What Language Are You at Home In?: Richard Rorty and the Languages That We Speak

The philosopher Richard Rorty used to suggest that the way that a person talks about things should be thought of as a language. Thus there are people who, in addition to speaking, say, English, also communicate in such languages as:

  • Reformed Calvinism Speak
  • Atheism Speak
  • Catholicism Speak
  • Fox News Speak
  • Rush Limbaugh Speak
  • Newtonian Speak
  • Quantum Physics Speak
  • Richard Rorty Speak
  • Islam Speak
  • High Art Speak
  • Evolution Speak
  • Bureaucratic Job Speak
  • Thomas Aquinas Speak
  • Film School Speak
  • Reformed Judaism Speak
  • Freudian Speak

The ways of talking about the world, and framing it, are endless, and historically contingent, and Rorty’s question was (to paraphrase him):

  • How is that language useful to those who speak it? In other words, what does it accomplish for its speakers?

Rorty thought of the languages that we speak in as tools which, for some people, serve their purposes well—but those same languages may not be readily transferable to other tasks—or to other people. In other words, the languages that people speak are, like dreams, peculiar to them, and historically contingent, and there is no one language that corresponds, universally, for all people and with finality, to a big truth “out there” in the world. We might imagine that our particular language captures all truth, and does so accurately, but it doesn’t mean that it, in fact, does.

Rorty also thought that we do not usually argue our way out of one language and into another. Instead, we tend to simply start speaking a language that seems to work better for us. When, for example, have you heard a contemporary Evangelical megachurch pastor preach a sustained sermon on the terrors of hell (in a way similar to Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”)?

Another example: The Republican party, in its language use during the recent election cycle, seemed stuck in patterns of FOX News-style panic-rhetoric (about race, security threats, homosexuality, and immigration) that just doesn’t seem to fit the times. As such, Republicans are now struggling to find a language that will work for them in future elections. Some conservatives want to retain the old-time language, and drive it even harder, and others want to start talking in ways that will attract more votes from, say, females and Hispanics. It is unlikely that people talking within the frame of “Old Republican Speak” will be argued out of their language. Instead, over time, more and more people who identify themselves as “Republican” will simply stop talking that way, and at some point Republicans will say things like this:

“Hey, look at how peculiarly we used to speak, back in the early 2000s, about gay people. It’s embarrassing, isn’t it?”

Here’s a link to one of Rorty’s books.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to What Language Are You at Home In?: Richard Rorty and the Languages That We Speak

  1. Good article; I’m glad whenever I see someone on the internet write about Rorty. Of course, these ideas can be traced back to Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and to some extent Dewey and all of the other pragmatists.

    The troubling part of what you wrote is not that we use different languages (within english) in fact most people would problably just find that an interesting observation. What I think is alarming to people is that we may never be able to get in touch with reality through any one of our languages in any unified way.

    I think future post-modern or pragmatic philosophers should press this issue to show that scientism is really a failed doctrine.

  2. santitafarella says:


    When you say that people “may never be able to get in touch with reality through any one of our languages in any unified way,” I also think of Isaiah Berlin, who reminds us that it is not just REALITY that we cannot tidy up and find a unified language for. Berlin suggests that we may not (for example) be able to even reconcile and unify our VALUES (such as achieving maximal freedom and maximal equality). These two values may be mutually exclusive, driving us to making tradoffs and compromises that we may not be able to justify theoretically.

    In short, utopianism (of any sort) may constitute a dubious project.

    My problem with Rorty (insofar as I have a problem with Rorty) is that it is hard to use a language ironically. In other words, people treat their own languages seriously, and to get the most bang for their buck, and derive real energy from a language, you have to treat it seriously.

    Hence your hope that scientism be treated ironically by those who speak it (such as, say, e.o. wilson) is to wish that it not function as a vigorous language. I, in contrast, hope that those who speak “scientism” will speak it vigorously and without irony (so long as there are counterveiling cultural currents and languages that don’t take it seriously and prevent it from achieving hegemony over all other languages). In other words, Rorty works when there are lots of free and competing languages out there checking one another.


  3. oho good dear !!!! very intersting blog and a good posting !!! you must maintain your blog, its intresting !!! Nice Buddy

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  4. santitafarella says:


    Thank you for the encouragement.


  5. Pingback: Where are We? (And Why I’m an Agnostic) « Prometheus Unbound

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