Vocabularies and the Life-World: A Criticism of Rorty's Naturalism

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Nov 14, 2013 (3 years and 10 months ago)

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Vocabularies and the Life
-
World: A Criticism of Rorty's N
atura
lism


Roberto Gronda


This is a

draft
,

not
to

quote
or cite

comments welcome




1
.
In this paper I will try to
develop some of the ideas that
lie

at the basis of

Rorty's
naturalism
without any a
im to provide a comprehensive interpretation of his thought
.
In
the next pages

I will take the liberty of treating Rorty's philosophical
arguments and ideas
as a springboard to reach conclusions different from those that Rorty wanted to reach
.
I
will
move
from what Rorty says in his important response to
Bjorn Ramberg concerning
the privileged
status of the vocabulary of normativity
.
In particular, I will focus the
attention on
his acceptance of the idea

that the language of normativity is not the language
of intentionality, and I will attempt to argue for the importance of such distinction.
T
he
thesis that the
vocabulary of normativity is
more fundamental than that of intentionality

leads directly to the issue of identifying what is
the nature of that

vocab
ulary,
and in
which practice it is instantiated
.

My suggestion is that
the
n
ormativ
e vocabulary

should be
identified with

what it is usually

call
ed

common
-
sense,
that is, the set of habitual and
institutionalized practices taken for granted in every “commu
nity of minds”
.
T
he
n, I will
try to argue for the

idea that common
-
sense
is

nothing but a more comfortable and less
emphatic

way of saying “
human nature”.
The
statement of the
identity of human nature
and common
-
sense is philosophically interesting since

i
t helps counteract a tendency
toward
intellectualism
that
s
trikes me as

an unwanted side
-
effect of t
he linguistic turn
.
There is a sense in which
one is entitled to say that
it is
not
correct to
question the
“givenness” of certain forms or “representation”
: we cannot

choose how things
appear to
us

because th
eir

mode of manifestation is

dependent
both

on their constitution


what
Rorty calls “causal pressure”


and

on

our biological endowment.

I will therefore argue
that t
he
community

of minds is grounded at

its deepest level on the
community

of common
-
sense, that is, on the fact that we human beings are animals
who share a
common

stock of
needs, impulses, and habits
.
I will then maintain that
there is no necessary connection
between
that conclusion
and

an al
leged unmodifiability

of
human nature
: the recourse to
th
e

notion
of human nature
is
not
a move available only to those who want to restore a
metaphysical
language which paves the way for a metaphysical
view of reality, as Rorty
seems to believe
.
Rather th
e contrary,
it seems to me that the notion of human nature is
deeply

intertwined with Price's idea of subject naturalism, a philosophical project that
Rorty endorses in his article
Naturalism and Quietism
.
T
rough th
e

confrontation with
Rorty's
philosophy

I

hope

to
succeed in

s
ketching
a
sound

philosophy of praxis
revolving

around the concepts of practice, normativity, and nature
.


2

2.
In his article
Post
-
Ontological Philosophy of Mind: Rorty versus Davidson
, Ramberg
remark
s
that Rorty should be less dubious
about the
distinctiveness
of the vocabulary of agency.
With this term Ramberg refers

to the vocabulary in which it is possible to make
propositional
-
attitude ascriptions,
and
the idea that he wants to convey through the use of
th
at

expression i
s that the c
apacity of recognizing something as a linguistic utterance
rather than as a series of noise
s

is strictly related to

the possibility of
describing something
as an
action
, that is, a kind of activity that
is purposive and

has conditions of
appropriateness

(R
amberg
2000
: 353)
.
But this entails
, Ramberg
continue
s
, that
th
e
possibility of describing patterns of action in
purely descriptive terms



a possibility that
our language makes available


depends on the fact that “it is
possible for others to see us
as i
n general conforming to the norms that the predicates of agency embody

(Ramberg
2000: 362)
.
This
is
another way of formulating the same thought that is at the basis of
Wittgenstein's argument against private language:
the idea that normativity cannot be
e
xplained away by being reduced to something simpler
(
private language, descriptive
vocabulary, and so on
)
.

Consequently, the adoption of a normative stance is
more
fundamental than the adoption of a descriptive stance since for a description to be true it
is
necessary that it
can

be false, and truth and falseness are possible only on the basis of a
preexisting norm.
As Rorty
efficaciously summarizes, “[b]ecause norms are not
regularities, you can only get right when you get wrong” (Rorty 2
000
b
: 375)
.
This t
hesis
can be
called the inescapability of the normative.

In his response Rorty
not only
accepts
many of
the
conclusions drawn

by Ramberg,
but
also

emphasize
s

a point
which is not fully developed in
the latter
's article,
and

which is of
particular interest
for our
present
concern
s
.
Trying to clarify the
significance

of
the
distinction between
the
descriptive and
the
normative, Rorty states that
the
key to

understanding the
inescapability of the normative
is t
o keep

the
latter

separate
from the
intentional.
T
he fundamental insight that Rorty
want
s
to articulate is

th
e following
:
w
e can
use an intentional vocabulary to describe and explain the behavior of
a
very complex
mechanism, but we are not for that reason bound to
treat

that

mechanism as a person, as a
me
mber of our community.
Consequently, the two vocabulary
should be clearly
distinguished
.
Surely, there is a “considerable overlap between the beings we talk
about
using the intentional vocabulary and the beings whom we talk
to

using the normative
vocabular
y” (Rorty 2000
b
: 372). Rorty is not interested in denying this fact;
simply, he
wants to
stress

that
the vocabulary which is privileged because
of its
inescapab
i
l
ity

is the
vocabulary of normativity (Rorty 2000
b
: 373)
.
But this
entails

that

t
he intentional

vocabulary is no more basic than the non
-
intentional vocabulary, and that both rely on the
normative vocabulary.

I will come back to this later.
Before that,

I would discuss
in some detail
the
nat
ure of
normativity
. According to Rorty, who follows Davids
on on this point, normativity and
objectivity
originate from
the process of triangulation. “
The inescap
ability of norms
”,

R
orty
says, “is the inescapability, for both describers and agents, of triangulating” (Rorty
2000
b
: 373
-
4).
And then
he

adds, critical
ly referring to his previous writings: “It was a
mistake to locate the norms at one corner of the triangle


where my peers are


rather
than seeing them as, so to speak, hovering over the whole process of triangulation” (Rorty
3

2000b: 376)
. In
Three Variet
ies of Knowledge
Davidson clearly explains why triangulation is
necessary to have
an
empirical
or propositional
content. “What seems basic is this”,
Davidson writes, “
an observer (or teacher) finds (or instills) a regularity in the verbal
behavior of the i
nformant (or learner) which he can correlate with events and objects in the
environment” (Davidson
2001
b
: 212).

It is only when
the triangulation is completed that a
common cause is determined, and thought and speech acquire a content.

Human beings

are
the
refore
continuously
engaged
in processes of triangulation through which they
succeed in understanding their world and each others.
This
is strictly related to
Davidson
's
well
-
known
thesis, formulated

in
A Nice Derangement of Epitap
h
s
,
that
“there is no suc
h
thing as
a
language, not if language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists
have supposed” (
Davidson
2005
b
:
107
).
The idea that
the success of an act of
interpretation
depends on

an alleged mastery of
a set of fixed rules and conventions
i
s a philosophical
myth that one should get rid of
.
What
makes

the

process of interpretation


which is a
t the
very same time a

process of constitution of objectivity
since “the boundary between
knowing a language and knowing our way in the world generally”

has been definitely
erased
(
Davidson 2005b: 107
)



s
uccessful is the
fruitful interplay between the prior theory
and the passing theory, and
more precisely

the

“ability to converge on a passing theory
from time to time”
(
Davidson 2005b:
106
).


The

insiste
nce on the importance of
the
passing
-
theory for the
possibility of a successful
interpretation

is a point
on which

Rorty
agrees with Davidson

(Rorty
2000
a
:

75
)
.
This

is
far
from surpr
i
sing
since

Rorty
ha
s
always protested

against
the primacy
that philosoph
y has
traditionally claimed for

the idea of
method.
Now, t
he realization of the p
ivotal role
played

by

the
passing theory
in the process of interpretation and constitution of
objectivity
, and the consequent abandonment of the idea of rules and conventions
directing and
controlling our (linguistic) behavior, is particularly relevant

for our purposes

because it opens the door to the recognition of the primacy of contex
t


or, in more
pragmatist terms, of the concrete
practices
which
ground the process
es

of
in
terpretation
and
triangulation
.

In his analysis of the
se

process
es
,
however,

Davidson
does not
thematize
the fact that the
two interpreters who undertake the effort to understand each other and their environment
can “
understand



and here “understand” sho
uld be taken in a very minimal sense
(see
below at
section 5 for an explanation of this use of understand)



th
at

they
are

look
ing

at
the very same object
in the very same way
.

It is
very
likely that
a strong realistic
commitment is at work here:
the idea
that
no
legitimate
doubt can be raised about
the
existence of the external world
once it has been shown that our general picture of the
world cannot be mistaken (Davidson 2001
c
: 214)
.
Ramberg's statement that “[w]e are
made the believers we are by the comm
unicative interactions constituted by complex
patterns of causal interaction with others in a shared world”
seems to corroborate

this
reading (Ramberg 2000: 362)
.

The fact of sharing the same world is taken as a sufficient
account of the capacity of human
beings to reach a preliminary, non
-
linguistic agreement
on the
specific

context in which the processes of triangulation and interpretation take place
(and become possible)
.

Such argumentative strategy
does

not
seem sound to me, and


which is more importan
t


4

seems to be in partial contrast to Rorty's
approach
.
T
o go straight to the point, t
h
e

confusion

between existence and (the possibility of) meaning is one
that Rorty never tires
to
expose and clear up. So, for instance,
in
A

World without Substances or
Essences
he
highlights

that

the charge of idealism
that has been leveled at the antiessentialist
s



those
who do not believe t
hat
things have a real essence, but do hold that the meaning of a thing
is a matter of relations
constructed by language users


r
elies
on a

confusion between the
question “How do we pick out objects?”, and “Do objects antedate being picked out by
us?”. In reality, Rorty states, “[t]he antiessentialist has no doubt that there were trees and
stars long before there were statements abo
ut trees and stars. But the fact of antecedent
existence is of no use in giving sense to the question, 'What are trees and stars apart from
their relations to other things


apart from our statements about them?

(
Rorty 1999
b
: 58
)
.

Rorty's argument
is impo
rtant because it

provides an important insight into how
to deal
with
the issue
of

understanding”
.
Rorty
remarks that

t
he
fact that the
existence of the
world is
to be
taken for granted “
is of no use

in explaining how it is possible for two
agents to shar
e a common

horizon
of
“meaning”
.
Th
e mere existence of the world does not
warrant the possibility of an agreement between the two participants;
rather

it would
exclude
in principle
the very possibility of a
significant

disagreement.

But t
h
is means that
the

recourse to a strong form of realism is not sufficient to account for the possibility of
triangulation
and interpretation
. We need something different.



3.
We owe to Dewey the best description of
t
h
e “
something different” which

makes
communication possib
le
. In his
Logic,
The Theory of Inquiry
Dewey discusses an incident
reported by Ogden and Richards in
The Meaning of Meaning
.


A visitor in a savage tribe wanted on one occasion "the word for Table. There were five
or six boys standing around, and tapping
the table with my forefinger I asked 'What is
this?' One boy said it was
dodela
, another that it was an
etanda
, a third stated that it was
bokali
, a fourth that it was
elamba
, and the fifth said it was
meza
". After congratulating
himself on the richness of

the vocabulary of the language the visitor found later "that
one boy had thought he wanted the word for tapping; another understood we were
seeking the word for the material of which the table was made; another had the idea
that we required the word for h
ardness; another thought we wished the name for that
which covered the table; and the last […] gave us the word
meza
, table" (De
wey
1938/
2008:
59
)
.



The
moral that Dewey draws from this


and I think he is completely right on this point


i
s that a word w
hich is abstracted from the concrete practice in which it
actually
plays a
role is completely meaningless. If the hearer does not know whether the speaker refers to
the color of the object or to its shape, he cannot triangulate
and give a content to that
a
ssertion.

C
onsequently there is no constitution of mutual understanding and objectivity.
In more Davidsonian terms,
it is true that
the ability of
triangulating

lie
s
at the basis of the
fact that thought and speech

have content:
c
ommunication grounds the s
emantic
properties of language and thought. But
the linguistic
agreement


the agreement
in
and

5

through

language


is
not primitive.
Rather the contrary,

it is the

most
refined outgrowth

of
a series of precedent “agreements”: the
existential

agreement


th
e fact that the two agents
live in the same world; the
biological
agreement


the fact that the two agents share the
same biological endowment, as a consequence of which

they are presented with objects
similar enough to be treated as

substantially identica
l
for a certain purpose
; and, finally,
the
purposive

agreement


the fact that the two agents can “understand” that they are
e
ngaged in the same activity
(hunting, building a house, and so on)
.
Evidently, t
he three
levels are mutually related.
T
he kind of
relation that holds among them is open to
philosophical discussion: I suggest to conceive the higher levels as an actualization of the
potentialities of the lower levels, so as to avoid the menace
s

of
reductionism and idealism
as well as the difficulties c
oncerning the relation between experience and language.

E
vidently,
the issue is too complex to be adequately dealt with here. For present purposes
it is enough to say that the three levels articulate the way in which human beings are part
of nature, to use

an expression
from Adorno
.
In his account, Dewey insists on
the highest
level, that of purposive agreement,
because

he wants to highlight the plurality of practices
in

which human beings can participate.
Since language is a tool


as Rorty explicitly
ackn
owledges in the first chapter of
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity



it can be used for
different purposes: a stone can be used to build a house,
to block a door, to kill an animal,
and so on.
The nature of
thing
s cannot be defined

apart from and independ
ently of the
context of their applications: usability is the “formal essence” of things. Rorty is perfectly
right in arguing for a strong form of antiessentialism. But one should not forget that
the
concrete practices
in which human beings are engaged

are
the actualization of general
potentialities
of nature
, whose generality consists in the fact that
they are indeterminate
enough to support different patterns of activity
.
Seen from this perspective, then,
biological agreement is the hinge upon which the po
ssibility of a plurality of practices
turns.
We will return to this point in the final section of the paper when t
he significance of
this thesis will be discussed
with the aim

to

formulat
ing

a
kind of

philosophical
naturalism more substantive than that
whi
ch

Rorty has in mind.
The next two sections will
devoted to analyzing how this idea can help us to better understand the processes of
triangulation and interpretation.



4. I have
state
d that t
he emphasis
that

Dewey puts on the notion of encompassing
situ
ation helps us to better understand Rorty's (and Davidson's)
rather
generic insistence
on the idea of context.
But w
e owe to Dewey
another important
insight

that
may be of use
to clarify a
doctrine

that
seems to

me
not

completely clear because not fully de
veloped


the distinction between intentionality and normativity. If I understand
him

right,
in his
response to Ramberg
Rorty
say
s
something like this
: I [Rorty] have
always charged
Davidson for maintaining the irreducibility of the mental to the physical
.

For a long time I
held that
normativity is not a good candidate to account for the difference
existing
between

the two vocabularies. In th
at

spirit once I wrote that “I would rejoin that there is
nothing especially normative about my effort to translate,
since all I am doing is trying to
find a pattern of resemblances between my linguistic behavior and the native's […]. I
6

cannot see that this attempt differs in kind from my attempts to find, for example,
resemblances between the structure and behavior of a
n unfamiliar insect and those of
familiar insects

(Rorty 1999
c
: 583
-
4)
. At that time I was persuaded that
the vocabulary of
normativity could be traced back to a simpler, descriptive vocabulary in which
the
normative element in interpretation can be satis
factorily reformulated


that is, without
any loss of explicative power


as the lack of significant deviation from the behavior of
other agents.

Thanks to Ramberg I have eventually
realized that my previous criticism was
wrong
.
This because “[w]e cannot s
top prescribing, and just describe, because the
describing counts as describing only if rule
-
governed, only if conducted by people who
talk about each other in the vocabulary of agency” (Rorty 2000
b
: 373). So, I am now
persuaded that the vocabulary of inte
ntionality


the vocabulary
in wh
ich

it is possible to
provide empirical descriptions of behavior as complex as that of
human beings


is just
one of the possible ways (vocabularies are tools!) to deal with
natural

event, and that any
reductionist program
is misguided insofar as it
ends up in denying

its own conditions of
possibility.

Provided that this is what Rorty intends to say in his response to Ramberg, I
think
he

is
completely
righ
t.
N
ot only the distinction between
normativity and intentionality

see
m
s
to
me

philosophically sound, but
I
also
believe

that it is more in conformity with the spirit of
Davidson's program than the
traditional distinction between intentional and non
-
intentional vocabularies
.

F
ollowing Davidson, Ramberg distinguishes between

the
vocabulary of intentional ascription and vocabularies which do not rely on intentional
predicates”, thus assuming that the vocabulary of agency
coincide
s
with

the vocabulary of
intentional ascription
(Ramberg
2000: 358
-
9
).

If

I am right,
Rorty
take
s
a

different and more
promising route.
The novelty of his approach revolves around the idea that the language
of normativity is inescapable.

I take this as meaning that every
scientific
vocabulary is
parasitic


in a sense that has to be defined


upon

the
n
ormative
vocabulary
. I think
that

what Rorty has in mind is
something like the following:
we should re
ject

the proposal to
treat

non
-
intentional vocabular
ies

and intentional vocabulary as

belonging to

two different
levels
of abstraction and complexity
,
the

latter being more fundamental than the former
.
Both are tools that enable us to

select an aspect of reality as relevant, and offer a
description of its structural properties. The adoption of an intentional stance enables us to
provide an empirical, verifi
able description and explanation of the behavior

of extremely
complex systems


human beings, animals, robots, and whatever we decide to treat in this
way.
The adoption of a non
-
intentional stance
towards natural events

enables us to
successfully explain t
he behavior of those entities whose intelligibility does not require the
assumption of intentionality.
Here the circularity is not vicious, but reflects the way in
which human beings have constructed that particular kind of intelligibility that is pursued
in natural sciences.



In doing so, Rorty achieves
t
wo

major
goals.
First of all
, he
dispels the fascinating power of
scientific realism.
Being a vocabulary, natural science cannot provide the m
eans

t
o
question the validity and legitimacy of normative voc
abulary
.
Th
e reductionist instance
characteristic of

bald naturalism

therefore
falls into

a performative
self
-
contradiction.

Secondly
,
he succeeds in
avoiding the malicious identification of psychology


the
science

7

of the mental


with the mental itself.
Here the distinction is not clear
-
cut since the
language that we use to speak of the mental is partially coincident with the language
used
by

psychology, but there is yet a minimal sense in which that distinction is worth
preserving. It is clear, indeed, t
hat the refined products of psychology cannot be equated
to
what we call, in everyday language, mental events or mental phenomena
.
If we do not
pay due attention to such difference, we
can
not understand much
of the history of
psychology of 19
th

and 20
th

ce
nturies
. The sensation that is the subject
-
matter of
psychological research is not the sensation of which we speak in everyday life.

I think this
is the cash
-
value of Rorty's statement that
there is a “considerable overlap between the
beings we talk
about
using the intentional vocabulary and the beings whom we talk
to

using the normative vocabulary” (Rorty 2000
b
: 372)
.

But there is another important conclusion that can be d
erived

from those premises.
Since
the normative vocabulary is the tool that makes the

formulation of the rules governing
agency possible, it has
to be broad enough to encompass the world in which agency takes
place
.
There is nothing mythical in this
statement
:
wha
t
is
mean
t by it is

that a vocabulary
in which it is possible to formulate
th
e norms

of our (linguistic)
agency
is

a vocabulary in
which it is possible to speak of the objects which cause the sentences to be held true.
T
his
is what the holism of the
normative


and not of the mental
or intentional
, as Davidson
thinks
(Davidso
n
2001
b:
124)


amounts to. The vocabulary of normativity

is a vocabulary
rich enough to express the idea that the basis of knowledge “is a
community
of minds, that
is, a plurality of creatures engaged in the project of describing their world and interpreting
ea
ch other's description of it” (Ramberg 2000: 362; quoted by Rorty 2000b: 373).

If my reading is correct, the normative vocabulary cannot be identified with any
scientific
or refined

language
that human beings have constructed to cope with the world
.
It fol
lows
therefore

that it cannot be the task of philosophy to provide such vocabulary because
philosophy relies on its ex
istence as any other scientific discipline. It

has to be something
more basic, more fundamental, and far less problematic. A vocabulary in

which our acts of
reciprocal recognition (
Anerkennung
) and constitution of objectivity succeed is to be as
simple as the simplest
practices
in which

human beings

are engaged
1
.

It is at this point that Dewey can
supply

us with an important insight concerni
ng the
nature and function of the normative vocabulary. What I have in mind is, evidently,
Dewey's concept of primary experience as formulated in the first revised chapter of
Experience and Nature
(1929)
.
In those tormented pages Dewey highlights the disti
nction



1

For the use of the
notion of recognition, see the following passage by Rorty: “I think Ramberg is right,
and very acute, in his diagnosis of the impasse between myself and Davidson on the topic of
indeterminacy of translation. Ramberg is suggesting that I should have read Da
vidson as telling us
something Hegelian rather than something Brentanian: something about
Anerkennung
. Davidson, he
rightly says, has understood better than I that recognizing some beings as fellow
-
obeyers of norms,
acknowledging them as members of a commu
nity, is as much a requirement for using a language as is
the ability to deploy a descriptive vocabulary. The recognition establishes, so to speak, a community of
tool
-
users. The various descriptive vocabularies this community wields are the tools in its k
it. No toolkit,
no community


if we did not describe we would have no criticisms to offer of one another's
descriptions. But no community, no toolkit


if we did not criticize each other's descriptions, they would
not be descriptions” (Rorty 2000b: 373).

8

between primary and secondary
or reflective
experience
(Dewey 1925/2008:
15
-
6
)
.
Secondary experience is the name that Dewey gives to that particular kind of approach to
natural events which leads to the construction of extremely refined tools which
enhance
our understanding of (some aspect of)
them
. Primary experience is the
life
-
world, the

world of everyday life. The point that Dewey wants to
highlight

is that the two worlds


the world of sciences (including psychology) and the
life
-
world


are


ep
istemological
ly

and “ontologically”

different,
the difference between them being due to the fact that

they
carry out different functions in human experience.

Primary experience is the


place

in
which we first encounter reality, and the only “place” which

is accessible
to everybody
. Or,
better stated, if there is
a “level of reality”

which

is accessible to
everybody

this is the
life
-
world. Secondary experience
as reflective experience
originates from, and
returns to
,
that
ground
-
level of meaning and object
ivity
. As Dewey correctly points out, “the subject
-
matter of
primary experience sets the problems and furnishes the first data of the
reflection which constructs the secondary objects
”,
while “the test and verification of the
latter is secured only by retu
rn to things of crude or macroscopic experience


the sun,
earth, plants and animals of common, everyday life” (Dewey 1925/2008:
16
)
.
From this
point of view, t
he inescapability of the normative turns out to be the inescapability from
the horizon of our li
fe
-
world


that is, from the simplest
and most basic
activities
that

human beings
can undertake
.




5.
It is likely that
the latter remarks

w
ill

be
read

by
many

Rortyan scholars not

a
s a
n
interpretation
or as a suggestion

but rather

as
a
provocatio
n
.

As is

well known, no
Deweyan concept is more
difficult to accept for

Rorty than the notion of experience.
Now
that

we have language to say what Dewey tries to say
in terms of

experience,
he argues,

we should be ready to stop speaking of experience since the lat
ter commits us
to

a bad
philosophical
project. So, to suggest that Dewey's notion of experience can shed light on
Rorty's rather obscure notion of
normative vocabulary is like
to try

to clarify
the obscure
with
the

obscure
r
.
I do not want to
enter
into
the

much
-
debated issue

of
the validity of
Rorty's criticism
of Dewey's “theory” of experience

here,
even though

I
think
that
Rorty is
right
at least
on a
single
point


that

Dewey's concept of experience is far from clear, an
d
t
hat one should be very careful
in

recommend
ing

a return to experience as a
way to
counteract the linguistification of pragmatism.

I think
however
that
the

idea that lies at the
basis of Dewey's concept of primary experience

is worth preserving, and that it can be
formulated
so as to

be
acceptable even from Rorty's point of view.

Let's start from the beginning.
The idea at the basis
of Dewey's concept of
experience

is the
pragmatist view that the nature of an object depends on the attitude
s

we
adopt

towards it:
different practices
give bi
rth to

different objects
because
different practices

actualize
different

potentialities
of the object

to the detriment of others
which

are left unexploited
.
As has been noticed above, t
his is the
view that Rorty labels antiessentialism.
T
he
agreement

betwe
en
Rorty
and

Dewey
is
therefore

not impossible at this level


it is rather

un
problematic
indeed
.
I
s
there

a
real
disagreement between the
m with respect to
primary
experience?

Now, as I read it, p
rimary experience

is
the name Dewey gives to the

set of
9

prac
tices that structure
our
l
ife
-
world



the sun, earth, plants and animals of common,
everyday life”
.
Since experience is
one of the most slippery
term
s

in Western

philosophy


to the extent that Dewey eventually decides to drop it at the end of his life, e
ven though
not for the reasons that Rorty indicates


I
propose

to refer to the objects we experience of
in primary experience as common
-
sense objects, and to name the set of practices that make
those objects possible c
ommon
-
sense.
The choice is not arbitr
ary: s
uch terminological
change,
indeed,

is in
conformity

with
the way in which Dewey uses th
ese

expression
s

in
The Quest of Certainty
.
However, I will
try to reduce the complexity

of Dewey's concept of
primary experience so as to render it a more manageab
le explanatory tool: to do that, I will
trace back this notion


certainly in a more radical way
than Dewey actually does


to
its
biological conditions
.
According
to
my

reading
, Dewey's views
on primary experience

should

be translated as follows:
human be
ings have a natural endowment that
determines


in some sense of t
his

word


the
type
s

of practices
in which they are necessarily engaged

(searching for food, searching for company,
and so on
)
as well as

the
kinds

of objects that
they will
encounter in the

world.
There is nothing metaphysical in the notion of necessity
introduced here.
I
t is a biological necessity, a basic fact of our life: the fact that without
food human beings die, the fact that necessarily


for adaptive reasons


we see things in a
thr
ee
-
dimensional space,

and so on
. The
various cultures
can
decide
and have actually
decided



but here the term “decide” is not correct because it opens the door to
intellectualism


how to specify those generalities. The history of human civilization is th
e
history of the process of refinement and
broadening

of the potentialities of human nature:
our vocabulary of common
-
sense


the vocabulary that we men of the 21th century use to
speak of our life
-
world


is
the fruit of choices
made thousand years ago, a
nd continuously
modified in transmission from generation to generation
.


Now, i
s th
e

notion
of common
-
sense

so formulated
acceptable for Rorty
?
And,
more
specifically,

is

it useful to
enhance our capacity to

explain the
possibility of
successful
triangulat
ion
? I will answer the second question first,
and

I will address the first one in the
final section of the paper. In that context I will try to relate the acceptance of a “theory” of
common
-
sense
of the kind here described to the adoption of a different fo
rm of
naturalism
.

So, starting with the issue of the possibility of successful
triangulation
, take the case of
radical interpretation, that is, interpretation from scratch.
It has

been
argued that it
is
not
possible
for

two agents
who do not speak the sam
e language and cannot have recourse to
bilingual speakers

or dictionaries
to
succeed in understanding each other

if the

only point
they have
in common is that of living in the same world.
As Dewey has
convincingly

shown, tapping the table with the forefing
er does not provide enough evidence to support
interpretation. This does not mean that we need more evidence


two acts of tapping the
table with the forefinger are not more revealing than one


but rather tha
t

we need
something different: we need

to “unde
rstand” the practice in
which that act acquires
its
proper
meaning.
W
e can understand what a word means only if we can “understand” the
practice in which it is used, and the function that it plays in it.

The vocabulary of common
-
sense provides precisely th
is kind of “understanding”.
And
s
ince
it is now clear that

w
hat
makes “understanding” possibl
e
is
the
normative
vocabulary

10

of common
-
sense
,

we can eventually speak of understanding rather than of
“understanding”

with regards to the capacity human beings ha
ve to grasp
the meaning of
the practices in which they are engaged
.
In doing so, we avoid the risk of relapsing into
the myth of the given.
Indeed,
the

understanding
of the encompassing practice i
s a
linguistic practice, a practice grounded in our ability
to use a particular linguistic tool.
We
can understand the
utterances of a speaker of a completely unknown language because
our normative vocabulary


the vocabulary of common sense


provide us with the tool
s

to understand
the practice
which he undertakes

and
in
which he invites us to
participate
.
More clearly stated, t
he vocabulary of common
-
sense supplies us with the concepts
necessary to set that linguistic behavior in the context
of a shared practice
.
It is because we
have the concept of hunger, fear,
playing a game, searching for

attention,
in our
vocabulary

that

we can give a consistent
and unified

sense to a series of ac
ts

that the
speaker
does



no matter whether consciously or unconsciously

, and use th
e
s
e

acts as
signs to identify the practice in

which the
word or
sentence is uttered
.
S
uch understanding
can be reached only on the basis of the assumption that the

practice in which the speaker
is engaged is substantially identical to
the

(corresponding) practice

to which we have
access
through
our

v
ocabulary of common
-
sense
.
Processes of

triangulation
can be

successful
because

we
have the capacity to bracket

the
more
refine
d aspects

of
our
practice
s

and grasp
their

essential core


an act of abstraction that is always open to us

because we cannot
bra
cket the fact

that we are part of nature
.
This is

strictly related

to
the
principle of

compositionality
:
it reflects the idea that we have better chance to understand
each other if we
start from
interpreting
the

words used in
the

simple
st

and
most
basic
pr
actices
.
When seen from this perspective,
therefore,
the principle of common
-
sense
turns
out to be
a
material

enhancement of the principle of
c
harity,
an enhancement which guides
and support
s

the
process

of triangulation
.
While the principle of charity


c
oherence plus
correspondence


can only provide a “negative contribution“
to interpretation
, its role
being that of ”guiding the interpreter towards
discarding

possible interpretations which
would systematically make the interpretee wrong or incoherent to
her own lights”,
triangulation is “the recognition
that similarities observed in each other's linguistic
behaviour find their common cause in the same portion of the external environment
shared by the agents
” (Hosni 2009: 42). The principle of common
-
sense

tell
s the interpreter
which
portion of the external environment shared with the interpretee is relevant for the
present purposes
.

So,
we can
conclude

that

human beings

can triangulate because
they

recognize (
anerkennen
)
each other

as
constrained

by the sa
me
natural
necessities.
These are
the necessities imposed on us by our human nature
.



6.
Now,

coming back to the question
left open
,
i
s th
e

notion
of common
-
sense

so
formulated
acceptable for Rorty
?

Well, I think that
his

first
answer
would

be

“No”. It i
s
sufficient
to
draw

attention to
the essay
s collected in the first part of
Objectivity,
Relativism
and Truth

to
be convinced

of

t
his

fact
.
But

does he provide a sound argument against the
theoretical
viability

of grounding philosophical naturalism on the
notions of common
-
sense and human nature
?
Rorty's rejection of the very idea of human nature


and of
11

common
-
sense
insofar
as it is conceived in strict continuity with human nature (on this
point, see Rorty 1999b)


is strictly related to his fear that the

recourse to the concept of
human nature could pave the way for the recovery of some kind of metaphysical strategy
aiming at
defining once for all what human beings are and should do
. It is a
moral

concern
which ultimately
leads

Rorty to
reject

a notion th
at he sees tainted with dogmatism and
conserva
t
ism:
th
e

concern is
a sense

of the importance of defending

the use of
creative
imagination in moral and political issues.

Rorty is not alone in pointing out the risk
s

inherent in

the philosophical use of the
c
oncepts of human nature and common
-
sense.
He is right in insisting on the fact

that those

notions have been
traditionally
used to support
regressive
political
and moral views. He is
also right in highlighting that, from an epistemological perspective, the
idea that there is a
way in which things really are


the idea that is usually
conveyed through

the notion of
nature
(and,
a fortiori
,
of human nature
)



has been fatally flawed by the linguistic and
pragmatist turn and, more precisely, by
Davidson's

attac
k on the

distinction between
scheme and content. However, the concept of human nature, as well as that of common
-
sense, is no
t

necessarily
committed to the idea of
eternity and metaphysical
immutability.

And t
his is an aspect of the question that Rorty com
pletely overlooks
.

One of the distinctive traits of the nature of human beings,
indeed,

is
the
ir

capacity to

create
an infinity of

practices instantiated in different forms of life
, and then
to

modif
y

the
se practices

according to, and in response to, the
“causal pressures” of the world.
Dewey's fundamental concept of transactions
amount
s
, in the last analysis,
to this: it
functions a
s

a conceptual remainder of the fact that the nature of human beings consists in
inhabiting the
world and
creating

practices

that enable them to cope with the
environment.
Obviously, s
uch an act of creation cannot be made once for all: every practice
transforms and complicates the environment in a way that excludes
in principle

the
possibility of dealing with new phenomena in te
rms of the practices already at hand.

Even
common
-
sense


which is by far the
layer

of
any

form of life

most resilient
to change,

being
the set of practices devoted to the satisfaction

of the most immediate (“natural”) needs


is
constantly changing as a c
onsequence of the
continuous
penetration

of technology in
everyday life
2
.

Human beings
therefore
are technological beings
whose

natur
e

is the history
that they
can
and

have
actually

brought about
.
This does not mean, however, that the act of
creation

of
p
ractices is free from the constraints imposed on human beings by their biological nature,
as well as from the constraints set by the external world
. To
argue

differently would be a
mere

exercise of intellectual provocation:

t
he very existence of
a
technolo
gy is a sign of the
difficulties
that human beings

have to face in
order to

com
e

to terms with the



2

This is far from being
an exclusive aspect of our modern condition,
as one may be tempted to say;

it is
rather a fundamental feature of human nature as such.

The development and progressive refinement of
language is the best evidence for this statement.
Contemporary a
nthropolog
y

ha
s

shown that t
he very
distinction between things and persons


which we treat as somehow definitory of
our common
-
sense
and life
-
world
, to the extent that the resistance against bald forms of naturalism is precisely a resistance

against every attempt to deny that distinction


is a technological device that took thousands of years to
be shaped in the form which we use now.

12

stubbor
n
ness of nature.
As has been already said above, one
possible
way of conceiving
the relation between nature and culture/
history



a way that seems to
me particularly
promising



is that
of seeing culture/history as
the
actualization of the potentialities of
nature.
According to this view, human nature does not consist in a set of fixed properties,
but rather in a
set

of potentialities that are fixed
onl
y
insofar as,
and to the extent that
,

technology does not succeed in dramatically altering our biological endowment.
These
potentialities
constitute

the
subject
-
matter of a
contemporary

philosophical anthropology


that is, a

philosophical account of human

nature
that

has assimilated
and incorporated
the results of

the
linguistic and pragmatist turn


which is an essential

part of a naturalistic
philosophy of praxis.
A naturalistic philosophy of praxis is
a general standpoint
grounded
on the
twofold assumpt
ion that the ultimate horizon of every possible meaning is a
practice, and that every possible practice is the actualization of some potentialities of
human nature


and, consequently, of nature in general, since human beings are part of
nature
.


In his
N
aturalism as Quietism
Rorty
adopts

th
e distinction introduced by Price between
subject naturalism and object naturalism
.
According to Price, o
bject naturalism is the view
that “all there
is

is the world studied by science” and that “all
genuine knowledge i
s
scientific knowledge” (Price 2011b: 185). Subject naturalism is the view that “philosophy
needs to begin with what science tells us
about ourselves
”, that is, that we are “natural
creatures” (Price 2011b: 186).

Even though it would be easy to take subjec
t naturalism as a
mere corollary of object naturalism,

Price states that the contrary is true: it is subject
naturalism which comes first since object naturalism depends on “validation from a
subject naturalist perspective” (Price 2011b: 186). Rorty expres
ses this very point by saying
that we do not need an image of the world
(object naturalism)
, but rather a “
synoptic
narrative of how we came to talk as we do

(Rorty 2007b: 150). I hope to have shown in
this paper that this goal cannot be achieved without
including in our philosophical
vocabulary the notions of life
-
world, common
-
sense, and human nature.







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13

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