Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Richard Rorty Exchange Part I

Here's the first in an exchange with a couple of friends on Richard Rorty's philosophy and other issues. The philosopher writes:

Here is a quote from a guy I rather like on the topic of relativism, which I take Rorty to be, me and lots of others. HIs name is Roger Trigg and he's emeritus Prof. of Philosophy, U. of Warwick. He was (and still may be, not sure, Chairman of the United Kingdom National Committee for Philosophy, representing all British philosophy departments--so says the back jacket of this book). This is from his book, Philosophy Matters:

"Richard Rorty is quite happy to demolish the distinctions which he sees built into the vocabulary we inherited from Plato and Aristotle. He says (speaking as an 'anti-Platonist' accused of relativism: 'Our opponents like to suggest that to abandon their vocabulary is to abandon rationality--that to be rational consists precisely in respecting the distinctions between the absolute and the relative, the found and the made, object and subject, nature and convention, reality and appearance.'

His (philosophical) argument is that these distinctions are not essential to philosophy, any more presumably than are such binary opponents as the self and the other, or even truth and falsity. The danger in all this is that of losing grip altogether on the idea of rationality, the idea that there are norms for belief, so that we ought to believe some things and reject others. It is all too easy to settle for what people do believe, and, if they disagree, to resort to a relativism that suggests that differences in belief do not matter. Indeed, 'pluralism' becomes something to be welcomed. Philosophy never ceases to be a matter of rational criticism. It is hard to see how it can then have any function at all. It must become absorbed into the general cultural stream. Philosophers can then articulate the assumptions of one cultural tradition in a way that is irrelevant to the members of another.

Rorty explicitly allies himself with American pragmatism, an important philosophical tradition, but one which has clearly come from a specific cultural background. Genuine philosophy must aspire to universality. American pragmatism must stand on its merits, and not on the fact that it is American. Relativism cannot allow this, and there is nowhere for Rorty to stand to allow him to recommend his views to those beyond his own tradition. It is not enough to be an American speaking to Americans or, in an even more restricted way, an American East Coast liberal speaking to American East Coast liberals.

Philosophical justification has to demonstrate why the views of such people are relevant to those with different backgrounds. By attacking traditional conceptions of rationality, Rorty can narrow the scope and impact of philosophy, so that any distinction from the rest of culture is removed. Just as an unremitting, literally mindless, materialism can dissolve reason into a series of physical events, so relativism dissolves philosophy into a series of cultural stances. The one makes philosophy cede its position to science, and the other to sociology or cultural studies. Philosophy becomes impotent, without any distinction between what seems to us to be so and what is so, or might be. What is the point of criticisms or questions if we cannot be wrong? There is no point in examining the basis of our beliefs if the most important fact is merely that we have them, and not whether they are true." (137-138)

I think Trigg gets to the heart of the matter with Rorty, here. His relativism undercuts, undermines the very possibility of rationality and philosophy itself--and with that gone, what can philosophy be but "a series of cultural stances?"

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