Epistemological behaviorism as an argument is based on a false dichotomy.  That is, it offers a way out of a difficulty that has different aspects than the ones Rorty suggests.  Although the correct aspects of the underlying problem are similar to those laid out in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the difference is compelling enough to take another look at this pivotal hinge of that book.  For on this hinge swings Rorty’s claim to a “pragmatism” that insists there is nothing interesting to say about “knowledge and truth” other than what “common sense” says there is.  Rorty’s “pragmatism” has been pushed already, as have two other false dichotomies in PMN.  This last push should put to rest the question of whether the therapy Rorty offers is a cure for the “quest for certainty” and its subsequent “mirror of nature,” or merely the latest episode in what one could call its hangover.

Rorty says that epistemological behaviorism is the correct of two choices between 1) justification as negotiated publically in “the space of reasons” by “what society says” or by “what society will let one get away with,” or 2) justifications as based on private, privileged representations that mirror the reality of nature.  As a methodological commitment, this epistemological behaviorism relies on what he also calls a new “species of holism,” one that says to be a participant in it the process of justification, one must participate in and understand the rules of a language game; that once one does this, one also understands all that is needed to know about moves within that language game, and therefore about justification as well.  The result is the view: all discrimination and evaluation is ultimately linguistic, and with this implication in mind Rorty says: “nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and that there is no way to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence.”  The upshot: there is no pre-linguistic awareness that can count toward justification, even in a functional and strictly evidentiary role, since any pre-linguistic awareness, if it exists at all (and he thinks it doesn’t) would be limited to having apprehensions as opposed to comprehending anything cognitively.  For Rorty, any such “having” (which doesn’t exist anyway) would never be useful for justification, even in be an evidentiary way, for knowing—that is, to cognize—is to use language.  As an necessary adjunct to this holism, he states, rather truistically, that it is only within language that the exchange of reasons can take place.  Rorty’s hope is that philosophy will realize from this linguistic holism and its consequent epistemological behaviorism that there is nothing interesting left for it to say beyond what common sense tells us about truth and knowledge.

Set aside for the moment that the “holism” Rorty describes makes it difficult, if not impossible, to understand how one ever learns a language at all– a problem quite separable from the claim that holism doesn’t treat infants “fairly”.  Set aside too that it is empirically false; that this has been demonstrated six ways to Sunday by research into infant and primate cognition.  Set aside yet again that it rather begs the question of just what justification is, stating, as it does without argument, that we are trapped “inside” language, and therefore that justification has to be exclusively linguistic, not just in the sense of being expressed in language, but based instead in an elemental way on the workings of language itself.  Set aside finally that “what society says” and “what society will let one get away with” are stupid metaphors that clarify nothing.  Rorty’s “holism” runs into a deeper problem: the dichotomy it allegedly resolves is false—or more precisely, it is merely philosophical.  In other words, Rorty’s holism and epistemological behaviorism both poses and resolves the question of justification as a philosophical puzzle that is in fact foreign to common sense (it never arises there at all); as such it potentially contains a lot, if not all, of the conceptual baggage Rorty wants to clear away with his therapeutic holism.  The legitimate question thus arises: why not just start with the plain old common sense Rorty calls for?  Why see the issue of justification against the background of epistemological alternatives at all?  To put it in Rorty’s terms, why even do hermeneutics because epistemology fails, when the best response is just not to do epistemology in the first place?

For common sense, “justification”, as Rorty frames it, doesn’t have to be framed as a choice between ‘private privileged representations that mirror reality’ versus ‘public statements issued in the space of reasons.’  Common sense has never heard of “privileged representations,” though it probably gets to some extent what the “public space of reasons” means.  Rather, for common sense “justification” is typically seen as a public exchange that uses both conceptual and existential material to establish a warranted conclusion, one that resolves a problematic situation “in the space of reasons” by examining the implied and testable consequences of prospective solutions, again both existentially and conceptually, until a final judgment is made.  Whew.  Would common sense ever say that?  No, of course not, but Dewey did, echoing and refining what common sense does say in its attempts to know and solve problems.  So let’s just say common sense doesn’t rely a choice between mutually exclusive “private privileged representations” or “public linguistic reasons.”  Instead it relies on the cooperative and mutual interplay between the philosophically-laden but perfectly valid, common sense terms “facts” and “ideas” in order to solve particular problems, in all their particularity [1] The difference is both subtle and dispostive, for posing the question of “justification” this way preserves everything Rorty asserts with his holism, and it makes “justification” public, without committing one to begging the question of just what justification is, or making it impossible to account for how justification could ever learned, much less successful, in the first place (i.e. how language is learned, etc.).  It also avoids useless metaphors like “society says” or “what society lets us get away with.”  As a reliance on what common sense says about how justification actually occurs, it is in fact nothing more than a description of the process common sense uses every day to resolve problems, a process (as Dewey points out) it shares with all forms of inquiry, including even satisfying biological needs, creating cultural products, or doing science.  This can be shown with a concrete example, but first, a little house cleaning.

It is both entirely true and entirely trivial to point out that all assertion of reasons takes place in concepts, propositions and statements, and that all concepts, propositions and statements are a “linguistic affair.”  From this trivial observation, however, it simply does not follow that “there is no way to get outside our beliefs and language so as to find some test other than coherence.” In fact, common sense shows that people “get outside” their beliefs and use tests other than coherence all the time, otherwise they wouldn’t learn anything new, and new problems would be unsolvable, which they are not.  That is, without potentially always being “outside” the given coherence of their reasons, no one  could learn to adjust means to better achieve ends because any adjustment would already have to cohere with what one already knew to be true, instead of undermining that coherence and offering a new one in its place.  Furthermore, common sense shows that everyone who has learned a language not only started from “outside” language and still learned it; once learned they “get outside it” all the time as they speak it.  For you can’t go from “being outside language” to “being inside language” just by fiat, a fiat that closes the threshold once crossed.  There has to be some kind of common ground, some kind of existential (read “non-linguistic”) reference and unarticulated but shared intentions between persons, otherwise language couldn’t be learned and no communication about objects in common would be possible in the first place.  How both occur is a legitimate problem for inquiry (and is has been investigated extensively without the help of analytic philosophers), but it is no solution to obliterate the issue in advance with a “holism” that makes resolving the issues impossible.[2] God forbid we pull another Quine.

To see common sense at work without Rorty’s “holism” and its unholy step-child, epistemological behaviorism, consider the Bellamine-Galileo debate out of which Rorty gets so much mileage in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.  Rorty wants to say that Galileo can’t appeal to “science” and “rationality” against Bellamine’s “lack of science” and “irrationality” because the canons we now take for granted about science and reason were being formed during the debate; therefore at that time they cannot offer a grid for evaluating competing knowledge claims about the relative movements of the sun and the earth.  The paradigms are not, in a word, commensurable on the basis of fixed notions capturing the nature of “science” and “rationality”.  Fair enough, and posing the issue this way looks like an example of holism at work: one can grant that neither party could get outside of their respective belief systems to appeal to a permanent, neutral framework of science—the one sought by most epidemiologists left—because such a matrix does not exist, and what does exist, as we know it now, was being formed in the first place.  Does it follow, then, that paradigms, i.e. coherent belief systems housed in language, are therefore incommensurable, period– in other words, that competing knowledge claims can’t be arbitrated as “more true” or “more false” than one another because there can’t be an appeal to privileged representations mirroring a permanent, neutral  framework, one perhaps attenuated by Science with a capital “S” i.e. because there is no epistemology?

Of course not.  This issue, as posed, doesn’t even arise for common sense.  In fact, it doesn’t even really make much sense.  It is a purely philosophical recreation.  Common sense inquiry, as it actually occurs, is quite different than the clash of paradigms or appeal to privileged representations that Rorty describes.  Instead, it is a contest of beliefs, one which in actual operation deploys both “ideas” and “facts” in mutual cooperation with one another to arrive at an explanation that solves a problem, however long this solution might take.[3]  In the processes there is usually disagreement about what counts as a relevant fact or what serves as a good idea.  Once a solution is proposed, there may remain disagreement about that solution; the solution itself may only be presumptive, or probable.  But, these disagreements, and this presumption, are publicly negotiated; they are not appealed to and settled on forthwith as private representations with a privileged grip on Reality, per se, even when one is only solving a problem for himself.  Finally, virtually all problem, and their prospective solution, rely on “local,” “contingent” and “temporary” material instead of the “all encompassing”, “absolute” and “permanent” framework Rorty suggest isn’t possible anyway.  In other words, as a rule people don’t get all epistemological on one another, or with themselves, regardless of how strident and absolutist they become in their assertions– not for long, at least, when it comes to testing that stridency or absolutism against actually solving the problem.  That recreation is reserved for philosophers.

So reconsider the case of Galileo and Bellamaine from a common sense point of view (read as well “scientific” with a small “se” point of view).  The problematic situation at issue is the relative motions of the sun and the earth.  In their debate with one another, Bellamine and Galileo could have and probably did blend facts and ideas in divergent efforts to establish competing knowledge claims.  Conceptually Galileo probably referred to Copernicus’s heliocentrism, and factually he could cite the tides as explained by that idea motions of the earth and moon.  Conceptually Bellamine could refer to scripture, and he could cite the factual evidence of the senses, namely, that the sun traverses across the sky, right there for all to see.  In point of fact it could be argued either way that either party was the more “rational” in their respective use of conceptual and existential subject matter without affecting the effectiveness of these means to the eventual outcome.  For that effectiveness was tested by the consequences implied in the explanation arrived at, consequences both conceptual and existential as well, not by competing labels “rational” and “scientific” in clashing paradigms.  As Rorty (sort of) correctly points out, we are only inclined to say that Galileo was more “scientific” and more “rational” because further inquiry has shown him to have had the better ideas and to have been more right about the sun, the moon, and the earth (Rorty would omit “better” or “more right”).  One could also point out, however, that however right he was about the better method of inquiry (“science”), we now also know that Galileo was wrong about Copernicus because Copernicus was mostly wrong about the solar system (the orbits are not circular, etc.).  But— and this is the crucial butt– we know this using the same process that Bellamine and Galileo could have and probably did use.  It’s just that time, technology and ingenuity has enabled us to resolve the problematic situation better than either one of them at that time, and that resolution now is evidence enough to show retrospectively how well conceptual and existential evidence was used back then.  It also shows that one is not “trapped” in holism because we in fact know differently now than both did, even as we can see a continuity with this past, i.e. we can now see the ways in which both were wrong and right.  The issue then, from a philosophical point of view, could be seen as being about competing belief systems justified by their own internal coherence– a clash of paradigms within holisms, as it were.  But inquiry, as it actually occurs in common sense and science, has since fractured both “coherences” (to differing degrees, to be sure), and the current understanding of the solar system affords a hindsight that shows belief systems, however internally justified, can in fact be transformed in light of better explanations than what came before them, such that one can be considered more accurate, more reliable– in a words, better knowledge (remember, again, this is common sense talking).  We now know that the earth orbits the sun, and we know this using both new conceptual material and, among other things, new ‘crude sensory evidence’ from a different point of view than the one of simply residing here on earth (just looking out a window from orbit, for instance).  It is neither here nor there that at the time neither Galileo nor Bellamine could appeal to a neutral, antecedent, permanent matrix of privileged representations to justify their assertions.  Nor is it here nor there that we can’t appeal to one now.  As a question of fact, existential matters “outside” language now cooperate with conceptual matters “inside” language to determine what we know about the solar system.  This, at least, is what common sense asserts, no matter how difficult it might be to account for philosophically (and it isn’t difficult, once you stop trying!).

This example, perhaps not as compact as one might like, could be multiplied by an infinite variety of others exemplifying how people actually learn things using “facts” and “ideas” to solving problems in their daily lives.  That Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature ostensibly works within this “common sense” framework and appeals to it as the last interesting thing philosophy has to say about truth and knowledge without simply describing in what common sense actually does in inquiry is, to put it simply, a disgrace.  Dewey offered just such a description more than half a century ago in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, a book Rorty never cites and apparently consigns to the flames of a wrecked attempt to do epistemology.   But is he right in that assessment?

Actually, no, he gets it exactly backwards.  Logic: The Theory of Inquiry is what philosophy should look like once it ditches the quest for certainty, the logic of epistemology, and the headache of the mirror of nature.   By contrast, “epistemological behaviorism” and “linguistic holism” are what one still hungover from the drunkenness of epistemology pees out in the morning in an attempt to finally clear his system.  It still contains traces of alcohol.  In fact, one could still be a little drunk, as Rorty probably is when he ignores the lessons of common sense, even as he appeals to it as the last venue of philosophy.  In any case, as shown already, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature suffers from a serious self-referentiality problem and an array of conceptual distortions, and the basis of those problems come together in dichotomy posed and ostensibly solved by epistemological behaviorism and linguistic holism; they are one of apiece.   As such, the therapy Rorty offers is best seen as a pseudo-pragmatism that, as said before, confuses means for ends and ends for means in an unresolving quest for edifying comfort.  This is a shame, since the motive for the book and the issue it addresses is could be so compelling.  Compelling, but not new, and Rorty’s is not even a useful formulation of the problem.


[1] It is not a coincidence that Dewey’s first statement of pragmatic ‘epistemology’ was a three parts article entitled “The Control of Facts by Ideas.”  Rorty would have profited from a careful study of that statement before writing PMN in the name of Dewey’s pragmatism.

[2] A good place to start is Tomasello, who often cites Wittgenstein as setting a context for his work.  The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Constructing a Language, The Origins of Human Communication, and A Natural History of Human Thinking would be good sources for a plausible account that also discusses competing accounts in a massively cited literature.

[3] See the above citation, “Control of Ideas by Facts” for an example of how facts and ideas mutually cooperate to solve a practical problem, being lost in the woods.

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