Philosophy as Literature?

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I just came across this conclusion from Michael Fisher in a collection of essays about Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. As a former literature student, I found it to be quite interesting. How do other people feel about Rorty’s attempt to align philosophy with literature?

Despite Rorty’s considerable interest in literature, he still allows philosophy to decide its fate. Even when literature succeeds in Rorty’s argument – when it presides in triumph over the rest of our culture – literature does not win; philosophy defaults. Literature is less a force in Rorty’s argument than an inert category, represented by a list of titles and names that Rorty’s theory gives him no reason to analyse. Instead of doing constructive work in Rorty’s writings, literature, like a junk yard, just sits there, waiting to claim philosophical texts that cannot achieve what they set out accomplish. Rorty’s point, in short, is not that literature is cognitive, serious, powerful and responsible, but that philosophy (without admitting it) is like literature: imprecise, capricious and methodologically dishevelled. Instead of strengthening literature, Rorty leaves it impotent, which is why, among the consequences of Rorty’s pragmatism, I do not find a convincing rationale for literary study.

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Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Quote

220px-Rorty

It is so much a part of “thinking philosophically” to be impressed with the special character of mathematical truth that it is hard to shake off the grip of the Platonic Principle. If, however, we think of “rational certainty” as a matter of victory in argument rather than of relation to an object known, we shall look toward our interlocutors rather than to our faculties for the explanation of the phenomenon. If we think of our certainty about the Pythagorean Theorem as our confidence, based on experience with arguments on such matters, that nobody will find an objection to the premises from which we infer it, then we shall not seek to explain it by the relation of reason to triangularity. Our certainty will be a matter of conversation between persons, rather than a matter of interaction with nonhuman reality. So we shall not see a difference in kind between “necessary” and “contingent” truths. At most, we shall see differences in degree of ease in objecting to our beliefs. We shall, in short, be where the Sophists were before Plato brought his principle to bear and invented “philosophical thinking”: we shall be looking for an airtight case rather than an unshakeable foundation. We shall be in what Sellars calls “the logical space of reason” rather than that of causal relations to objects.

Rorty on Quietists

Quietists who have no use for the notion of “the world as it is apart from our ways of representing it” will balk at Williamson’s thesis that “what there is determines what there is for us to mean”. But they will also balk at the idealists’ claim that what we mean determines what there is. They want to get beyond realism and idealism by ceasing to contrast a represented world with our ways of representing it. This means giving up on the notion of linguistic representations of the world except insofar as it can be reconstructed within an inferentialist semantics. Such a semantics abjures what Price calls “substantial word-world relations” in favour of descriptions of the interaction of language-using organisms with other such organisms and with their environment. (157)

Rorty, ‘Naturalism and Quietism’ in Philosophy as Cultural Politics

Review of Pragmatism: A Reader

NOVEMBER 1997

Vulgar Rortyism

by Susan Haack

Review of Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand

How quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals.
—Saul Bellow

Perhaps you know the old joke about the soldiers passing a message down the line— first man to second, “send reinforcements, we’re going to advance”; next-to-last man to last, “send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance.” Well, the history of pragmatism is like that—only more so.

C. S. Peirce, working scientist, pioneer of modern logic, and founder of pragmatism, envisaged a reformed, scientific philosophy which would use “the most rational methods it can devise, for finding out the little that can as yet be found out about the universe of mind and matter from those observations which every person can make in every hour of his waking life.” His philosophy was informed by the pragmatic maxim, identifying the meaning of a concept with “the conceivable practical consequences,—that is, the consequences for deliberate, self-controlled conduct,—of the affirmation or denial of the concept.” Peircean pragmatism is “prope-positivism,” but, unlike the narrower positivism of Auguste Comte, “instead of merely jeering at metaphysics, … extracts from it a precious essence.”

Richard Rorty, most influential of contemporary self-styled neo-pragmatists, proposes a revolutionary shift in which the metaphysical and epistemological territory at the traditional center of philosophy is abandoned and not re-occupied; the old preoccupation with method and argument is given up as we acknowledge that “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones”; and philosophy disassociates itself from science and remakes itself as a genre of literature.

Peirce urged that philosophy be undertaken with the “scientific attitude,” from the “Will to Learn,” a genuine desire to discover the truth—which “is SO … whether you or I or anybody thinks it is so or not.” But Rorty tells us he does “not have much use for notions like … ‘objective truth’”; to call a statement true “is just to give it a rhetorical pat on the back.” It would take serious inquiry to discover what is conducive to the interests of society, Peirce points out, declaring himself one of “that class of scalawags who purpose … to look the truth in the face, whether doing so be conducive to the interests of society or not.” But Rorty tells us that pragmatists see philosophy as “in the service of democratic politics.” Peirce wanted to “rescue the good ship Philosophy for the service of Science from the hands of the lawless rovers of the sea of literature.” But Rorty tells us that “philosophy is best seen as a kind of writing.”

Does Louis Menand, editor of the new anthology Pragmatism: A Reader, try to help us understand how this extraordinary transmutation of pragmatism came about, or attempt a sober assessment of the old message and the new?[1] Hardly. His purpose is to promote a Rortyesque neo-pragmatism.

Menand’s “pragmatism” is “an effort to unhitch human beings from what pragmatists regard as a useless structure of bad abstractions”; the idea that “what people believe to be true is just what they think it is good to believe to be true”; that “the whole force of a philosophical account of anything … lies in the advertised [sic] consequences of accepting it”; that “if we do what is right, the metaphysics will take care of themselves.” Rortyism is vulgar pragmatism; this is vulgar Rortyism.

Rorty dismisses Peirce as having merely given pragmatism its name. Menand offers his readers, for all the world as if it were the full authoritative story, a slanted history of a Rortyesque “pragmatism” founded by William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, continued by John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, and gloriously revived by Rorty’sPhilosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

But when James introduced pragmatism to the philosophical world in 1898, he described it as “the principle of Peirce,” first enunciated “at Cambridge, in the early 70’s.” So Menand discounts both Peirce’s and James’s direct testimony: “James was, characteristically, doing a favor for a friend”; Peirce, already largely forgotten in the philosophical world, deceived himself about his own role in hopes of jumping on the pragmatist bandwagon James had set rolling. In fact, Menand assures us, the evidence that there even was a Metaphysical Club in Cambridge—where Peirce claimed he introduced the key ideas of pragmatism —“is thin.”

On the contrary, the evidence is that Peirce’s recollection was quite accurate.[2] Pointless nitpicking, Menand would reply; for “James and Holmes (and … Chauncey Wright and Nicholas St. John Green …) had already formulated what is distinctively pragmatic in their views before 1872. Peirce may have given James the name, but he could not have given him the idea.” Menand has, however, conveniently omitted from his list of “classic pragmatist essays” Peirce’s articles in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy for 1868–9, which Richard J. Bernstein rightly describes as the first articulation of the key anti-foundationalist themes of the pragmatist tradition.

And Menand’s grip on “the idea” of pragmatism is feeble at best. Sometimes he runs pragmatism together with James’s doctrine of the Will to Believe. But both Peirce and Dewey repudiated this doctrine, and James himself, in a letter to Horace Kallen, struggled to distinguish it from pragmatism. Nor, apparently, is Menand aware of the differences between Peirce’s logical, realist conception of pragmatism and James’s more psychological, nominalist conception—nor of James’s uncomprehending and disturbingly uncharitable reaction to Peirce’s 1903 Harvard lectures articulating Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking.

After cutting Peirce out of the pragmatist family portrait, Menand cheerfully caricatures James and Dewey as Rorty’s philosophical ancestors—fudging James’s pluralistic metaphysics into a trendy cultural pluralism, for example, and Dewey’s concept of experience into culture. Who would dream, from Menand’s account, of James’s assurance that “pragmatism has no objection … to … abstractions, so long as … they actually carry you somewhere,” and that “when … we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself”? Who would guess that Dewey, noting how deeply social Peirce’s theory of inquiry was, had described Peirce as “more of a pragmatist than James”?

Yes, but is this a good anthology with an infuriating introduction, you will be asking, or what? In brief, “what.” Surprisingly, Menand includes quite a lot of Peirce—two pages, even, from those 1868–9 papers criticizing the Cartesian philosophy. But his selections are too scrappy to give readers much sense of that remarkable mind. Mead is here, and Hilary Putnam, and the paper of Bernstein’s cited earlier. But there is nothing from Ramsey, C. I. Lewis, White, Quine, Goodman, Rescher—too analytic, perhaps; nothing from Sidney Hook; nothing from Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional/ triadic theory of reading, with its themes from Dewey and Peirce.

Even from the perspective of his own skewed history of pragmatism, Menand doesn’t do a good job. He includes more from Peirce than from Holmes, and nothing from Holmes indicative of anything like Peirce’s philosophical horsepower; nothing from Wright or Green; nothing from F. C. S. Schiller—whom Bertrand Russell described as the “literary protagonist of pragmatism,” and who misread James in some of the same ways as Rorty; nothing from Kallen, Alain Locke or Randolph Bourne, to whom Menand credits the shift from metaphysical to cultural pluralism; a long paper of Rorty’s on Jacques Derrida (where the only connection with classical pragmatism is that James’s name is dropped once, amid scores of others), but nothing from Rorty’s Introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism, nor anything from Rorty after 1983. Nor, despite Rorty’s breezy observation that “it suits my purposes to define pragmatism as the attempt to do something Davidson approves of,” is there anything from Donald Davidson. (And a reader wanting to fill such gaps will not find Menand’s bibliography much help.)

The priority is to make room for “pragmatist” writings from other disciplines: e.g., Richard Poirier reminiscing about “Hum. 6” at Amherst College; Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels urging the impossibility of a theory of literary interpretation; Richard Posner on legal “pragmatism”– including this gem: “If there is no objective truth, … this makes it all the more important to maintain the conditions necessary for the unforced inquiry required to challenge and defeat all those false claims to have found the truth”; Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob seeking “a philosophical grounding compatible with” their advocacy of “the democratic practice of history.” Perhaps this bit of revisionary philosophy of history—quite a come-down from Dewey’s long-winded but sometimes subtle and savvy reflections on democracy earlier in the book—is included by way of justification for Menand’s revisionary history of philosophy.

Presumably, Menand’s selections were made in the spirit of his fulsome admiration for Rorty’s self-transformation from professional philosopher to “intellectual,” no longer relying on a paradigm but on his genius. The fuzziness of Rorty’s contrast of “pragmatism” versus “professional philosophy” serves Menand well. Though the range of Peirce’s thought, as well as its depth, was enormously greater than Rorty’s, and Peirce’s brief career at Johns Hopkins ended in disaster, he can be dismissed—his pragmatism became “quite technical.” Like Rorty, Menand can’t, or won’t, distinguish between necessary, useful technicality, and jargon or pseudo-mathematics substituting for genuine rigor; nor between the laudable goal of broadening philosophy professors’ intellectual horizons beyond the narrow confines of the Journal of Philosophy, and the intoxicating illusion that “I don’t see why we need/how we can have a theory of ——” constitutes a real contribution to our understanding of ——.

The “pragmatism” Menand admires is not only anti-philosophical; it is also, though more covertly, profoundly anti-intellectual. Repudiating the idea that beliefs are objectively true or false, evidence objectively better or worse, Rortyism induces a factitious despair of the possibility of real inquiry of any kind, misprizes the truths that literature can teach us, and undermines the hope of knowing what would truly improve the condition of society.

The cover design—a book, largely destroyed, with “PRAGMATISM” printed on the remains—makes this covert anti-intellectualism clearer than Menand is willing to do. He seems pleased that “pragmatism … suggest[s] that the real work of the world is being done somewhere other than in philosophy departments”; but leaves it conveniently unclear where he thinks that real work is being done—in departments of literature, history, etc.? in the pages of the TLSThe New York Review of Books, and such? in the real world?

Rorty, in Menand’s judgment, “is a far more exciting writer than Dewey, and his work has served for many people as a model for the kind of wide-ranging engagement with art, ideas, and public affairs that pragmatism might make possible.” Perhaps unaware of Mussolini’s enthusiasm for a “pragmatism” subordinating intellectual life to politics, Menand seems to take for granted that such engagement would inevitably be benign.

And, while his biographical notes on Dewey mention Dewey’s work with Jane Addams’s settlement house, in the founding of the ACLU, on the commission to investigate Stalin’s charges against Trotsky, his notes on Rorty mention only academic books and honors; as do his notes on Cornel West, who, however, tells us that “prophetic pragmatists” like himself are different from those “traditional intellectuals … comfortably nested in the academy.” The effect—presumably unintended, and for all I know quite unfair—will surely be to put some readers in mind of James’s shrewd words about the “nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.”

But I’m not worried about those readers, the ones with the discernment and determination to winnow out the good stuff from the rest. Though hoping against hope that Peirce was wrong that “in the matter of ideas the public prefer the cheap and nasty,” I worry about the readers, especially the students, who will naïvely suppose that Menand has fairly represented what is worthwhile in the tradition of classical pragmatism—and conclude that that tradition is worthless, or, even worse, that vulgar Rortyism is what we should learn from it. It’s a shame.

Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind

Mike Fuller discusses the liberalism of Richard Rorty.

I have to admit that I find Richard Rorty one of the most interesting contemporary thinkers. I like his easygoing, conversational style (although as Norman Geras observes it can sometimes lead Rorty into being evasive and fudging over some key issues). I admire him for being one of the few contemporary philosophers with the ambition – and also the talent and the scholarship – to force a dialogue between Analytic and Continental philosophy. Perhaps most important of all, I find, provisionally at least, his epistemological conclusions immaculate, although hispragmatic arguments for a thoroughgoing naturalist metaphysic (his so-called ‘non-reductive physicalism’) I can’t help regarding as a temperamental bias (and one very at odds with William James’s pragmatic arguments in the other direction inThe Varieties of Religious Experience).

Rorty’s explorations of the post-Kantian era in both Analytic and Continental philosophy are exceptional, whether he is following Immanuel Kant’s legacy through the Anglo- American philosophers James, Peirce, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Quine and Davidson, or whether he is following it through the Continental route of Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Habermas, Derrida. Rorty’s conclusions, which are summed up in his oftquoted slogan that it is systematically impossible to decide at what point humanly ‘making’ the truth ends and objectively ‘finding’ the truth begins, are compelling.

Geras, correctly it seems, says that all Rorty’s views (for instance, about human nature or about his ‘ungroundable liberalism’) follow logically from this basic scepticism about distinguishing ‘making’ from ‘finding’.

Rorty frequently names Donald Davidson as the inspiration behind this, saying that Davidson’s arguments against the ‘scheme/content distinction’ (and so against the tenability of either realism or relativism) lay to rest a third Dogma of Empiricism – so completing Quine’s earlier attack on the two other Dogmas of Empiricism: the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements (and so between necessary and contingent truth) and the tendency to reduce wholes to their constituent parts as the ultimate buildingblocks of knowledge. Quine argues, against this view, that it is whole, coherent bodies of knowledge, rather than isolated terms or propositions, that ‘face the tribunal of reality.’

It is easy to see that Rorty could – and does – equally use the ideas of Continental thinkers to underpin his ‘making/finding’ scepticism, as he could – and does – utilise their ‘attack on binary oppositions’. This is as old as Hegel’s dialectic, and as new as Derrida’s deconstruction, and culminates in casting doubt on whether there is any clear distinction between nature and culture.

To get down to more specific cases, Geras accuses Rorty of being evasive when he comes out with provocative statements like “there is no such thing as human nature.” Geras argues that Rorty means different things at different times by this assertion, some of which are obviously false and some of which are not false, but are innocuous and quite compatible with grounding universal human rights in a foundation of shared human nature (such as is to be found, for instance, in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Geras says: “That there is no human nature may appear to mean that [1] there are no commonly shared traits among human beings; or [2] it may appear to mean that there are none which are distinctively human; or it may [3] appear to mean that there are none which are of universal moral import. Sustainable in the end is something rather more modest: like [4] that all people do not aspire, and nor should they, to one very narrowly specified kind of goal, activity, or character.” (pp.140-141).

Geras further argues that he is happy to grant Rorty meaning [4], but that this is quite compatible with some minimal notion of human nature in terms of shared traits and needs. Geras argues that meanings [1], [2], and [3] are false – and further points out that Rorty, while maintaining each of these theses at some point in his writings, contradicts them at other points. Rorty says in one place that there are no traits that humans share that they do not also share with animals, only to write elsewhere that all human beings share the ability to be humiliated, an ability which other animals do not appear to possess.

While I agree with Geras that Rorty is evasive about what he means by ‘There is no human nature’ (and that, when he does spell out what he means in the above four senses, he can seem to contradict himself), I still wonder if it is possible to offer a coherent defence of the three theses about human nature which Geras seems to regard as false. Although I have never been entirely happy with Rorty’s apparent airy dismissals of human nature, it seems that the three theses can be made to convincingly chime with each other and with Rorty’s general epistemological position. That position is that there are no neutral facts (about human nature or anything else) that do not come ‘under a description’, and that the vocabulary which offers the description can never be justified as true in a neutral way but can only be justified as true in a circular way from within. THESIS 3 ‘There are no commonly shared traits among human being which are of universal moral import’.

This is not obviously false. Even if one grants that there are common traits and needs based on those traits, it does not follow with any necessity that those needs should be respected. If pushed, Saddam Hussein might grant that Kurds have the same needs as himself, but fail to agree that he should respect them. Similarly, many people would no doubt agree that Rwandans have the same needs as they do, but nevertheless declare that Rwandans’ needs are not their problem. In short, needs based on common human traits only carry ‘universal moral import’ – only become rights – within a particular metaphysical and moral vocabulary. THESIS 2 ‘There are no common traits that are distinctively human’.

One might argue that this is true for those who employ a naturalistic, biological, evolutionary vocabulary, and who would claim that what appear to be distinctively human traits – like language or humour – can be found in germ in many animals. On the other hand, this thesis is false for Christians, Kantians, and Aristotelians, whose vocabulary insists that humans have certain distinctive traits – a soul, a ‘moral personality’, rationality, and so forth.

In short, could it be argued that the truth or falsity of the description will finally depend on the vocabulary adopted? THESIS 1 ‘There are no commonly shared traits among human beings’.

Of all Rorty’s ideas, this is the one with which I have felt most uncomfortable. It seems to me that it is hard to get around Hume’s position that all human creatures, by dint of their biological make-up, must share common traits and needs. Any vocabulary would have to concede that all human beings need food in order to survive and will freeze to death without shelter in extreme cold. Of course these may be traits which do not carry ‘universal moral import’ outside of certain kinds of metaphysical and moral vocabularies and may be traits that humans share with other animals.

It could be that I am being parochial in regarding as obvious common-sense fact that which is really the product of our modern biological vocabulary, and it is this vocabulary which makes the description seem so compelling. By analogy, moderns are amazed that Cartesian-inspired vivisectionists could seriously believe that an animal howling with pain was not really feeling anything because it had no soul and so was no more capable of feeling pain than a machine or a vegetable.

Perhaps the assertion that all human beings share common traits could be claimed to be a function of ‘the vocabulary in which the description is offered’. It is, after all, logically possible to conceive of a vocabulary which produces descriptions solely consistent with there being no commonly shared traits among human beings.

We can push this point even further. History offers us many examples of groups who held views like the following: “The poor (or the lower orders, or the dusky races, or the Jews) are less intelligent and sensitive than us and do not feel pain as much as or in the same way that we do.”

Rorty would consistently hold that there is no neutral way to dissuade Nazis from their beliefs that Jews are irredeemably different and perhaps not fully human. If they resist what liberals regard as rational argument and empirical evidence (or, better put, if they reinterpret the evidence in the light of their own standards of rationality), then the only remaining options are either to ignore them, bribe them, or dissuade them by force.

The fact that there are and have been many such groups who believe that the poor, the lower orders, the blacks, etc., are irredeemably ‘different’ is evidence that there are many who deny common traits. As, on Rorty’s basic premisses, belief and fact (scheme and content) cannot be clearly separated, this provides justification for the claim ‘There are no common traits in human nature’ that we can conclusively prove in a neutral way.

Presumably Rorty’s own liberal beliefsystem (with its emphasis on Freedom, Equality, and Rights) does not allow him to subscribe to the ‘no common traits’ sort of view. He, as a member of the liberal community, while believing that all humans do share common traits and needs fundamentally (i.e., the poor, blacks, and Jews feel as much pain and humiliation as the rich, whites, and Aryans) still has no neutral way to persuade those who do not subscribe to liberal views. All he can do is to offer them the carrot or the stick (i.e., “Try being a liberal and see how much nicer the world is” or “As far as we liberals are concerned, you’ve overstepped the mark and deserve a good slapping”).

Geras proceeds to his most central attack on Rorty’s ‘ungroundable liberalism’ in the last chapter of the book. He holds that, although Rorty may be congenial enough as a personality and may even share some similar values with a Marxist like himself,nevertheless Rorty cannot serve humanity well because by denying any universal dimensions to human nature, truth, and justice, he must systematically be committed to a position where ‘anything goes’

Geras attributes, rightly, I think, to Rorty the view that you cannot justify the vocabulary and values of liberalism (or Marxism, or anything else) in a non-circular way. There is no neutral ground on which to stand.

Geras answers:

“An alternative line of thought is that vocabularies and language-games are commensurable. I hope so … If there is no truth, there is no injustice. Morally and politically, anything goes. There are appaling language-games always in preparation, now as much as ever. They will be ‘played’ by those looking for the chances of it in deadly earnest. It remains to be shown that, amongst our defences against them, we have anything better than the concepts of a common humanity, of universal rights, and of reasoning together to try to discover how things are, in order to minimise avoidable suffering and injustice.” (p.143).

I don’t think this does full justice to Rorty’s position. Rorty believes that while different metaphysical, moral, and political vocabularies are theoretically incommensurable (incapable of non-circular justification), nevertheless it is a contingent possibility that they may be pragmatically commensurable.
He holds something like this:

‘We liberals like our way of doing things and think it is the best way of doing things. We would urge you to try it. But, if we are to be intellectually honest, we have no right to urge you to become liberals because liberalism is God’s way of doing things (the religious justification) or Nature’s way or Reason’s way (the Enlightenment justification) or ‘History’s inevitable lesson’ (the Hegelian/Marxist sort of justification). All such justifications are ideological armlocks, so many ways of trying to bully dissenters and make oneself feel good by unprovable appeals to impartial non-human authorities. They are rhetorical devices.

The only honest justification is this: liberalism is perhaps pragmatically the best way to rub along with others, due to its central belief in tolerance. As such, it may be the best hope for the the human race, especially in a nuclear age. It is capable of learning from other views and so developing itself and them in the ‘ongoing conversation of humankind’.

However, if you infringe on our liberal community, or if you do things that outrageously flout our beliefs, we may have to fight you, if all diplomacy and haggling fail (and even though we cannot justify our cause in any absolute way, since there is no neutral place to stand theoretically). We urge you, for pragmatic reasons, to join our experiment in Liberty, Equality, Democracy, Human Rights, and Tolerance. See for yourself if it is satisfactory.’

To which it has to be added that a number of people, from Islamic fundamentalists to Marxists, looking at some of the actual manifestations of the ‘liberal experiment’, are going to reply: “No. It isn’t satisfactory.”

Nevertheless, Rorty’s achievement remains that of showing how, and to what extent, talk of human rights still makes sense even after the ‘crisis of Enlightenment’ and subsequent hard to get around doubts aboutproving anything as universally true. Geras’s achievement in this book remains that of showing how Rorty could spell out some of his complex arguments rather more clearly for his readers.

From Epistemology to Hermeneutics (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature)

Hermeneutics is what follows from the demise of epistemology; it is the ‘expression of hope’ that the space left by its demise will not be filled and that our culture ‘should become one in which the demand for constraint and confrontation is no longer felt’ (315). Whilst epistemology proceeds on the assumption that all contributions in any given discourse are commensurable, hermeneutics struggles against commensurability. By commensurable, Rorty means ‘able to be brought under a set of rules which will tell us how rational agreement can be reached on what would settle the issue on every point where statements seem to conflict’ (316), in other words, the construction of an ideal situation. Outstanding disagreements are characterised as “noncognitive”, temporarily unsolved but ultimately to be resolved by doing something further.
Thus, in epistemology, to be rational is to be able to find agreement with other human beings and ‘to construct an epistemology is to find the maximum amount of common ground with others. The assumption that such an epistemology can be constructed is the assumption that such common ground exists’ (316). As such, the suggestion that there is no common ground seems to threaten rationality itself, a license for ‘everyone to construct his own little whole – his own little paradigm, his own little practice, his own little language-game – and then crawl into it’ (317). And if there are as many wholes as there are individuals, how are we to adjudicate in the war of all against all? To this question, philosophy steps up in two different guises, namely as the ‘informed dilettante, the polypragmatic, Socratic intermediary between various discourses’ and ‘the cultural overseer who knows everyone’s common ground – the Platonic philospher-king who knows what everybody else is really doing whether they know it or not, because he knows about the ultimate context’ (317).
The holist line of argument attracts the charge of circularity because is maintains that we are never able to avoid the “hermeneutic circle”, that is, we are never able to understand the parts of a foreign culture, practice, theory or language unless we know something about the whole, but we cannot grasp how the whole works until we understand something of its parts (319). Knowledge acquisition comes through conversation with other people, revisability is at its core, rather than a fit between a statement and some non-linguistic piece of reality. Coherentism, trust between conversational partners, is key to ensuring that the conversation is able to continue for if there is no consensus between what constitutes a true statement from the outset then each person will continue to simply search for what fits with their own structure of beliefs.
Rather than viewing disagreements – incommensurability – as evidence of the “noncognitive”, we would do better to follow epistemological behaviourism and construe the distinction as merely that between “normal” and “abnormal” discourse. “Normal” discourse is conducted within ‘an agreed-upon set of conventions about what counts as a relevant contribution, what counts as answering a question, what counts as having a good argument for that answer or a good criticism of it’ (320), whilst “abnormal” discourse occurs “when someone joins in the discourse who is ignorant of these conventions or who sets them aside” (320). Thus, Rorty claims that the difference between epistemology and hermeneutics is one of ‘familiarity’ rather than a matter of difference between fact and value: ‘We will be epistemological where we understand perfectly well what is happening but want to codify it in order to extend, or strengthen, or teach, or “ground” it. We must be hermeneutical where we do not understand what is happening but are honest enough to admit it, rather than being blatantly “Whiggish” about it’ (321). We can get rid of the notion of “data and interpretation” by being behaviourist in epistemology rather than by being idealist for ‘hermeneutics does not need a new epistemological paradigm, any more than liberal political thought requires a new paradigm of sovereignty. Hermeneutics, rather, is what we get when we are no longer epistemological’ (325).
Rhetoric about the importance of the distinction between science and religion, science and politics, science and art, science as philosophy and so on, ‘has formed the culture of Europe’ over the past three hundred years (331). Slavish adherence to ‘shopworn mirror-metaphors’ (333) does us no good in keeping alive the value of for instance Galileo’s scientific discoveries; this picture is the cause of our viewing notions like “rationality” as floating free from their educational or institutional contexts. Instead, ‘we can just say that Galileo was creating the notion of “scientific values” as he went along…the question of whether he was “rational” in doing so is out of place’ (331).
There are two meanings of objective at play in this traditional image, the first characterising the view which would be agreed upon as a result of argument ‘undeflected by irrelevant considerations’ and the second as representing the way that things really are. Plato sees the question of objectivity as: “in what sense is Goodness out there waiting to be represented accurately as a result of rational argument on moral questions”. The idealists and pragmatists see the question of objectivity as: “In just what sense were there physical features of reality capable of being represented accurately only by differential equations, or tensors, before people thought of so representing them”. The problem that metaphysics, as the attempt to find out what one can be objective about, comes up against is one of showing the similarities or otherwise of topics as disparate as morality, mathematics, and language. Moreover, it is unclear what would even count as a satisfactory argument within metaphysics.
Under hermeneutics, ‘the application of such honorific’s as “objective” and “cognitive” is never anything more than an expression of the presence of, or the hope for, agreement among inquirers’ (335). It is not another way of knowing, as understanding rather than explanation, but a way of coping. It enables us to give the notion of “cognitive” to predictive science and to stop worrying about the “noncognitive”. Finally, it makes the fight over the notion of knowledge itself seem quite quaint to the Kantian tradition of philosophy as a theory of knowledge and the Platonic tradition which sees action not based on knowledge of the truth of propositions as “irrational” (356).

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’.

beautiful-mirror-of-nature