An Appraisal of Rorty’s Approach to Epistemology from a Critical Rationalist Perspective

Document Type : Research Paper


1 PhD Student in Philosophy of Science and Technology, Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, Tehran, Iran

2 Associate Professor of Philosophy of Science and Technology, Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, Tehran, Iran


A large part of Richard Rorty’s works focus on criticizing the received view about philosophy. He argues, in his historical reconstruction of philosophical activity, that there has always been a misconception about philosophy in the history of philosophy. This misconception assumes that philosophy aims to grasp the ultimate knowledge, so it desperately engages in an attempt to achieve “truth”. In this view, which he calls representationalism and points to it by the metaphor of the mirror of nature, knowledge aims to represent something out of mind, and the duty of philosophy is to put forward a theory about the representation. According to Rorty, based on this popular view philosophy is a foundational discipline that aims to evaluate epistemological claims of other disciplines. Rorty attempts to criticize and reject this Cartesian epistemological agenda for philosophy. Rorty’s approach to philosophy is therapeutic, that is, he tries to resolve philosophical problems rather than solving them. By adopting a historical method, Rorty seeks to show that “philosophy as epistemology” is a result of the dominance of what he calls the metaphor of the mirror of nature.
From a critical rationalist perspective, the present article intends to critique Rorty’s views on epistemology. In this paper, Rorty’s historiographical approach is criticized in several ways. First, Rorty offers a one-sided and biased reconstruction of the history of philosophy to fit the abovementioned metaphor. Secondly, he treats history as rigid data from which it is possible to draw doctrinal conclusions. Whereas, as critical rationalists have said time and again, history by itself has no meaning.
Moreover, Rorty's justificationism is criticized. Rorty maintains that knowledge needs to be justified, and since it cannot be justified through representation, it must be justified by the consent of a society. In other words, agreement in a group of people can provide an epistemic authority. Thus, both Rorty’s view and foundationalism, despite their differences, share on justificationism in epistemology. That is, they both believe that knowledge needs to be justified. On the other hand, as critical rationalists have shown, justification in any shape and form, whether internal or external, is neither possible nor necessary.
We also attempt to illustrate how Rorty’s epistemological approach results in confusion between epistemology and psychology; moreover, his epistemological behaviorism still suffers from some sort of justificationism.
In conclusion, Rorty expresses his critique of epistemology with the metaphor of the mirror of nature. According to him, foundationalism is the result of the conflation of the Platonic conception of knowledge as something unchangeable, with the Cartesian mind that seeks certainty. However, his ignorance of the main crux of the matter in epistemology causes his own suggestion of epistemological behaviorism to suffer from the same problem, that is, justification, which now appears in another form, i.e., social consensus. While, as critical rationalists repeated time and again, justification is neither possible nor necessary and not even desirable. They have shown that a non-justificationist approach to knowledge aimed at truth as a regulative idea could be a better suggestion.


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