Wednesday, 15 November 2006

The Philosopher of Loquacity

For many years, the pragmatist-philosopher Richard Rorty has been telling us that the world outside the mind — or outside a community of minds — is unknowable. Unlike his less sophisticated brethren, however, he has never claimed to know so; rather he has always maintained a “liberal irony” towards the view. That he remains committed to so bold a view only through this liberal irony, however, speaks not only of a very odd mind, but also of the poverty of the arguments formed in favour of that view, arguments so poor that they cannot persuade even the philosopher of pragmatism who proposes them. A typical example:

[O]nce you have said that all our awareness is under a description, and that descriptions are functions of social needs, then ‘nature’ and ‘reality’ can only be names of something unknowable. [1]

Here is the argument in a clearer syllogistic form:

All awareness is under a description,
All descriptions are functions of social needs,
Therefore,
All descriptions (of “nature” and “reality”) are names of something unknowable.

The conclusion does not follow. Furthermore, the premises are far from established; for nowhere is there to be found any compelling evidence for the view that all awareness is under a description or that all descriptions are functions of social needs. Indeed, for Rorty and his kind, there could be no evidence, and therefore they are forced to feed themselves on a diet of fanciful theories:

To say that everything is a social construct is to say that our linguistic practices are so bound up with our other social practices that our descriptions of nature, as well as ourselves, will always be a function of our social needs.[2]

Naturally, in the slough of his liberal irony, Professor Rorty himself wouldn’t claim to know that all awareness is under a description or that all descriptions are functions of social needs. Such would presuppose what he sets out to deny. Thus, he sets his argument upon premises in whose truth he claims not to believe, in order to establish by a non sequitur a conclusion in whose truth he claims not to believe, in favour of a view in which he is far from being compelled to believe by the impress of his everyday life. One might well wonder why he bothers. Professor Rorty, however, is rather keen to “keep the conversation going”. [3] He is the old fishwife of the philosophical world.

[1] Richard Rorty, “A World without Substances or Essences”, in Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), p.49.
[2] Ibid., p.48.
[3] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 377.

4 comments:

james higham said...

Yes, I've just slewed it round every which way and it's a clear non-sequitur. Even the premises are highly suspect.

dearieme said...

An aussie might call it a RORT.

Dr.Dawg said...

I am afraid I don't follow. Your argument, that is, not Rorty's.

"Nature" and "reality" purport to point to something outside mind/intersubjectivity. Rorty says that descriptors come into being to respond to social needs. Social needs are a different category entirely from the one that "nature" and "reality" supposedly point to. Therefore, while we might make arguments about the specific social needs that such descriptors might answer, the referents of such descriptors remain unknowable, being outside the realm of social needs that brought the descriptors into being.

I don't know why such heavy weather is being made of the notion that "objective reality" is unknowable. It's surely just a modern re-statement of Kant's claim that we cannot know the ding an sich. Rorty doesn't dismiss empirical adequacy, nor is he an idealist.

Deogolwulf said...

"Rorty says that descriptors come into being to respond to social needs"

Is his description of the descriptors' coming-into-being itself a description of the descriptors' coming-into-being, that is to say, of the reality of the matter, or is it just a response to social needs? If the latter, we don't take it seriously as a description of the reality of the matter, though we might await the interesting account of why this social need is shared only by a handful of philosophers and their acolytes.

"Social needs are a different category entirely from the one that "nature" and "reality" supposedly point to."

What are you describing? Are you proposing that as a description of reality? Or are you merely responding to your social needs?

"It's surely just a modern re-statement of Kant's claim that we cannot know the ding an sich."

Ah, now we're getting somewhere . . .