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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Remembering Richard Rorty: An Email Interview with Emrys Westacott

On this day one year ago, the eminent American philosopher Richard Rorty died of pancreatic cancer. His philosophical career had been long and rich, leaving us, among many other writings, the autobiographical essay "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" from which this blog takes its name.

Please join me in welcoming today Emrys Westacott, professor of philosophy at Alfred University. Emrys is the author of articles "The Ethics of Gossiping" and "The Rights and Wrongs of Rudeness," discussed in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. He has also written the short story "The Placebo Effect," and is co-author of the book Thinking Through Philosophy: An Introduction. Emrys has graciously agreed to discuss with us some of Rorty's ideas, their origins and their influence both within philosophy and in the wider context of modern culture.

RLM: One of the strengths of the essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” is the window it provides into the evolution of Rorty's thought. Starting from an early view akin to Platonism, supporting a model of truth whereby our statements mirror an absolute and objective outside world, Rorty narrates his maturation to a pragmatist position which measures the value of ideas not by a priori principles, but by their usefulness to the flourishing of human life. Could you tell us a bit about some of the turning points in this development? I think you mentioned you had recently bought Rorty's two last books. What were some of the notable ideas from those writings?

EGW: In a recent autobiographical essay and in some of the articles published in Volume IV of his Philosophical Papers (Philosophy as Cultural Politics), Rorty suggests, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that the main forces keeping objectivism alive are professional as much as philosophical. That is, in a culture where natural science enjoys huge prestige, other academics and intellectuals want to be thought of as similar to scientists. So they form themselves into groups of "experts" who claim to have undergone a special training that gives them unique knowledge and skills. In analytic philosophy, this means an understanding of argumentation and conceptual analysis. Applying these skills to the perennial problems of philosophy—mind-body, free will, the definition of knowledge, etc. - they see themselves as making progress in the same sense that they believe the natural sciences make progress: viz. by getting closer to the truth.

But in Rorty's view this self-conception is a form of self-serving self-deception. Graduate students in philosophy buy into it because they have to "play the game", and this game gives them neat, well-defined projects to undertake and showcase their abilities. But it's misguided because it rests on a mistaken view of natural science. Rorty accepts the view of science laid out in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Groups of specialized, professionalized scientists make progress not by getting closer to the truth but by solving particular puzzles that they have inherited from their predecessors. The solutions they work out throw up new puzzles, and so on ad infinitum.

Rorty made his early reputation by publishing articles on philosophy of mind and philosophy of language that reflected his analytic training. He worked for a long time at Princeton, one of the hot-houses of analytic philosophy, alongside people like Saul Kripke. But in 1978 he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which marked a turning point in his career.

Essentially, this book argued that the philosophical problems addressed by the great modern thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant were no longer interesting or relevant. Since most analytic philosophy was devoted to the same problems, this also went for much twentieth century philosophy. In its place, Rorty argued for what he called a "hermeneutic" conception of philosophy. In later writings, including his most recent, he clarified his view of what philosophy is all about. Basically, he holds, like Hegel, that philosophy is one of the ways in which a culture tries to achieve self-awareness, one of the ways in which a culture reflects on how it has come about, where it seems to be heading, where it would like to be heading, and what might be done to help it in that direction.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature argues against the idea that the mind is a place where nature, the world, reality, or whatever you want to call it, is mirrored or represented. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Descartes, Locke and other theorists of the scientific revolution talked about "ideas" and worried about how we could be sure that our ideas corresponded to an objective reality outside the mind. In the twentieth century, following the lead of Frege, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein, people focused on language rather than on the mind. This was considered a great advance since whereas mind is ghostly and not publicly observable, language is in the public domain, so to speak.

But Rorty argues that the "linguistic turn" isn't much of an advance at all. Linguistic philosophy is still held captive by the idea that knowledge or truth consists of an accurate representation of a reality that exists independently of us. The underlying point of view is still representationalist. Descartes had taken the mind to be the vehicle of representation with ideas as the units of reference. Analytic philosophy assumes that language is the vehicle of representation with words or concepts as the referential units. The basic error is the same in both cases.

The error in question is the assumption that we can assess how well we are representing reality. We can't. To do so would be to take a sideways on view of the relation between language and reality, identifying the "hitching posts" where words connect directly to things.

Rorty develops this critique in his subsequent writings. In doing so he claims to be working squarely in the tradition of American pragmatism., unpacking the insights of William James and John Dewey. Of course, given his uncompromising relativism, this infuriates many of those who see themselves as the true guardians of the pragmatist flame.

After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty published several volumes of essays: most notably, Consequences of Pragmatism, Contingency, irony and solidarity, and four volumes of philosophical papers. There is a tremendous amount of overlap in all of these, although personally I find him to be such an engaging writer that the repetition is rarely tiresome. The critique of objectivism or representationalism remains central to his thinking throughout. But other blossoms appeared, most notably his increasing interest in literature and his defense of gradualist progressive politics.

RLM: To the mind of a scientist, Rorty's variety of relativism is quite appealing because he appears to invoke a Darwinian notion of adaptiveness. Ideas are good and useful if they help us cope with our environment; thinking is the specialized skill humans have evolved just as spiders have evolved the skill of spinning silk. Rorty describes this as a naturalization of Hegel, because it obviates the need for a teleological view of history progressing towards increased rationality. Such self-organized adaptive evolution is exactly the kind of model scientists use to explain situations which would otherwise appear teleological (for example James Lovelock's Daisyworld model in explaining why Gaia theory is not teleological). Is this Darwinian bent unique to Rorty among relativists? Do you think that Rorty's love of nature (orchid searching, bird watching) influenced this aspect of his philosophy?

EGW: The Darwinian bent of Rorty's relativism isn't unique. Earlier pragmatists like James and Dewey had also tried to incorporate the theory of evolution. So, too, did Nietzsche, even though he tends to misrepresent Darwin's own thinking. You can also see the ever-increasing influence of Darwin's "dangerous idea" in other areas of philosophy, most notably ethics. But Rorty certainly presses the implications of Darwinism more consistently and forcefully than most.

He is especially good, I think, at explaining how a Darwinian perspective renders obsolete certain sorts of philosophical debate. Ever since Plato, mind, reason, and language have been viewed as somehow non-natural, as being the part of us that is divine. But as you say, Rorty continually stresses the fact that mind, rationality, and language are natural phenomena, thrown up by evolution. They should be viewed in the same way that we view something like our prehensile thumb.

The ability to persuade other humans to do what we wanted by using speech turned out to be useful. So did thinking in certain ways that we came to call "logical". But there is nothing non-natural about logos. Language doesn't have the intrinsic function of representing the world; logic doesn't have the inherent purpose of leading us to Truth. It's just that using words in certain ways tends to promote our well-being. So, too, does demanding that people abide by certain conventions (e.g. avoiding incest, sneezing into a handkerchief, or agreeing that if p is true then not p is false).

Norms are expectations that a community has regarding a person's behaviour, including linguistic behaviour. They can be enforced in many ways. A hundred thousand years ago, a member of the group who killed another member might be chased out of the cave; today they are tried and imprisoned. A hundred thousand years ago, someone who refused to assert q even though they accepted if p then q and p, might have been hit over the head with a bone; today they receive a poor grade on their logic exam. But the rule they are violating has no supra-human authority.

Many non-relativists are shocked by this attitude. They insist that the rules of valid inference, for instance, have a status that is very different from some norm of etiquette. But Rorty cheerfully denies this. In his view, the only justification for any norm is its utility. So all norms can be ranged on a continuum. The laws of logic are just abstract norms that are deeply entrenched due to the fact that their utility has been well established.

Rorty sees any departure from this way of thinking as a failure to be thoroughly and consistently naturalistic. Someone who holds that there is something inherently rational or correct about the laws of logic is implying that what we call "rational" or "logical" accords with Reason itself. But this phrase "Reason itself" indicates a return to some sort of Platonism. Bits of nature—such as our conventions governing the way we use symbols—are assessed according to their relation to something that is not part of nature. Rorty often describes thinking of this sort - with deliberate abusiveness - as believing in "spooks".

I really couldn't say if Rorty's love of nature influenced this aspect of his thought. I suppose it's possible that spending a lot of time immersed in nature might reinforce his sense that nature is all there is and all there needs to be.

RLM: I have another question about Rorty's relation to science. One of the most common labels to be associated with Rorty is that of relativism, and one of the most familiar and popularly accepted versions of relativism is moral relativism. Most of us would agree that one can't morally judge the actions of another person without taking into consideration that person's cultural norms and individual circumstances. However, the spirit of the scientific method contrasts strongly with that of moral relativism, at least superficially: experimental results or proofs of theorems are supposed to be reproducible by anyone, and hence independent of circumstantial factors in a scientist's environment. One possible response to this contrast would be to say that relativism doesn't apply in science, at least in any form similar to moral relativism. But what about a field like environmentalism, which stands at the intersection of science and ethics? If Al Gore and a climate-change skeptic are in a debate, they will make scientific claims as well as ethical judgments. Can ideas like Rorty's Darwinian adaptiveness help us formulate a version of relativism appropriate to this field? What about a situation where immediate human interests are opposed to the larger interests of preserving the environment?

EGW: A general idea that permeates much of Rorty's thinking is this: sharp distinctions should often be replaced by the idea of points on a spectrum. A paradigmatic example of this shift was provided by one of Rorty's analytic heroes, Willard Van Orman Quine in his famous article "Two Dogmas of Empiricism."

Quine argued against the view that there is a sharp line to be drawn between analytic and synthetic statements, the former true by definition, the latter just contingently true. Instead, he argued, our belief system is like a spider's web. Those at the periphery can be revised with little effect on the rest of the system. These are beliefs like, "the tree outside my window is a Norway spruce." Beliefs at the centre of the web, on the other hand - e.g. 2+2=4 - can only be revised at great cost to the system. These are the ones we are inclined to think of as a priori truths. Change these and we have to change everything. So we come to view them as necessary truths. But in principle, no belief is immune from revision. Indeed, this critical attitude is the hallmark of what we call the scientific approach.

Rorty - like any good pragmatist - views the distinction between factual and evaluative statements in an analogous way. Ever since Hume philosophers have worried about the fact-value gap and the problem of deriving an 'ought' from an 'is'. But Rorty's view is that our judgments exist on a spectrum of reasonableness. Those that have proved their worth for a long time are well-established and we think anyone who denies them is being unreasonable. That's all a "fact" is: it's a belief that has become uncontroversial in the relevant community.

But value judgments can be well-established too. Someone who thinks it would be good to bring back slavery would be viewed as utterly unreasonable. We'd say they were "wrong" just as we'd say they were wrong if they claimed that the South won the civil war. There is no essential difference between the ways factual judgments are right and wrong and the way value judgments are right and wrong. In both cases, correctness is determined by what people in the relevant community think it is reasonable to believe. And the norms of reasonableness, as noted earlier, have no special status; they too can vary between cultures and be revised over time.

So the way I read Rorty, he'd resist your suggestion that science and morality are fundamentally different. He certainly denies many times that there is any distinctive procedure that constitutes "the scientific method". He also denies that there is anything special about "the logic of moral argumentation." He argues that we use pretty much the same means of persuasion - appeal to evidence, pointing out inconsistencies, demonstrations of predictive power, etc. - across the board, in all spheres where we engage in conversation.

(This is one place, incidentally, where I think he may overstate his case. I think that in some areas specific forms of justification/refutation are permitted that are not allowed in other areas. E.g. theologians interpreting the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran, might allow certain moves not permitted in a scientific community. Scientists can say, "Newton got it wrong on that point" in a way that theologians can't say, "Yeah, well, St. Paul messed up in his letter to the Corinthians.")

So I would say that Rorty does offer a form of relativism - he doesn't like this label, of course - that is essentially the same in all areas of culture: science, morality, politics, the arts. Everywhere, we try to make judgments that are reasonable according to accepted but revisable standards of justification.

Where what is in dispute is some "fact" the underlying pragmatic criteria by which we evaluate our claims is not very obvious. It takes a pragmatist philosopher to highlight them. Where we are debating political proposals, measures to deal with environmental crises, and so on, our pragmatism is obvious. We want to embrace ideas that will bring about a world in which more people live healthier, happier, richer lives than is the case now.

You'd expect anyone with Rorty's generally progressive, left-leaning political views to be sympathetic to environmentalism. However, he is a humanist through and through. From his point of view, the value of the natural world lies primarily in the opportunities it offers for human flourishing and in the delight it affords us. Perhaps he'd grant some value to the pleasures enjoyed by other sentient species. But it would go against his general approach to think of the non-human world as having its own intrinsic value.

So if we impose an obligation on ourselves to preserve the natural environment, this is done for the sake of ourselves and our descendants.

RLM: I'd like to pose one final question about Rorty and poetry. In "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," Rorty describes Proust's novels as "optional, orchidaceous extras." From this assessment, we might expect Rorty to dismiss poetry as unlikely to effect much good in human life. However, in his posthumously published essay “The Fire of Life” in Poetry Magazine, Rorty concludes with the beautiful passage

"I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts--just as I would have if I had made more close friends."

Where does this place poetry in the Trotsky-vs.-wild-orchids division? Or does it stand outside this dichotomy?
EGW: In the last twenty years of his life, Rorty seems to have been increasingly drawn towards literature. This is very noticeable in Contingency, solidarity and irony, where he writes about Orwell, Dickens, Nabakov and Proust among others. (Incidentally, this was his favourite among his own works, and is most definitely my favourite: I especially like the second chapter which is an extended meditation on some lines by Phillip Larkin.)

This shift in is orientation interests me partly because I find myself following the same path. I think it is prompted (in both his case and mine) by a deepening skepticism toward the idea that philosophy is, can be, or should be, like science. Scientists solve well-defined problems on the basis of agreed upon assumptions and following an agreed-upon methodology. But philosophy, to say it again, is a culture's attempt "to hold its time in thought." So it's a much messier business - more like literature than science.

(This, incidentally, is one way of conceiving of the analytic-continental split in philosophy. Analytics think philosophy should be like science; continentals see it as closer to literature - perhaps as a genre of literature.)

When Rorty talks about "poetry" he's using the term in a very broad way, the way that people like Kierkegaard and Shelley use it. "Poetry" in this sense, refers to the fruits of the imagination, especially (but not only) the literary fruits, as opposed to the fruits of reason. (Obviously, the imagination-reason distinction doesn't have to sharp or rigid.)

According to a long-standing tradition, the sharp and shiny tool that we use to criticize our current ways of thinking and doing things is reason. People like Socrates and Descartes are held up as supreme practitioners of the art of rational criticism. But progress doesn't just require critique. We also have to start thinking of alternatives to our current arrangements. We have to think of how things might be if we tried this, or this, or this. And to stretch our thinking in this way requires imagination.

Although I can't recall any place where he refers to Uncle Tom's Cabin, I suspect the example it offers of how imagination may be more important than reason as a force for progress may have influenced Rorty. Stowe's novel had a great impact because people who read it had their imaginations stretched; they came to feel imaginative sympathy with slaves. This sort of sympathy arguably played a greater role in bringing about the abolition of slavery than any a clinical deduction of rights from the constitution.

In Philosophy as Cultural Politics, Rorty describes progress using the metaphor of an expanding circle. By enlarging our capacities, our sympathies, our understanding, we make our lives richer and we establish more satisfying relationships with our fellow human beings and perhaps also with other species and the rest of nature. This idea, like so much of his thought, bears traces of Hegel - something you pointed out earlier. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes how through the course of human history, Spirit comes to feel more at home in the world, overcoming various forms of alienation. This overcoming is less a matter of logical refutation; more a matter of recognizing a way of thinking to be outmoded - to have moved from being liberating to being a fetter on further progress. By means of this process, Spirit enriches itself and becomes more self-conscious.

This seems to be pretty much Rorty's way of thinking about progress, both intellectual and political. And he thinks of Hegel's Phenomenology as a great imaginative achievement - a sort of philosophical novel or epic poem.

If Rorty's ideas prevail, then perhaps the ancient tension between philosophy and poetry - first described by Plato - will gradually be reduced, as will oppression, injustice, inequality, violence and environmental degradation. Even analytic and continental philosophers will come together and embrace and laugh and cry over their past misunderstandings of each other. Let's hope so!

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