Neo-Pragmatism, Language and Culture

Perspectives on Rorty and Brandom

Oslo, Norway, 28-29 October 2010


In connection with a visit of Professor Yajun Chen (Nanjing University), the Nordic Pragmatism Network and the University of Oslo will arrange a workshop on neo-pragmatism. The theme of the workshop is Richard Rorty’s and Robert Brandom’s views on world culture and language, emphasizing their commonalities and differences.

The main speaker of the workshop, Professor Chen, studied at Harvard, and has spent the last year as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Pittsburgh in collaboration with Robert Brandom. He is a distinguished representative of the growing revival of pragmatism in China, which already has important historical connections with the pragmatist tradition. Dewey spent two years in China at the beginning of the nineteen twenties, lectured to huge crowds, and had several pupils who survived the cultural revolution. Today there is a Dewey Centre in Shanghai. Eight decades later, Rorty also went to China (in 2004), for a visit which resulted, among other things, in the publication of Rorty, Pragmatism and Confucianism (edited by Yong Huang, SUNY Press, 2009).


The workshop will take place at the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo in 28-29 October 2010. The sessions will take place in P. A. Munch’s house, room 489 (see map). Prof. Arild Pedersen is the local organizer and workshop secretary.

Call for Papers

The workshop is intended to provide an opportunity for ”learning by doing”, that is, the composing of articles/essays/books on the subject of the workshop: contributions may take the form of work in progress — even mere abstracts of forthcoming papers are welcome. Each speaker will be assigned 30 minutes including discussion. For those who might wish to participate in the program without presenting work, assignation as moderator or respondent is an option.

The organizers invite paper proposals to the workshop. Please send an abstract of 150-300 words to by 1 August 2010.


Thursday, 28 October 2010

12.30-13.30 Yajun Chen (University of Nanjing)
The World: There and Back Again – A Trilogy of New Pragmatism: Rorty, Putnam and Brandom
13.30-14.10 Jonathan Knowles (NTNU)
Representationalism and Semantic Minimalism
14.50-15.00 Break
15.00-15.40 Kalle Puolakka (University of Helsinki)
An Outline for a Neo-Pragmatist Naturalistic View of Culture
15.40-16.20 Christopher Voparil (Union Institute University)
Pragmatism and the Ontological Priority of the Social: Rorty and Brandom on Language and World Culture
16.20-17.00 Henrik Rydenfelt (University of Helsinki)
Rorty, Brandom, and the Replacement Problem
19.00 Dinner

Friday, 29 October 2010

9.00-9.40 Arild Pedersen (University of Oslo)
Quietism in Practice
9.40-10.20 Jean-Claude Leveque (Csic-CCHS, Madrid)
Rorty, Brandom and a Possible Dialogue with Hermeneutics
10.20-11.00 Eirik Julius Risberg (University of Oslo)
Brandom and McDowell on Truth
11.00-11.40 Ulf Zackariasson (University of Uppsala)
Rortian Cultural Politics on Religion and Public Deliberation

Bjørn Ramberg (University of Oslo) will be present at the whole workshop and participate as a respondent in the discussion.

For those who are able to stay longer, there is an additional opportunity to hear professor Chen, as he will give a lecture later at the Philosophical Seminarium (of the Department) on 29 October at 14.15-16.00. The topic of Chen’s talk is the more general theme of the relationship of Western philosophy to Chinese philosophy in China today. This will be followed by a social gathering with wine and cheese, etc., at the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas.


Yajun Chen (University of Nanjing)
The World: There and Back Again – A Trilogy of New Pragmatism: Rorty, Putnam and Brandom

After the “linguistic turn”, semantics and the relation between language and the world are decoupled as two topics. Rorty answered the first within vocabulary in terms of pragmatism and took the second as an empty topic. He gave up the world as something which has only causal relation to cognition, about which we have nothing interesting to talk about. Dissatisfied with Rorty’s project, pacing with McDowell, Putnam takes the world (conceptualized) back to be the constraint to our cognition. According to him, we have not only causal but also semantic relation with the world. Brandom, as Rorty’s student, succeeds and elaborates Rorty’s theme in his inferential semantics and normative pragmatics, on the one hand; but on the other, he treats the world seriously, taking it as what makes the claiming true, with which Rorty felt rather disappointed and puzzled. To understand this progress from Rorty to Brandom, the key in my eyes is to reinterpret the world. At this point, Rorty finally did not get rid of a Kantian line, whereas Brandom, with McDowell and Putnam, moves forward to a Hegelian and pragmatist direction.

Jean-Claude Lévêque (Csic-CCHS, Madrid)
Rorty, Brandom and a possible dialogue with Hermeneutics on language and social practices. 

The neopragmatism of R.Rorty and R.Brandom can properly converse with Hermeneutics ( particulary with G.Vattimo and H.G. Gadamer) about language and social practice, in order to abandon definitively the modern rationalism and representationalism. The expressivism of R.Brandom had offered some ways to criticize both representationalism and empirism and to understand better what is expressed in an assertion, and this is what Hermenutics cannot attempt in a rigorous form. But in their common interest in history and his consequences, hermeneutics and neopragmatism can certainly make a good dialogue. The new lecture of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that Brandom proposes, in terms of a synthesis of an original unity of apperception by rational integration, with the model of the synthesis of normative-status-bearing apperceiving selves and also by reciprocal recognition so as to make the discursive commitments instituted thereby intelligible as determinately contentful, give us an interesting way to integrate the hermeneutical lecture of Gadamer with a critique of the classical theories of language. Hermeneutics can therefore, through a dialogue with neopragmatism, revised its relationship with german idealism and particulary with Hegel, and renounce of his particular form of historicism ( that is true particulary in the case of Gadamer’s hermeneutics).

Jonathan Knowles (NTNU)
Representationalism and Semantic Minimalism

This paper is in basic structure a bit of tidying up of some issues surrounding the debate amongst Huw Price, Richard Rorty, Simon Blackburn and Robert Brandom concerning the fate of representationalism in the face of a common acceptance of minimalism about truth; it also contains an attempt at some novel arguments against representationalism. Price has claimed that he can give ’One cheer for representationalism’ – one less than Brandom, insofar as the latter tries to derive substantial semantic notions from pragmatist-cum-expressivist materials, but one more than Rorty, insofar as Price sees assertion as being the central language-game, and truth as a norm distinct from justification. Price also criticizes here, and at greater length elsewere (notably in a paper together with David Macarthur), Blackburn’s take on representationalism, which, like Brandom’s, involves more than one cheer for representationalism, though apparently for somewhat different reaons: for Blackburn the notion is needed to explain the functioning of certain truth-apt discourses and not others. Having set out this background, I will first criticize Price and Macarthur’s attack on Blackburn, partly by utilizing Blackburn’s own response to them. I will then go on to argue that Blackburn’s arguments for his limited representationalism still lack conviction against its intended target: Rorty – and indeed that other writings of Price can help us understand why. The upshot is that the one cheer for representationalism Price offers is all we are likely to get, though Brandom’s more ambitious reductive project remains on the table too.

Arild Pedersen (University of Oslo)
Quietism in practice

Quietism is a concept used in different manners and in different fields, and by different philosophers, also by pragmatists. I shall discuss if there is such a thing as a specific pragmatist quietism. To do this I shall respond to an article presented at a conference:

  • APOLOGY FOR QUIETISM: A SOTTO VOCE SYMPOSIUM PART 4. Hanne Andrea Kraugerud and Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg
  • THE NEW LOUD: Richard Rorty, Quietist? Common Knowledge, Winter 2010; 16: 48 – 65. (Available onlinw)

Kalle Puolakka (University of Helsinki)
An Outline for a Neo-Pragmatist Naturalistic View of Culture

In the reception of Richard Rorty’s work within philosophy of literature and culture the connections Rorty’s conception of literature and culture bear to the naturalism underlying his neo-pragmatism have gone largely unnoticed. Central to Rorty’s naturalism is an attempt to replace the view which understands human’s relationship to her surrounding world in terms of the representations the senses transmit to the human mind with a view in which that relationship is seen as causally constructed. The naturalistic account of culture Rorty offers builds on Donald Davidson’s theory of metaphor which, in Rorty’s view, provides an apt basis for explaining the value of literature and the development of culture within the framework of naturalistic philosophy. What makes Davidson’s view naturalistic for Rorty is Davidson’s denial that metaphors possess, in addition to their literal meaning, a kind of second, ideal level of meaning that is supposed to ground the outlook the metaphor affords.

For Rorty, the debate between Davidson and cognitivist theorists of metaphor, such as Max Black and Mary Hesse, does not merely concern a disagreement over a cunning phenomenon of language, but it extends to concern the metaphysical foundations of a philosophy of culture. In this paper, I first offer a reading of the neo-pragmatist naturalistic view of culture Rorty develops upon Davidson’s view of metaphor, elaborating it with another topic related to culture Rorty has occasionally considered, imagination. I shall then investigate the position and prospects of the view of culture emerging from the reading of Rorty’s neo-pragmatism I offer by comparing it with hermeneutic conceptions of art and culture. My belief is that one reason for supporting the neo-pragmatist conception of culture developed in the paper over hermeneutic accounts is that it manages to provide an interesting outlook on the question of how the natural and cultural sides of human life interact with each other.

Eirik Julius Risberg (University of Oslo)
Brandom and McDowell on Truth

In his “Non-Inferential Knowledge, Perceptual Experience, and Secondary Qualities” Robert Brandom notes a difficulty for John McDowell’s conception of truth. According to McDowell’s identity conception of truth, “When one thinks truly, what one thinks is what is the case.” However, as Brandom argues; “The obvious pitfall in the vicinity of such a view is the need to deal with the fact that we make perceptual mistakes.” In Making it Explicit Brandom favours instead an anaphoric account of truth, which is a version of deflationism about truth. While McDowell intends his account of truth to be a mere truism – by which he wishes to say that it does not commit him to anything metaphysically contentious – I seek to argue that his notion of truth plays an important role in what Brandom rightly identifies as the underlying aim of McDowell’s thinking: to account for the intentional relation between mind and world. Thus, Brandom poses a central threat to McDowell in questioning his account of truth. In my paper I will attempt to expose the centrality of the concept of truth for McDowell’s project and assess the strength of the challenges Brandom’s account of truth poses to McDowell’s account of standing in an intentional relation to the world.

Henrik Rydenfelt (University of Helsinki)
Pragmatism, Anti-Representationalism, and Two Dangers of Globalization 

Whenever a philosophical position gets globalized, it seems to face two sorts of interrelated problems. The first is that a global version of anything threatens to lose the relevant contrast to something else, something that it could meaningfully deny. The second problem is that when a key philosophical notion is accounted for in a global, unqualified fashion, it often becomes self-referential. In this paper, I argue that these two challenges mentioned above pertain also to the philosophical position of anti-representationalism. Based on a consideration of the views of Richard Rorty, Huw Price and Robert Brandom, I consider three different ways of understanding anti-representationalism and propose that none of these three meet the two challenges while remaining truly anti-representationalist. In particular, I will argue that such problems will plague all views that combine anti-representationalism with an account of semantic terms in terms of what people do, or what sort of role those terms play in our everyday lives – an account which has in some contemporary discussions considered the hallmark of pragmatism. My tentative conclusion is that such pragmatists cannot be anti-representationalists.

Christopher J. Voparil (Union Institute & University)
Pragmatism and the Ontological Priority of the Social: Rorty and Brandom on Language and World Culture

In his final volume of philosophical papers Rorty calls on philosophers to see “intervening in cultural politics” as “their principal assignment.” “The only serious philosophical questions,” he tells us, “are about how human beings can find descriptions of both nature and culture that will facilitate various social projects.” One of the ways Rorty defends this embrace of philosophy as cultural politics is through Brandom’s notion of “the ontological priority of the social,” which holds that “all matters of authority or privilege, in particular epistemic authority, are matters of social practice, and not objective matters of fact.” For his part, Brandom too has attempted to give us “an account of being human,” as he puts it in Articulating Reasons, that “does justice to […] us as cultural, and not merely natural, creatures.” In this paper I examine the respective positions of Rorty and Brandom on the ontological primary of the social and highlight key differences – differences that make a difference when we consider philosophy in the context of world culture. I argue that Rorty’s embrace of cultural politics marks a self-conscious attempt to expand “the conversation of mankind” beyond the Western world that dates to the early 1990s. Despite recognizing in his careful reading of Rorty’s project the anti-authoritarian impulse that clears away the vestiges of philosophical privilege so as to open a space of “discursive pluralism,” where other cultures and social perspectives can contribute, Brandom is not attentive enough to the trans-cultural and context-independent facets of his own thought that close down precisely that which is opened up by Rorty’s more inclusive conception of philosophy as cultural politics.

Ulf Zackariasson (University of Uppsala)
Rortian Cultural Politics on Religion and Public Deliberation

According to a Rortian approach to philosophy (that is, philosophy as cultural politics), no human practice is “privileged” in the sense that it has some unique relation to Reality or Truth. In that respect, science and religion are no different from one another. At the same time, Rorty, in his political philosophy, is eager to uphold a political distinction between religion and science, where religion should be excluded from public deliberation. I argue that the Rortian approach to the question of the role of religion in public deliberation suffers from a couple of significant weaknesses that I seek to bring out by making a distinction between two senses of feasibility we may use when we discuss whether an account of public deliberation is feasible or not: feasible as implemented, and feasible as a guiding ideal. Rortian approaches tend to concentrate on the former, but I will argue that there are good (pragmatic) reasons for paying more attention to the latter, which calls for a closer engagement with religious practices and questions concerning critical thinking with regard to religion (still, of course, within the confines of cultural politics). I sketch the consequences of such a shift of attention for Rortian/pragmatic approaches to the question of role of religion in public deliberation.