Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SARTWELL ON RORTY....Crispin Sartwell, in an op-ed piece about Richard Rorty, starts out with this:

It's hard for non-philosophers to understand how seriously philosophers take their own questions, from the nature of truth to the correct interpretation of the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche. An air of hushed solemnity reigns over the procedures.

You know, I have noticed that. It's a remarkable attitude for a field that's still arguing about whether Plato was right, isn't it? But Sartwell says that Rorty's big problem was an unwillingness to take this all as seriously as the professoriate thought he should:

What absolutely killed philosophy professors was Rorty's interpretation of the great figures of the Western tradition. The average philosophy professor may spend a decade or a career trying to elucidate the works of Martin Heidegger or W.V.O. Quine. Rorty lined up such figures in support of his own positions in a fundamentally careless way. He quoted them out of context and ignored everything he couldn't use.

This truly enraged people. The Dewey scholars hated him, as did the Wittgenstein scholars, the Davidson scholars, the Nietzsche scholars, the Derrida scholars and so on.

....I disagreed with almost every position he ever took, but Rorty was for me an inspiration. He showed me and generations of students and readers how to think and speak boldly, how to transcend the constraining conventions of academia and, most important of all, how to drive professors crazy.

I don't know the first thing about Rorty. I just thought this was an interesting little essay. Still, if Sartwell is right, Rorty didn't drive professors crazy by thinking and speaking boldly, he did it by treating philosophy with the same level of intellectual honesty that the Heritage Foundation treats fiscal theory. Anybody care to weigh in on this?

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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Given that William "The Virtuous" Bennett was awarded a doctorate in philosophy -- and on the basis of a dissertation of fewer than forty pages -- it's questionable whether the field has any standards worth defending.

Posted by: penalcolony on June 12, 2007 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

As Ayn Rand correctly observed, there hasn't been any real advancement in philosophy since Aristotle.

Posted by: Al on June 12, 2007 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know either of these people.

Nevertheless, "how to drive professors crazy" shows us that one must understand the system in order to challenge it--no understanding is necessary if you're only goal is to destroy the system.

There's also the old axiom: "If you're going to be a smartass, you'd better be smart."

Posted by: Darryl Pearce on June 12, 2007 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

Here's an interesting obituary for the fellow.

Posted by: Darryl Pearce on June 12, 2007 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Let's be frank here: a HECK of a lot in philosophy, especially modern philosophy, is goobledygook.

Quote Derrida "out of context"? Heidegger? How in the heck do you quote these guys IN context? Half of their works are nigh unintelligible with no coherent argument or unambiguous position on anything.

When you have to spend your entire career trying to figure out what the hell some supposedly great thinker was thinking, then I think maybe its time to entertain the idea that they really aren't so great, and certainly not worth the time and effort to decipher if they can't bother to be clear about what they are saying.

Whatever else you say about Rorty, he was generally very clear about what he was talking about. That's a courtesy even to those who want to criticize his arguments: a courtesy few philosophers today, and even fewer theologians, ever bother to observe.

Posted by: plunge on June 12, 2007 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

My own sense is that academic philosophers distrusted Rorty because of his blithe dismissal of the primacy of analysis and the metaphysical tradition. He interpreted logical technicians like Quine and Wittgenstein poorly because he really didn't care about them, and did not read them all that closely. Rather than spending his time fretting over whether we can know Truth with a capital T, he instead asked whether or not we could just dispense with that whole debate, agree that there is no single Truth that we will all ever agree upon, and get on to the more immediate questions of creating a good society where there is more happiness (hope, as he called it) and less suffering. Not surprisingly, he was a life-long Democrat and proponent of America's capability to live up to its democratic ideals (often taking on more radical leftist academics like Chomsky). He cared more about public than academic discourse, which will always earn a professor a certain amount of scorn within the ivory tower.

Posted by: jonas on June 12, 2007 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

It's all fine and good to be a skeptic in the Rortian vein or Stanley Fish-style and argue that metaphysics and foundationalism are bunk and that democracy doesn't need any sort of philosophical grounding.

The problem is that there is trickle-down of ideas: not directly from academia to the average citizen, but from philosophers to the media elite, who are mostly college-educated and whose views of reality and discourse are a kind of cartoon version of the dominant trends in academic thought.

You wonder then where the MSM gets this idea that empiricism doesn't matter, that reality is just a construct, that public life is nothing but a power-struggle in which the right thing to do is find out what the daddy-party wants, and just obey that?

Look no further than Rorty, Fish, and the two-bit latter-day deconstructionists.

Ideas have consequences, and so does the weak-tea thesis that ideas themselves are inconsequential. Without a strong commitment to truth, empiricism, and foundationalism in ideas, all you have left is tribalism on right, and triangulation on the left.

Posted by: lampwick on June 12, 2007 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

Seems more in line with the traditions of midrashic interpretation of the Bible, and lots of religious writing generally where people use bits of the text as riffs in order to make it appear that their own thought appears well grounded in tradition. It also can have the effect of effacing the presence of the speaker to some degree.

Interesting, and rather antithetical to what lots of philosophers do, and the way philosophy stylistically encourages a "great man" approach to philsophy. Rorty would be right in calling that a cultural bias.

Posted by: Crabgrass on June 12, 2007 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

Sartwell, who is not a philosopher, vulgarizes Rorty, who was an exceptionally supple and graceful writer. And he does not provide any examples to corroborate his allegation that Rorty willfully mis-characterized the works of other philosophers.
Rorty will likely be judged an important figure in the intellectual development of liberalism - perhaps as important a figure as Habermas, Berlin or Rawls. I think it is important that the liberal intellectual community that has formed on the blogosphere expend some effort attempting to engage core liberal ideas of thinkers like Rorty, and not just make scarcastic comments about the latest outrage from the Bush Administration.

Posted by: hsny on June 12, 2007 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

I think there is also a sense in academia that subjects are to be studied, not practiced. In this world, you debate the merits of finer points of what philosophers said, rather than living them out. If you call people on this sort of bullshit, they get mad. And then there's the whole lot of people who reject James' pragmatism because it has a spiritual component.

I became dangerous when I realized philosophy could be lived, not talked about.

Posted by: kt on June 12, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

I have a somewhat different problem with the academics in philosophy departments. Consider the difference in the way scientists treat their founding fathers.

Physicists, for the most part, have never read Newton or Einstein in the original, unless they have independent curiousity about the history of science. Their original texts are considered inspired, but flawed; the way we teach their thought was often formulated by people who came after. It's assumed that any individual scientist may have had inspired breakthroughs, but someone whose main interest is in their original writings is considered a historian, not a scientist. It is assumed that any given work is only a pointer in the right direction, but will contain errors.

But in philosophy departments, it seems that we mainly have philosophical historians. They spend most of their energy mining the original dusty texts, debating about the details of what, say, Nietschze meant on page such-and-so of book such-and-such.

Posted by: Joe Buck on June 12, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

As Ayn Rand correctly observed, there hasn't been any real advancement in philosophy since Aristotle.

Least of all by herself.

Posted by: tomeck on June 12, 2007 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

I think it is important that the liberal intellectual community that has formed on the blogosphere expend some effort attempting to engage core liberal ideas of thinkers like Rorty, and not just make scarcastic comments about the latest outrage from the Bush Administration.
Posted by: hsny

That is absolutely the smartest thing I've seen written on this site.

Posted by: anti-NUKULAR on June 12, 2007 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

If a philosopher formalized his ideas, he'd be a mathematician. If he tested them, he'd be a scientist.

Posted by: Boronx on June 12, 2007 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Rorty may have ruffled feathers across the field, but at the same time he was at the top of it. He was a creative thinker and writer and an inspiration to his students. He brought real vitality to the University where I overlapped with him, and he was less constrained than the typical academic by area of study or elitist figures. He was at ease and respectful with a wide range of people and was a decent person.

He dominated the philosophical scene while upsetting some of its orthodoxies. That in itself is noteworthy. Maybe his thinking didn't hang together entirely coherently, but he was generous, humble, open, and gave himself fully in support of his hopes that humanity can improve itself in every respect.

Posted by: Trypticon on June 12, 2007 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

Rorty, right or wrong, was a synthetic thinker who cared less about getting Heidegger and others right by the strictest scholarly standards (which, worthwhile or not, can take years or even decades for each major thinker) than about taking a broad view of the entire philosophical enterprise and trying to figure out what it should mean in the 20th and 21st centuries to live a good life, particularly as an intellectual. I personally found that approach inspirational, even while agreeing sometimes with those who challenged his particular interpretations.

Quick, unargued hits back:

Rorty like a Heritage Foundation hit man: No.

Relevance of William Bennet: None.

Ayn Rand's views on philosophy: As worthwhile as the rest of her views.

Derrida and Heidegger: Frequently maddening, but not gobbledygook.

Rorty's responsibility for media embrace of relativism: Seems flimsy to me.

Philosophy's rootedness in history: half-true. The rest of professional philosophy tries to model itself on scientific research programs and pays as little attention to history as possible.

Posted by: Brandon Claycomb on June 12, 2007 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

re: lampwick's comments, I don't think Rorty for a minute would have dismissed the idea that reality is empirically knowable and that we have to make personal and political decisions based on the best state of knowledge about a thing. He was, after all, a pragmatist when you get right down to it. There's a difference between that and, say, the current Christianist Republican approach of looking at something like the Middle East conflict and then failing to deal with the actual problem because you want to instead rely on the higher Truth of the Scriptures which state that Israel will vanquish its foes in the end, so we can all just sit back and let things take their course. That's the kind of stuff Rorty wrote against, not that everything's relative and there's no rational basis for saying one thing is superior to another.

Posted by: jonas on June 12, 2007 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

Looks like I've got some more reading to do.

Posted by: Darryl Pearce on June 12, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Rand was a good writer and could strike a pose, but was not really a philosopher for anyone but herself and guys developmentally stuck as tyrannical 5 year olds.

hsny, with a second from anti-NUKU, are right on.

Posted by: Trypticon on June 12, 2007 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Rorty is one of the greats that ushered in post-modernism (there were others in other disciplines - Roy Wagner in Anthropology comes to mind). He understood better than his contemporaries that philosophy is not an absolute. But a series of tools to better understand the modern condition. Just as an artist uses different brushes to paint a complete picture, so must a philosopher use different philosophical schools.

And he was a great teacher. One of a rare breed of people that cared that his ideas transpired to students. He was someone that worked at teaching, as all great teachers do.

His thoughts on liberalism (and liberalism importance in the great American experiment) was as important as anyone's. He believed that liberalism could and should inspire -- not be defeatist and cynical as the Foucault camp would have. He was an American liberal and not a European.

I read about his passing with great sorrow. Only slightly more sorrow than of his leaving the University of Virginia to those know-nothings at Stanford -- during one of those fiscal crises that the Commonwealth goes through every now and again and cuts all of the higher education funding.

Posted by: DC1974 on June 12, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

thanks Brandon.

Posted by: Trypticon on June 12, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

My impression of Rorty, admittedly based on relatively little reading, has not been a good one.

Among other things, he seems to regard both analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy as inadequate -- and essentially any other tradition you might name. I see him basically as a "A pox on both your houses" sort of thinker. Thing is, he doesn't really have a house of his own, or even a sleeping bag. If you try to make coherent sense of what he offers up, you end in frustration. For Rorty, that doesn't seem to be a problem, just the true nature of philosophy, because, well, he says so -- that's his chosen approach to philosophy.

It all strikes me as a very convenient self-aggrandizing cop-out, one that allows him to reign as supreme Philosopher Meta-Genius, who can look down on all previous traditions and questions and sneer.

But just because philosophical questions are exceedingly hard, perhaps in some cases even intractable, does not mean we have a right to give up on inquiry into them simply because at this moment we have no certain answers. Perhaps someday we'll be in a better position to declare some of these questions as forever beyond our reach. It's just cheap, lazy, and grandiose to do so at this moment.

Posted by: frankly0 on June 12, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Rorty was always a little infuriating and a little bit uncareful in his work. But any serious comparison with the Heritage Foundation would be slanderous to Rorty. Rorty was always well within the boundaries of acceptable philosophical argument -- even when he was trying to challenge things deeply, he did not contravene basic standards of intellectual honesty.

Posted by: Kent on June 12, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

He sounds like a Richard Feynmann kinda guy.

Posted by: MarkH on June 12, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

In my experience (philosophy grad school drop-out with an ABD), philosophers don't so much mind if you do a "jazz riff" on the work of some other philosopher, appropriating what you need and ignoring what you don't, as long as what you end up with is good philosophy.

For example, Saul Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language is pretty weak Wittgenstein scholarship, but is still widely read in philosophy departments, because it's a clever and tightly argued book. In short, it's good philosophy.

Rorty, on the other hand (at least in PMN, I haven't read much of his other stuff), just used other philosophers' work in a hand-waving way, saying something like "As Quine showed us in Two Dogmas ...", when Quine showed no such thing. In other words, bad philosophy.

That's what really got under the skin of the philosophical community.

Posted by: Brock on June 12, 2007 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

I would agree with Kevin that it was the professional sloppiness that is attributed to Rorty that got his peers upset.

It's similar with lawyers. A fictional lawyer conducting a trial in a TV series speaks boldly and entertains, but typically violates every tenet of his profession while doing so. If a real lawyer tried to speak boldly and provocatively in court in the manner of a TV-series-lawyer, the judge and the other attorneys would certainly be dismayed.

Posted by: Saunders on June 12, 2007 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

Jonas - I don't disagree that there is a huge difference between Rortian pragmatism and Christianism. I don't have any problem with living according to pragmatism or questioning the foundations of one's beliefs. But when you are as fiercely dedicated to epistemological and metaphysical minimalism as he was, you effectively kneecap the liberal political tradition to which you pledge allegiance. "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Nope! No such thing as a self-evident truth; and the claims are not well-described as truths. Well, that's a fine thing to argue in the abstract; but now when liberals go to challenge conservatives and Christianists in the public sphere, we have to do so with one hand tied behind our back? And when it is insisted that the 'interpretative community' (Fish's thing) is the final arbiter of what used to be called truth, should one be surprised that Christianists are going to find this appeal to tribalist epistemology very attractive? And that the media will feel justified in its laziness? A very nice man just passed away, and that is a cause for mourning; but his manner of thought cannot pass away quickly enough, imho.

Posted by: lampwick on June 12, 2007 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

I think, therefore my opinion is just as significant as Descartes', no?

To me, "philosophy" is an interesting debating society, but I truly do not think it can arrive at "Truth" because truth changes. The universe IS change, and we're always trying to catch up with it, but we lag behind the curve.

We are the continuing product of change and are therefore blind not only to the future, but also to the immmediate present. The time we take to contemplate it moves our understanding into and of the past. The pattern of change is not static and so cannot be understood by contemplating what has come before.

Still, it is kind of FUN, and as man is a creature of contemplation, I suppose we'll always have philosphers with us.

Posted by: Cal Gal on June 12, 2007 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

He dominated the philosophical scene while upsetting some of its orthodoxies.

Uh, in what sense, exactly, did Rorty "dominate" the philosophical scene? He has had less of an influence on the practice of philosophy than some of his own followers (Brandom, Putnam) who aren't as dismissive of the whole enterprise. Rorty's "dominance" has always been mostly that he has convinced undergraduates and other people who were already inclined to think that philosophy isn't worth doing that they are right.

How is it "remarkable" for philosophers to take questions about the history of philosophy seriously, when history of philosophy is considered one subfield of philosophy? They also take questions of metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, etc. very seriously, and this is precisely what one would expect. One who didn't take at least some such questions very seriously wouldn't be a philosopher. It's also worth noting that some philosophers takes some of these questions more seriously than others.

For example, some very famous, successful, and influential philosophers don't take the history of philosophy very seriously (Gil Harman, for example). Most philosophers respect what the historians do, but that doesn't mean they take much of an interest. Some successful philosophers (the aforementioned Brandom) take history seriously, but don't regard as the primary aim of the history of philosophy the accurate interpretation of historical texts (see his book Tales of the Mighty Dead). Brandom is well-regarded in his field (he gave last year's Locke Lectures, for example) despite a famously casual way with the history of philosophy--he tends to read diverse figures all as predecessors of his own views.

So I don't think casualness with the history of philosophy can be the whole story about Rorty. To the extent that there was any antagonism between him and the rest of the discipline (which is often quite overblown), I think, though, it does stem from something like the analogy Kevin makes at the end of his post:

he did it by treating philosophy with the same level of intellectual honesty that the Heritage Foundation treats fiscal theory.

Posted by: pgs on June 12, 2007 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with everything Brandon said.

Rorty is interesting precisely because they hate him from all sides. The radical folks hate him because his response to postmodern philosophy is a big "yeah, that's interesting but why don't we set that aside and, y'know, help some people?"

And the Platonists, the Enlightenment scholars, etc. all hate him for pretty much the same reason. Because he says there isn't anything WRONG about postmodern theories - they're just not useful. And that's heresy to the folks who believe there is a concrete, material Truth.

I figure if you've got all sides coming at you on this subject, you're probably doing something very wrong or very right. With Rorty it was the latter. He was a fine writer, and a genuine scholar.

Posted by: Charles on June 12, 2007 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

I think that it is not so much, "treating philosophy with the same level of intellectual honesty that the Heritage Foundation treats fiscal theory", but treating the subject with such contempt. Philosophy, as I understand it, is not about what someone has to say about X, but rather a logical method of determining the truth about X.

The western 'scientific method' came about as a branch of philosophy (being, 'natural philosophy'), as does most of modern mathematics. It is that logical framework that shapes the subject- and to dismiss or ignore that framework is to treat the very subject (whether philosophy or physics) with utter contempt.

We see the same thing whenever thermodynamics is used to argue against evolution, or when quantum mechanics is used to support mysticism (a la 'What the bleep do we know' or 'The Secret').

To me, this seems like yet another example of how anti-intellectual America is becoming.

cheers-

Posted by: Eric Riley on June 12, 2007 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

I think that it is not so much, "treating philosophy with the same level of intellectual honesty that the Heritage Foundation treats fiscal theory", but treating the subject with such contempt. Philosophy, as I understand it, is not about what someone has to say about X, but rather a logical method of determining the truth about X.

The western 'scientific method' came about as a branch of philosophy (being, 'natural philosophy'), as does most of modern mathematics. It is that logical framework that shapes the subject- and to dismiss or ignore that framework is to treat the very subject (whether philosophy or physics) with utter contempt.

We see the same thing whenever thermodynamics is used to argue against evolution, or when quantum mechanics is used to support mysticism (a la 'What the bleep do we know' or 'The Secret').

To me, this seems like yet another example of how anti-intellectual America is becoming.

cheers-

Posted by: Eric Riley on June 12, 2007 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Another post by Drum that seems to be from the Jonah Goldberg Not-Knowing-Shit-Doesn't-Stop-Me school. Thanks, KD.

Posted by: cjr on June 12, 2007 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

I saw Prof. Rorty speak at a public lecture at a local university where he was a visiting professor. The theme of the lecture was torture. Rorty lectured on the question of whether torture was intrinsically wrong or whether through time and history found to be unpleasant and so not used. He referenced Dershowtiz' book, but took no particular stance himself. Mostly the students in the audience took the position torture was intrinsically wrong and took exception with his thesis that through time and experience torture was found to be too unpleasant to use and became taboo.

This lecture took place after the invasion of Iraq but before the torture revelations were made public. I stood in line to ask the question of whether the books justifying torture and lectures like this were a way to inform the public that torture was now a policy in use and that it was being perpetrated in Iraq. Questions were closed before my turn came up, which still bothers me, because I would have liked to hear his answer and tell it now.

Posted by: Brojo on June 12, 2007 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick, "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is not a very important plank in the armature of modern liberalism. That kind of axiomatic approach to norms didn't even make it into the 19th century. But anyway, while it's been a while since I read PMN, I think you're mistaken in describing Rorty as being in any way responsible for throwing out the validity of that kind of statement. If anything Rorty was probably more sympathetic to that kind of moral claim than a lot of other philosophers might be, in that he subscribed to the line that "truth is a compliment we pay to the things we believe". Others might find the line that "truths" are "self-evident" to be absurdly lacking in rigor. For Rorty, I think, if everyone really did find those value statements convincing (all men being created equal etc.), then it wasn't necessary to ask whether they were grounded in some other metaphysical "truth".

Posted by: mattsteinglass on June 12, 2007 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Rorty lectured on the question of whether torture was intrinsically wrong or whether through time and history found to be unpleasant and so not used. He referenced Dershowtiz' book, but took no particular stance himself. Mostly the students in the audience took the position torture was intrinsically wrong and took exception with his thesis that through time and experience torture was found to be too unpleasant to use and became taboo.

If this is an accurate account of Rorty's lecture, I can only say, with liberals like that, who needs wingnuts?

Posted by: frankly0 on June 12, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Rorty lined up such figures in support of his own positions in a fundamentally careless way. He quoted them out of context and ignored everything he couldn't use.
%%%
He showed me and generations of students and readers how to think and speak boldly, how to transcend the constraining conventions of academia and, most important of all, how to drive professors crazy.

That's how to think?

How to think "boldly" instead of accurately?

What's the value of driving professors crazy?

Is this how the author came to "think" about "Global Warming" and its amelioration?

It does sound like the way that attorneys prepare for court, but they are recognized as advocates and the rules provide the opportunity for opponents to challenge and present counter-arguments.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on June 12, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK
Whatever else you say about Rorty, he was generally very clear about what he was talking about. That's a courtesy even to those who want to criticize his arguments: a courtesy few philosophers today, and even fewer theologians, ever bother to observe.

I can't think of any supporting examples that are well regarded; the first counterexamples of each type that come to mind are Rawls and Kung; then again, as in any other academic field, much of the writing—outside of works expressly intended as popular works—in either philosophy or theology assumes quite a bit of shared understanding as a base and is rather unintelligible to people that don't have that foundation. But that's no less true of, say, Stephen Hawking's work other than popularizations like A Brief History of Time.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 12, 2007 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Rand grossly misunderstood Aristotle -- and Aquinas, whom she also praised, apparently without reading him.

Rorty did write well, indeed better than your typical Anglophone analytic philosopher, and he dispensed with gratuitous at-time-t formalism. But he wasn't resented for his prose.

He was faulted as an intellectual dadaist by conservatives for political incorrectness by RW standards, though they might have found his defense of liberal institutions, which amounted to saying they belong to our way of life such that we can't can part with them, congenial if they weren't already offended that he was LW.

His genuine sin was incoherent and self-refuting
views. A crude and too short example: you say there is no truth? Do you claim that's true? If you do, you're hoist on your own petard. If you don't, who cares? Sloppy and provocative argument got him the public ear, but earned the disdain of philosophers whose very craft is argument.

Now the "dusty texts" of philosophy are anything but; philosophers keep them too well-thumbed for that. Wittgenstein quipped that it takes a first-rate philospher to make a first-rate mistake, and so even the texts that record the mistakes are still worth perusal -- but not everybody's. If you can't be perplexed by a philosophical problem, you have no aptitude for philosophy -- though you still need make acquaintance with some of those texts to get a liberal education (which also isn't for everybody.)

So professors of philosophy teach those texts, but few research or publish about them. Most philosophy done in English now concerns the work of living or recently dead colleagues; it's a big conversation or big party with many conversations, in which some talkers score points and make reputations, and perhaps some truths are found or at least untruths refuted. Rorty left the party of "linguistc turn" analytical philosophy about thirty years ago when he published his Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature, and offended quite a few of the remaining party-goers with nasty parting remarks about what a silly evening it had been. Many others left the linguistic turn behind, and are trying to do philosophy as if it were science or continuous with science, e.g. neurophilosophers and "Darwinians." Rorty angered his scienticist colleagues by disdaining scientific pretensions for philosophy (not for science!), and "physics of the abstract" that affects an alphabet-soup look to escape its embarrassing background among the humanities.

Posted by: Dabodius on June 12, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

frankly0, Rorty encouraged the audience to think about how torture became immoral. Is it from an intrinsic value or something learned? He was not there to lecture about the horrors of torture, but the philosophical reasons for its use (Dershowitz and a philosopher whose name I cannot recall) or its prohibition. This lecture took place before it was known torture was a common US policy. Most, and I think Rorty, too thought toruture was still prohibited. Only a cynic like me already thought it was being used.

Posted by: Brojo on June 12, 2007 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

So Brandon and pgs's take on the state of modern academic philosophy is pretty much right on. And pgs's explanation of why academic philosophers reacted poorly to Rorty sounds right. The general complaint was that he cited tons of people as authorities in a flakey way, claiming they'd proved stuff that it wasn't even clear they'd believed, let alone proved. I've only read a few pages of Rorty, so the complaint could be unfair. I heard it from a lot of people though, including people inclined to be sympathetic to getting rid of metaphysics, making truth more manageable, etc.

I'm honestly always a little surprised to read, "Philosophers believe in Truth with a capital T." Views that hold there is no truth are in the minority in academic philosophy, but they exist. A lot of people with these views are well-respected. It's extremely unlikely that Rorty irritated people through his views alone.

His political involvement is very impressive. To be honest though, I've never understood the pragmatic defense of liberalism. Do we all have human rights? Well, is that useful to believe or not? It seems like this is going to depend on who you ask. Given my life right now, yeah, it's useful for me to believe in human rights. If I were dictator for life, not so much.

But someone more familiar with Rorty should fill me in.

As an aside, a few complaints about philosophy that I find somewhat weird:

1. Truth changes. Do you mean that while it's true that my table is brown, it won't always be true, because the color of the table will change, or it will one day stop being a table? Philosophers know that. They aren't in general, you know, retarded. If you mean something more subtle, please explain.

2. Philosophy's become disconnected from life. Yeah. It's philosophy. Not everything we do has benefits for society at large. Art, religion, a lot of science and math. Most of philosophy is that way too. This used to be called 'culture' or 'human achievement'.

3. So I think everyone agrees that Plato was mostly wrong. (He is wrong, however, in more enlightening ways than most people ar right, hence the interest.) He wrote a lot though. And some of the questions are really hard. Like, what are numbers? We don't if he was wrong about that.

Posted by: DBake on June 12, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a phsyical scientist and I find it odd that most other scientists (though perhaps less so if they are physicists) dismiss "philosophy" without bothering to realize that the scientific method and empiricism, in fact, came from philosophical thinking. You can see the beauty of philosophical/logical reasoning in most journal articles published.

I find that there is a general lack of ignorance of modern philosophy. Some philosophers today are using fMRI in order to evaluate the accuracy of Hume or Kant. Philosophers of the mind are using neuroanatomy to make and/or challenge certain claims. I could go on. But my general impression is that most people, have a 6th grade view of modern philosophy.

As someone in studying very basic biological principles I can relate to the frustration toward the disrespect to pure, rather than applied science.

Posted by: gq on June 12, 2007 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Wittgenstein killed philosophy with Tractacus, just as Camus killed philosophical novel with L’Étranger. There is nothing left to be done in either.

Posted by: gregor on June 12, 2007 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a phsyical scientist and I find it odd that most other scientists (though perhaps less so if they are physicists) dismiss "philosophy" without bothering to realize that the scientific method and empiricism, in fact, came from philosophical thinking.:

But that was more along the lines of natural philosophy, no? Back when philosophy covered the sciences, which I assume it's vestiges show when I have a Doctor of Philosophy, yet have never taken a class in it.

I find now that a lot of philosophers don't have a strong grasp of science and are unable to use in their work the facts we are discovering in other fields. They work in thought stuff while ignoring the work being done in neuroanatomy, to follow your example. If you look at the course requirements for a philosophy degree, for example, math and science is minimal. Reminds me of hte joke, "Why did the philosophy major cross the road?"

"To pick up three credits. And he got three more coming back."

Posted by: anti-NUKE on June 12, 2007 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

You wonder then where the MSM gets this idea that empiricism doesn't matter, that reality is just a construct, that public life is nothing but a power-struggle in which the right thing to do is find out what the daddy-party wants, and just obey that?

Look no further than Rorty, Fish, and the two-bit latter-day deconstructionists.

If you think Rorty(or really anyone else in the Pragmatist school) says that empiricism doesn't matter, you either didn't read them, didn't understand them, or are axe-grinding. Part of what they're really doing is a sort of meta-empiricism, examining how people actually come to believe things, and how beliefs come to be regarded as knowledge or truth in the real world and in day-to-day life, and by extension, in a democracy. Remember, much of this came from William James, who was a psychologist as much or more than a philosopher.

As a philosopher, I don't think Rorty was really any great shakes. He didn't really come up with his own coherent worldview, and he didn't do much to move the discipline forward in any discrete area. He mostly just was a standard-bearer for Pragmatism and a player-around-with ideas. But, as a public intellectual and theorist/practician of democracy, he was invaluable. If there was any justice / sanity, he would have been the left's standard-bearer in the academy, instead of someone like Chomsky. Where Chomsky offered critiques and little else, Rorty proposed practical ways forward and potential solutions.

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 12, 2007 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

Brian Leiter weighs in.

Although not much of a Rorty scholar, I agree he didn't bring much of his own to the table; he was better at synopsis than creative/original thinking.

Posted by: Monty on June 12, 2007 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

Truth changes. Do you mean that while it's true that my table is brown, it won't always be true, because the color of the table will change, or it will one day stop being a table? Philosophers know that. They aren't in general, you know, retarded. If you mean something more subtle, please explain.

Pragmatists don't really care about what color you think the table is(or whether reality is real, or any number of speculative/metaphysical questions like that), because it doesn't make a practical difference in the world what you believe about the color of the table. If you're red/green color blind and the table is green, you may well have a different answer to the question, but it really makes no difference either way, so we ignore it and move on to beliefs and questions that actually do make a difference, that is, beliefs that will result in some action in relation to the world or others.

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 12, 2007 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Knowing next to nothing about philosophy other than my own admittedly-uninformed notions, the bits I glean from Rorty in this thread sound fascinating, because they sound a lot like my own impatience with wooly-headed thinking and my own attitude towards most philosophical propositions. Wonder if I'm just projecting or if I really do think similarly to him.

Looks like I have some reading to do.

Posted by: eyelessgame on June 12, 2007 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

1. Truth changes. Do you mean that while it's true that my table is brown, it won't always be true, because the color of the table will change, or it will one day stop being a table? Philosophers know that. They aren't in general, you know, retarded. If you mean something more subtle, please explain.

Discredited pragmatist theories of truth aside, there actually is serious work being done in contemporary philosophy on the idea that truth is relative in an important sense. John MacFarlane's work is the best place to look for this (the view hasn't yet gained much currency, but it is being taken seriously). MacFarlane (a student of Brandom's) is probably even, at some remove, inspired by pragmatism.

Please do not infer from this that there is any merit whatsoever to the popular undergraduate view (oft expressed in philosophy classes when evaluating arguments becomes too hard) that truth amounts to nothing more than truth-for-me, where what is true-for-me is coextensive with what I believe.

Posted by: pgs on June 12, 2007 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

"Pragmatists don't really care about what color you think the table is(or whether reality is real, or any number of speculative/metaphysical questions like that), because it doesn't make a practical difference in the world what you believe about the color of the table. If you're red/green color blind and the table is green, you may well have a different answer to the question, but it really makes no difference either way, so we ignore it and move on to beliefs and questions that actually do make a difference, that is, beliefs that will result in some action in relation to the world or others."

Right. A belief about the color of a table would never lead to action.

In any case, I was talking about the table as an example. I would just like more of an explanation of what people mean when they say that truth changes. If you would like to use one of the important truths to illustrate this point, that would be cool too.

Posted by: DBake on June 12, 2007 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

thanks pgs. will read soon.

Posted by: DBake on June 12, 2007 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

One thing I will forever thank Rorty for: for explaining, in clear and inspiring language, and for modeling, consistently, the proper public role for a scholar. Rorty acted out his life as if ideas matter, and he also considered it very important to get those ideas into the heads of the very people who currently don't think they matter.

If that earns him the scorn of Dryasdusts and dismissals as a "synthesizer and popularizer" rather than a serious thinker, then so be it. But anyone who takes teaching seriously would do well to look to Rorty as an example of what a scholar can be.

Posted by: Will Phillips on June 12, 2007 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

Fwiw, speaking as a philosopher: I don't really think it's right to think that there was some huge hostility to Rorty within philosophy, and that that needs to be explained. There were people who thought his arguments didn't work, and a lot of people who thought that his candidate replacement for questions about truth was less substantive and less coherent than he thought it was. Reading Sartwell's piece, about him being 'hated' and 'reviled' by people 'so hostile that they could barely express themselves coherently' just leaves me asking: who were these people? Why have I never met them?

And if there were that kind of hostility, it wouldn't be because of something like: Rorty shook us out of our dogmatic ways, etc. Philosophy is not in the middle of a hidebound period, especially not in the fields that interested Rorty. It's in the middle of a crisis of confidence, in which people don't see clearly where to go.

I had Rorty as an undergrad, at which point I found him plainly incredibly smart and knowledgeable. But, at that point, he was lecturing us on why philosophy wasn't worth doing at all. It seemed to me that whatever might be true for metaphysics and epistemology, this couldn't be true for ethics: even if you couldn't get answers that were Right with a capital R, whatever that means, making the conversation richer and more complicated had to be worthwhile. I also recall wondering, at the time, why he didn't just resign his job and go off to tend to the sick, the lame the halt, and the blind if he thought philosophy couldn't be done and wasn't worth doing. I didn't know, at the time, that he was trying to get into Comp Lit.

His work has always struck me as being the work of a man who fell deeply, totally in love with philosophy, and believed everything it promised him, and then got disillusioned. ("But you promised! And you LIED!!!", I can almost hear him saying, through the lines.) I think that part of what can be exasperating to others of us in the field, like me, is that I never believed all the things he seems to have believed about philosophy, I'm therefore not inclined to take the discovery that some of those things aren't true as the kind of betrayal I think he saw it as, and for that reason I've never been inclined either to throw the whole thing out. So when I read him, I often have this sense that he's taking what I regard as a not very remarkable discovery and using it to justify tossing out the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub, and for that matter the whole house and all its environs.

Or maybe it's just that I do ethics.

In any case, as far as I've ever seen, people within the field regard him as absolutely a very, very smart, very, very knowledgeable person, and their criticisms of his work have to be understood in that context. (Like criticizing a basketball player in a context in which everyone you're talking about assumes that he should be in the NBA all-star game, and the criticisms take the form: but as people who should clearly be in the all-star game go ...)

Posted by: hilzoy on June 12, 2007 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

I find now that a lot of philosophers don't have a strong grasp of science and are unable to use in their work the facts we are discovering in other fields. They work in thought stuff while ignoring the work being done in neuroanatomy, to follow your example.

Actually, I don't think this is true. In fact, there are philosophers who know pretty well relevant portions of neuroanatomy, and try to work it into their views.

The real problem is the general problem with philosophy. With rare exception, the details of how a given thing works in the real world actually says virtually nothing about the underlying philosophical problem. And worse, NOTHING seems to say anything about the underlying problem -- and yet that problem simply won't go away.

Take the classic question of whether a mental state is somehow identical to a given brain state. Now neuroanatomy is NOT going to solve that problem, at least in anything like its current level of development. The problem is not the question of exactly what brain states correspond to a mental state. The question is more basic, namely, is it possible that a brain state, however that may be understood and fleshed out by science, might be identical to a mental state. Thing is, no positive answer to this question seems to make sense to us.

But, again, here's the real rub: the question posed just doesn't go away by a dismissive flick of the hand. Talking up science and its incredible wonderfulness does not solve the riddle. NOTHING SOLVES OR ELIMINATES THE RIDDLE. You can assert, as some philosophers have, that the question itself is incoherent, or confused, or based on illegitimate language, but those seem as unsatisfactory to us as any positive answers we might give the question. Indeed, the worst "solution" of all seems to be that there is no real content to the question, because that it does have some real content seems more compelling than anything else. I mean, we don't have a pretty clear notion of what a mental state might be? We don't have a clear notion of what a brain state might be? We don't have a sense of what "identical to" might mean?

That's the real problem with philosophy. It deals with riddles that can't seem to be solved, but also can't seem to be dismissed.

While it would be a fine thing if philosophical questions could be handled by empirical science, it appears to be a vain and very naive hope. Philosophy won't go away because its underlying riddles won't go away.

Posted by: frankly0 on June 12, 2007 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

Well, I teach philosophy, and I suppose this sort of thing looks differently from inside the discipline than it does from the outside... But, FWIW:

Yeah, it's easy to deride philosophy for its apparent inability to conclusively settle its questions. But lots of progress has been made since Plato. We certainly understand more about philosophy now than anyone understood in Plato's time. Making progress is non-identical with settling issues conclusively.

Also: Ayn Rand is not a philosopher, and she didn't know what she was talking about.

Which is not to say that philosophy isn't target-rich environment for humorists, for it is, oh yes it is.

So, though I'm all-too-aware of how goofy philosophy is in some sense, I've gotta say that most sweeping dismissals from outside the discipline are pretty silly, usually revealing more about the ignorance of the speaker than about philosophy.

Case in point: "Wittgenstein killed philosophy with the Tractatus." I mean, jeez, that's just a joke.

And as for philosophers knowing little about natural science: well, that varies a lot. Some philosophers know an unbelievable amount of science--esp. physics, psychology, and biology, and many know quite a lot of math. But it'd be better if more of 'em knew more. One possibly useful comparison: analytic philosophers probably know more about science than scientists know about philosophy.

The bottom line: philosophy's a mixed bag. Really goofy in many ways. But it attracts some of the smartest people in the academy--the data on that is fairly conclusive. Philosophers score only slightly behind mathematicians and physicists (and sometimes economists) on tests like the LSAT and GRE, and those folks are always at the top of the scale. If philosophy's kind of a joke, it's not because it's pointless, nor because the practitioners are stupid or incompetent, but primarily because the questions are hard and weird.

So, anyway, though I can go on all day about the failings of philosophy, it's kind of funny to read uninformed, blanket dismissals of the discipline by people who, for the most part, don't know what they're talking about and probably wouldn't have a chance of even getting into philosophy graduate school.

Uh, hope that doesn't sound inordinately cranky...

Posted by: Winston Smith on June 12, 2007 at 4:29 PM | PERMALINK

There were people who thought his arguments didn't work, and a lot of people who thought that his candidate replacement for questions about truth was less substantive and less coherent than he thought it was. Reading Sartwell's piece, about him being 'hated' and 'reviled' by people 'so hostile that they could barely express themselves coherently' just leaves me asking: who were these people? Why have I never met them?

Also speaking as a philosopher, I agree with Hilzoy (in fact, I argued at length for something much like this in Yglesias' Rorty thread). Perhaps I shouldn't have so unqualifiedly endorsed Kevin's Heritage Foundation analogy, which probably has at least the conversational implicature that there is a fair amount of personal animosity towards Rorty among professional philosophers.

Posted by: pgs on June 12, 2007 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

As Winston Smith said, so does LOL-Wittgenstein

Posted by: pgs on June 12, 2007 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

Right. A belief about the color of a table would never lead to action.

In any case, I was talking about the table as an example. I would just like more of an explanation of what people mean when they say that truth changes. If you would like to use one of the important truths to illustrate this point, that would be cool too.

Well, let's look at one of the self-evident Declaration of Independence truths above. All men are created equal. In most historical human societies, this has certainly not been regarded as the truth, or even as plausible. Slavery was a matter of course in many societies, ideas of nobility and higher birth were dominant almost everywhere, and then there's the caste system in India, etc. Our ideas about how we should treat one another and construct our society have changed, and our conception of the truth with them. Same with the "torture is wrong" argument above, etc. I don't think any of those things are built into the structure of the universe or of our brains. They are things that we have found will make life immeasurably better if we choose to posit them as the truth and act on them as such.

As far as truth in terms of harder science or reason/logic goes, I guess the answer is: you can choose to disbelieve what science tells us or to behave irrationally, but you had better be ready to accept all that follows from that, and to give up all of the benefits that believing in science or reason accrue. The external world just is, and human agency makes of it what it will, for better or worse.

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 12, 2007 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK
To be honest though, I've never understood the pragmatic defense of liberalism. Do we all have human rights? Well, is that useful to believe or not? It seems like this is going to depend on who you ask. Given my life right now, yeah, it's useful for me to believe in human rights. If I were dictator for life, not so much.

That's debatable. While, naturally, most dictators don't act with much respect for human rights, one could certainly argue that it is just as valuable (perhaps more valuable) for a dictator to accept that all people have basic human rights than for the average joe to believe that. The argument could go something like this:

The average individual's beliefs about human rights aren't likely to have a whole lot of direct marginal impact on that individual's life, and if that individual lives in a regime that doesn't respect those rights, the direct impacts are likely to be such that not believing, or at least not acting as if they believe, in human rights has positive returns. OTOH, a dictator who believes in human rights will be less likely to engage in the kind of abuses that seem useful in the short-term, but end up snowballing into situations that culminate in mass violence against the regime.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 12, 2007 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

Slavery was a matter of course in many societies, ideas of nobility and higher birth were dominant almost everywhere, and then there's the caste system in India, etc. Our ideas about how we should treat one another and construct our society have changed, and our conception of the truth with them. Same with the "torture is wrong" argument above, etc. I don't think any of those things are built into the structure of the universe or of our brains.

Not exactly a great argument. How about the idea that slavery was ALWAYS wrong, and for the very reasons we hold it wrong today, if sometimes tolerated in the past?

And the "truths" here don't have to be embodied in our brains or the "structure of the universe" generally, but rather into what a just society should look like.

Posted by: frankly0 on June 12, 2007 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

JDunn wrote:

"Slavery was a matter of course in many societies, ideas of nobility and higher birth were dominant almost everywhere, and then there's the caste system in India, etc. Our ideas about how we should treat one another and construct our society have changed, and our conception of the truth with them. Same with the "torture is wrong" argument above, etc. I don't think any of those things are built into the structure of the universe or of our brains. They are things that we have found will make life immeasurably better if we choose to posit them as the truth and act on them as such."

I don't think the lives of slaveholders got much better when they came to believe slavery was wrong.

So how do someone's beliefs turn out to be wrong. Since it sounds like you're saying, "Back when people believed in slavery their beliefs were true. Now we believe in human rights so that's true." Can I be wrong about anything like that?

cmdicely wrote:

"OTOH, a dictator who believes in human rights will be less likely to engage in the kind of abuses that seem useful in the short-term, but end up snowballing into situations that culminate in mass violence against the regime."

I think that sort of mass violence happens against regimes that are into torture less often than we'd like. In any case, that seems to mean that human rights exist, unless you reasonably think you can get away with ignoring them. I'd like Liberalism to punch a little harder than that.

Posted by: DBake on June 12, 2007 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

Since I'm not an philosopher I have no idea how influential Rorty was in philosophy, but, for what's it's worth, I can testify that he was influential in social science, particularly by pointing out the connections between post-structuralist thought and pragmatism. In a nutshell, post-structuralists (or neo-Nietzscheians) demonstrated that uniequivocal truth is not possible to achieve through language - a pretty devastating proposition for analytical philosophy, at least if AP is going to have any consequence for empirical inquiry - but Rorty, among others,showed that pragmatism provides a way of dealing with language where this may just be a curious aspect of our truth-finding ways, and not a critical blow to the enlightenment project.

Ironically, that means that Rorty (and I) can dig analytical philosophy for what they are doing (leaving their strait-jacket assumptions aside), but they can't repay the compliment. Hence the hostility, I presume.

Posted by: Dan Karreman on June 12, 2007 at 5:20 PM | PERMALINK

Not exactly a great argument. How about the idea that slavery was ALWAYS wrong, and for the very reasons we hold it wrong today, if sometimes tolerated in the past?

And the "truths" here don't have to be embodied in our brains or the "structure of the universe" generally, but rather into what a just society should look like.

Then where does that come from, if not from the process of human deliberation and experiment and change? What I mean is that the idea of "what a just society should look like" is not a static thing sitting out there waiting to be discovered, and there's not really an endpoint that I can see where we would achieve a perfectly just society and thus settle the question once and for all. I know it's tempting to want slavery or torture to have always been wrong, and it would certainly make arguing forcefully against them much easier(though I don't think it's all that hard to do so without appealing to absolutes), but I just don't think that's how we actually got to the point of thinking and acting as if they are inherently wrong... and as current events sadly illustrate, it's not a one-way process, either.

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 12, 2007 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think the lives of slaveholders got much better when they came to believe slavery was wrong.

Many of them probably never did, but their truth-conception lost(and it was a battle in every sense of the word) because enough people became convinced strongly enough that it was immoral and inhumane that they were willing to act upon those beliefs and make them real.

So how do someone's beliefs turn out to be wrong. Since it sounds like you're saying, "Back when people believed in slavery their beliefs were true. Now we believe in human rights so that's true." Can I be wrong about anything like that?

Their beliefs and ideas were true for them in their time and place. It doesn't follow that those were good ideas or beliefs from a modern perspective.

Insofar as Rorty and the Pragmatists do have a foundational problem, it's in that they have sort of arbitrarily picked human happiness and potential as the yardstick of what "good" is. I happen to think it's as good a yardstick as you'll find, but I don't have any absolute or irrefutable basis for that belief. If human happiness and potential prove to be unsustainable for our environment in the long run, it may come to be seen as a very foolish or even immoral standard by future generations. But there is no way of knowing, and in the short span of a human lifetime, you must often act on provisional information.

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 12, 2007 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

Any profession which has such vociferous defenders must be in deep shit.

I have never heard a Neurosurgeon defend his field.

Posted by: gregor on June 12, 2007 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

where does that come from

Another thing I never liked about Plato is that he said these 'truths' exist outside of the mind, perhaps in the ether. Slavery was once considered a part of nature, as was torture, then deemed to be wrong and finally become a universal immorality. The ether did not originate the idea of slavery, nor the idea that slavery is wrong. People did that and they can undo it.

Posted by: Brojo on June 12, 2007 at 5:45 PM | PERMALINK

In a nutshell, post-structuralists (or neo-Nietzscheians) demonstrated that uniequivocal truth is not possible to achieve through language

Huh? See, asserting this stuff without argument or even an intelligible interpretation on offer is what makes people mad. It is also clear that, whether or not "unequivocal truth is not possible to achieve through language" is a sentence which many or most social scientists would be willing to assert, it has not been demonstrated by anyone.

Posted by: pgs on June 12, 2007 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

"Insofar as Rorty and the Pragmatists do have a foundational problem, it's in that they have sort of arbitrarily picked human happiness and potential as the yardstick of what "good" is. I happen to think it's as good a yardstick as you'll find, but I don't have any absolute or irrefutable basis for that belief."

Okay, let me try one more time. I agree that we don't have any absolute or irrefutable bases for a lot of our beliefs, maybe for any.

I don't understand on your view though what would count as a refutation of a belief. Let's say someone here in the US tells you that torturing people is a great idea. Could he be wrong? If so, what would make him wrong?

Posted by: DBake on June 12, 2007 at 6:02 PM | PERMALINK

He'd be wrong in tons of ways: Torture doesn't have any useful purpose, for one. It causes unnecessary pain and suffering. It dehumanizes and damages both the tortured and the torturer. It abrogates ideas of human rights and dignity that have been very good for us in terms of happiness and freedom, and which we thus should be very careful about endangering. It reduces our ability to lead in the larger world, and to make good-faith arguments for our way of life to others. It is(or was) emotionally repugnant and barbaric to our current sensibilities. And on and on.

And, if you believe in all of the practical reasons for torture being wrong, then holding and promoting the moral idea that it is taboo and should never be done is very useful, because it prevents the debate and the war of ideas on that front from opening back up. I happen to think that the minute the taboo came back into question was when everything else that has happened since became almost a foregone conclusion.

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 12, 2007 at 6:21 PM | PERMALINK
I think that sort of mass violence happens against regimes that are into torture less often than we'd like.

Less often than we'd like, sure.

More often than the torturers would like, too.

But I'm not endorsing the argument, merely sketching out the kind of argument that could be made.

In any case, that seems to mean that human rights exist, unless you reasonably think you can get away with ignoring them.

Well, no. It actually does not say anything about human rights existing at all, because it treats the whole question of the "existence" of human rights as entirely beside the point, and largely mumbo-jumbo. Rather, it argues that it is good to act as if certain human rights existed, because pragmatically humans are incurably prone to self-delusion as to the belief that taking certain actions that violate them will be ultimately justified in cost:benefit terms when they won't.

Yes, its a self-serving and apparently cynical reason for acting in a way many of us would prefer that people would act instead out of selflessness and genuine concern for their fellow man. Many people find that aesthetically displeasing. But that the world would be more aesthetically pleasing if there was a "better" argument for a behavior is not a particularly strong argument that a well-supported "better" argument actually exists.

I'd like Liberalism to punch a little harder than that.

Well, sure. I'd like it to be eminently clear to every rational being that God was personally directing everyone to agree with my personal moral preferences, and that He was absolutely and unquestionably right to do so. What we'd like the world to be like and what the world is like are often different.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 12, 2007 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

What I mean is that the idea of "what a just society should look like" is not a static thing sitting out there waiting to be discovered, and there's not really an endpoint that I can see where we would achieve a perfectly just society and thus settle the question once and for all.

I don't know whether we will ever achieve a perfectly just society either. But actual achievement of an ideal is in any case very different from the existence of an ideal. (Nor for that matter do I believe that there necessarily is a unique ideally just society; maybe there are variety of them. But I would certainly argue that any society in which slavery existed would NOT be among the ideal ones.) Christ, even Plato, back in his time, had a problem with slavery, right? Why imagine that back to the very earliest times there might not have been an inkling that slavery was just wrong, even though it was tolerated or encouraged?

I don't even see what would ground your whole point of view. I mean, we don't doubt but that our ideas about scientific matters were wrong or confused before, say, Galileo. Why it would be impossible or even implausible that we might be dreadfully wrong about matters of justice escapes me.

And the worst thing about your point of view is that I don't know what is beyond the pale for you in terms of what is OK because society says its OK. What, if anything, is too barbaric for you to declare that it might have been a just practice in the society of the day? Really, you already lost me at slavery.

Posted by: frankly0 on June 12, 2007 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

His genuine sin was incoherent and self-refuting
views. A crude and too short example: you say there is no truth? Do you claim that's true? If you do, you're hoist on your own petard. If you don't, who cares? Sloppy and provocative argument got him the public ear, but earned the disdain of philosophers whose very craft is argument.

Of course this sin has nothing to do with Rorty:

For pragmatists, "truth" is just the name of a property which all true statements share. It is what is common to "Bacon did not write Shakespeare," "It rained yesterday," "E equals mc^2," "Love is better than hate," "2 plus 2 is 4," and "There are nondenumerable infinities." Pragmatists doubt that there is much to be said about this common feature. [...]


It might, of course, have turned out otherwise. People have,
oddly enough, found something interesting to say about the essence of
Force and the definition of "number." They might have found something
interesting to say about the essence of Truth. But in fact they
haven't. [...]

When they suggest that we not
ask questions about the nature of Truth and Goodness, they do not
invoke a theory about the nature of reality or knowledge or man which
says that "there is no such thing" as Truth or Goodness. Nor do they
have a "relativist" or "subjectivist" theory of Truth or
Goodness. They would simply like to change the subject.


-- Introduction, Consequences of Pragmatism

At least criticize the man for what he said.

Posted by: Brian M on June 12, 2007 at 7:13 PM | PERMALINK

Short Rorty for those who have not read him: "Take care of freedom, and truth will take care of itself." Rorty prescription is the antidote to our current Bush-world. Whether you believe truth is found or constructed, both are doomed if we lose our freedom. BTW, a book by the same name has a set of very accessible interviews with Rorty.

Posted by: none on June 12, 2007 at 7:44 PM | PERMALINK
I don't know whether we will ever achieve a perfectly just society either. But actual achievement of an ideal is in any case very different from the existence of an ideal.

Except as subjective concepts in individual minds, it makes very little sense (Plato's elaborate constructs notwithstanding) to talk about ideals "existing" at all.


Christ, even Plato, back in his time, had a problem with slavery, right?

"Certain people have had problems with this practice throughout history" does not prove that it is objectively wrong (yes, I agree, I'd aesthetically prefer it be demonstrable that slavery is and has been always and everywhere objectively wrong, but I don't think that's the case without extrarational appeals, whether to religion or otherwise). And as convenient as that argument might seem, despite its logical flaw, when talking about slavery, it has inconvenient applications in lots of other areas.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 12, 2007 at 7:51 PM | PERMALINK

Brian M,

Well, Rorty said a lot of things... That's one type of thing he said (and he actually said that one fairly often). On the other hand, he also said a lot of things that DO seem to be fairly straight-forwardly relativistic. E.g. that "truth is what your contemporaries will let you get away with." In several places (including at the end of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature), he says things that seem to entail that he thinks that to be justified is simply to believe or speak in accordance with prevailing practices.

And when he DOES suggest that we simply ignore questions about what reason and justification are (or how norms are grounded), he doesn't give any very good reasons for it.

"Let's just ignore philosophical puzzles and vote democratic" simply isn't going to cut the mustard for anyone who's at all intellectually alive and curious about the universe.

One thing that might be worth noting is that Rorty urged us all to be ethnocentric, acquiescing in the prevailing practices of our own culture. There's a lot that can be said about that but let me just say this: it should send any good liberal to red alert.

Posted by: Winston Smith on June 12, 2007 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK
I don't even see what would ground your whole point of view. I mean, we don't doubt but that our ideas about scientific matters were wrong or confused before, say, Galileo. Why it would be impossible or even implausible that we might be dreadfully wrong about matters of justice escapes me.

Scientific matters are, by definition, matters that are refer to the external physical universe and are subject to empirical testing. While it may be impossible to be certainly right about them, it is quite possible to be certainly and demonstrably wrong about them.

"Justice" is not such a matter. While it might be operationalized in various objective ways to make it appear to be testable, that merely moves the subjectivity and irreducible controversy to the operationalization.

That's certainly why its, at the very least, at lot easier to argue that we were clearly wrong about scientific matters in the past (since that wrongness is empirically demonstrable) than to argue that we were wrong about justice or other moral matters (where even the meaning of "right" or "wrong", or even whether applying such concepts is meaningful, is far from clear and uncontroversial.)

Posted by: cmdicely on June 12, 2007 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

JDunn:

You've given a bunch of reasons why a person who thought torture was great would be wrong. Why aren't those also reasons why people who thought slavery was fair were wrong?

cmdicely wrote:

"Yes, its a self-serving and apparently cynical reason for acting in a way many of us would prefer that people would act instead out of selflessness and genuine concern for their fellow man. Many people find that aesthetically displeasing. But that the world would be more aesthetically pleasing if there was a "better" argument for a behavior is not a particularly strong argument that a well-supported "better" argument actually exists."

My claim was that this doesn't really amount to liberalism. 'Pretend that other people have rights as long as its in your interests' is not a liberal position.

Look, you might think mutual self-interest provides the basis of government (think Hobbes or Locke). But then that tells you what the proper functions, powers, and limits on government power are. That's different from saying: 'Hey, it would be useful for us to think this is the proper power of government, wouldn't it.'

I mean, 'Just believe that government has the powers it would be most useful for you to believe that it has' does not look like it will get you a defense of liberalism, and I wanted to know how you get it out of that sort of claim.

This isn't a question about what motivates people to respect justice. Self-interest probably plays a role. It's a question about what makes an institution just. So far you've told me when we should pretend that an institution is just. Moreover, when I should pretend that seems dependent on my power and interests. If I'm a rich tyrant who likes torturing people a lot, why should I play pretend with you guys?

""I'd like Liberalism to punch a little harder than that."
"Well, sure. I'd like it to be eminently clear to every rational being that God was personally directing everyone to agree with my personal moral preferences, and that He was absolutely and unquestionably right to do so. What we'd like the world to be like and what the world is like are often different."

Okay, how about this, I don't understand how this is a political theory. It just seems to be saying: "Come on, if you fuck with people, they'll kick your ass eventually. And you know, if you reason through every situation, you're going to fuck with somebody eventually. Pretend that there are rights. Then you'll be safe."

Posted by: DBake on June 12, 2007 at 8:00 PM | PERMALINK

"Rorty urged us all to be ethnocentric"

BS. Rorty essentially said it is difficult to be anything BUT ethnocentric. Rorty exalts the "liberal ironist" as someone who recognizes his/her own (or societies)ethnocentricity and can question it. Hardly a call "to be ethnocentric."

As for the torture debate--if it is a self-evident truth that torture is wrong, then why is it practiced by the US government--our government?! Evil? Torture is wrong because we say it is wrong and if WE (society) fail to say that more(and be willing to take action) it will continue. Rorty had this figured out--too many academic don't.

Posted by: none on June 12, 2007 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

And the worst thing about your point of view is that I don't know what is beyond the pale for you in terms of what is OK because society says its OK. What, if anything, is too barbaric for you to declare that it might have been a just practice in the society of the day? Really, you already lost me at slavery.

To me, this is not about what I (or anyone) personally would tolerate. I've come to my own conclusions on issues, and all I can do is fight for what I believe to be right at any given time. I guess what I'm trying to convey is the true alienness to us of human societies of even the fairly recent past, and the massive changeability of the consensus on what is true or right, and thus some amount of humility when it comes to our own pretensions to knowledge of that. I mean, read the Old Testament. That was a code of justice, that was their conception of an ideally just society, that was the truth for them. And to us much of it is utterly barbaric, though some of it is still very relevant as well. How are we to know that our own conceptions of justice aren't equally barbaric in some ways? Actually we do know, or can guess in some cases. I'm just saying that truth, especially in human matters, is a human construct and it's to some degree provisional. Science is a human construct and is provisional too. We eventually discard hypotheses and beliefs that are untenable for whatever often very complicated reasons(slavery didn't just disappear because it was immoral, it also became economically obsolete in most of the world.) If individuals come to moral or ethical conclusions that differ from those of their society or times, their job is to work toward making what they view to be harmful conceptions of truth or justice or whatever untenable.

I'm not saying that anyone consciously thinks or calculates this way. It's an attempt to explain a process that is much messier in real life. James and the Pragmatists tried to confront that messiness head on and tease out how individual and social conceptions of truth actually are formed in practice, as opposed to how this ought to happen or would happen in an ideal world. I don't deny that there is danger in a worldview like this... if human society decides to be barbaric or irrational, well, we're going to be barbaric and irrational, and if we stay that way long enough, we'll probably view our barbarism and irrationality as justice and wisdom. But there is also hope, because it's all in play and we can choose and fight and make mistakes, and re-choose, and fight, and ultimately, evolve.

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 12, 2007 at 8:05 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick writes: Ideas have consequences, and so does the weak-tea thesis that ideas themselves are inconsequential. Without a strong commitment to truth, empiricism, and foundationalism in ideas, all you have left is tribalism on right, and triangulation on the left.

Here's another case where it helps to criticize what the man actually wrote rather than what you think he shouldn't have said:

I do not, however, want to argue that philosophy is socially useless. Had there been no Plato, the Christians would have had a harder time selling the idea that all God really wanted from us was fraternal love. Had there been no Kant, the nineteenth century would have iad a harder time reconciling Christian ethics with Darwin's story about the descent of man. Had there been no Darwin, it would have 3een harder for Whitman and Dewey to detach the Americans from their belief that they were God's chosen people, to get them to start standing on their own feet. Had there been no Dewey and no Sidney Hook, American intellectual leftists of the 1930S would have been as buffaloed by the Marxists as were their counterparts in France and in Latin America. Ideas do, indeed, have consequences.

But the fact that ideas have consequences does not mean that we philosophers, we specialists in ideas, are in a key position. We are not here to provide principles or foundations or deep theoretical diagnoses, or a synoptic vision. When I am asked (as, alas, I often am) what I take contemporary philosophy's 'mission' or 'task' to be, I get tonguetied. The best I can do is to stammer that we philosophy professors are people who have a certain familiarity with a certain intellectual tradition, as chemists have a certain familiarity with what happens when you mix various substances together. We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to [20] separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments. By doing so, we may be able to help you hold your time in thought. But we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is 'rational and objective' rather than 'just' a result of how you were brought up.

— Richard Rorty, Trotsky And The Wild Orchids

Posted by: s9 on June 12, 2007 at 8:08 PM | PERMALINK

"If a philosopher formalized his ideas, he'd be a mathematician. If he tested them, he'd be a scientist."

Formal logic BEGINS in philosophy. Most logic is taught and expanded by philosophers. Most of the founding fathers of all scientific persuasions (chemistry, biology, physics...) were philosophers of the first order. Geez, people. Ignorance surely is bliss, I guess.

Posted by: Stacy on June 12, 2007 at 9:04 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, none, you're Rorty is rusty.

He DOES, in fact, urge us to be ethnocentric. He may, somewhere or other, claim that it's hard not to be ethnocentric, but more or less everybody thinks THAT'S true.

You can find the relevant claim in, e.g., an often-anthologized paper called something like "Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism."

Posted by: Winston Smith on June 12, 2007 at 10:47 PM | PERMALINK

Winston:

I think my original assertion stands. The paper you refer to is in "Consequences of Pragmatism", see pages 172-175 specifically. In fact, Rorty is making the point that Habermas goes transcendental--so not everyone "thinks THAT'S true."

Moreover, see page 198 of Rorty's book "Contingency, irony, and solidarity." Here Rorty states that "we" have to start from where we are, but then says we cannot simply stay there. We have to enlarge the we.

My reactyion to your first post was to clear up what some people may read as Rorty is enthnocentric in the sense of thinking "we are the best"--absolutely. He believes no such thing. He does believe, absent any other evidence, that we are the best, but that we should seek out other people/culture to test our belief and be open to changing it. I.e., this is not Bush's version of ethnocentrism.

Like any good "liberal ironist--to use Rorty's term--I readily admit I could be misunderstanding Rorty on this point. BUT, I have studied most of his works. Unfortunately this forum is poor for an in-depth debate...

Posted by: none on June 13, 2007 at 12:23 AM | PERMALINK

Rereading a Hilary Putnam critique of Rorty, I find this, which, though I like Rorty, I find persuasive:

The very notion of solidarity requires commonsense realism about the objective existence of the people one is in "solidarity" with.

That is, if Rorty says it is meaningless to talk of "things in themselves" as separate from our ideas about them, and that beliefs simply evolve as a process of ever-greater solidarity between larger and larger numbers of people, this implies that Rorty does in fact believe in the objective existence of other people, as separate from his own ideas about them. Shifting the criterion of truth from agreement with a metaphysical objective reality to agreement with others simply shifts the thing you thing you metaphysically believe is objectively real from things to people.

On second thought, though, I'm not sure I agree with that critique. Hm.

Posted by: mattsteinglass on June 13, 2007 at 1:30 AM | PERMALINK

That is, if Rorty says it is meaningless to talk of "things in themselves" as separate from our ideas about them, and that beliefs simply evolve as a process of ever-greater solidarity between larger and larger numbers of people, this implies that Rorty does in fact believe in the objective existence of other people, as separate from his own ideas about them.

He doesn't just say that, he rejects the whole subject-object duality to begin with. He's not a radical idealist... he rejects the whole idealism/realism debate. He thinks this question is irrelevant to what he wants to do, and wants to forget about it and get down to the business of building solidarity already. This is probably why lots of academic philosophers dislike him, insofar as they do. He just sort of blithely dispenses with a lot of the questions they really care about.

... when our Platonist or Kantian opponents are tired of calling us 'relativists' they call us 'subjectivists' or 'social constructionists'. In their picture of the situation, we are claiming to have discovered that something which is supposed to come from outside us really comes from inside us. They think of us as saying that what was previously thought to be objective has turned out to be merely subjective.

But we anti-Platonists must not accept that way of formulating the issue. For if we do, we shall be in serious trouble. If we take our distinction between making and finding at face value, our opponents will be able to ask us an awkward question, viz., Have we discovered the surpising fact that what was thought to be objective was actually subjective, or have we invented it? If we claim to have discovered it, if we say that it is an objective fact that truth is subjective, we are in danger of contradicting ourselves. If we say that we invented it, we seen to be being merely whimsical. Why should anybody take our invention seriously? If truths are merely convenient fictions, then what about the truth of the claim that that is what they are? Is that too a convenient fiction? Convenient for whom?

I think it is important that we who are accused of relativism stop using the distinctions between finding and making, discovery and invention, objective and subjective. We should not let ourselves be described as subjectivists, and perhaps calling ourselves 'social constructionists' is too misleading. For we cannot formulate our point in terms of a distinction between what is outside us and what is inside us. We must repudiate the vocabulary our opponents use, and not let them impose it upon us. - From "Relativism: Finding and Making"

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 13, 2007 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

It may be this argument has already been made -- I'm too lazy to read all these comments -- but misreading philosophers' writings for one's own purposes is hardly comparable to mangling fiscal theory. If philosophical ideas have merit, they have it because of their own nature; it has nothing to do with the authority of the people who came up with them. If Rorty claimed that Heidegger said something he didn't exactly say in order to make a point, it doesn't matter; what matters is the independent worthiness of what he said that Heidegger said.

Posted by: Gian dei Brughi on June 13, 2007 at 3:53 AM | PERMALINK

DBake,

I think what cmdicely was suggesting to you is that matters of morality--right and wrong--are not matters of fact but rather opinion.

"Slavery is wrong," is a statement of opinion, not fact. As long as we're clear about the nature of our argument there's no problem with arguing forcefully. But confusion is the result when we mistake our desires for facts.

Posted by: obscure on June 13, 2007 at 5:49 AM | PERMALINK

none,
Well, "Consequences of Pragmatism" is a different paper than "Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism." As I said, he may say what you say in CoP, but he makes the claim I reference about ethnocentrism in PRI.

obscure,
Well, many of us think that slavery is REALLY wrong--that it's not a mere matter of opinion. Rorty, on the other hand, seemed to to hold a position that entailed that slavery wasn't really wrong. Though he said things very close to "it's really wrong," it wasn't clear how his own position could countenance such claims.

Posted by: Winston Smith on June 13, 2007 at 7:59 AM | PERMALINK
I think what cmdicely was suggesting to you is that matters of morality--right and wrong--are not matters of fact but rather opinion.

I don't like to say "opinion", because that suggests that there is certainly no single right answer to any given moral questions. I don't want to claim that there is not, or even that if there is, at least those right answers are not knowable. All I want to claim is that, even if there are "right" answers, and even if theymay be in some sense knowable, wrong answers are not demonstrably wrong such that they can be shown wrong by reference to external material facts and events the way that wrong answers to scientific questions can be.

This makes it much easier to establish fairly unequivocally that certain answers to scientific questions are wrong than it can ever be to establish unequivocally that proposed answers to moral questions are wrong.

Further, one consequence of this and the fact that it is very hard to change the a priori constructs by which people judge moral rightness and wrongness is that, if one wants to acheive the ends directed by one's own morality, it becomes important to be able to argue for the consequences of one's moral beliefs in terms of alternate bases.

Additionally, moral questions often have further difficulty in that their subject matter is often tied up with equivocation and contextual assumptions that go unstated; definitions are fluid, boundaries rather imprecise. Quite often a philosophical argument that "X is right" or "X is wrong" is based on, aside from a series of moral precepts, a fairly rigorous, specific definition of "X" that is quite useful for the argument, but maps only very approximately to the use of the term "X" outside of the argument to refer to actions, institutions, or events in the real world. And the moral precepts involved are often shaped by social context and, even if broadly acceptable within that social milieu, less certain outside of it.

Now, these problesm with trying to establish universal moral answers with any kind of clarity and authority do not, IMO, make philosophy that aims to do that misguided and unimportant—quite the contrary, I think that it is of great importance.

OTOH, it seems to me there will always be a need for a pragmatic, "applied philosophy" that operates on a different plane, drawing from more fundamental philosophy to provide pragmatic solutions applicable to the current context, and to provide the frameworks for justifying those solutions to real world, diverse audiences on a timeframe shorter than would be necessary to convert everyone to the same complete set of fundamental moral principles, since trying to do that is not going to let anything get done.


Posted by: cmdicely on June 13, 2007 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

"... it will one day stop being a table ..."

That's what I meant. Tho the time frame is long on it stopping being a table, the time frame is shorter on other things stopping being what they "are." Permanence is an illusion, albeit a very convenient one for human thought.

Posted by: Cal Gal on June 13, 2007 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK
Pragmatists do have a foundational problem... J. Dunn on June 12, 2007 at 5:39 PM

In order to be a pragmatist, you need to determine goals. In order to have a pragmatic society, that society needs agreed upon goals.

The question of what those goals are must be determined before any means of attaining them can be discussed and designed.

Some goals seem to be innate: the future should be no worse than the past; humans should be able to lives their lives in the most fulling way they can; unfair acts should not be successful; increased knowledge is beneficial, some behavior is unacceptable, to suggest a few.

Other goals can be completely different, selfish and authoritarian.

Agreeing on goals is a political activity undertaken by a society. These become truths, self-evident or not, but they are the value system underlying the society.

Before those values are decided, options are offered, discussed, fought over, and eventually some are adopted.

It is not to be expected that those values are permanent, final or complete. Life is process.

Posted by: Mike on June 13, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

obscure:

I'm not confused, I disagree. I don't think 'slavery is wrong' is a matter of opinion if that means there's no point wondering whether it's true or not. I think slavery is either wrong, or it isn't.

My main point though, was that I don't understand how you would get liberal political views out of pragmatism. I still don't. Political liberalism says: here are the powers of the state, here are the rights of the citizens. I take it these are meant to be true claims about how a just state works.

I wanted to know how you maintained the idea of rights and legitimate powers once you made it all depend on "what's useful to believe". I'm still confused. The most useful thing for me to believe about this stuff is probably nothing. Other than that, whatever my neighbors, boss, great leader, etc, believe. I don't see how believing in equal rights helps me accomplish other goals.

cmdicely:

I agree. It's probably really hard to find out what's right and what's wrong.

What does that have to do with a pragmatic justification for liberalism?

Posted by: DBake on June 13, 2007 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK
agree. It's probably really hard to find out what's right and what's wrong.

What does that have to do with a pragmatic justification for liberalism?

Inasmuch as your summary accurately portrays a point I made, it was a point made in relation to the this statement by frankly0:

I mean, we don't doubt but that our ideas about scientific matters were wrong or confused before, say, Galileo. Why it would be impossible or even implausible that we might be dreadfully wrong about matters of justice escapes me.

Not about "a pragmatic justification for liberalism".

OTOH, it isn't an accurate summary of what I've written in this thread that does relate more generally to pragmatic justification for liberal policy preferences.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 13, 2007 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK
I don't think 'slavery is wrong' is a matter of opinion if that means there's no point wondering whether it's true or not.

It seems as if you are here making an implicit argument to the consequences of belief ("We should not believe that whether slave is wrong is a matter of opinion, because if we did there would be no point determining the answer to that question.")

Posted by: cmdicely on June 13, 2007 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely:

I apologize that I misunderstood the point you were making. Given that you weren't responding to frankly0, but to none, who was responding to me, I assumed your post was part of our debate.

So, what is the pragmatic defense of liberalism? Is it really just a guess that I'll be better off if I believe Liberal principles? This has to be false in plenty of cases.

BTW, when I wrote:

"I don't think 'slavery is wrong' is a matter of opinion if that means there's no point wondering whether it's true or not."

I meant that I think 'slavery is wrong' is a true or a false sentence. I wasn't talking about pragmatic consequences of debate. When I said there was a point to wondering whether 'slavery is wrong' is true, I meant to contrast it with sentences that couldn't be true or false. I wasn't thinking about pragmatic byproducts that thinking about such a thing could have.

I have no idea what the pragmatic consequences of a debate on slavery could possibly be, and I don't think anyone else does either. You would have to be a supergenius sociologist to have even an inkling of the consequences.

Posted by: DBake on June 13, 2007 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

My main point though, was that I don't understand how you would get liberal political views out of pragmatism. I still don't. Political liberalism says: here are the powers of the state, here are the rights of the citizens. I take it these are meant to be true claims about how a just state works.

I don't think you necessarily do. Like I said, foundationally pragmatists don't have much to say about the root of liberalism or anything else, because they don't think anything has a "root" outside of what humans give it. Pragmatism doesn't tell you what your goals should be (in Rorty's case, they're roughly human happiness and equality) it's interested in what the best tools are to achieve those goals. There is no why on liberalism for Rorty other than that he thinks it is the best path to reaching those meta goals of human happiness and equality. And his meta goals are just sort of assumed, as far as I can tell. This is sort of a problem. They probably assume too much goodness and good faith, and are too optimistic, for one. In extremis, I can't get totally onboard with some of James' ideas in terms of "all human desires a priori deserve to be satisfied, unless they conflict with those of other humans" or Dewey's "the choice between good and evil is really between a good and a lesser good." They worked ok in the context of the expansive, isolationist, opportunity-rich America in which those two were living and working, but they don't hold up as well in light of WWII or our current straining of our natural environment.

I wanted to know how you maintained the idea of rights and legitimate powers once you made it all depend on "what's useful to believe". I'm still confused.

Why is it hard to believe that rights are an extremely useful human construct? And since they are so extremely useful, any liberal pragmatist would be silly not to defend them and exercise them.

I'll admit that Rorty's / Pragmatists' view of truth makes it hard to argue forcefully for your positions, insofar as much of the rest of the world expects strong arguments to appeal to some sort of absolute. But it makes sense to me epistemologically and experientially, and so I'm willing to accept most of the handicaps it imposes most of the time, though I'm sure out of habit or expediency I invoke absolutes once in awhile too. And that's even ok, as long as abolutes are understood as cultural touchstones or markers, ways of reminding ourselves of ideas and practices that have served us very well, and of strongly discouraging their discontinuation.

Posted by: J. Dunn on June 13, 2007 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK
So, what is the pragmatic defense of liberalism? Is it really just a guess that I'll be better off if I believe Liberal principles?

Well, by definition, a pragmatic defense of liberal principles is an argument either thaet one will be better off if one believes in liberal principles or that one will be better off if one implements them.

So, you're close, though a defense is an argument not a guess.


This has to be false in plenty of cases.

See, this is a guess, rather than an argument. At any rate, even if it was certainly false in plenty of cases, unless you could be certain in advance of which cases it was false in, that wouldn't necessarily be a counterargument. A more focussed example of this exists in an argument against torture, where there is an argument that there are no concrete, identifiable-in-advance set of circumstances in which torture is likely to outperform alternative and mutually exclusive means of securing the same information. That is not to say that there aren't some cases where torture wouldn't work better, but that torture is never a rational choice at the time it is chosen because it can never be justifiably expected to work better.

I meant that I think 'slavery is wrong' is a true or a false sentence.

Ah, okay, you seemed to be saying that you didn't want to accept the consequences of the alternative. Which is somewhat different.

Still, you've present no reason for anyone else to accept your belief here, just a statement of your apparently axiomatic belief. There is a fairly clear and explorable interpretation (even if defining it with philosophical rigor may be difficult) of what "right" and "wrong" mean when the subject is a question of continuing or specific future physical fact. It is less clear what it means to say that a moral claim is "right" or "wrong" in some kind of non-subjective sense. Certainly, I think that most people have some intuitive sense that there is some kind of meaning to at least some absolute claims of morality that makes making such statements not inherently gibberish, but it isn't clear what the meaning is, much less how one would go about evaluating the "right"- or "wrong"-ness of particular claims.

Indeed, much of philosophy seems to work toward getting people to buy off on one or another small sets of a priori principals that making answering such questions possible, though what would allow us to choose between competing sets of such a priori principals aside from the aesthetic appeal of the consequences is less clear.

When I said there was a point to wondering whether 'slavery is wrong' is true, I meant to contrast it with sentences that couldn't be true or false.

Its not clear to me on what basis you ground the belief that that this is a statement which is either universally true or universally false.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 13, 2007 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely:

I was expressing a belief of mine, in order to clear up a misunderstanding I had thought that we had. I wasn't offering it as an argument; I didn't expect the statement to convince anyone else. none had suggested that I was confusing opinions with facts. I can't be entirely sure what he meant, but I took him to mean that 'Slavery is wrong' isn't the sort of thing that could be a fact. My response was intended to show that I wasn't confused, I had thought about the distinction and I disagreed with him.

I have thought quite a bit about this sort of problem, and have bounced back and forth in my beliefs a few times. Since you want some reasons why I believe that moral statements are truth evaluable, I'll give the main one.

It's called the Frege-Geach problem. You see, moral statements function like truth evaluable sentences, and not like other types. '"Slavery is wrong" is true,' at least looks like an intelligible sentence, whereas '"Please pass the salt" is true,' is gibberish. Moral statements can figure in syllogisms as well, whereas sentences that aren't truth evaluable don't fit in syllogisms.

Now, this is compatible with moral statements all being false, or with moral statements being true relative to a frame of reference-- for example, a culture or a goal. I don't know what the case is. But I never claimed to. I was only saying that I understood the difference between statements intending to express facts, and statements that don't present themselves as describing some fact, and I thought that moral statements were the former.

As for the argument you finally gave showing that a pragmatic defense of liberalism was possible, it was quite impressive and stirring.

Cheers.

Posted by: DBake on June 14, 2007 at 2:58 AM | PERMALINK

Well, many of us think that slavery is REALLY wrong--that it's not a mere matter of opinion.

So what is the meaning of the word "wrong" as you have used it? I would say the most intelligible meaning your usage has is "undesirable."

Well, I agree that slavery is undesirable. But we are not talking about facts here, in the normal sense of the word "facts." We are talking about human preferences, or desires. I think the reason it feels so easy and natural to allow "slavery is wrong" to roll off the tongue has much to do with our cultural consensus and little to do with objective, verifiable facts.

To DBake I would say: I think most of what we treasure as liberalism flows from an idea such as "All men are created equal." This is an expression of an intuitive "truth" or "feeling" that cannot be proved but can certainly be felt. The notion of "rights" flows from equality. And the notion of democracy or popular sovereignty flows from rights.

The illiberal tendencies we are struggling against, gov't secrecy for example, are expressions of a belief that some or most citizens are unfit to participate in power, and indeed unfit to participate even in debate! The force of our response is a function of opinion, not fact. If enough people can be motivated to act on the belief that all citizens have a right to participate in both debate and power then the opposing view will yield.

But the question "what kind of society do we want to live in" is a question of desire (opinion) not fact.

Posted by: obscure on June 14, 2007 at 8:34 AM | PERMALINK

I don't like to say "opinion", because that suggests that there is certainly no single right answer to any given moral questions.

To cmdicely, whose intellect I greatly admire, may I offer an anecdote from Walpola Rahula's, 'What the Buddha Taught'?

The Buddha once visited a small town... The inhabitants of this town were known by the common name Kalama. When they heard that the Buddha was in their town they paid him a visit, and told him:

'Sir, there are some recluses and brahmans who visit our town. They explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others doctrines. Then come other recluses and brahmans and they too, in their turn, explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others doctrines. But for us, Sir, we have always doubt and perplexity as to who among these venerable recluses and brahmans spoke the truth and who spoke falsehood.'

Then the Buddha gave them this advice, unique in the history of religions:

'Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: "this is our teacher." But, O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome, and wrong and bad, then give them up... And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.'

Posted by: obscure on June 14, 2007 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: Bad Credit Loans on June 1, 2008 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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