Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Richard Rorty Exchange Part VI

The philosopher writes:

I don't know. You do argue well and forcefully. I am not convinced and I can see you are not convinced by me. 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?" Who decides what the criteria of "winning" are?

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?

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?

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!

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.


Joshua Nash said...


I've been enjoying this exchange quite a bit. Throughout it, I haven't been able to shake wondering this: even if you, me, Mr. X has possession of the truth, how is that truth going to get shared with the other person? Through argumentation, direct teaching, modeling, etc...

As a professional counselor, I often find myself guiding others into and through self-exploration. Plumbing the depths of one's own psyche is hard enough, much less diving into someone else's and trying to make sense of it for two people.

I mention this because the debate about the nature of truth is, I believe, only as significant as it's ability to be shared with others. Just as we can't teach 3 year olds calculus, we often find ourselves struggling to teach others the "truth" of tolerance, fair play, compassion, etc.

It seems that the debate about the essence of truth fails at the face of communication. I certainly don't mean to suggest a definition of truth under the umbrella of consensus; however, I do walk away scratching my head at a debate that, at it's core, involves judgement, desire, and ultimately fear. If transcendent truth exists, it doesn't need us to bolster it. If truth is all relative, then the use of a consistent and stable means of debating it (i.e. reasoning and argumentation) seems at least ironic.

Keep up the great debate!

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Joshua,

I see it differently. Truth doesn't exist without the communication. We create truth together. We fight over it, ally with others who believe the same against those who don't get it right. We try to establish certain criteria as the way "any serious person" would determine the truth (and so exclude other ways people might determine it).

The therapy patient finds what is experientially true and judges this in a variety of ways. It's the transformation that determines whether truth has been achieved. What happened back then is determined in an ongoing way in the present.

If transcendent truth exists I think it still needs us to express it. If it does not and there is a radical relativity then we need to assert how we think knowledge and truth should be decided. Through revelation? Through edict? Through discussion? Through rational argumentation? And whether a radically democratic environment in which debate is held should hold. I think it should.