Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Notes on Rorty

What Kuhn, Derrida, and I believe is that it is pointless to ask whether there really are mountains or whether it is merely convenient for us to talk about mountains. [1]
Richard Rorty claims it is pointless to talk about the mode of existence of mountains, whether they are ontologically subjective or objective, that is, whether they exist independent of us or not. Are we then to suppose that the belief in mountains might derive from a convenient socio-linguistic construct rather than the impress of their objective existence, and that if one were to climb one or to fall off one, this might be the expression of a powerful metaphor conceived under a social form of thought? If so, then one might consider it is a social and moral failing that we have not found it convenient to talk of wings that sprout from the backs of plummeting mountaineers.
There is no activity called ‘knowing’ which has a nature to be discovered . . . there is simply the process of justifying beliefs to audiences. [2]
It is anybody’s guess how he knows this to be the case — has he discovered the nature of that activity called “knowing” by which he knows that no one may discover the nature of anything, including that activity called “knowing”? If so, he has done what he says is impossible. As regards trying to justify this belief to audiences, let us remain silent.
[T]he relation between our truth claims and the rest of the world is causal rather than representational. It causes us to hold beliefs, and we hold the beliefs which prove to be reliable guides to getting what we want. [3]
If this claim is true of the world, then it represents nothing of the world outside itself, that is to say, it is not true of it; rather it has only been caused by that world. What precisely caused this absurd belief is a matter of conjecture, but how it might prove a reliable guide to getting what we want is a matter of personal exigency, perhaps of the sort that gets one noticed in intellectual circles.
When we say that our ancestors believed, falsely, that the sun went around the earth, and that we believe, truly, that the earth goes round the sun, we are saying that we have a better tool than our ancestors did. . . . The argument between us and our medieval ancestors should not be about which of us has got the universe right. It should be about the point of holding views about the motion of heavenly bodies, the ends to be achieved by the use of certain tools. Confirming the truth of Scripture is one such aim, space travel is another. [4]

Thus: the belief that the sun goes round the earth is “true” only in the sense that it is useful or convenient for our purposes to believe so; the same goes for all beliefs about the motion of heavenly bodies – or for any belief about anything; for no one has access to a mind-independent reality by which he might test his theories. So accommodating a philosophy – where truth is simply what is useful for our purposes – is a sublime gift to charlatanry, if not tyranny.
To say that one should replace knowledge by hope is to say . . . that one should stop worrying about whether what one believes is well grounded and start worrying about whether one has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to one’s present beliefs. [5]

Is this good advice to a man who needs to cross a wooden bridge, after he has just witnessed a friend fall to his death through one of its rotten boards? I suggest that the interesting alternative of jumping up and down on said boards whilst remaining hopeful of support from good fairies would be inferior to the present and well-grounded belief that doing so is likely to end in tragedy – and that one should therefore hold the rails and tread lightly. Perhaps Rorty would find such an example silly. If so, it is incumbent upon him to explain why.
[I]t is not clear that any of the millions of ways of describing the piece of space time occupied by what we call a giraffe is any close to the way things are in themselves than any of the others. . . . all we need to know is whether some competing description might be more useful for some of our purposes. [6]
That piece of space-time with four-legs and a long neck? — Is that not to what our philosopher is referring, rather than to the ten-legged, short-necked creature that has rocket-fuel for blood? Is not the former closer to the way things are than the latter? Not according to our two-legged, big-brained philosopher of pragmatism. All we need know is which description is more useful for our purposes — and, for some odd reason, none of our purposes has yet found a use for a ten-legged, short-necked creature with rocket-fuel for blood, except in describing the absurdity of a two-legged, big-brained philosopher of pragmatism.
Both the words we use and our willingness to affirm certain sentences using those words and not others are the products of fantastically complex causal connections between human organisms and the rest of the universe. There is no way to divide up this web of causal connections so as to compare the relative amount of subjectivity and of objectivity in a given belief. There is no way, as Wittgenstein has said, to come between language and its object, to divide the giraffe in itself from our ways of talking about giraffes. As Hilary Putnam, the leading contemporary pragmatist, has put it: ‘elements of what we call “language” or “mind” penetrate so deeply into reality that the very project of representing ourselves as being “mappers” of something “language-independent” is fatally compromised from the start.’ [7]
If this is a description of something language-independent, that is, of the objective world, then it is fatally compromised from the start. But apparently, the only descriptions of the world that are not fatally compromised from the start are those descriptions given by famous philosophers and leading contemporary pragmatists when they describe the world as allowing no descriptions of the world that are not fatally compromised from the start. We’ll have to take their word for it.
No organism, human or non-human, is ever more or less in touch with reality than any other organism. [8]
— Professors of philosophy excepted, of course.

Looking at language in [a] Darwinian way, as providing tools for coping with objects rather than representations of objects, and as providing different sets of tools for different purposes, obviously makes it hard to be an essentialist. For it becomes hard to take seriously the idea that one description of A can be more ‘objective’ or ‘closer to the intrinsic nature of A’ than another. The relation of tools to what they manipulate is simply a matter of utility for a particular purpose, not of ‘correspondence’. [9]

Why would one look at language in a Darwinian way if one does not believe — as Rorty does not believe — that the Darwinian way provides any true description of the way things are, including language and its origin? In what way does Darwinism tell us that language does not provide the tools for coping with the representation of objects? If it is hard to take seriously the idea that one description of A can be more objective or closer to the intrinsic nature of A than another, then it is hard to take seriously the idea that Rorty’s description of the nature of description can be more objective or closer to the intrinsic nature of the nature of description than another.
[Y]ou should notice that it would be inconsistent with my own antiessentialism to try to convince you that the Darwinian way of thinking of language — and, by extension, the Deweyan, pragmatist way of thinking of truth — is the objectively true way. All I am entitled to say is that it is a useful way, useful for particular purposes. All I can claim to have done here is to offer you a redescription of the relation between human beings and the rest of the universe. Like every other redescription, this one has to be judged on the basis of its utility for a purpose. [10]
According to his own doctrine, however, he cannot claim to have offered us a true redescription of the relation between human beings and the rest of the universe, for by his own doctrine he is unable to describe anything of the world. On that basis, it is presumably not true, moreover, that his redescription is useful for particular purposes, or that there are any beings in the universe that could find it useful for their purposes, or that every redescription “has to be judged on the basis of its utility for a purpose”. Our pragmatist has found no entitlement.
Being that Professor Rorty believes that all beliefs are held on account of their usefulness for achieving particular purposes, and none on account of their correspondence to reality, what then are the purposes of his antiessentialism? He gives us two:
The first is that it makes it impossible to formulate a lot of the traditional philosophical problems. The second is that adopting it makes it easier to come to terms with Darwin. [11]
The first purpose, then, is one of evasion. Concerning the second, why would one need to come to terms with Darwin if one believed that Darwinian descriptions of the world are no truer than those of Norse mythology? — Is it because the former are widely accepted as true and the latter false amongst the clever or the wise or the academically powerful? Then one accepts such descriptions only because other people believe them, which is quite a strange position for a philosopher to take — no longer a seeker after truth and wisdom, just a seeker after consensus or solidarity. But then it is not called pragmatism for nothing.
For Rorty, a world without objective morality is a world without objective truth. In the words of Yeats, he still wishes to “hold reality and justice in a single vision”; but because he cannot find the objective basis for justice, he refuses to see the objective basis for anything. In his crestfallen mind, if it cannot be both, then it must be neither. Professor Nietzsche made some remarks on this kind of mentality:
The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond leads to nihilism. . . . [T]he untenability of one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished, awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false. [12]
Rorty tried as a youth to reconcile his sense of reality with his Trotskyism: “I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity.” [13] His faith in Trotskyism collapsed, and I suspect it took with it his sense of reality.
I think that ‘relativism’ and ‘postmodernism’ are words which never had any clear sense, and that both should be dropped from our philosophical vocabulary. [14]

Then there was the thief who thought it useful if everyone deemed the words “theft” and “robbery” to be without any clear sense, that both should be dropped from the vocabulary of criminal justice.

[1] R. Rorty, “Does academic freedom have philosophical presuppositions?” in Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues, ed. R.T. DeGeorge, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997), p.184.
[2] R. Rorty, “Truth Without Correspondence to Reality”, in Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), p.36.
[3] Ibid., p.33.
[4] Ibid., “Introduction: Relativism: Finding and Making”, p.xxv.
[5] Ibid., “Truth Without Correspondence to Reality”, p.34.
[6] Ibid., “Introduction: Relativism: Finding and Making”, p.xxvi.
[7] Ibid., p.xxvii.
[8] Ibid., p.xxv.
[9] Ibid., “ A World Without Substances or Essences”, p.65.
[10] Ibid., pp.65-6.
[11] Ibid., p.66.
[12] F.W. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, tr. W. Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p.7.
[13] R. Rorty, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”, in op. cit., p.8.
[14] Ibid, Preface, p.xiv.


Anonymous said...


David Duff said...

It seems to me that Prof. Rorty comes within a whisker of matching the world record for the shortest aphorism in philosophy, "I think, therefor I am" by achieving his own personal best with, 'I think, therefor I am not'!

Deogolwulf said...

Anon., thanks for the link. An interesting and clever chap. I shall be reading further.

Mr Duff, I suspect that Prof. Rorty is quite a believer in himself - though not in theory!

dearieme said...

"Richard Rorty is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and, by courtesy, of Philosophy at Stanford University". Rather reminds me of the stink raised at Cambridge when the Eng Lit crowd nominated Derrida for an honorary doctorate and the University omitted to consult the philosophers.

james higham said...

Johnson refuted Bishop Berkeley's theory of the non-existence of matter by kicking a stone. I refuted it by falling off a ski slope. Both were painful lessons.

Cirdan said...

Johnson refuted Bishop Berkeley's theory of the non-existence of matter by kicking a stone.

The stone-kicking did not refute Berkeley.

Deogolwulf said...

Rorty is not the usual pomo-babbler, however. He's a very clever chap - though very politically-minded.

"The stone-kicking did not refute Berkeley."

'Tis true, Mr Higham.

james higham said...

The stone-kicking did not refute Berkeley.

Learned gentlemen, if all we can know are ideas, how can we know there is a world "out there" to give rise to our ideas? Berkeley claimed that there is no "out there." How can he know this, in turn? Therefore, it is all sophistry. Therefore, the only reality is the perceived. Therefore Johnson very much refuted Berkeley's attempt to answer Locke, even though he had misunderstood Berkeley's intention and the substance of his remark.

Stirling Frostcake said...

I guess humans will never understand that the phrase "really are" and the word "existence" should not be used in the way that they are commonly used. They should be qualified by adding " in the way that they are experienced" or "in the manner that they are known." This is a very simple attitude, but very difficult to comprehend for almost all people, even philosophers.

dearieme said...

It all depends on what the meanings of "really are" really are?

Stirling Frostcake said...

To use the words really are is to employ a dangling copula. A predicate should always be appended. In other words, there should be a grammatical subject, a copula (are), and a predicate. The predicate denotes a quality, or characteristic that can be attributed to the subject through the use of the copula. So, it can not be said that something merely exists or that subjects really are. We must speak of the way that they exist or are. The way that they exist or are is a result of the way that the observer's mind is constituted.

Deogolwulf said...

"The way that [things] exist or are is a result of the way that the observer's mind is constituted."

Is that how things really are?

S. Frostcake said...

There's that dangling copula again. Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, and Schopenhauer realized that objects do not directly teleport themselves into the mind. They have to be filtered through the nervous system, which consists of the sense organs and parts of the brain. Things really are appearances or mental images. Things really are the way that they are as a result of the way that the observer's mind is constituted or composed.(Note engaged copula)

Deogolwulf said...

I suspect the bewitchment of language.

How things really are [constituted][in the world][etc]. Subject and predicate. It is perfectly good English, unless you object to ellipsis.

You claim, on the one hand, to be describing the world as it really is constituted beyond the observer's mind ("Things really are appearances or mental images. Things really are the way that they are as a result of the way that the observer's mind is constituted or composed."), and on other hand -- but by the same claim -- to be telling us that the world is constituted or composed by the observer's mind. So what then are you describing? Have you observed that the world is constituted in such a way that it is constituted by the observer's mind? Have you then seen the beyond which you say no one can see, that is, that the world really is [constituted] [etc] as you describe it? If so, you have done what you say is impossible.

Stirling F. said...

We are now at the point that dearime indicated, where it all depends on the meaning of really. This is reminiscent of the ill-starred C.E.M. Joad. The adverb really is ambiguous, like so many other words. When I say really, I mean actually. Things actually are the way that the observer's mind experiences things. Otherwise, they wouldn't be experienced or known at all. When you say really, you mean the world beyond the mind, or other than it is experienced by the mind. But it is absurd to talk about the world as it is experienced in a way other than it is experienced.

Deogolwulf said...

"Things actually are the way that the observer's mind experiences things."

I have the horrible feeling that we're arguing for the same thing. Tsk. I shall have a lie down.

Stirling F. said...

My position is the same as Schopenhauer's, who said it very clearly and succinctly: "...object and representation are the same thing...." (By representation, he meant mental image or idea.) There are a great many people who disagree with this. It is discouraging to think that the reason for the disagreement is that this simple thought is not comprehended correctly. A perfect example is Dr. Samuel Johnson's calcitrant refutation of Berkeley.

euprattin said...

I appreciate your skepticism, but if you are never willing to give Rorty the benefit of any doubt than you will always dismiss his remarks as disingenuous relativisms. He is easy to refute if you judge his work within the framework he is trying to move away from.

Rorty is not making any claims about reality, nor does he want to... he just suggests that you try talking the same way that he does. Give it a shot, and if find that it does not suit your purposes, than Rorty himself would insist that you go back to your epistemology.

As for the subject-predicate, can’t lightning just be lighting, or does it have to “strike”? I still don’t know what thunder does, “roars” or something? Seems easier to dismiss with unnecessary predicates.

Deogolwulf said...

"Rorty is not making any claims about reality"

He is indeed making such claims; his claim that one cannot describe reality - or know that one is describing it - is one such. But he is disingenuous enough to claim that he is not.

euprattin said...

Never in life...

He openly recognizes the human ability to describe reality; in fact, he argues, all we have is competing descriptions. He just doesn't understand what objective standards one could invoke to prove the "validity" of one's claims. One could always imagine a more informed audience, or a more accurate description. If you don't know what truth is, how do you know if you are any closer than you were before?

Consequently, he merely suggests that is might make more sense to talk about "more or less useful descriptions" as opposed to "right and wrong descriptions."

If you miss this point, you arn't reading Rorty. Your re-reading the 2500 years of philosophy he is trying to move away from.