Rorty, Wittgenstein and norms

Here is a very sketchy set of thoughts about Rorty and Wittgenstein on normativity that I wrote a few years back. There’s bits of it I no longer agree with, but I think there is at least some value in the central distinction I make between social practices being a condition for normative standards to be in play and social practices being arbiters of what is to count as meeting normative standards. Part of my work at the moment is in trying to motivate the thought that while some norms are socially administered, we can make sense of others that are not, even if being somehow connected to or embeddeded in social practices is a condition of them taking hold at all. Anyway, I hope it is of at least some interest, although it would certainly have benefitted from me reading more McDowell before having written it.

* * *

Rorty’s discussions of normativity, which centre on the role of epistemology and the evaluation of norms, take up a similar position to Kripke’s Wittgenstein in locating normative relations within the horizon of communities for which we feel solidarity rather than seeing them as objective and extra-social, such that we can see ourselves, “standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality.” (1984: 21) This is a position that Rorty labels ‘ethnocentric’ because it does not accept that we can appeal to standards outside of a social group to justify the normative standards of that group. The issue we will be concerned with here though is not the meta-normative one of how we are to evaluate our own normative standards but rather of how we should think about how people manage to conform to a norm at all.

The criterion that Rorty gives for someone’s statement conforming to norms of warranted assertability is a sociological one. It is, “to be ascertained by observing the reception of S’s statement by his peers.” (1993: 50) What this amounts to is fleshed out in response to Putnam’s query as to whether he accepts this principle:

Whether a statement is warranted or not is independent of whether the majority of one’s cultural peers would say it is warranted or unwarranted. (Putnam 1990: 21 quoted in Rorty 1993: 49)

Rorty says that perhaps a majority can be wrong (although he does not explain how we are to decide this sociologically) but that if everyone in a community except for a handful of ‘dubious characters’ say that the statement is warranted then it will be. The only alternative to this view, he claims, is an untenable realist position that supposes that, “there is some way of determining warrant sub specie aeternitatis.” (1993: 50)

From the standpoint of a careful examination of Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following, we can identify Rorty’s position as a misdirected response to a set of plausible intuitions concerning the need to involve reference to human activity in approaching normative claims. The confusion displayed by his stance is in supposing that the criteria for the satisfaction of certain norms, such as those for warrant, have a privileged relationship to the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of a linguistic community (as well as other sufficiently sociologically privileged groups within such a community). This way of handling the issue is an attempt to anchor normativity in something that avoids the suspicion that hangs over both a potentially alien and unfathomable natural order of normative authority and the unappealing relativism of a subjectivist approach. However, while rightly rejecting strong forms of realism and relativism, it incorrectly locates the genuine role of communal agreement by taking it to be an external arbiter of the satisfaction of norms rather than a general prerequisite for the institution of norms.

For Wittgenstein, a relatively stable background consensus concerning whether rules have been obeyed or not constitutes a precondition for the possibility of linguistic activities such as giving descriptions. It is, he says, “part of the framework on which the working of our language is based.” (§240) Wittgenstein then cautions against the temptation (a form of which we have already met in Rorty) to suppose that this means that it is a concurrence of opinion that determines whether or not a rule has been obeyed. The agreement that he is concerned with is in the language used, about which he says that this is agreement in “form of life.” (§241) So, Wittgenstein is saying that it is a grammatical condition upon giving descriptions in which we say someone is or is not following a rule that it takes place against a backdrop of patterns of behaviour to which there belongs a stable and mostly uncontroversial practice of distinguishing between correct and incorrect rule-following. That is, a general distinction between correctness and incorrectness in rule-following must be in place for it to make sense to say in an individual case that someone is correctly following a rule.

Returning to Rorty’s case of warrant, he claims that, once we turn away from a strong realist position, then if an overwhelming majority of someone’s linguistic community believe that p is warranted then it cannot fail to be. This necessitates a collapse of the distinction between it seeming to an overwhelming majority of a community to be correct to believe p is warranted and it being true that p is warranted. But it is surely intelligible that a large mass of people have made a systematic error in applying our criteria of warrant, or even that everyone in a community is mistaken in this respect. Without this possibility then we face the problem raised by the private language argument but simply writ large. The private language argument presents us with a situation where we are left without a genuine criterion for identifying a phenomenon because there is no standard of correctness for applying the criterion. Wittgenstein says: “One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’.” (§258) Here we find the problem transposed to the level of the community. Where whatever seems correct to the overwhelming majority of a community is taken as the ultimate arbiter of what is correct then we have abandoned the distinction between appearance and objective reality.

We are now not dealing with a criterion for warrant in which our inclinations come to play a supporting role; instead, we are dealing with a Rortian redefinition of ‘warrant’ which ties it to a separate concept. This can be shown by considering the differences between the notion of what a sociologically privileged group within a community is inclined to describe as ‘warranted’ and what goes on in our actual practices of justification. As with other norms, the criteria of warrant are satisfied through an internal relation between the criteria and what is warranted, in the same way that a desire or belief is internally related to what is desired or believed. This is reflected in our application of criteria of warrant such that in assessing a belief we inquire into such things as whether there is any empirical evidence to back it up, whether it is logically entailed or excluded by our well-grounded beliefs, and so on. As part of these considerations we might appeal to the beliefs of our linguistic community, but these will have no pivotal role and will not act as a tertium quid mediating the significance of all other factors. Ultimately it will be whether there are good to reasons to believe p that will determine whether it is warranted and not that an overwhelming majority believe there are good reasons.

This does not mean that we must invoke atemporal standards of rationality to decide what counts as a good or bad reason to believe p. Our normative criteria for what are good or bad reasons in support of a belief will arise from, and be thoroughly intertwined with, the common activity of critical assessment. The important point is that, contra Rorty, it is a mistake to conflate the conditions in which there arises a distinction between acting in accord with a normative standard or not and the conditions for the satisfaction of individual normative standards. Were we to lack a good deal of consensus in the application of criteria for warrant, wildly or unsystematically diverging in our judgments as to whether beliefs were warranted, then the practice of criticism would lose its identifiable character. Wittgenstein makes an analogous point:

It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. But what we call “measuring” is partly determined by a certain constancy in results of measurement. (§242)

This is related to the Davidsonian idea that the majority of our beliefs could not be false because we must suppose a general background of true beliefs for it to be intelligible to ascribe beliefs at all. So, for example, whilst it is possible for Aristotle to have been wrong about the number of teeth that women have, we cannot suppose he was wrong in every belief he had about teeth because in such a case we have no grounds for connecting his behaviour with ascriptions of teeth-related beliefs. The same goes for norms like warrant, where there is no direct connection between the correctness of application of the criteria of individual candidates for warrant and the activities of a larger linguistic community, and it is quite possible for everyone to misapply commonly recognised criteria for warrant. However, this presupposes a general coherence in our activities of criticism because it is through a regular pattern of mostly consensual applications of the set of criteria that partly determines that what people are doing is assessing warrant.

We can go some way to meeting the concerns that motivate Rorty by locating the origins of normative standards of warrant within the common activity of critically assessing beliefs, and furthermore note that we cannot completely lose touch with what meets these standards since regularity in their application is partly constitutive of them being standards of warrant. However, once these norms are instituted there will be no need for them to be mediated by the response of a linguistic community. Placing the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of a linguistic community as an infallible authority as to the satisfaction of normative criteria for warrant is a needless step. What’s more, it surreptitiously redefines what is to count as warrant, substituting the application of criteria to an objective world that determines whether they are satisfied with the limp concept of warrant as always and only those beliefs which seem acceptable to many members of a linguistic community.


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