Ethics for Contingent Classifications: Rorty’s Pragmatic Ethics and Postmodern Knowledge Organization


  • Elliott Hauser University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Joseph Tennis University of Washington



There is potential disconnect between a view of classification as historically and culturally contingent and the ethics of KO. For instance, Mai (2011) urges a shift away from the ‘modernity’ of received classification theory, towards a more pluralistic view that acknowledges the social, political, and historical contingency of classification as a practice. While this is a view shared by many, it is not evident how such an approach can support an ethics which prioritizes a commitment to truth, fairness, democracy, and the common good. A view of such values as merely contingent factors in classification activities would seem to undermine their use as ethical ideals, posing a choice between abandoning modernist tendencies and a workable ethics of KO. An ethics that is consonant with core methodological commitments is critical if we seek to preserve both disciplinary rigor and claim to serve the common good. Rorty's thought is presented as an ethics compatible with a view of classification as contingent. His suggestion of an ironic ethics is presented and distinguished from cynicism, which is a common misinterpretation of this aspect of his thought. Finally, his ethical principle of solidarity is shown to be broadly compatible with the traditional values of the field of LIS, while approaching it from a philosophical standpoint that doesn’t demand or encourage the universalizing tendencies which Mai and others have exhorted us to abandon. In short, this paper attempts to preserve the baby of a workable ethics while discarding the bathwater of universalism in knowledge organization.