Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rorty's Myopia

I've read numbers of reviews of Rorty's work over the years and I've never been very satisfied by them. Maybe that shouldn't be very surprising. One of the things that is given often is the accusation that Rorty's a little myopic. This happens most often in reference to Rorty's take on the history of philosophy and on political philosophy. For a long time I've thought that comment to be unfair: Rorty delineates what he's going to talk about, and the range of material he feel's comfortable in being authoritative over, so it seems unfair to demand that every person do everything--doesn't it?

The first type, philosophers who think that philosophy-as-epistemology is too narrow a view of philosophy, is given good voice by Susan Neiman. But there are many others. The trouble with this critique is that is true but unavoidable. Philosophy is the kind of thing that you have to delimit the area you are working in. All things are like that, but philosophy is so amorphous that in no other subject can so many things fit under its mantle comfortably and not connect up to each other. For this very reason Rorty has been shunning the idea that he's an "end of philosophy" philosopher. He intimates such things every so often, but the reason latent in his writings (sometimes quite explicitly) is that he's talking about philosophy that looks to epistemology first. That is the kind of philosophy he's deconstructing. So philosophers who take other kinds of philosophy as primary, and criticize Rorty for missing them, are cutting him at cross-purposes. It's why we see on the backs of the best of these books (like Neiman and Toulmin's) Rorty's praise.

The second type, philosophers and others who that Rorty's political philosophy is too narrow or shallow, is given good voice by people like Richard Bernstein. Like the first, I think it's true, but it again cuts Rorty at cross-purposes. Rorty's political philosophy is very general and rarified and I don't think it cuts us off from anything more we would like to see done in political and social criticism, so-called criticisms of Rorty (and pragmatism) being not radical enough or in favor of the status quo.

In thinking about these kinds of critiques and how I view them is when I realized that thinking that Rorty is mypoic is the exact response he is looking for. When we look at the way Rorty is suggesting that we change the conversation, the response that Rorty isn't talking about the things he should be by his own lights tips us off to the idea that--if that's the only response you have--his work has done its magic. Rorty wants us to shift our attention to the construction of different narratives of philosophy, narratives he doesn't always offer us. Rorty wants us to concentrate on the more concrete in political and moral philosophy. Rorty's myopia is only a bad thing if one also thinks that a philosopher, or any other person, must do everything. Rorty has suggested that what he does is more like what Locke conceived of philosophy, as an underlaborer clearing away conceptual debris. After the debris is cleared, one is opened to the construction of better responses to problems, problems that will be different than the ones engendered by the epistemological debris.

If one is bored by Rorty or thinks he doesn't go far enough, that is not a bad response to have. It means that whatever in Rorty or pragmatism that one might have learned has already been internalized. Rorty wants to induce boredom in the problems he deconstructs so people will move on to other things. Rorty's simple dichotomies are there to be rejected because a good rejection of them will mean that one has evacuated the area in which Rorty was occupying, at which point there's nothing to criticize Rorty for because you've done what Rorty wanted. The only point of criticism is to say that Rorty should move on, too. That Rorty's effectively worked himself out of job, so why doesn't he get a new job? But that might only prove strong if there weren't still people who ended up on the wrong side of Rorty's simple dichotomies, the same people the person bored by Rorty would still need to fight. It's like Rorty's got the backs of all those wanting to do something other than epistemological philosophy, defending their right to do it, and in fact commending them for it.

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