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.…

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Good Cult, Bad Cult

Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate

I love cults. This might seem like an odd, even offensive thing to say. “Tell that to the people who were abused or even murdered by the Peoples Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, or Scientology,” you might fire back. Yes, those groups are/were absolutely awful, as are many groups that get labeled cults. But at least some (I suspect many) of the groups that get called cults are amazing. Why this inconsistency?

Because the word “cult” sucks. It could be a very useful word. We need a word like it. But popular usage has rendered it a toothless ad hominem.


Both the problem and potential usefulness of the word “cult” stem from its negative connotation. A cult is something that has a bunch of cult-defining characteristics. It’s also a bad and dangerous thing. Combine these two facts, and it follows that all of the cult-defining characteristics must be bad. This isn’t necessarily the case.

Let’s look at some of what some of these “cult-defining characteristics” are:

  • Leader worship
  • Extraordinary enthusiasm
  • Jargon
  • Proselytizing
  • Unusual metaphysical, religious, and/or sociopolitical beliefs
  • Intense ritualistic practices
  • Isolation from society, family, and loved ones
  • Members giving away large sums of money and free labor to the organization
  • Ritual suicide
  • Sexual and physical abuse
  • Intimidation of and/or violence toward ex-members and/or media
  • Suppression of questioning or challenging attitudes within the organization
  • Secrecy

The word “cult” is obviously somewhat vague. Few organizations meet all of the characteristics listed above (People’s Temple arguably did – those guys really went all out).…

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