Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Thu Jan 26 19:11:40 MST 1995

On Thu, 26 Jan 1995, Marshall Feldman wrote:

> >Posted on 26 Jan 1995 at 14:52:03 by TELEC List Distributor (011802)
> >
> >Re: foundationalism
> >
> >Date: Thu, 26 Jan 1995 12:37:06 -0500 (EST)
> >From: Justin Schwartz <jschwart at>
> >To: marxism at
> >Reply-To: marxism at
> >
> >  In fact, I'd argue that realism is
> >> unavoidable in discourse about anyTHING; Rorty and the other anti-realists
> >> SEEM to avoid realism by talking about philosophy only.
> >
> >I'm sympathetic to this, but the case would have to be made.
> I'm not prepared to make it here except insofar that I've never seen a coherent
> succsssful argument about anything without some measure of realism.  The
> following reference nicely illustrates this in economics (whoops, I've
> misplaced the referenc, but I'll look for it; the title is "How to combine
> rhetoric and realism in economics", and it shows how McCloskey's work
> presupposes a certain measure of realism).
> >
> empirical data.  Rather I am using "empiricist" in a more Althusserian sense
> as 1) the acceptance of the empirical as all that is real and 2) the naive
> belief that things are as they appear to us empirically.

But real empiricists, with the exception of Berkeley and other
phenomenalists, reject these views. The logical positivists rejected talk
of "what is real" as bad metaphysics, and as a philosophical tendency
empiricism is an attempt to validate the power of scientific inquiry,
which goes beyond the appearances.

 Rorty might
> argue against both, but his pramatism leads him back to prescribing we should
> act as if both were true.  In his terms, "knowledge helps us cope."  Hence
> for him we should accept our cultural tradition and work within it, and of
> course that tradition takes certain things as empirical givens (e.g. the
> individual but not the Great Spirit).  Moreover, since it is a material
> culture, our culture and its products give us our empirical world.
> Rorty's sanguine attitude towards our culture implies a similar non-critical
> attitude to the world it produces: i.e. what's empirically given to us.

Well, Rorty argues in contradictory ways. On one hand he endorses a
version of Davidson's transcendental argument that "most of our beliefs
must be true"; although any one of them can be rejected, this makes sense
only against a background which is held fixed. He claims that beliefs like
"red is a color" are just too uncontroversial to dispute. But he puts
relatively theoretical claims in that category, like "Freedom is better
than slavery." On the other hand he also argues that one way of talking
can so completely displace another as to involve a shift radical enough to
let our descendents conclude that there are no mental states, beliefs,
desires, sensations, etc. This seems to cut against the grain of the first

> Somewhere (I'll have to look) he endorses the epistemology of Dewey, Pierce,
> and the other early pragmatists, saying that we accept knowledge claims
> because they help us (work for us) instrumentally.

Well, it might be that we accept the claims for this reason without that
sliding in the least into empiricism in any sense or antirealism.
Moreover, the view you state here is closer to James than to either Dewey
or Pierce. The latter thought that knowledge claims are validated as true
by their hypotheical acceptance in the Ultimate Theory at the End of
Inquiry (Habermas takes this over from him). Dewey wanted to dump truth
for warranted assertibility, but doesn't accept the crude view of James
that what's true is what helps us deal with the problems to hand. (This is
closer to the idea you ascribe, not without justification, to Rorty, at
least in some of his moods.) Warranted assertibility is a very complex
notion for Dewey.

  It seems to me this
> implies a certain tacit acceptance and non-questioning of empirical reality.
> In fact, this instrumental view comes very close to Milton Friedman's
> "black box" notion in Essay on Positive Economics.  Of course where
> Friedman and Rorty differ is that the former treats the inputs, outputs,
> and black box as real, claiming we don't need to and can't know what's in
> the box: any convenient fiction that accounts for the relation between input
> and output will do.  Rorty, on the other hand, treats such things as
> negotiated within a community through speach.  Still, the contents of
> the black box remain obscure, we just treat the observables as socially
> constructed.  But at the end of the day, all we have are the observables
> and our speach.

Not at all. Rorty is not an instrumentalist, whatever he is, and Friedman
certainly is. Rorty has no problem with saying that the truth-status of
theories is the same as that of the evidence for them, and that theories
are straightforwardly true. (Of course what he means by "true" is another
matter, and here has two inconsistent accounts--one, a crude consensus
view: true is waht our contemporaries will let us get away with. The other
is Davidson's application of Tarski's theory of truth to natural
languages, which is _not_ a consensus view.) Friedman, by contrast, says
that theories are neither true nor false but merely predictively useful.

I do think that Rorty may be committed to a sort of theory-observation
distinction, in invoking the vast background of unquestioned beliefs
against which critique of any belief can take place, this background being
a sort of "observational" background. (I accused him of this in my M.Phil
thesis in History and Philosophy of Science written--aaack--13 years
ago.) But the point would have to be developed.

Any, the moral is that it might be best to state clearly the claims being
argued for and avoid misleading labels like "empiricist."



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