Richard Rorty

As many of you will already have heard, Richard Rorty died on Friday. My philosophical relation to Rorty has been a complex one, perhaps more suited to a psychoanalytical explanation than a purely philosophical one. He was the first contemporary philosopher to really capture my interest; in my first-year as an undergraduate I remember being very impressed with the his short piece on Derrida, ‘Philosophy as a kind of writing’. Going on to investigate his work on epistemology, I found that he managed to articulate the substantial unease that I was experiencing about the general orientation of analytic philosophy. His call for philosophy to disentangle itself from its fundamentally epistemological problematics, now transposed into a preoccupation with reference-centred philosophy of language, was one that struck a real chord with me. Rorty’s anti-representationalist project became my project too for quite a while.

My undergraduate dissertation — in some ways still perhaps the best piece of philosophical writing that I have produced — defended this anti-representaionalism. At the same time however, it contained the seeds of my break with Rorty’s approach, then expressed as a rejection of his ‘ethnocentrism’ (a label that, in typically Rortian fashion, he applied to his own position with no sense of embarrassment). In addition to this, after being on most issues an eager follower of Rorty, I began to become more concerned about the relations of his firmly liberal political stance (something that I had never been at all sympathetic to) to his (anti-)epistemological thoughts; something that has only deepened since. So too, while writing my dissertation I attended a wonderful series of classes on both Wittgenstein’s early and late work, engagement with which was something that forced me to confront the fact that Rorty’s historical work on figures like Wittgenstein was deeply problematic. These factors acted as causes and then catalysts to the process of disentangling my thought from Rorty’s.

Having said this, Rorty has left a deep impression on me. In the same way that it was no surprise to me to learn that Jodi was once a Habermasian and Sinthome a Heideggerian, the (dialectically) negative effects of Rorty on me are, at least in my eyes, quite pronounced. Yet there are also more direct continuities, whereby I can plot a route from Rorty’s work on epistemology, through Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following, then themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology, to my current preoccupations (again, this progression might only make sense to me, and is something I will probably get around to writing about at some point).

Usually, the strange effects of obiturial writing tend to preclude sharp critical engagement. (I am reminded, albeit a little elliptically, of k-punk’s comments on coverage of the London bombings: “as if solemn moralising rather than political analysis were what is called for.”) Rather, it is precisely at this point that our narratives must be least fondly sentimental and least boorishly reactive. In this spirit, I want to briefly point to some of those features of Rorty’s work that I think are especially commendable as well as some of those that I think ought to resisted.

One of the strategic moves deployed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that is particularly important is the fundamental distinction made between causal relations and normative relations. Shadowing Kant’s insistence upon distinguishing questions of right (quid juris) from questions of fact, Rorty takes a confusion of the causal and normative to be a fundamental problem with Lockean proto-epistemology. In short, an explanation of the causal process by which one comes to adopt a belief is insufficient to answer the question of whether one is warranted to hold this belief. Yet, Rorty thinks Kant errs by shifting focus to synthetic components of judgement — those of given intuitions and contrasting imposed concepts — which gets him embroiled in what, for Rorty, is the hopeless representationalist question of the relation between mind and world. With no Archimedean standpoint to examine this relation, Rorty rejects the idea that accounts of this kind are able to do any explanatory work. Instead, Rorty substitutes a conception of knowledge as a relation between persons and propositions, the conceptual configuration of propositions allowing them to stand in the inferential relations purportedly required for them to be normative relata.

In later work, this becomes articulated via the Davidsonian slogan, “Only a belief can justify another belief.” This is an implicit recapitulation of the earlier insistence that a causal relation cannot do the work of a normative one: that is, an extra-vocabulary relation, whereby bits of the world cause a belief, cannot substitute for an intra-vocabulary relation, whereby a belief can rationally support another by acting as a reason for it–something the mere occurence of a sensation (experience, intuition) alledgedly cannot do on its own. Of course, our beliefs are not hermetically sealed of from the world since they are produced in our interaction with the environment, but for Rorty this causal tie cannot be used to piggyback the normative, and therefore propositional, ties implicit in the question of whether a proposition accurately represents (is adequate to, gets ‘correct’, etc.) some segment of the world.

I find this line of thought both seductive and suggestive, if ultimately unsustainable (McDowell’s Mind and World tackling it head on, and in my view with some success). More than that though, in its strategic approach and narrativisation of the history of philosophy, I consider it to be a model of philosophical argumentation. It is an example of Rorty at his best, subtly rethinking received philosophical wisdom, and going on to challenge it in such a way that provides a basis for interesting new metaphilosophical thoughts, such as his suggestion for a sociological criterion for warrant as part of a naturalised account of knowledge.

These admirable qualities — amongst which we might group his boldness and ability to paint inventive broad-brushstroke narratives — are, however, often the same ones that led him astray in other respects. Rorty has, often unfairly, been chastised as a sloppy thinker, unconcerned with ‘serious’ argumentation, especially in his later years. One defence against this is to point to his avowed theoretical quietism. In fact, he went on to embrace the ‘sophist’ label (as ever, it seems with some sense of irony), with the recently published fourth volume of his selected papers being called ‘Philosophy as Cultural Politics’ (hear the distant shrieks of horror from Badiou!). Yet, his willingness (and even glee) at biting bullets on these issues is ultimately unsustainable.

One example, of course, is his defence of an achingly stodgy liberalism ‘without metaphysical foundations’. To call his political position complacent barely scratches the surface. It manages to combine some of the more unsalubrious features of identarian politics with a breezy confidence in the purportedly essentially progressive tendencies of American democracy. (Having said this, his more recent journalistic pieces have been rather more pessimistic though.) His ethnocentrism, which he uses to ward away metaphysical (or rather ‘metaphysical’) grounds for liberalism, is a refusal of Politics as such; that is, as a universal project, not mired in the contingent calls of identities and the community (‘Community’ effectively acting as the very tertium quid for Rorty that he decries everywhere else). The problems that become visible here allow us to spot the red thread running through most of Rorty’s work that, when pulled, unravels most of his positive project. It is the iron cage imposed by his conception of cultural contexts that restrains Rorty, his ultimately being a failed attempt to rethink the need for immanence in determining a normative stance. Yet, the territory that he does manage to chart remains fertile ground. And given the adventurousness and stridency of the set of positions that he staked out, I am confident of one thing: if Rorty had not already have existed then someone would eventually have had to invent him.

Rorty Resources

Secondary literature

For those new to Rorty who want a brief overview of his work, Bjørn Ramberg’s SEP encyclopedia article is excellent. The volume Rorty and his Critics is superb, including critical articles by Habermas, McDowell, Davidson and Putnam, amongst others, as well as responses by Rorty. It also includes Brandom’s article, ‘Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesising Naturalism and Historicism’, which is the best presentation of Rorty’s project that I have come across.

Recommended work by Rorty

The introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism is available online here. Obviously, Rorty’s magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is to be recommended, primarily for Part II and within that particularly chapters 3 and 4. Some recommended papers: ‘The World Well Lost’ and ‘Nineteenth Century Idealism and Twentieth Century Textualism’ in Consequences of Pragmatism; ‘Solidarity or Objectivity?’ and ‘Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth’ in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1; ‘Hilary Putnam and the Relativist Menace’ in Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3.

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A bloody postcard

One of the many things I like about Wittgenstein is, amidst his invectives against philosophical nonsense, his love of the sort of nonsense that arises between friends. He once said that he liked nothing more than having someone to ‘talk nonsense to by the yard’ — a sentiment that I wholeheartedly share. Here’s the text of a postcard to Gilbert Pattison that he scribbled on the back of a photo of him walking with Arvid Sjögren and his sister Margarete:

Dear old Blood, I’m sure you’ll be interested to see me as I walk with a sister & a friend of mine in an exhibition of bloody modern houses. Don’t I look enterprising?! You can gather from this picture we had very hot weather but not that there was a thunderstorm half an hour after this was taken. I am, old god, yours in bloodyness Ludwig

Kantian self-legislation: formal laws and ontological narcissism

One very common way to read Kant’s moral philosophy is with a heavy emphasis on the self-legislative activity of the subject. Championed here is the anti-dogmatist tenor of Kant’s thought: the idea that normative authority can no longer be seen to simply rest in God or nature but must be grounded in a radically self-authorising subject who neither needs these external props nor can in good conscience accept them if they are to heed the Enlightenment call of ‘sapere aude!’ — to dare to know, to step into the maturity announced by the use of one’s own powers of reason.

As attractive as this picture can be in some respects, it often risks underplaying the formal elements in Kant’s project that are crucial to understanding the role of law and so why it is self-legislation that is invoked. To get a grasp on what work the word ‘formal’ is doing in this case, consider the following maxims (taken from Plato’s Republic as presented by Korsgaard):

(a) I will keep my weapon, because I want it for myself.
(b) I will refuse to return your weapon, because I want it for myself.
(c)I will refuse to return your weapon, because you have gone mad and may hurt someone.

They can be seen to be composed of two parts: an action and a purpose. Insofar as we are inclined to think that maxims (a) and (c) are good ones and maxim (b) a bad one, it seems that this cannot merely be a function of the actions or purposes. This is because the purposes of the first two are the same (acting because I want the weapon) and the actions of the second two are also the same (refusing to return the weapon). (a) and (c) both share parts — certainly different ones, but in combination exhaustive — with (b), so it cannot be merely in having a certain part that the maxim becomes a good one. Rather, it is the way that actions and purposes are combined that make the two maxims good ones. But form is not merely the way in which certain matter is combined. We said that the two maxims were good because of their combinations of actions and purpose; and form includes this directedness: it is the functional arrangement that enables something to do what it does, being an exemplum of its kind. (Obviously there are both relatively anodyne and much more controversial ways of understanding the ontological implications of this.)

Kant is concerned with what it is that distinguishes good maxims — the ones that are acceptable to act on — from bad ones — those that we ought not to act on. As we have seen, for him this cannot merely consist in identifying either certain actions or purposes that are good in-themselves. It requires us to examine the functional arrangement of actions and purposes. Kant’s suggestion as to the property of maxims that gives shape to this functional arrangement, that, as it were, locates what function that the arrangement should serve if the maxim is to be a good one, is being law-like. That is, those maxims that can be acted upon while it would be possible to consistently will them to be a natural law such that everyone would follow its dictates.

The way that I think Kant’s thought should be taken is as a thesis about the universality of reason, which implies its authority for and over us irrespective of our desire to heed its call. We can think of this as follows. For Kant, as for Socrates, to deliberate is to decide what ends are valuable, and insofar as we do decide to do something then we take this end as valuable. (Although akrasic factors might intervene before performing the action.) In performing an action pursuant of such an end, as distinct from a reflex reaction occurring or engaging in incoherent behaviour, we must be able to take ourselves to be acting for a reason: this is constitutive of actions (at least for Kant, if not Freud, say). So, given all the details of the particular situation that we find ourselves in, acting at all requires of us to be able to be able to produce reasons as to why we acted as we did in this situation.

The status of these reasons can then be questioned; the reasons in question being justificatory reasons, that is, not explanatory ones — we want to know whether although you took such-and-such to be a good reason to act as you did, was it really such a good reason? In assessing this, especially in the case of a morally dubious action, we may be tempted to point to extenuating circumstances: ‘Yes, I stole her wallet but I live in grinding poverty and have a starving family to feed.’ In a sense this is fine, for all the details of a particular situation are open to be appealed to as potentially relevant factors. However, it will not do to simply appeal to the fact that it is oneself who is acting, that the standards that are applied to others do not apply to me. For there is no metaphysically positive property that distinguishes you as exceptional and at the same time would be normatively relevant here. This means that there is no rational justification for free-riding that could not also be appealed to by anyone else with equal vehemence. We might put the point like this: for Kant there is no greater sin than ontological narcissism.

The formal structure of a law goes some way to excluding this temptation to make exceptions for oneself, for laws are universal. This means that, as Onora O’Neill puts it, they “prescribe for all cases in their scope.” A formal law is attached to fixed criteria, and these provide a measure of impartiality to it — it is not directed specifically at me. Contrast this with commands, which, stricto sensu, are particular, e.g. ‘Shut the door!’ or ‘You three are coming with me.’ If we find that our maxims do not have the formal structure of laws, that to be a subjective normative force for us they must be construed as commands, then considered as contributing reasons for action then they will be found wanting. This is because a brute command will find no rational warrant, whereas a law will be valid for everyone — it will contribute ‘public reasons’, so to speak, in support of the action.

So, to briefly return to the beginning, what is important in self-legislation is not the misleading picture of the agent that somehow binds or authorises itself, but rather the fact that the agent is following maxims with the formal structure of laws, stripped of all partiality. In following these rationalised maxims, ones where no unjustifiable exceptions are made simply because it is I who is acting, we act in a way proper to a being whose nature is itself infused with rationality, with the laws thus no longer being alien impositions: this is the self-legislative component.