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Fr. 776

April 25, 2017

Rorty (1999) has another way of approaching the nomothetic-idiographic divide. His lies in undermining the representationalist (or correspondentist) paradigm which has long dominated Western philosophy. Defined broadly, representationalism is an approach to epistemology on which one maintains that the subject represents a mind-independent object. This appearance-reality divide naturally suggests that a representation may succeed or fail in either of two ways: 1.) the object represented may be real or imagined; 2.) the object’s representation may differ from its mind-independent existence. In light of these doubts, epistemology has asked since at least the time of Descartes whether our representations admit of any certainty given the (potential) disconnect between reality as the mind represents it and reality as it exists independently of the mind. To this first question of certainty is linked a second question, that of knowledge and justification. Presented schematically, if a person believes that p and p is true, the person’s believing that p may not constitute an instance of knowledge if the person believes that p for the wrong reasons. For believing that p to constitute an instance of knowledge, the person must believe that p for the right reasons, i.e. the person must be justified in believing that p for her belief that p to count as an instance of knowledge. On this view, knowledge is then an instance of justified true belief (wherefore a provisional response to the question “What is knowledge?”). Yet epistemology, following Plato’s challenge in the Theaetetus, has been unable to give a more satisfactory answer thereto. For this, epistemology would need to isolate the conditions at once sufficient and necessary to determine when a belief is justified, true or both justified and true (particularly since Gettier (1963)). Put differently, epistemology has failed to unearth the laws governing the conceptual linkage between justification, truth and knowledge, and, as a result, nomothetic approaches in epistemology have proven unfruitful. There is no general problem of certainty, no general problem of knowledge.

Faced with these problem-questions, namely whether representations admit of certainty and whether justification and knowledge have lawlike traits, Rorty chooses to dissolve them by cutting out those elements which give rise to the problems. If representationalism and its attendant question of certainty presuppose a mind-independent reality (realism or a way things are), then it suffices to renounce representationalism, certainty and the real-world pictures it puts forward. Likewise, if representationalism and its attendant search for laws governing justification, truth and knowledge are making little to no headway, then it again suffices to renounce representationalism and the picture of knowledge it puts forward. In other words, Rorty asks what sense there can be for humans in pursuing answers to such questions when 1.) it is unclear whether a mind-independent reality is a meaningful concept for a creature itself mind-dependent and 2.) humans nonetheless arrive at knowledge or justified true belief despite being ignorant of possible laws governing the interrelation between justification, truth and knowledge. On this last point, Rorty insists in reprising William James’ oft-cited claim that “truth is what works”: descriptively, beliefs are keyed to casual relations (“causal pressures”) and those beliefs are true which are most useful for making sense of causal relations; normatively, beliefs are keyed to audiences and those beliefs are justified on the basis of their successful or failure with the audience justified-to. The combination of points 1.) and 2.) leads Rorty to engage in a bit of sloganeering by means of two surprising substitutions: a.) the standard of certainty comes to be replaced by imagination (have we been as inventive as possible in relating to our environment?); b.) the standard of knowledge has been replaced by hope (are we pursuing inquiries liable to improve the general human condition?). In the end, this experimental frame of mind requires, not unlike Nowotny et al., a context of application. Whether Rorty’s sloganeering or views on the distinction (or lack thereof) between science and non-science are sustainable remains an open question.  


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