Volume III, Number 2, Fall 2007

“Dewey and Rorty” by Alexander Kremer

Alexander Kremer is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy, University of Szeged. E-mail:

If we do not believe in any metaphysical world order or substance, philosophies can be regarded as interpretations that are also tools in a broader human practice. We, as finite and historical human beings, can create only special narratives about the world and ourselves. There is, in other words, no final, metaphysical framework. We live in the age of narrative philosophy.

Anti-essentialism and radical historicity are two of the common features of pragmatism (both old and new) and philosophical hermeneutics, and both Dewey’s and Rorty’s philosophy can be described as interpretation. These common features make these philosophies comparable and they give us the special opportunity to show their relation in a hermeneutical context. First, I will discuss the main characteristics of the hermeneutical approach; then I will explore the Dewey-Rorty relationship.

I) The hermeneutical context

What happens when we understand and interpret something? According to Gadamer, every understanding is essentially a fusion of horizons. Primarily, understanding and interpreting are not to be considered activities of human subjectivity, but rather historically effected events. We all are authors and players of the historically effected event that is understood as a fabric of traditions. We all live as historically and permanently changing intersections of the most different traditions. We cannot live in a different way, because we have already imbibed many traditions from infancy. We have already appropriated several traditions when we have learned our mother tongue. In describing our life within such a context, we did not even speak about our relatives, friends, acquaintances, schools, work places, or about the mass media and other aspects of the socialization process that is always mediating traditions. There is no way to step out of the historically effected event, but at the same time nobody can be aware of the whole of this socio-historical process. It influences us even before we think of it, effects us even before we reflect on it! That is why Gadamer writes “the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being” (276-277).

Our understanding functions in everyday life mostly in a spontaneous manner without any special higher reflection. We get up, wash and dress ourselves, make breakfast, drive our cars, etc., without giving a narrative about ourselves, or about these activities. There are situations (especially if our routine does not work), however, when the process of understanding and interpreting becomes conscious. This is when we become aware of the hermeneutical task. On these occasions, we go through the next four phases: (1) the first phase is when we are being addressed; (2) next is suspension of our own prejudices; (3) then comes the dialectic of questions and answers; and (4) finally the fusion of horizons. Every moment of this process has a question-answer structure, based on experience, etc.; but let us leave all these details out of consideration for now and focus on the four phases in general:

1) Being addressed – We know lots of different traditions, we live in different events of tradition, but only some of them become important for us. Understanding begins when we are being addressed by a tradition. We are being addressed always by a thing, but it belongs to some tradition(s) and hence it is an historical thing. What is its meaning? It is that it touches us existentially, when we recognize its existential meaning and importance for us.

2) Suspension of our own prejudices – Our prejudices originate from the fore-structure of our understanding (fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception), and it is impossible to demolish them absolutely. We can only suspend them. If we become aware of our prejudices, then we can suspend them, and in this way we also make clearer the otherness of the thing to be understood.

3) Dialectic of questions and answers – The suspension of my prejudices can be considered a question in a double sense. It is a question regarding my standpoint, my prejudices; it is also a question regarding the thing to be understood. On the one hand, I have to make questionable my standpoint. That is, I have to offer some justification of my prejudices to myself, because there is no real question without this step. If I believe that I know the answer beforehand, then I do not have the necessary openness for the true question. On the other hand, I inquire about the thing to be understood in relation to my expectation of meaning which is hypothetical and based on my previous experiences and knowledge. My preliminary expectation of meaning, which refers to the whole of the thing to be understood, must be considered in itself a question to the tradition to which the thing to be understood belongs. As Heidegger wrote in Being and Time, “Every inquiry is a seeking (Suchen). Every seeking gets guided beforehand by what is sought” (Heidegger, 24). If everything works fine, the thing to be understood gives an answer and I will hear it if I have an ear for its music.

There are two possibilities at this point: either the parts of meaning are in harmony with my hypothesis about the expected meaning of the whole, or they are not. If there is no harmony between the parts and the whole of meaning, I have to change my preliminary expectation of meaning, and my new overall expectation will be at the same time my new question to the tradition. (Thinking of my new expectation of meaning can also start the transformation of my prejudices.) So this becomes a new question to the tradition and the tradition answers again. This dialectic process of questions and answers is the hermeneutical circle in its existential sense, because we understand and interpret not only the thing to be understood but also ourselves at the same time. The hermeneutical circle of understanding-(whole) interpretation-(parts) understanding-(whole) interpretation-(parts) functions in connection with the given thing to be understood as long as we think that the parts and the whole of meaning are in harmony, as long as they have correctness. As Gadamer says:

Thus the movement of understanding is constantly from the whole to the part and back to the whole. Our task is to expand the unity of the understood meaning centrifugally. The harmony of all the details with the whole is the criterion of correct understanding. The failure to achieve this harmony means that understanding has failed. (Gadamer, 291)

So the hermeneutical circle that is the dialectical process of questions and answers between me and the thing to be understood functions as long as I interrupt it. However, it can never come to an end, because newer and newer viewpoints turn up continuously due to the historical character of the three main components of this process. Historicity of my existence, the thing to be understood and that of the traditions mediating community causes the continual transformation of my horizon of meaning. Still, I have to assume the completeness of the thing to be understood, of its immanent unity of meaning, for I would not even start to understand and interpret something without this presumption. (Cf. Gadamer, 293-294)

4) Fusion of horizons – After I have reconstructed the correctness of the immanent unity of meaning that is the horizon of meaning of the thing to be understood, I bring into play my suspended prejudices – that is, my own existential horizon of meaning. The fusion of horizons takes place at this point, and it is essentially a birth of such a new unity of meaning, such a new horizon of meaning, in which tradition lives longer. It seems to be obvious from all of this that, as Gadamer says, “understanding is, essentially, a historically effected event” (Gadamer, 300).

II. Dewey and Rorty

1) Being addressed

At what point was Rorty really addressed by Dewey’s philosophy? We cannot say that it happened in his childhood, because at that time he only inherited it via his parents and Sidney Hook. It has happened rather at the beginning of the 1970s, as he wrote it in his biographical essay, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992):

About 20 years or so after I decided that the young Hegel’s willingness to stop trying for eternity, and just be the child of his time, was the appropriate response to disillusionment with Plato, I found myself being led back to Dewey. Dewey now seemed to me a philosopher who had learned all that Hegel had to teach about how to eschew certainty and eternity, while immunizing himself against pantheism by taking Darwin seriously. This rediscovery of Dewey coincided with my first encounter with Derrida (which I owe to Jonathan Arac, my colleague at Princeton). Derrida led me back to Heidegger, and I was struck by the resemblances between Dewey’s, Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s criticisms of Cartesianism. Suddenly things began to come together. I thought I saw a way to blend a criticism of the Cartesian tradition with the quasi-Hegelian historicism of Michel Foucault, Ian Hacking and Alasdair MacIntyre. I thought that I could fit all these into a quasi-Heideggerian story about the tensions within Platonism. (Rorty 1999, 11-12)

His book from 1979, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature can be regarded as the first serious result of this being addressed. (When he wrote an introduction to The Linguistic Turn in 1967, he was already showing a small sign of his change.)

2) Suspension of prejudices

What kind of prejudices has he suspended? As we know Rorty wanted to become one of the best analytic philosophers. He confessed as much in the interview, Against Bosses:

When I got to Wellesley, I found that all my colleagues had gone to Harvard, and were up to date not only with Quine but with Austin. So I threw myself into reading Quine, Wittgenstein, Austin – all the stuff my colleagues were talking about. I retooled myself so as to become an analytic philosopher. (AB 51)

It follows clearly from this that he has suspended his analytic philosophical prejudices when he returned to Dewey’s philosophy.

3) Dialectic of questions and answers

There are so many similarities and differences here that a separate monograph could be written about this relationship between Dewey and Rorty. That’s why I had to choose only some dimensions of this relation.

In the dialectic process of questions and answers, Rorty obviously recognized the identical features of the old pragmatism and his views. Here, briefly, are some:

a) our human life is basically practice
b) hence everything, even theory, belongs to practice
c) which needs a naturalistic approach and
d) everything is relational
e) so we cannot justify absolute transcendences.

Rorty also sees, however, the differences between traditional pragmatism and his views:

the new pragmatism differs from the old in just two respects, only one of which is of much interest to people who are not philosophy professors. The first is that we new pragmatists talk about language instead of experience, or mind, or consciousness, as the old pragmatists did. The second respect is that we have all read Kuhn, Hanson, Toulmin and Feyerabend, and have thereby become suspicious of the term ‘scientific method’. New pragmatists wish that Dewey, Sidney Hook and Ernest Nagel had not insisted on using this term as a catchphrase, since we are unable to provide anything distinctive for it to denote. (Rorty 1999, 95)

Beside the problems of experience contra language and scientific method, I would mention two further differences: their positions on realism and truth. Before I go into the details, however, I have to remark that the reason for these differences is not particularly Rorty, but more philosophical developments after Dewey.

Language instead of experience
The reason for this change is the so-called linguistic turn. It was not Richard Rorty’s product, however, he only used it describing its consequences. As he quotes Manfred Frank’s book, What Is Neostructuralism? in his article, “Dewey between Hegel and Darwin:”

Frank speaks of this insight as ‘perhaps the fundamental insight of postclassical philosophy in its entirety, insofar as it participates in the linguistic turn.’ On Frank’s account, the sense of historical relativity, the sense of relativity to available linguistic resources, the sense of human finitude, and the sense that ‘it is not possible to interpret our world from an Archimedean point’ are at bottom the same. Frank thinks that the linguistic turn was first taken by Herder and Humboldt, thinkers who made it possible, as Frank puts it, to think of ‘transnational and transhistorical »reason«’ as itself just one more ‘»image of the world« inscribed in a linguistic order.’ (Rorty and Pragmatism 1995, 3)

Rorty remarks in a footnote that:

Frank says ‘The linguistic turn consists in the transferral of the philosophical paradigm of consciousness onto that of the sign’ (217). I myself would have said ‘the sentence’ rather than ‘the sign,’ in oder to exclude the sorts of iconical and indexical signs Peirce included in his semiotic. This would accord with what Frank, following Tugendhat, says about propositional attitudes being ‘the basic form of all intentional consciousness’ (219). He there quotes Tugendhat as saying that ‘the question of consciousness dissolves into the question of propositional understanding;’ I take that dissolution to be the crucial difference between philosophers’ talk of ‘experience’ circa 1900 and their talk of ‘language’ circa 1990. (ibid.)

After Gottlob Frege’s invention (mathematical logic) and the young Wittgenstein’s linguistic solipsism (in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) which was rejected by his later language game theory, and after logical positivism, it does not make sense to speak about experience in Deweyan sense. (Dewey did not even inquire into the historicality of experience as Heidegger and Gadamer did.) It is not worth doing this when every piece of our experience will be interpreted within our linguistic frame, because only this contains meaning.

Questions of the scientific method
Similar things can be said about the problem of method in contemporary philosophy. The method-centered, and science-centered thinking of modern philosophy has been criticized by Heidegger, Gadamer, Feyerabend and later by Derrida, too. However, we have to see that Rorty rejects only the worship of a special philosophical and/or scientific method:

Another way of exhibiting the difference between the two traditions is to say that the Europeans have typically put forward a distinctive, new, post-Nietzschean ‘method’ for philosophers to employ. Thus in early Heidegger and early Sartre we find talk of ‘phenomenological ontology,’ in late Heidegger of something mysterious and wonderful called ‘Thinking,’ in Gadamer of ‘hermeneutics,’ in Foucault of ‘the archeology of knowledge’ and of ‘genealogy.’ Only Derrida seems free from this temptation; his term ‘grammatology’ was evanescent whimsy, rather than a serious attempt to proclaim the discovery of a new philosophical method or strategy.
By contrast, the Americans have not been much given to such proclamations. Dewey, it is true, talked a lot about bringing ‘scientific method’ into philosophy, but he never was able to explain what this method was, nor what it was supposted to add to the virtues of curiosity, open-mindedness and conversability. James sometimes spoke of ‘the pragmatic method,’ but this meant little more than the insistence on pressing the anti-Platonist question, ‘Does our purported theoretical difference make any difference to practice?’ That insistence was not so much the employment of a method as the assumption of a sceptical attitude towards traditional philosophical problems and vocabularies. (Rorty 1999, xx-xxi)

Rorty thus speaks about methodological pluralism which is based on a simple, natural approach to everything on the basis of “the virtues of curiosity, open-mindedness and conversability (xxi). I am also persuaded that this complies best with both pragmatism and the object-dependence of method. We always have to create or apply the method most suitable for our concrete objects, means and ends, but there is no absolute method.

Question of realism
It follows from the linguistic turn that we cannot know the final reality. I quote here only one paragraph from PHS, but there are many similar ones in Rorty’s papers and books:

First the Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida criticism of the Greek metaphysical tradition has insisted that sameness and difference are relative to choice of description – that there is no such thing as the ‘intrinsic’ nature or the ‘essential’ attributes of anything. There is nothing which is vital to the self-identity of a being, independent of the descriptions we give of it. This insistence is found also in the work of philosophers like Wittgenstein, Quine and Davidson, and I am happy to join in the resulting chorus. (Rorty 1999, 235)

We cannot speak about reality, we can speak only about the world. Everything depends namely on our descriptions, and descriptions (and everything else for human beings) are always social constructions. Further, “all awerness is a linguistic affair” (48). Even Gadamer, who has given a thorough analysis of the historicality of experience, maintains that interpretation (description) – contrary to understanding – is always a linguistic affair. At this point Gadamer is in harmony not only with Heidegger, but also with Rorty, Derrida and others. We have to keep in mind, of course, that this standpoint is not identical with any kind of solipsism.

Question of truth
For we do not know what reality is, we cannot compare our beliefs and sentences to any kind of intrinsic nature of things. It follows from this that the correspondence theory of truth, which had been criticized by Nietzsche and Heidegger, is untenable, and Rorty can accept only a kind of coherence theory of truth. Dewey, according to Rorty, hesitated between the correspondence and the coherence theory of truth. Dewey wrote this in A Short Catechism:

the pragmatists holds that the relation in question is one of correspondence between existence and thought; but he holds that correspondence instead of being an ultimate and unanalyzable mystery, to be defined by iteration, is precisely a matter of correspondence in its plain, familiar sense. A condition of dubious and conflicting tendencies calls out thinking as a method of handling it. This condition produces its own appropriate consequences, bearing its own fruits of weal and woe. The thoughts, the estimates, intents, and projects it calls out, just because they are attitudes of response and of attempted adjustment (not mere ‘states of consciousness’) produce their effects also. The kind of interlocking, of interadjustment that then occurs between these two sorts of consequences constitute the correspondence that makes truth. (Dewey 1910, 5-6, emphasis added.)

Rorty assumes in Philosophy and Social Hope that

A Dewey who had let himself be persuaded by James to give up on scienticism and methodolatry could agree with Davidson that there is nothing to be said about truth of the sort epistemologists want said. Once one has said, with Peirce, that beliefs are rules of action rather than attempts to represent reality, and, with Davidson, that ‘belief is in its nature veridical,’ one can take the moral of naturalism to be that knowledge is not a natural kind needing study and description, rather than that we must provide a naturalized epistemology. Such a reformed Dewey could also have welcomed Davidson’s point that truth is not an epistemic concept. (Rorty 1999, 36-37)

We have to recognize here that Rorty is always using the latest results of European philosophy in this dialectic of questions and answers between Dewey’s philosophy and his own.

4) Fusion of horizons

As a result of these differences, Rorty appropriated Dewey’s philosophy in a special way. It was a special manner of fusion of horizons. But it happens in this way in everybody’s case. Nobody can give a perfect interpretation.1

Rorty knows, because he is familiar with the Heideggerian and Gadamerian hermeneutics, that it is impossible to give a faithful interpretation of Dewey’s philosophy in the sense of an objective interpretation. Everybody understands and interprets not only Dewey’s philosophy, but everything exclusively from his or her horizon of meaning. That’s why understanding and interpretation always involve a fusion of horizons. We also have to emphasize here the fact that there is no way to step outside our horizon of meaning. We only can take it with us, broaden it and fuse it with other horizons.

This is also the situation in Rorty’s case. As a result of the fusion of horizons, a new horizon was born and this is Rorty’s neo-pragmatism. We have to remark that what has happened here is a fusion of horizons in a much wider sense, because Rorty fused not only Dewey’s and his own horizons, but also those of Peirce, James, Whitman, Goodman, Putnam, Davidson, and Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Habermas, Derrida and so on.

Beside all of this, Rorty knows well that there are also many useful features in Dewey’s thinking even after the mentioned developments of philosophy. That’s why he distinguishes between the living and the dead in Dewey:

As an alternative to Dewey’s own self-understanding of his relation to Hegel and Darwin . . . I want to suggest an account of this relation that emphasizes Hegel’s historicism rather than his idealism, and Darwin’s affinities with positivism rather than with vitalism. So I shall describe what Dewey might have said, and in my view should have said, rather than what he did say. I shall construct a hypothetical Dewey who was a pragmatist without being a radical empiricist, and a naturalist without being a panpsychist. The point of constructing such a Dewey is to separate out what I think is living and what I think is dead in Dewey’s thought, and thereby to clarify the difference between the state of philosophical play around 1900 and at the present time. (Rorty “Dewey between Hegel and Darwin,” 292)

Rorty calls Dewey his “philosophical hero” several times. (Cf. Rorty, PSH introduction and his lecture in Pécs 2004.) He emphasizes Dewey’s imaginative, prophetic side, and not his concrete philosophical views which were determined by Dewey’s socio-historical epoch. The situation Rorty presents is very similar to the post-Hegelian period when Hegel’s philosophical system could not survive, only his historicism. Here are two out of the several examples from Rorty’s book, Philosophy and Social Hope. The first one comes from a narrative where he speaks about pragmatism in the legal field:

To accomplish more, and in particular to avoid the complacency that Radin rightly sees as the danger of coherence theories of knowledge, we have to turn to Dewey the prophet rather than Dewey the pragmatist philosopher. We have to read the Emersonian visionary rather than the contributor to The Journal of Philosophy who spent 40 years haggling over definitions of ‘true’ with McGilvary, Lovejoy, Russell, Lewis, Nagel and the rest. This is the Dewey whom Cornel West describes as calling for ‘an Emersonian culture of radical democracy,’ the Dewey who is grist for CLS (Critical Legal Studies) mills. Like the ‘prophetic pragmatism’ for which West calls, this Dewey is ‘a child of Protestant Christianity wedded to left romanticism.’ (Rorty 1999, 96-97)

My second example comes from a narrative where Rorty speaks about education:

This notion of a species of animals gradually taking control of its own evolution by changing its environmental conditions leads Dewey to say, in good Darwinian language, that ‘growth itself is the moral end’ and that to ‘protect, sustain and direct growth is the chief ideal of education.’ Dewey’s conservative critics denounced him for fuzziness, for not giving us a criterion of growth. But Dewey rightly saw that any such criterion would cut the future down to the size of the present. Asking for such criterion is like asking a dinosaur to specify what would make for a good mammal or asking a fourth-century Athenian to propose forms of life for the citizens of a twentieth-century industrial democracy.
Instead of criteria, Deweyans offer inspiring narratives and fuzzy utopias. Dewey had stories to tell about our progress from Plato to Bacon to the Mills, from religion to rationalism to experimentalism, from tyranny to feudalism to democracy. In their later stages, his stories merged with Emerson’s and Whitman’s descriptions of the democratic vistas – with their vision of America as the place where human beings will become unimaginably wonderful, different and free. For Dewey, Emerson’s talent for criterionless hope was the essence of his value to his country. In 1903 Dewey wrote: ‘[T]he coming century may well make evident what is just now dawning, that Emerson is not only a philosopher, but that he is the Philosopher of Democracy.’ Dewey’s point was that Emerson did not offer truth, but simply hope. Hope – the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past – is the condition of growth. That sort of hope was all that Dewey himself offered us, and by offering it he became our century’s Philosopher of Democracy. (Rorty 1999, 120)

Dewey is important for Rorty in the light of the latest results of analytic or rather that of continental philosophy. It means that Rorty emphasizes both the differences from and the positive sides of Dewey’s philosophy on the basis of the latest results of the 20th century philosophical development. I mean he is familiar not only with Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, but also with Habermas, Foucault and Derrida.

If someone were to say that Rorty is thinking in a different and broader context than Dewey, I would concur. But, this is not Rorty’s sin, it is the normal way of understanding and interpretation. What follows from all of this? I think it is obvious: if somebody wants to criticize Rorty’s Dewey-interpretation and its context, s/he has to take into account the whole of the mentioned philosophical context of the 20th century. I think, Dewey himself would support this type of interpretation:

The problems with which a philosophy relevant to the present must deal are those growing out of changes going on with ever-increasing rapidity, over an ever-increasing human-geographical range, and with ever-deepening intensity of penetration; this fact is one striking indication of the need for a very different kind of reconstruction from that which is now most in evidence. (Dewey 2004, iv)


1 What can we expect from an interpretation? We can expect lots of different things: clues which help us to understand something better, a new approach, an objective interpretation. I am persuaded that we can get the first two, but we never can get an objective interpretation. According to philosophical hermeneutics, interpretation is an endless process, and a human being never can give us an objective interpretation. The reason for this is simple: human beings are always finite and historical beings. That’s why we never can get a neutral, supra-historical position, and we never going to be beings who know everything. Our life and our interpretations are always determined by our culture, by our traditions, i.e. by the socio-historical circumstances among which we grew up. (As Gadamer says it, we are determined by the historically effected event.)

It is clear that Rorty is very much aware of these limits of interpretation, because he knows Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s philosophy very well. That is the reason why he does not attempt to tell us what Dewey really said. He knows that it is impossible. The most that anybody can say is how he or she understands and interprets Dewey.

Works cited

  • Dewey, John. 2004. Reconstruction in Philosophy. Mineola, New York: Dover.
  • Dewey, John. 1910. The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1989. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad.
  • Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Rorty, Richard. 1990. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. London: Basil Blackwell.
  • Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press.
  • Rorty, Richard. 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  • Brandom, Robert B. ed. 2004. Rorty and his Critics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Rorty, Richard. 1991. Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Saatkamp, Herman. ed. 1995. Rorty and Pragmatism. Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Nystrom, Derek and Puckett, Kent. eds. 2002. Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty. Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago.
  • Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself. Interviews with Richard Rorty. 2006. Stanford University Press.