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Truth and Progress, Philosophical Papers, vol. 3.

Richard Rorty, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 368pp. $18.95 (paper).

For some twenty years now Richard Rorty has been urging his readers to take seriously John Dewey's vision of the relation of philosophy to the rest of culture. This means that we stop seeing the tradition of western philosophy as a series of attempts to solve long-standing problems in epistemology and metaphysics, and begin appreciating it in therapeutic terms. Looked at in this light, the great philosophers of the past appear to be as much occupied with getting rid of old questions and old problems as they were with coming up with new ways of talking and thereby inventing new problems. This Deweyan perspective in effect historicizes our view of philosophy, and helps us see philosophical theories as the products of the social contingencies that gave rise to them.

Rorty's metaphilosophical version of pragmatism is largely an attempt to carry forward Dewey's vision using the resources of continental and analytic philosophy. Having absorbed the lessons of the other great critics of the tradition-Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, as well as Sellars and Davidson - Rorty has cobbled together a linguistified pragmatism that turns out to be a much more devastating criticism of the pretensions of philosophy than Dewey's version.

Simply stated, it is the conviction that the more we become aware of how thoroughly our cognitive involvement in the world is shaped by language and social practice, the less need we will feel for large-scale epistemological and metaphysical theories to justify our choice of a vocabulary or to underwrite our social practices generally. Rorty grants that such theories were instruments of emancipation in their time (replacing old problems and vocabularies with new ones) but now have largely outlived their usefulness. It would be more accurate to view them as powerful rhetorical articulations of former social practices, rather than as justifying or supplying foundations for those practices. As remnants of an "old ways of talking," they now only serve to repress the imaginative possibilities of inquiry.

The quickest way to illustrate Rorty's point about language is to follow the suggestion of his favorite philosopher of language, Donald Davidson, and erase "the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally" (107). If we draw the implications of this move, we will be further persuaded to give up on the impossible task of trying to come up with a theory that explains how our language "corresponds" to some "world beyond language." Knowing a language, or getting around in the world intelligently does not mean being able to figure out which of our descriptions really correspond to "reality" and which do not. On this Davidsonian view, we are in no position to say anything general about the relation of language and reality. In short, we can't get between language and the world, for the simple reason that there is no "way the world is" independent of a descriptive vocabulary.

Once we come to see how we "live in a language," how our very awareness is shaped by "the ways we talk about the world," large-scale solutions to the "problem of knowledge" no longer seem compelling. Terms like "correspondence" and "representation," when applied wholesale to the relation of language and "the world," seem pointless. Similarly, the distinctions built into the epistemological problematic - "subject and object," "appearance and reality," "scheme and content," "mind and matter" - when offered as explanatory models seem equally useless. They only serve to embroil us in interminable controversies that lead nowhere.

Rorty's view of the overall relation of theory and social practice turns on the same point. One reason discussions of "realism" and "correspondence" come off sounding so technical and nit-picking is due to the fact that they are not very closely tied in with the practices they are supposed to illuminate. For instance, does anyone suppose that dropping the epistemological model of "truth" will make us less honest in our truth claims? Honesty, as well as care and truthfulness, Rorty reminds us, are social virtues presupposed by the practice of "truth telling" not a deliverance from a theory of truth. Similarly, "disinterestedness" and "objectivity" are standards of conduct built into the very meaning and history of research practices. One upholds them because they sustain our interests and values. We cannot imagine doing business without them. For Rorty this is as far as justification goes.

We should not, however, take Rorty's denial of the foundational role of philosophical theory as implying that he is not serious about standards of truth and rationality. Just as Kant criticized knowledge to make room for faith, so Rorty criticizes epistemology to make room for moral seriousness. Just as truth claims take place within a language, so the justification of truth claims takes place within a moral community embodying a history and a set of purposes that define that community.

To criticize or put in question these interests and values does not amount to an exercise in transcendental philosophy but is simply the attempt to imagine a better community than the one we have - to see us "as we would like to be" (52). To argue that the justificatory practices of a community are inadequate is simply to admit that there is always the possibility of "getting beyond our present practices in the direction of future practices" (61) or that "some day we may have ways of talking about X that we cannot now imagine" (108). It does not imply access to standards beyond practice, secured by philosophy, that can serve as a model for future practice.

If we are to see the pragmatic philosopher as a therapist, as one who has disabused us of the traditional foundationalist role of philosophy, what is left for philosophy to do? Like Dewey, Rorty wants to see the philosopher along with the novelist and poet as a voice in revitalizing and reshaping culture. Rorty thinks the best way to bring this about is to simply "move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics to cultural politics" (57). If we go along with this strategy, then the only important question left from a pragmatic point of view will be: "Let's see what happens if we try it this way." How can we enhance the traditions of Democracy that we already have? How can we come up with a better way of "talking about ourselves and our social condition that enlarges our capacity for freedom and tolerance?" On this view, "philosophy can never be anything more than a discussion of the utility and compatibility of beliefs and more particularly, of the various vocabularies in which those beliefs are formulated" (127).

Adopting a pragmatic, social, moral, political stand toward the tradition can indeed prove edifying in Dewey's sense of the term. By getting rid of a lot of philosophical baggage, it can "render men's minds more sensitive to the world about them" (5). Rorty sees it as contributing to a long slow cultural change in "humanities self-image" (132), a change that will enable us to be "more sensitive to the marvelous diversity of human languages and the social practices associated with those languages, because we will have ceased asking whether they "correspond to" some non-human eternal entity" (6).

The essays in this volume comprise Rorty's work in the 1990s. They recapitulate and develop these assumptions about the role of language and social practice across a wide range of topics, covering epistemology, philosophy of mind, moral and political philosophy, intellectual and cultural history. Part One, entitled "Truth and Some Philosophers," takes up the question with some of his long-standing conversational partners: Hilary Putnam, John Searle, Charles Taylor, and Daniel Dennett, as well as some newcomers: Robert Brandom and John McDowell.

In each case, Rorty tirelessly argues for a much more thoroughgoing pragmatism than his colleagues are willing to allow. The strongest influence on Rorty in matters of truth and knowledge is unquestionably Davidson, who is not sure he wants to be called a pragmatist. Putnam still holds out for a standard of "rational acceptability" which is something more than Rorty's notion of justification to a community. Taylor still wants to preserve a distinction between our use of language and the role of the rest of the universe in accounting for the truth of our beliefs. Even the most linguistified of the younger pragmatists, Brandom and McDowell, show traces of representation and correspondence. These essays are a remarkable example of philosophical dialogue at its best. Anyone who is under the impression that Rorty is some sort of "light-minded escapist" who plays fast and loose with the central issues of philosophy should give them a try. But it can be heavy going.

Of more general interest and certainly more accessible are the essays in Part Two entitled "Moral Progress: Toward more inclusive communities." Here Rorty fleshes out his moral perspective by criticizing appeals to "Reason" to justify our moral intuitions. The latter can only be developed by imaginatively enlarging our sensibilities, by being more inclusive in our notion of what constitutes a genuine community. Moral progress can only come when we see more and more differences among people as morally irrelevant. The final section returns to questions concerning the role of philosophy, including an interesting piece on the historiography of philosophy and more on the philosophers Habermas and Derrida.

After some three books and four volumes of papers, Richard Rorty appears to be still going strong. Those who up to now have resisted his message and hold out for a more traditional role for philosophy will probably not be won over by these essays. They will feel that Rorty has given away too much. They will not be edified. On the other hand, those who suspect that Rorty is right when he claims that "philosophy makes progress not by becoming more rigorous but by becoming more imaginative" (8) can look forward to being treated to some of the most rigorous and imaginative philosophical writing of our time.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Donovan, Rikard
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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