In the chaotic flurry of consternation, excitement, and viral postmortems that followed the US election, two notions stood out to me as slightly contradictory yet strangely connected: the dreaded concept of “post-truth,” and the prescience of a philosopher who supposedly predicted Trump 18 years ago.
“Post-truth” describes the blatant disregard for facts that has been characterizing politics this year not just in the United States, but worldwide. Many who deplore the epistemic and political state we’re in have blamed our current, twisted notion of truth on postmodernism and relativism.
The prescient philosopher is Richard Rorty. Although he did not identify himself as such, Rorty was famously associated with postmodernism and relativism—the very same ground the reviled notion of post-truth is said to have emerged from.
The same philosophical movement that was able to bastardize the truth could also accurately predict the future; the same prescient philosopher who warned us of a coming dystopia would also help realize it. How could this be?
Critics of postmodernism and post-truth insist that to rebuild our society, Truth must be rehabilitated. But what if we got it all wrong? What if what brought us here in the first place was an excessive reverence for truth? What if there was such a thing as a tyranny of truth, and all it did was divide people against each other?
In the light of recent political developments, perhaps few of us would agree with this. But it is what Richard Rorty—the “visionary” who predicted Trump—seemed to believe.
Rorty and the Tyranny of truth
The snippet that went viral is from Rorty’s book Achieving Our Country, and speaks about the boiling point of a nation that would soon realize it has been duped and ignored by the political and intellectual elite. At this point, something will crack, he says. People will elect “a strongman” and all the political correctness the academic left had been trying to build for decades would come flooding back as discrimination, stronger and ruder than ever.
In Achieving Our Country, Rorty describes a rift between academics and regular people and denounces the excessive theorizing of new leftist thought, as well as the unwelcome interference of academic philosophy in politics. But throughout his work, Rorty has pointed to many other sources of divisiveness. The tyranny of truth was one of them.
Rorty spent most of his career arguing that “Truth” and “Rationality” were nothing but relics of the authoritarian “Plato-Kant canon” (1989, p. 96), which needed urgent discarding. According to him, thinkers of this canon attempt to explain the contingent multiplicity of day-to-day reality by appealing to higher “Forms” or Divine Reason. Thinkers of the Enlightenment, for instance, based the notion of rationality on the assumption of equivalence between the origin of truth and the means of achieving it (1991/2000). Truth and the human ability to reach it were placed in the world by God; therefore, Enlightenment thinkers believed, we can discover the truth, provided we use our reason the right way. Whoever does not manage to get at the truth simply hasn’t been using their God-given intellect the right way, and therefore needs to be Enlightened.
This kind of paternalism, Rorty believed, does nothing but further deepen the divide between “us,” those who are using our reason the right way, and “them,” those who are not. Since it is human to use your reason, those who have not reached the same truth as we have are often deemed subhuman. In the name of the subhumanity of others, Rorty argues (1989, 1998/1999, pp. 167–185), we have committed the worst crimes against humanity. This is why someone like Thomas Jefferson was able to proclaim “equal and exact justice to all men” and own slaves at the same time.
By accepting the rational truth vs. irrational error dichotomy and its corollaries, we exclude the opportunity for improvement and the possibility of new ideas that drive progress. Quoting Donald Davidson, Rorty shows that by delineating the applicability of the word "rational", we are forced to deem as irrational many of the things that are the very essence of a liberal community: "a form of self-criticism and reform which we hold in high esteem, and that has even been thought to be … the source of freedom" (1989, p. 49).
From “Truth” to “Truths”
Meanwhile, an article blaming the post-truth era on postmodernism and relativism reads:
More than 30 years ago, academics started to discredit “truth” as one of the “grand narratives” which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of “the truth,” which was to be rejected as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permitted only “truths”—always plural, frequently personalized, inevitably relativised. Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal truth.
Indeed Rorty proposed replacing the unilateral narrative of one absolute truth with a pluralism of contingent vocabularies. This was partly because he appreciated how Nietzsche’s perspectivism had revolutionized how we see truth and morality, partly because Rorty himself was an antirepresentationalist, and partly because he believed that only by accommodating the plurality of individual values will we be able to achieve genuine solidarity.
In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty explains his antirepresentationalism. Knowledge, and implicitly truth, are indissoluble from language, he argues. Our language is contingent. Therefore our relationship to the world is bound to be contingent as well. We, as humans, are not in an epistemically privileged/representational relationship with the world. Instead, Rorty invites us to adopt the Darwinian narrative according to which we, along with many other species, cannot really know the world, but only adapt to it. Our intellects and vocabularies "have no more of a representational relation to an intrinsic nature of things than does the anteater's snout" (1998/1999, p. 49).
Furthermore, philosophers such as Nietzsche fundamentally changed how we see Truth and Reality. In Rorty’s reading (1989), Nietzsche brought contingency to the forefront of philosophy, as the thinker argued truth was so accidental and relative to the perspective of the truth-seeker that every philosophy is a mere “involuntary and unconscious autobiography” and every metaphysics a “confession of its originator” (1886). Nietzsche liberated us from the Plato-Kant canon, prompting us to replace unity with multiplicity, to start creating instead of hoping to find.
If we are not in a representational relation with nature, and there is no fundamental Truth or Morality, we can create our own values and identities. Borrowing a phrase from Nietzsche critic Alexander Nehamas (1985), Rorty advocates for a variety of individual projects of “self-fashioning.” Moral values can be as varied as there are individuals, and within their private sphere everyone is free to manifest their self-created identity as they see fit, as long as they do not interfere with someone else’s well-being. The public sphere should be kept as separate from the private one as possible, and in fact for Rorty, John Stuart Mill’s suggestion that the government’s only role is to ensure a balance between individuals’ private lives and the suffering of others is pretty much “the last word” in moral-political philosophy (1989, p. 63).
Rorty’s solution to the fragile social-political balance between private values and the public sphere is more complex than the scope of this article. But in his work there is one more element that may ring especially true today, and could help explain how someone who did not believe in absolute truth could predict today’s politics with seemingly absolute precision—Rorty’s views on conversation.
The Importance of Conversation
If truth is not representational, we cannot—strictly speaking—test the validity of our beliefs by appealing to an external reality. The best thing we can do is confront our contingent vocabularies with those of other people. Truth becomes a matter of "social justification," instead of “accuracy of representation” (1979, p. 170).
Rorty’s views inject epistemology with a fair dose of intellectual humility. Given the contingency of our language and the impossibility to think outside of it, knowledge itself is bound to be contingent and relative to our idiosyncrasies. If we cannot pretend to faithfully reflect reality, then all of our judgments are, to some degree, flawed. In other words, “there are no assertions that are immune from revision” (1979, p. 181).
This intellectual humility, Rorty thinks, is bound to bring us closer together. Social solidarity flows from the realization that there is no distant Form of Truth to validate our beliefs. Instead, we turn to each other for support or confrontation, testing our convictions against those of our interlocutor. The closest thing to “truth” that we can aspire to is building a case so strong that it can resist most conversational objections. "Rational certainty" becomes “a matter of victory in argument rather than of relation to an object known” (1979, pp. 156–7). Truth no longer means interacting with a “nonhuman reality,” but communicating with real people. For Rorty, abandoning the search for Truth means finally finding each other. The fear of “truths—plural” and "relativism” is just “fear that there is nothing in the universe to hang on to except each other” (2000, p. 62).
In this context, the need for conversation is perennial—and its importance extends well beyond the theory of knowledge and into Rorty’s social-political philosophy.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), he describes the liberal ironist as a citizen of his ideal liberal society. In Rorty’s liberal utopia, the ironist understands that their vocabulary is not the only one out there, nor is it definitive; and that the only way toward progress is by confronting our vocabulary, narratives, and descriptions with those of other people.
The ultimate goal of a liberal, according to Rorty, is to erase the boundaries between “us” and “them.” To extend the applicability of the pronoun “we” to include every being that is capable of suffering. To learn to extend our empathy and build ever more inclusive communities. We do this through conversation, whether it’s conversation with other people or conversation with the books and “sentimental narratives” that expand our moral imagination.
Truth as Conversation Stopper
Absolute notions of Truth, Knowledge, Right, and Wrong are seen as conversation stoppers. The recourse to such irrefutable concepts only deepens the gap between “us” and “them.” As soon as we have convinced ourselves that something is right beyond objection we cancel the opportunity for conversation and therefore progress. This is not acceptable for Rorty—not epistemologically, nor morally or politically—because for him, nothing is "immune from revision," whether we’re speaking of scientific claims or claims about social justice, about racial discrimination or liberal thought. The immutable conviction that you are absolutely right while others are wrong only brings social divisiveness and inhibits reform.
Instead of insisting that “we” are right or know the Truth, we should focus our intellectual efforts on eliminating cruelty, avoiding the humiliation of others while encouraging autonomy, and building ever more inclusive communities. Traditional philosophy would have us believe we need a common Truth to coalesce around, but Rorty thinks all we need for solidarity is an awareness of a “common danger” (1989, p. 91). The danger of humiliation and cruelty, of creating a political situation where we and those like us—who have the ability to suffer—do.
Ironically, history shows us the way we usually end up actualizing this danger is by rejecting those who do not share our idea of Truth as irrational or subhuman. The conviction that the other is fundamentally different from us, coupled with blind faith in our Divine Truth is what brought about the holocausts and the genocides of the world, and its most cruel dictators. The danger is just as real whether we delegitimize the other by calling them racial epithets, animal-like metaphors, or simply “deplorable.”
It is surely difficult to refute the need for fact-checking and accuracy in public discourse. It would also be difficult to imagine Rorty doing so. “Relativism” takes on various degrees of strength, and I do not believe Rorty’s “relativism” would deny the importance of taking public responsibility for one’s political assertions. But if it did, we can arguably still keep some good pillars of one’s philosophy without having to embrace the whole edifice. It is certainly what Rorty has done in his own work, borrowing from continental and analytic philosophers alike to describe his ideal society.
We could be tempted to believe that a return to Truth with a capital "T" is what we need right now to stop the world from spiraling. But we could also allow ourselves to be reminded that an excessive attachment to truth is always an attachment to our truth. And an uncompromising confidence in our truth creates epistemic walls, information bubbles, and moral divisiveness.
In his prescient piece that went viral, Rorty warned of a time when “all the sadism which the academic left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back.” But the reason he feared this was something he elsewhere referred to as “cultural chauvinism” (2000, xii). The resentment he describes is more likely to build up when both halves of a society think they have access to the way things truly are; when one half of society is convinced it possesses the ultimate truth and uses it to discipline, admonish, enslave, or educate those who disagree with them. It is what Enlightenment thinkers, Christians, and bigots of all kinds are equally guilty of doing—and what Rorty exhorted academic liberals to avoid repeating.
It’s difficult to imagine what a mind as complex as Rorty’s would make of today’s social-political landscape. But it is probably safe to say he would have encouraged us to resist the temptation to dehumanize supporters of the opposing camp. He would perhaps remind us that bigotry and chauvinism do not just come in racist and misogynist hues, but they can also be liberal, pass as "progressive," and sometimes exclude in the name of inclusion. Finally, he would probably urge us to extend our version of “we” to include those who choose differently from us, and invite us to simply have a conversation with them.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher living in Brighton, UK. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu.
There is no ‘post truth’ phenomenon. It is a false narrative constructed by those who have controlled official truth for many decades through mass media, and now see that control being taken away. Yes there is a vastly greater range of sources and many of them are false, but there is also a growing number of savvy observers who know how to cross check and smell out the real from the fake.
Ward Jarvis says
It’s impossible to overstate how good this is.
Ward Jarvis says
I hope your work gets a lot of traction.
I enjoyed the article and have been thinking a great deal about Rorty’s predictions. I agree that more dialogue and less us vs. them is helpful, but some “truths” seem to have more practical value than others. For instance, all research supports the idea that it is harmful to spank children. I have read little of Rorty, but I know he is a neo-pragmatist. It’s hard not to think, for instance, that people who spank their children are unaware of the effects.
I really try to listen to others from different perspectives, but I also try to live my life on what works best. I concede that I don’t always know what does work best, but I seek it.
I suspect many (most?) who spank are unaware of the effects. I also suspect a large number of those who know the purported effects simply don’t trust the sources – sometimes for not irrational reasons given their knowledge base. These things tend to be more complex than it appears.
While I’m no Rorty fan, the one place I agree with him is the problem of the “god’s eye view” as a kind of purported base for epistemology. In practice what tends to happen is people assume that’s their perspective and do epistemology and judgments from that perspective. This is a kind of hubris because typically they don’t realize how situated their own beliefs are, how many are actually less well grounded than thought, and how many hidden assumptions they bring in. This is particularly true in my experience with people appealing to psychology or sociology papers without considering how strong they actually are. Not you, but there are lots of people who don’t understand statistics and method to be able to evaluate claims. Also even experienced scientists miss the epistemological issue of replicability in science.
Likewise when those with these perspective judge those without the academic background they typically do unfairly both because they don’t take into consideration the more limited knowledge base but also because they don’t understand why “common sense” and established social practice actually has a logic of its own. While individual practices might be wrong the collection itself is often heavily tested over time and shouldn’t be dismissed as quickly as some do. (Often on the basis of poorly constructed papers and even papers that haven’t been retested by other scientists)
This reminds me a little bit of Nietzsche who “feared” that we had yet to get rid of God because we “still believe in grammar.” Even those who agree to give up the pursuit of capital T truth are not always in agreement on how best how go forward once that pursuit is abandoned. It seems that we often run into traps of relativism, or extreme skepticism, or maybe nihilism. I really enjoyed this hopeful part about how to go forward:
“This intellectual humility, Rorty thinks, is bound to bring us closer together…..we turned to others for support or confrontation testing our convictions against those of our interlocutor….for Rorty abandoning the search for Truth means finally finding each other.”
This part stuck out to me. The one thing I would say is that I think most Americans still believe, if not in God, at least in grammar. Most Americans haven’t ceased believing in capital T truth. We just all live with an intense awareness that our beliefs about Truth are hotly contested from every side. We live in a time of contested belief. Whatever we believe is subject to constant scrutiny and evaluation by both others and ourself (which is a good thing in most respects). However, i think we internalize this to some degree. It creates a kind of “cross-pressure” where we live with a lack of certainty about anything. At the level of popular culture I think people deal with this constant cross-pressure with things like sarcasm, self-parody, or cynicism. We learn to hold our deepest convictions and beliefs “with a grain of salt.” This can make it difficult to live with any real sincerity or authenticity. I hope that Rorty is right that there is enough intellectual humility that this kind of authentic human connection and community can form in unlikely places, among the most unlikely of people.
The problem I have with this is that it devolves into a tyranny of the majority. The only way forward is consensus with others?? The consensus of people who believe what you believe. What about those who don’t believe it? I think you’re right in alluding to Charkes Taylor, with Rorty, postmodernism, et al. people can’t hold sincere beliefs, becoming “men without chests” who are incapable of bearing the weight of a functioning society. Sam Harris and Rorty both are trying to create new ubermench who can develop a new morality, Rorty believes it will come from consensus and dialogue, democratically. Has he met human beings? A Consensus on these big ideas on what morality should be will never materialize because human beings are too idiosyncratic and selfish. Additionally, they would have no legitimate foundation to stand upon, there is no truth so what validates this morality? That more people agree on it? Well, so what? Say he’s right, what happens to those who oppose the consensus? How long until they, the consensus, won’t put up with these petulant people who are blocking their grand consensus that will bring about utopia. Rorty’s idea can only lead to ideologues, it paves the way for tyrannies. Because if there is no actual truth to use as a litmus test of ideas then everything will devolve into power struggles, right will be synonymous with might. I don’t think that Rorty was an advocate of this, he correctly noted that elites were ignoring the working middle class which caused many to vote for Trump. However, just because you’re a good prognosticator does not mean you have the correct course of treatment. If anything his ideas are the same thing that led to the current situation but now he just wants to democratize it, a bottom-up approach. I don’t think “more cow bell” is the right answer
wayne schroeder says
excellent, ana. this morning watching fox news, because it is on at the gym, issues were being rationally discussed, while cnn on the next tv sounded like the previous but-hurt fox radical right. irony, solidarity
Well done article, Ana.
From the article … The closest thing to “truth” that we can aspire to is building a case so strong that it can resist most conversational objections. “Rational certainty” becomes “a matter of victory in argument rather than of relation to an object known”…
I wonder how a lawyer can ever self-respectfully create or enforce laws. As we are seeing today, the irony is that doing so generally results in an overturn later.
Q: Google, was Socrates a sophist (a lawyer)?
A: According to convention, Plato opposes Socrates, the prototypical philosopher, to the sophists, and henceforth the difference is taken as absolute. The sophist may well appear to be like the philosopher, but is not: the philosopher is concerned with truth, and virtue; the sophist with appearance, power and money.
Not sure how to take this apart, or where to put Rorty in it. And what of ‘to thyself be true?’
The Pharises were the law-enforcers of the day, whom Jesus called snakes and hypocrites and hated everything about them.
I’m getting the feeling that relativism in the hands of lawyers is existentially bad stuff, yet so ubiquitious.
Rosana Starr says
I first read Rorty’s prediction a month ago in the NYT. While I love Rorty’s idealism and vision for a better society, I think most humans lack the sort of humility, empathy and capacity for self-analysis that this vision requires.
Case in point: I read a comment from a climate-warming denier that cited an news release from NASA as proof that NASA was admitting that climate-warming was a hoax. I have a background in science although I am not a scientist so I don’t know how hard it would be for someone with no science background to understand such a press release. But this person was wrong about what the press release said. Period.
But how can you explain what the article actually said to someone who is hell bent on their own framework of ‘the intellectual elites lie and always will’, of ‘this is all a plot to get us’, etc? How do you have a conversation with someone who is so blinded by fury and fear that they see everything through a distorted lens? Even if you concede to their concerns, they most likely will never concede to yours.
Ergo the Israeli-Palestinean conflict and daily atrocities large and small.
I fear there is no where left to go — but to annihilation of the human race; whether through destruction of the environment, nuclear war, terrorism or plagues (yes, plagues can be largely prevented through access to clean water and proper food and medicine, if only we cared enough to provide it to those who don’t have access to it). At the root of it all is this: too many of us are consumed with fear to the point that we don’t give a hoot about each other and never will.
I really enjoyed this! Excellent acknowledgement that “Truth” is always contingent. Because we cannot know the future, we cannot know if any of our current truths are eternal Truth. Knowledge has traditionally been defined as 1) justified 2) true 3) belief. But without Truth, knowledge must be redefined as 1) justified 2) beliefs that 3) are surviving. (With the usual requirements from the scientific method and Popper’s falsificationism as the best tests we currently have for the survival of any knowledge.) More here in this blog post:
Knowledge Cannot Be Justified True Belief: https://is.gd/TfcNsx
I wonder, though, why this epistemic humility couldn’t also become a point around which to classify “us” vs. “them.” Surely it can. So we still need a universal set of ethics around which humanity can unify. Conversation and relativism won’t do it. The recognition that we are all living beings with a shared evolutionary history who *want* the long-term survival of life to continue is the bridge between is and ought that Hume sought. More here in this published philosophy paper:
Bridging the Is-Ought Divide: https://is.gd/DLsDrV
Christopher Frederick says
I followed your one link and found the following summation:
Life wants to remain an is.
Therefore, life ought to act to remain alive.”
I’m sorry, but none of this seems to make any sense. The first line is vacuous, tautological. The second line is a claim without support. The third line, therefore, does not follow from the prior two.
I don’t mean to drag us off topic, but thank you for voicing your objections so I can understand them and try to respond.
>>The first line is vacuous, tautological.
“Black is black” would be a vacuous tautology. “Life is.” is a simple observation of what exists in the universe.
>>”The second line is a claim without support.”
Do you really doubt that life wants to remain alive? As for support, I did offer a footnote directly after this claim which said:
“When I talk about “life” here, I recognize that it is not a singular entity with conscious desires. Looking at the specifics of life though, I believe we can generalize this larger rule. I think we can look at a sunflower and say that it “wants” to face the sun. Does it have agency and free will to do so? Most probably not. But there are those who say we humans don’t have agency and free will either, yet we still use the word “want” for our motives. To me, the word “want” does not imply agency, it just implies a chemical / emotional pull. Objectively speaking, we see that living things act to remain alive. We therefore say they “want” to remain alive, even if they are not aware of that fact themselves, and the “wants” are hard coded in their genes.”
So I still say 1 and 2 are perfectly valid premises and 3 is the logical conclusion. I don’t think this is even controversial. It’s just an important way to fully explain how “wants” bridge the is-ought divide in the manner that Hume was looking for. Do you not think life ought to act to remain alive?
Christopher Frederick says
This formulation is nonsensical and tautological on its own in that such a statement assumes a whole web of belief. In that regard it is not a simple statement of fact. It is tautological in that the only noncontroversial extension of an ‘X is’ statement is that ‘X is X’ which is tautological by definition.
The gist of what you wrote is:
Life is, Life wants, therefore Life ought to.
This, to me, is an unsatisfactory use of the “language game.”
I don’t know what “language game” you are referring to, but games are certainly not my intent.
…on the table.
…in the room.
…in the universe.
Aren’t all of these examples noncontroversial (and non-tautological) extensions of an ‘X is” statement? I suppose I could have written, “Life is in this universe.” but I thought that was obvious so I elected for a more simplistic and aphoristic style. Do you think it would it help if I cleared that up?
Pretty much advocating for religion
Or exactly the opposite of that.
Nicholas Gall says
Rorty wasn’t against dividing groups into us vs them; he was only against such divisions if it led us to increase the infliction cruelty and humiliation. It’s still OK to denounce others if your goal to stop cruelty and humiliation. That’s why he made it quite clear that an ironist can and should fight to defend certain ideas to the death, including by waging war on others, even while admitting the contingency of those ideas.
So I’m quite certain that Rorty would have denounced Trump and would have likely called his supporters “deplorables”. But he would have advised DEMs to tell better stories about a world led be Clinton than one led by Trump!
Shortly before he died, Rorty spoke pretty bluntly in denouncing Republicans:
‘RR: I’m not aware of having moved to the left, and am curious as to why I might seem to have done so. When I heard the news about the Twin Towers my first thought was “Oh, God. Bush will use this the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire.” I have never thought of the Republicans at any time since Reagan’s election as more than greedy, unscrupulous scoundrels. In regard to the “war on terror” I have described the same trajectory as a lot of other leftists: in favor of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and against invading Iraq. In regard to domestic policy, I am still in favor of soaking the rich and redistributing the money to the workers (though not of nationalizing the means of production). On “cultural” matters, there was a time when I had old-fogeyish doubts about gay and lesbian marriage that I no longer have. But that doesn’t seem much of shift.’
I’m sure he would have called out Trump as a “greedy, unscrupulous scoundrel”, and worse!
too much emphasis on “conversation” in this and not enough on democratic institutions (and arts/imagination), despite their shared faith in liberal democratic (not theocratic) commons Rorty wasn’t Habermas, and also his refutations were against Truth in the philosophical sense(s) not the everyday sense,
google against-bosses-against-oligarchies-conversation-richard-rorty for a pdf of his views on the threat of the Trumps of the world to our democracy.
dmf: Thank you for clarifying the ‘Truth’ that Rorty was talking about. I really appreciated Ana’s essay but was confused on this point. It’s been a long time since I read Rorty and I was beginning to think I had missed something.
my pleasure Monica, Rorty wasn’t heading down some rabbit hole of say Holocaust denial, in some ways he was a harbinger of https://conceptsinsts.wikispaces.com/file/view/PracticeTurnInContemporaryTheory.pdf
a.b. keck says
Excellent article. Thanks Ana. But I do have some questions, possibly naive.
As other commentators have said, my impression has always been that Rorty wanted to have it both ways. At a high level he wanted to refute the Plato-Kantian Truth with a Nietzschean perspectivism that focused on the contingency and mutability of all things, while at the more practical level he wanted to privilege empathy and solidarity against cruelty and violence – essentially by championing open, democratic conversation. (His reading of Nabokov’s novels as elaborations of the chaos and self-delusion of minds trapped in themselves has always stuck with me.) But I confess that I don’t quite understand how this division of high Truth and low truth is possible, and I suspect it underestimates the power of the human need for grounding and for certainty. We haven’t been obsessed with certainty for so long by some metaphysical accident… What’s to keep open, democratic conversation from collapsing into competing dogmas?
A similar problem with the High/low split Rorty is aiming at is how it applies to scientific facts, especially as those facts gets understood popularly and politically. At one of my jobs (legal aide) I regularly interact with people who believe aliens seeded human intelligence on the earth, or believe that astrology and blood-type are highly accurate predictors of personality and life-choices. You’d be surprised how sophisticated and post-modern their defense of these beliefs can be, how often their logic echoes the logic Foucault, or Judith Butler, or any number of post-Nietzschean radicals. What resources are there to argue against this kind of thing, on a Rortian model? After all, more people have been convinced by Youtube videos that Beyonce is a member of the Illuminati than have even heard of Richard Rorty.
(Inverse question: Why should I assume the Darwinian model of the world is accurate or expresses a deeper truth about me and my ant-eating, truth-seeking snout than some other model?)
The problem is a problem of extremes. When people are obsessed with an Absolute they tend toward extremes, but when they feel they live in the total absence of Absolutes, they also tend toward extremes. I confess I have no idea how to resolve this, but I don’t think anyone else does either. And it’s a real pickle.
“What’s to keep open, democratic conversation from collapsing into competing dogmas?”
what makes for something as dramatic as a ‘collapse’ in the competition of “dogmas”, why isn’t this just politics? the point that Rorty is making is that there is no way out of politics (no higher ground, etc) and so he supported liberal democratic institutions like in the US and Canada in a broad ballots not bullets kind of way.
a.b. keck says
Well, I think it just boils down to the (self-evident?) fact that people aren’t engaged emotionally or spiritually by a politics without higher ground – at least not in sufficient numbers to sustain democratic institutions. The end of Ms. Sandoiu’s post suggests that Rorty would have recommended progressives and liberals not fall into the dogmatic trap of disciplining, dehumanizing, or educating those who disagree with them. But it seems to me that’s exactly what they did. Why? Because there were some truths they found they weren’t willing to relativize or discuss on an even keel (have you been to liberal arts campus in the last few years?). Even if you take the deepest and, to my mind, most beautiful of those truths – ‘all men are created equal’ – that’s still something you could be backed into a corner and forced to defend. How would you defend it? You’d probably have to use reason. And once someone has to use reason to defend an idea they are ethically committed to they aren’t satisfied with reason as a groundless tool that floats in mid-air and is always open to revaluation and is only moving up or down or left or right depending on your (entirely contingent) point of view. Thus political life tends to pull people towards dogmatic extremes, especially in moments of crisis. Or that’s how it seems to me anyway.
not sure how that addresses my question, I think you may be missing the gist of most academic philosophy that Rorty was opposed to, in this he was part of a broader generational trend that one can see in other areas like science studies in the work of folks like Ian Hacking, Judge Posner and Stanley Fish on law, and the like. That people have faith convictions (religious or otherwise) in and of itself doesn’t give us some deus ex machina that lifts us above the fray of politics.
Rorty may have had a naive faith (after Dewey) that sufficient numbers of people could be won over by his kind of humanist rhetoric in the long run but his critiques of meta-physics don’t depend on this (Stanley Fish does a nice job tho of undercutting his faith in Irony in his article against antifoundationalist theory hope), and if you google his against oligarchs interview you’ll see that he was well aware of how kleptocrats can ruin liberal democracies.
I’ve spent most of my life around universities, they’ve never been places with many people who could do much in the way of thinking thru issues, just like everywhere else,
which is why Habermas and co. are pipedreaming and why analysts of public pathologies like Zizek find an audience in philosophical circles (his pop life aside which I don’t really get).
a.b. keck says
I thought your question was why I think democratic politics is moving towards dogmatic extremes that might eventually make those politics impossible. No? I think perhaps we’re talking around each other, but I’ll give it another shot. I myself am interested in Rorty and Hacking and Feyerabend etc… and their attack on academic philosophy, but I think all that has pretty much nothing to do with day-to-day political life as 95% of Americans experience it. Faith convictions may not actually lift us above the fray of politics, but people with faith convictions (of any kind, not just religious) think they do, or behave as if they do anyway. And my sense is that most people really, really want to be above that fray, and that the longing for a religious or quasi-religious certainty about something, anything, is a human need too deep for Rorty or anybody else to simply argue it away. And, further, my sense is that this need is going to become more powerful, not less, in the coming decades. God is dead, but his shadow is long.
ah, I thought you were arguing that Rorty style relativism (or what St.Fish called Doing What Comes Naturally) must degenerate into such extremes (or sophistry as some have recently called it in these parts), Rorty’s assesment that the kinds of faith commitments that you mention are effectively conversation stoppers seems to be evident every day in the news of hyperpartisanship/conflict, and jammed/dysfunctional governance, Where are these people who want to be above politics as opposed to just dominating it without democratic checks and balances? Rorty placed his Romantic hopes in a kind of ironic cosmopolitanism but his political stance in defense of liberal governance/institutions and the market of ideas, thus his split with the branch derrideans, and as I noted he was well aware that our institutions could be corrupted by money/power, sounds like the daily news, no?
caution: rortyian historical sweeping conflation follows.
i think rorty’s career was totally motivated as reaction to his disciplined tutelage under hartshorne while writing his masters thesis on whitehead in chicago. this had to be a shocker after his childhood upbringing in a Bolshevist-leaning home in NYC (IIRC).
i’m not so sure to which arena Rorty restricted his (T)ruth – i actually don’t think he restricted his sophistry to any sector of ideas. and my earlier post was to note that the profession of lawyers (and politicians) is sophistry, and just look at what its excesses brings to a nation. laws are as fluid as their agents’ agendas.
i don’t want or mean to offend those of you who do legal work w/ good intent.
why would his research on Whitehead be shocking to him instead of just leading him (as he wrote in an early article) to embracing the linguistic turn, his grandfather was Walter Rauschenbusch and his father was friends with Sidney Hook?
see: A Talent for Bricolage
An Interview with Richard Rorty
as for “sophistry” how is that not just a slur these days, what could be the measure for such a categorization?
you got me to do a refresh on my recall. what now appears for RR is an upbringing in a very socialist ideology/theology. so, it was wrong of me to say ‘shocked’; rather, it kinda’ fits that RR’s MS and PhD study of whitehead’s pan-relatedness process was directed by hartshorne’s and weiss’ process theology.
most obvious in my searching is that usually the MS and PhD years should involve intense seminal philosophy work. but they are NEVER DISCUSSED BY RR OR ANYWHERE IN WEB LITERATURE. just one more example of logical positivists’ forcing opposing ideas out of allowed discourse – the great 20th century sin of philosophical censorship in academia.
[related: whitehead beats einstein (another fake news darling)…see verlinde’s emergent gravity and quit wasting money on foolish dark energy.]
stepping off soapbox…
quote: as for “sophistry” how is that not just a slur these days, what could be the measure for such a categorization?
i think the definition of sophistry pretty well describes the majority of attitudes/practices of modern professionals.
and any upward-focused careerist – including most professors
i meant to mention this from Ana’s article … The closest thing to “truth” that we can aspire to is building a case so strong that it can resist most conversational objections. “Rational certainty” becomes “a matter of victory in argument rather than of relation to an object known”…
there’s a slippery slope between this synopsis of RR’s thoughts and what i just cited as common exemplars of sophistry…we see everywhere today. e.g., did the russians hack the election?
what’s the viable alternative to Rorty’s observation of how we actually do what we do, how things are decided?
this is only a slippery slope to the degree that authoritarianism and all are always a threat in human affairs, there isn’t some philosophical means of future-proofing our systems of governance.
Dr Hatem Ayman Tawfik says
The author claims that ” The ultimate goal of a liberal, according to Rorty, is to erase the boundaries between “us” and “them” but unfortunately what the ‘liberals’ in the west failed to realize is that this notion should have been a 2 way street not a 1-way street. Unfortunately experience has shown that “them’ have no such concept at all and that’s why the process collapsed.
Jay Jeffers says
Lots of interesting ground covered. Whether it acquits Rorty on the overall charges of inconsistency he faced? I’m not sure and I doubt the writer was going for that, but it does situate Rorty’s varying interests and claims in a very human and intelligible way.
Though I’m no historian of ideas, I also hesitate before blaming our current state of affairs and its blatant disregard for truth and evidence on the academic movement of postmodernism, or the stance of relativism. It just seems really plausible that both the liar and the bullshitter (to use Frankfurt’s distinction) have been around for a long time and wouldn’t need to take encouragement from, I don’t know, some French philosophers before gaining advantage through lying and bullshitting.