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The Library of Living Philosophers
by Gideon Calder
For generations, and especially since Nietzsche, philosophers have been calling other philosophers they don’t like ‘metaphysicians’, while declaring themselves purged of such dubious tendencies. Opinions vary about what exactly is wrong with ‘metaphysics’. For some, it is just unverifiable speculation. For others, there is a moral or political imperative to avoid its spurious generalizations. Others say that, never mind trying to describe it, the very notion of ‘ultimate reality’ is nonsensical in the first place.
Many would class Richard Rorty (born in New Jersey in 1931, and now teaching at Stanford) as the prime contemporary pusher of the metaphysics-bashing line. Largely, like a theatre critic who’s denounced drama as decadent but can’t quite stay away from the stage, he writes about philosophy while trying to avoid doing it in any traditional sense. A pragmatist, he sees truth and successful explanation to be gauged by what works, or delivers results, rather than what ‘corresponds to reality’, or logically coheres. And for all its self-adjustments, mainstream, post- Cartesian philosophy (what Rorty has called Philosophy with a capital P) is no longer working. It needs to extricate itself from various doomed ambitions. One give-away sign of such ambitions is that they involve an attempt to escape the contingencies of time and chance (the cultural circumstances and priorities amid which we happen to operate, the vocabulary we happen to use) and find some separate, eternal realm where questions such as ‘What is the mind?’, ‘What is knowledge?’, or ‘What is justice?’ can be answered in some appropriately ‘objective’, ultimate-sounding way.
Thus Rorty’s 1979 magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, argues that it’s largely because of the stubborn but chance appeal of a certain metaphor (that of the human mind as a mirror, reflecting or representing the way the world is) that philosophy since Descartes has been led down a series of dead ends pursuing the nature of truth, rationality, and other such ‘big questions’. As religion loses its central role in western culture, the next step should be to stop assuming that the natural sciences, or anything else, is in a privileged position to deliver modern ‘big answers’. Rorty works syncretically, showing how his favoured philosophers – Wittgenstein, for instance, and Davidson, Dewey and Heidegger – show us how to leave that whole desire, and its guiding metaphors, painlessly behind. Rather than demonstrating philosophically the redundancy of, say, epistemology as familiarly practised, we’d do better just to ‘change the subject’ to something else, and change the whole vocabulary within which problems and solutions are raised.
This, he argues (after Thomas Kuhn) is what happens anyway in the transition from, say, Aristotelian to Newtonian physics: not another step along some pre-laid rational road to truth, but a switch to another, more useful way of describing things. That road, and truth itself, are not found by rational acuity (or by polishing the mirror) – they’re simply what we make them. Nothing – not God, nor nature, nor the nature of Reason – constrains the conversations we have about how best to describe things other than the contributions themselves and their acceptability to a given community. Philosophers should stop behaving as if their own sorts of rumination are somehow automatically more weighty than the more piecemeal, narrative creations of journalists or novelists or poets. Similarly, the way in which we approach ‘philosophical’ questions doesn’t really make much difference unless it cashes out productively in terms of achieving certain ends – most generally, making the community to which we are allied freer and happier.
This might seem over-sanguine, or indeed simplistic. Rorty’s political writings, though avowedly progressive in intent, are often charged with bland endorsement of the status quo, and denial of all scope for adequate criticism. Similarly, one might insist that the urge to change the subject doesn’t itself prove philosophical debates to be futile. For these and other reasons, Rorty is treated with a degree of suspicion amongst most institutional philosophers. But his influence is wide and interdisciplinary. As a read he’s deceptively cosy, sneaking big, contestable claims into smoothly running, unphilosophical-sounding sentences. Perhaps most disarming, but also most frustrating, is his capacity to face up to the implications of his own thinking – the parts that, as a professional philosopher, effectively put himself out of a job – with a frank, unprecious, pragmatic shrug. It’s not always that easy for the rest of us.
© Gideon Calder 2000
The Philosophy of Richard Rorty, edited by Lewis Hahn, is in the Library of Living Philosophers Series in 1998.