Richard Rorty: A friend of Dan Dennett (and his dreaded scientism : ). A neo-pragmatist. An analytic philosopher who began teaching around the mid-20th-century, he eventually turned against its scientism. Rorty felt that 20th-century analytic thought was going down the wrong track by taking up the same sort of epistemological foundationalist project as Descartes. Rorty saw the narrow sense-data and logic focus of the positivists as crumbling from its own internal critique. He helped launch and participate in the 'linguistic turn' in analytic thinking, embracing as an alternative way forward Wittgenstein's account of linguistic meaning as use not strictly tied to representation.
Here's some more Lawrence Cahoone elaborating:
Rorty drew a parallel between his turn and a similar critical turn to language going on in the continental phenomenological tradition. Whereas 20th-century phenomenology had been founded on Husserl's own mental foundationalist project, figures such as Jacques Derrida, in light of Heidegger, began to take a deconstructive and linguistic approach to the mentalist tradition. In this sense Rorty always saw Derrida as a kindred spirit. They were both sharp readers of Hegel and Heidegger, but in their political sensibilities both were liberal reformers rather than radicals like a Zizek. Rorty was a student and friend of Quine, even though Quine notoriously tried to prevent Cambridge from awarding an honorary degree to Derrida in 1992. In many ways barely touched on here, Richard Rorty was the heart and intersection of recent philosophy, because he read so liberally in both the Anglo analytic and continental phenomenological traditions and inspired others to begin crossing the divide as well. The interesting recent work of such people as Robert Brandom, whose theory of inferentialism in meaning owes equally to Frege and Hegel, can be attributed to Rorty's influence.
Tom McDonald says
Listening to this it just occurred to me that for Rorty in his reading of Hegel, “Spirit”=”Language”. There are lots of parallels. For example, Rorty says that the reason philosophers cannot ‘step outside’ to check whether our language ultimately represents or corresponds to things in reality is because language is essentially circular and creative ‘in itself’. I think he would say that when philosophers attempt to justify one set of statements or descriptions about the world (e.g. “water is wet”) what we actually wind up doing is comparing them to another, different set of statements or descriptions of the world (e.g. “because it is made of H2O”) that we either find also to be normative in our language, or that we invent. The parallel with Hegel is that this shows how there is a sort of of autonomy that spirit or language gains when it, or rather “we” in them, realize that in them there only needs to be self-correspondence. While this might be an exciting proposition to Rorty’s heroes the “strong poets”, there’s no doubt how it is maddening to any philosopher concerned with science and representational knowledge. Does it mean that there is no outside world? No Truth? (Rorty is the enemy of the Truth!). I don’t think it does mean there is no ‘real world’, and I really don’t believe Rorty thinks that either. What it does probably mean is that the relationship between our language and the world is ‘infinitely pragmatic’ such that there is no point (perhaps there is even harm) in trying to ‘nail down’ or define once-and-for-all how language can/should/must correspond to it. I’m pretty sure this is Rorty’s position.
David Clark says
Note that this Cahoone lecture (and the previous one) have been extracted from the Great Courses product from The Learning Company:
A terrific (IMO) 100-level intro to modern philosophy, but probably not public domain. I don’t know how vigilant TLC is when it comes to protecting their intellectual property, but I know the youtube poster didn’t have permission to post the files to that site, and I don’t want anyone here to get in trouble.
David Buchanan says
Seems like scholars of classical pragmatism have been quite busy protecting Pierce, James and Dewey from Rorty’s appropriation. Even though their objections are presented in an academic style, the anger is quite palpable. He doesn’t deserve the name, they say. He “eviscerates” pragmatism, cuts the guts out, evacuates the meaning, etc., etc.. These complaints sort of add up to the notion that Rorty isn’t really a pragmatist, neo or otherwise, and his stance should be called something else. I think it was Putnam who suggested “Rortyism”, which seems both clear enough and fair enough.
What I think the difference comes down to is the way in which Rorty rejected the correspondence theory of truth. James, Dewey and Pirsig, for example, rejected the dualistic metaphysical assumptions behind that truth theory. The pragmatic theory of truth says that subjects and objects are not the starting points of reality or the conditions that make experience possible. They are just concepts derived from experience and, like all concepts, they’re true only to the extent that they can successfully guide experience, to the extent that we can act on them.
Rorty, on the other hand, thinks we ought not be doing epistemology at all, that we ought not have a theory of truth at all. He rejects the correspondence theory of truth too but the reason is not because he thinks there is no such thing as an external reality to which our ideas might correspond but because access to that reality is impossible. Since the correspondence theory is impossible, he figures, epistemology as such is a failed enterprise and we ought to talk about something else. We ought to talk about talking because that’s all we can ever do anyway. You know, because all awareness is a linguistic affair. And so you get a kind of linguistic idealism wherein the only constraints on our truth claims are all the other truth claims. Conversation is the only constraint. I think that is a rather extreme form of relativism.
James, by contrast, had already rejected that notion in his original “Pragmatism” lectures of 1907, saying that pragmatic truth is tightly “wedged and controlled”. Our claims are wedged between the web of beliefs we’ve been handed by the language AND by the sensible flux of life. The classical pragmatists do not reject empiricism. They expand upon it. In fact, James, Dewey and Pirsig are radical empiricists who say, in effect, that experience and reality amount to the same thing. But because they reject the metaphysics of traditional empiricism, they reject the notion that our ideas are supposed to correspond to something outside or beyond our experience. Instead, pragmatic truths come to life within the tissue of experience. To say our truths agree with reality is to say they can be put to work within the ongoing stream of experience and NOT because they correspond to things-in-themselves or anything like that.
The classical pragmatists have been fighting back against charges of relativism for over a hundred years now. As I see it, Rorty did quite a lot to revive pragmatism and pragmatists are quite happy about that. But it’s also true that he took their biggest problem, cranked up the volume and made it much, much worse. To me, the whole thing smells like resignation, defeat and nihilism. It’s depressing as hell.
As Teed Rockwell puts it, giving up on epistemology because the correspondence theory has failed is like giving up on astronomy because the theory of the crystalline spheres has failed. In other words, we don’t need to reject the question of truth just because one particular answer has failed. Instead of re-thinking the heavens, he rejects the very idea of using telescopes at all.
Apologies to any Rorty fans.
Tom McDonald says
Rorty does not claim that anyone has to stop doing epistemology. He is claiming instead that epistemology is a confused project as it has been construed in modern philosophy from Descartes to Dennett.
In Rorty’s view, epistemology is a self-constructive normative practice for “all” in the name of scientific worldview that needs a point around which to cohere absent the old God.
On a deeper level, to keep recommending epistemology as it is construed in analytic thinking is to recommend a utilitarian model of selfhood that is void of genuine individuality but is culturally or normatively ‘fitted’ To Correspond With The World In The Specified And Correct Manner.
You say Rorty’s critique is nihilism. I would say based on the above critique that analytical epistemology is nihilism for requiring that we become universal utilitarian voids. Being a ‘positive’ or uncritical epistemologist is a way of being an ideologist for scientism.