Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Map of Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

An Overlong Introduction That Stretches the Limits of Even My Own Vaunted Lack of Brevity

Almost 30 years too late, I’d like to offer something of a review of Rorty’s PMN, which is to say I’d like to summarize Rorty’s epochal book by providing a road map to reading it. When PMN appeared in 1979, it had an immediate effect on its readers. By Rorty’s professional colleagues, it was taken as a betrayal, an abandonment of not only the projects to which Rorty and the professionals had dedicated themselves to, but also of the standards of rigor and merit by which good philosophy should aspire. By readers outside of philosophy departments, particularly in American English departments, it was taken as an exciting dragon slaying, the crushing of dreams that had punished and oppressed disciplines living in Philosophy’s tyrannical shadow. It wasn’t exactly either of these, but there is a kernel of truth in both. Rorty was attacking traditional philosophical projects like foundational epistemology, but the book itself did not display any lack of rigor or merit. Rorty was attacking the pretensions of philosophy’s self-image, a self-image that many philosophers held on to. Kant’s image of philosophy as the queen of the sciences held sway in many quadrants and Rorty sought to dispel that image. The effect, however, isn’t as stunning as all that and to dramatize it as Brutus murdering Caesar is to miss the care and love Rorty has for contemporary philosophy. On the other hand, by attempting to give philosophy a new self-image, people shouldn’t follow the professional philosophers’ love of drama by buying into the “Et tu, Brute?” story and rejoicing in the saving of Rome. Despite their often pretension, philosophy has never had the regal position it wished and Rorty’s aspirations are not that of Beowulf, but that of an underlaborer clearing away some brush.

One of the surprising things at the time of PMN was Rorty’s choice of heroes, his lineup of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey as “the three most important philosophers of our century.” (5) We might not get so excited about that announcement now (“Yeah, of course they are important and of course they have a lot of similarity. Du-uh. We know that.”), but that is only because we are living in the wake of Rorty’s written corpus, who probably did more than any other single person to ensure all three’s entwined legacy. In 1980, analytic philosophers, Rorty’s fellow professors at Princeton, could accept the choice of Wittgenstein, but Heidegger? Most believed that Carnap had successfully and satirically dispensed with him years ago, which isn’t to mention his deplorable behavior before and after World War II. Admirers of Continental philosophy, mainly located in English departments, could understand Heidegger, being Derrida’s precursor, but Wittgenstein? Sure, he was from the Continent, but his first book was perfectly boring (who writes that systematically?) and his second goes on and on obscurely about obscure topics. And Dewey? Dewey hadn’t been in vogue anywhere for at least 30 years, barely kept alive by marginalized philosophers like Sidney Hook, Morton White, and John McDermott. What was the deal?

It turns out that Rorty was performing one of the most impressive rhetorical power plays I have ever seen. For years Rorty had been accruing a very respectable and pronounced position in American philosophy, with important, influential and tightly argued papers in the philosophy of mind and metaphilosophy. He had become so respectable, in fact, that he had been elected the President of the American Philosophical Association in 1978—just in time to drop the bomb of “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism” in 1979 at New York in front of a whole crowd of the most important American philosophers, from Princeton, Harvard, MIT, Yale, all the eastern universities, just as PMN was being released, read, and the indigestion was just beginning to be felt.

Of course, there was nothing suspicious or underhanded about it, like there were back alley orchestrations going on, it was all serendipitous (though as I understand it, Rorty caused a lot of consternation with the analytic establishment that year, not with his book or with the presidential address, but with regular ole’ stupid, peripheral academic politics: he made a ruling against the establishment in favor of the “pluralists,” who felt they were getting the short shrift, because he felt he was being bullied a little too much), and it is not the power play I was referring to. Rather, Rorty used his respectability and authority (as a “philosopher to pay attention to”) to reinvent Wittgenstein and Heidegger for their respectively uncomprehending audiences (“Wait, Wittgenstein/Heidegger is saying the same thing as Heidegger/Wittgenstein?”) and to all but single-handedly resurrect Dewey—but he did it in a book that, contrary to the appearances of the introduction, actually has only a superficial reliance on them.

Rorty is fairly upfront about all this, but it is still nevertheless very interesting to behold. The general tone and underlying message of PMN is designated by his choice of heroes, a sort of synthesis of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (with its therapeutic stance towards philosophical problems), Heidegger’s Being and Time (with its redescription of philosophy into existential terms, what Hook and Dewey saw as a recasting of Experience and Nature in “transcendental German”), and Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty (with its tracing of the history of foundationalism). But while that may be true of its tone and inspiration, PMN’s closer point of departure is a synthesis of Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, Sellars’s “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It might be summed up best as doing for philosophy what Kuhn did for science.

The structure of the book is very important to both its readability and to its argument. The book is at its core dialectical and not, unlike philosophical systems from Descartes to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, deductive. System writing in philosophy has often been taken to be the prime motivation of a philosopher, writing something that says something about everything, that creates a context in which to put everything. A philosopher gets clear about his first principles (whether “clear and distinct ideas,” a single substance of God, or the logical form of language) and then derives the rest of his system from that. This is a bottom-up approach, one that is quite fitting for the foundationalism that is commonly associated with it. Rather than seeing our reasoning as sitting vertically on top of foundations that we should secure, Rorty sees our reasoning as stretching horizontally across time. Rorty does not start with first principles with which to construct a system out of, but is rather led back to root assumptions, the uncovering of which will help us understand the structure of our reasoning. These assumptions have a history and if we understand that history we will understand why we think the way we do.

Rorty’s book, then, is laid out into eight chapters split into three parts, plus an introduction. The introduction does a fine job of laying out precisely what Rorty has in mind to do, who the heroes and villains are and a bird’s eye view of what he shall be arguing in more detail. The first part consists of a treatment of a particular problem in the philosophy of mind: the relation between mind and body. Rorty brings us along step by step, getting us clear about what possible problem there could be, what possible solutions there have been, and why this matters to philosophers and to him.

As he works at dissolving the problem of consciousness, he leads us back to why this is important for philosophers—because epistemology has created it as a problem. As long as philosophers feel motivated by epistemology, they will feel that there is a problem with consciousness. So in the second part, the largest, Rorty moves to a confrontation with epistemology—where did it come from, why is it important, what have we done, what should we do? Rorty uses this chapter to range over issues in epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language, going over all kinds of attempts to milk some sense out of the idea of a “theory of knowledge.”

And finally Rorty works us all the way back to the very idea of philosophy. What is philosophy if it has expunged epistemology? Here Rorty proffers suggestions about how philosophy has viewed itself and how it might now instead view itself. Rorty begins with the idea of the “mind” and by the end of the book shows how the notion of the “mind” has gained its philosophical strength from a number of other interlocking notions that were also in place, notions about representation, language, and systematic methodology. If you only knock one or two out, the others will still come and bring you down.

This dialectical structure is important for PMN because Rorty is working with an antagonistic crowd. Rorty is trying to convince us that we should question some of our most deeply held beliefs by taking us on a tour of how others have questioned a few of these beliefs. By dialectically going back and forth between his intended goals and his current topics, Rorty is able to meet our current objections and pull us further and further into the story, from debates about materialism, to debates about knowing generally, to debates about the enterprise of philosophy itself—showing us doubts about a particular thesis, to doubts about the general confirmation of such theses, to doubts about the very activity of forwarding such theses.

In what remains, I would like to go into more specifics about each of the chapters, what Rorty’s up to and for what purpose, then move to Richard Bernstein’s very sympathetic review of PMN where I hope to reply to some of his criticisms, and then finally offer a map of Rorty’s corpus, how we might understand his evolution as a philosopher and PMN’s place in it.