Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Richard Rorty Exchange Part II

Here are my responses to the philosopher's comments about Rorty's views. My responses follow the **** (four asterisks):

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.'

**** For Rorty these are fine distinctions if they serve a pragmatic purpose. But if they become reified into eternal objects or essences that limn the nature of reality then they are going to lead to abstruse arguments and philosophical nitpicking that have been exhausted by Western philosophy.

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.

**** These distinctions may be essential to capital "p" Philosophy because that's how it has defined itself. But there are many everyday uses of these distinctions that Rorty would endorse. But we don't need get a "theory of truth" or to finally define the self. This isn't going to happen and it's more productive to talk about other things or to create new conceptions of the self. Novelists do this and Nietzsche and Heidegger were creative self creators.

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.

**** Or, philosophers could articulate, mediate, integrate, distinguish differing cultural traditions with the goal of creating greater understanding. Rorty would probably like philosophy to become part of the "general cultural stream" instead of falsely assuming a position above the cultural stream. We still have norms of belief, we just don't make believe they are grounded in The Objecitve Norms or God's Norms.

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.

**** Rorty embraces an ethnocentrism but that doesn't mean that different vocabularies or cultures are incommensurable. We make sense with others all the time, there's just no supra-sense that we can prove to all others is The Supra-Sense to end all questions of Supra-Sense.

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)

**** Yes, the appearance/reality distinction is not useful if it is absolutized. But it can be useful as what we thought was the case (appearance) but now see was not the case (colloquially, reality), perhaps because we now have more evidence. And the thing we are so sure of because it is so justified in the present we may say may not be the truth, using "truth" as a marker for "finding out in the future that what seemed so justified turned out not to be the case." So we have a use for the expression, and so the concept, "Yes, it's justified, but is it the truth?" This is the "cautionary" use of "truth." It makes us hold open the possibility that what presently seems justified may not be.

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?"


Karl Higley said...

Your interlocutor's last line comes so close to getting it and just misses:

[Rorty's] 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?"

I suspect Rorty would agree with this: philosophy IS but a series of cultural stances, and nothing need be removed to make it so. That philosophy is a kind of cultural politics does not make it a necessarily useless way of talking. Hopefully, though, recognizing it as a series of cultural stances also raises awareness of the particular usefulness of speaking in a philosophical way.

Rather than asking "Is philosophy useful?", the question becomes "What is it useful for?"

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Karl,

I guess it depends on what a "cultural stance" is. It's being used pejoratively by the philosopher, but is could mean a well developed, more than less coherent, interconnected and grounded in a line of thought within that culture which is a part of that culture's contemporary debate about goals and means for society. Rorty's relativism is not that all cultural stances are equal, it's that the above definition is all we all have.

I think we'd ask: what are our goals?, what is useful for attaining those goals?, and is philosophy useful for attaining them?

Karl Higley said...

I've been thinking along similar lines: perspectivalism without reference to a transcendent something or other still leaves room for distinctions around coherence, well-developedness, interconnection, and so forth. Of course, those judgments are themselves perspectivally enacted and culturally contextual, but that doesn't make them any less actionable.

From that point of view, I really like your three questions.