Conversations with Rorty

Paul Seabright

  • Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays 1972-1980 by Richard Rorty
    Harvester, 237 pp, £22.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 7108 0403 2

In the opening pages of Gibbon’s Autobiography, there is an entertaining account of a visit to Virginia in 1659 by his ancestor Matthew Gibbon:

    In this remote province his taste, or rather passion, for heraldry found a singular gratification at a war-dance of the native Indians. As they moved in measured steps, brandishing their tomahawks, his curious eye contemplated their little shields of bark, and their naked bodies, which were painted with the colours and symbols of his favourite science. ‘At which (says he) I exceedingly wondered; and concluded that heraldry was ingrafted naturally into the sense of human race. If so, it deserves a greater esteem than nowadays is put upon it.’

The story points a useful moral for sociobiologists, Platonists, and all who are tempted to underestimate the degree to which our human activities and beliefs are the product of, and are shaped by, the vocabulary of history. It would no doubt also amuse a present-day inhabitant of Virginia, Richard Rorty, who in this stimulating new collection of essays brandishes his tomahawk in earnest at philosophers who insist on treating our local and accidental concerns as though they were reflections of some immutable and absolute Reality. He lays repeated stress on

the difference between taking a standard philosophical problem ... and asking, on the one hand, ‘What is its essence? To what ineffable depths, what limit of language, does it lead us? What does it show us about being human?’ and asking on the other hand, ‘What sort of people would see these problems? What vocabulary, what image of man, would produce such problems? Why, insofar as we are gripped by these problems, do we see them as deep rather than as reductiones ad absurdum of a vocabulary? What does the persistence of such problems show us about being 20th-century Europeans?’

Such a general injunction to historicism is, of course, far from being the only message of this book. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980), Rorty set out to attack not only the view of philosophy as ‘a discipline which discusses perennial, eternal problems’, but also the more specific ‘picture which holds traditional philosophy captive’, namely ‘that of the mind as a great mirror, containing various representations – some accurate, some not – and capable of being studied by pure, non-empirical methods’. His contention was that the vision of truth as correspondence to reality, far from being a harmless redundancy, was a dangerous vanity that had encouraged philosophy to legislate for the rest of human culture. The vision had sent it up a blind alley, from which Wittgenstein, Heidegger and, above all, John Dewey could rescue it if only it would listen. The hope for the future, he suggested, lay in Dewey’s vision of a culture no longer dominated by a hierarchy of disciplines (which had placed science in an aristocratic position, maintained by philosophy acting as an intellectual Debrett’s to expose the arrivistes), a culture in which the arts and the sciences, ‘the unforced flowers of life’, could bloom unhindered side by side. In this future, philosophy would no longer be an autonomous discipline but merely the most general way of continuing, in Oakeshott’s words, ‘the conversation of mankind’.

These essays, written at various times and in various moods between 1972 and 1980, provide a broader, though much less clearly focused view of the variety of concerns which surfaced in that book. The title, Consequences of Pragmatism, is an apt one, for the pragmatism that informs them is one that most of them presuppose rather than directly address. There is a substantial introduction which tries to draw them together by explaining what this pragmatism is:

a pragmatist theory of truth ... says that truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about. For pragmatists, ‘truth’ is just the name of a property which all true statements share. It is what is common to ‘Bacon did not write Shakespeare,’ ‘it rained yesterday,’ ‘E equals mc2’ ‘Love is better than hate,’ ‘The Allegory of Painting was Vermeer’s best work,’ ‘2 plus 2 is 4’ and ‘there are non-denumerable infinities.’ Pragmatists doubt that there is much to be said about this common feature.

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