Friday, January 01, 2010

Rorty and the Need to Tweak

The link between Rorty and non-dual mysticism – the Tao, Buddhist emptiness, Advaita Vedanta, negative theology - is that he’s continually trying to convince us that there is nothing to hold onto. There’s no It. No way in which It really is. No essence. That our words, vocabularies, concepts, or the assumption we have about them, keeps fooling us into thinking we can grasp how things are if we get our words to work, our understandings to cohere.

But, according to him, it’s also not the case that we know for sure that there is no essential nature to things. That would be another metaphysic. He wants us to leave off the search, stop asking the bad philosophical questions. But how to let go?

Rorty is the only philosopher I’ve kept reading over the years and yet he keeps doing the same thing just in different ways. As he said, nowadays he’s just “tweaking” what he’s already written. I keep reading him because I can’t let go of the dream. The dream of finding The Answer, the final resting place, where one doesn’t have to search anymore. Wittgenstein said the goal of philosophizing is to be able to stop philosophizing when you want to. I both believe Rorty that one must let that quest go and, since I keep reading him, obviously don’t believe it. To choose his view and say that’s the way it is is to contradict oneself because you choose to rest and feel sure that there is no surety. To do the opposite and cling to a fundamental understanding and say there is a Way, an Answer, The Truth, is to cling to an ideal that you cannot prove and so believe in that which you cannot show and so, as a rationalist, contradict yourself. The contradiction at the limits of thought.


Zetetic_chick said...

But, according to him, it’s also not the case that we know for sure that there is no essential nature to things

Hi Jeff,

You could be interested in philosopher David Oderberg's book "Real Essentialism"

I've been reading this book on December (I haven't finish it) and it is not an easy read; but it's worth reading.

With great erudition and logical rigour, he defends the existence of essences (in the Aristotelian sense) and engage critically with contemporary literature on analytical philosophy.

Another aristotelian thomistic philosopher, Edward Feser, published the book "Aquinas", which is an introduction to Aquinas' thinking, and especially a defense of the Thomistic worldview from the modern and contemporary objections.

I was educated as a catholic, but I became agnostic when I was 15 o 16 until the present.

But Feser and Oderberg's arguments have made me to reconsider many of my anti-catholic ideas.

Even though I still consider myself an agnostic, I think the modern criticism of the Aristotelian and thomistic metaphysics is clearly misguided and mostly based upon straw men, and have been refuted effectively and compellingly by Oderberg and Feser.

I also think that to make sense of science, real essentialism (or something like that) is inescapable. For instance, a purely empiricist and sensationist explanation of causality make no justice to science.

Appealing to some kind of objective essence is necessary to justify rationally the scientific inquiry, it seems to me.

The problem is how we would defend the existence of objective essences? How could we justify it? And this where Feser and specially Oderberg's philosophical contribution is very important. Their case for it is the best I know of.

I think you'll enjoy these books.

Joshua Nash said...


First, Happy New Year! I hope yours was pleasant.

Now, to the post: As I have previously posted, I too am attracted to "The Answer." You asked about how to let go of that quest. For me, I can't imagine letting go of the quest if I didn't have a nifty subsitute. Keeping that in mind, what might yours be?

If we stop the incessant quest of trying to grasp onto some sort of "true" coherence, what might we be left with? Self-improvement sounds a bit lame, but it sure seems like a likely candidate. Perhaps the true quest lies in learning to accept what is beginning to sound more and more to me like Ambiguity (with a capital 'A' on purpose.)


Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Joshua,

Good to hear from you again.

It’s nice to have a substitute if one could give up that quest, but it may be that if the quest – or any addiction – could be given up it requires a period of being without or devoid and feeling what the quest was covering up, which is probably some kind of deep pain associated with loss and grief. Often we can’t jump to the next thing when we lose something we love; we have to hang out in that painful limbo realm until something else arises. So maybe this is the content of what you're calling “Ambiguity.”

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Z,

I’ll get Oderberg’s book from the library. But I am probably too set in my anti-essentialist ways to get into the details of such a debate. I just don’t think you can get language to stand still long enough to establish a solid argument for something persisting like essences. For mathematical objects yes, but for other things I don’t think there are “natural kinds” that define what something is. But our ways of talking about things is generally good enough, just not good enough for a certain type of persnickety philosopher (not you).

And there are other ways of understanding causality that don’t necessitate realism or essences out there in the world. In general I think you’re saying that science works so well that there must be “a way in which the world is” which science gets right and other disciplines don’t get as right (because they can’t establish laws and have such a high degree of agreement as science does). The introduction to Causation, Physics and the Constitution of Reality: Russell's Republic Revisited edited by Huw Price (who I have a recent blog posting by) and Richard Corry surveys the issue. It’s on google books.

One bit from the intro: “Causal republicanism is thus the view that although the notion of causation is useful, perhaps indispensable, in our dealings with the world, it is a category provided neither by God nor by physics, but rather constructed by us…Several chapters in the volume explore and develop this republican view of causation.” p. 2

Also, when you say “to make sense of science” I think you mean science’s success and the belief that it keeps getting the world more and more right (as it truly is), but this view is debatable from the tradition of Thomas Kuhn and the philosophy and sociology of science. Rorty has a nice summary of it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature pp. 315-333.

If by agnostic you mean doubting the existence of God, I always found that odd. It puts belief in God in the default position and then opposes it. While I don’t know for sure if there is something called God, I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic since presently, while acknowledging uncertainty, I don’t believe in God.


Zetetic_chick said...

Jeff, thank you very much for your thoughtful reply.

Certainly I'll get a copy of Price's book, it looks great.

Currently, I don't have hard opinions on causality, but it seems to me that Oderberg's real essentialism (which is different than scientific essentialism or the essentialism of some current philosophers) makes justice for science in the following sense:

Scientists try to have a accurate model of the world. This model is a construction but it is not an arbitrary one, but one tested and perfected against experience. (At least it is how most scientists and non-relativistic philosophers of science see it)

If moderate realism and real essentialism are true (as ontological positions), there is exist some "objective ontological structure" out there that science tries to grasp and represent, even if imperfectly or incompletely.

It makes sense of science because it justifies the efforts of scientists to have a correct, accurate and objective representation of reality.

Also, it solves the traditional problem of induction, because you don't need to infer unversal statements from particular ones, but that your inferences derive from substantial forms and final causes of things themselves.

It also solves other problems in metaphysics and ethics.

Yes, I know this is disputable if we began from a different perspective. Language, theory laden of observations, paradigms, alternative views on causation, etc. are part of the dispute.

But it seems to me that Oderberg's case is deeper in a metaphysical sense and has a more solid basis.

For instance, Oderberg makes a powerful case for the Aristotelian concepts of form and matter, actuality and potentiality, substantial forms, etc. as essential parts of ontology and necessary for a rational explanation of reality. He examplifies the relevance of these concepts with scientific examples.

As you know, "final causes" and essences have been seen with suspiction by most modern philosophers. In fact, "final causes" are considered already refuted by modern science.

However, Oderberg has a good command of the critics' arguments and he shows where their arguments and objections get wrong and irrelevant.

Also he shows that, depiste of many scientists/philosophers' explicit rejection of final causality, they often employ final causes-language to make sense of their explanations (e.g. biologists and physicians offer exmplanation in terms of functions and "ends" of certain organs, like when they say that the function of the heart is to pump oxygen-rich blood to every living cell in the body. Also philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists employ concepts that implictly entail a teleological assumptions)

Personally, I don't see any substantial or evident hole or flaw in Oderberg's case for the Aristotelian metaphysics and this is why I'm very impressed with it.

When you get time to read the book, let me know your impressions or opinions (by e-mail or here in your blog), because I appreciate your comments and reflections.

You're one of the few postmodern philosophers with whom I've have the opportunity to have exchange of ideas about these questions and problems.