Against Rorty on the Usefulness of Ontological Debates

Rorty ontology
Richard Rorty, cover of Contingency, irony, and solidarity.

I’m a big fan of Richard Rorty. His book Contingency, irony, and solidarity (CIS) was one of the books that led me to inquire into philosophy more rigorously (ironically enough — sorry Dick!).

But there’s something that’s always bugged me about Rorty. He uses pragmatist insights to label entire subjects “not useful”. The following quote was recently brought to my attention:

The question that matters to us pragmatists is not whether a vocabulary possess meaning or not, whether it raises real or unreal problems, but whether the resolution of that debate will have an effect in practice, whether it will be useful. We ask whether the vocabulary shared by the debaters is likely to have practical value. For the fundamental thesis of pragmatism is William James’ assertion that if a debate has no *practical* significance, then it has no *philosophical* significance.

So my objection to the “realism versus anti-realism debate” is not that the debtors are employing sentences that are devoid of meaning, nor that they are using terms that do not designate substantial properties. Rather, that the resolution of these debates will have no bearing on practice. I view debates of this sort as examples of sterile scholasticism. I regret that such a large part of English-language philosophy in the twentieth century was devoted to questions of this type.

— What’s the Use of Truth? (Richard Rorty)

(An aside: for all his insistence on deflating these debates, Rorty’s not always consistent in whether his position is deflationary about the debate or withinthe debate. In the above quote, he dismisses ontological debates altogether despite unabashedly calling his position “nominalist” in CIS. For another example, this fascinating lecture makes a great case that the Rorty of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is deflationary about epistemology, whereas the Rorty of CIS is deflationary within epistemology (ie, a fairly traditional skeptic). End aside.)

Vocabularies and the usefulness criterion

I appreciate and to some extent share Rorty’s deflationist instinct. It’s liberating to realize that problems that have given us a hard time aren’t eternal or necessary. They’re embedded in historically contingent vocabulariesthat can be dropped for alternative vocabularies. Rorty goes as far as to recognize that from this follows a kind of pluralism. We can describe ourselves as free when talking ethics-talk, and describe ourselves as determined when talking physics-talk, and not face a problem because the vocabularies are distinct. So far so good.

But Rorty often takes an extra step: the one exemplified by the above quote. He arbitrarily decides that some vocabularies aren’t useful and therefore should be dropped. Even as far as this, I’m willing to follow, but only with a caveat: usefulness has to be relative (with apologies to those who see the word “relative” as a demonic incantation). Some vocabularies are useful for some purposes, and others for other purposes. Certainly Rorty agrees with this. So, to argue that a debate (eg, the debate about the existence of universals) is useless tout court, he needs to show either that (a) the debate is useful for no purpose at all, or (b) that whatever purposes it is useful for are, in fact, useless purposes. Both are tough sells.

It’s obvious that there is some purpose that a debate is useful for, namely the purpose of answering the question it sets itself to answer, as framed within the vocabulary it’s formulated in. So (a) is obviously wrong. And to argue for (b), Rorty would need recourse to an all-encompassing, meta purpose-evaluating vocabulary that can judge which purposes are useful purposes. By Rorty’s own account in CIS, such a vocabulary does not exist.

Self-creation and motivation

The argument above is rather abstract, so let’s get a bit more concrete. One obvious use that ontological debates can serve is supporting the weaving of a personal narrative, the development a spiritual relationship to life, the cognitive organizing of “the blind impress all our behavings bear” (to quote a poem Rorty makes much use of in CIS). For some, religion primarily serves this purpose; for others, it may be art. And for some — myself included, and I would be surprised if Rorty himself were not in this camp — abstract philosophical debates, including ontological ones, may partially serve this purpose. Rorty goes to great lengths in CIS to compartmentalize this spiritual purpose as a private as opposed to public one. But certainly, private purposes are still useful ones, no?

But even putting aside private purposes: it’s obvious enough that ontological beliefs have served a motivational role for thinkers throughout history. Many of them didn’t simply accept ontological beliefs on faith but rather landed on them via argumentation. So there is a causal line between ontological debates and the useful actions and discoveries these figures went on to make. (I hope examples aren’t necessary for this argument, but I’ll namedrop Cantor, Newton, Leibniz, Aquinas, Bruno).

One might want to defend Rorty by saying that how a debate happens to motivate someone is too personal and contingent a matter to justify the usefulness of the debate in general. Idiosyncracies of personality aside, are there rational reasons for the debate to make a difference? I’ll put aside (for the moment) the irony involved in using contingency against a position on Rortian grounds. I’ll offer what I hope may be a useful case study in my own recent investigations into ontology and the nature of cults.

Case study, part 1: Thomasson’s Easy Ontology

I recently read Amie Thomasson’s brilliantly clarifying Ontology Made Easy. Needless to say, the book is deeply (and more or less exhaustively) entrenched in ontological debates. I don’t have space in this already overlong post to describe her position in detail, though I’ll do my best to do a very quick summary. (For more detail, I recently interviewed her about this book on my podcast. It was split into a part 1, covering her basic position and placing it in historical context, and a part 2, mostly going over objections.)

Thomasson’s take is so clarifying because it recognizes that any question we investigate is bound by the meanings of the words we use to refer to the objects of the investigation. Here’s roughly how her argument goes:

Say we want to answer whether numbers, or properties, or propositions, or some kind of thing whatever, exists. Well, assuming whatever term we’ve used in fact means something, then we can infer from its meaning an “application condition” — that is, some way things must be for us to correctly apply the term. In essence, this amounts to rules of use for the term, and they’re typically quite trivial.

Let’s stick with numbers. I know I have six pens in front of me (I really do). Linguistic rules of use allow me to infer from that that the number of pens in front of me is six. I have just referred to “the number” six, so I can deduce that at least one number exists. Question answered: numbers exist!

There is nothing metaphysically inflated about this claim — it is ultimately a claim about how we use words and what these words mean. It is part of how we use the word “number” that, if we can truthfully refer to one, then one exists.

Or we might ask whether “the mereological sum of my nose and the Eiffel Tower” exists. Well, “mereological sums”, by definition, are simply abstract constructions of parts. I can verify both parts exist. So the mereological sum exists. This isn’t saying anything very deep; it’s merely acknowledging what the term “mereological sum” means, and granting that the conditions specified by that meaning are satisfied.

In other words: it follows from our everyday use of language that we should say of those things that have their application conditions met that they exist. To ponder deeply about why that might not be true, or why we should ignore the question, is to expect too much of the concept of existence. A term is instantiated (ie, the kind it refers to exists), if and only if states of affairs and the meaning of the term are such that we can truthfully use the term to refer.

What else could “existence” possibly consist in? What else did we want a “number” to “be” other than that the kind of thing truthfully referred to when I say “the number of pens is six”? The instinct to reject this approach is usually an instinct against what is so deflationist about it.

From this deflationist argument follows a fairly straightforward realism about most objects of ontological debate. Do properties exist?

The dog over there is red. > The dog has the property of redness. > There is at least one property. > Properties exist.

There’s not more to it. For this reason, realism is more consistent with a deflationist approach than insisting that the debate can have no answer.

Case study, part 2: Conceptual engineering and cults

From here, Thomasson argues that the task of ontology is “conceptual engineering”. Instead of asking “does x exist?” — which, typically, will have a trivially easy answer — we ought to ask, “should we use the term x?” For example, “the mereological sum of my nose and the Eiffel Tower” is a term that, while it does refer, is probably not all that useful to have around (other than to make meta-ontological arguments, anyway).

Thus, ontology becomes a pragmatist project of working toward a vocabulary of useful terms. Indeed, Thomasson told me in our interview that her ontological investigations led her to become interested pragmatism. (I have to wonder — would a Rortian consider this result useful?)

Let me now discuss how these insights have been instrumental in my interest in cults and why that may turn out to be of some use.

I’m fascinated by cults in large part because I’ve been involved with a number of organizations that have been accused of being one (most notably Landmark Worldwide) and have friends who are or have been involved with others (LifespringFreedomain RadioOneTasteMama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts). (I should say here: by including these names, I don’t mean to suggest that any of these organizations are or are not cults. Part of my point here is that I’m still investigating what a cult is. Besides, my views on these groups vary tremendously.)

I suspect I have a high susceptibility to cults: I’m easily excited and it’s not hard to pump me up with the notion of expanding possibilities (woo!). But even putting my personal dispositions and affiliations aside, the cult accusation gets thrown around quite a bit. Thus, we hear that followers of Ayn Rand are in a cult, that postmodernists and “cultural Marxists” (whatever that means) are in a cult, etc. It’s natural, in response to this, to ask: well, what is a cult?

The first thing to consider is that, of course, “cult” is just a word — exactly those things which satisfy the conditions involved in the meaning of the word “cult” are cults. Alas, like most words, the meaning of “cult” is vague and comes with many associations, including some which may even be contradictory. And it doesn’t help to run to the dictionary for this one — dictionary definitions notoriously fail to capture the meanings of words as they are actually used.

There’s also no use in simply stipulating a precise definition of “cult” if no one adopts it. Besides, outside of mathematics and some areas of science and philosophy, fully precise meanings tend to be cumbersome and not very useful. So what are we left with?

Well, one place to start is to speculate: what would a really useful meaning of the word “cult” be? Again, it shouldn’t be perfectly precise, but vague meanings can be evaluated too. What does the word “cult” do? What should we want it to do? We’ve obviously landed in “conceptual engineering” territory. Note that it’s an inherently ethical enterprise. We’re not merelyinvestigating here. We’re investigating relative to ethical goals; in this case, goals like condemning harmful people, organizations, and institutions, and tolerating those that aren’t harmful.

And, since this is an ethical enterprise, strategy can’t be divorced from our considerations. Again, there’s no use in landing upon the perfect definition of “cult” if no one will use it. An “ethics” without individual praxis is nothing more than fiction. This process of conceptual engineering must include (in my view, not Thomasson’s) a component that individuals can act on.

This isn’t the place to get into the specifics of the conceptual engineering of “cult”. In fact, I’m not particularly far in my investigation. My point here is to illustrate the way that a book about ontological debates helped me clarify an inquiry into a matter of concrete ethical and social import.

The usefulness of Rorty’s work

It’s possible to insist that what I’ve detailed remains all very idiosyncratic. Even if reading a book about ontology is how I came to these insights, I didn’t need it. I could have arrived at ideas that would have the same effect without ontology entering the picture. This is probably true.

Implied in this criticism, however, is the following principle: a discourse is useful only if it is necessary for some purpose (ie, if the purpose could not be achieved without the discourse). This is a tough position for a Rortian to take since it would seem to render Rorty’s body of work useless.

What, after all, is so useful about Rorty’s work? Does it satisfy any purpose other than answering rather scholastic questions about “vocabularies”, pragmatism, and the place of philosophy?

For Rorty, social usefulness is closely tied to his goal of advocating for a liberal society. But none of his philosophical investigation into pragmatism and vocabularies supports the liberal cause. He’s quite clear that his outlook entails that there is nothing outside vocabularies to tell us which vocabularies we should adopt. The same can be said for goals or principles. Liberalism is something we take on, not something we’re convinced of by rational argument. At best, we can be inspired or moved to it. And, given these limitations, this is all Rorty’s philosophy itself can hope to do. It can motivate us toward liberalism, but it certainly can’t convince us of it.

And even for this purpose, Rorty’s philosophy is not necessary. Most likely, the vast majority of liberals who will exist will adopt liberalism for reasons that have nothing to do with Rorty’s philosophy.

Thus, if it were the case that a discourse must entail some (social) goal or must be necessary for one in order to be useful, then, by his own account and goals, Rorty’s philosophy would itself be utterly useless.

To put all this succinctly: a rather rigid essentialism is necessary to maintain that some debates are inherently useless. Such an essentialism is contrary to the letter and spirit of Rorty’s own philosophy.

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