Richard Rorty and Epistemic Normativityby Eric T. Kerr, J. Adam Carter

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Richard Rorty and Epistemic


Eric T. Kerr & J. Adam Carter

Published online: 19 Feb 2015.

To cite this article: Eric T. Kerr & J. Adam Carter (2015): Richard Rorty and Epistemic

Normativity, Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2014.971914

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D ow nl oa de d by [M ich iga n S tat e U niv ers ity ] a t 1 4:3 6 2 5 F eb ru ary 20 15

Richard Rorty and Epistemic


Eric T. Kerr and J. Adam Carter

The topic of epistemic normativity has come to the fore of recent work in epistemology, and so naturally, theories of knowledge, truth and justification have been increasingly held accountable to preserving normative epistemological platitudes. Central to discussions of epistemic normativity are questions about epistemic agency and epistemic value. Here, our aim is to take up some of these issues as they come to bear on the rather unconventional brand of epistemology that was defended by Richard Rorty.

Our purpose is to explore whether Rorty’s epistemology—or perhaps his replacement for epistemology—can preserve these normative platitudes about epistemic agency, responsibility, achievement, and the value of knowledge. Our conclusion is a negative one: that Rorty’s commitments leave him firmly at odds with some of the most plausible assumptions about epistemic agency and epistemic value.

Keywords: Richard Rorty; Epistemic Normativity; Epistemic Agency; Epistemic Value


Richard Rorty has been a towering as well as polariszing figure in recent philosophy and this is no small part due to his unapologetic attacks on analytic 20th Century epistemology and its Kantian-Cartesian origins. As Rorty saw it, the core projects occupying mainstream epistemologists (e.g. articulating objective

Eric T. Kerr is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Science, Technology, and Society Cluster at the Asia

Research Institute, National University of Singapore, 469A Tower Block #08-03, Bukit Timah Road,

Singapore 259770, Singapore.

J. Adam Carter is a research assistant in the Department of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, Rm 5.04,

Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh EH8 9AD, UK. Email:

Correspondence to: Eric T. Kerr, Technology, and Society Cluster at the Asia Research Institute, National

University of Singapore, 469A Tower Block #08–03, Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259770, Singapore. Email:  2015 Taylor & Francis

Social Epistemology, 2015

D ow nl oa de d by [M ich iga n S tat e U niv ers ity ] a t 1 4:3 6 2 5 F eb ru ary 20 15 conditions for knowledge and epistemic justification) were not merely “mistaken” but far worse: premised upon a fundamentally misguided inherited conception of how we stand to “represent” the world. Given just how deep Rorty’s objection to contemporary epistemology runs, it is no surprise that Rorty has been by and large dismissed from discussions in mainstream epistemology: typically as a “literary figure” or “post-modernist”.

But Rorty’s “irrelevance” in mainstream epistemology is symptomatic of a more general kind of issue: when two parties to a dispute seem to lack a common starting point (as perhaps do Rorty and mainstream epistemologists, vis-a`-vis representation), we shouldn’t be surprised when (as Wittgenstein puts it) “each man declares the other a fool and a heretic”. And indeed, Rorty’s proposed neo-pragmatist “replacement” for traditional epistemology diverges so dramatically from mainstream “meta-epistemological realism” that, at least with respect to many of the more traditional and well-worn questions occupying mainstream epistemologists—viz. about the nature of knowledge and justification—attempts at fruitful adjudication tend to look to either one side or the other like a non-starter. It is no surprise that little productive dialogue occurs between those sympathetic to Rorty’s epistemology and mainstream epistemologists hostile to it.

Is this then where we should leave things? We think not. In mainstream epistemology, recent issues concerning epistemic value, virtue, responsibility and normativity—issues not part of the mid-20th epistemological framework Rorty inherited from Quine, Chisholm and others—are now approached as core concerns. While issues of representation might continue to seem a non-starter between Rorty and those who endorse mainstream meta-epistemology, philosophical issues concerning epistemic value (broadly construed) are an entirely different matter. After all, regardless of the representational picture underlying how one approaches “knowledge” and “justified belief” for instance, it is hard for anyone—pragmatist, relativist, realist, objectivist, expressivist—to deny that these things are (in some sense, and under some description) cognitive goods. This much is so even if our conceptions of the nature of such goods differs dramatically. We shall see that Rorty, while outwardly rejecting analytic epistemology and its foundations, commits himself to an alternative account of epistemic agency, responsibility and virtue. Rorty’s critique is not a rejection of epistemic normativity so much as an argument in favour of a different set of epistemic norms.