The paper is devoted to Richard Rorty’s thought, with the aim of exploiting a certain contention of his and directing it, as it were, against Rorty himself. Here is the contention: he thinks that – when it comes to metaphysical questions such as realism and anti-realism – the only kind of argument a pragmatist has at her disposal is rhetorical. Following the lines of the well-known wager Blaise Pascal laid on the belief in the existence of God, I will try to show that the realist can avail herself of a rhetorical argument in favor of her view which is more convincing than any rhetorical argument of a Rortyan kind, while abiding by the Rortyan maxim according to which ‘What has no bearing on our practice, shouldn’t have a bearing on philosophy’. This will allow me to challenge Rorty standing on his home ground.
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From a philosophical point of view, this is a wager on the usefulness of the belief in ‘metaphysical activism’, given that reflection on the best interpretation of the concepts of reality and truth is part of what metaphysical activism amounts to, according to Rorty. Cf. the following passage: “The pragmatist who urges our culture to abandon metaphysical activism cannot argue that such activism is inconsistent with a mass of our other beliefs, any more than ancient Greek atheists could say that sacrificing to the Olympians was inconsistent with a mass of other Greek beliefs. All the pragmatist can do is the sort of thing they did: she can point to the seeming futility of metaphysical activity, as they pointed to the seeming futility of religious activity” (Rorty 1998b, 42, my italics).
This has to be taken as “they do not exist just as Rorty maintains”, i.e. in the way of independent items interpreted according to a suitably analyzed metaphysically realist concept.
For an analysis of realism from a pragmatist point of view, cf. Westphal 2014.
The reference is of course to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, § 83.
Cf. also: “There is no way, as Wittgenstein has said, to come between language and its object, to divide the giraffe in itself from our ways of talking about giraffes” (Rorty 1999, xxvii).
If the concept of norm is to have any content at all.
This is a point stressed by a number of scholars. Cf. e.g. Engel (2007, 17) and John McDowell (2000, 115). This point is even recognized by Rorty himself (cf. the first footnote of Rorty 1998b), although he does not seem to acknowledge the actual force of the distinction between truth and justification.
It is interesting to note that Ruth Anna Putnam – however close she may be to some of Rorty’s claims – opposes him on the question of realism: cf. Putnam and Putnam 2017, 92.
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Rorty, R. (2007). Main statement by Richard Rorty. In R. Rorty & P. Engel, What’s the Use of Truth? (pp. 31–45). New York: Columbia University Press.
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I would like to thank Mario Alai, David Brett and two referees of this journal for their very useful suggestions on a previous draft of this paper.
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Dell’Utri, M. The Realist Wager: Challenging Rorty on His Home Ground. Philosophia 47, 1431–1446 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-019-00057-9
- Richard Rorty
- Rhetorical arguments
- Pragmatic maxim
- Blaise Pascal