Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Introduction to Rorty

The not-so-silent partner in this blog is Richard Rorty. Rorty is the philosopher from whom I've learned most, and all of my philosophical meanderings are infused with his influence. For people who don't know me from moq.org, I can imagine a situation much like Pirsig in ZMM realizing what's going on at the University of Chicago ("In the title of your blog, you've omitted one important name." "Yeah, whose that?" ". . . Rorty . . ." "Oh, I see . . . you didn't know . . ."). So, again very belatedly, I thought I'd offer a brief introduction of some of Rorty's philosophy.

Rorty, in fact, studied at the University of Chicago in the Hutchins School while it was still around. It was there that he studied with Mortimer J. Adler and Richard McKeon (who were mentioned in ZMM, McKeon being the "Chairman"), but also with Leo Strauss, Rudolph Carnap, and Charles Hartshorne. Rorty was most attracted to the classical, history-oriented side of philosophy that occured with McKeon and Hartshorne, but he did learn a bit from Carnap. It is a coincidence of life that he should have studied with three philosophers at Chicago and then at Yale (for his PhD) that so parrallel each other: McKeon and then Robert Brumbaugh, Carnap and then Carl Hempel, Hartshorne and then Paul Weiss. But despite studying with Carnap and Hempel, he came out the other side ill-prepared for work in the linguistic philosophy that had taken over most American philosophy departments. Rorty was well-versed in the history of philosophy, but not in the logic and linguistic tools that, because of emigrees like Carnap and Hempel, had swept from the Vienna Circle. So he spent a few years at Wellesley, and then after being hired by Gregory Vlastos to teach Greek philosophy at Princeton, his first few years at Princeton, the primere philosophy department in the United States, retooling himself as an analytic philosopher, figuring out what everybody was talking about.

The point in this little detour through Rorty's biography is that Rorty never felt totally at home in analytic philosophy and he also had far more historical depth then those who came out of Harvard and Princeton. Through the course of the 60s and 70s, watching the downfall of logical positivism at the hands of Quine and Sellars, Rorty began putting pressure on his collegues in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language, calling into question their most basic premises. And then in the late 70s he wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature which summarized the problems he saw in analytic philosophy both in the short view (by neatly showing the dialectical path of self-destruction in 50s and 60s philosophy) and the long view (how this path is part of a larger path stretching from Plato and Aristotle, though more particularly from Descartes to Kant). His acheivement was to not only dialectically tangle with those various positions that had arisen in the course of mid-20th century philosophy, but to also sketch a historical narrative that attempted to show the recurring folly the mode of logical positivism, and analytic philosophy generally during this period, kept repeating, something they had learned from their predecessors.

The position Rorty found himself in during the 70s was that of pragmatism. He took up its mantle and carried it forward, taking what he took to be advances in philosophy (by, for instance, Donald Davidson and Daniel Dennett) to show more of the same thing, the things James and Dewey were trying to show us. Three very general positions taken by pragmatism (or at least Rorty's version of it) can roughly be summed up by three slogans (culled from the titles of lectures he gave in Germany and France and published in Philosophy and Social Hope): "truth without correspondence", "a world without essence", and "ethics without principle".

If you take Philosophy 101 and you cover theories of truth, they'll usually describe three: the correspodence theory of truth, the coherence theory of truth, and the pragmatist theory of truth. The first says truth is what corresponds correctly to reality, the second that truth is what coheres best with everything else, and the third that truth is what works. None of those theories work (which is why many philosophers joke that adopting pragmatism will only cause you to reject it). The correspodence theory is roughly something we've had since Plato and the other two have been reactions to that default position of philosophical inquiry--that our statements need to cut through the appearances to the reality of a situation. The coherence theory is something that arose with idealists like Royce. It was also forwarded somewhat by Davidson early in his career. The pragmatist theory came about with Peirce, James, and Dewey's responses to Plato. Rorty's aligned himself with all of them through the course of the sixties and seventies, but by 1980 he had seen that what Davidson and the classical pragmatists should be seen as suggesting is not a theory of truth but the idea that "truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about." (CP, xiii)

The basic gist of this position is that if truth is correspondence to reality (a position sometimes called "representationalism"), then we need to have specific, definable criteria for determining when we've correctly connected up to reality. However, all we have as criteria are such pragmatic criteria as corroboration by evidence, coherence with other beliefs, efficiency of explanation, etc. None of these could tell us that we've correctly seen reality because history quite plainly shows us that our beliefs keep changing according to these criteria. Pragmatic criteria are good for justifying a belief, but not for telling us if it is universally and eternally true. Hence, pragmatists suggest that, though truth may be absolute, there's no sense in having a theory about it because all we'll be able to do is justify our beliefs.

What follows from this is the second slogan, "a world without essence". When one renounces the correspondence theory of truth, one also renounces the idea that there is an essence to reality (or any other particulate). The existence of essences are what produced the idea that we should correspond to them. So with the failure of correspondence, we should redescribe our situation without the use of essences. Rorty says that philosophers like James, Nietzsche, Putnam, and Foucault are "trying to shake off the influences of the peculiarly metaphysical dualisms which the Western philosophical tradition inherited from the Greeks: those between essence and accident, substance and property, and appearance and reality. They are trying to replace the world pictures constructed with the aid of these Greek oppositions with a picture of a flux of continually changing relations. One effect of this panrelationalism is that it lets us put aside the distinction between subject and object, between elements in human knowledge contributed by the mind and those contributed by the world, and thereby helps us put aside the correspondence theory of truth." (PSH, 47. This is the same panrelationalism I talked about with Pirsig and Pirsig also begins to show how the Eastern philosophical tradition can help us shrug these dualisms off, connections that Paul Turner has continued to make explicit, particularly here, here, and here.)

What philosophers need to shrug off is representationalism, the idea that knowledge is an accurate representation of the object. Pragmatists suggest redescribing knowledge in terms of power, "that a claim to know X is a claim to be able to do something with or to X, to put X into relation with something else." (PSH, 50) To be able to make this description stick, pragmatists also need to "break down the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic," (ibid.) between an intrinsic, nonrelational property of X (which is what makes it X) and an extrinsic, relational property that can change as much as it wants without affecting X (defined by its intrinsic essence). Pragmatists reject the notion of a nonrelational property on the basis that all attempts to get at this property are going to be ways of relating to it. "Everything that can serve as the term of a relation can be dissolved into another set of relations, and so on forever. There are, so to speak, relations all the way down, all the way up, and all the way out in every direction: you never reach something which is not just one more nexus of relations." (PSH, 53-4)

One of the most important areas that this pragmatism impacts is that of moral philosophy, which is what gives us "ethics without principles." Kant conceived of morality as different in kind from that of mere prudence. Prudence are those habits of action that are merely convenient, that arise in our interactions with others. Morality, however, is an area of intrinsic authority, giving us laws of action that must be obeyed. The attack on essentialism and representationalism, however, leaves us without any sense of being able to find these laws. Pragmatism thus breaks down the distinction between morality and prudence and leaves us with rules of thumb ranging from uncontroversial situations ("trust family more than strangers") to controversial ones ("treat others as you would have them treat you"). Morality ceases to be a law-finding enterprise and reasserts itself in the contingent web of relations that we find ourselves. It ceases to be the reflective exercise of finding a priori guides and strictures to action that Kant conceived of and becomes an exercise that must include history and anthropology and literature, the learning of how other people interact with each other to accumulate the experience and wisdom in dealing with different people in sometimes surprising circumstances. General, arid authoritative structures of action are out and living in the detailed, sloppy mess of life with other people is in.

Pragmatism suggests that we give up the attempt to find philosophical foundations for morality or knowledge. Such attempts at trying to undergird science or our human rights culture simply end in drained out principles that are no more universal than the details of life they were culled from. Life is increasingly complex and we can search for wisdom and guidance. It would make it all a lot easier if there was a book with the Meaning of Life inscribed in its pages that would tell us exactly what to do in which circumstances. This book is what Plato was after, but all the attempts to find it have failed because life keeps changing. Heraclitus was right, reality is flux. But it is exactly this flux and complexity that gives all the color and joy in life. If you knew everything that was going to happen, would life really be worth living, would it really be all that fun? The Platonic flight from complexity to simplicity, from surprise to knowingness, is the philosophical flight from the exorbitant richness of life to the austere metaphysical foundations of life, from the details of one's own life to the cloistered search for ascetic purity away from all the hubbub going on around you. Kierkegaard first made that connection between asceticism and the Greeks and Nietzsche rejected it in favor of effusive self-creation. Likewise, pragmatism rejects all those dualisms which naturally direct our attention towards ascetic purity and suggests that you just get on with life and do what you can and what you may. Asceticism can be useful, but it is no truer or better a life than any other.

Common book acronyms for Rorty

PMN -- Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
CP -- Consequences of Pragmatism
CIS -- Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
ORT -- Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth
EHO -- Essays on Heidegger and Others
AOC -- Acheiving Our Country
TP -- Truth and Progress
PSH -- Philosophy and Social Hope

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