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).


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