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The End of Philosophy?

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

by Richard Rorty
Princeton University Press,, 401 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Ever since Aristotle declared that philosophy is “the first and last of the sciences,” philosophers have tended to take a very exalted view of the importance of their subject. They will find it much harder to do so after reading Professor Richard Rorty’s disturbing and brilliantly argued book. He opens his attack on the traditional pretensions of philosophers by considering the reasons for their longstanding confidence. The explanation for this confidence is said to lie in their continuing acceptance of the seventeenth-century idea that a philosopher is someone who knows “something about knowing which nobody else knows so well.” This image is in turn said to owe its plausibility to the work of Descartes, who introduced the key concept of the mind as a species of inner space, a consciousness in search of indubitable knowledge about the external world. He thereby suggested the central task of modern philosophy: the attempt to determine, by analyzing the concept of mind itself, what forms of knowledge are susceptible to being acquired with certainty.

As a result, his successors readily came to see themselves as exponents of the pivotal cultural discipline. Since culture is the assemblage of claims to knowledge, and since philosophy is pictured as the arbiter of such claims, the philosopher appears as a kind of “cultural overseer” with the job of “keeping the other disciplines honest, limiting their claims to what can be properly ‘grounded.”’

This image of philosophy, Rorty roundly asserts, is not only absurd but has already been decisively overthrown by “the three most important philosophers of our century—Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey.” As Rorty puts it,

These writers have kept alive the suggestion that, even when we have justified true belief about everything we want to know, we may have no more than conformity to the norms of the day. They have kept alive the historicist sense that this century’s “superstition” was the last century’s triumph of reason, as well as the relativist sense that the latest vocabulary, borrowed from the latest scientific achievement, may not express privileged representations of essences, but be just another of the potential infinity of vocabularies in which the world can be described.

These are Rorty’s heroes, and in his own work he is largely content to present himself—though with excessive modesty—as a historian of the movement toward the “deconstruction” of philosophy which, he maintains, they successfully initiated.

The singling out and yoking together of this improbable troika is of course intended as a shock tactic, but it produces the one structural weakness of Rorty’s book. No interpretations are put forward in justification of the claim that these are the leading philosophers of the age, and the fact that Bertrand Russell’s name is not mentioned leaves Rorty open to the suspicion that he has covertly defined philosophical genius as an ability to undermine central traditions of philosophy. Moreover, even if we concede that the project of deconstruction has given rise to the finest philosophical work of recent times, there is surely one other name that ought to appear on Rorty’s list—that of R.G. Collingwood.

As early as 1924, in Speculum Mentis, Collingwood mocked the idea of the philosopher as an “international boundary commissioner,” officiously mapping out the permitted limits of the empirical sciences. And in his Essay on Metaphysics, published in 1940, he went on to repudiate the entire Cartesian program of uncovering the indubitable foundations of thought. Every science, he contended, proceeds by asking and answering questions, and every set of questions eventually leads us back to the “ultimate presuppositions” of the science concerned. Such presuppositions are not themselves questioned, and cannot be assessed as either true or false; they simply furnish the frame within which the given science happens to be conducted at a given historical period. There are thus no ultimate categories of thought for the metaphysician to lay bare. There are only shifting paradigms, changing questions, new sets of answers, all inevitably limited by the scope of the prevailing disciplines. These are precisely the arguments that Rorty’s heroes mount, so it is surprising that he never mentions Collingwood’s work.

As well as introducing us to his heroes, Rorty’s opening chapters contain a much more sophisticated form of intellectual history. History, he proposes, may be capable of serving as therapy: by returning to the historical moments at which our current epistemological delusions arose, we may be able to liberate ourselves from their grasp. The main point at which Rorty employs this strategy is in examining what he takes to be the principal delusion of post-Cartesian philosophy—the belief that a certain range of ideas about the mind and its powers of understanding is conceptually indispensable. Liberation is said to come when we recover the questions to which these ideas were originally propounded as answers, and in consequence recognize that the distinctions involved, far from mirroring the essential nature of things, are merely reflections of various parochial and thoroughly unfortunate linguistic developments.

The first victim of this approach is the seemingly inescapable distinction between states of consciousness and events in the external world. As Rorty argues in his opening chapter, the drawing of such a distinction was so foreign to ancient Greek philosophy that there was simply no vocabulary for expressing it, and hence no temptation to divide the world up in a fashion which, in modern epistemology, has often been represented as essential to any system of thought.

A similar strategy is employed in chapter three, which surveys the epistemological tradition that has dominated philosophy since Descartes. Rorty turns first to Locke’s contention that when we speak of knowing something, we must be pointing to some relationship between ourselves and the object we claim to know. If there is to be any certainty about our knowledge, it follows that this must be a product of the way in which certain objects come to be apprehended. The suggestion Locke went on to make was that, if an object is presented to our senses, we cannot doubt its existence and we can thus claim to know it with absolute assurance.

Rorty’s first comment on this argument is that it confuses explanation with justification. Locke needs to show why we are justified in holding certain beliefs with particular tenacity; but all he succeeds in showing is how certain of our beliefs arise. Rorty’s main point, however, is again about the liberating power of history. By recovering the question Locke was trying to answer, we can see how his confusion arose; and by distancing ourselves from his assumptions in this way, we can avoid any temptation to accept his conclusions.

Rorty next turns to Kant, who shared Locke’s dilemma and proposed a new solution to it. Kant conceded that we cannot hope to acquire indubitable knowledge from mere sensory acquaintance with objects, and argued that this leaves us with only one possibility. If we are capable of knowing anything with complete assurance, this must be due to the process of interpretation that goes on in our own minds when we examine the raw data we receive from the outside world. It is because our minds in effect constitute the world that we can claim to know it with certainty.

Rorty again insists that an understanding of history serves to free us from the grip of such arguments. Once we see that Kant is responding to a confused question inherited from Locke, we can also see that he is merely providing a more elaborate answer to a puzzle that ought never to have been raised. Concluding his survey, Rorty spells out what he takes to be its implications for the whole project of trying to ground our knowledge on certainty. “The moral to be drawn,” he briskly asserts, “is that if this way of thinking about knowledge is optional, then so is epistemology, and so is philosophy as it has understood itself since the middle of the last century.”

Rorty completes his case, in chapter four, by adding some contemporary history. He observes that modern analytical philosophy, ignorant of its own past, has largely continued to uphold the Kantian belief in a realm of privileged and even indubitable truths, and has done so in two distinct ways. A special status still tends to be assigned to the claims that agents make about their own internal states—claims such as “I am in pain.” And philosophers still tend to assume that so-called analytical propositions—propositions of the form “no bachelor is married”—must be altogether indubitable, since their truth is not dependent on experience, but is guaranteed by the meanings of the terms involved.

These twin pillars of the analytical movement, Rorty contends, have both been dynamited in recent years by two influential American philosophers, Wilfrid Sellars and W.V.O. Quine. Sellars attacks the supposition that assertions of the form “I am in pain” offer automatically accurate descriptions of experience. To endorse this “myth of the given,” he maintains, is to put the argument back-to-front. The reason why we generally accept such first-person reports is not that they possess any privileged attachment to reality; it is rather, Sellars argues, that their authority stems from the fact that we cannot usually see how to place them in doubt.

Finally, Quine is said to have driven the last nail into the coffin of analytical philosophy by denying that any categorical distinction can be drawn between matters of definition and matters of fact. He challenges us to explain how we could possibly tell, in the case of an alien culture, whether its native speakers assent to propositions of the form “no bachelor is married” because they feel compelled by their language, or merely because they can think of no counter examples in their experience. Quine thus arrives at the view that allegedly “analytical” truths may simply be those for which no one has yet given us any interesting alternatives that might lead us to question them. And this destroys the Kantian dream of making a certain class of propositions indubitable in virtue of their purely linguistic character.

This central chapter—which Rorty regards as the most important in his book—is a true tour de force, executed with unflagging dialectical skill and a dazzling virtuosity of style. It not only provides a clear and vivid account of Quine’s and Sellars’s complex arguments but also contains a splendidly assured commentary in which their theories are partially recast in order to enlist them more securely in Rorty’s revolutionary cause. As a result, Rorty is able to restate his fundamental thesis in uncompromising terms: the search for the indubitable foundations of our thought is no more likely to succeed than the search for the unicorn, and ought immediately (and for the same reason) to be called off.

This is a book of exceptional originality and importance, and its central argument is presented with immense persuasive force. Does this mean, then, that philosophy is actually at an end? Has Rorty really succeeded in burying (and not praising) an entire academic discipline?

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