"In his final work, Richard Rorty provides the definitive statement of his political thought. Rorty equates pragmatism with anti-authoritarianism, arguing that because there is no authority we can rely on to ascertain truth, we can only do so intersubjectively. It follows that we must learn to think and care about what others think and care about"--
Into this scenario stepped Richard Rorty (1931-2007), who gave a series of lectures in the 1990s that are only now being published in English, the language in which they were delivered. (They have been available in Spanish translation, the location of the lecture series, for years.) The book is called Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, a weighty project if ever there was one. Rorty was in his prime, and the lectures fling ideas (and criticisms) with seeming total abandon. But it’s not abandon; it is the comfort of coming to this point after a lifetime of research, thought, revisions, battles and the realization that he had mastered the art. It’s a most positive experience to read.
Rorty’s niche was Pragmatism. Pragmatism (the philosophy) says that life and the universe are all there is: that human beings have nothing to know save their relations to each other and to other finite beings. Specifically, that they owe nothing to any non-human authoritarian (ie. God) but that they owe everything to their fellow humans with whom they live and communicate. This is a refreshing departure from the complex, difficult and often impossible to implement philosophies of the great names of the discipline.
Rorty called himself the therapeutic philosopher. He made it comfortable to understand philosophy. He refined this philosophy over a lifetime, and defended it against all comers. By the time of these lectures, he was totally confident, relaxed and in control. There is even mild humor and self-deprecation, not things you see much of in Aristotle or Plato, Heidegger or Nietzsche. He quotes his critics often, as if to say he has nothing to fear from them. And he doesn’t usually even bother to refute their criticisms. Rather, he takes the high road.
There are lecture/chapters on religion, language, philosophy, and morality, among others. He (and everyone in the business) call what they criticize “language-games”. It’s the most common accusation I see. The use of a specific word can be the cause of a whole new paper to be written and published. The different usages of the same word throughout the world and throughout history can be the cause of endless criticism and consternation. What the Ancient Greeks tossed around still matters to 21st century philosophers. Semantics is crucial to philosophy.
But then, Rorty brings out Charles S. Peirce for his side. Peirce’s most important meme was that language is not so much semantics as semiotics – signs. It is something that grabbed the attention of both philosophers and Noam Chomsky, wearing his linguistics hat. But while Rorty admits to being a fan, he also acknowledged that Peirce was no authority and no proof of anything. He never followed through, never dug down, never built a body of work, or even kept an organized notebook. He was a bit of a madman, or at very least eccentric. He worked alone, without the daily interaction of his peers or students that makes philosophy as vibrant as it is. He sat and thought about the world, and wrote down his thoughts. And that was the end of his effort. A lot of his writing has yet to make any sense to academics. But it sure seems profound. He is credited with founding Pragmatism.
Peirce (1839-1914) is actually buried about a quarter of a mile from my office in Milford, PA, and his gigantic home, now a National Parks Service office building, is just two miles in the other direction. He lived out in the countryside, living off a huge inheritance, writing out ideas without developing them into coherent theses. He was the Thomas Jefferson of philosophy; you can find a Peirce quote to fit almost any situation or opinion in philosophy, even if contradictory. Just like Jefferson. He relied totally on his name to circulate it with authority. Just like Jefferson. Rorty seems to recognize this, but cites him everywhere anyway.
The book is full of challenges, and not just from Rorty, but from his critics too. Having thought through the logic of religions, he concludes “There is no way in which the religious person can claim a right to believe as part of an overall right to privacy.”
He takes on the hoary subject of morality with ease. Christians believe there can be no morality without God. But Rorty shows that morality is simply born of large numbers. When there was just the family, it wasn’t an issue. When it was a village, things could get complicated, so rules started to appear. Long before Christianity popped into existence. In his wonderfully simple terms, Rorty said that morality and law began when controversy arose. Period.
He compares the Platonic idea that Truth and God are one, to a social, moral and ethical framework /gospel, that would have been accepted in polytheistic societies like Ancient Rome. Truth and God also have to reconcile with Aristotle, Newton and Darwin who found truth lay way beyond the knowledge of the church.
Professor Rorty’s views on religion did not sit well with Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals, of course. But as his skin thickened to the attacks, he came to this conclusion: “You have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envision merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.” Wow is about the only word that fits here.
So what did Rorty believe? “My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.”
And finally: “I don’t think our practice of justifying our beliefs needs justification.”
The business of attacking religion is a standard ploy in philosophy. It is a fat target, with lots of hypocrisy to munch on. Yet it never ceases to amaze me that it always seems to be Christianity that is the whipping boy. I would love to have read Rorty’s attack on Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam for comparison. But western philosophy doesn’t seem to want to wander beyond western religion. This, to me, weakens Rorty’s case. But that is a quibble in this wide-ranging book.
What keeps coming through is Pragmatism’s appeal to the lowest common denominator: “At this level of abstraction, concepts like truth, rationality and maturity are up for grabs,” he says. He wants to take philosophy out of the ivory tower and apply it. His criticism of standard philosophical arguments bites hard: “How can you convince people that they are presupposing what they do not believe?”
Pragmatism encompasses pan-relationism. This boils down to anything has a sense if you give it one. It is another generous concept, in direct conflict with all kinds of philosophers for whom meaning is sacred, critical and often unapproachable. For Rorty, meaning can be found or made. Infinitely refreshing and accessible.
Pragmatism sloughs off a lot of what other philosophers argue over. They say it doesn’t matter. They put things in perspective. For example, they have no quarrel with Heidegger’s “bad moral character” as it doesn’t count against his philosophical achievements. Pragmatists attempt to get rid of the contrast between reality and appearance, Rorty said.
Once the reader gets to the lectures, it is smooth sailing. Unfortunately, there are two prefaces totaling nearly 40 pages that not only don’t reflect the warmth and breezy style Rorty wrote into his speeches, but they add nothing worth remembering at all. There is also an epilogue, which describes the lecture series that Rorty participated in, as well as some details about the lectures themselves. Eduardo Mendieta wrote it, as well as all the footnotes, where, incredibly to me, he noted every single change from the Spanish version of the lectures. Every word, translated to mean something slightly different, or cut altogether. Philosophers have issues.