Rorty and Husserl on Realism, Idealism and Intersubjective Solidarity
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Richard Rorty and Edmund Husserl would appear to be poles apart, facing each other from opposite corners of the philosophical ring. Husserl is a rationalist searching for an absolute foundation for science which will guarantee its apodeictic truth. Rorty is a post-modernist for whom science is but one discourse among many, none of which corresponds with reality.

Yet on two fundamental points Rorty and Husserl are surprisingly close. Both maintain that they are neither realists nor idealism but overcome this dichotomy; and both trace this overcoming to communal creativity, which Rorty calls solidarity and Husserl intersubjectivity.

There are many fundamental differences between the two thinkers and I don't wish to suggest otherwise in what follows. But I do want to examine these two apparent convergences to see what each can learn from the other. I will look first at the realism-idealism issue, and then discuss solidarity and intersubjectivity.


Rorty rejects the notion that truth is due to reality making representations true. Representational realists hold that people have beliefs some of which are true because they correspond with the way the world is. Quantum mechanics, for instance, is a set of ideas which is true because that's how the microscopic work actually is. The theory of phlogiston is false because the world is not like that. What we think or say is a representation which may or may not correspond with reality. This presupposes that, independent of our beliefs, there is reality with a structure which can serve as the norm against which statement can be differentiated into true or false. Rorty rejects both notions: reality and representation.

Rorty also rejects the notion of a pure given, which is present before the mind. He rejects the ocular metaphor of knowledge as the presence of an object before the minds eye. Not only are such givens not representative of an external reality, there are no such givens in the first place. So he rejects both sense-data or qualia, and ideas.

For Rorty, the notions of reality, ideas, representations, correspondence, and givenness are all part of the one paradigm which he wishes to overthrow. Now let me show that Husserl rejects all these notions also.

First, Husserl is clearly an anti-representationalist. The notion of intentionality is a rejection of the paradigm of the mind as an inner space with objects floating around it (anti-Locke in Crisis). For Husserl there is no correspondence between an inert, un-constituted, meaningless, thing-in-itself and some other object, a representation, which is a unity of meaning for me. When I walk around a table and constitute it, I am not constituting a representation of the object, but the object itself. The point of intentionality is that consciousness reaches out beyond it's own acts to the thing itself. Yet it can do this only because it constitutes these objects as meaningful.

Although it may be less obvious, Husserl also rejects the Myth of the Given, of which Rorty, following Sellars, is so critical. Early in his work Husserl calls himself a positivist and proposes a method in which we would simply describe the given, which seems absolute and independent of our grasping of it. But quickly we find that we have arrived in the middle of the movie, and much of the story has already occurred. The subject-object standoff is preceded by a set of meaning-giving acts by transcendental subjectivity. One of Husserl's most basic principles is that only what is meaningful can be grasped or experienced, and something cannot be meaningful unless it is constituted, an activity that only subjectivity can accomplish.

So Rorty and Husserl agree that the paradigm of representational realism and the accompanying myth of the given are all to be rejected. So what do they accept? Idealism?

For Rorty, an idealist is someone who accepts a coherence theory of truth. By coherence he means the application of preestablished, rational criteria to determine which statements fit in with the web of beliefs we already hold. Often idealists assume that such criteria are rooted in the depths of human nature; it is part of our essence as subjects that we are rational.

But look, for instance, at the criteria for which phrases to include in a poem. Is the criterion rhyme? Well, maybe for Spencer, but hardly for Ginsberg. Perhaps it would be more plausible to look for criteria for just one style of poetry. Or perhaps for one poet? Well, maybe for one period of a poet's life. No, for each poem...? In the end people write what they write and the writing establishes criteria, if there are any. Rorty thinks this is true of all language: we can cite no pre-existing criteria for what gets included in a discourse.

But surely, a rationalist can object, we have at least the criterion of non-contradiction? For instance, we know in advance that no one can claim that two events occur at the same time and do not occur at the same time. Well, that depends on the context. We can imagine a context in which both statements could be held together; indeed Einstein has created such a context. That is, there are no absolute statements, but only ones in a context and that context may change. So there are no absolute criteria for coherence; coherence is invented on the fly as we go along. Or to put it better, coherence, like truth, is an empty, formal concept which ultimately offers no constraints. And so it says nothing. To say two beliefs are coherent is to say nothing more than that we hold them at the same time. There are no criteria; there is simply what is said. Hence coherence explains nothing. Whatever we believe at the moment is truth, i.e., is coherent with whatever else we believe, but this is so by definition, not by some exterior criterion of coherence.

Hence Rorty insists he is not an idealist. Just because he rejects a correspondence theory of truth doesn't mean he accepts coherence. He claims he goes beyond the dichotomy of realism and idealism. Neither reality nor coherence qualify as truth-makers.

Now let me show that this is very close to Husserl's final position too. He too appears at first sight to be an idealist flirting with coherence as a criterion of truth.

While Husserl claims that realism is wrong, he equally rejects any notion that reality is simply an illusion, a Berkeleyan spider-web spun out by the mind from its own substance. Representational theories of knowledge assume the existence of a mind in which there are ideas which purport to represent reality. A realist accepts that there are realities beyond the mind; a subjective idealist - Berkeley for instance - denies there is anything beyond the mind, but continues to accept the reality of the mind and its indwelling ideas. For Husserl such a mind is a passive object, a constituted entity among others, as dependent upon a meaning-giver as any other object would be. Both realists and subjective idealists remain in the natural attitude and misunderstand objects, whether minds or things, as things-in-themselves, neglecting the constitutional process that underlies them.

Now Husserl rejects the theory of mind as a repository of ideas and offers instead the basic inspiration that everything I am conscious of must be meaningful for me. He calls this position transcendental Idealism: the doctrine that I can know nothing that is non-constituted; there can be nothing which is not given meaning by acts of a transcendental subject. However, since he has rejected representationalism and the theory of ideas, this doesn't mean that all we can grasp are ideas. That would be psychological or subjective idealism, which he explicitly rejects. The whole point of intentionality is for subjectivity to reach beyond itself to constitute the things themselves.

But now we have a problem. With a faith in absolute rationalism, Husserl set out to find a stable, ultimate foundation for truth. If a transcendental subject can constitute in an arbitrary manner, the spectre of relativism immediately appears. Husserl's solution is to claim we can intuit the essence of any transcendental ego as such and discover that it itself is constrained to constitute only in accord with the a priori laws which are its own essence. Is this not coherence idealism at its most flagrant?

Not quite. He claims, "The universal Apriori pertaining to a transcendental ego as such is an eidetic form, which contains an infinity of forms, an infinity of apriori types of actualities and potentialities of life. ... But in a unitarily possible ego not all singly possible type are compossible." (CM sect 36 p. 74). I take this to mean that the essence of transcendental subjectivity does not dictate any necessary form of constitution; subjectivity is free and spontaneous. The only restraint is that some possible constitutions cannot be constituted at the same time as some other, equally possible ones. That is, we can constitute any set of meanings, provided only that they be compossible, i.e., coherent.

What is the nature of this restraint called compossibility? In the end Husserl doesn't tell us, but perhaps if he had been able to read Rorty, he might have completed the story as follows. To accept compossibility as a norm external to subjectivity would be to fall back into realism and violate Husserl's fundamental dogma that there are no meanings beyond subjectivity. So what is compossible must be simply what the transcendental subject can constitute, but this "can" has no restraint other than what we find transcendental subjectivity to be actually doing. This is the minimum lip service Husserl must still pay to the dregs of his rationality. Husserl's compossibility, like Rorty's coherence, ultimately restrains nothing, it is an empty, formal concept. To say that a number of constituted meanings are compossible is to say no more than that a transcendental subject has in fact succeeded in constituting them.

Let me be clear that I'm pushing Husserl here, with a little help from Rorty. Husserl himself resisted this conclusion. In his polemic against psychologism he wanted the help of necessary a priori norms. Yet to achieve his victory over relativism he was unwilling to give up the even more fundamental insight that a subject has to be self-constituting and independent of heteronomous standards. Ultimately we arrive at pure "spontaneity," as Husserl calls it: compossibility can be rephrased as "this is what we do."

So far what I have tried to show is that Rorty and Husserl are in basic agreement that both realism and idealism are inadequate and that we must move beyond both of them. Now let me move to my second point and suggest that they also agree on the direction we should move in: towards life-world intersubjectivity, or ethnocentric solidarity as Rorty prefers to call it.


Initially Husserl presents constitution as the acts of an individual transcendental Ego behind each empirical ego. Later, however, he discovers that below the personal activity of the individual there is a prior meaning-giving function, that of transcendental intersubjectivity, which offers to each individual a set of prefabricated meanings handed down from history through the medium of language. We come to consciousness within a Life-world which has already been given meaning by a cultural originator of meaning, transcendental intersubjectivity.

Each life-world is a cultural creation, unique for each culture, not a universal human acquisition. The Western life-world has given rise to the scientific project, a project which constitutes meanings in such a way that all who accept the project can arrive at universal truths. For Husserl, therefore, science is both universal and contingent. It is constituted as the search for a universal criterion of truth, but this constitution is itself a contingent creation of a particular intersubjective community.

Rorty agrees with the contingency half of this Husserlian thesis. For Rorty, each human community has its own vocabulary, its own set of statements which are said and accepted. There is no overarching vocabulary in which all others can be discussed; there is no privileged vocabulary which is in some way absolute. For various historical reasons, which Rorty analyzes in some detail, philosophers have claimed a special privilege for the vocabulary of science, and have presented it as attaining universal truth. But this is mistaken: science is one vocabulary among many and is no more nor less contingent than any other discourse.

So are scientific theories false? Epistemologists have claimed that scientific knowledge differs from opinion or the common sense way of speaking, because science corresponds to the way the world itself is. But for Rorty, it is not correspondence which leads to statements being labelled true, but the practices of a linguistic community. Truth is based on a community's solidarity not on some independent facts of the case. So scientific statements are indeed true, but not in any universal, privileged way, only in the way any communally accepted discourse is true.

Rorty's similarity to Husserl on this point is striking. For both, science is one particular set of meanings - or vocabulary - among others and is generated by a community of meaning-creators, Western culture. In both cases, science is seen as forgetting it's own contingent origin. A proper understanding, both our authors claim, requires that we contextualize scientific meanings within the wider project of the historical culture that gives rise to them and sustains them. Scientific truth is a human project, not a divine one.

But in this case, it seems to me that Rorty might learn something from Husserl's approach. For Rorty, because all vocabularies depend on the solidarity of contingent communities, there can be no universal truth. For Husserl, there is no contradiction between the contingency of an intersubjective life-world and its project of searching for scientific knowledge. Constitution, for Husserl, is not the recognition of a preestablished meaning or value; it is the establishment of a meaning or value in the first place. Husserl learned from Frege to separate the validity of the product from the contingency of the process. Just as intentionality constitutes a self-identical object within the constantly changing flux of experience, so contingent intersubjective constitution can establish objects accessible to anyone able and willing to take on the scientific project.

For Rorty, solidarity is a kind of unexplained given. For Husserl it is a task: the creating of wider and wider spheres of intersubjectivity is itself a human project. The western scientific project is the attempt to establishing a community which would be open to all, that is, one in which individuals could come to agreement without regard to their original life-world, i.e., their language, religion, nationality, etc. For instance, to take one of Husserl's favourite examples, we can all agree that a Euclidian triangle has a sum of angles equal to two right angles, no matter what our background, provided only we accept to do Euclidian geometry. Geometry is, of course, a contingent, Western invention, and an individual could, for contingent reasons, decide not to do geometry. But neither of these contingencies undermine the certainty and universality of the geometric theorem.

It seems as if Rorty is caught up in a god's eye view of science, so that once he rejects the possibility of an absolute viewpoint, universal truth becomes impossible. For Husserl, there is only the human viewpoint in the first place, and the question is whether intersubjectivity can create universality. Within the limited bounds of geometry and other scientific methods, he maintains that we can do so.


So what's the score? A draw, it seems to me: one round each. On the realist-idealist issue, Husserl's rationalism blinds him to the emptiness of his notion of compossibility or coherence, an emptiness Rorty sees clearly. But Rorty's commitment to reducing all to solidarity leads him to overshoot his mark whereas Husserl recognizes the possibility of universality even within a world constituted by transcendental intersubjectivity.

© David L. Thompson
Philosophy, Memorial University
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