The Philosophy of Richard Rorty

Metcalf-RichardRortyPhilosophicalArgumentforNationalPride-1200Although trained within the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition, Richard Rorty (1931-2007) espouses an approach to philosophy that is generally referred to as ‘neo-pragmatist’. Rorty draws heavily on the works of C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey, and also displays an enthusiasm for aspects of the writings of many ‘continental’ philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lyotard and Derrida. In the early 1980s Rorty was happy to call his approach ‘postmodern’ (Rorty 1991a, pp. 60, 66). In other words, Rorty (like Lyotard) advocates an attitude toward philosophy that rejects ‘meta-narratives’. Additionally, though, he links this attitude to a ‘tradition’ of philosophical practice that also includes thinkers such as Hegel and Marx. This tradition, Rorty argues, insists on thinking of morality as the interest of a historically conditioned community rather than “the common interest of humanity'” (Rorty 1991a, p. 198). In other words, Rorty endorses a rejection of a foundationalist approach to philosophy. According to Rorty, we need to overcome the temptation to seek out any foundations or first principles. Philosophers ought to abandon the idea that they can step outside the community and historical context in which they live and engage in a search for universals in the realm of knowledge or value. From the early 1990s Rorty ceases to refer to his approach as ‘postmodern’ because, he says, the word has become subject to such overuse that it ceases to signify anything particularly helpful. Instead, Rorty offers a range of new terms to summarise his position, for example ‘post-Nietzschean philosophy’. The writings of Nietzsche, and post-Nietzschean European philosophy generally, Rorty holds, share common features with the American pragmatism. There are, of course, differences between the European thinkers and pragmatists like James or Dewey, but they all share a critical attitude to the tradition of modern philosophy associated with Descartes, and can be described as ‘anti-representationalists’ and ‘anti-essentialists’. Thus, Nietzsche, Rorty holds, is as devoted to analysing the practical effect of our beliefs on our conduct as Peirce or James.

Rorty’s conception of pragmatism is well illustrated by turning to a central issue in the philosophy of language, especially as it has been dealt with by the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy. Rorty argues that a neo-pragmatist position involves rejecting a ‘representationalist’ account of language. A representationalist, according to Rorty, is someone committed to the belief that there is a necessary connection between language and a mind-independent, non-linguistic reality. Representationalists are, it follows, ‘realists’. The realist addresses questions of knowledge with the aim of providing an account of the relation between states of affairs and the correct (i.e. ‘true’) representation of them in language. The representationalist thereby assumes a world of relationships that exist independently of thought and language. Against this view, anti-representationalists like Dewey, James or Nietzsche, Rorty argues, ‘deny [. . .] that truth is correspondence to reality’ (Rorty 1998, p. 3). In other words, Rorty holds there to be no necessary connection between what we speak of and matters of fact because ‘no linguistic items represent any nonlinguistic items’ (Rorty 199la,p. 2). This does not entail a commitment to the view that our language has no relation to our environment. However, this relationship can be worked out in practical rather than universal and theoretical terms. Rorty’s argument is that many of the concepts philosophers traditionally resort to, such as the notion of ‘non-linguistic items’ referred to by terms like ‘fact of the matter’, simply lack the kind of privileged explanatory role they have been claimed to possess. Rorty holds such notions to be unhelpful, since they get in the way of a genuine understanding of our relationship with our environment. This is because, in Rorty’s view, language does not serve to ‘represent’ the world. It is, rather, a tool for coping with living in it.

Once representationalist pseudo-concepts are swept aside, Rorty claims, we will be in a position to address the issue of making claims about our experiences without being diverted by the fruitless temptation to search for a ‘method’ that requires justification by way of a supposedly ‘real’ world. The traditional primacy of’theory of knowledge’ must hence be abandoned. On Rorty’s view, the activity of theorising about knowledge is nothing more than one (dispensable) form of discourse that is part of the larger ongoing conversation between communities of language-users. In other words, Rorty holds that the activity of asking questions about what we know involves issues that do not stand apart from the concerns that we, as language users, may have in virtue of our ‘human peculiarities’. For the antirepresentationalist, like the later Wittgenstein, a knowledge claim is assessed according to the criteria of justification internal to language. Justifications, in other words, are given by way of the rules specific to a given ‘language game’.

Rorty thereby advocates the abandonment of traditional philosophical questions, principally those allied with the Platonic and Cartesian epistemological quests for ‘foundations’ upon which our knowledge can rest. Instead of such foundations Rorty proposes a conception of ‘community’ as serving to elucidate the relationship between humans and the world they inhabit. The contrast between this and the realist view is underlined by Rorty’s use of the notion of ‘solidarity’. By situating oneself within a community (be it imagined or actual) one acquires a sense of solidarity with others and hence develops a sense of individual identity. In turn, the pragmatist is able to hold that a truth-claim is meaningful only so far as it can be asserted by way of reference to the dominant belief of what ‘true’ is according to the norms of any specific community. From this it follows that we do not need to step outside the realm of the social and ethical paradigms of our own community when we engage in philosophy. This does not entitle us to hold that all forms of society or ethical views are as good as each other. But it does mean that ‘we have to work out from the networks we are, from the communities with which we presently identify’ (Rorty 1991a, p. 202). In Rorty’s case, those ‘networks’ are associated with bourgeois, liberal democratic forms, which he is happy to endorse.

Rorty argues that what is needed is a transformation of our ideas about the value of philosophy. Such a transformation will be achieved only ‘by a long slow process of cultural change — that is to say of change in common sense, changes in the institutions available for being pumped up by philosophical arguments’. Philosophical ideas, it follows, are culturally produced. Philosophy, in Rorty’s view, is best understood as a form of ‘therapy’. What we learn from the great philosophers is that many of the problems that preoccupied their predecessors were not really problems at all. So, Rorty tells us, Descartes offered a means of forgetting about the ‘scholastic problems’ of the medieval period, Kant found a way out of’Cartesian problems’, Hegel dispensed with the central ‘Kantian problems’, and Nietzsche and the pragmatists overcame the pitfalls of Hegelian metaphysics. ‘Philosophical progress’, it follows, does not involve getting nearer to an absolute truth. Rather, progress in Rorty’s sense is about generating new ways of seeing our world. For this reason, philosophy cannot be thought of as a unified discipline with an ultimate purpose (i.e. discovering the fundamental nature of reality or moral truth). At best, philosophers are to be thought of as people who engage with the writings of figures like Plato, Kant or Hegel and engage in a critical manner with the issues they raise. In this way, philosophy is rendered no more than ‘a kind of writing. It is delimited, as is any literary genre, not by form or matter, but by tradition’ (Rorty 1982, p. 92). In other words, Rorty claims all human activities (philosophy included) are historically specific and cannot be understood properly apart from the culture in which they are embedded.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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