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Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays 1972-1980)

by Richard Rorty
University of Minnesota Press, 237 pp., $29.50; $11.95 (paper)

Richard Rorty’s recent book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature* is an original and sustained attack on the idea that it can be the aim of philosophy, or even of science, to represent the world accurately. Neither activity can reveal, as he sometimes puts it, a vocabulary in which the world demands to be described. The book is remarkable for its learning and for its powers of critical exposition. At the same time, some of it is slapdash, and its program for what philosophy should do when robbed of its traditional conceptions of truth and objectivity is, to put it mildly, schematic.

The present volume consists of twelve already published essays written between 1972 and 1980, together with a new introduction. The jacket says that it fills in the details of the story told in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but it actually does something more interesting than that. It reveals Rorty’s attitude toward questions bearing on the central theories of the earlier book, and offers his view of other philosophers and traditions, including Heidegger, about whom he says that he would now want to revise his view upward. The essays here also have a hero, who was less explicitly seen as one in The Mirror of Nature. This is John Dewey; and the pragmatism of the title is above all that of Dewey.

Rorty claims to free Dewey from dated associations, and to find him already waiting at the end of a road on which Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are now traveling. Dewey’s “chief enemy,” Rorty writes, “was the notion of Truth as accuracy of representation, the notion later to be attacked by Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault. Dewey thought that if he could break down this notion, … we would be receptive to notions like Derrida’s—that language is not a device for representing reality but a reality in which we live and move.”

The new book shares some failings with The Mirror of Nature, and at the end we still do not know much about how philosophy should go on without its old illusions. Rorty’s style also provides some minor irritations, such as his tendency to parade lists of great names and of turning points in the history of philosophy (something that could be a legacy from his early days at the University of Chicago). But the essays are wide-ranging, informed, and above all interesting. Rorty has an unsettling vision of philosophy, science, and culture, and it matters to what extent he is right. Like others who have a large view, he sometimes seems to the analytical critic to have run different questions together. What is not always true in such cases, but is usually true of Rorty, is that when he has run different questions together each of them turns out to have its own interest.

It is impossible to step outside our skins—the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism—and compare ourselves with something absolute.” That is one of Rorty’s central these. Or, rather, it is several theses. The least contentious is that we cannot think about the world without describing it in some way: the world cannot present itself uncategorized. Moreover, there is no way in which the world simply describes itself, or presents itself in terms that could not themselves be the subject of inquiry, reflection, and alternative proposals. Those claims, in themselves, are not too upsetting. They still allow us to think that there is an independent world that we are trying to describe, and that what it is actually like can control the success of our descriptions.

Rorty’s pragmatist, however, reaches much more drastic conclusions than this, and claims (so it seems) that all we can ever do is compare one description with another. He denies that “deep down beneath all the texts, there is something which is not just one more text but that to which various texts are trying to be ‘adequate.”’ He does not think that we can say anything substantial about the purposes served by our descriptions, against which we might test them. Moreover, in addition to this, Rorty has a further, historicist thesis, according to which the categories that any human group uses are a function of its time, and are essentially formed through historically localized tradition. The historicist thesis plays a large part both in The Mirror of Nature and in the present essays.

If one says that any human thought is inescapably immersed in the traditions of its period, what counts as “a period” is an important question; and, in particular, what tradition performs this basic function for us. Rorty is not very definite about this. In The Mirror of Nature sometimes it is the period of “Western man” or “modern Western man.” In the present book the relevant item, at least once, is “human thought since 1600.” The question particularly presses, because Rorty is so insistent that we cannot, in philosophy, simply be talking about human beings, as opposed to human beings at a given time. In the course of a perceptive discussion of Thomas Nagel and Stanley Cavell, both philosophers who (in different terms) hope to recover from the tradition deep philosophical questions that relate to human experience as such, Rorty precisely contrásts the approach of taking some philosophical problem and asking, as they might, “What does it show us about being human?” and asking, on the other hand, “What does the persistence of such problems show us about being twentieth-century Europeans?” (his emphases).

The historicist ideas do provide one fairly natural way of interpreting Rorty’s main thesis, but they do not merely follow from it, even in its most radical form. Basically, he accepts the historicist outlook because he believes that the history of philosophy has itself led us to it. He thinks that Dewey, Quine, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Derrida are the true descendants in their various styles of Hegel and the nineteenth-century philosophers who reacted against the Kantian claim that philosophy could discover “the a priori structure of any possible inquiry. …” As he interprets them, they have led us to see that there is not much more to be said about the ways in which we describe the world than that they are the ways that suit us, now. Of course philosophy, traditionally, has tried to say more than that. It has tried to overcome what it has seen as deep and persistent problems about the relation of our thought and action to the world. For Rorty these writers have, accordingly, led us to a point at which traditional philosophy should end.

Sometimes Rorty takes a slightly different turn in his insistence on historical self-consciousness and in his rejection of general groundings for his or any other method. That we should see philosophy and other intellectual activities in the way he commends is not a lesson of where we have come to in history—something that we should rationally conclude from it—but simply a product of that history. We are where we now are, and that is how we, now, go on.

Rorty is not a relativist. He has as crisp a view as any positivist in agreeing, for instance, that it was a good thing that the world that was based on religious conceptions and authority has passed, and he cheerfully describes a certain attitude as “merely a relic of pre-Galilean anthropomorphism.” But is he really in a position to dismiss relativism and the problems associated with it, as he does in one essay? The sort of dialectic in which Rorty’s self-conscious historicism places him is one in which everyone can try to undercut everyone else by asking others whether they have allowed for the ways by which their own consciousness has evolved the very thesis they are advancing. Self-consciousness and reflective awareness, when made into the distinctive attitude of a sophisticated philosophy, make it revolve ever faster; the owl of Minerva, robbed by later skepticism of Hegel’s flight plan to the transcendental standpoint, notoriously finds itself flying in ever-decreasing circles.

Rorty’s procedures, in these respects, are an odd mixture. Sometimes he seems quite knowing about the status of his own thoughts (though he is not as quick on the turn as the French writers, such as Derrida, whom he most admires, or as the poststructuralist critics are, who need these reflexes to keep alive). At other times, he seems to forget altogether about one requirement of self-consciousness, and like the old philosophies he is attempting to escape, naively treats his own discourse as standing quite outside the general philosophical situation he is describing. He thus neglects the question whether one could accept his account of various intellectual activities, and still continue to practice them.

Some of the nastier problems of this sort arise with his treatment of the natural and biological sciences. Rorty’s characteristic tone about science is that there is nothing in the least special or particularly interesting about it.

Pragmatism … does not erect Science as an idol to fill the place once held by God. It views science as one genre of literature—or, put the other way around, literature and the arts as inquiries on the same footing as scientific inquiries. … Physics is a way of trying to cope with various bits of the universe; ethics is a matter of trying to cope with other bits.

In a similar vein he says, in an article called “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope,” that it simply turned out that the Galilean picture of the universe worked better than, say, an Aristotelian picture, but that there is no “epistemological moral” to be drawn from this. In particular, he argues, it is a confusion to think that the success of physics since Galileo is somehow connected with the fact that it regards the universe as “infinite and cold and comfortless,” and it is a mistake to look for any scientific method that explains scientific success. Indeed, the question “What makes science so successful?” is for him a bad question. He applauds T.S. Kuhn’s notion of Galilean science “as exemplifying the power of new vocabularies rather than offering the secret of scientific success.”

In the essay just referred to, and to a lesser degree in The Mirror of Nature, Rorty runs together two questions. One is whether the success of science invites or permits any interesting description of what the success of science consists of. The other question is whether, from its previous success, we can derive any general methods to secure its future success. The questions are distinct. Karl Popper, for instance, who, like Rorty, thinks that there is not much to be said about the second question beyond banal recipes of rational procedure, also believes, unlike Rorty, that there is something to be said about the objective progress of science in finding out what the world is really like.

  1. *

    Princeton University Press, 1980; reviewed by Quentin Skinner in The New York Review, March 19, 1981.

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