UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Rorty, liberalism and the limits of contingency Naylor, Joseph Alan


The foundational role of metaphysics, traditionally taken to be the basis of justification for our beliefs and vocabularies, is attacked by Richard Rorty, who sees, rather, contingency everywhere. Truths are not found or discovered through a mirroring relation between our products and an authority that is timeless and independent; instead they are made solely through the internal workings and development of vocabularies. Attempts to restore and modernize foundationalist paradigms, to write metanarratives that try to fit all of our existing and possible narratives into a scheme of commensuration, thus need to be abandoned. Although we should be grateful for the liberal institutions that foundationalist paradigms helped sustain through the use of supporting metaphysical views of the self and the world, we are now mature enough to keep the institutions and throw away the obsolete justifications. Those of us socialized into expecting such justifications for political institutions may feel a sense of irony at their abandonment, but generations to come, no longer socialized as we at present are, will see that sort of justification as quaint. Rorty thinks that this way of describing things, his vocabulary, will work better; indeed, this pragmatism, which replaces foundationalism, motivates his entire enterprise. However, a vocabulary, albeit itself contingent, that can describe creatures that are capable of producing things such as vocabularies which “work” and may “work better”, is one that, by necessity, includes the terms and relations needed to describe such creatures. Chief among the ideas needed is action, since a vocabulary that cannot distinguish events from actions cannot describe human practicality, or pragmatism. The concept of action takes us to a core self, identified by the cognitive states which explain the difference between acts and other events, and to an epistemic relation with a world that can be described at least in terms of its functional properties, but which is properly external to beliefs. These terms and their relations comprise a set of ‘contingent necessities’ which constitute a metanarrative that Rorty cannot reject and continue to describe himself as a non-idealist pragmatist. Furthermore, these elements, which a pragmatic vocabulary cannot [re—I describe or otherwise evolve its way out of and remain pragmatic, are rich enough to justify the basic rights espoused by liberals. In such descriptions sufficiently self-conscious describers find the limits of contingency and therefore the limits of irony. Such connections, of which Rorty appears to be unaware, exist between the necessities of his pragmatism and certain fundamental aspects of liberalism. Rorty criticizes Dworkiri, Foucault and Habermas for resting their views on unqualified or absolute necessities which are the mark of a metaphysics. Rorty takes the modalities of description to be either unqualifiedly a matter of necessity or contingency. However, as we have seen, there is a third way. Once these theorists can avail themselves of this third way, the contributions made by these theorists can no longer be summarily dismissed as metaphysics.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.