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).