’ from the issue between, say, Kerensky and Lenin, or that between the Royal Academy (circa 1910) and Bloomsbury?

Good question. Maybe the fact that certain practices, called “scientific”, give us the technical ability to manipulate nature, to predict events, and can be evaluated for truth by standards shared by thinking people across cultures and paradigms, while other practices, called “political”, are concerned mainly with the power-relations between individuals in society.

‘Power-relations are reality itself! There’s nothing outside power-relations! (—except for that sentence, which posits its own objective truth).’ Foucault and Rorty, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Rorty’s mental miscarriage.


One of the reasons I can’t help having disdain for relativists like Foucault and Rorty, who in this respect seem no more intelligent than the average politically correct relativistic American, is that anti-relativist objections to their theories are brain-numbingly obvious.

[From a different book:] If Foucault is giving a generalized critique of general theories [i.e., of theories that purport to be “objectively true,” or true even outside the discursive practices in which they’re embedded], then he may be open to a familiar objection to all such attempts, namely, that they are self-defeating. If all attributions of truth and falsity are relative to discursive practices [and so are not valid outside a particular discursive practice], the objection would go, then the truth-claims of Foucault’s own thesis will be equally relative to a particular discursive practice. That is, he will not be able to claim that his own thesis is objectively true, or such that it ought to be accepted by any rational being. Foucault could, however, defend himself against such objections by, for example, presenting his enterprise as not so much a general theoretical critique of theories as a piecemeal liberation of his readers from the harmful influence of the belief in the need for general theories to be accepted by any rational being.

But what is meant by “general theory” here? Every hypothesis is general, inasmuch as it is put forward as being true—not true “relative” to anything, but simply true. Therefore, by writing his painstakingly dense books, Foucault is trying to free his readers from the temptation to take seriously theories such as his.

Of course, broad, unscientific worldviews like “Enlightenment-humanism” or “Marxism-Leninism” deserve to be dissected and aren’t “objectively true” (partly because they incorporate a system of values). But either the Foucauldian, Rortyan position is obvious in this way or it’s unrigorous and ultimately self-refuting.

[1] See Leopold Pospisil, The Kapauku Papuans of West New Guinea. [2] (Suggestive remark: in this respect it’s similar to consciousness.) [3] The order “Go over there!” posits the state of you being over there. [4] I say “to an extent” because, as Andrew Sayer says in Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach, there is always some continuity between two given “vocabularies”, some way of arguing between them. This is because, insofar as people follow the most basic rules of logic (which they have to if they speak a language), their methods of finding truth are essentially similar. Newtonians can argue against relativists; Western scientists can demonstrate to Papuans that the latter’s explanatory myths (of, say, an eclipse) are incorrect. (Insofar as people are rational, they must accept and utilize evidence in support of beliefs. And the scientist’s evidence—his whole framework, in fact—is more compelling than the Papuan’s, for obvious reasons. If despite overwhelming evidence the Papuan persists in his mythical beliefs, he is to that extent irrational. (An example of a ‘framework-neutral’ criterion for deciding between theories is predictive ability. Even Papuans want to be able to predict phenomena, like eclipses and weather-patterns. To the extent that the scientist is better able to predict these things, his theories are better than the Papuan’s.)) [5] He’s right that in a sufficiently different language and conceptual framework the problem wouldn’t arise, but it doesn’t make sense to assume that therefore the problem is a verbal illusion. For it may be that our language and conceptual system are subtler and more faithful to differences in the Sachen selbst than the other language is. For example, the Greek idea that sensation belongs to the body rather than the mind is indeed an interesting alternative to our Cartesian intuitions, but it’s probable that philosophical argument would conclude that our intuitions are more faithful to differences in the ‘raw material’—differences that are merely “potential” (for us) until they’re made “actual” in our awareness. How else would our intuitions, our “whole cluster of images”, have persisted for centuries if they didn’t correspond to distinctions in the raw material of experience? –Anyway, all this is academic, because my solution to the mind-body problem [in the above-linked paper] accommodates both the Greek and the Cartesian intuitions. It explains in what sense mental phenomena are physical and in what sense they aren’t. [6] Here he overlooks the fact that knowledge can be both “a matter of conversation and of social practice” and “an attempt to mirror nature.” The two are not mutually exclusive.


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