Getting it right

Bernard Williams

  • Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by Richard Rorty
    Cambridge, 201 pp, £25.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 521 35381 5

An energetic thinker with some original ideas may understandably rebel against the oppressive demand to get it right, especially when the demand comes, as it often does, from cautious and conventional colleagues. In responsible subjects such as the natural sciences, such people rebel against the demand only at their peril – or rather, their ideas will succeed only if the demand is, in the end, obeyed, and the colleagues turn out merely to have been too cautious. In philosophy, however, the bets are less clearly drawn: the very idea of getting it right is more problematic. The innovator may see the demand as not just cautious, but in itself restrictive and conventional, asking for correctness, in terms which the new ideas are designed to overthrow. He may be tempted to reject the demand altogether. This reaction is naturally self-fuelling; the further one goes, the more irrelevant the demand may seem.

However, the demand to get it right has great survival value. All the philosophers who have been found interesting for more than a very brief period of fashion have been driven by a need to get it right in some terms or other. Even Nietzsche, the thinker who most self-consciously constructed himself in a new style, and most radically mistreated received standards of relevance and correctness, frequently reminded himself and any readers he might have that he was originally a philologist and had derived from that a respect for the decencies of exactness. Nietzsche’s very extreme case shows something true more generally: that there is no one style in philosophy that displays the need to get it right. If one believes that careful treatises in a semi-scientific style are appropriate to philosophy, then some plain virtues of that sort may meet the need. More Nietzschean pretensions make more Nietzschean demands. But some acknowledgment of the need is required, some concern for truthfulness that goes beyond the disposition to put next what occurs next. Otherwise, what is conceived of as a radical philosophy will unsurprisingly turn out to be just like conventional work which equally lacks intensity. It will be predictably edifying, or perhaps predictably unedifying: in any case, predictable.

Richard Rorty is a philosopher for whom the standards and the point of getting it right have become very problematic, not only in philosophy but quite generally. In his influential and interesting book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979, he claimed that we should give up the idea of language and thought mirroring or representing an external reality, and think in terms of ‘metaphors’ or ‘vocabularies’ striving with each other. We invent descriptions (‘of the world’, as we misleadingly put it), and some of them catch on, while others do not. This general line of thought does not exclude the notion of getting things right, but it does raise doubts about what it may be to do so. It also gives a hard time to some standard ways of construing that idea (those familiar to structural engineers and archival historians, for instance). In that book, the doubts about getting it right had only to a limited extent affected the book itself; a good deal of it sounded like a philosopher arguing carefully for one position and against another, distinguishing views, scrupulously expounding the work of others. In his new book, however, there are distressing signs that Rorty has slackened his grip on conventional notions of getting it right without yet forcing us to accept any others.

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