Earlier this week, an essay collection by the iconoclastic American philosopher Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism. I am still unacquainted with his most thorough exposition of his worldview, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, so I will not attempt to make a statement on Rorty’s thought in general in this post. But I think making it through this shorter and more topically wide-ranging work is enough to give me the privilege of articulating my initial impression of Rorty, and make a comment on one of his recurring refrains.
My free-associative takeaway: a truly painful ambivalence, characterized by alternating hostility and sympathy. I am not technically proficient enough so that my own worldview can rightly be associated with the sophisticated doctrines of professional philosophers, but I am committed to a crude version of the realism and representationalism Rorty attacks. Even so, for the first 100 pages or so, I found Rorty to be wrong in the big picture but full of insightful and valuable observations. But halfway through, he started talking about “texts” and became simply vacuous. And all throughout, I found his writing, despite its unimpeachable lucidity and grace, to be annoying.
His posture towards traditional philosophy is one of unselfconscious condescension; he constantly insults his opponents, but honestly doesn’t seem to realize the flippancy of his tone. Whenever he calls something “uninteresting,” he acts as if he’s proven something. But his most annoying rhetorical habit is writing “The pragmatist believes…” when he means “I, Richard Rorty, believe…” He not only treats his claim to the pragmatic tradition as uncontroversial, but also claims he speaks on behalf of William James and John Dewey*. Some authors take this claim at face value; others do not. I believe the latter camp is in the right. Not only Rorty’s philosophical prescriptions, but the questions he approaches with his method in mind, are alien from those of the classical pragmatists.
Rorty is a thoroughgoing historicist with a strong affinity for Hegel; James was rather famously arch-rival to his Hegelian friend, Josiah Royce, and believed historicism was theoretically untenable and morally abhorrent. Now, Dewey did have much use for Hegel and constructivism—but in this he was opposed for James. How, exactly, Rorty can claim to be heir to both thinkers is beyond me. But for me, Rorty’s most striking departure from the classical pragmatists was his total disinterest in empirical accounts of knowledge, either for phenomenal particulars or metaphysical generalities. James was not a positivist, but certainly an empiricist—in fact a self-described “radical empiricist.” In his hands, it is easy to see how the pragmatic theory of truth, in its simplest form (“The truth is ‘what works’”) was derivative of the ideal of Baconian science. “What works” was understood as “what best accounts for the facts as we find them,” not as mere coherence within the “rules” of the “language game” we happen to be playing at the moment.
Now, Rorty is correct in saying that such an approach to philosophy is anti-Platonic. Instead of trying to arrive at eternal, axiomatic truths a priori, James prescribed philosophizing a posteriori, formulating axioms based on patterns of experience, and leaving those maxims open to revision in the event of contradictory evidence. And Rorty is correct in saying that this approach, especially in light of the additional Jamesian notion that “the difference that makes no difference is no difference” dissolves several philosophical problems.
But this does not mean that James was trying to “transcend” all metaphysics and epistemology, and radically break with all speculation before him, as Rorty claims. James recognized some novelty in his methodology, prescriptions, and beliefs, but saw his project as continuous with antecedent philosophical traditions. Tellingly, he subtitled Pragmatism, his boldest statement of purpose, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Much of his work dealt with traditional questions of speculation, like the nature of the mind. Jamesian essays like “Does Consciousness Exist?” and “Human Immortality,” for example, float various hypothesis on the fundamental nature of mind and the world. The claims are often tentative and noncommittal (though “Does Consciousness Exist?” takes a firmer stance on the nature of mind)—but they do treat the entities mind and world as actual, even if we cannot pin down their precise nature.
Rorty would not allow even this skeptical stance, and condemns any philosophic theory which tries to discuss entities in-of-themselves at all. Rorty recommends to “pragmatists” that when conversational partners begin discussing existential questions, that they “change the subject,” for discussion of existence itself, outside the construction of historically received paradigms, is a futile effort.
Agnostic as he was, I cannot believe James would have submitted to this noncognitivism; philosophy was for him a form of therapy. He believed that even if we cannot make claims with absolute certainty about the existence gods, freedom and immortality, to contemplate them with seriousness gave us some grip on those awe and terror-inspiring concepts. To say not only will we never have an adequate idea of reality, but to deny we can even discuss the idea of “reality” coherently, would likely have seemed to James a form of despair, a surrender to forces beyond our comprehension.
Of course, a theory’s conduciveness to moral edification counts nothing towards its truth-value. But James’ project was founded on belief in human agency; his philosophical project was always an effort to find on what grounds the beliefs of the average person might be justified that they might command their own fate as far as possible; for him to have engaged in such an undertaking at all, he had to have believed such a thing was possible. (At least, he had to believe it most of the time.) Unfortunately, the essentially hopeful character of James’ project lead him to frequently reject ideas not because they were irrational or unsupported, but because they cast doubt on optimistic accounts of human agency. In The Dilemma of Determinism, for example, he all but admitted traditional accounts of free will were untennable, but neccessary to accept for action and moralizing. So even if James had ran abutt to Rorty’s skepticism and could not find the tools to refute it, it is not difficult to imagine him refusing to submit to it himself.
*Stunningly, Rorty writes Pierce entirely out of the pragmatic tradition, claiming he gave pragmatism “nothing but a name.”
Filed under: anti-realism, classical American pragmatism, correspondence theory of truth, critical theoretic-pragmatic syncretism, critical theory/pomo, deconstruction, deflationary theory of truth, epistemology, metaphysics, neopragmatism, neutral monism, philosophy of mind, pragmatism, realism, representational realism, skepticism | 1 Comment »