Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty

Philosopher Richard Rorty passed away Friday. The myth of Rorty is that he was a typical analytic philosopher of the time in the 1960s but came to repudiate the analytic turn and developed a relativistic, perspectivalist view of truth. When I was reading Rorty, early in my graduate school days, his books (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979, was published when I was an undergraduate, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, 1989, came at a time when I was starting to feel that I opposed Rorty's relativism) lived on the shelf that held Marxist theory, the Frankfurt School, Habermas and Gadamer, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, feminists and ecotheorists and African-American studies, and the lawless theoretical outback of literary theory (I don't say that list pejoratively). And yes, in graduate school at Colorado in the 1980s we certainly made the connection to American Pragmatism. I'm a William James man myself, but the Pragmatist one thinks of in connection with Rorty is John Dewey. They are in an American tradition of an earnestly humane naturalism, characterized by self-revelation and utilitarianism.
Rorty's interpretation of pragmatism led to endless disputations with philosophers and others who saw themselves as more empiricist and less relativistic than Rorty, but I would argue that pragmatism is part of a deep thread in empiricism, one that also includes the market-force economics of Adam Smith, Jeffersonian democracy, Darwin's theory of natural selection, Mill's Utilitarianism, and behaviorist models of learning. The idea is that the mental life of humans, like the rest of nature, has a natural history that involves endless contingincies ("contingency" is a key concept for the later Rorty), that is adapted to its environment, more or less, through a long history of positive and negative reinforcement: the complex structure of the phenomenon has grown up from simpler interactions. This is a side of empiricism that is sometimes misunderstood in its implications. I don't see Rorty as someone who left behind the epistemological preoccupations of empiricism. I see pragmatism clearly as part of the empiricist tradition.
There are various directions we could go at this point, but let's consider this in terms of the "theory of truth," one of Rorty's core areas of interest all his life. On the Classical view (the traditional view opposed by, say, Hume), "truth" could be defined as the correspondence of the proposition to reality. An external world stood apart from human consciousness of that world. "Knowledge" was the possession of a representation of the world that corresponded with the actual world. Rorty argued that there was a difference between the propositions "The world is the way that it is, regardless of what we say about it," and "There is some account of the world that is the one, true account." Beings have representations of the world (if they have those sorts of things at all) because they have particular physical bodies and lead particular kinds of lives. This reflects the influence on Rorty of the Wittgensteinian rejection of Cartesianism, and is what connects Rorty to Merleau-Ponty's and de Beauvoirs' theories of phenomenology and the body (also Thomas Nagel has this sort of view of consciousness, see his excellent The View from Nowhere).
The picture that emerges is that "truth" as in intentional mental content, belief itself, is something completely internal to the experiencing being, an organizing web of causes of behavior that includes both instrumentally useful consequences and highly random variables: a product of evolution. Notice the consistency of selection and conditioning for explaining the long-term acquisition of physical traits and the short-term acquisition of behavioral traits. I think that this view is pretty much full-blown in Hume, certainly it is in Darwin. The pragmatism of James and Dewey is another variation on this theme. It is more akin to Wittgenstein's anthropological approach than to Nietzsche's ultimately reductive thesis that everything is power.
On this view, disputes between Rorty and various empiricists and defenders of science over the years were gratuitous. It is perfectly consistent, after all, that scientific methods might be among the best for generating utile propositions. In fact this is necessarily so, on the pragmatist analysis of the history of science. It's hard to see what more the defender of science could reasonably say. Arguably the scientific materialist ought to be resisting Cartesian concepts of intentionality, after all. But Rorty took the same bait as his antagonists, mistakenly arguing, for example, that philosophy as he understood it was "not knowledge production," a false distinction on his own view that "knowledge production" was nothing more nor less than some output of the (human) developmental process.
Here we can see clearly the internal tension in the empiricist tradition that divided Rorty and his critics. One part of empiricism is the insistence on the primacy of actual (sensory, physical) experience. Rorty challenged that methodological empiricism, along with Kuhn and Feyerabend. But in Rorty's case this was motivated by the other part of empiricism, the inversion from a "top-down" model of the emergence of complex structures to a "bottom-up" view based on the law of effect. Thus empiricism agrees with the historical materialism of Marxism but not with its totalizing agenda (this was certainly another large issue in Rorty's development). As for his insistence that there could be no demarcation between something called "science" and the rest of human cultural production, this is a view shared with Wittgenstein. It does not entail a rejection of, say, metaphysical naturalism.
So Rorty was underestimated by people who did not pay enough attention to see that his development of pragmatism was far more subtle than his "village relativist" popular reputation. Still, I have the same reservations with Rorty that I have with Stephen Jay Gould: too many well-intentioned people have come up to me at social gatherings and said something like, "But this guy (insert Gould or Rorty) says that (insert 'Evolution is not a fact' or 'Humans can't know anything')." A brilliant thinker and writer who requires more attention than his notoriety would imply.

No comments:

Post a Comment