Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Richard Rorty Exchange Part VII

I respond to the philosopher. My responses follow the ***

*** Good to hear your questions and criticisms.

I don't know. You do argue well and forcefully. I am not convinced and I can see you are not convinced by me.

*** Yes, that’s why there is the flourishing area of philosophy examining "rational disagreements."

Let me ask a few more questions about something Rorty says in this text book I have. He says: "A liberal society is one which is content to call 'true' (or 'right' or 'just'). . . whatever view wins in a free and open encounter."

Some of my questions are these:

1) Who decides who wins in this "free and open encounter?"

*** The participants and the institutional structures that deem these things. If the participants agree – let’s say the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we agree there is a 90% chance of man-made climate change – then that’s a powerful, but not conclusive, “win”. That doesn’t mean others won’t disagree – Bjorn Lomborg – and continue to speak against it. Or, science journals decide what gets published. That’s an institutionalized way for someone to “win.” And the winners have to be contended with either as what you must cite in your article or as what you must criticize in order to change a prevailing view you think is wrong. Rorty used the word “content” in that quote to emphasize that that’s all we’ve got, we have to settle for that level of surety.

Who decides what the criteria of "winning" are?

*** The institutional norms in science are decided or maintained by those in power. The criteria that they use have a history dating back to the origins of modern science. But even those criteria have to be struggled over with different criterion gaining and losing power depending on trends in argumentation. The logician Graham Priest has written about the lack of argumentation for the law of non-contradiction and argued that there are true contradictions at the limits of thought. He calls this view "dialetheism." I'm not saying it's right (although I think it is), it just seems like an example of criteria being examined and modified.

2) Hasn't Rorty smuggled in an implicit notion of good into this definition by having the encounter be free and open? If he has, then he has begged the question regarding what is true, right and just. I think this may be true since the reason that he wants the encounter to be "free and open" is presumably, because he thinks that, in this way, it will be more fair, more just and well, right. But isn't this just to assume the truth of the position you should justify?

*** But doesn’t everyone argue as best they can for their view and then if pushed to the limit say: “Well, I just assume, that cruelty is the worst thing we do to each other.” Rorty isn’t saying he doesn’t have beliefs about what is just and right and best justified (true) he’s saying that we can have discussions about our differing moral and political views but let’s drop the Philosophical discussion about what is The Right Moral View, the absolutely right moral view. That conversation looked like it would be helpful centuries ago, but now its gotten so dry and specialized that philosophers no longer play a role in public intellectual life.

3) Following on 2), I want to ask, Why should the encounter be free and open? If the object is winning and if winning determines what is true and right and just, then why not win by any means necessary?

*** If we watch a sports race or political election and are focused on who won, it doesn’t mean we don’t care how they won. Why? Because in the sports race we’re interested in finding the currently best at that sport according to the current rules, or politically we’ve established a majority rule procedure to settle disputes and called it democracy. So winning by the rules is important because we think we get better outcomes and so solve our differences and problems better. Rorty could say that “free and open” allows more people to flourish, feel dignity, offer more varied views and so makes for a better discussion and that these are good things because they make for a better society, which is one that is more inkeeping with the image that he and his allies have for society.

4) If what is true and just and right is determined by who wins, then what happens to minority voices? If winning means simply whichever side gets the most votes (at least that's what I would assume he means) then does that mean that the minority position must be wrong? I assume that this is not what he means, but I wonder what his position on minority views would be since they are not on the "winning" side and so, at least by his definition, they can't be on the side of what is true, right and just.

I'm aware that he advocates cultivating a stance of "irony" toward our "final vocabulary" and so he probably wouldn't want even those who "win" to take themselves too seriously since they could "lose" next year, next month or next week!

*** I don’t think we have to press the use of “winning” in that sentence too far. Rorty can say that winning in intellectual forums is almost never a 100% win. The laws of physics are as close to 100% as you get perhaps, but, short of that, so much is revisable as new generations and other societal changes occur. I can see him elaborating a view in which there are current relative winners and losers and that each individual will, depending on their view, assign differing valuations to the differing sides: a current winner is considered by person A as a should-be-a-loser and person B as a rightful winner.

*** So Rorty writes several lines after the sentence you quote: ‘Habermas] still insists on seeing the process of undistorted communication as convergent, and seeing that convergence as a guarantee of the “rationality” of such communication. The residual difference I have with Habermas is that his universalism makes him substitute such convergence for ahistorical grounding, whereas my insistence on the contingency of language makes me suspicious of the very idea of the “universal validity” which such convergence is supposed to underwrite. Habermas wants to preserve the traditional story (common to Hegel and to Peirce) of asymptotic approach to foci imaginarii [certainties, I believe]. I want to replace this with a story of increasing willingness to live with plurality and to stop asking for universal validity. I want to see freely arrived at agreement as agreement on how to accomplish common purposes (e.g., prediction and control of the behavior of atoms or people, equalizing life-chances, decreasing cruelty)…” Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p.67.

Something else I wrote a couple nights ago but didn't send is this:

Here's a pragmatic argument from Socrates against postmodern pragmatism. It's in Plato's Meno:

"I wouldn't swear to other things on behalf of the argument [immortality of the soul, knowledge as recollection] but for this, if I were able, I would fight in word and in deed: that we would be better and more courageous and less idle, if we thought that we ought to seek for what we don't know than if we thought that what we don't know it isn't possible to seek nor ought we to seek."

(My stilted translation of Meno 86b)

I'd say that if you think that truth and good are just human constructions, then there is no real reason to defend them since we're only fighting, in the end, for our right to use our "final vocabulary." But what is that? Is that worth fighting for? Dying for? I don't think there are many things that I would kill for, but I do think there ought to be some things worth dying for. Rorty's postmodern pragmatism gives us nothing to live for or die for and to that extent it is potentially corrupting in just the way that Socrates worries about in the passage above.

If Rorty is right, then we can't be wrong since there's only your perspective and my perspective and his and hers. But no perspective is really any better than any other since they're all perspectives that are made not found.

Socrates' position is just right--between relativism and dogmatism. He rejects both the position that there is no Truth (only truths) and the position that whatever that Truth is, he knows it. He believes that we can and must advance toward the truth. Progress entails vigorous self-examination and examination of others, but if there is nothing to advance toward, nothing to strive for, this can lead to the sort of intellectual and moral complacency he's talking about. So, in the end, I side with Socrates on the grounds of what effects Rorty's philosophy could have on our character. Take care, gentlemen.

*** When and how do we know that we know the Truth? If we can’t know then how does it guide inquiry? It’s true that Rorty does not give us something to live and die for. But who lives or dies for the concept of absolute truth?

*** And is our choice only between striving for Truth and nothing to strive for? This sounds like the either personal taste or an independent standard dichotomy from a previous exchange. We can be motivated to vigorous self-examination and examination of others so that we can learn more, interpret more creatively, create a better world, make our ideas cohere better, or solve problems together. None of those are the Truth but neither are they “nothing”.

*** Why the “just” in “just human constructions”, what’s wrong with human constructions? And what’s the difference between a “real reason” and a “reason”? If “final vocabulary” seems too thin or flip we could say we would fight for our “deeply held beliefs.” They are connected to and gain their meaning from many things like our attachment to family, land, society, way of life, future generations, etc. Those things and others are worth fighting for even if we can’t show that or don’t know if they correspond to the independent standard of truth and the good.

*** Whew! Now you must be convinced! It seems we don’t give up our deeply held beliefs so easily whether we think they have or could have the backing of absoluteness or not.

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