Rortyism for Beginners (The Nation)

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Mon Jul 13 11:12:22 PDT 1998

Rortyism for Beginners


TRUTH AND PROGRESS: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3. By Richard Rorty. Cambridge. 355 pp. Paper $18.95. Witnessing the great American philosopher Richard Rorty at his moment of media crossover--the costume change from bookish anchorite to willing soundbite, from Dewey Lite to Clinton adviser on the Zeit--is an instructive experience. Like the lordly male moose one yearns to behold on a Maine back road, Rorty now boasts the characteristic majestic antlers: those appositive phrases in newspaper citations, clauses like "America's most famous academic philosopher" or "the pre-eminent cultural philosopher in the United States today." Part of what makes him ready for prime time, of course, is that he appears, fixed at last in the mass culture's headlights, to be all antlers--a creature entirely crowned by the tags of others. What makes him the awesome figure he is--the command of the deep forest, the nonpareil grasp of the philosophical world--necessarily trails behind as he eyeballs, and is eyeballed by, his new audience. Rorty, it appears, is ready for the close-up American philosophers get--a quick once-over. Thanks to this year's Achieving Our Country (Harvard), the widely reviewed tip of his secular, reformist, anti-epistemological iceberg, he's drawing the usual misreading and distortion from the political right--as if he were William Ginsburg in toga, needing to be shown his place. To Roger Kimball in The American Spectator, America's 66-year-old philosophical maverick is a "happy nihilist" and "the official philosopher of postmodern academic liberals," even though Rorty prominently zapped "postmodernism" last November in the New York Times's "Most Overrated Idea" symposium--he branded it "a word that pretends to stand for an idea," and one "it would be nice to get rid of." According to David Brooks in The Weekly Standard, Rorty predicts in Achieving Our Country that "we are about to become a dictatorship," even though a glance at the text shows that Rorty is extrapolating from Edward Luttwak's suggestion that "fascism may be the American future." To Arnold Beichman in the Washington Times, Rorty seeks "to resuscitate a moribund Marxified radicalism," an odd size-up, given Rorty's statement that "Marxism was not only a catastrophe for all the countries in which Marxists took power, but a disaster for the reformist Left in all the countries in which they did not." The most disingenuous criticism, however, has to be George Will's May 25 Newsweek attack on Rorty's "remarkably bad book." Will charges that Rorty "radiates contempt for the country" and "seems to despise most Americans." Asking, "When was the last time Rorty read a newspaper?" Will declares that Rorty "knows next to nothing" about the "real America." Quite unfair, you might think, to a book that variously touches on the Wagner Act, Stonewall and other non-ivory-tower events. Nowhere does Will advise his Newsweek readers that he's derided by Rorty in Achieving Our Country as one of those "columnists" who base their "know-nothing criticisms of the contemporary American academy" on believing "everything they read in scandalmongering books by Dinesh D'Souza, David Lehman and others. They do not read philosophy, but simply search out titles and sentences to which they can react with indignation." No matter. For those who do read philosophy--and think it behooves critics of the country's most influential philosopher to examine his background beliefs before whacking him--Truth and Progress comes at an apt time. A selection of his philosophical essays from the nineties (along with two earlier pieces), the volume undermines widespread shibboleths about Rorty: that he doesn't argue, that he rejects analytic philosophy, that he thinks philosophy is dead, that he nonetheless celebrates all Continental philosophers from Foucault to Lacan to Derrida, that he doesn't believe in truth. Moreover, the book shows that he's vulnerable to criticism, but hardly on the sloppy grounds advanced by enemies. Helpfully organized into three sections--truth, moral progress and the role of philosophy in human progress--the book enables readers, as Achieving Our Country does not, to trace the full arc of Rorty's beliefs. It permits the media culture now taking stock of Rorty to locate the challenges of his work accurately, to understand the linkage--for there is linkage--between his philosophical beliefs, his intellectual autobiography and his politics. Finally, Truth and Progress exhibits both the dazzle and idiosyncrasy of Rorty's literary style and eristic habits--the sharp insider wit, the hyperactive thumbnailing of other thinkers to hawk fresh images of their thought, the will to eponymy and syncretism, the vote-with-one's-feet reaction to what Imre Lakatos called "degenerate research programs" in philosophy. Both rightists and leftists should agree, though with different looks on their faces, that Truth and Progress offers a liberal education in contemporary philosophy. To understand Rorty's refinements of his views here, consider the most compact version he has given of his own career--the short self-portrait he contributed to the recent Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. In it he describes how in the late seventies he sought to combine insights from analytic philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and W.V.O. Quine "to formulate a generalized criticism of the notion that knowledge was a matter of mental or linguistic representation of reality. This anti-representationalism was the principal thesis of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a book which went on to argue that the end of representationalism meant the end of epistemologically-centered philosophy (though not of philosophy itself)." He describes his second book, Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) as a collection of essays "elaborating on some of the points made there."

Moving on to his next essay collections--Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989); Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (1991); and Essays on Heidegger and Others (1991)--Rorty writes that "I tried to bring together the anti-representationalist doctrines common to James, Dewey, [Donald] Davidson and Wittgenstein with some similar doctrines shared by Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida. The main argument is that once one puts aside foundationalism, representationalism and the sterile quarrels between 'realists' and 'anti-realists,' one comes to see philosophy as continuous with science on one side and with literature on the other. I have also argued that the traditional tasks of moral philosophy should be taken over by literature and political experimentation." "Although frequently accused," Rorty drily sums up, "of raving irrationalism and unconscionable frivolity by the political right, and of insufficient radicalism, as well as premature anti-communism, by the political left, I think of myself as sharing John Dewey's political attitudes and hopes, as well as his pragmatism. In my most recent work, I have been trying to distinguish what is living from what is dead in Dewey's thought." Rorty keeps to his program in Truth and Progress, making clear that the pragmatist conception of truth anchors all else. What American pragmatists from Peirce, Dewey and James to Sellars, Quine and Davidson established, in Rorty's view, is that we understand truth better when we abandon such notions as "the intrinsic nature of reality" and "correspondence to reality" for something like James's famous phrase that "the true is the good in the way of belief." We must, however, understand James to be saying that "we have no criterion of truth other than justification," and that justification will always be relative to audiences. While Rorty accepts (pace his caricaturists) that "true" is semantically "an absolute term," he notes that "its conditions of application will always be relative." For complex reasons whose articulation Rorty credits, as he does much of his epistemological perspective, to Davidson (a magisterial analytic philosopher now retired from Berkeley), Rorty believes pragmatists cannot sensibly attempt "to specify the nature of truth" because its very absoluteness makes it indefinable. In practice, it, like "objectivity," amounts to intersubjective agreement within a particular community. Rorty sees the substitution of "objectivity-as-intersubjectivity" for "objectivity as accurate representation" as "the key pragmatic move." The link between independent reality and thinking is causal, not rational. Rorty's first section of eight essays explores nuances in his views on truth by grappling with those very epistemologists he describes as engaged in "sterile quarrels." The greatest canard about Rorty is that he's intellectually lazy in a way peculiar to so-called relativists. On the contrary, no modern philosopher has read a wider range of both Anglo-American and Continental peers--and commented on them more indefatigably--than Rorty. Whatever one thinks of Rorty's emerging rules of thumb, it's a sociological fact of recent American philosophy that his once-eccentric practice of reading (and urging students to read) both Quine and Heidegger, both Davidson and Foucault, helped to wear down (if not tear down) the Heavy-Meta Curtain that made reading both analytic and Continental philosophy until the seventies as weird as practicing two religions simultaneously. In these essays Rorty takes on the work of Davidson, Crispin Wright (a realist completely at odds with Rorty's views), Hilary Putnam, John Searle, Charles Taylor, Daniel Dennett, Thomas Nagel, Robert Brandom, John McDowell and Michael Williams. He acknowledges that the tone is "dismissive," that his aim is "discouraging further attention" to the topic. Yet sentence by sentence, he argues--that is, he presents complex theoretical considerations, richly footnoted, meant to persuade us to abandon realism. In "Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry?" for instance, Rorty answers no, because pragmatism doesn't permit the notion that we ever get closer to a capital-T truth that trumps all others for all times and communities. But not before he enters the nomenclature of his opponent, Wright, and explores the possibilities. Similarly, in "Hilary Putnam and the Relativist Menace," Rorty painstakingly seeks to identify the differences between their pragmatist positions, and accepts some rebukes. He agrees, for instance, that for pragmatists, "the question should always be 'What use is it?' rather than 'Is it real?'" Throughout the essays, whether he's pondering everyday phrases like "representing accurately" or manipulating such peculiar notions as P.F. Strawson's that facts are "sentence-shaped objects," or training intense attention on the signature phrases favored by lead actors in the realist/anti-realist follies--McDowell's "answerability to the world," Bernard Williams's "how things are anyway," Taylor's "in virtue of the way things are"--Rorty does his homework. Along the way, he also explains the philosophical hats he is and isn't willing to wear (since you ask, he's a naturalist, holist and psychological nominalist, but not a reductivist). And always and ever he elaborates, coloring in his big picture. The pragmatist conception of truth, Rorty admits, should not claim to be "commonsensical," because most people hold on to "realist" and "representationalist" intuitions. Rather, pragmatists must be, like Dewey, reformers "involved in a long-term attempt to change the rhetoric, the common sense, and the self-image of their community." He also airs the Darwinism that structures most of his other beliefs. By Darwinism, Rorty means the view that humans are "animals with special organs and abilities," but those organs and abilities "have no more of a representational relation to the intrinsic nature of things than does the anteater's snout or the bowerbird's skill at weaving." Those who charge Rorty with simplistic relativism might consult this and other parts of Truth and Progress to confirm that he knows the traditional argument that relativism is self-contradictory and easily slips it. He agrees, in fact, with Putnam: "Like Relativism... Realism is an impossible attempt to view the world from Nowhere." Rorty says his "strategy for escaping the self-referential difficulties into which 'the Relativist' keeps getting himself is to move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics to cultural politics, from claims about knowledge and appeals to self-evidence to suggestions about what we should try." It is in such observations that Rorty indicates that big, nonepistemological choices--linkages--follow from the knowledge situation he describes: "Once one gives up the appearance-reality distinction, and the attempt to relate such things as predictive success and diminished cruelty to the intrinsic nature of reality, one has to give separate accounts of progress in science and in morals." Pragmatist accounts, that is, which require that the answers reflect our interests as problem-solving organisms and that the distinctions they utilize make a difference in ordinary practice. Scientific progress becomes "an increased ability to make predictions." Moral progress turns into "becoming like ourselves at our best." Philosophical progress occurs when we "find a way of integrating the worldviews and the moral intuitions we inherited from our ancestors with new scientific theories or new sociopolitical institutions and theories or other novelties." In his second section of essays, on moral progress, Rorty similarly eschews representation for creativity. We should, he suggests, stop asking, "What is our nature?" and ask instead, "What can we make of ourselves?" He rejects foundationalism in human rights as in epistemology. The "question of whether human beings really have the rights enumerated in the Helsinki Declaration," he remarks, "is not worth raising." While strongly supportive of feminism, he wishes certain feminist writers would abandon realist "rhetoric" that suggests women have a "nature" or oppression needs a "theory." Stories, not principles or definitions, lead to moral progress, so "the difference between the moral realist and the moral antirealist seems to pragmatists a difference that makes no practical difference." Instead of theories, we need "sentimental education" of the sort movies, journalism and novels provide, which will expand the set of "people like us." In morality, as elsewhere, we make progress, Rorty insists, by becoming bold narrators and Romantic inventors of better vocabularies. In his final section, Rorty drives home a related point about philosophy. For him, "philosophy makes progress not by becoming more rigorous but by becoming more imaginative." Geniuses like "Frege and Mill, Russell and Heidegger, Dewey and Habermas, Davidson and Derrida" spark this kind of progress, not "underlaborers" like himself, who do the useful "dirty work" of clearing philosophical rubbish and "drum-beating" for new narratives and vocabularies. Geniuses induce "Gestalt-switches," which no method can guarantee. Because "the history of philosophy is the history of Gestalt-switches, not of the painstaking carrying-out of research programs," Rorty denies he has "any views about what form philosophy ought to take." Philosophy should have the freedom we offer, at our most liberal, to art. He concludes that to "give up on the idea that philosophy gets nearer to truth, and to interpret it as Dewey did, is to concede primacy to the imagination over the argumentative intellect, and to genius over professionalism." Which narrative shifts appeal to Rorty? Here, unlike in Achieving Our Country, with its moralizing story of political activism and hope, Rorty does not offer a full-scale vision. But in assessing candidates, he favors Sartre's view that we should "attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheist position." At various points in his essays, Rorty returns to a dark notion that draws his epistemology and ethics together in a surprising way. Throughout history, Rorty believes, man has evinced a "desperate hope for a noncontingent and powerful ally"--God, Reason, Truth, Name Your Poison. In his essay on McDowell, Rorty puts it bluntly: "I agree with Heidegger that there is a straight line between the Cartesian quest for certainty and the Nietzschean will to power." In Rorty's view, our traditional seeking of "authoritative guidance"--from God, Reason, "the fierce father," "a nonhuman authority to whom we owe some sort of respect"--debilitates us as free agents. He opposes the "ambition of transcendence" that Thomas Nagel sees as crucial to philosophy. We should drop all that. Rorty knows that the subtleties of his debates with Nagel and other peers are "as baffling to nonspecialists as are those among theologians who debate transubstantiation or who ask whether it is worse to be reincarnated as a hermaphrodite or as a beast." Yet his larger themes make clear that both the right's objection to Rorty as a wishy-washy, postmodernist believer in nothing and the left's gentler charge that he devalues cultural analysis misconstrue the challenge Rorty poses to all intellectual "stories." His vision of philosophy and art is nakedly Darwinian: Let a thousand narratives bloom, and those that survive will survive (not necessarily the fittest, since there's nothing to fit except differing purposes). What, then, are the most appropriate criticisms of Rorty? Those that hold him to his pragmatist standards, then evaluate his narratives by how well they persuade us. While Rorty's thought is far too complex to permit a comprehensive catalogue of vulnerabilities here, three main angles suggest themselves: stylistic, rhetorical and moral. Rorty is unquestionably the best philosophical writer since Russell, gifted at lacing details and abstractions together with a punch few can rival. Yet his most famous stylistic signature is his runaway eponymy--he's the biggest philosophical namedropper, the most inveterate cartographer, in the history of the field. "Brandom is, in this respect, to Davidson," he writes in his essay on the first thinker, "as McDowell is to Sellars." He begins a sentence in his essay on McDowell, "From a Sellarsian, Davidsonian, Brandomian, or Hegelian viewpoint..." Pedantry? Mastery? Regardless, one only has to ponder the adjective "Rortyan" to fathom that adjectives aimed at capturing entire webs of belief are like webs themselves--full of holes. Can Rorty's narratives, fastened together at so many knots by these eponymous adjectives, win a long-range battle of persuasion? It's doubtful. In another doozy of a sentence, Rorty writes about the imagined conversations of great philosophers across time: "The Fregean, the Kripkean, the Popperian, the Whiteheadian, and the Heidegerrian will each reeducate Plato in a different way before starting to argue with him." Whether anyone will be able to speak Rorty after its head griot passes on remains to be seen. Forensically, Rorty also practices a kind of therapeutic proselytization, a blend of Wittgenstein and Nancy Reagan. His most common argumentative move is to urge the reader to "Just Say No!" to concepts he dislikes. In Truth and Progress Rorty says we should "rid ourselves" of the notion of intelligibility. We should notice that talking about the "real" has been "more trouble than it was worth." We should "dissolve rather than solve the problem of freedom and determinism." We should dump such mental faculties as "thought" and "sensation." We should "just stop trying to write books called A History of Philosophy." We should know that "the time has come to drop the terms 'capitalism' and 'socialism' from the political vocabulary of the Left." And we know from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature what he thinks about Descartes, representation and realism. We should do all this, he adds, in Humean good spirits, to achieve a Wittgensteinian peace. Rorty is, for better or worse, the Rhett Butler of professional American philosophy: a man willing, in the end, to walk away from what's been most important in his life--and discipline--with a fine crusty confidence. The problem is, it's not always clear why others would want to join him in hitting the road. Take realism. For someone hostile to countless old distinctions, Rorty can be awfully binary. In Achieving Our Country he writes that "objectivity is a matter of intersubjective consensus among human beings, not of accurate representation of something nonhuman." Yet most battles about objectivity concern a third category--accurate representation of something human. Recognizing our hand in shaping narrative, we still think some stories more accurate than others. In his zeal to launch a thousand narrative ships, Rorty pays little mind to the journalistic truth that the first step in establishing a new tale may be to discredit the older tale already in place. It's a job he regularly performs--his apostate rendition of modern philosophy as the mirror of nature is a classic--but never overtly honors. On the contrary, he tends to pooh-pooh the enterprise of getting stories right, a possible case of Sartrean self-deception for this fine conceptual reporter (he'd hate to be called a correspondent), who plainly sweats to make his dispatches on other thinkers exact. In Achieving Our Country Rorty asserts that "there is no point in asking whether Lincoln or Whitman or Dewey got America right. Stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity." But if we take Rorty at his word in Truth and Progress--that pragmatism requires imaginative stories that solve problems--then there is a point. It's just not an epistemological point. The point is that we want to know which is better for us. Too often, Rorty lets his fear of epistemological echoes lead him into diction that plays into the hands of those who dub him a relativist. It makes him sound as if he thinks that no one story is better than another, which is the opposite of what he believes. Finally, Rorty scants another problem that arises from his belief in nonfoundational ethics propelled by humanizing stories. He almost never acknowledges that clearheaded pragmatism might mandate the use of absolutist, realist speech in a culture where absolute, realist intuitions persist. The only place in Truth and Progress where Rorty partly concedes this is in "Feminism and Pragmatism," where he writes: "Although practical politics will doubtless often require feminists to speak with the universalist vulgar, they might profit from thinking with the pragmatists." But doesn't that introduce a nonpragmatist form of empty mentalism? Rorty remarks in his final essay that his least favorite thought in Foucault is that "to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system." One might just as well say that to ignore the tenacity of the present system is to insure that one's imagined system will not prevail. For all his vaunting of future imaginative labor, Rorty underestimates how current "objectivist" tales are themselves imaginative, exploitable work. Rorty's lack of interest in this "prudential" form of realism is best explained by the starkest lacuna in his philosophical ecumenicism--the absence of any appreciation for the reviving insights of classical rhetoric, the sensible human persuasion of others without bowing to eternal verities. One would expect greater affection from Rorty toward figures from Protagoras and Isocrates down to Gramsci (who knew that cultural battles matter) and Chaim Perelman, the Belgian philosopher and leader of the Belgian resistance, who abandoned analytic philosophy once he studied how lawyers actually argue cases in real life. Rorty often gives the impression that any attempt to persuade beyond simply standing up and reciting one's story or screening one's film or offering a fresh vocabulary smacks of surrender to old-fashioned realism. It is yet another irony of Rorty's ironism that this steadfast foe of realism is so insistent that people talk a correct meta-language. Other openings in the Rortyan front line suggest themselves--his distinct lack of interest in the role of evil in moral responsibility, for instance, and his deafness to the jurisprudential overtones of "justification" that render it, in the public ear, a more realist notion than he thinks. Truth and Progress, nonetheless, demonstrates that Richard Rorty remains not only the master philosophical expositor of his era but a thinker who has raised (some would say lowered) philosophical historiography to an art form. Early on, Rorty shares an anecdote. "When I was a thrusting young academic philosopher," he recalls, "I heard an admired senior colleague, Stuart Hampshire, describe a starstudded international conference on some vast and pretentious topic." Hampshire, who'd attended, had been asked to sum up the results. "'No trick at all,' Hampshire explained, 'for an old syncretist hack like me.' At that moment, I realized what I wanted to be when I grew up." As it turns out, Rorty overachieved. He long ago won a promotion, like it or not, to syncretic downsizer and designated Gestalt-switch-hitter. Just don't look for those tags in the newspaper articles. Carlin Romano, literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy at Bennington College.

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