Saturday, February 18, 2017

Why Rorty's Conception of Epistemology is Wrong

With the very first paragraph of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty's conception of epistemology starts to go astray, as he begins his criticism of traditional epistemology by saying that such philosophers as Descartes, Locke, Kant, Russell, and Husserl have sought to adjudicate claims to knowledge by trying to define the “foundations” of knowledge. Rorty says that if knowledge is seen as being based on accurate mental representations of the world, then the mind may be seen as a mirror of nature, and philosophy’s task may be seen as that of adjudicating knowledge claims by judging the accuracy of their representations of reality. He criticizes this mentalist and representationalist approach to the theory of knowledge, saying that epistemology as it has, in his view, traditionally been practiced (as a theory of representation) should be abandoned.
      Rorty conflates the search for the “foundations” of knowledge with the search for the “conditions” of knowledge, however. The distinction between the two is important, although he might deny this, and might say that the conditions of knowledge are merely foundational principles of knowledge. There is a difference, however, between seeking to establish certain basic or foundational truths and seeking to establish the conditions under which those basic or foundational truths may be known. While the “foundationalist” approach may seek to define certain basic truths or knowledge claims on which other truths or knowledge claims may be based, the “conditionalist” approach may seek to define the necessary and sufficient conditions under which truth or knowledge claims can be made. Rorty identifies epistemology with foundationalism, and therefore rejects it. But his critique of epistemology amounts to a kind of straw man argument. He criticizes epistemology for being something that it is not (al least not in the view of many classical and modern philosophers).
      This is not to say that epistemology is merely an attempt to define the conditions of knowledge; it is much more than that. It is also concerned with the nature, extent, and limits of human knowledge, the formulation and communication of knowledge, and the differences between knowledge and belief, opinion, faith, and imagination.
      Alan Malachowsksi (1990) explains that Rorty also tends to conflate the notion that it is unwise to crave for a theory of knowledge with the notion that it is unwise to think of knowledge as something that has or needs foundations, and that Rorty fails to establish the truth of either of these notions.1 Since Rorty also claims that it’s unwise to pursue an epistemologically-centered philosophy, Malachowski says that it’s fair to ask whether Rorty’s views actually amount to a substantive position on epistemology, and that this may indeed be a difficult question to answer.2
      Descartes (1641) is a foundationalist, insofar as he argues that we can know the truth of things if we have clear and distinct ideas about them. He says there are innate ideas in the human mind that are independent of our own perceptions and our own will. All innate ideas are clear and distinct, but adventitious ideas derived from our perceptions and factitious ideas derived from our illusions or imaginations may be unclear and indistinct.
      Locke (1689) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he describes three “degrees” of knowledge: intuitive, demonstrative, and sensory. According to Locke, intuitive knowledge is an immediate perception of the agreement or disagreement of two or more ideas, without the intervention of any other ideas. Demonstrative knowledge is a perception of the agreement or disagreement or two or more ideas, based on proofs provided by intervening ideas. Sensory knowledge is a perception of the agreement or disagreement of two or more ideas, based on sensory experience of the external objects to which those ideas refer. Demonstrative knowledge is based on intuitive knowledge, and intuitive certainty is required for every step of reasoning that produces demonstrative certainty. The faculty of understanding is necessary, however, in order to combine the three degrees of knowledge (intuition, demonstration, and sensation) into a more unified and comprehensive knowledge that transcends the respective limits of reason, intuition, and experience.
      Hume (1739) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that all ideas are originally derived from sensory perceptions, and that knowledge is ultimately based on experience rather than reason. Hume says that in order to establish the existence of an object, we must have already had a sensory perception of that object or of other objects from which the existence of that object can be inferred. Reason alone is insufficient to establish the existence of an object; sensory perception of that object, directly or indirectly, is necessary.
      Russell (1913) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that knowledge is based on acquaintance with self-evident truths. According to Russell, true propositions that are not self-evident must, in order to become objects of knowledge, be demonstrated to be true by self-evident propositions.. Knowledge is based on acquaintance with self-evident propositions and with propositions whose truth can be demonstrated by self-evident propositions.
      Carnap (1924) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that all scientific statements are reducible to structural statements about basic elements of experience. According to Carnap, structural statements are logical propositions about the formal properties of objects or relations. A constructional system of reality is a system in which the objects of each level are constructed from objects of more elementary levels of construction. The most elementary level of a constructional system is the level of basic objects, which includes basic elements and basic relations. The basic elements of a constructional system are “elementary experiences” that are not constructed but are immediately given to consciousness as formal objects.
      The “conditionalist” philosophers, on the other hand, may include Plato, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and others.
      For Plato, belief, truth, and justification are conditions of knowledge. True beliefs constitute knowledge if they can be logically justified. In response to the kinds of counterexamples supplied by Edmund Gettier (1963) of cases in which justified true beliefs may not constitute knowledge, many contemporary philosophers have proposed immunity to Gettier cases as another condition of knowledge. This subject has been discussed by such philosophers as Chisholm (1989), Lehrer (1990), Zagzebski (1994), Sosa (2011), Turri (2011), and Dretske (2015).
      Kant (1781) may be both a foundationalist, insofar as he calls for a critique of pure reason in order to determine the possibility, principles and extent of a priori knowledge, and a conditionalist, insofar as he attempts to describe the conditions under which a priori knowledge is possible. He provides a table of twelve categories or pure concepts of the understanding, describing them as a priori concepts that define conditions of possible experience. These categories or pure concepts of the understanding also define conditions under which the content of intuitions and representations may be unified by the understanding.
      Fichte (1794-95) claims that the first, absolutely unconditioned principle of the science of knowledge is the act by which the self becomes conscious of itself. The second principle, conditioned as to content, is the act by which the non-self is opposed to the self. The third principle, conditioned as to form, is the act by which the self and non-self are posited as divisible so that a limited self may be opposed to a limited non-self.
      Schelling (1800) argues that transcendental idealism is a system for all knowledge, and that it affirms that a transcendental unity of the self and nature, the subjective and objective, and the conscious and unconscious is a condition of knowledge.
      Schopenhauer (1818) says that transcendental idealism affirms that a transcendental unity of reason and experience is the condition for knowledge. He also says that all knowledge, except for knowledge of Platonic Ideas, depends on the principle of sufficient reason, and that the conditions for knowledge of Platonic Ideas include pure contemplation, extinction of desire, transcendence of the subject-object relation, and freedom from confinement by individuality.
      Rorty describes epistemology as a discipline concerned with the possibility of accurate representation, as if most epistemologists have already agreed that this is what epistemology is, and as if this is all it can be. In his view, if knowledge is not a matter of accurate representation, then we have no more need of epistemology. But this is a very skeptical and simple-minded view of epistemology. Does Rorty actually believe that a theory of accurate representation is all that epistemology can be? Is he perhaps being intentionally obtuse and simplistic for the sake of provoking some sort of critical response?
      His position also seems to be that to debunk Cartesian mind-body dualism is to debunk epistemology.
      He criticizes the concept of philosophy as a foundational discipline for other disciplines, as a discipline that can adjudicate the procedures and truth claims of other disciplines. He also criticizes the concept of philosophy as a discipline that “takes as its study the ‘formal’ or ‘structural’ aspects of our beliefs,” serving “the cultural function of keeping other disciplines honest” by “limiting their claims to what can be properly ‘grounded.’”3
      There may, however, exist within epistemology viable alternatives to foundationalism, which Rorty does not seem to account for. For example, Keith Lehrer (1990) explains that the explanatory coherence theory of justification (that justification is a reciprocal relation of coherence among beliefs belonging to a system) may be an alternative to the foundation theory (that some beliefs are completely justified in themselves and can therefore serve as the foundation for the justification of other beliefs).4 Rorty comes close to acknowledging this when he says, "For the Quine-Sellars approach to epistemology, to say that truth and knowledge can only be judged by the standards of the inquirers of our own day is not to say that human knowledge is less noble or important...than we had thought. It is merely to say that nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and that there is no way to get outside of our own beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence."5 
      Infinitism (the theory that beliefs may be justified for an infinite number of reasons) may be another alternative to the foundation theory.


1Alan R. Malachowski, “Deep Epistemology without Foundations (in Language),” in Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond), edited by Alan R. Malachowski (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1990), pp. 140-141.
2Ibid., p. 143.
3Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p.  162.
4Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), p. 87.
5Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 178.


Carnap, Rudolf, The Logical Structure of the World & Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1924), translated by  Rolf A. George (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

Chisholm, Roderick. Theory of Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966).

Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy” [1641], in Ten Great Works of Philosophy, edited by Robert Paul Wolff (New York: Penguin Books, 1969).

Dretske, Fred. “Gettier and Justified True Belief: 50 Years On,” in TPM Online, Jan. 23, 2015, at

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Science of Knowledge (WIssenschaftlehre, 1794-95), edited and translated by Peter Heath (New York: Meredith Corporation, 1970).

Gettier, Edmund L. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” in Analysis, Vol. 23, No. 6 (June, 1963), pp. 121-123.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature [1739], edited by Ernest C. Mossner (London: Penguin Books, 1969).

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), translated byJ.M.D.Meiklejohn (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Lehrer, Keith. Theory of Knowledge (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990).

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1689], edited by Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Malachowski, Alan R. “Deep Epistemology without Foundations (in Language),” in Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond), edited by Alan R. Malachowski (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1990).

Plato. Theaetetus. Translated by M.J. Levett. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992).

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Russell, Bertrand. Theory of Knowledge: The 1913 Manuscript, edited by Elizabeth Ramsden Eames in collaboration with Kenneth Blackwell (London: George Allen & Unwin , 1984).

Schelling, F.W.J. System of Transcendental Idealism (System des transcendentalen Idealismus, 1800), translated by Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978).

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1818), Vols. I and II, translated by E.F.J. Payne (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

Sosa, Ernest. Knowing Full Well (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

Turri, John. “Manifest Failure: The Gettier Problem Solved,” in Philosophers’ Imprint, Vol. 11, No. 8, April 2011, pp. 1-11.

Zagzebski, Linda. “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems,” in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 174 (Jan., 1994), pp. 65-73.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Obligatoriness of Washing Our Hands, and the Permissibility of Getting Them Dirty

Consider all the possible statements we could make about whether we should wash our hands, and what they reveal about the kinds of (personal, moral, and social) decisions we could make. Some examples are:

We should (must, or have to) wash our hands now.
We shouldn’t (mustn’t, or don’t have to) wash our hands now.
We would (probably, likely, or most certainly) be remiss if we weren’t to go ahead and wash our hands now.
We don’t have to wash our hands now, unless we won’t have time to wash them later.
It’s probably best that we wash our hands now, rather than later.
If our hands aren’t dirty, then we don’t have to wash them now.
If our hands are dirty, then we should wash them now, rather than later.
It would be better to wash our hands now, because someone might notice that they're dirty.
It doesn’t matter whether we wash our hands right now or sometime later. In fact, it doesn’t (or may not) matter whether we wash them at all.
We don’t have to wash our hands now, unless there is someone we know who thinks we should.
We'd better wash our hands now, because we don’t want people to think we’re being careless about making sure our hands are clean before we shake their hands.
We could wash our hands right now, but we don’t really have to, so we might as well wait until later.
We might as well wash our hands right now.
Washing our hands right now is no better than washing them later.
If there are sanitary facilities available, then we should go ahead and wash our hands now.
If there is hand sanitizer available (and if our hands aren’t too dirty), then we can use the sanitizer instead of washing our hands with soap and water.
If we’ve touched something unclean or dirty, then we should wash our hands with soap and water as soon as we can.
If we’ve already washed our hands, then we don’t need to wash them again right now, unless there is some reason for us to get them extra clean.
If it’s more likely that we’ll have time to wash our hands now than later, then we should go ahead and wash them now.
If we wash our hands now, then we can still (or might still be able to) wash them later.
If we wash our hands now, then we won’t have to wash them again later.

      Most of these statements are modal expressions employing modal auxiliary verbs such as “may,” “might,” “will,” won’t,” “can,” “could,” “should,” and “must” to indicate deontic modality (moral possibility or necessity). They vary in the strength of moral necessity that they express, with some expressing only moral possibility or permissibility, and others expressing moral necessity or obligatoriness.
      Given all the possible decisions we can or could make (and all the possible ways of rationalizing those decisions) regarding whether it is or isn't permissible, advisable, or necessary to wash our hands at a given moment, how are we able to decide what to do without consciously thinking about it? Such a decision-making process seems in most cases to be an unconscious and effortless one (unless for some reason, such as a mental or behavioral disorder, we have an obsessive or compulsive habit of washing our hands).
      In daily life, why is it that we don’t ever (or so rarely) seem to have any difficulty deciding whether to wash our hands? Is it because we’re always so busy doing something else that deciding whether to wash our hands at a given moment becomes very easy whenever the opportunity presents itself?
      According to CDC guidelines, we should wash our hands before, during, and after preparing food; before eating food; before and after caring for someone who is sick; before and after treating a cut or wound; after using the toilet; after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet; after blowing our noses, coughing, or sneezing; after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste; after handling pet food or pet treats; and after touching garbage.1
      Metaphorically speaking, when are we morally obligated to wash our hands of something, and when are we morally obligated to risk getting our hands dirty? When should we accept moral uncertainty in a given situation rather than refuse to risk any compromise of our moral principles? Risking moral blame or culpability may actually in some cases require a greater degree of moral commitment than refusing to put our own personal reputations at risk. We may in some cases have to risk getting our hands dirty if we've put ourselves in a position of responsibility that requires us to compromise our moral principles for the sake of a greater good, (unless we've consciously or unconsciously avoided putting ourselves in that position to begin with).
      An example of a “dirty hands” problem might be the president or prime minister who orders drone strikes against known terrorists, targeting them for destruction but thereby potentially endangering the lives of innocent civilians. However, Ben Jones and John M. Parrish (2016) argue that the dirty hands problem “describes an emergency that forces an individual to break a moral rule, not a policy that routinely breaks moral rules.” They also argue that “Rather than provide moral clarity, dirty hands justifications of current U.S. drone policy risk legitimizing a practice that expands state power in potentially dangerous ways.”2
      Michael Walzer (1973) argues that the politician who has dirty hands, even if he has acted out of concern for the common good, must nevertheless bear a burden of guilt and responsibility for his blameworthy actions. It is in fact by the politician’s acceptance of guilt and responsibility (why guilt, necessarily?) for his blameworthy actions that we know him to be a moral person. If he were not a moral person, then he would pretend that his hands were clean.3 Once he has atoned for his wrongdoing, then his hands will be clean again.
      Stephen de Wijze (2007) argues that the dirty hands problem may be a case of “doing right by doing wrong” or “doing wrong to do right,” but may also be subject to various conceptual confusions. He explains that it may involve either a moral conflict in which a right choice can be made between incompossible duties or a moral dilemma in which there is no right overall choice between incompossible duties (and in which there may only be a choice between the lesser of two evils). Some dirty hands problems may involve moral conflicts but not dilemmas, while others may involve both moral conflicts and dilemmas. De Witze also argues, following Michael Stocker (1990), that a dirty hands problem is a special kind of moral conflict in which an action is ‘justified, even obligatory, but also none the less somehow wrong.’However, de Witze explains that “not every wrong action is a dirty action and not every moral conflict involves dirty hands. Furthermore there can be dirty hands cases which involve moral dilemmas, whereas many moral dilemma situations do not involve dirty hands.”5
      Steve Buckler (1993) describes the dirty hands problem as an example of moral ambiguity in which there may be a choice between what is morally necessary and what is morally good. Some actions, despite being morally necessary, are in themselves not morally good. Thus, dirty hands cases may not be true dilemmas, which require a choice between two or more undesirable alternatives. The politician or government official, for example, may get dirty hands simply by doing what it is morally necessary for her to do (in order to promote the common good), rather than doing what it would be morally good for her to do. She may do exactly what she has to do, even though it may be morally disagreeable. In fact, this may be an obligation for her as a politician or government official, and failure to perform the necessary but morally disagreeable action may represent a neglect of her duty to the people she represents.6


1Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives,” September 4, 2015, online at
2Ben Jones and John M. Parrish, “Drones and Dirty Hands,” in Preventive Force: Drones, Targeted Killing, and the Transformation of Contemporary Warfare, edited by Kerstin Fisk
3Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 2, Issue 2 (Winter, 1973), p. 168.
4Michael Stocker, “Dirty Hands and Ordinary Life,” in Plural and Conflicting Values (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 9-36.
5Stephen de Wijze, “Dirty hands: Doing Wrong to do Right,” in Politics and Morality, edited by Igor Primoratz (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 9.
6Steve Buckler, Dirty Hands: The Problem of Political Morality (Avebury: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1993), p. 7.