This fall, I’ve been reading After Philosophy: End or Transformation? It’s an excellent anthology, collecting seminal essays from both analytic and continental circles, which explores the crisis of philosophy happening in the discipline irrespective of stylistic or geographical allegiances. I’ve read a number of essays, but only recently took on Rorty’s essay, “Pragmatism and Philosophy.” Ron Kuipers, a Senior Member at ICS, recently wrote a book on Rorty, and I’ve been entertaining a passing interest in William James and C. S. Peirce for a while now, so I was excited to read the article. There are a few other essays in the book responding to Rorty (Habermas and Putnam), which I’ll probably share some thoughts on in the coming week. For now, here are some preliminary reflections on Rorty to set the stage.
Rorty attempts to clarify the relationship of pragmatism (at least his own variety of it) to the general tradition of philosophy in the west. He begins by making the distinction between “Philosophy” (capital “P”) and “philosophy,” suggesting that it is the former that deserves to be abandoned. What characterizes Philosophy is its search for other words that are capitalized—Truth, the Good, Beauty, etc., while philosophy is a practice of speaking in generalities and, following Sellars, seeing how things “hang together.” Rorty does an excellent job surveying the historical overturning of Philosophy in both analytic and continental traditions, which leads him to suggest that pragmatism has been waiting at the end of these roads all along (a bold claim, but intriguing). Pragmatism, he says, has long since abandoned the search for the Truth behind the truth, preferring instead to speak of provisional truths which contribute to utilitarian ends and modes of being. The role of the philosopher is not therefore abandoned but contextualized; philosophy is the practice of finding connections and disconnections and imagining possible trajectories society might entertain.
There is an obvious attraction here for me, being a reader of the great anti-philosophers in western thought (Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Cioran, etc.). The strength of Rorty’s conception is that he does not do away with philosophy entirely—it still performs an essential role in human discourse. Further, the abandonment of finding the “essentials” or capitalized knowledge of Reality is an important move; if nothing else, getting rid of foundationalism is a positive development. One can infer, here, that Rorty does not eliminate the speculative (or perhaps more accurately the imaginative) aspects of philosophy, nor the ability of philosophy to reasonably discern between better or worse developments in society. But this raises particular problems—given that philosophy can no longer inquire about normative conditions lying behind our historically contingent realities, how is one to pronounce particular value judgments on the developments of those contingent realities?
The issue is plain when Rorty discusses the historical debate between religion and secularism, a debate which is decided in favor of secularism, ultimately a preferable fate, as far as Rorty is concerned. But on what grounds is Rorty able to make such a claim? (Cue the usual critique of strong “relativism.”) Is it not possible that religion can, has been, and could be a contextual help to our utilitarian ends (which are, themselves, problematically in flux)? In being dismissive in this way, Rorty fails to be sensitive to the actual plurality of the Christian tradition, and one wonders how he might see how things “hang together” if those things are not properly dealt with in the first place (Kuipers makes a similar but obviously more astute critique in his introduction to Rorty). The question of how one properly deals with or defines particular things brings us right back to the problems Rorty is attempting to do away with—the Truth behind the truth—and it seems difficult to me how one might escape the circle. Without a notion of normativity, even if that normativity is loose and tempered with all of the usual postmodern qualifications of finitude, it is unclear whether or not the pragmatist project can ever get off the ground.
Let me be the first to admit that coming out of the gates with anti-philosophical rhetoric is enticing, exciting, and definitely contains an element of truth (maybe, dare I say, even Truth). But once one begins the race, certain truths seem less contingent and provisional than one might at first admit, and navigating these truths will require more than utilitarian optimism. Rorty’s emphasis on human finitude is excellent and praiseworthy, but finitude is not a cause for resignation, which I fear is what gets the last word for Rorty . As Kierkegaard wrote against Hegel, if everything is in motion then nothing is in motion. Likewise, if everything is contingent, then nothing is contingent.
Of course, reading and commenting on one essay is hardly enough attention for a seminal thinker like Rorty, and thorough-going Rortians would be reasonably up-in-arms over a number of my moves here. But if Rorty really is pulling the relativism card over and against all philosophizing, this is not the kind of anti-philosophy I’m looking for. We may have a common target, at least, in those Philosophers which take themselves too seriously–but, in the end, the anti-philosophers I mentioned paranthetically above still seem to have some normative tricks up their sleeves (even if they remain up their sleeves most of the time).