Rorty Interviews


A number of wide-ranging interviews with Richard Rorty can be found here:

‘A Talent For Bricolage’
‘Realists—Grow Up’
‘The Next Left’
‘North Atlantic Thinking’
‘Without illusion, but with conviction’

Rorty is laconic throughout, with my favourite example being when Joshua Knobe asks him why Putnam thinks he is a relativist: “Beats me. I wrote an article about it, but that was as far as I got.”

Brandom, Habermas and the political

There are two very interesting new pieces by Brandom available on his website. The first is his attempt to reconcile his reading of Hegel with Habermas, which you can download here. [via Now-Times and Habermasian Reflections] This is a really excellent paper which does a good job of resituating Brandom’s theory of normativity, throwing new light upon it. The second piece is an interview with the European Journal of Political Theory, and can be found here. This is something of a departure for Brandom, who has often seemed a little reticent about political topics. There does seem to be a turn towards these issues though, beginning with his article on the Pragmatist Enlightenment and continued with his current engagement with Habermas (and he has even been teaching a course with 4 weeks on Marx). I hope there is more to come. The proceedings of the recent Genoa conference on Brandom’s recent philosophy of language are also available, although I have not had a chance to look at them yet. They can be found here. Finally, there is this little paper on the development of Rorty’s thought: a topic on which Brandom is always an insightful read.

Silence is Golden

Commenting on the previous post, Dave M from DuckRabbit says:

I also see a connection between McDowell’s “anti-anti-realism” and his “quietism,” but I don’t think it’s quite as direct as you make out. Naturally if a question is motivated only by a false assumption one will spurn demands from both sides that one give one’s own answer to it. That doesn’t make one a quietist.

Of course, Dave is correct that the connection is not a direct one. Evidently, it was misleading of me to say that McDowell’s rejection of what he takes to be an erroneous assumption common to realism and anti-realism was “a sign of McDowell’s quietism” without making it more clear that I do not take his quietism to be a simple consequence of making this sort of move. To see why quietism does not follow, we can consider three sorts of philosophical strategy that proceed in this way.

Firstly, we have the simple identification of a loaded question — the familiar fallacy of asking a complex question with a false or highly questionable suppressed premise (e.g. ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’). Obviously, examples of this argumentative strategy are ten-a-penny, and exposing a logical fallacy of this sort does not make someone a quietist.

Secondly then, we have what Michael Williams calls ‘theoretical diagnosis’. This sort of analysis attempts to give a genealogy of the problematic assumption. As such, it is not content to simply point out that an inquiry rests upon a questionable premise, but goes further in explaining how this premise came to be implicitly or explicitly accepted. Where appropriate, an analysis of this sort may tell an historical story, or demonstrate the inquiry’s dependence upon some substantive practical attitudes, or some combination of the two. The idea being that once we can see that the demand for explanation we faced is a conditional one, dependent upon a whole backdrop of beliefs and values that are not simply given, then we can loosen the grip that a problem has on us — the sense that by refusing to answer it something important goes unexplained.

As a slight aside: Rorty is someone who often proceeds in this way, especially when confronting what he takes to be epistemology. So, for example, in his attempted dissolution of the modern epistemological project, he provides us with a historical narrative that tries to show how we are led to an impasse by a set of distinctively modern assumptions about our relation to the world arising out of the Cartesian and Lockean programmes. These assumptions are supposedly alien to older philosophers, such as the ancient Greeks, and only arise in response to a particular set of problems introduced by the rise of modern science. Having recognised this, we are meant to see that engaging with the epistemological tradition founded upon the assumptions introduced by Descartes and Locke is, to use a Rortian term, ‘optional’. If we can see that the problem we are facing is not imposed atemporally, it is up to us to decide whether we want to engage with it or rather instead drop the presuppositions that motivate it, redescribe the phenomena in question and get on with something more useful.

Although this is a greatly simplified take on Rorty’s position, it nonetheless allows us to see why he has been accused of ‘decisionism’ by Charles Guignon, amongst others. The charge here is that Rorty overestimates our capacity, both normatively and psychologically, to simply drop problem-generating assumptions and think about the issue at hand in a different way. That is, we should be wary of accepting an unqualified version of Rorty’s claim, “man is always free to choose new descriptions.” (PMN: 362n.7) Following on from this, I am tempted to claim that Rorty is often like a psychoanalyst who is content to tell his new patients that he is sure that their troubles are the result of deep psycho-social traumas and sees no need to work through their particular circumstances with them. This is compounded by statements like the following, where quoting James Conant he says, “‘Rorty’s recommendation appears to be that one should leave the fly in the fly-bottle and get on with something more interesting.’ Conant here gets me exactly right.” (PPv.3: 47n.17)

How would the fly be shown the way out of the fly-bottle? Well, perhaps via the third approach, which is a genuinely therapeutic diagnosis. Recapping, the first approach simply pointed out that an inquiry is based on a false or otherwise questionable premise. The second tried to show how the adoption of the premise was conditioned. Therapeutic diagnosis countenances a further possibility though, that the adoption of the dubious premise is not conditioned, at least not in the way that the theoretical diagnostician tries to show. That is, such an approach does not insist upon tracing the adoption of the premise to some specific point, instead holding out for the possibility that the temptation to error is a diffuse one, arising perennially and not tied to a specific set of beliefs or desires (with the implication that we are free to dismiss them with relative ease).

Wittgenstein’s suggestion that philosophical problems appear when language ‘goes on holiday’ might serve to illustrate this. On this sort of account, we cannot explain the myriad temptations to platonism, reductionism, behaviourism, cartesianism, etc. as merely a series of contingent mistakes — of propositions we simply endorsed in error but can now see are false. Rather, these temptations will be seen as more deeply rooted within us than that, as habits fostered by the misleading analogies suggested by language that offer themselves to us when we turn to philosophical topics. As such, they are something that needs to be tended to so that they do not become overgrown. Less metaphorically, this will mean actually reflecting in concrete cases, catching ourselves when we go on to demand and then supply ourselves with explanations for phenomena that can be perfectly well acounted for by way of careful description rather than a theory that seeks to expose the essential nature of the phenomenon at hand. By doing this, we would develop a certain habitus (in the sense of cultivating a comportment towards the world) that means that we are no longer troubled by what we once thought were problems demanding our attention as constructive philosophers.

If we think that philosophical problems are usually amenable to some form of this latter treatment, then quietism — understood as the refusal to assert philosophical theses — ought to seem more reasonable. This is because if philosophical problems stem from near-inevitable tendencies entwined with some fundamental aspect of our existence, such as language use, once we have accounted for and dismissed such ‘anxieties’ then there is nothing left to explain. There would be no philosophical theses because such things would not add to our knowledge; they would not be seriously contestable. But instead of theses, we may need reminders. This is because a reminder does not add to knowledge, it is a prompt which allows us to do something else: to orient ourselves in the right way, silencing our philosophical anxiety — something that it is a practical achievement as much as an epistemic one.

What underlies McDowell’s quietism is, I think, a refusal of a certain demand for explanation which arises from a philosophical anxiety. Again without going into the full details of McDowell’s views, in the case of the traditional debate between realism and anti-realism, the common assumption that he rejects seems to be that either of these views explain anything at all — that they are capable of doing any philosophical heavy lifting. The anxiety is the longing for foundations — the worry that we need an account to show us that our practices are safe; that science really is in order because it connects up with mind-independent entities or that morality can after all be on a sound footing simply by virtue of social practices within certain communities. But giving a philosophical explanation at this stage is always too late in the day. I take McDowell to suggest that we ought to be able to nip these demands in the bud by coming to see how our common-sense platitudes, properly marshalled, do not sell us short, leaving us with something further to explain. Once we dispell the anxiety, the need for a substantive explanation vanishes along with it.

Rorty, Wittgenstein and norms

Here is a very sketchy set of thoughts about Rorty and Wittgenstein on normativity that I wrote a few years back. There’s bits of it I no longer agree with, but I think there is at least some value in the central distinction I make between social practices being a condition for normative standards to be in play and social practices being arbiters of what is to count as meeting normative standards. Part of my work at the moment is in trying to motivate the thought that while some norms are socially administered, we can make sense of others that are not, even if being somehow connected to or embeddeded in social practices is a condition of them taking hold at all. Anyway, I hope it is of at least some interest, although it would certainly have benefitted from me reading more McDowell before having written it.

* * *

Rorty’s discussions of normativity, which centre on the role of epistemology and the evaluation of norms, take up a similar position to Kripke’s Wittgenstein in locating normative relations within the horizon of communities for which we feel solidarity rather than seeing them as objective and extra-social, such that we can see ourselves, “standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality.” (1984: 21) This is a position that Rorty labels ‘ethnocentric’ because it does not accept that we can appeal to standards outside of a social group to justify the normative standards of that group. The issue we will be concerned with here though is not the meta-normative one of how we are to evaluate our own normative standards but rather of how we should think about how people manage to conform to a norm at all.

The criterion that Rorty gives for someone’s statement conforming to norms of warranted assertability is a sociological one. It is, “to be ascertained by observing the reception of S’s statement by his peers.” (1993: 50) What this amounts to is fleshed out in response to Putnam’s query as to whether he accepts this principle:

Whether a statement is warranted or not is independent of whether the majority of one’s cultural peers would say it is warranted or unwarranted. (Putnam 1990: 21 quoted in Rorty 1993: 49)

Rorty says that perhaps a majority can be wrong (although he does not explain how we are to decide this sociologically) but that if everyone in a community except for a handful of ‘dubious characters’ say that the statement is warranted then it will be. The only alternative to this view, he claims, is an untenable realist position that supposes that, “there is some way of determining warrant sub specie aeternitatis.” (1993: 50)

From the standpoint of a careful examination of Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following, we can identify Rorty’s position as a misdirected response to a set of plausible intuitions concerning the need to involve reference to human activity in approaching normative claims. The confusion displayed by his stance is in supposing that the criteria for the satisfaction of certain norms, such as those for warrant, have a privileged relationship to the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of a linguistic community (as well as other sufficiently sociologically privileged groups within such a community). This way of handling the issue is an attempt to anchor normativity in something that avoids the suspicion that hangs over both a potentially alien and unfathomable natural order of normative authority and the unappealing relativism of a subjectivist approach. However, while rightly rejecting strong forms of realism and relativism, it incorrectly locates the genuine role of communal agreement by taking it to be an external arbiter of the satisfaction of norms rather than a general prerequisite for the institution of norms.

For Wittgenstein, a relatively stable background consensus concerning whether rules have been obeyed or not constitutes a precondition for the possibility of linguistic activities such as giving descriptions. It is, he says, “part of the framework on which the working of our language is based.” (§240) Wittgenstein then cautions against the temptation (a form of which we have already met in Rorty) to suppose that this means that it is a concurrence of opinion that determines whether or not a rule has been obeyed. The agreement that he is concerned with is in the language used, about which he says that this is agreement in “form of life.” (§241) So, Wittgenstein is saying that it is a grammatical condition upon giving descriptions in which we say someone is or is not following a rule that it takes place against a backdrop of patterns of behaviour to which there belongs a stable and mostly uncontroversial practice of distinguishing between correct and incorrect rule-following. That is, a general distinction between correctness and incorrectness in rule-following must be in place for it to make sense to say in an individual case that someone is correctly following a rule.

Returning to Rorty’s case of warrant, he claims that, once we turn away from a strong realist position, then if an overwhelming majority of someone’s linguistic community believe that p is warranted then it cannot fail to be. This necessitates a collapse of the distinction between it seeming to an overwhelming majority of a community to be correct to believe p is warranted and it being true that p is warranted. But it is surely intelligible that a large mass of people have made a systematic error in applying our criteria of warrant, or even that everyone in a community is mistaken in this respect. Without this possibility then we face the problem raised by the private language argument but simply writ large. The private language argument presents us with a situation where we are left without a genuine criterion for identifying a phenomenon because there is no standard of correctness for applying the criterion. Wittgenstein says: “One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’.” (§258) Here we find the problem transposed to the level of the community. Where whatever seems correct to the overwhelming majority of a community is taken as the ultimate arbiter of what is correct then we have abandoned the distinction between appearance and objective reality.

We are now not dealing with a criterion for warrant in which our inclinations come to play a supporting role; instead, we are dealing with a Rortian redefinition of ‘warrant’ which ties it to a separate concept. This can be shown by considering the differences between the notion of what a sociologically privileged group within a community is inclined to describe as ‘warranted’ and what goes on in our actual practices of justification. As with other norms, the criteria of warrant are satisfied through an internal relation between the criteria and what is warranted, in the same way that a desire or belief is internally related to what is desired or believed. This is reflected in our application of criteria of warrant such that in assessing a belief we inquire into such things as whether there is any empirical evidence to back it up, whether it is logically entailed or excluded by our well-grounded beliefs, and so on. As part of these considerations we might appeal to the beliefs of our linguistic community, but these will have no pivotal role and will not act as a tertium quid mediating the significance of all other factors. Ultimately it will be whether there are good to reasons to believe p that will determine whether it is warranted and not that an overwhelming majority believe there are good reasons.

This does not mean that we must invoke atemporal standards of rationality to decide what counts as a good or bad reason to believe p. Our normative criteria for what are good or bad reasons in support of a belief will arise from, and be thoroughly intertwined with, the common activity of critical assessment. The important point is that, contra Rorty, it is a mistake to conflate the conditions in which there arises a distinction between acting in accord with a normative standard or not and the conditions for the satisfaction of individual normative standards. Were we to lack a good deal of consensus in the application of criteria for warrant, wildly or unsystematically diverging in our judgments as to whether beliefs were warranted, then the practice of criticism would lose its identifiable character. Wittgenstein makes an analogous point:

It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. But what we call “measuring” is partly determined by a certain constancy in results of measurement. (§242)

This is related to the Davidsonian idea that the majority of our beliefs could not be false because we must suppose a general background of true beliefs for it to be intelligible to ascribe beliefs at all. So, for example, whilst it is possible for Aristotle to have been wrong about the number of teeth that women have, we cannot suppose he was wrong in every belief he had about teeth because in such a case we have no grounds for connecting his behaviour with ascriptions of teeth-related beliefs. The same goes for norms like warrant, where there is no direct connection between the correctness of application of the criteria of individual candidates for warrant and the activities of a larger linguistic community, and it is quite possible for everyone to misapply commonly recognised criteria for warrant. However, this presupposes a general coherence in our activities of criticism because it is through a regular pattern of mostly consensual applications of the set of criteria that partly determines that what people are doing is assessing warrant.

We can go some way to meeting the concerns that motivate Rorty by locating the origins of normative standards of warrant within the common activity of critically assessing beliefs, and furthermore note that we cannot completely lose touch with what meets these standards since regularity in their application is partly constitutive of them being standards of warrant. However, once these norms are instituted there will be no need for them to be mediated by the response of a linguistic community. Placing the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of a linguistic community as an infallible authority as to the satisfaction of normative criteria for warrant is a needless step. What’s more, it surreptitiously redefines what is to count as warrant, substituting the application of criteria to an objective world that determines whether they are satisfied with the limp concept of warrant as always and only those beliefs which seem acceptable to many members of a linguistic community.

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.

Neo-pragmatism and normative constraint

In lieu of a more substantive post — as I’m busy writing a piece for my supervision meeting on Tuesday as well as marking — I thought I’d post this primarily exegetical essay that I wrote about this time last year for my MA. It’s entitled ‘Neo-pragmatism and normative constraint: Rorty, Brandom and beyond’ and deals with some of the topics to do with normative authority that have come up here already and shall continue to do so. The focus is predominantly epistemological, in contrast to the debates centring on morality and critical theory that I’ve been thinking about recently, but may be useful for its very difference in approach since it may allow a degree of ‘triangulation’ when thinking about normativity in general. My thoughts on these topics are in semi-permanent flux so I do not necessarily still endorse all the content. (Nor, indeed, do I make any promises about its quality!)

Also, thanks to N Pepperell and Nate for their recent comments. In what will likely become a convention here with respect to substantive comments, I shall respond in post form when I have time to do these reponses justice. This better suits the rather lumbering pace of my thoughts and will allow me to clarify and reformulate matters to myself in a marginally less sketchy form.