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Matthew Halteman and Andrew Chignell

Agent Provocateur

Richard Rorty is an accomplished provocateur. Weaned on Trotsky and university-educated by the age of 17, Rorty claims to have "outgrown" many philosophical orthodoxies by the time most people begin reading Plato. Since then, his decades-long assault on the classical Western dream of "holding justice and reality in a single transcendent vision" has invigorated the academy's Young Turks and exasperated its Old Guard analyticians.

Employing what some have called "vulgar pragmatism" and "cartoonish history of philosophy," Rorty has striven to provide a practical and therapeutic alternative to the notion that truth is discovered rather than made. Drawing on the work of figures like Jacques Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, John Dewey, and Martin Heidegger, Rorty attempts to capture academics' imaginations with what he sees as an exciting new picture of human inquiry and progress. This novel outlook, he claims, can supplant "the Western Monotheistic Tradition" and its secularized progeny, "the Western Rationalistic Tradition," not by decisively refuting them, but by helping us to see that they are no longer as useful as they once were.

What was truly remarkable about these traditions, says Rorty, was their rev olutionary ingenuity in addressing the problems of their times rather than their putative success in "accurately representing the external world." Insofar as they provide excuses for ongoing "fanaticism and intolerance," Rorty believes we should now dismiss these traditions as "unnecessary and dangerous," at least as far as public debate and policy-making are concerned.

Of course, if capturing academics' imaginations were Rorty's ultimate goal, we might think that the game he's playing boasts some rather low stakes. The achievement of that goal, however, is a small part of a larger "process of cultural change" that Rorty wishes to abet. This process is one by which Rorty hopes people in the West will exchange their "common sense much influenced by Greek metaphysics and by monotheism" for the "startlingly counterintuitive self-image sketched by Darwin, and partially filled in by Dewey." This latter-day doctrine casts human beings as "slightly-more-complicated-animals" whose only built-in end is grounded in their need to adequately "cope" with the physical universe and with one another.

Why should we try on this self-image? Not because Darwin's account of human nature and origins is more "true" than monotheism's. Rather, in the spirit of Deweyan experimentalism, Rorty suggests "that it behooves us to give the self-image Darwin suggested a whirl, in the hope of having fewer philosophical problems on our hands."

In the past, Rorty's penchant for provocation has led him to supplement his arguments with eye-popping aphorisms that the hostile reviewer can then use in an effort to reduce Rorty's position ad absurdum. (Rorty himself cites Ronald Dworkin's remark to the effect that his views are "philosophically a dog's dinner.") His third collection of philosophi cal papers, Truth and Progress, has its share of this sort of thing; but for the most part, the collection exhibits a Rorty who reads charitably, writes exactingly, rescinds a number of his old, unrefined or misleading statements, and is refreshingly transparent about the aim of his overall project.

What Truth Isn't

In the first eight essays—the "Truth" portion of Truth and Progress—Rorty critically engages some of the recent theorizing on truth by Anglo-American philosophers. According to Rorty, these essays are "not constructive in tone, but dismissive: they dismiss various questions and controversies as leading nowhere." The dismissees also include a number of versions of the "realist" conception of truth: theories that construe truth as a property possessed by utterances that correctly represent the way the world is.

Thus, Crispin Wright's attempt (in his Truth and Objectivity) to distinguish between discourses which require a realist conception of truth (e.g., geology) and those which demand only a non-serious, "minimalist" notion (e.g., the truth about what is funny) is impugned by Rorty for overlooking the "fact" that such distinctions are themselves "just local and transitory historicosociological differences between patterns of justification and blame." Charles Taylor is likewise criticized for clinging to the idea of truth as correspondence to reality. Insofar as Taylor continues to treat "our nonlinguistic causal interaction with the rest of the universe as 'grounding' knowledge rather than just plain helping to cause it," Rorty suggests that he has failed to get out from under the "collapsed circus tent of epistemology—those acres of canvas under which many of our colleagues still thrash aimlessly about."

And so it goes throughout the section. Rorty censures philosophers whose intuitions and projects are fundamentally opposed to his own (Wright, John Searle, Thomas Nagel, John McDowell) and makes explicit the subtler differences that divide him from those to whom he is more sympathetic (Taylor, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, Robert Brandom, Daniel Dennett).

What Truth Is

Despite Rorty's contention that the "Truth" essays are wholly critical in character, one can discern in them an implicit proposal regarding how academics should speak about truth and our access to it. (Rorty doesn't think that "nonphilosophers" have a theory of truth, nor does he think they should worry about developing one.) The proposal is "quietist" or "deflationary" about the nature of truth—Rorty refuses to provide anything like an analysis (realist or otherwise) of a property attaching to the sentence p when it is in fact the case that p. The most he thinks we should say about what makes an utterance true involves "disquoting" it (i.e., removing the quotation marks): thus we can say that the sentence "Snow is white" is true just in case snow is white.

The only additional content of "true" that is worth retaining, says Rorty, stems from its honorific and cautionary uses. We employ "true" when we wish to emphasize our commitment to some position ("Of course it's true that dinosaurs roamed the earth long before human beings did!"), sanction some set of other statements ("Everything Clinton said to the grand jury was true"), or caution someone ("But look, it's not clearly true that a low-fat diet is the way to go").

Most of this will be familiar to readers of Rorty. What is new in these essays is Rorty's willingness to admit that our concept of truth is "an absolute notion": relativizing truth to persons, purposes, or cultures, he admits, is "weird" and "pointlessly paradoxical." Rorty thereby recants his old belief that truth is merely "warranted assertibility" or, more notoriously, "truth is what our peers let us get away with saying."

But although "true" is an absolute term, Rorty insists that "the conditions of its application will always be relative," for "we have no criterion of truth other than justification." In other words, the only procedure we have for deciding when to call a statement true involves consulting our extant practices of justification (in science, history, philosophy, everyday situations, etc.). Moreover, these procedures are relative to our current interests and abilities: "'justified for me and not for you' (or 'justified in my culture but not in yours') makes perfect sense." So justification is relative, and justification is all we have to go on in deciding what we'll (for the time being) call "true."

One might accept all of this and still insist that a realist conception of truth can serve as the ultimate goal of human inquiry. If and when we arrive at the ideal practices of justification, then whatever statements are justified for us at that time will also be (absolutely) true. Further, one might have a story to tell about why some of our current procedures of justification are approximating this goal. (Whether such a story would have to have a theological subtext is an important question we shall have to set aside here.) Rorty, on the other hand, thinks that "there is no way to privilege our current purposes and interests" vis-a-vis getting at truth, and so "there is no way to know our distance from truth, nor even whether we are closer to it than our ancestors were."

This is controversial. But even if we grant Rorty the point, it would still be possible to defend the usefulness of a realist conception of truth by analyzing the concept of justification as containing a "truth-conducivity" component. Ac cording to one version of this influential position, a statement (or belief) is justified only if it is objectively likely to be true. Of course, we may not be able to know just which of our statements are justified and which aren't. All the same, the objective structure of the world determines whether our statements are in fact true, and thus whether and how much they are justified.

Rorty, on the other hand, seems to assume (without much argument) that we simply must be able to know when our statements are justified and when they are not. Thus his conclusion is that justification is not truth-conducive, and (more strikingly) that "truth is not a goal of inquiry. … For the absoluteness of truth makes it unserviceable as such a goal. A goal is something you can know that you are getting closer to, or farther away from."

Rorty's alternative notion of justification involves an appeal to "the practices that the most successful of our peers follow when inquiring into a given subject matter." The criteria for "success" on this view are wholly pragmatic: a successful practice is one that produces a description of the world that allows us to adequately cope with it. And this will always be a matter of degree. By being creative ourselves, or by being willing to follow the creative poets and scientists among us, we can allow our practices to change in ways that engender different descriptions of things—descriptions that we may deem more useful or more interesting.

And again, the "more useful" here has nothing to do with getting at more of the truth. Rather, it is a title given to descriptions of the world that allow "us wet liberals" to believe things that further our current aims of (inter alia) avoiding cruelty and promoting individual freedoms. These are the aims that animate Western society, the aims that allow as many of us as possible to cope. As a self-described "ethnocentric pragmatist" about values, Rorty is committed to promoting these wet Western aims, at least until some "genius" or "revolutionary" among us devises new ones that allow an even higher degree of "human flourishing." For Rorty, our aims and our beliefs about the practices that best achieve them are always in principle open to revision.

The clarity of Rorty's remarks in these essays should help to dispel some of the confusion surrounding the contours of his view. He stakes out with precision a position on truth (deflationary, absolutist, and agnostic) and justification (relativist, ethnocentric, and non-truth-conducive) that seems reasonably coherent. Questions remain, of course, about the specifics of the program. Rorty makes no attempt here to grapple with some of the standard technical criticisms of deflationary theories of truth (regarding their application to generalizations, counterfactual conditionals, vagueness cases, etc.). Also, he does not clearly make a compelling case for the doctrine that both truth and knowledge are uninteresting concepts to which we should at most tip our hats before debating the fine points of justification. It arguably has been and continues to be very useful for human beings to consider the concepts of truth and knowledge to be interesting. The question that is perhaps most often posed to Rorty, however, is whether he can construct no tions of "coping," "useful," and "conducive to human flourishing" that don't assume that we actually do have a grasp on some absolute truths about human nature. Responding to this sort of question is one of Rorty's chief concerns in the essays on "Progress."

What Moral Progress Is

Ten years ago, in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty spoke famously of moral progress as an ability to see an ever-expanding range of people as "us." The gist of this clever aphorism is that progress consists in our increasing willingness to reach out to and work together with people whose world views and life-commitments are radically different from our own. On Rorty's view, seeking this sort of pluralistic solidarity is both practical and therapeutic in that it augments our ability to cope with global problems even as it helps us to get over our nostalgic belief that there is only one good way to live. Curiously, then, Rorty's brand of progress bears little resemblance to what we ordinarily associate with that term, viz., convergence toward a pre-existent ideal. On the contrary, the "ideal" of Rortyan progress is "an endless, proliferating realization of Freedom."

Substantively little has changed in the four essays devoted to this topic in Truth and Progress. Though Rorty gives us a fresh look at what makes his pragmatism preferable to (or complementary with) alternative visions of progress, he remains steadfastly committed to the views that made him famous: anti-essentialism, social liberalism, and the belief that promoting freedom and curbing suffering is more important at the level of Realpolitik than are our private theories about the nature of "the political." Despite a lack of earth-shattering developments, however, Rorty's revisitations of these central themes display an often bracing creativity, and his commitment to interdisciplinary thinking is as invigorating as ever. Though he is still doing philosophy, his substantial engagements with poets (Adrienne Rich), jurists (Eduardo Rabossi), historians (Francis Fukuyama), feminist critics (Catherine MacKinnon), and even politicians (Vaclav Havel) warrant the attention of a much wider audience than most philosophers enjoy.

As usual, there is plenty of controversial revisionist history. Among the most interesting examples are daring new takes on the Enlightenment, feminism, and the demise of Leninism. Rorty's revision of the Enlightenment challenges the popular view that the principal importance of this period lies in its having made great strides toward a definitive understanding of "rationality" or "human nature." As that story goes, this increasing understanding of our essential nature eventually culminated in our discovery of the universal moral truth that all human beings should enjoy certain rights, regardless of their particular beliefs and goals. On the traditional view, then, the human-rights culture that is now ascendant throughout much of the Western world is a product of our recently acquired ability to legislate and carry out the demands of "reason."

Rorty's view, by contrast, is that the Enlightenment is most easily understood as a period in which "there occurred an astonishingly rapid progress of sentiments, in which it has become much easier for us to be moved to action by sad and sentimental stories." The payoff of this "sentimental education" is an increased ability among an increasing number of people to sympathize with others, not because they share a deep-seated essential nature, but simply because their tolerance for cruelty has been trained out of them. From this standpoint, the ideals whose pursuit led to our contemporary human-rights culture look more like sentimental platitudes than they do like rational intuitions. The conclusion Rorty draws is that our suspicions about the Enlightenment's metaphysics needn't dissuade us from continuing to champion its emancipatory ideals. So long as the pursuit of these ideals continues to control epidemics, increase literacy, and improve communication (i.e. produce results that all of us feel good about), he thinks we should fearlessly promote it.

Rorty's takes on feminism and Leninism proceed along similar lines. His advice to feminists is to drop the pretension that they are discovering the truth about womanhood and see themselves instead as "invent[ing] new moral identities" by re-imagining what women can coherently do and be. Feminists who take this advice, Rorty continues, will stop viewing their contribution to moral progress as a "restoration of the way things were always meant to be" and start seeing it as the "production of a better set of social constructs than the ones presently available."

As for Leninism, Rorty wants us to view its collapse as the last gasp of our Western nostalgia for constructing "deep theories about deep causes of social change." In response to this collapse, he hopes that "scientific socialists" will turn their backs on the "world historical romance" of meta-narratives and be come "fin-de-siecle socialists": people who think that "there is sufficient work to be done without being haunted by the need to measure what modest successes might be granted to us against the daunting model of a fully redeemed social order."

How Philosophy Can Help

The moral of Rorty's stories, though they differ in detail, is that we should quit asking "What is our Nature?" and concentrate instead on imagining new and exciting answers to the question, "What can we make of ourselves?" Though philosophers have traditionally earned their keep by incessantly re visiting the former question, Rorty thinks that the future of philosophy lies in its ability to get us excited about the latter one.

How could contemporary philosophers help to effect such a radical gestalt switch? First and foremost, by refusing to swallow the notion that there is a single historical canon of "philosophical" questions and problems. On Rorty's view, keeping philosophy from lapsing into this kind of doxography requires us to pursue three complementary kinds of research programs: "historical reconstructions" that call our attention to the contingency of philosophical problems by providing contextualist accounts of what past thinkers actually worried about; "rational reconstructions" that overhaul the views of past thinkers in light of our current problems; and "Geistesgeschichte" (or "spirit histories") that draw upon and synthesize the latter two programs by distinguishing the problems that are currently worth pursuing from those that are no longer relevant or interesting.

This "dialectical triad" is kept honest, Rorty continues, by the practice of a fourth, less explicitly philosophical discipline that he calls "intellectual history." By describing "what the intellectuals at a given time were up to and how they interacted with the rest of society," the latter discipline shows us that our favorite dead philosophers may have been more indebted than we realize to some interesting folks we've never even thought about.

While keeping the contingency of the canon in the foreground is important, Rorty recognizes other more positive ways that philosophers can help to institute moral progress. One such way is to follow the lead of Dewey, Rawls, Habermas, and others who do philosophy that is explicitly geared toward improving social conditions and solving public problems. Another wildly different yet equally important way is to join the likes of Wittgenstein and Derrida in developing fascinating new self-descriptions that expand the boundaries of private autonomy.

What is counterproductive, according to Rorty, is to try to combine public philosophy of the former kind with private philosophy of the latter kind. Though these two genres have complementary utility within their respective spheres, the result of their conflation is what Rorty calls "cultural politics," a muddled hybrid whose highly theoretical and experimental vocabulary just isn't suited to the mundane tasks of "real politics" (e.g., negotiating trade relations with China, deciding whether to send aid to Haiti, etc.).

In the last analysis, the five essays offered here are an updated amplification of a point that Rorty has been driving home since Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979)—viz., that philosophy's continued relevance in the post-metaphysical age depends wholly on its ability to transition from transcendental to social and political aims.

Christian Truth and Progress: A Conversation Stopper?

The state of diplomacy between Christendom and Richard Rorty is tenuous at best and outright hostile at worst. Rorty is infamous among Christian academics for having declared some years ago that Christianity is a "conversation stopper," i.e., a world view whose en trenched commitment to Objective Truth undermines its ability to engage in productive discussion with rival discourses. As if to confirm Rorty's dismal prognosis, celebrated members of the Christian cognoscenti have had no qualms about popularizing equally spurious caricatures of Rorty, portraying him as a smirking relativist who believes that eliminating poverty and disease is as easy as convincing one's contemporaries that such things don't exist. Though this sort of reading is ultimately as underbaked as certain of Rorty's claims are overzealous, there is no doubt that ill-advisedly hyperbolic prose is a flaw that has (perhaps rightly) cost Rorty the respect of many colleagues, Christian and otherwise.

It would seem that realizing the possibility of a more constructive conversation will require Rorty to be a touch less aphoristically indulgent and his Christian readership to be a bit more discerning as to how his past self-indulgences fit into the bigger picture. Given such concessions, however, substantial barriers to communication remain whose removal will require equally substantial compromises on the parts of both parties.

Rorty would do well to acknowledge that his metaphysical naturalism is at times too tightly held for someone who claims to be at ease with contingency. Although he arrived at many of his views about truth and progress by thinking through the ramifications of his naturalistic world-picture, it is not clear that adherence to most of these views actually requires a thorough going naturalism.

Rorty himself occasionally notes as much. In the article on Putnam, he confesses that he "still retain[s] a trace" of the "fervent physicalism" that he and Putnam once shared. In a later essay, he admits that Derrida's ongoing interest in transcendence cannot be as easily dismissed as he once thought, and that if he still wants to follow Der rida's lead, he might need to "put a leash on [his] nominalism."

In short, Rorty should take his own advice and keep his private naturalistic fantasies from muddying the waters of our public discourse. Conversely, he should be more consistent about allowing members of religious communities to retain supernaturalistic beliefs at the private level, so long as these beliefs don't preclude their joining hands with others at the public level.

Meanwhile, we Christians should perhaps try to look past Rorty's bland dismissal of religion and notice that many of his goals at the public level are actually in line with our own. The fact that we view our core beliefs as eternal truths rather than private fantasies is important from where we stand, but it isn't particularly relevant to the question of how we help the poor. Jesus himself taught us that our private orthodoxies about Samaritans and Sabbaths should never keep us from feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and binding the wounds of the suffering.

So, while we Christians may not want to become card-carrying Rortyans, some of Rorty's distinctions and recommendations (e.g., regarding the public and the private, the uses and abuses of philosophy) might be usefully incorporated into our own self-descriptions. At the very least, we can see him as an ally in the quest to reduce human suffering.

Matthew Halteman and Andrew Chignell are doctoral students in philosophy at Notre Dame and Yale, respectively.

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