Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Richard Rorty, a postmodernist mystic

BACKGROUND. The February 11, 2012 and February 21, 2012 posts present my preliminary notes on the general nature of postmodernism. This post looks at the ideas of one postmodernist in the USA, Richard Rorty (1931-2007). The fourth and final post in this series will examine Rorty's activism.

MY SOURCES. I have only sampled Rorty's writings. For this post, which is merely a collection of notes, I am drawing mainly from his first book: Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition, Princeton University Press, 2009 (adding material to the original 1979 edition), 439 pages.

For a partial summary of Rorty's main points in PMN, see Michael Williams, "Introduction to the Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition." Williams's "Introduction" also provides historical background information that makes this difficult book easier to understand. For an overview of Rorty's ideas and life, consult Bjørn Ramberg, "Richard Rorty," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, substantively revised June 16, 2007,

Among Rorty's many writings, why focus on Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature? Michael Williams, an admirer of Rorty and the author of the "Introduction to the Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition," says:

[Rorty's first book] Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature sent shock waves through the ranks of professional philosophers. ... Rorty's book is a visionary work that challenges us to rethink our understanding of the philosophical enterprise. It is the single greatest influence on the revival of American Pragmatism, one of the most exciting developments in philosophy today. [The book's] influence has been felt far beyond the confines of academic philosophy. (p. xiii)

OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Rorty examines philosophy as performed by academics in the 1970s. He sees philosophers making false assumptions. His main target is a certain set of related ideas, which Descartes created: (1) each person has a mind, (2) the mind is like a mirror reflecting reality ("nature"), and (3) truth is ideas corresponding to that reality. Rorty's intention is to destroy that set of ideas and that metaphor. Rorty's approach, through most of the book, is to critique in detail the ideas (and the accompanying metaphor) as presented by a range of philosophers, including Descartes, Locke, Kant, and a train of post-Kantians such as Ludwig Wittgenstein. In this way, most of the book is negative. Rorty devotes one chapter, the last one (Ch. VIII, "Philosophy Without Mirrors") to a presentation of his own views.

ATTACKS ON REASON AND REASON'S PRODUCTS. The index to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature has no entry for either "reason" or "mysticism." Readers must collect clues as they read.

Rorty is determined to destroy reason. About his own book, he says:

The aim of the book is to undermine the reader's confidence in "the mind" as something about which one should have a "philosophical" view, in "knowledge" as something about which there ought to be a theory and which has "foundations", and in "philosophy" [centered on epistemology] as it has been conceived since Kant. (p. 7, emphasis added)

This passage is typical of Rorty's writing style. Clause by clause, it is moderately clear, but the sentence as a whole is hard to assimilate. It is long, but more importantly rational readers who are new to Rorty's philosophy will have trouble believing he means what he says. His statement is radically destructive of reason, but expressed banally. Let's take the sentence one section at a time. He says that he is writing for the purpose of destroying your confidence. In what? In four objects.

First, he intends to destroy your confidence in the idea of mind. He means what he says. He wants to obliterate "mind" from philosophical discussions. He does not say so, but without mind there is no reason, which is a faculty of the mind.

Second, he says that he wants to destroy your confidence in the idea of knowledge, in two ways. There is no value, Rorty is saying, in having a theory of it -- that is, a systematic accounting, an epistemology: What it is, where it comes from, how it relates to reality, and how the elements of it interconnect.

Third, Rorty holds, there is no value in looking for the foundations of knowledge -- which actually means elements of knowledge that cause and therefore explain other elements. He attributes foundationalism to Kant and praises Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey for abandoning the "Kantian conception of philosophy as foundational." (p. 5) Integration of elements of knowledge -- concepts, propositions, and theories -- includes establishing the relationships among ideas, with some being more fundamental, that is, more causal than others. Integration is a function of reason. If there is no need for integration, there is no need for reason.

Rorty is both broad and deep in his approach. He evaluates philosophy as a whole; he also probes the foundations. For the latter, Rorty says: "... I have been trying to isolate more of the assumptions behind the problematic of modern philosophy, in the hope of generalizing and extending ... criticisms of traditional empiricism" (p. xxxi) Here, "traditional empiricism" seems to mean the view that we abstract concepts of things from sense data of things. (There is no entry for "empiricism" in the index.) If that is the meaning of "empiricism" here, then Rorty's target is again reason, the faculty that forms, connects, and distinguishes concepts drawn from sense-perception.

Fourth, Rorty says that another one of his purposes in writing the book is to destroy your confidence in philosophy as centered on epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy focused on the study of the origins and nature of knowledge. Wanting to destroy philosophy as an enterprise centered on epistemology is anti-reason. If philosophers do not know what and how they know, then all of their other conclusions -- such as principles of ethics -- are in doubt. To reject philosophy dedicated at least initially to epistemology is to reject philosophy, that is, any attempt to use reason to develop a worldview as a guide to living.

Michael Williams, the author of the Introduction to the Thirteeth Edition of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature elaborates:

Rorty sees philosophy, as it came to be understood in the last century, as an attempt to work through the consequences of a conception of knowledge as accurate representation, a conception rooted in the metaphor of mind as the mirror of nature. From its seventeenth-century origins, principally in the writings of Descartes, this metaphor leads to the emergence of what Rorty calls 'philosophy-as-epistemology', with its canonical list of textbook problems: the mind-body problem, [the problem of answering] skepticism, [the problem of] the nature of truth, and the rest. (Michael Williams, p. xiii)

[A]ntirepresentationalism -- the rejection of the idea of mind (or language) as the mirror of nature -- is the leitmotiff of Rorty's book. (Michael Williams, p. xv)

MOTIVE FOR OPPOSING REASON? What might be a motive in rejecting the idea of causation in ideas -- that is, for example, having foundations of one's ideas and having theories which set a context for evaluating ideas? One possible mystical motivation is rebellion against the "constraints" of objectivity. Rorty says:

I have argued (in chapter three) that the desire for a theory of knowledge [an epistemology] is a desire for constraint -- a desire to find "foundation"' to which one might cling, frameworks beyond which one must not stray, objects which impose themselves, representations which cannot be gainsaid. ... "On the contrary, hermeneutics [the interpretation of texts, as a substitute for philosophy] is an expression of hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology will not be filled -- that our culture should become one in which the demand for constraint and confrontation is no longer felt. (p. 315)

RORTY'S MYSTICISM. Rorty advocates mysticism in at least three forms.

1. SOCIETY AS SOURCE. Rorty is a mystic through his view of the nature and origin of knowledge. He shares Dewey's view that knowledge is "what we are justified in believing." (p. 9) Rorty sees "[the act of ] 'justification' as a social phenomenon rather than a transaction between the 'knowing subject' and 'reality'." (p. 9) For example, Rorty defines "incorrigible knowledge ... as a matter of social practice -- of the absence of a normal rejoinder in normal conversation to a certain knowledge-claim ...." (p. 96) The position that Rorty takes is that "incorrigible knowledge" is "just a matter of what practices of justification" are "adopted by one's peers (the position which I shall call 'epistemological behaviorism' in chapter four) ...." (p. 99)

If we see knowing not as having an essence, to be described by scientists or philosophers, but rather as a right, by current standards, to believe, then we are well on the way to seeing conversation as the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood. (p. 389)

Rorty's view of objectivity illustrates his social mysticism. It is, Rorty says (p. 338), "a property of theories which, having been thoroughly discussed, are chosen by a consensus of rational discussants." Rorty says there is no need for epistemology, that is, theories of knowing. Instead of epistemology, "we need to turn outward rather than inward, toward the social context of justification rather than to the relations between inner representations." (p. 210) Further, Rorty says:

We have to drop the notion of correspondence [to reality] for sentences as well as for thoughts, and see sentences as connected with other sentences rather than with the world. (pp. 371-372)

2. EDIFICATION. What does Rorty offer as an alternative to systematic philosophy, that is, philosophy that uses reason, sees epistemology as the central concern, and strives to establish a secure foundation for its conclusions? He seeks "edification" rather than knowledge ("getting the facts right"). "From the educational ... point of view, the way things are said is more important than the possession of truths." (p. 359)

Rorty says that "edifying philosophy aims at continuing a conversation rather than at discovering truth .... I shall be claiming that ... the cultural role of the edifying is to help us avoid the self-deception which comes from believing that we know ourselves by knowing a set of objective facts." (p. 373)

Systematic philosophers want to put their subject on the secure path of a science. Edifying philosophers want to keep space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes cause -- wonder that there is something new under the sun, something which is not an accurate representation of what was already there, something which (at least for the moment) cannot be explained and can barely be described. (pp. 369-370)

Rorty clearly states his theme:

[T]he point of edifying philosophy is to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth. Such truth, in the view I am advocating, is the normal result of normal discourse. Edifying philosophy is not only abnormal but reactive, having sense only as a protest against attempts to close off conversation by proposals for universal commensuration through the hypostatization of some privileged set of descriptions. (p. 377)

3. EPISTEMOLOGICAL BEHAVIORISM. What then is philosophy to be, according to Rorty? His "way out of philosophy-as-epistemology turns on a broadly pragmatic outlook that he calls 'epistemological behaviorism'. ... As an epistemological behaviorist, he examines human thought and knowledge from a public, third-person standpoint [not from introspection] ... treating knowledge as the result of argument and discussion." (Michael Williams, p. xiv) That means what it says: The source of knowledge is society. Knowledge arises from conversation with others.

Rorty is a "behaviorist" because he looks at behavior: what goes into a person (statements others make) and what comes out (statements directed to others). The behaviorist does not speculate about what goes on inside the person. The behaviorist does not seek to understand the essential nature of a thing, only its behavior. (p. 17)

CONCLUSION. Richard Rorty is a mystic in two main ways. Negatively, he attacks reason, mostly by disintegrating it. Positively, he also promotes mysticism in the form of "knowledge" ("justified belief") coming from the social world around us. Rorty's mild manner and understated style camouflage his power of destruction.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at


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  2. James Lewis, who lives in Englefield Green near London, has suggested further readings:

    "For you, and for any other readers who would like to become acquainted with Rorty's work, I would recommend starting with something other than his debut, PMN. Specifically, for those who are educated in the philosophical canon, I'd recommend 'Rorty and His Critics', edited by Robert Brandom; for those who are not familiar with the jargon of contemporary philosophy, I'd recommend Richard Rorty's 'Philosophy and Social Hope' and his 'Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity'."


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