1. In an interview toward the end of his life, Richard Rorty was asked if he thought that advocates of black reparations had valid and serious arguments. Rorty responded that:
There are valid and serious arguments, but there are also valid and serious arguments for taxing the citizens of the First World down to the standard of living of the average inhabitant of the Third World, and distributing the proceeds of this taxation to the latter. But since neither set of arguments will lead to any such action being taken, I am not sure how much time we should spend thinking about them, as opposed to thinking about measures that have some chance of actually being carried out. It would be better to think about what might actually be done than to think about what an absolutely perfect world would be like. The best can be an enemy of the better. The stance Rorty is here taking is a practical stance against the Best. Rorty is not against thinking about what the world should be like, as utopic and prophetic thinking is central to how Rorty conceives of the intellectual’s role in democratic culture. But what he is suggesting here is that we cannot spend the day in imagination. Rorty’s conception of prophecy is romantic, not platonic. A platonic conception of prophecy got off the ground when Plato began using metaphors of sight to articulate his sense of philosophy—“theory” derives from theoros, or “onlooker,” “spectator.” Plato’s transformation of the common Greek word for an audience member of a festival is what produced Dewey’s attack on the “spectatorial account of knowledge,” and when theoria was Latinized by contemplatio, it became invested with our derived word “speculation” from speculum, or mirror. Hence Rorty’s devastating attack on platonism in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
The romantic conception of prophecy, however, is different—it gains its sense, not from theoria, but from poiēsis, “making,” which we get “poetry” from. Rather than seeing something already there, the romantic conception of prophecy rests more on the Renaissance trope of building “castles in the air.” While the platonic conception gains a sense of urgency from its positing of a Best behind a veil that, if only we could just see it, we’d have our blueprint from how to order the world—the romantic conception loses that urgency, but in compensation we get a picture of how toying with castles too far off in the sky can distract us from the reality around us.
2. What undergirds Rorty’s practical stance toward the Best is his theoretical stance against the Best, which is to say against platonism. For Rorty’s stance at the level of theory is that the Best is a mirage because it is circumscribed by our fallibility and our lack of method—for any X said to be the Best, we have to admit something better might come along. Such an admission of fallibility is what then produces the search for a method with which one could know certainly that one has in fact found the Best. Dewey and Rorty thought that this Quest for Certainty showed a lack of maturity, and that we should rather face up to the contingency of our assertions of what is the best.
The problem for this line of thought is that a new form of platonist has come along that suggests that you can’t have a notion of what’s better if you don’t have a robust notion of the Best. Rorty wants to deny needing one. This new version is a particular species of the more general form of what I will call evaluative platonism. There are many species, but the basic form is that if you don’t have the Best in mind as a sort of ideal to shoot for, you won’t progress toward anything. The industrial strength version is a full-blooded Platonism, which posits an Absolute Good that can be reached (at least in theory—you can see the Sun outside the Cave, even if you can’t reach it). There are, however, important knock-off brands, the most important of which for my purposes are Peircian end-of-inquiry notions which suggest that one needs a robust focus imaginarius to make sense of inquiry—these are important precisely because of the range of agreement Rorty shares with these other pragmatists. Rorty’s romantic notion isn’t robust enough because it simply expands our repertoire of possible betters without narrowing one of them as the actual best. Since the traditional enemy of the platonist is the relativist, it should be no surprise that that is the epithet pragmatists like Hilary Putnam wield at Rorty for continuing to resist attempts at robustness. 
3. To get a sense of how Rorty responds, we might turn to his Village Champion Argument against Jürgen Habermas, another pragmatist admirer of Peirce. Rorty sets the stage by contrasting the Peircian strategy with what I’ve called “full-blooded Platonism”:
Instead of arguing that because reality is One, and truth correspondence to that One Reality, Peircians argue that the idea of convergence is built into the presuppositions of discourse. They all agree that the principal reason why reason cannot be naturalized is that reason is normative and norms cannot be naturalized. But, they say, we can make room for the normative without going back to the traditional idea of a duty to correspond to the intrinsic nature of One Reality. We do this by attending to the universalistic character of the idealizing presuppositions of discourse. To “naturalize reason” in this context is to reject the utility of the concept of truth when attempting to figure out what is and is not knowledge—instead, naturalizers argue, justification is all that does any real work. Rorty does not want to collapse the distinction between the two, however, only argue that the T in the JTB conception of knowledge, exactly like the B, does not play an operative role in the determination of what people know.  Peircians think that the T does play an operative role, a transcending moment in which more than justification is had. Without the ability to transcend the moment of justification, they think, everything would be relative to a particular audience. Rorty continues:
Habermas’ doctrine of a “transcendent moment” seems to me to run together a commendable willingness to try something new with an empty boast. To say “I’ll try to defend this against all comers” is often, depending upon the circumstances, a commendable attitude. But to say “I can successfully defend this against all comers” is silly. Maybe you can, but you are no more in a position to claim that you can than the village champion is to claim that he can beat the world champion. Rorty later glosses this argument:
When we have finished justifying our belief to the audience we think relevant (perhaps our own intellectual conscience, or our fellow-citizens, or the relevant experts) we need not, and typically do not, make any further claims, much less universal ones. After rehearsing justification, we may say either “That is why I think my assertion true” or “That is why my assertion is true,” or both. Going from the former assertion to the latter is not a philosophically pregnant transition from particularity to universality, or from context-dependence to context-independence. It is merely a stylistic difference. I hope it is apparent how the Village Champion Argument, and therefore the relationship between justification and truth, bears on the relationship between the better and the Best. To claim that X is “the best,” you are asserting the truth of the claim “X is the best.” Rorty’s point is that these assertions are necessarily always in front of some particular audience, and therefore the pragmatic power of any particular claim is relative to an audience.
4. I think we can be a little more precise than Rorty’s usual mode of sloughing off the relativist as something he needs not be concerned with. The Village Champion Argument carries a lot of force, but there is more in the area than just a stylistic difference. The pattern of Rorty’s mode is set in his infamous APA presidential address, “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism.” There he says, succinctly and some might say too perfunctorily, “‘Relativism’ is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinion on an important topic are equally good.”  The reason he wishes to dispose of the relativist quickly is because he thinks, rightly, that it hides the real issues at work behind the conflict between pragmatists and platonists. So he says that “if there were any relativists, they would, of course, be easy to refute. One would merely use some variant of the self-referential arguments Socrates used against Protagoras.”  The argument is like this:
Protagoras: Every view is as good as any other!Since pragmatism is heir to a discernible Protagorean tradition, we are, in fact, better positioned to get back to Plato on this issue. The first step is recognizing what underpins self-referential contradiction arguments. The invalidity of contradiction is the foul incurred when you say both “X” and “not X.” But this is just to say that in the practice of saying thou shalt not incur such violations of the rules of that practice. Following Wittgenstein, one has to think, here, of practices on the analogy of games. You don’t get to count as playing the game of football, as practicing football, if—as many turd to third football comedies have underscored—you jumpkick the quarterback. In some definable Practice of Saying, it is against the rules to hold contradictory claims. (This isn’t to say that there are other practices that involve words in which it is okay to do this. Poetry and lying are the most obvious examples, which is why Plato thought poetry was a form of lying.)
Socrates: Does that include yours?
Protagoras [sensing already the end]: Er, well, yes, it must, then hunh?
Socrates: Okay, so if your view that “every view is as good as any other” is as good as the view that “not every view is as good as any other,” why should we adopt your view over the ones that say yours is shit?
Protagoras: Because…it’s true?
Socrates: Yah, okay, but what grip do you have on truth that is independent of your relativism about goodness? Isn’t goodness in the way of views just truth? How can you have a view that is itself true where others are false, but the false views are just as good? Doesn’t that just make truth an idle curiosity, and therefore your own view idle as well? Can you give me no reason for adopting your view?
Protagoras: I…will…get back to you on that one…
Socrates: Yes, Miss Palin, please do.
This first step gets us onto pragmatist ground: there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying X and not-X. There are many contexts in which it is fine, like when you say the latter with your fingers crossed or in the context of saying the sentence before this one. Contradiction is, then, a practical infelicity of a special kind. And once this has been identified, we can see the point in Habermas’ notion of a “performative contradiction.” This is part of the idea that you can’t say one thing and do another. And this displays the larger genus that the species of self-refutation falls under with regards to relativism, for it has often been accepted as a refutation of relativism (and nihilism, for that matter) that when someone says “peeing standing up is as good as sitting down” and they then pee sitting down, to say, “if they are both just as good, then on what grounds did you make the choice?” For giving any grounds at all is grounds enough for identifying criteria being used to adjudicate truth from falsity, good from bad. And having done something is ipso facto having made a choice. So the doing contradicts the saying.
5. So what underlies Rorty’s blithe rejection of relativism as a real concern is the pragmatic understanding that to behave at all is to refute the very idea that grounds of choice are all made equal. And while this is true, that our everyday practice refutes every day the theoretical thesis of relativism, it does not refute it at the level of theory. Rorty’s attitude tells us that we shouldn’t care about that, that we cannot, as Emerson says, “spend the day in explanation.”  And I think this is true as well, that our practical attitude toward the world should be allowed to trump pressures at the level of theory.  However, at the level of theory, it should be possible to show how relativism and platonism go the wrong way at things.
Robert Brandom, I believe, has shown how we might go at this. The charge of relativism leveled by platonists is motivated by the idea that you cannot talk about “betterness” without the Best, whereas heirs to Protagoras think all claims are of the form “X is better than …” with the ellipsis being filled in by specific claims. Brandom, in his notion of the pragmatically mediated semantic relation, has shown us how charges of relativism leveled at the pragmatist can be refuted by showing how Absolutes, like the Best, are parasitic, and not autonomous.
To understand this argument we need to understand the basic form of Wilfrid Sellars’ master argument in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” against the Myth of the Given and elsewhere.  For one example, one project in what Brandom calls the “empiricist core program of the classical analytic project” is to establish phenomenalism. Think of phenomenalism on the model of Berkelyan idealism, whose commitment to empiricism was so powerful that unlike Locke who thought our knowledge starts with our individual experience, he thought all we could know was our individual experience. This gets transposed into the analytic idiom as a reductionist program—the attempt to reduce talk about how things are to talk about how things seem or look. If that reduction can be shown to be successful without remainder, then we’ve shown how we don’t need to talk about how things are, but only about how things seem. (Consider the analogous materialisms about supernatural entities—we can do without talk about witchcraft because we can get along fine in explaining what happens by talking about bad mushrooms. ) Reductionism in the analytic idiom is a semantic relation—when you explain what you mean, you are relating your first misunderstood statement with a second, hopefully better understood statement. So when you suggest that when you talk about tables what you are really talking about are clouds of electrons at particular spatialtemporal vectors, you are suggesting a special form of paraphrase. “When you say ‘table,’ you really mean ‘cloud of electrons.’” 
So this is what “autonomy” means in this context—if you attempt to explain away a particular vocabulary (e.g., the vocabulary for saying “how things are”), you are suggesting that all the work can be done by a different vocabulary (e.g., the vocabulary for saying “how things seem”). For this reduction to work, the alternative vocabulary must be independent of the target vocabulary you are reducing into nothingness. If it isn’t, if you need the target vocabulary to use the alternative, then the reduction was misguided because you have a remainder (that being something you need but now can’t explain the existence of or how you do it, etc.). So if you can show that a marked for demolition vocabulary is needed to use the alternative, then you can combat the reductionism. Brandom says that Sellars’ argument “turns on the assertion of the pragmatic dependence of one set of vocabulary-deploying practices-or-abilities on another” :
Because he thinks part of what one is doing in saying how things merely appear is withholding a commitment to their actually being that way, and because one cannot be understood as withholding a commitment that one cannot undertake, Sellars concludes that one cannot have the ability to say or think how things seem or appear unless one also has the ability to make claims about how things actually are. Sellars argues that ‘is’-talk is pragmatically dependent on ‘looks’-talk because you wouldn’t be able to do (i.e. deploy) the latter without being able to deploy the former. So while you might not be actually deploying ‘is’-talk when you say, “There seems to be water over there,” you are implicitly relying on your grasp of the difference between “there is water over there” and “oh, there only seemed to be water over there—it’s actually a mirage…too bad we’re gonna’ die now.” If you didn’t have a grip on this implicit distinction, and all you had was ‘seems’-talk, then you’d have to say that “there seems to be water over there” was false when it turned out to be a mirage. This would impoverish our ability to say true things, though, for with the distinction in hand I can say two potentially true statements (“there is…” and “there seems…”) while without I can only say one. Now, what that one statement is is a good question, for the way ‘seems’ is being used appears to be the way ‘is’ is normally used—after all, the cases of falsification are exactly the same between “there is…” in our current modes of speech and “there seems…” within the reduced language-game (where “there is…” isn’t used).
To review: a reductive semantic relation can be refuted if it can be shown that the target vocabulary to be reduced is needed to use correctly the alternative vocabulary. If so shown, we will see that the alternative vocabulary is parasitic upon the target vocabulary and so the latter not a suitable candidate for reduction. And what we will have shown is that the semantic relation between the two vocabularies is pragmatically mediated. The relationship between saying “seems” and saying “is” is that saying “seems” is mediated by your ability to say “is.”
6. It is beyond my powers to show that what I called evaluative platonism can be so refuted, so the best I can do is suggest the path to be taken. The problem here is that it is beyond my ability to show that the reconstructed versions of platonists that follow Peirce are suggesting a reduction of ‘better’-talk to ‘Best’-talk. That is, roughly, what Plato was after when he set up his divided line between the parasitic world of shadows and the autonomous Realm of Forms, with the Good (i.e., the Best) being most autonomousest of them all (being the sun that produced all the shadows). But we need to acknowledge that Habermas and Putnam need not be suggesting this when they level their criticisms at Rorty for not having a robust enough notion of betterness to make inquiry function right. All they need to say is that ‘better’-talk is intertwined with ‘best’-talk, and Rorty seems to be suggesting that ‘best’-talk can be reduced away without remainder to ‘better’-talk. In other words, the arguments I’ve just elaborated could be the ones used against Rorty to hit back against the Village Champion Argument.
I don’t think this will end up being the case. My suspicion is that the only way to get the robustness criticism to stick is to reconfigure in such a way that one would ipso facto fall within the bounds of the reductive form of platonism. (That was the form of Rorty’s criticism of Putnam’s labeling of him as a relativist: if I am, so are you!) Further, it is also my suspicion that ‘best’-talk is in fact parasitic upon ‘better’-talk, though I cannot see how to refute the idea that ‘better’-talk is also parasitic upon ‘best’-talk. If they are both parasitic, then they are intertwined, neither being autonomous of the other. So the best I can do is suggest that you can’t get rid of ‘better’-talk.
7. For saying something is “the best” is pragmatically mediated by your ability to say what is better. The Best is parasitic on the better because you can’t specify what is best without specifying what is worse. This is the effect of having to answer “how do you know?” by justifying yourself. And since everyone agrees that the ability to justify is parasitic on the selection of a community, ‘best’-talk is as relative as ‘better’-talk, as much as you may wish that your claim about what is the Best transcends the community it is directed at. For it is simply not the case that your claim “X is the best!” is ipso facto better than “X is better than Y.” Perhaps you mean it more, but then by the same token you’re being less cautious and perhaps more dogmatic. But either way, when did caution or dogmatism tell us anything about the truth of the statements? People can have a terrible attitude and still be right.
Say we back up, though, and say that you won’t specify worse things in justifying the Best. We will concede that justification happens in front of communities, but we’ll avoid the implication of relativism by confining ourselves to an interlocking set of self-justifying things (principles, forms, whatever)—in other words, the community the justification is happening in front of is itself (and we just happen to be onlookers). This is the form of those fuller platonisms. If your justification for the Best, however, is another Best, then you generate a regress, for given the form of the Best, I will want to know what it is better than. “You say ‘the best’—the best of what?” What set does the Best reign supreme over? (Itself? Now it seems like a useless phrase.) So an interlocking set of Bests will generate an infinite regress, and so hence the easy, unanswerable skepticism we can apply to any claim about what is the Best. “How do you know that’s the best? Are you able to survey all possible counterclaims and pronounce upon them beforehand?” To say you can is to pronounce yourself Village Champion, and we all know how quickly such hubris can make you look like the Village Idiot.
The only way to stop the regress is to accept the relative justification as sufficient, and this amounts to rejecting platonism and taking “the best” as expressive of “that I know of”—we might call that a transcendental fallibilism. The warrant for this redescription of what “the best” expresses is the pragmatically mediated semantic relation between the best and the better. You can’t do the best without doing better, but you might be able to do better without doing the best.
 Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself, 105
 See, e.g., Putnam’s “Realism with a Human Face” in his collection of that name and Rorty’s response, “Putnam and the Relativist Menace,” in Truth and Progress. Rorty’s reaction in that essay boils down to: “We seem, both to me and to philosophers who find the view of both of us absurd, to be in much the same line of business. But Putnam sees us as doing something quite different, and I do not know why” (59). I suspect Putnam’s long-standing use of Rorty as a punching bag has more to do with Rorty standing too close to Derrida and the events of the 1979 Eastern Division APA meeting than any thesis he’s ever promulgated. That’s my suspicion, at least, though I have no particular evidence for judging Putnam’s attitude in the latter case. (His remarks about the French littering his corpus I consider enough for the former.) The best description I’ve come across of what actually happened at the infamous APA meeting is Neil Gross’s description in Richard Rorty, 216-227.
 “Universality and Truth,” Rorty and His Critics, 5
 The JTB—“justified true belief”—conception of knowledge derives from Plato’s Theaetetus, and most epistemologists have accepted it as the beginning, though not the end, of wisdom in regards to knowledge. For a somewhat embroidered discussion of the relationship of pragmatism to the distinction between truth and justification, see my "Rhetorical Universalism." I say that belief doesn’t play a role in the determination of knowledge because all the belief concept tells you is that it is a claim being held by some person. And if you test that claim by wondering whether a claim being held doesn’t tell you something about its plausibility—like a show of hands, one being better than none—then you need to consider the fact that authority is a structure built into the nature of justification, and so a claim being actually held lending it therefore credence already has the conceptual shape of justification.
 Ibid., 6. Rorty is discussing Habermas’ Between Facts and Norms. Though Robert Brandom, who I will be discussing shortly, tells us the title of Between Saying and Doing comes from an old Italian proverb ("between saying and doing, many a pair of shoes is worn out"), I think there’s a felicitous ratio with Habermas recorded there—for though Habermas considers himself an heir to American pragmatism, the difference between Habermas’ objects and Brandom’s gerunds suggests a greater commitment to the priority of pragmatics over semantics.
 Ibid., 56
 Consequences of Pragmatism, 166
 Ibid., 167
 Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
 Every person tired of an interminable conversation with a deaf and dogged interlocutor knows this to be true, but again, only at the level of practice. By this I mean that when the deaf dog retorts that you’re being dogmatic because you haven’t answered their objections, the rules of open inquiry we’ve venerated (explicitly) at least since the Enlightenment demand that we grant their point. However, only recently might we be able to work out the theoretical entitlement for allowing attitude to trump reason-giving, and the overarching reason is why Brandom says that in pragmatist philosophy of language, semantics must answer to pragmatics. Something of this orientation is elaborated in what follows, but on this particular point, at the beginning of Making It Explicit, Brandom justifies it via Wittgenstein’s regress argument about rules, which is roughly that if every statement needs rules to regulate correct interpretation, and those rules need to be stated, then the rules need to have rules—and then those rules need rules, etc. (see 20-23). What stops this regress from being infinite? Nothing, not at least if you haven’t fixed things so that normative attitude precedes normative rule/reason-giving. The trick here is seeing that we do, obviously, have the power to stop regressing. Platonism, in this area, is a form of intellectualism that says that rules precede attitudes, and thus nothing should stop the regress (except for something rule-like, which is where the idea of self-evident principles comes from). So one way to think about pragmatism is as the orientation that accepts our power to stop the regress as not in itself illegitimate, but rather seeks to investigate when it should and should not be. For example, notice how much leeway is in Rorty’s notion of “justifying our belief to the audience we think relevant”—who determines relevancy? That’s a question that would keep platonists up at night, though pragmatists understand that such relevancy is hashed out in the course of inquiry as people determine their attitudes to various communities. Is every attitude that determines our relationship to a community kosher? No, as every angry parent knows. But what about the black separatist, or black radical demanding reparations? That’s justifiably more complex in America. On that particular complexity, of being African-American in America, still the best negotiations are Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. For Rorty’s interesting discussion of Baldwin and Elijah Muhammad, see 11-13 of Achieving Our Country (whose title comes from Baldwin’s book).
 Brandom elaborates this master argument in “A Kantian Rationalist Pragmatism” in Perspectives on Pragmatism. This particular argument about phenomenalism is the one Sellars forwards in his essay “Phenomenalism,” written around the same time as the more famous attack on the Myth of the Given.
 This was, of course, Rorty’s first famous argument in the philosophy of mind, striking an analogy between talk about the mind and talk about demons. Brandom suggests in “Vocabularies of Pragmatism” (in PP) that that argument hinged on the social pragmatism that he would later become famous for, there isolated on a social practice account of minds.
 If you noticed a wobble in my vocabulary in this last passage, you’re probably smarter than I am. And hopefully the wobble isn’t pernicious. Given the precision with which analytic reductions have been deployed, I technically slid between the semantic relation between what two things mean and an ontological relation between what two things are. Sloppy, I know, but when you work in the analytic idiom—where “how things are” is, because of the linguistic turn, always paraphrased as “talk about how things are”—it’s easy to do. However, the larger philosophical commitment pragmatists like Rorty and Brandom (if not Peirce, James, and Dewey) are in favor of keeping might be thought of as specifying that the category of “ontological relations” be reduced to another idiom, which is in part semantic. (This would take me too far afoot, but they are not committed to reducing everything to language, the linguistic idealism critics keep foisting on Rorty and Brandom. Brandom thinks they are only committed to what he calls “the entanglement thesis,” which in this context I understand to be the entanglement of pragmatic relations of nonlinguistic bodies with semantic relations of linguistic bodies.) For a recent discussion of Rorty's relationship to anti-analytic pragmatists, see "Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism." For a discussion of the relationship of language to experience after Quine and Sellars, see "Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn."
 In Between Saying and Doing, Brandom develops a very sophisticated apparatus for talking about talking. One area of underdeveloped territory he takes on is beginning to talk about the practices necessary or sufficient for deploying a vocabulary and, conversely, the vocabularies necessary or sufficient for deploying a practice. However, while Brandom favors talk of social practices, his aim in the book is to abstract away from that particular commitment, and so he speaks of (social) practices or (individual) abilities.
 BSD 12; this first chapter of his Locke Lectures also appears by itself in Perspectives on Pragmatism, this passage at 169.