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Response by Michal Fram Cohen

Response by Michal Fram Cohen

4 Mins
March 2, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

I do not have much to add to Shawn Klein’s fine essay . As a linguist by training, I would like to elaborate more on the issue of language.

After Foucault and Derrida, reading Richard Rorty is encouraging. Rorty presents his views in a lucid, coherent manner, which makes it easier to tackle his errors. It is as if he realized that Postmodernism had reached bottom with Foucault and Derrida so the only way to go was up. It may also be a testament to the relative benevolence of an American philosopher when compared to his European counterparts. Rorty’s community, of which (according to his views) he is but an inter-dependent member, is the academic world of the University of Virginia and Princeton. Nevertheless, his language can be intelligible to any nonacademic intelligent reader. Unlike Derrida, Rorty does not use a secret code. He uses terms like “language” and “contingency” consistently, without any play of shifting their meaning. This relative honesty makes it possible to focus on his arguments rather than on deciphering his meaning.

Rorty’s arguments are simple: There is an objective world out there, but alas, it does not include any language. Language is a human invention that keeps changing over time, and as such, it can only be contingent. However, language describes the world out there, so it imposes on the world a certain world-view. All changes in world-view along history can be traced back to a change in language. Rorty includes in his definition of language any vocabulary, literary, scientific, or political. Thus, when he refers to a change of vocabulary, he does not refer to the shift from Old English to Middle English to Modern English, but rather to the shift from Aristotelian Science to Newtonian Science, from Classicism to Romanticism, and from Capitalism to Socialism. Unlike Derrida, Rorty has no qualms about the realm of historical events, but his mind shuts off the origin of these events: conceptual changes. All he can say is that “the notions of criteria and choice (including that of ‘arbitrary’ choice) are no longer in point when it comes to changes from one language game to another. Europe gradually lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using others” (6). The change from one vocabulary to another just happens. It is an irreducible, axiomatic event. This view of events without agents rings similar to Foucault’s view of networks of power that spring into existence without agents to construct them. Rorty accepts Derrida’s notion of language as no more than a word-game, but he delimits shifts of meaning to gradual, historical changes, thus allowing for the possibility of consistent meaning within a certain historical period.

Rorty realized that Postmodernism had reached bottom with Foucault and Derrida so the only way to go was up.

Rorty makes a distinction between individual sentences and entire languages. He concedes that sentences can pertain to facts and can have direct correlation to the world out there: “the Giants won the game” or “the butler did it” are such sentences. However, an entire language represents a certain world-view that cannot correlate directly to the world out there. Rorty brings up the vocabulary of ancient Athenian politics versus Jefferson’s as alternative language games, each equally valid and equally contingent. But is it so? The Athenian Constitution and the American Constitution both allowed for slavery, but only the American Constitution was amended to outlaw slavery. Is slavery contingent, or is there an objective human nature, which can be observed in the world out there, which is inconsistent with slavery? As someone who dedicated Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity to the memory of six liberals, Rorty should be uneasy with the notion that the Civil War was no more than a shift from one contingent pro-slavery vocabulary into another contingent anti-slavery vocabulary.

Rorty consistently eliminates the conceptual level in all human discoveries, inventions, and artistic creations, which are the motive behind all the historical changes he observes. It is odd that he talks about the men whose conceptual achievements brought about the historical changes he writes about, without acknowledging their achievements. He writes about “Aristotelian,” “Galilean,” “Newtonian,” and “Jeffersonian” vocabularies, not discoveries or inventions. For Rorty, such men are merely those “whose novel jargon we have found useful” (8). He effectively eliminates the conceptual genius of these men, and the very existence of a conceptual faculty in human beings, substituting words for concepts and language for philosophy. Here it is from the horse’s mouth:

“For it is essential to my view that we have no pre-linguistic consciousness to which language needs to be adequate, no deep sense of how things are which it is the duty of philosophers to spell out in language” (21).

The “pre-linguistic” consciousness is the conceptual faculty. Rorty exhibits the attitude of a materialist when he denies the existence of concepts. He aptly writes that the differences between Neanderthal man and Homo Sapiens should be studied by neurology and evolutionary biology. As Shawn Klein observed in his essay, Rorty and Objectivism reject the same view of concepts as intrinsic. Rorty, however, regards this view as the only possible one, and thus sets up a straw man, which he easily demolishes. Once he is left without concepts, Rorty (and any man) can only turn to other people to tell him how to live. This is where Solidarity wins over Objectivity. Shawn is right to point out that Rorty would probably regard Objectivists as no different from other people: they simply belong to a community that uses the words “concepts” and “objectivity” extensively. Their vocabulary is Randian, because they found it useful. Hopefully, Rorty will not be able to object when the Randian vocabulary takes over as people gradually begin to use it instead of the Postmodernist vocabulary.  

Michal Fram Cohen
About the author:
Michal Fram Cohen
History of Philosophy