Introduction to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

In his introduction to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty gives an overview of the philosophical tradition to date and then sets out the aims of his book. Philosophy as a discipline, he tells us, ‘sees itself as the attempt to underwrite or debunk claims to knowledge made by science, morality, art, or religion’. Moreover, its central concern has been with a general theory of representation, in which every area of culture is distinguished as representing reality well, badly, or not at all. Philosophy has furnished us with the convictions we need to ‘discover the significance of one’s life’ as it is the area of culture ‘where one touched bottom’. The overall result of this trajectory has been that philosophy has made itself more and more irrelevant to the rest of its culture as it strived to become more “scientific” and “rigorous”.

The heroes of the piece come in the form of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dewey. Common to all three is the distinction between early and later philosophies, with each trying, ‘in his early years, to find a new way of making philosophy “foundational”’. Latterly, all three ‘broke free of the Kantian conception of philosophy as foundational’; the remainder of their time was spend ‘warning’ us against the temptation to see ourselves in the framework of the seventeenth-century notion of knowledge and mind. As such, their later work is ‘therapeutic rather than constructive, edifying rather than systematic, designed to make the reader question his own motives for philosophising rather than to supply him with a new philosophical programme’.

Rorty pushes this spirit of questioning to its radical limit in this book. Following from Wittgenstein’s, Heidegger’s and Dewey’s intuition that the notion of knowledge as accurate representation must be abandoned, Rorty aims ‘to undermine the reader’s confidence in “the mind” as something about which one should have a “philosophical” view, in “knowledge” as something about which there ought to be a “theory” and which has “foundations”, and in “philosophy” as it has been conceived since Kant’. Like his heroes, he has no desire to be constructive, though he admits that the therapy offered is ‘parasitic upon the constructive efforts of the very analytic philosophers whose frame of reference I am trying to put into question’.

That frame of reference revolves around the notion that human inquiry takes place within a framework which can be discovered a priori, and on which such things as “foundations of knowledge” and a “theory of representation” depend for their limit-value. This is the Descartes-Locke-Kant tradition that sees ‘pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements’ as determining ‘most of our philosophical convictions’. And the picture which holds philosophy captive is that of the mind as a ‘great mirror containing various representations…capable of being studied by pure, nonempirical methods’. It is Rorty’s overriding belief that ‘without the notion of the mind as mirror, the notion of knowledge as accuracy of representation would not have suggested itself’.



The Question of Becoming

What is Antirepresentationalism?

Antirepresentationalism, on Rorty’s account, ‘does not view knowledge as a matter of getting reality right, but rather as a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality’ (1). The account is in stark contrast to traditional representationalist theories of knowledge, which aim to show how our statements or representations of phenomena converge at one point thereby giving us an accurate picture of reality. Rorty seeks to pull away from offering an epistemological account of inquiry; in doing so, he also wants to flatten the epistemological differences between areas of inquiry as diverse as ‘theoretical physics and literary criticism’ (1). ‘It is unnecessary,’ he argues’ ‘to draw distinctions between explaining hard phenomena and interpreting soft ones’ (1). This levelling of difference makes way for a ‘sociological’ interpretation, and is part of Rorty’s strategy for rendering traditional distinctions such as objectivity and subjectivity obsolete. For whilst the representationalist believes that “we can select among our beliefs and features of our world picture some that we can reasonably claim to represent the world in a way to the maximum degree independent of our perspective and its peculiarities” (B. Williams quoted on p. 8), the antirepresentationalist argues that there is ‘no sense in which physics is more independent of our human peculiarities than astrology or literary criticism’ (8).

The antirepresentationalist account has come under criticism for its inherent ethnocentrism. Rorty himself admits this when he says that the antirepresentationalist view of inquiry ‘leave one without a skyhook with which to escape from the ethnocentrism produced by acculturation’ (2). The difference between Rorty and the representationalists is that he does not see this as entirely problematic; this is because he seems to have perhaps more faith in contemporary liberal culture, which ‘has found a strategy for avoiding the disadvantage of ethnocentrism’. (2) Liberal culture, Rorty tells us, is a willingness to be open to ‘encounters with other actual and possible cultures, and to make this openness central to its self-image’ (2). Critical to its suspicion of ethnocentrism is liberalism’s commitment to increasing such encounters, rather than on anything like possession of truth: ‘it suits such a [democratic] society to have no views about truth save that it is more likely to be obtained in Milton’s “free and open encounter” of opinions than in any other way’ (1).

Another criticism raised by representationalists is the view that antirepresentationalism is ‘simply transcendental idealism in linguistic disguise…one more version of the Kantian attempt to derive the object’s determinacy and structure from that of the subject’ (3). Just as he will be showing that distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity, realism and antirealism, collapse, so Rorty also urges the importance of showing that neither does thought determine reality, nor does reality determine thought, for ‘ “determinacy” is not what is in question…both of these claims, the antirepresentationalist says, are entirely empty. Both are pseudo-explanations’ (5).

Distinction between Realism and Antirealism

In contemporary debates from the twentieth century onwards, discussion has shifted from talking about the mind-dependence of material reality to questions about whether true statements stand in representational relations to non-linguistic items. This is a result of the linguistic turn. The distinction between realism and antirealism has shifted correspondingly. In one sense, the term antirealism has been used to mean the claim that there is no “fact of the matter” which true statements represent. In another sense, it has been used to mean the claim that no linguistic items can represent non-linguistic items. Rorty explains that ‘in the former sense [antirealism] refers to an issue within the community of representationalists – those philosophers who find it fruitful to think of mind or language as containing representations of reality’, whilst ‘in the latter sense, it refers to antirepresentationalism – to the attempt to eschew discussion of realism by denying that the notion of “representation”, or that of “fact of the matter”, has any useful role in philosophy’ (2).

The realist wants to hold on to the idea that non-linguistic items – material reality – can cause linguistic items to be used in the various ways that they are, both in terms of particular statements and in social practices as a whole. Whilst the antirepresentationalist is prepared to insist on the point that ‘our language, like our bodies, has been shaped by the environment we live in’ (5), she nevertheless denies that it is useful to ‘pick and choose’ among our beliefs to support the conclusion that this linguistic item corresponds to reality in a way that another item does not. Thus, she answers the representationalist sceptic’s fear that our minds or language could be “out of touch” with reality, whilst at the same time suggesting that ‘we throw out the whole cluster of concepts which are used to make us think we understand what “the determinacy of reality” means’ (6). As Rorty argues, this cluster of concepts (such as “fact of the matter”, “bivalence”) is dispensable to the antirepresentationalists because we have no way of figuring out an independent test of accuracy of representation which is ‘distinct from the success which is supposedly explained by this accuracy’ (6).

Whereas the realist holds on to the idea that we can somehow break out of our own language and beliefs to test the accuracy of our statements about reality – to adopt, in Putnam’s words, the “God’s-eye standpoint” – antirealists take this to be an impossible position, for we have no idea what it would be like to take such a standpoint: there is no other way to talk about true statements apart from through other statements. Here, Rorty also follows the lead of the later Wittgenstein in suggesting that we drop the representationalist presuppositions which are shared by both realism and idealism, in other words, those presuppositions that rest on ‘questions which we should have to climb out of our own minds to answer’ (7).

Still, representationalists claim that just because we can never know when we have reached a “complete” or “mature” physical theory is ‘no reason to deprive ourselves of the notion of “being off the mark”’ (6). Indeed, they claim that to think otherwise would be to adopt a “verificationist” standpoint, which is ‘undesirably anthropocentric in the same way in which nineteenth century idealism was undesirably anthropocentric’ (6). In Nagel’s words, to deprive ourselves of such notions as “representation” and “correspondence” would be to stop “trying to climb outside of our own minds, an effort some would regard as insane and that I regard as philosophically fundamental” (Nagel, quoted on p. 7).

Overcoming the Urge towards Transcendence

The attempt to stand outside of our humanity – to “transcend” our local contexts to corroborate a series of general principles once and for all, is a human need that antirepresentationalists think ‘culturally undesirable to exacerbate’ (8). They claim that we can eliminate the urge toward transcendence through a ‘suitable moral education’ (8) that raises people up from humility and obsequiousness to some higher order of reality or transcendent being. This is not to cut ourselves off from reality altogether, as the representationalists would suggest; rather, as Davidson argues, we are in touch with reality in all areas of culture, ‘in a sense of “in touch with” which does not mean “representing reasonably accurately” but simply “caused by and causing”’ (9).

Rorty is keen to assert this point against the representational sceptic, who, as we have seen, wants to criticise the antirepresentationalist as being out of touch with reality. He argues, for instance, that ‘from a Darwinian point of view, there is simply no way to give sense to the idea of our minds or our language as systematically out of phase with what lies beyond our skins’ (12). Moreover, he uses Davidson’s argument that we must assume that the beliefs held by other beings are largely true to support the claim that ‘we shall not take ourselves to have found such a coherent pattern unless we can see these organisms as talking mostly about things to which they stand in real cause-and-effect relations’ (10). This is all part of his principal motive, that is, to show ‘that we can still make admirable sense of our lives even if we cease to have what Nagel calls “an ambition of transcendence”’ (12).

‘Whatever good the ideas of “objectivity” and “transcendence” have done for our culture,’ Rorty writes, ‘can be attained equally well by the idea of a community which strives after both intersubjective agreement and novelty’ (13). That is, our traditional notions no longer help us in our goal of enlarging the freedom and opportunity of open encounters. Traditional notions such as “objectivity” and “transcendence” led to us asking questions about how to get in touch with reality; these questions, the questions that Wittgenstein considered to be no longer relevant, can be replaced with questions about the limits of our community, how we can expand our conversational community to include outsiders who might have new ideas that challenge our own and so on. Once we have completed this turn toward questions of intersubjectivity or solidarity instead of objectivity, we will leave behind metaphysics and epistemology, focusing instead on the political and social: ‘the important question will be about what sort of human being you want to become’ (13).

The Question of Becoming

The question of becoming takes two forms: the first is related to our public self and asks what communities with which we will identify. The second relates to our private self and asks ‘what should I do with my aloneness?’ (13). Becoming is intrinsically linked with our acculturation, and, more specifically, how we can transcend the limits of our culture or ethnos. We cannot do away with acculturation altogether, for it is through acculturation that we are alive to certain options as opposed to options which are trivial or optional. Rather, Rorty tells us, the best chance we have of transcending our acculturation is ‘to be brought up in a culture which prides itself on not being monolithic – on its tolerance for a plurality of subcultures and its willingness to listen to neighbouring cultures’ (14).

Thus, “progress” is not measured by the apparent accuracy of our statements about reality. Rather, our minds ‘gradually [grow] larger and stronger and more interesting by the addition of new options – new candidates for beliefs and desire, phrased in new vocabularies’ (14), in other words, precisely through increased contact with a plethora of other cultures. This is not a revolutionary move, but one that is aimed at reformation (14). Whilst Rorty considers that most of his leftist critics would agree with the brand of antirepresentationalism that he has been advocating, he does not think that they would follow him down the culture of liberalism that he identifies himself with. And yet, he writes, ‘I do not see them as having developed an alternative culture, nor even as having envisaged one’ (15). Rorty locates their desire for revolution in ‘an understandable rage at the very slow extension of hope and freedom to marginal social groups’ (16), but he does not think that this calls for more theory or more philosophy. Rather, he follows Dewey in advocating for a sense of ‘gradual change in human beings’ self image… the change from a sense of their dependence upon something antecedently present to a sense of the utopian possibilities of the future, the growth of their ability to mitigate their finitude by a talent for self-creation’ (17).



Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature: Philosophy without Mirrors (III)

Edification, Relativism, and Objective Truth

Rorty now turns to address the familiar criticism of relativism, which is levelled against the edifying philosophers he is keen to champion. He starts from Sartre’s distinction between thinking of oneself as pour-soi and en-soi to make the point that ‘the cultural role of the edifying philosopher is to help us avoid the self-deception which comes from believing that we now ourselves by knowing a set of objective facts’ (373). He uses the examples of behaviourism, naturalism and physicalism to argues conversely; these are examples he has previously commended as helping us to ‘avoid the self-deception of thinking that we possess a deep, hidden, metaphysically significant nature which makes us “irreducibly” different from inkwells or atoms’ (373).

Philosophers who doubt traditional epistemology are often said to doubt the claim that at most one competing theory can be true; it is hard, however, to find philosophers who actually does question this notion. A coherentist or pragmatist would, rather than arguing for that claim, instead say that the plethora of theories on offer dhows that we should have no grounds for choice among these candidates for “the truth”; the moral to draw is that ‘there are some terms – for example, “the true theory”, “the right thing to do” – which are, intuitively and grammatically, singular, but for which no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given which will pick out a unique referent’ (373). It is down to Plato, Rorty argues, that we try to formulate uniquely individuating conditions for truth, reality or goodness, and moreover, that we see these conditions as having ‘no connection whatever with the practices of justification which obtain among us’ (374). Following Plato presents us with a dilemma: on the one hand, we must seek to find criteria for picking out these unique referents, but on the other hand, our only hints about what might count as criteria are provided by current practice: ‘philosophers thus condemn themselves to a Sisyphean task, for no sooner has an account of a transcendental term been perfected that it is labelled a “naturalistic fallacy”, a confusion between essence and accident’ (374).

Even philosophers who follow the intuition that there is “one right thing to do” as a reason for rejecting “objective values” stop short of taking the impossibility of finding unique conditions for the single true theory of the world as a reason for denying objective physical reality. Yet, Rorty argues, they should, ‘for formally the two notions are on a par’ (374). The standard response is to argue that we are pushed around by reality in a way that we are not by moral values, but, Rorty asks, ‘what does being shoved around have to do with objectivity, accurate representation, or correspondence?’ (375) The issue is that such philosophers have confused ‘contact with reality’ with ‘dealing with reality’, in other words, a confusion between the causal, non-intentional reality and our ways of describing that reality: ‘only by such a confusion can the inability to offer individuating conditions for the one true description of material things be confused with insensitivity to the things’ obdurancy’ (375).

Turning again to Sartre, it is our desire to ‘convert knowledge from something discursive…into something as ineluctable as being shoved about [by reality]’ (375-6) that eradicates the need to take responsibility for choice among competing ideas and words; in obfuscating responsibility, Sartre claims that we turn ourselves into things (entre-en-soi). This desire takes the form of seeing truth as a matter of necessity, which Sartre characterises as ‘the urge to be rid of one’s freedom to erect yet another alternative theory or vocabulary’ (376). As such, edifying philosophers are called “relativist” because they refuse to join in ‘the common human hope that the burden of choice will pass away’ (376). Sartre develops the image of the Mirror of Nature to show how such imagery is always trying to transcend itself; in the process, the mirror disappears altogether since it aims to converge with what is being mirrored. Analogously, the human mind that is indistinguishable from the mirror is the image of God (or a ‘mere machine’ from the negative point of view) in that we would have no need to take an attitude toward what we see, or to choose a description of it. ‘From this point of view,’ Rorty writes, ‘to look for commensuration rather than simply continued conversation…it to attempt to escape from humanity’ (377). Thus, if we abandon the notion that philosophy must show how all possible discourse converges upon consensus would be to abandon the hope ‘of being anything more than merely human’ (377) and to ‘settle back into the “relativism” which assumes that our only useful notions of “true” and “real” and “good” are extrapolations from those practices and beliefs’ (377).

If we view sustaining conversation as a sufficient aim of philosophy, we preserve the notion of human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than simply objects that one could accurately describe. Conversely, to see truth (ultimate commensuration) as the aim of philosophy is to hypostatise the notion of humanity, to generalise the givenness of man’s essence in a single descriptive vocabulary. It is the aim of edifying – and existentialist – philosophy to perform the ‘social function’ in which man is prevented from ‘deluding himself with the notion that he knows himself, or anything else, except under original descriptions’ (379).

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: Philosophy without Mirrors (II)

Systematic Philosophy and Edifying Philosophy

For Rorty, it is only possible to effect the process of edification if we first see ourselves as en-soi, that is, ‘described by those statements which are objectively true in the judgement of our peers’ (365). We must pass through the stages of implicit and then self-conscious conformity to our norms of discourse, before we can hope to put less value on the notion of being in touch with reality: ‘education has to start from acculturation’ (365). Rorty raises this ‘banal’ point as a ‘cautionary complement’ to the existentialist claim that normal participation in normal discourse is but one way of being in the world (365), cautionary in the sense that the ‘possibility of hermeneutics is always parasitic upon the possibility (and perhaps upon the actuality) of epistemology (366). The process of edification cannot proceed without the tools and materials provided by the current culture that we inhabit. For Rorty, to insist on being hermeneutic where an epistemological attitude would do, signals a lack of education. Existentialism is therefore a reactive movement of thought, ‘one which has point only in opposition to the tradition’ (366). Rorty will now move onto develop a contrast between ‘philosophy which centres in epistemology and the sort of philosophy which takes its point of departure from suspicion about the pretences of epistemology’ (366): namely, systematic and edifying philosophies.

It has been the case that in the Western philosophical tradition, one set of practices – that of knowing – has been seen as the paradigm human activity, and so persuasive that the rest of culture should fall into line with the example – possessing true justified beliefs – that it sets. Rorty argues that ‘successive philosophical revolutions within this mainstream have been produced by philosophers excited by new cognitive feats’ (366) from the revival of Aristotle to Carnap’s attempt to overcome metaphysics through logic. Cognitive achievements have led philosophers, scientists and mathematicians alike to attempt to reshape all of inquiry and culture on its model, ‘thereby permitting objectivity and rationality to prevail in areas previously obscured by convention, superstition, and the lack of a proper epistemological understanding of man’s ability to represent nature’ (367).

There are, nevertheless, those who stand on the periphery of the history of modern philosophy; Rorty cites Goethe, Kierkegaard, Santayana, William James, Dewey, the later Wittgenstein, and the later Heidegger as ‘figures of this sort’ (367). Such thinkers often attract the charges of relativism or cynicism as a result of their ‘distrust of the notion that man’s essence is to be a knower of essences’ (367). They are ‘often dubious about progress, and especially about the latest claim that such-and-such a discipline has at last made the nature of human knowledge so clear that reason will now spread throughout the rest of human activity’ (367). They are relativist insofar as they keep the suggestion alive that our current way of describing the world may not be our last, and may not even give us the privileged access to reality that we seem to crave. Rorty contrasts these philosophers – the edifying philosophers – with the systematic philosophers described formerly; it is in fact the whole project of system building about which edifying philosophers are primarily sceptical. The three philosophers Rorty singles out as in our time most clearly demonstrating the type of edifying activity he has in mind are Dewey, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. As well as making it difficult to turn out constructive proposals for philosophy from their writing, these philosophers ‘make fun of the classic picture of man’ (368), in other words, the one that aims at converging on ‘universal commensuration in a final vocabulary’ (368). Moreover, they ‘hammer away at the holistic point that words take their meanings from other words rather than by virtue of their representative character, and the corollary that vocabularies acquire their privileges from the men who use them rather than from their transparency to the real’ (368).

Rorty further distinguishes between two types of revolutionary philosophers. There are those who found new schools within an existing convention of the philosophical tradition and whom see the incommensurability of their vocabulary as a temporary inconvenience derived from their predecessors not going far enough; incommensurability, they believe, will disappear as their vocabularies become institutionalised. On the other hand, there are those philosophers, like the later Wittgenstein and Heidegger, who ‘dread’ (369) the thought that their vocabularies might be overcome by institutionalisation or commensuration with existing traditions. ‘Great systematic philosophers,’ Rorty writes, ‘are constructive and offer arguments. Great edifying philosophers are reactive and offer satires, parodies and aphorisms’ (369). Moreover, they react against the atemporalism that systematic philosophers aim at, to the point that ‘their work loses its point when the period they were reacting against is over’ (369). Whilst systematic philosophers want to put us on the secure path of science, edifying philosophers ‘want to keep space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes case – wonder that there is something new under the sun, something which is not an accurate representation of what was already there, something which (at least for the moment) cannot be explained and can barely be described’ (370).

Though the accusation of one particular tradition not being philosophical has been levelled as a rhetorical gambit ‘whenever cosy professionalism is in danger’ (370), in the case of the edifying philosophers it ‘has a real bite’ (370). For, in attempting to offer simply another set of terms without saying that these terms accurately represent the way things are, the edifying philosopher is ‘violating not just the rules of normal philosophy…but a sort of meta-rule: the rule that one may suggest changing the rules only because one has noticed that the old ones do not fit the subject matter, that they are not adequate to reality, that they impede the solution of the eternal problems’ (370). These sorts of edifying philosophers differ from revolutionary systematic philosophers because they are abnormal at this meta-level. For the former, what they are trying to do is more important than presenting accurate pictures of reality; indeed, they do not think that aiming at accurate representations is the proper way to go about doing philosophy at all. But they nevertheless stop short of saying that it is an inaccurate representation of philosophy.

Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein manage to pull off this awkward position of having a view yet not having a view about views by arguing that not everything we say constitutes an expression of a view about something: ‘we might just be saying something – participating in a conversation rather than contributing to an inquiry’ (371). Speech, on their view, is not just the externalisation of inner representations – it is this very metaphor of mirroring against which they rail. Indeed, they claim that we should drop the notion of correspondence between sentences and the world altogether, and see the term “corresponds to how things are” as ‘an automatic compliment paid to successful normal discourse rather than as a relation to be studied and aspired to throughout the rest of discourse’ (372).

How are we to know when to adopt a ‘tactful attitude’ and when to ‘insist upon someone’s moral obligation to hold a view’ (372)? Rorty claims that we do not know such things ‘by reference to general principles’ (372). Rather, we should view such edifying philosophers as conversational partners, and the practical wisdom that they hold as being necessary to successfully participating in conversation. The edifying philosopher’s love of wisdom thereby attempts to continue the conversation, to stop it degenerating into inquiry and to allow it to be more than simply an exchange of views: ‘edifying philosophers can never end philosophy, but they can help prevent it from attaining the secure path of a science’ (372).


Philosophy & The Mirror of Nature: Philosophy without Mirrors (I)

Hermeneutics and Edification

Having established the priority of hermeneutics in our conception of ourselves and the world, and having dispensed with the term epistemology in the process, Rorty analyses the concept of edification through an exposition of Gadamer’s arguments primarily found in Truth and Method. Gadamer substitutes the notion of Bildung, glossed by Rorty as education or self-formation) for “knowledge” as the goal of thinking. The concept of Bildung points to a picture of self-creation through activities such as reading, talking and writing; it is a ‘dramatic way’ (359) of saying that sentences become true of us by virtue of such activities. These ways of changing ourselves can, furthermore, be classed as “essential”, though Rorty is careful to point out that his definition of essential differs from the traditional metaphysical sense. On the hermeneutical reading, wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein (consciousness of the past which changes us) characterises the attitude in which we are interested in what we can get out of nature and history for our own practical uses, rather than a merely theoretical interest in what is out there in the world. In this attitude, ‘getting the facts right…is merely propadeutic to finding a new and more interesting way of expressing ourselves, and thus of coping with the world’ (359). Thus, Rorty concludes, from this educational perspective, ‘the way things are said is more important than the possession of truths’ (359).

Rorty chooses to use the term “edification” in place of both “education” (‘ a bit too flat) and Bildung (‘a bit too foreign’), ‘to stand for this project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking’ (360). The project of edification can be characterised in a number of ways, whether it is hermeneutic activity oriented toward making connections between our own culture and foreign cultures (one can substitute disciplines for culture as well) through the poetic creation of new aims, words or disciplines; or the reverse of hermeneutic activity, in which we make the familiar unfamiliar. The process of edification is not constructive; rather, it supports abnormal discourse as a means of taking us ‘out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings’ (360).

For Gadamer, there is no tension between the desire for edification and the desire for truth, because the desire for objective knowledge (Truth with a capital ‘T’) is, in the Heideggerian sense, one more human project among others. Sartre takes this one step further and claims that the attempt to gain objective knowledge of the world, and oneself, is a way of abdicating responsibility for choosing one’s project: ‘[the desire for objective knowledge] present a temptation to self-deception insofar as we think that, by knowing which descriptions within a given set of normal discourses apply to us, we thereby know ourselves’ (361). Thus, for Heidegger, Gadamer and Sartre, the desire for objective knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing for it is but another way of seeking to cope with the world; the danger comes when it hinders the process of edification.

The existentialist view of objectivity taken by Gadamer, Heidegger and Sartre can be characterised along the following lines: objectivity is the conformity of norms of justification we find around us. This conformity to norms only because dubious when it overreaches itself, in other words, when we use it to ground our processes of justification. When we ground a practice, we are implying that there is no need for further justification because we have identified a clear and distinct philosophical foundation. For the existentialists and for Rorty, this act of ‘grounding’ is self-deceptive for two reasons. First, it is a circular argument, for how do you ground the ultimate justification on something that is itself unjustifiable? Second, it assumes that the current vocabularies of science, morality etc have a privileged connection with reality, rather than just being further sets of descriptions that may become obsolete for future audiences. Insofar as the existentialists agree with the naturalists that redescription is not a “change of essence”, Rorty argues that this needs to be followed up ‘by abandoning the notion of “essence” altogether (361). The naturalists, however, fall down in trying to show that there is something essential about a particular culture, which leads to all incommensurable vocabularies being branded as ‘“noncognitive” ornamentation’ (362). Thus, Rorty sees the utility of the existentialist’s position as the ability to see various descriptions – be they based on scientific principles or artistic interpretations – as standing on equal footing: ‘the former are not privileged representations in virtue of the fact that (at the moment) there is more consensus in the sciences than in the arts. They are simply among the repertoire of self-descriptions at our disposal’ (362).

The process of education, which is thematic to the existentialist position, is often countered by the positivist attempt to distinguish learning facts from acquiring values. On the positivist point of view, Gadamer merely restates the commonplace idea that ‘even when we know all the objectively true descriptions of ourselves, we still may not know what to do with ourselves’ (363). However, from the existentialist point of view, the trouble with the fact-value distinction is that it conceals the fact that alternative descriptions from those offered by normal inquiry are available to us. Moreover, the positivist position implies that once all the facts are in, there is nothing left but to adopt a noncognitivist attitude, in other words, one that is not rationally discussable. Thus, Rorty argues that such ‘artificial diremptions…tempt us to think of edification as having nothing to do with the rational faculties which are employed in normal discourse’ (364). For Gadamer, Heidegger and Sartre, discovering the facts is just one more project of education among others: ‘all we can do is be hermeneutical about the opposition – trying to show how the odd or paradoxical or offensive things they say hang together with the rest of what they want to say, and how what they say looks when put in our own alternative idiom. This sort of hermeneutics with polemical intent is common to Heidegger’s and Derrida’s attempts to deconstruct the tradition’ (364-5).education-pic

Lescek Kockanowicz – The Choice of Tradition

Koczanowicz explains his choice of focus on Habermas and Rorty as first that they ‘contributed the most to the renaissance of pragmatism’ (56) and second, that they both employ radically different concepts related to pragmatism thus representing two extremes of pragmatic philosophy. Furthermore, whilst Rorty actively describes himself as a pragmatist, Habermas does not, though his attempt to incorporate pragmatism into his own philosophy discloses a powerful interpretation of it.

Habermas seems to hold Mead in special significance with regard to two aspects of his philosophy: the philosophy of language, analysis which leads to the theory of communicative action, and analysis of the constitution of the individual in post-conventional society. In both cases, Habermas employs pragmatism to overcome the ‘aporias’ (56) of the philosophy of consciousness in its classic formulation as well as the ‘marxist reception of Weber’s theory of rationalisation [in which] the rationalisation of society was always thought as a reification of consciousness’ (Habermas).

A key figure against whom Habermas kicks back is Adorno, particularly the latter’s merely negative conception of freedom and community. Habermas draws upon the concept of the ideal speech community as the result of the positive development of these ideas through Mead’s concept of action, thus ‘the idea of an ideal community of communication is thus a defined point of reference in Habermas’ interpretation of Mead’ (57). The ‘utopia’ of the ideal speech community ‘serves to reconstruct an undamaged intersubjectivity that allows both for unconstrained mutual understanding among individuals and for the identities of individuals who come to an unconstrained understanding of themselves’ (Habermas). The community is at once both a community of language and community of action, with logical priority being given to language meaning that action is deducted from language. Habermas’s main objection to Adorno is that ‘he neglects the mechanisms of reaching understanding between individuals and ignores the inner structure of language’ (57).

Habermas identifies three instances of ‘taking the role of the other’ in Mead’s philosophy. The first is the internalisation of some objective meaning of a particular symbol, enabling a shared response with another person to the same object. The second is the learned ability to use a gesture oriented toward meaningful interaction between speaker and hearer. The third, which Habermas claims was undeveloped by Mead, is the construction of rules that enable people to set up unanimous meanings of symbols and gestures. Habermas connects this third instance of taking on the role of another through Wittgenstein’s notion of following a rule, where a rule is seen as allowing for ‘meaningful action and for the correction of action when there is a confusion in mutual understanding’ (57). As Habermas notes, ‘if we explicate Mead’s thesis in the way I have suggested, it can be understood as a genetic explanation of Wittgenstein’s concept of rules – in the first instance, of rules, governing the use of symbols that determine meanings conventionally and thereby secure the sameness of meaning.’ (Habermas).

Habermas’s interpretation of Mead as not providing the concept of forming meanings in the context of action ‘gives a distorted meaning of Mead’s real intentions’ (58). Mead wanted to demonstrate the process of setting up meaning in communication at every level from basic utterances to complex discourse, yet Habermas ‘reduces the achievement of his theory to merely making rules and checking their validity’ (58). Hans Joas has criticised Habermas’s interpretation of Mead, arguing that his limitation of Mead’s concept to an exchange of signals and an interest in the origins of human communication belies an influence from the analytic tradition of the philosophy of language. Furthermore, Joas criticises Habermas’s contention that Mead’s social theory is idealistic, arguing that Mead works on the problem of social integration, which is not communicative in nature and therefore not reducible to communicative action. Joas also argues that Habermas misses out on a distinction within the concept of action itself, namely action directed toward goals outlined in advance and action in which goals are set up in the process of activity. Both Mead and Dewey draw on creative action, for example, to show how this latter type of action need not be necessarily instrumental only. By neglecting this distinction, ‘Habermas tries to show that pragmatic concept of action is a certain version of goal-means paradigm’ (58).

This is all part of his project, it is claimed, of transcendentalism, for example, the assumption that rules given in advance is the most important instance to which behaviour has to adopt ‘enables Habermas to subordinate pragmatism to his own idea of the quadi-transcendental rationality of communicative action: rationality which does not arise out of transcendental rules of monological character but is grounded in the dialogical situation of requirements of any possible discourse’ (59). In terms of the ideal speech community Mead’s idea of communication as a complex process taking various forms and always threatened by error must be ‘cleared on inconsistencies’, which Habermas does by bringing in Wittgenstein’s concept of rule following and by criticising Mead’s idealism. Other instances of his transcendental urge appear in his analysis of the normative and cognitive expression of the individual’s self-consciousness; Habermas’s mistake is to split the two from each other, whereas for Mead both sides of the self seem inseparable and unified, and so to develop a kind of ‘Kantian transcendentalism [which] loses its monological character but…is still language-oriented transcendentalism’ (60).

Habermas’s final use of his interpretation of Mead’s concept leads him to place his work in the tradition of speech-act theory and assumes that basic categories can be derived from pragmatics: ‘He ascribes to Mead the thesis that there are universal assumptions of communicative action which form the historically shaped concepts referring to action, self and the mind-body relation’ (61). In this interpretation, pragmatism appears as a not fully articulated version of transcendental pragmatics. Pragmatists sought to demonstrate the relationship between universal principles of discourse and their historical and cultural forms, however they reconstructed universal principles out of their historical forms, being unfamiliar with contemporary philosophy of language, and understood the ideal speech community to be a useful idealisation rather than a source of conceptual schemes and their ultimate point of reference. This interpretive scheme is used in different domains of language, but in every case pragmatism is considered to be an inspiration that requires reinterpretation through transcendental pragmatics. This process of reinterpretation requires two operations; first, proving that what has been described in sociological categories can be represented in universal principles, and second that these principles can be shown to be deductively derived from the rules of transcendental pragmatics. As Koczanowicz says, using the terminology of transcendental pragmatics, where their own dialogical version of transcendentalism is presented as a quasi-transcendentalism, I would say that successful completion of this procedure allows us to depict pragmatism as proto-quasi-transcendentalism, not conscious of its essence’ (61).

Koczanowicz now turns to look at the interpretation of pragmatism running through Rorty’s work. It is true that Rorty declares himself to be a pragmatist and that many of his ideas can be identified with pragmatism in general. However, a great deal of the pragmatist tradition is outside of Rorty’s interest (he primarily focuses on Dewey, for example); though he uses the phrase ‘we pragmatists’, he rarely refers to classical pragmatism; though it is possible to reconstruct his idea of pragmatism, one can only do this in very general terms; and finally, Rorty consistently reminds his readers that ‘“Pragmatism” is a vague, ambitious, and overworked word’ (Rorty).

The ambiguity he has in mind stems from what he sees as two contradictory tendencies in pragmatism, namely the tendency to link pragmatic philosophy to analytic philosophy, ‘which in turn is a version of standard, academic neo-Kantian philosophy focused on epistemological questions’ (61). Though Rorty very minimally recognises this interpretation’s validity, he is primarily interested in understanding pragmatism as ‘a radical rupture with traditional philosophy’ (62), insofar as there are no longer questions about the nature of truth, the world and knowledge but rather discourses about these concepts, which are fundamentally aware of their own historical and cultural limitations.

Rorty develops three main arguments within this vision of pragmatism. First, pragmatism ‘is simply antiessentialism applied to notions like “truth”, “knowledge”, “language”, “morality” and similar object of philosophical theorising’ (Rorty). Rorty emphasises the non-essential and non-referential character of truth (James’s theory of truth); truth is important in the context of action so there is more to be gained from inquiring about the results of that action rather than whether it accurately represents the world. Second, pragmatism is described as the doctrine in which ‘there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and trutha bout what is, or any metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological differences between morality and science’ (Rorty). Third, ‘there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones – no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of the objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow-inquirers’ (Rorty). It is pragmatism’s job to uncover and reject the illusion that we are able to present ultimate statements about the world and outer reality which can be confronted with reality itself, and to put in its place the notion that knowledge is ‘only of a discursive character, deriving its limitations from the reactions of others involved in the same discourse’. (62).

Rorty’s reading depends upon the introduction of a line of division within the pragmatic tradition between Peirce on the one hand, who merely gave the name to the tradition and inspired James, and Dewey and James on the other, who together embody the ‘spirit of pragmatism’. Further to this Rorty introduces division within the philosophers themselves. We see that Dewey, for example, turns out to be in contradictory relation with himself: he understands philosophy as a critique of culture but continues to strive for a metaphysical system; he does not know whether it is possible to overcome the dualisms through building up a new form of metaphysics or critiquing a certain form of philosophy attached to certain historical and cultural particularities. According to Rorty, this dualism stems from the development of two different philosophies that are influenced by Locke’s naturalism and Hegel’s historicism.

Only one, however, is substantially significant; whilst praising Dewey’s imagination, Rorty concludes that Dewey’s mistake ‘was the notion that criticism of culture has to take the form of redescription of ‘nature’ or ‘experience’ or both’ (Rorty). Dewey’s importance lies nevertheless in having ‘opened up the road to a new understanding of philosophy and its role in culture’ (63) along with Heidegger and Wittgenstein. That is to say, philosophy becomes a ‘voice in the conversation of mankind’ rather than a special type of knowledge with privileged access to reality and to universal statements of eternal truth. In this way, Rorty connects pragmatists like Dewey with the tradition of poststructuralists like Derrida and Foucault; indeed, they are the forerunners of this style of thinking, ‘which gives up any claims to transcendentalism, discovering eternal truths, which wants to respond to the challenges of its times and its culture, and which expresses itself most fully in postmodernism’ (63).

Thus pragmatism has a part to play in current debates, but at the price of a distorted image of the movement, which Rorty himself has admitted. Rorty turned toward pragmatism because he was disappointed with the results achieved by analytic philosophy; the future development of philosophy, he says, ‘will centre on the issue of reform versus description, of philosophy-as-proposal versus philosophy-as-discovery’ (Rorty). Pragmatism allows one to go beyond the limits of analytic philosophy by refiguring truth in the manner that Davidson would later go onto elaborate, namely by holding to the view that there are no relations as ‘being made true’ which ‘holds between beliefs and the world’, the result of which is the antiessentialisit epistemological utopia of replacing explanation with interpretation. Pragmatism also attracted Rorty because of its social concepts particularly its idea of democracy and community; pragmatists, unlike Nietzsche and Heidegger, ‘did not make the mistake of turning against the community which takes the natural sciences as its moral hero – the community of secular intellectuals which came to self-consciousness in the Enlightenment’ (Rorty). That is to say that pragmatism enables Rorty to both defend Western civilisation whilst at the same time denying the metaphysical assumptions that fundamental to it. He also used pragmatism to show that ‘contrary to Lyotard, there exists the possibility of mutual understanding between cultures without relying on the metaphysical principles that must inevitably entail terror’ (64). He nevertheless retains an out and out rejection of the transcendental fallacy.

Pragmatism, on these two extreme readings, is trapped between two utopias: ‘the transcendental utopia of undamaged communication and society based on this principle on the one hand, and on the other, the postmodern utopia of dominating interpretation and society without principles’ (65). Koczanowicz believes that he might have the means of solving this controversy.

The problem with Habermas’s position is that it rests on his interpretation of Mead as a transcendental philosopher; though Mead makes reference to ideas like the ‘universum of discourse’ or ‘mankind point of view’, Koczanowicz believes that Mead ‘derives such principles from the rules of social action understood as a complicated process of exchanges of gestures which functions first at a biological level and in the case of human individuals, becomes socialised’ (65). The act changes in two respects: first, the stage of manipulation comes to dominate, but second the individual disappears in the need to relate to the whole act. This is the foundation of normativity for Mead: goals arise through action rather than being decided in advance. Both Mead and Dewey convince us that ‘there are no given-in-advance goals of communication. They must be set up in the process itself’ (66). Thus the rules involved in communication depend on a specific situation; even reaching understanding between diverse societies requires ‘abandoning the belief that it can be grounded in a set of concepts common to the whole of humankind or governed by a single regulative idea’ (66). As such, success cannot be guaranteed in advance: ‘the only consolation lies in the fact that success is always possible’ (66). Strife is worthwhile, however, because it enables us to achieve a more general perspective: ‘put another way, the measure of social progress is the achievement of more complex perspectives, including partial ones, without approaching closer and closer to any universal principles of rationality’ (66).

On the other side, there is an interpretation of pragmatism at play that relegates it to a minor development in addition to the mainstream of philosophy, one which expresses an American version of life philosophy. Rorty, Koczanowicz claims, ‘in his utopias of society without principles and ultimate community of interpretation seems close to such an interpretation’ (66). Moreover, he is misplaced in heralding pragmatism as a kind of post-Nietzschean philosophy: science for pragmatists was a crucial sphere of reality in which creativity sand social recognition come together.

It would seem, then, that both interpretations of pragmatist philosophy ‘reveal intentions of their authors rather than attempt to report the real content of pragmatism’ (67).

Richard Rorty: Against Epistemology

Epistemology is the attempt to legitimate a philosophical domain, which Rorty believes we can no longer maintain. With the advent of the new science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, philosophy’s role, in terms of access to theoretical knowledge about the world, was displaced. In addition to providing knowledge based on empirical experience and observed fact, new science also carried apparently uncontroversial norms of progress. It thus represented a serious legitimation challenge to the formerly uncontested domain of philosophical reflection. Rorty argues that Cartesian epistemology was tailor-made to meet this challenge, arguing the line that doubts can be raised about any empirical claim whatsoever as well as claiming that doubt cannot be alleviated by experience. Thus, the philosophical domain of epistemology was preserved. In order to get beyond this conception, with its concomitant consequences for knowledge of the world and other people, Rorty believes that we have to break the picture of the mind as a mirror of reality once and for all.

The core of the argument behind representational epistemology is that vocabulary is optional and mutable. Rorty sets out to show that this si not the case. His primary challenge and arguments are against mirroring through an extension of arguments from Sellars, Quine, Kuhn, Wittgenstein and Davidson towards a general critique of the concept of the mind inherited from seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophy. Kant is a specific target for Rorty, for it is through the Kantian picture of concepts and intuitions ‘getting together to produce knowledge’ that the idea of epistemology is confirmed as a specifically philosophical endeavour. If we do not have a distinction between what is contingent and what is necessary then, Rorty claims, ‘we will not know what would count as a “rational reconstruction” of our knowledge. We will not know what epistemology’s goal or method could be’.

The Kantian concept of the mind works on the picture of a mind’s structure producing thoughts or representations through working on empirical content. These representations are judged according to how accurately they mirror reality.

Rorty combines Sellars and Quine in order to challenge the notion that epistemology is at the core of philosophy. He argues that neither philosopher took their own arguments to the logical limit, and so both end up attacking the same distinction: Quine from the position of anti-linguisticism (mental entities are replaced by notions of meaning or structure) and Sellars from the attack on the myth of the given. As Rorty notes, ‘Sellars and Quine invoke the same argument, one which bears equally against the given-versus-nongiven and the necessary-versus-contingent distinctions. The crucial premise of this argumet is that we understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation’.

The upshot of pursuing Sellars and Quine’s arguments is that we see knowledge as a ‘conversation…[a] social practice, rather than an attempt to mirror nature’. Rorty terms this ‘epistemological behaviourism’. In epistemological behaviourism, legitimation of our practices (and claims) is no longer achieved through reference to a set of context-transcendent standards, but through conversation. Relinquishing the limits of knowledge to what is purely conversational marks a point of departure between Rorty and many of his ‘friendly’ critics such as Putnam, McDowell and Dennett, who, would baulk at going so far though approve of Rorty’s historical scepticism towards the context-transcending ambitions of philosophy.

From his claim about the conversational standard of knowledge, Rorty has also drawn the charges of relativism and subjectivism. He defends his position in Truth and Progress, stating that his ‘strategy for escaping the self-referential difficulties into which “the Relativist” keeps getting himself is to move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics into cultural politics, from claims to knowledge and appeals to self-evidence to suggestions about what we should try’.

The difference between epistemological behaviourism and relativism or subjectivism is further demonstrated in light of Rorty’s criticism of the notion of representation. Both relativism and subjectivism are products of the representationalist paradigm. Rorty makes use of Davidson’s criticism of the scheme-content distinction and of the correspondence theory of truth in order to back up his rejection of any philosophical project that upholds distinctions between what is made and what is found, the subjective and the objective, appearance and reality. He does not deny that these distinctions do not have an application, but he maintains that the application is always bound by context and interests; as such, there is nothing useful or interesting to be said about truth in general.

Epistemological behaviourism is also distinct from a strand of idealism that asserts the primacy of language or thought over an unmediated world. This follows from his appropriation of Davdison’s theory of meaning. Conversationalism does not give priority to the subjective or the objective; it is rather the other side of his anti-representationalism, which denies that we are related to the world in anything other than causal terms. There is nothing useful that we can say with respect to the view that the world limits our ways of coping with it.

By attacking the notion that the world constrains rational agents’ thoughts and behaviours, Rorty has raised criticism from those who take the natural sciences as their primary reference point. The first claims that, by denying the chief process of science i.e. the effort to learn the truth of things by allowing ourselves to be constrained in our beliefs about the world, Rorty is denying the very idea of Science. The second, internal, criticism, tries to show that scientists would not be motivated to continue in their work if Rorty’s view of science were to prevail because it would cease to be the useful thing that Rorty thinks that it is.

Rorty’s relationship with natural science is more complex than it sometimes appears. He says, for example, that he tends to view natural science ‘as in the business of controlling and predicting things, and as largely useless for philosophical purposes’ and yet he spends a great deal of time elaborating on an alternative view of intellectual virtue that draws on the virtues embodied in good science. Good science here is not linked to better and better representations, but rather success is predicated on the model of rationality that scientific practice espouses, which leads to democratic exchange of view. In this sense, then, we can see how/why Rorty eschews science as philosophically significant.

Rorty is not denying that there are any uses at all of notions like truth, knowledge or objectivity. His point is that these notions always demonstrate particular features of their varying contexts of application. When we abstract from these contexts, we are left with hypostatisations, which are incapable of providing us with any guide to action at all. Thus, we do not have a concept of objective reality that can be invoked to explain the success of some set of norms of warrant, or to justify some set of standards over another.

The linking of truth with justification is perhaps Rorty’s clearest statement about a theory of truth. As late as 1982, he was still attempting to articulate a view of truth derived from James, namely that true is what is good or useful for us to believe. After this, following Davidson, he rejects all attempts to explicate truth in terms of other concepts. These days, Rorty’s position has evolved again; truth has various important uses, but it does not itself name a goal towards which we can strive, over and above warrant and justification. That is not to say that truth is reducible to warrant, but rather to say that there is nothing deep or substantial that we can say about the concept. We have only semantic explanations for why it is the case that a sentence is true when its truth conditions are satisfied. We have no measure for truth apart from increasing warrant, which for Rorty is a key element of why the concept is so useful. Like goodness, sentences can only ever by analytically certified as true by virtue of its possession of some other property.