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Rorty on Truth: Putnam and Relativism

Ilkka Pättiniemi

Recall, dear reader, last week’s installment, and Rorty’s thoroughly sociological view of justification. I will take this view for granted for present purposes. That said, it’s time to get on with our story.

Hilary Putnam was  one of the great pragmatists of the late 20th and the early 21st Centuries, and as such he shared a lot of his commitments with Rorty. He was also highly suspicious of some of Rorty’s views. Here I will concentrate on his accusations that Rorty is (gasp! shock! horror!) a Relativist. So I will consider whether (i) given their shared commitments, Putnam can paint Rorty as a relativist without tarring himself with the same brush, and (ii) whether such commitments lead to relativism in any case. 

So, what commitments do Rorty and Putnam share? In his paper “Putnam and the Relativist Menace” (1993) Rorty helpfully quotes bits from Putnam’s Realism with a Human Face (1990) (RHF in the following quote) that spell out their points of agreement:

  • (I) … elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call “reality” that the very project of representing ourselves as being ‘mapper’s of something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start. Like Relativism, but in a different way, Realism is an impossible attempt to view the world from nowhere (RHF 28).
  • (II) [We should] accept the position we are fated to occupy in any case, the position of beings who cannot have a view of the world that does not reflect our interests and values, but who are, for all that, committed to regarding some views of the world-and, for that matter, some interests and values-as better than others (RHF 178).
  • (III) What Quine called ‘the indeterminacy of translation’ should rather be viewed as the ‘interest relativity of translation’ ….. ‘[I]nterest relativity’ contrasts with absoluteness, not with objectivity. It can be objective that an interpretation or an explanation is the correct one, given the interests which are relevant in the context (RHF 210).
  • (IV) The heart of pragmatism, it seems to me – of James’ and Dewey’s pragmatism, if not of Peirce’s – was the insistence on the supremacy of the agent point of view. If we find that we must take a certain point of view, use a certain ‘conceptual system’, when we are engaged in practical activity, in the widest sense of ‘practical activity’, then we must not simultaneously advance the claim that it is not really ‘the way things are in themselves’.
  • (V) To say, as [Bernard] Williams sometimes does, that convergence to one big picture is required by the very concept of knowledge is sheer dogmatism. … It is, indeed, the case that ethical knowledge cannot claim absoluteness; but that is because the notion of absoluteness is incoherent (RHF 171). (Rorty 1993: 443–444, roman numerals added by Rorty, a footnote is omitted.)

From this shared basis, Putnam thinks he can emerge a non-relativist, while Rorty will be seen as a cultural relativist. How does Putnam get there? The crux of the issue is indeed Rorty’s insistence that justification (or ‘warrant’) is a social matter. Justification is justification for an audience, so justification becomes a matter of what our audience lets us get away with. Progress, then, becomes a matter of reforming our standards in a way that (hopefully) will be seen as better by later, better versions of ourselves. ‘Better’ here will simply mean: such future versions of ourselves that we would accept as better. Better for “us educated, sophisticated, tolerant, wet liberals, the people who are always willing to hear the other side, to think out all the implications, etc.” (Rorty 1993: 541–452) – what we in our best moments hope to be. 

But for Putnam this seems unacceptable. He sees Rorty as a relativist, 

because I [Rorty] can appeal to no “fact of the matter” to ajudicate [sic] between the possible world in which the Nazis won, inhabited by people for whom the Nazis’ racism seems common sense and our egalitarian tolerance crazy, and the world in which we won and the Nazis’ racism seems crazy.

Rorty 1993: 451.

What could such a “fact of the matter” be? It cannot be anything strongly realist, something taken from a ‘view from nowhere’, since both Rorty and Putnam disregard such fantasies (see I, II and IV above). Perhaps Putnam could play a Peircean move, and talk of ‘idealized communities at the end of inquiry’. But of what help would those be, if they are not seen in the Rortyan way? Given their mutual commitments “all ‘a fact of the matter about whether p is a warranted assertion’ can mean is ‘a fact of the matter about our ability to feel solidarity with a community that views p as warranted’” (Rorty 1993: 452–453). Insofar as Rorty is a relativist, so is Putnam. So much for (i).

So, the question then becomes: are Rorty and Putnam relativists? Simply put, no! At least not in any interesting way. What, after all, is problematic about relativism is that it leaves us without any standards for ‘better’ and ‘worse’ – we are left without norms. But both Putnam and Rorty explicitly deny that we have no standards or norms: 

Our norms and standards of anything – including warranted assertibility – are capable of reform. There are better and worse norms and standards.

Putnam 1990: 21, emphasis in the original.

So, neither philosopher will have any truck with normative relativism. Rorty simply seems more honest of the two – he cheerfully accepts that his view is ethnocentrist[1]. This is enough to grant us not only norms and standards, but a way of revising such norms and standards, as our culture works to give us such norms (in the way the world, or God, were supposed to). Then given a penchant for solidarity, a willingness “to hear the other side, to think out all the implications, etc.” (Rorty 1993: 451–452), we are able to expand our audience ever larger – making an ever larger group our ethnos (or better, our demos). Thus the demand for objectivity will be replaced by a demand for more solidarity – the willingness to expand the circle of people we take as our peers, of the points-of-view we take seriously. Will this be enough to stave off the “relativist menace”? If not, I find it hard to see what can.

[1] Here ‘ethnocentrism’ actually plays a double role. The first is almost a platitude: we are products of a culture, an ethnos, and though we might acculturate to a different culture, we cannot go outside of social practices – we can only have different ones. The second role is the particular ethnos of “us educated, sophisticated, tolerant, wet liberals” (Rorty 1993: 451).


Putnam, Hilary (1990): Realism with a Human Face. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rorty, Richard (1993): Putnam and the Relativist Menace. The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 90, no. 9, pp. 443–461.

Published by Ilkka Pättiniemi

A Helsinki based philosopher and bassist. An idiot.

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