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Richard Rorty's Unflinching Critique of Modern Western Philosophy
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-05-19 09:01:13
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While writing a Ph.D. dissertation at Yale University on immanence and transcendence in Giambattista Vico’s concept of Providence I serendipitously discovered the late Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). What first attracted my attention to that particular book was Rorty’s rejection of the Cartesian mind-body split with which Vico’s too begins his New Science.

To be sure he had already written another important book in 1967 titled The Linguistic Turn in which he had introduced a skeptical attitude about the nature and place of philosophical enquiry while remaining within the field of analytic philosophy, but here was a courageous critique of analytic philosophy and by implication of the role and importance of traditional philosophy in modern culture. That book eventually was seen as Rorty’s most important work in which he dismisses Cartesian representationalism, the notion that the mind reflects some objective reality outside itself. Philosophy is only important for pragmatic reasons, for how useful it is in helping a culture achieve its aims.

Rorty holds that with Descartes there begins within modern philosophy a scientification of the same which has in turn produced several centuries’ worth of fierce debates between rationalists (Kant, for example) and empiricists (Hume, for example), idealists (Berkeley, for example) and materialists (Hobbes, for example) which were all based on a false premise. The false premise was the idea that the mind was a “theater of representation,” forever dealing with a reality outside itself which it observes objectively. Also faulty, for Rorty, is the later attempt to replace mind in the equation with language. He is convinced that the arduous philosophical search for foundational values, true nature, a priori truths, though sometimes fascinating and stimulating would forever fail to yield the hoped for results, that is to say, non-controversial results concerning matters of ultimate concern.

While paying lip service to God as the ultimate ground of philosophy (a God who is not the living God with whom Jacob wrestled all night thus receiving the name Israel, but the God of the philosophers demonstrated with rational proofs) the Cartesian project had in effect substituted science for God and had gone nowhere; it had in fact prepared a dehumanized world devoid of the poetic wherein we would think of our brains as so much hardware and the very concept of soul would no longer be grasped. Its only achievement, as Rorty sees it, was to elevate philosophers to an eminence they really did not deserve.

So the question is, what does Rorty substitute for what he considers the intellectually bankrupt representationalism and foundationalism of modern philosophy? He offers us “epistemological behaviorism.” We know what our society lets us know. What we accept has nothing to do with how well a statement mirrors the world; it has everything to do with how well it fits in what we have already come to believe, and the answers as to why we believe what we believe will be found in psychology, sociology and even biology, not philosophy.

The next crucial question is this: what is philosophy good for? A lot less than most philosophers care to admit, according to Rorty. By elevating the mind above and beyond physical reality, and taking that mind as their own intellectual territory, analytic philosophers had, in effect, placed themselves above and beyond other intellectual disciplines. They had made themselves the judges of what was real and meaningful, had placed themselves outside of history. So, what is the role of philosophers? If, as Rorty claims, there are no foundations to be uncovered, no a priori truths (that is to say, truths who do not need empirical evidence or experience) to be discovered, then philosophers were mere “conversationalists” and “re-describers.”

That the best philosophy throughout Western history has been a conversation or a dialogue among philosophers is not disputed by many people. It is the notion of “re-describer” which is more unique to Rorty’s philosophy and proved more controversial. According to Rorty, thinkers such as Copernicans, Marxists, modern scientists, to use Rorty’s own examples, came up with sentences which re-describe reality; sentences like “the earth goes round the sun,” “all history is the history of class struggle,” and “matter can be changed into energy.” These re-descriptions were initially seen as false, then they were accepted as hypotheses, and finally became accepted, at least within certain communities of inquiry, as obviously true.

Rorty has often recognized the debt he owes to the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. His own version of pragmatism has changed over the years, from the classic view that truth was what current cultural practice justified to a complete rejection of the concept’s usefulness. Since there are no ultimate truths, truth cannot be a meaningful goal of inquiry. What philosopher ought to aim for is for a practical matter of “honest justification.” Only those beliefs which “work,” which help in the achievement of a culture’s aims, are those which can be justified.

Rorty’s anti-foundationalism is reflected in his political philosophy. In 1989 he published Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity which begins where Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature left off and explores, among other things, the implications of replacing abstract ideas with pragmatism as the binding blocks of political community. He envisioned a political culture which maximizes creativity and freedom, which protects people from cruelty and extreme want, but not because these wishes express absolute values. His beliefs, like anyone else’s, reflected the time and place he lived in. What social hope there was lay in imagination and re-description, in people “describing a future in terms which the past did not use.” Indeed, if that kind of philosophy has by now trickled down to the people, it would go a long way in explaining the sudden success of a Barack Obama in 2008 with its emphasis on change and the future and its repudiation of the good old political ways of doing things.

Rorty, not unlike Derrida, has often been accused of no longer doing philosophy and of being in effect an anti-philosopher. He certainly has not endeared himself to the professional philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic, to which both Rorty and his supporters have replied that the version of philosophy which his critics continue to perpetuate has by now outlived whatever usefulness it had in the past. Food for thought!

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Lex2008-12-15 05:37:31
what is the main critique of rorty on science?

heckubiss2012-08-31 16:33:00

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