Against Epistemology

Virtually all the various schools of moral epistemology considered seem to employ an ahistorical approach to moral discourse, argument, and judgment. Both prescriptivists and naturalists confidently speak of "the language of morals," presupposing that "morality" has a singular essence lurking under all the various "moralities" of human history. Their dispute only concerns what this "essence" might be. Rationalists, realists, and antirealists also claim their particular moral epistemologies for morality per se, as opposed to the morality characteristic of a particular time, place, or community; these epistemologies are seen as perennial options for anyone who wishes to think about ethics.

The assumption that "epistemology" studies the invariant universal structures of human knowledge, entitling it to "legislate" over all knowledge claims, has been the target of sustained philosophical attack in the latter half of the twentieth century by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and John Dewey, among others. Richard Rorty's landmark Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) was one of the first works to point out the affinities between the projects of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey. Rorty showed that all three undermined the pretense of "epistemologically oriented philosophy" to have attained a timeless, ahistorical, necessary vantage point in its judgments about knowledge by pointing out, in different ways, how knowledge claims are situated and justified in shared practical and social contexts and are unintelligible apart from such contexts. From Rorty's perspective, the different approaches of moral epistemologists are less important than their common goal of discovering the foundations of moral reason and showing how these foundations might (or might not) be "justified" to any rational person. But Rorty insists that the epistemological assumptions undergirding their "common goals" are baseless. Among those assumptions are the idea that there are moral truths available to human rationality as such, or that "morality," like "knowledge" and "being," is a concept with a unique, stable core meaning. Rorty's Wittgensteinian, Heideggerian, and Deweyan case against foundationalist philosophy thus makes a new, antifoundationalist and self-consciously historical approach to moral knowledge all the more appealing.

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