This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."
Essays and Comments on Rorty's "Solidarity or Objectivity?" and "The Contingency of Language"
Summary of the Discussion
Rorty’s Neo-Pragmatism, by Stephen Hicks
For our purpose of understanding postmodernism, Richard Rorty’s views are important because he is the leading American postmodernist. Rorty’s avenue to postmodernism is the evolution of the analytic tradition in philosophy. He is, however, one of the few analytically trained philosophers who have made a serious attempt to cross the analytic/continental divide. In Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature, for example, Rorty identifies the three “great edifying” thinkers of our time, the ones we all can learn the most from: Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger (368). And in other essays he has spent much time reflecting on the writings of Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard.
Rorty is also useful to us because he is a much easier read than most postmodernists are. He brings to his writing the analytic tradition’s emphasis on clarity and getting to the point--unlike the other thinkers we’ve been reading in this course. He’s also an easier read because one senses from his writings that he’s a nice left-liberal guy who hopes that civilized discussion and liberal democracy will carry on in some form--again unlike the others we’ve been reading.
Rorty is aware of the criticism that postmodernism is a threat to the future of civilized discussion and liberal democracy, and he takes some pains to respond to that criticism. In responding, however, he does not pretend that he has knock-down arguments against the criticism or that the postmodernist future will be bright and rosy. Instead he argues that the postmodern condition is what we’re stuck with, so we might as well face up to it with good faith and no illusions.
Why are we stuck with it? The overall structure of his argument is straightforward. The history of philosophy has made it clear that we have to choose between objectivism and pragmatism. The history of philosophy also shows us, however, that objectivism has failed. So like it or not, pragmatism it is.
This suggests three topics for my summary post. First, what does Rorty mean by the alternative of objectivism and pragmatism? Second, why does he think objectivism has failed and must fail? And third, what can be said about Rorty’s view of our pragmatic future?
(In the references that follow, I’ve used the following abbreviations: CoL = “The Contingency of Language,” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity; SoO? = “Solidarity or Objectivity?” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth; PMN = Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature.)
Either Objectivity or Pragmatism. By my count, Rorty poses thirteen related formulations of the global contrast between objectivism and pragmatism. The formulations range over the debates about the relation of mind to reality, of self to others, the concepts of fact, truth, objectivity, rationality, and the function of philosophy.
1. On the self’s orientation: One’s fundamental relation as being to an impersonal external reality vs. one’s fundamental relation as being to others (SoO? 21).
2. On the mind: The mind as a mirror of nature vs. the mind as creative (PMN).
3. On the source of truth: Truth as intrinsic vs. truth as a creation of language (CoL 4-5).
4. On how truth is achieved: Truth as something discovered vs. truth as something made (CoL 3).
5. On the status of truth: Truth as correspondence vs. truth as a useless topic (CoL 8).
6. On the analytic/synthetic distinction: The analytic/synthetic and necessary/contingent distinctions as valid vs. everything is synthetic and contingent (in the Quinean sense) (SoO? 26).
7. On objectivity: Objectivity as achieving correspondence vs. objectivity as achieving inter-subjective agreement (SoO? 22-23).
8. On rationality: Rationality as the top-down application of criteria vs. rationality as being empirical (SoO? 27).
9. On the priority of fact or value: Facts and truths as prior to values and/or disconnected from values vs. values as prior to facts and truths and facts and truths as contingent upon values (PMN 363-364; CoL 8).
10. On the distinction between fact and value: Attempting to overcome the fact/value dichotomy vs. accepting that it’s unbridgeable to the objectivist (PMN 383).
11. On the philosopher’s goal: The philosopher as seeking a universal and permanent framework for inquiry vs. the philosopher as part of an evolving conversation (PMN 380, 389).
12. On the philosopher’s allegiance: The philosopher as ally of the scientist vs. philosopher as ally of the poet (and/or the scientist as another kind of poet) (CoL 7-8).
13. On philosophy’s status: Philosophy as a non-empirical science of a special higher realm vs. philosophy as having no subject matter (CoL 4).
Condensing the Rortyan list of alternatives to three broad issues--one metaphysical, one epistemological, and one ethical--we get the following:
Metaphysically, what is the nature of the self/mind? The choice is between mind as discoverer and mind as creator.
Epistemologically, when speaking of knowledge and truth, what is our orientation? The choice offered is between a cognition orientation and an action orientation.
Ethically, what ought we seek? The choice offered is between a fact orientation vs. value orientation.
Rorty’s version of the objectivist tradition holds that the mind is primarily a discovery function and that our primary orientation should be to the cognition of facts. The pragmatist tradition, by contrast, holds that the mind is primarily a creative function and that our primary orientation should be to action and value.
Clearly Rorty’s list mixes several fundamental alternatives (1, 10, possibly 4, 5, and 7) with several false alternatives (2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13). So our task is to sort out the intrinsicist from the objectivist accounts of truth, rationality, value, etc., and to contrast both to the subjectivist.
Part of the project of sorting the false from the fundamental alternatives is the difficult project of constructing positive accounts that overcome the traditional dichotomies. The broadly objectivist project has not been successful in integrating the mind’s discovery and creativity functions, and it has not been successful in connecting thought to action and fact to value. This gives some credibility to Rorty’s next premise.
The Failure of Objectivism/Intrinsicism. The objectivist tradition’s agenda was to give a true account of the world out there, and then to use that true account to make the world a better place for humans. But because of the problems of skepticism and of divorce of fact and value, it has achieved neither a satisfactory account of truth nor a connection between truth and action. And so philosophy has dead-ended in skepticism and irrelevance.
Richard Rorty is the leading American postmodernist.
There is a lot of truth to this account. Setting aside the Aristotelian tradition that in the early modern world made possible Locke, Newton, and the Enlightenment, the history of philosophy has been largely a history of failure. To explain how philosophy ended up where it was in Rorty’s formative years--the 1960s--Rorty almost always singles out intrinsicist thinkers and their philosophies as his foil. This line of thinking starts with religious accounts of God and then is secularized by Plato. Kant gives it an internalist turn, and then Hegel resurrects God/Plato with an evolutionary twist. But by the time of Nietzsche the game is up for the Hegelians, and Logical Positivism and Structuralism are the last gasps for Kantian internalism.
On the standard Objectivist reading, what is wrong with all of these thinkers is that they are intrinsicist and subjectivist variations on the primacy of consciousness, and that intrinsicist or subjectivist accounts of consciousness and reason are going to run into dead ends. The lesson Objectivists draw is that objectivist accounts of consciousness and reason must be developed.
Rorty disagrees. While we would like to distinguish the Aristotelian/objectivist alternative from the Platonic/intrinsicist, Rorty views the Aristotelian line as a watered-down version of Platonism: access to nature is just as problematic as access to God, the Forms, or a noumenal self, and the laws of nature are just as problematically rigid as religious commandments and Kantian categories. So on Rorty’s reading, what is wrong with all of these thinkers, Platonic and Aristotelian alike, is that they believe in transcendental and universal truths that are discoverable by reason. (The religious thinkers are a partial exception, holding as they do that transcendental universal truths are discovered by mystical experience or faith.) The lesson he draws, then, from the dead-end that philosophy had reached by the 1960s, is that the notion of transcendental and universal truths need to be abandoned, and that the notion of reason needs to be modified severely in a much more modest, pragmatic direction. (For a summary of Rorty’s historical account, see “Philosophy Without Mirrors,” the final chapter of PMN.)
So We’re Stuck With Pragmatism. Rorty addresses two species of criticism typically leveled against his and others’ pragmatisms--that pragmatism is self-refuting, and that it undermines civil society. Rorty offers two lines of response to the standard criticism that pragmatism is self-refuting because when it attempts to give itself a foundation it falls into an infinite regress or circularity.
In CoL, his response is that pragmatism is immune to charges of self-refutation because it does not offer a positive theory. Recognizing that making a positive statement would open him up to charges of self-refutation, Rorty’s strategy is to deny that his views say anything positive at all. For example, he argues that pragmatism is neither asserting nor denying that the world out there is real or ideal--pragmatism does not offer a metaphysics at all (CoL 7-8). Or he argues that one can’t criticize pragmatic epistemology as being relativistic because pragmatism does not offer an epistemology (SoO? 23-24).
Rorty’s response here depends in part on a narrow conception of epistemology as a set of normative rules derived by reason to be applied in a top-down fashion. In place of that, his non-epistemological account is to give a socio-historical account of some traditional epistemological concepts, e.g., “truth.” All his account of truth says is that when we investigate how people use the word “true” it turns out that they all use it as a commendation for what they believe. So “true” does have a universal meaning--it’s just not grounded transcendentally, merely socio-historically (SoO? 23). Thus he concludes that his account avoids the problems that have plagued transcendental correspondence accounts (SoO? 24). Of course, in making his socio-historic point Rorty is still making a positive claim of fact, and that again raises the specter of self-refutation: is Rorty merely commending his belief about how people use the word “true,” or is he saying that it’s really true that that’s how they use the word? If the former, then he’s not communicating; if the latter, then he’s saying there are facts that correspond to the word “true.”
In SoO?, written after CoL, Rorty’s approach is different. There he accepts the criticism of circularity and agrees pragmatism has no way out (SoO? 28-29). But, he argues, that’s okay because objectivism is also stuck in a circle whenever it tries to give itself a foundation. Since both sides are stuck in a circle, it’s a draw, and the charge of circularity becomes vacuous. Then the only choice is whether to continue the quixotic objectivist quest or go with the pragmatist flow. And arguing on pragmatic grounds, Rorty thinks that objectivism’s track record of failure indicates that the reasonable course is to abandon it.
Even more strongly, he offers a linguistic version of Kant’s argument that any attempt to ground the contents of our mind in a external world must necessarily fail. The objectivist, writes Rorty, strives to come up with criteria that will establish a correspondence between mind and reality--between percept and object, concept and referents, proposition and fact. But any attempt to come up with criteria starts within a given linguistic framework and the generated criteria are a product of that linguistic framework; and there’s just no way to step outside that linguistic framework to tell whether its generated criteria are true to fact. Just as there’s no way to jump outside one’s head to compare one’s percepts to reality, there’s no way to step outside of language to see if its constructs match reality. So objectivism has failed and has to fail.
This argument is Kantian because it conceives of the contents of our minds--in this case, language--as obstacles between our minds and reality. And so the only responses to it are to point out that this account of language presupposes a diaphanous model of consciousness, and then to offer a successful non-diaphanous account.
The other major criticism of pragmatism is that it undermines the very type of civil society that Rorty says he wants--one characterized by civil discussion, left-liberalism, tolerance, and solidarity. The criticism is that if we abandon reason and objectivity, we get subjectivism; and if we get subjectivism, then we get relativism; and if we get relativism without recourse to reason, then we get brutality. Since brutality is incompatible with liberal society, it is morally imperative for liberals to seek and preserve objectivity.
Philosophy has dead-ended in skepticism and irrelevance.
Rorty raises and addresses this criticism beginning at SoO? 28. Again he argues that attempts to ground liberalism objectively have failed, so there’s no point to pursuing that line, however risky and scary the pragmatist alternative may seem (SoO? 33). Since we’re stuck with subjectivity, we might as well face up to it and push for a socially nice version of it. Rorty agrees that he can’t give a grounding for his social and political values; he starts from their being appealing to him (SoO? 29). So the best he can do is to make rhetorical appeals by comparing liberal democracy with other social systems, and count on liberal democracy’s seeming more appealing to those who read his words. His strategy is to enter the fray rhetorically, hoping to shift the conversation in his direction by using language, not to identify facts, but in a way that makes attractive the notions of solidarity and the goal of keeping the conversation going. For example: “Conforming to my own precepts, I am going to try to make the vocabulary I favor look attractive by showing how it may be used to describe a variety of topics” (CoL 9). The language is of attractiveness, “attractiveness” here assumed not to have anything to do with “true” in the traditional sense.
This is a fine line to walk. For sometimes Rorty speaks as though solidarity, for example, is necessarily one of pragmatism’s values and not merely his personal preference (e.g., SoO? 33). This is Rorty speaking qua Rorty-speaking-personally. At the same time, his personal preferences are nested within his Rorty-qua-postmodern-pragmatist framework, and from that perspective he can’t say that his values have to have any value beyond their appealing to him, or that anyone else who is pragmatist has to find them appealing. He can only say that they push his personal buttons, and that he hopes his rhetoric pushes ours too. And so the question then is: For those whose buttons are pushed otherwise, what recourse is left?
Postscript on the Course. In ending the course, let me make two small points, one philosophical and one administrative.
The major philosophical lesson of the CyberSeminar is to me the crucial importance of epistemology and metaphysics. This is a familiar theme to Objectivists, but our authors provide four more classic case studies. Despite the postmodernists’ billing themselves as anti-metaphysical and anti-epistemology, their writings focus on those themes almost exclusively. Heidegger attacks logic and reason to make room for emotion, Foucault reduces knowledge to an expression of social power, Derrida deconstructs language and turns it into a vehicle of aesthetic play, and Rorty chronicles the failures of the objectivist/intrinsicist tradition in almost-exclusively metaphysical and epistemological terms. It makes sense, then, that the kinds of values our postmodernist thinkers advocate are almost entirely alien to Objectivism ’s. For Objectivism , then, connecting mind to reality and demonstrating the validity and efficacy of reason are critical to advancing our values, including defending them against postmodernism.
The administrative point is comparing our initial goals of the CyberSeminar with what we actually achieved. Since our authors advocate a philosophy diametrically opposed to ours, since they all write at the most abstract level, and since three of the four of them write in a style alien to Objectivism ’s, we understandably spent the bulk of our time simply making sense of what our authors were saying. Compared to our initially stated list of objectives, that is a modest achievement. But given the difficulty of comprehending our authors, if we come away from the CyberSeminar with a solid understanding of four more major figures on the intellectual landscape, that is a significant achievement.