John [Holbo, head Valvester] has invited me to say a bit more about the (R. Brandom, ed.) Rorty and his Critics collection we both like, for those interested (the rest of you can go back to arguing about whether Nabokov was a perv, or a robot, or whatever). I was going to say "dragooned," but I must admit I'm always up for talking about Rorty and his critics (seeing as the latter group includes me, me, me). And I see that I have written a bit more than "a bit." Oh well.
The Brandom volume came out in 2000. There are of course a number of previous books collecting critical responses to Rorty, including this one from 1990, and this one, from 1995. These critics, however, tend to be unsympathetic ones, and unsympathetic critics are not only less interesting to begin with, but bring out the worst in Rorty, who replies (in the second collection) in kind, i.e., less with careful engagement than with more of the same and then some. There are two basic kinds of unsympathetic critic. First we have realists who want to remind us that "yes, Virginia, there is a real world" (an actual title, as I recall, although this particular essay is not included in either of these books), and that relativism is self-refuting (an essay in the former collection is called "Auto-da-Fe"). The second group of critics is made up of scrupulous scholars of American pragmatism, outraged at Rorty's "creative misreadings" of their guys (esp. Dewey; Peirce is not so much "creatively misread" in Rorty as he is dissed and abandoned), and in service of (what they see as) a facile postmodern relativism to boot (as opposed to Dewey's, and Peirce's, explicitly scientific and experimental approach; Peirce was a working scientist, you know). And of course we also have critics on Rorty's political left, frustrated with the "piecemeal nudging" of reform and downright conventionalist quietism they see in his self-attributed "postmodern bourgeois liberalism" (compare criticism of Gadamer, as well as Wittgenstein, on similar or at least analogous grounds).
Now of course none of these groups is entirely wrong (I will not discuss the third). In my view as well, Rorty has never given a completely satisfactory answer to the charge that his views are, if this is how we want to put the point, insufficiently realistic; and of course 1990 is ten years earlier than 2000. I also agree with the second group that when we are concerned with what Dewey was actually up to, we should turn to Ralph Sleeper or Thomas Alexander rather than Rorty; but that doesn't mean that Rorty's use of Dewey doesn't help illuminate his own views, which should be evaluated on their own merits, and not with a set of Deweyan or Peircean doctrines already in place, which would allow us to elide failure to get Dewey or Peirce right with failure to get the world right.
I should also mention two other books. The single best response to Rorty's early views (that is, his early pragmatist views, not his even earlier materialism) is the essay on Rorty in Thomas McCarthy's book (his being a Habermas scholar notwithstanding); and if you are interested in these matters but think the Brandom volume might be too advanced for you (it is indeed difficult; but so is philosophy), I recommend this recent collection, which shares some of the same virtues, but is intended as an introductory book. In fact I think I'll read it again after I finish this.
But our topic today is the Brandom book. I won't discuss every essay, but zoom in on a few important topics addressed by a few of them, and say why I think this book is more than just a good book on Rorty.
Everybody knows that Descartes believed that mind and matter were two different substances. That meant that our beliefs, qua mental states, were "in here" while the world they purport to represent is "out there," such that the former are true if they "correspond" to the latter. Substance dualism is a tough sell for various reasons, but even when materialism became the dominant view, the Cartesian conception of
mind remained (although now thought of as a state of the physical world). The dualism changed from one of different substances (subject and object) to one of different points of view (subjective and objective). Belief remained a subjective representation of objective reality; and so the metaphysical dualism remained, even if not in "substance" form.
Descartes did not invent the philosophical problem of skepticism, but simply put it in a new and pressing form (the ancient skeptics agreed that objective knowledge was impossible, but basically told us to chill out about it – just accept the appearances and get on with your life). The Cartesian conception of mind presents an intolerable paradox: either we have no knowledge at all of the "external" world, not even that it exists, or we must show that we can bridge the epistemic gap between incorrigible subjective states (sense data and the a priori) and the objective world beyond. But no such bridge seems possible. Yet it is impossible simply to give up our beliefs as unjustified and unjustifiable, even in the face of this problem.
The most common responses to this paradox are 1) dogmatism, i.e., continuing to argue (or just assume) that the gap is crossable, and trying to shift the burden of proof back onto the skeptic; and 2) relativism, i.e., admitting the gap is uncrossable, even inconceivable, leaving each subject with his or her own "truth" faute de mieux, as that's all there is. The first leaves us with a possibly hopeless and maybe even incoherent aspiration to ground our beliefs; but the latter leaves our beliefs ungrounded and even themselves incoherent qua belief about a world beyond the subject.
Rorty tries another tack. As he sees it, the problem lies in the idea that our beliefs need "grounding," if that means seeing them as achieving "objectivity," which he agrees is either impossible or incoherent (he goes back and forth as to which). Yet he agrees that relativism is incoherent as well. So how are we to know what to believe, if we can't just believe whatever we want? Sounding a bit like the ancient skeptics here, Rorty suggests that the only "grounding" our beliefs need is in our practices as they stand. That is, if it is inherent in the very concept of belief that it points beyond the subjective realm – which is what makes relativism incoherent (how can a relativist really be said to "believe" anything?) – and we cannot see it as grounded in an inconceivable "correspondence" to an "objective" world (as we cannot jump out of our skins, as if to attain a "view from nowhere"), then let us turn to a third, intermediate realm: the intersubjective.
I won't rehearse Rorty's arguments and slogans here (see his collection of mid-1980's papers, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, for his most concerted effort to defend them properly), but we should take a look at his often-misconstrued "ethnocentrism" (a word I'm surprised he uses for his view; but see his response to Clifford Geertz, who himself uses the word quite differently, in the above collection). The idea is that we avoid relativism by recognizing normative constraints on our beliefs (we can't believe just anything if we are to be rational), but also avoid realism by recognizing that these norms come not from "the world itself" but from our fellows. The norms of justification vary from culture to culture, so whose norms should we use? If we are not to derive them a priori, nor to abandon them entirely, we can only answer: ours. These norms are revisable, not dogmatic; and that process of revision is itself subject to an ideal of free and unforced agreement, indeed open-ended conversation, appropriately enough if one considers one's own "ethnos" to be that of post-Deweyan "wet liberals" committed primarily to democracy and the avoidance of cruelty (rather than the accumulation of ideally accurate representations of objective reality, or of fealty to the One True Faith, or whatever).
We should thus reject "representationalism," and see our inscriptions and utterances as just one more set of tools for coping with the world, as it is the subject-object dualism lingering in that picture which causes the endless cycles of realism and anti-realism which have characterized the philosophy of the last century (I almost wrote "this century," which is of course what Rorty called it at the time). In other words, again, we should turn away from the world (i.e., so considered, as the object of our subjective representations) and toward our fellow inquirers, as it is to them and not to it that we are obliged. We thus abandon "capital-P Philosophy" as manifested in the traditional problems, and turn instead to our practices themselves, without worrying about grounding them transcendentally.
This is what provokes Rorty's turn to Deweyan conceptions of democracy as the political arm of philosophical pragmatism ("The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy," in ORT), and his favoring of Gadamerian Horizontverschmelzung over the Habermasian obsession with somehow locating the key to an "ideal speech situation" in Critical (i.e., philosophical) Theory rather than implicit in practice itself. There is a back-and-forth-and-back between Rorty and Habermas in Rorty and his Critics, but that's not what I'm going to discuss here. (For some specifically Deweyan criticism of Rorty's treatment of Dewey, see Rorty and Pragmatism, the 1995 collection I linked above, esp. James Gouinlock's contribution.)
As the reference to Gadamer vs. Habermas might suggest, most critics see Rorty's "ethnocentrism" as just another kind of conventionalism, the left lamenting the loss of critical leverage against tyrannical consensus, and the right bewailing the loss of transcendent objectivity. In either case, they often suggest that Rorty's views sound suspiciously like Orwell's O'Brien, who as I recall actually cops to (metaphysical) "idealism," seeing "realists" like Winston as naive. Rorty has addressed the Orwell issue in "The last intellectual in Europe: Orwell on cruelty" (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity), and in the Brandom collection James Conant has a typically lengthy and footnote-ridden article in response, which makes some excellent points, and is worth reading until you just can't get any farther, which should be about halfway through. Rorty defends himself surprisingly ably in response.
While Conant is the most detailed in his case for the view that, even in attempting to navigate a middle path, Rorty falls off to the relativist side (that is, he fails even by his own lights, a common charge among the commentators here), other commentators are more effective, even provoking unprecedented concessions which will, or should, or so I claim, be the focus of all subsequent Rorty scholarship, as I think Rorty would agree.
Bjørn Ramberg is the author of a fine book, Donald Davidson's Philosophy of Language: short, introductory, and yet substantive, although as a 1988 release it misses important developments in Davidson's philosophy since then. He also wrote the entry on hermeneutics at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; and while we're over there we might as well check out Jeff Malpas's article on Davidson.
"Post-ontological Philosophy of Mind: Rorty versus Davidson," Ramberg's article in Rorty and his Critics, is itself well worth reading, but it is Rorty's response that is the most compelling reading in the book. (Portions of this response, Rorty tells us, come from "Davidson between Wittgenstein and Tarski" (Critica 1998; Davidson's reply is available online here (scroll down) and on paper here; unfortunately, at the moment at least, the online archives at Critica go back only to this very issue, not the one in which the articles appear to which he is responding.)
Get this. "Ramberg," Rorty says in his response (p. 375), "has persuaded me to abandon two doctrines which I have been preaching for years: that the notion of 'getting things right' must be abandoned, and that 'true of' and 'refers to' are not word-world relations." More specifically, "it was a mistake on my part to go from criticism of attempts to define truth as accurate representation of the intrinsic nature of reality to a denial that true statements get things right" . He explains this realization in the Davidsonian terms Ramberg had used – in particular, the later-Davidsonian picture of interpretation/inquiry (my slash) as a triangle with vertices of speaker, interpreter, and world. This is the key to Davidson, and for that reason I won't make a big deal out of my quibbles with the details of Rorty's long overdue mea culpa.
But let's at least look at them, and finish up by considering, in the context of three more articles in Rorty and his Critics, the effect of this doctrinal shift on one more key issue: the value of truth in inquiry. Consider Rorty's answer, immediately following the above concession to Ramberg [p. 375] to the following question he naturally asks himself: "How many of my previous positions – positions criticized by McDowell, Dennett, and others in this volume – am I now forced to give up?" That answer? "Not many. Here are some doctrines which remain unaffected:
"1. No area of culture, and no period of history, gets Reality more right than any other [as there is] no such thing as Reality."
Okay, but you won't like the subsequent exegesis, which still sounds antirealist.
"2. Pace McDowell, there is no second norm given us by the facts, in addition to the norms given us by our peers."
Here the brief explanation looks fine – except one thing: in the sense in which it is correct, there's no reason to take McDowell as disagreeing with it. I'll talk a bit about McDowell's article below.
"3. To say that we get snow mostly right [i.e., for Davidsonian reasons] is not to say that we represent snow with reasonable accuracy ... The holism of intentional ascription forbids any such talk."
Poppycock. Representation, like correspondence and objectivity, can be perfectly well domesticated. If you don't think we get snow right, then say so, and give us a better account. Perhaps naturally, after making such a big concession, Rorty is still concerned with minimizing what he is forced to say rather than with deciding what he still wants to say (or avoid saying).
"4. I [...] still maintain that there is no such thing as the search for truth, as distinct from the search for happiness [ = "getting more of the things we keep developing new descriptive vocabularies to get"]. There is no authority called Reality before whom we need bow down."
Yes, yes, realism is false. We get it. Note the dualistic form here, which is really what we should be jettisoning: our goal, he says, is not truth – that would be Realism! – but instead happiness (as if embracing the one still involved abandoning the other). Yet to be entitled to the Davidsonian picture, I would argue that we must reinstate truth – given its role there – as a goal. After all, if we want to know whether snow is white, doesn't that mean, given its meaning, we are ipso facto concerned with the truth of "snow is white"? Answer: sure we are. I'll say this again in a second.
So this is a big step for Rorty, but it seems he has not yet internalized this shift in doctrine (which, given all the rest of his views, may take some time to do). It is with this in mind that the other papers and responses should be read (some of which were written before 1998, but if Rorty wanted to change his responses he would have said so, either there or in the response to Ramberg).
In "Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry? Donald Davidson vs. Crispin Wright" (1995, so pre-Ramberg; but this part seems to be something Rorty has not retracted (see #4 above); reprinted in Truth and Progress), Rorty elaborates his view in the following way (T & P, p. 39).
Some Davidsonians might see no reason why they too [i.e., as Wright does] should not say, ringingly, robustly, and commonsensically, that the goal of inquiry is truth. But they cannot say this without misleading the public. For when they go on to add that they are, of course, not saying that the goal of inquiry is correspondence to the intrinsic nature of things [i.e., metaphysical realism], the common sense of the vulgar will feel betrayed [footnote: for an example see such-and-such typical realist griping from Searle and Rorty's reply]. For "truth" sounds like the name of a goal only if it is thought to name a fixed goal – that is, if progress toward truth is explicated by reference to a metaphysical picture, that of getting closer to what Bernard Williams calls [in his book on Descartes, I believe] "what is there anyway." Without that picture, to say that truth is our goal is merely to say something like: we hope to justify our belief to as many and as large audiences as possible. But to say that is to offer only an ever-retreating goal, one that fades forever and forever when we move. It is not what common sense would call a goal. For it is neither something we might realize we had reached, nor something to which we might get closer.So instead of saying truth is our goal, because we can't tell when we have reached it, Rorty would have us say instead that justification is our goal, not truth. Now as you may know Rorty has been trying to get Davidson to go pragmatist in one way or another for many years. So prepare yourselves for another landmark in RahC. Davidson has resisted (as well he might) any "pragmatist theory of truth" In which truth just is "the good in the way of belief" (James) or something "good to steer by" (Dewey); but in "Truth Rehabilitated" (RahC pp. 65-73), he finally joins Rorty in this "somewhat tamer, but clearly recognizable, version" (p. 67):
What is clearly right is a point made long ago by Plato in the Theaetetus: truths do not come with a "mark," like the date in the corner of some photographs, which distinguishes them from falsehoods. The best we can do is test, experiment, compare, and keep an open mind. [...] We know many things, and will learn more; what we will never know for certain is which of the things we believe are true. Since it is neither visible as a target, nor recognizable when achieved, there is no point in calling truth a goal. Truth is not a value, so the "pursuit of truth" is an empty enterprise unless it means only that it is often worthwhile to increase our confidence in our beliefs, by collecting further evidence or checking our calculations.Let's not get fuddled by Davidson's use of "pragmatist" here. He thinks of Rorty as a "pragmatist" in the sense he uses it on the basis of Rorty's endorsement someplace or other of the "pragmatist" reduction of truth to utility. But as we have just seen, Rorty endorses both of the last two sentences of this quotation (and is thus not a "pragmatist" in this sense, at least not by 1995). Even without the (later) concession to Ramberg that true statements "get things right," it would surely be pointless for Rorty to say both 1) that truth is not objective, but instead to be identified with utility, and 2) truth is pointless as a goal; for that would mean that utility is pointless as a goal, which is nuts. So in agreeing to (2), we lose any motivation to deny that truth is objective. After all, as Davidson tells it, the whole point of (2) was to improve on (1). But we still have a version of pragmatism here. Compare e.g. Davidson's invocation of the Theaetetus with Peirce's dictum that "the final opinion [his criterion of truth] does not glow in the dark." And of course realists won't want to save the objectivity of truth by giving it up as a goal.
From the fact that we will never be able to tell which of our beliefs are true, pragmatists [i.e., those committed to the "pragmatist theory of truth"] conclude that we may as well identify our best researched, most successful, beliefs with the true ones, and give up the idea of objectivity. (Truth is objective if the truth of a belief or sentence is independent of whether it is justified by all our evidence, believed by our neighbors, or is good to steer by.) But here we have a choice. Instead of giving up the traditional view that truth is objective, we can give up the equally traditional view (to which the pragmatists adhere) that truth is a norm, something for which to strive. I agree with the pragmatists that we can't consistently take truth to be both objective and something to be pursued. But I think they would have done better to cleave to a view that counts truth as objective, but pointless as a goal.
But here's where it gets sticky. For neither do I. (Ironic, isn't it, that after all this time, Davidson and Rorty finally agree on a version of pragmatism ... and it's wrong. Ironic, anyway, for those of us who hoped it would go the other way.) And neither do Akeel Bilgrami [full disclosure: my dissertation adviser at Columbia, not like he necessarily agrees with me on anything besides this] and John McDowell, whose articles here are essential (but not essentialist; that's something else).
Here's my paraphrase of Bilgrami's argument (but don't hold him responsible; read it yourself). For both Rorty and Davidson, the key point that requires that truth not be a goal (almost wrote "gaol"; who's that, Foucault?) is that (as Davidson puts it) "we can never tell which of our beliefs are true" (because, again, they don't come with a "mark" distinguishing them from the false ones). But wait a second. There is indeed a truth in there somewhere; but that's not it. Let's be more careful. We are fallible; our methods of justification do not guarantee that the resulting belief is true. So every believer (that's everybody) has some false beliefs (he thinks they're true, but they're not; because truth is objective and doesn't depend on what we think). Each of us may be required to revise our beliefs in the future, as new evidence comes in.
So far so good. But you have to watch that first-person plural (the very aspect of "ethnocentrism" that was supposed to help us). I can say "we all have some false beliefs" because a) everybody else does, and b) I'm fallible too. But I can't say "I have some false beliefs just like everybody else," for Moorean reasons (Moorean paradox: both "it's raining" and "I believe that it is not raining" may both be true, but to say "It's raining, but I don't believe that it is" makes no sense on any remotely straightforward interpretation). Similarly, you can't say "I can't tell which of my beliefs is true." Try it.
-- How about this one? Is this one true?
-- Of course it is. Everyone knows that.
-- So you can tell. How about that one?
-- Maybe not.
-- Maybe not? It might be false?
-- So you're in doubt about it; it's not a "belief" at all. If you believe something, what can that mean but "I have checked this every way I know how (or at least every way I care to) and it is true true true"?
Moral: only on a third-person view of inquiry can we disavow the transparency (in this sense) of belief. From the first-person point of view, an inquirer's beliefs must be true. But that's what each of us is – a first-person inquirer. (Akeel says a lot more, but that's the gist.)
Let's just solve the skeptical problem while we're here. Here comes a skeptic now.
-- Okay, okay, you believe it (he says). But maybe you're wrong about what you believe; you're fallible, aren't you?
-- Yes, I am; I've made mistakes before.
-- So maybe you're wrong this time too.
-- We'll see, won't we. Did you have any of my beliefs in mind?
-- Well, how about this one? Is this one true?
-- Why yes. Yes it is.
-- But it might be false, say if this (admittedly unlikely) situation were the case.
-- It would be then; but we're not in that situation.
-- So you say.
-- Yes I do. Let me ask you: do you believe it?
-- Yes, you. Do you believe that belief of mine?
-- Of course I do. I'm a philosopher, not a moron.
-- So you agree it's true.
-- Yes, but it might not be.
-- It's true, but it might not be true?
-- Okay, wait. No, I don't believe it.
-- You don't? What are you, a moron?
-- No, I just, uh, it might be false.
-- So you say. But if I am to credit you with actually believing that it might be false – that is, that you don't believe it (i.e., in order to be a consistent skeptic) – then you have to act that way, or you're just flapping your mouth. So go ahead, act that way. Go on.
-- See, you can't – they'd lock you up. Congratulations, you're not a moron after all. But you have to give up your skepticism. Either you believe something or you don't; and if you do, you can't be a skeptic; but if you don't, then we're not talking about the truth of our beliefs; we're talking about what to believe. And that's just first-order inquiry, not philosophical reflection. Only Cartesians confuse the two, i.e., those who see philosophy as laying down requirements for our practices, not (as Wittgensteinians say) elucidating them or (as pragmatists say, with Peirce) making them clear (of course that's just what "elucidating" means, isn't it).
Now, where were we? Oh yes – we can too tell when our beliefs are true. To say otherwise is to give them up. But doesn't this require absolute certainty? And wouldn't that be dogmatic? Yes, it would; but all we need do is distinguish between degrees of certainty and types of certainty. Certainty is just the absence of doubt; but the absence of doubt is just belief. So when I believe something, I'm completely or entirely certain; but I'm not "absolutely" certain, if that means something like incorrigibly certain. And all I need to do to avoid that is to pledge to revise my views if new and persuasive evidence comes in; but I was going to do that anyway. So since we can indeed tell when our beliefs are true, there's no reason that truth can't be a goal after all. QED.
Almost done (for today). My favorite article here is McDowell's "Towards Rehabilitating Objectivity" (pp. 109-23). (By the way, that may seem short, but the pages are big, with close print. You would have gotten your money's worth with this book, if the price hadn't gone up to $35.99 in paperback.) Covering some of the same territory as Bilgrami, McDowell hits Rorty on the same points, but from a metaphysical rather than an epistemological angle. (This makes sense given McDowell's turn to Kant and Hegel.) As I've already mentioned, there's no point in denying that truth is objective, once we make the necessary pragmatic connection to our practices of inquiry and interpretation (although that connection cannot take the form either of reducing truth to utility or of giving it up as a goal). McDowell elaborates this point, in the context of showing Rorty's "pragmatism" to fail by its own anti-Cartesian lights (that's gotta hurt).
I won't go into the whole McDowellian picture, which would require a detour into Mind and World and a dozen or so of his most important articles (ooh, and the one in here), but let me just give you a taste (pp. 114-5):
Rorty's picture is on these lines. If we use an expression like "accurate representation" in the innocent internal [i.e., to our practices, as in Putnam] way, it can function only as a means of paying "empty compliments" to claims that pass muster within our current practice of claim-making. Now "the representationalist" finds a restriction to this sort of assessment unacceptably parochial. Recoiling from that, "the representationalist" tries to make expressions like "true" or "accurate representation" signify a mode of normative relatedness – conformity – to something more independent of us than the world as it figures in our world view [i.e., as an objective world – one, that is, that does not depend our our thoughts about it – so that what the Cartesian demands is fealty to a world more independent of us even than that; this distinction is McDowell's metaphysical analogue to Bilgrami's "first-person" epistemology, of which McDowell has his own variant]. This aspiration is well captured by Thomas Nagel's image of "trying to climb outside of our own minds" [The View From Nowhere; but of course Nagel – a sap, but a good philosopher nonetheless – thinks that this task, which we should all deplore as irretrievably Cartesian, is "philosophically fundamental"]. The image fits a conception, or supposed conception [there's the Wittgensteinian in McDowell speaking], of reality that threatens to put it outside our reach, since the norms according to which we conduct our investigations cannot of course be anything but our current norms. [...]Ooh, the Devil don't like that kind of preachin' (as Jimmy Swaggart would say, in rather a different context)!
This conception is naturally reflected in just the sorts of philosophical wonderment at, for instance, the meaningfulness of language, or the fact that we so much as have an "overall view of the world," that Rorty tellingly deplores. In this conception, being genuinely in touch with reality would in a radical way transcend whatever we can do within our practices of arriving at answers to our questions. Thus a familiar gulf seems to open between us and what we should like to think of ourselves as able to get to know about. And the only alternative, as Rorty sees things, is to take our inquiry not to be subject to anything but the norms of current practice [i.e., as we have seen above]. This picture of the options makes it look as if the very idea of inquiry as normatively beholden not just to current practice but to its subject matter [that is, the idea that we want to "get things right," which Rorty is now willing to equate with "believing true sentences" – but only to abandon both as goals] is inextricably connected with the "Augustinian" picture [i.e. as so described in the opening sections of Philosophical Investigations] and the impulse to climb outside of our own minds. But a piece of mere sanity goes missing here.
Okay, that's enough for now. Putnam and Dennett have short bits here, and there are also articles from Jacques Bouveresse, Michael Williams, Barry Allen, and the editor himself, all worth reading (but with less gold, by my lights). Check it out!
Thanks to all for reading this far, if you did, and thanks to John for the invite. I'll take questions if you got 'em.