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.

Apart from one essay that attempts to distinguish pragmatism from relativism, the remainder use it as a springboard for a wide-ranging exploration of ideas and writers. Among those who loom large in this pantheon are Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Dewey, Cavell, James, Davidson and Derrida. At its best, Rorty’s writing has energy, humour, great tolerance, an exemplary clarity that can illuminate even the darker reaches of Heidegger, and above all a rare ability to communicate enthusiasm and sheer love of ideas. At its worst, it can be inconsistent, confusing and sometimes outrageously unfair – as in his contemptuous dismissal of Peirce, whose ‘contribution to pragmatism was merely to have given it a name, and to have stimulated James’. But it is never settled or predictable, and occasionally an ironic self-consciousness will emerge, as when he acknowledges that ‘the kind of name-dropping, rapid shifting of context, and unwillingness to stay for an answer which this [Deweyan] culture encourages runs counter to everything that a professionalised academic discipline stands for.’ Quite so. The legacy of Rorty’s work may lie principally in the manner of its saying, in the display by a philosopher educated in the analytical tradition of the ambitions and the gentler tactics of the deconstructionists. Like Derrida, whom he admires, Rorty attacks established philosophy and its concern with what Heidegger called ‘the metaphysics of presence’, not frontally (or not often), but with the volatility if not always the precision of the sniper. It may be that one compliment he pays to Dewey’s work – that it ‘helps us put aside that spirit of seriousness which artists traditionally lack and philosophers are traditionally supposed to maintain’ – itself reveals one of Rorty’s most serious aims.

Yet it is pursued with considerable rhetorical thunder. For this reason, it is tempting to think that Rorty’s claims must either be correct, in which case the consequences for traditional conceptions of philosophy are serious indeed, or else they must be definitely and disastrously wrong, so that to write a somewhat fence-sitting review seems like the height of cowardice. But to think this is already to concede too much to Rorty’s presentation of the issue: he may claim to be a hedgehog, but the bushy red tail should give one pause for thought (as Brer Rabbit might have said). Although the story he unfolds of a battle between realist darkness and pragmatist light can seem very one-dimensional, both the realism and the pragmatism he considers are not single identifiable philosophical viewpoints, but, like Whitman, contain multitudes. He draws an expository distinction between ‘technical realists’, such as Kripke and Field, and ‘intuitive realists’ such as Cavell and Nagel, but then argues that the two amount to much the same thing, and thereafter treats realism as indivisible. There is no discussion of the possible differences between, for instance, semantical realism (the view that the meaning of sentences is determined by their truth conditions rather than by their warranted assertability conditions) and realism about what there is, which, according to Michael Devitt’s recent claim, ‘says nothing semantic at all’. Nor is there any questioning of his assumption that realism must entail attaching importance to reference (the very title of Davidson’s article ‘Realism without Reference’ suggests not, while Gareth Evans’s book The Varieties of Reference is hostile to the Cartesianism which Rorty sees as the root of the realist malady). In short, there is not so much an analysis of realism – for it is assumed that the enemy is known – as a denunciation of the vices to which it leads. This leaves it uncertain whether they are vices that inevitably follow from realism, or merely from the more confused versions of it. Rorty makes many telling points, but it is hard to see what they add up to.

When it comes to discussing pragmatism itself, one would expect a more nuanced approach, one that admitted different varieties and accepted that there were excesses of which even pragmatists were capable. On the contrary, pragmatism is presented as a strong brew which few heads can take; and when Rorty does criticise one of the writers whom he most admires, it is virtually always for a ‘failure of nerve’ that makes him only a ‘half-hearted pragmatist’, or ‘one more victim of realism’ (of relativism Rorty says briskly, ‘No one holds this view’ – a surprising claim, even if we can be sure that no one consistently holds it). Thus he writes that ‘no matter how much Heidegger seems to have overcome our professional urge to compete with the great dead philosophers on their own ground ... he is still insistent that the tradition offered us “words of Being”. He still thinks that the place where philosophy was is the place to be.’ For Heidegger, we might say, Being is where it’s At. Even Derrida turns out to be a closet metaphysician, with a ‘luminous, constructive, bad side’ ... as well as a ‘shadowy, deconstructive, good side’. These glimpses of a more muscular pragmatism no doubt help to explain Rorty’s dismissal of Peirce, whose viewpoint was both subtle and clear about where it stood in relation to relativism. They also make him more concerned to use texts to tell his own story than to represent their authors fairly, which is at least consistent with his admiration for Derrida (but there again, since Derrida sets little store by consistency, perhaps it isn’t).

Significantly, Rorty’s pragmatism seems to move in continual and unacknowledged fashion between two poles, a strong and a weak one. I cannot help suspecting that some (if by no means all) of the apparent forcefulness of his claims depends on a covert combination of the illicit thrill offered by the strong view’s affront to common sense, with the effortless incontrovertibility of the weak version. The strong view emerges, for example, in his approving citation of ‘Nietzsche’s view of science as merely a prolongation of theology, of both as forms of “the longest lie” ’: this, like the mystic’s claim that ‘reality is an illusion,’ helps itself to a dichotomy (truth/lies) that it purports to have dissolved. It also motivates his numerous hints that, since the scientific method achieves merely some of the many purposes we have for the world (its prediction and control, for instance), it is pointless to talk about the scientific method at all. In similar vein, he claims that it is irrelevant that science can give an explanation of its own success – as if a scientific theory that could not do so, and explain why its competitors failed, would be accepted as satisfactory. And he repeatedly moves from the entirely reasonable claim that it is futile to attempt to ground our criteria of truth in something transcendental to our own system of practices and assumptions, to urge that we may not therefore call certain beliefs false (some theological ones, for instance) – that we call them outdated. This seems to whisper enticingly that because what we take to be truths can never be transdendentally established, we are on no firmer ground in asserting them than in asserting what we take to be falsehoods: whereas it is clear, and Rorty would most of the time agree, that it is the very talk of transcendence that is muddling us. The fact that our own criteria of truth are the only ones we have shows why we must use them, not why we cannot.

The weak version of Rorty’s pragmatism is altogether subtler and more important, and sometimes the only puzzle is why he believes some of his claims cannot be accepted by realists. Its spirit is perhaps best summed up by Deleuze’s remark that ‘the first thing we learn from the Copernican revolution is that we are giving the orders.’ There is no question of denying the independent existence of the world in the ordinary sense, merely of urging that whatever we do with the world (and using language to describe it is our activity, not the world’s own) is answerable purely to whatever aims and goals we have. The point, then, of William James’s much misunderstood ‘definition’ of truth as ‘whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons’ is not that we can, as it were, make our beliefs true simply by wanting them to be – which is absurd. It is rather that our reason for holding true beliefs is not that the world (or God) demands that we should, but that holding true beliefs is part of having and pursuing aims and goals of our own. The contemplative picture of knowledge that dates back to Plato is an entirely misleading one, for a being without aims whose only life consisted in contemplation would not have a language to enable it to describe the world in the first place. And a creature all of whose beliefs turned out, per impossible, to be false, as the sceptic insinuates, simply would not be a creature with aims and goals at all.

James’s account of truth, in fact, is not really a definition at all. It is in making this point that these essays are at their most cogent and impressive. ‘My first characterisation of pragmatism,’ writes Rorty, ‘is that it is simply anti-essentialism applied to notions like “truth”, “knowledge”, “language”, “morality”, and similar objects of philosophical theorising ... James’s point is that there is nothing deeper to be said: truth is not the sort of thing which has an essence.’ James has frequently been misunderstood in this regard (though A.J. Ayer in The Origins of Pragmatism also pointed to his anti-essentialism), and Rorty goes on to urge an abandonment of our conception of philosophy’s task as being the discovery of essences at all.

It is an attractive view, although if pushed to its limit it would deprive us of the right to ask some perfectly harmless questions. Rorty’s insistence that ‘there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones’ ignores the fact that different inquiries will be constrained in different ways. The fact that we cannot know in advance exactly how this will be does not mean that discussions of the scientific method, for instance, betray a naive faith that ‘one simply arrives at true beliefs by obeying mechanical procedures.’ It is reasonable to ask why astronomy is more likely than astrology to help us travel to Mars, or whether it should trouble us that conventional medicine has not come up with a physiological explanation for the success of acupuncture. Faith in ‘mechanical procedures’ is like a belief that science will one day end, which is one few realists hold.

What remains unclear is how much rethinking Rorty’s arguments require a realist to do. He is right that the view of truth as correspondence to reality leaves us none the wiser, for we have no independent grasp of what it is to correspond to reality other than simply to be true. But do many of the analytical philosophers he castigates really claim that it does? Tarski’s theory of truth, after all, does not tell us what truth consists in so much as how to indicate what the true sentences of a language are. And realist theories that appeal to ‘truth in virtue of the facts’ are less essentialist than they seem. As Davidson has emphasised, to say,‘ “my skin is warm” is true if and only if my skin is warm’, is to appeal to the facts only in the most tautological sense, for the ‘fact’ that my skin is warm consists solely in my skin’s being warm. ‘My skin is warm’ and ‘E=mc2’ are true in virtue of the same kind of thing only if my skin’s being warm is thought of as the same kind of thing as E’s being equal to mc2, which is to stretch ‘sameness’ a long way.

Likewise, when Rorty argues that our theory of the world ‘is not, as physicalism would have us think, Nature’s Own Vocabulary’, he is undoubtedly right: since Nature is not a language-user, a fortiori she has no vocabulary. But why should he think that physicalism claims that she does? (Natural kinds, for instance, just are the kinds that ‘work’, and they are described in our vocabulary, not Nature’s.) In fact, the figure of the realist as he appears in these pages is a pitiful and often barely credible one. He is accused, for instance, of subscribing to ‘the notion of “truth”as something “objective” ’ – which is

just a confusion between

    1. Most of the world is as it is whatever we think about it (that is, our beliefs have very limited causal efficacy) and

    2. There is something out there in addition to the world called ‘the truth about the world’.

I doubt whether the most rampant realist would assent to such palpable nonsense as 1. and yet Rorty would have us believe that the great majority of philosophers do just that. Perhaps he is right: but the suspicion must arise that the gap separating the realist from the pragmatist is far smaller than the sound and fury would suggest. It may help to remember Wittgenstein’s words about justification in On Certainty: ‘To say: in the end we can only adduce such grounds as we take to be grounds, is to say nothing at all.’

This raises perhaps the most interesting question of all for the viewpoint expressed in these essays. One of Wittgenstein’s achievements in the Philosophical Investigations was to pull out the hooks from the picture theory of meaning, to show that what mental pictures we have can be no part of what our language means. But if this is so, what becomes of Rorty’s hope that Wittgenstein ‘might somehow rid us of the “picture that held uscaptive” ’: namely, of the mind as mirror? For if pictures play no part in meaning, how can they inform our philosophising? What difference can it make to philosophy what pictures we have? If realists and pragmatists differ over a picture, do they really differ at all?

What these questions suggest is that to see Richard Rorty’s contribution to philosophy as heavily stylistic may not be a backhanded compliment after all. He thinks of philosophy as a conversation dominated by a rather solemn tendency for all of us to develop and argue over pompous metaphors for things so general, like Life, Truth and Art, that to capture them in single images is a hopeless task. (Freud in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious relates the story of the man who says, ‘Life is like a suspension bridge,’ and when asked why, replies: ‘How should I know?’) He would like us to take ourselves a little less seriously, to take the capital letters out of life, truth and art.

For all that, Rorty’s vision of the future of philosophy remains a misty one. And his appeal to ‘conversation’ may ultimately prove a double-edged weapon. For it is characteristic of many conversations that they are pompous, full of grandiose metaphors and pontifical disputations. It is part of their charm. Consequences of Pragmatism is a lively book, not a conversation-dampener. I have wondered sometimes whether the rot goes as far as he suggests. But immediately after putting his book down, I picked up Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar:‘ “Truth,” said Balthazar to me once, blowing his nose in an old tennis sock, “Truth is what most contradicts itself intime.” ’ I think I see what Richard Rorty means.