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5 July: Richard Rorty and his Philosophy of Social Hope

Barry Rafe


Richard Rorty offers a philosophy of social hope that is both empowering and accessible.


Barry explains key aspects of Rorty's pragmatic philosophy and illustrate, through some contemporary moral debates, how we, as individuals, can identify with very different views of the 'good' and drive to a better world for our great grandchildren. 

I have been studying Philosophy full time for almost three and a half years now. I can remember the excitement amongst my friends at the time because at least one of us who could take time away from work was going to be able to find the secrets of life. After my first month of study we all got together to discuss what secrets I had discovered. The reality was I had not, in fact after the first year I was still looking for some sort of satisfactory answers. The frustration is that there is a general expectation amongst people that philosophy opens up a secret door to foundational secrets about the world and more particularly about us humans.

After this time, I know that I will not find secrets in the form that most people expect but I think I now understand why. Now this is just me speaking because everyone has his or her own views about the world and this is just mine, but the breakthrough for me happened only this year. I now know what I think and this has partly been inspired by the philosophy of Richard Rorty. The objective of my discussion tonight is to talk about Rorty and his philosophy. I would point out the he is a controversial philosopher because he has argued against the traditional view of philosophy, the one that my friends had.

I will firstly discuss what I have called the traditional view of philosophy and then I will explain why Rorty thinks this is wrong. The attraction with Rorty is that it takes the pressure off all of us to find a Truth; instead, it provides a framework to think about philosophy as having a real force in the world.

So to history. Plato and his teacher, Socrates had a view that there was a Truth to the world. In particular, there was a foundation to Truth and an ultimate answer to the question of 'how ought one to live'. In effect, there was a way of escaping from history to a Truth that was independent of history and perspective. Plato presumed that, for example, logic and mathematics was the model because there were strict rules of reason that somehow could be used to provide some sort of privileged access to the Truth.

We hence started on a philosophical journey to discover the foundations. As Rorty says we never have, Plato had all the right questions but we were set off on the wrong path. We found complex mathematics and we have science that is explaining some key facts about an absolute conception of the world but there was little insight into humans and how we should live.
Rorty is considered a neo pragmatist. Pragmatism is a field of philosophy that emerged out of the US at about the time the implications of Darwin's discoveries started to sink in. The pragmatists Charles Sanders Pierce and William James, brother of Henry James, developed an insight into what makes things true. The observation was that the only insights we had into what was true was our senses and that we could only consider something as a candidate for truth if we could develop sentences that accurately reflected those experiences as they appeared to us. Pragmatists were therefore concerned about developing a method to assess truths that had practical consequences. Pragmatists turned away from generalisations and 'empty' metaphysical discussions.

Building on the work of the early pragmatists Rorty and others recognised that the issue wasn't so much experience but language. The linguistic turn. The pragmatic claim is that the concept of an ‘absolute’, i.e. a correspondence theory definition of truth, is an illusion created by the way we use our language. Discussions about truth are fundamentally linked to how we use the grammar and vocabulary of language. Sentences are therefore connected with other sentences rather than with the world. Whilst Rorty is a rationalist and is a supporter of empirical justification he does not believe that logic, science or mathematics contain any deep philosophical insights into the human condition. In particular, he rejects scientism i.e. the view that everything, including the human condition, is ultimately explainable by science. He considers scientism as too limiting because it falsely assumes a foundation for knowledge. He claims that the foundations assumed by science are unfounded and are constantly revisable.

Contrary to many classical philosophers, Rorty is a sentimentalist and considers that emotion facilitates decisions on what are proper moral acts i.e. what ought we to do. He claims that people are not moved by rational argument but by stories of other humans. Whilst Plato distrusted the sophists because they aimed to persuade people to a way of thinking independent of the 'Truth', Rorty would argue that there is no 'Truth' and that people will tend to act based on their emotions and it is actually rhetorical argument that is more influential than rational argument. He claims that there is nothing beneath "socialisation or prior to history which is definatory of the human".  He acknowledges that some of the major developments in culture, both good and bad, have been through the actions of charismatic leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, rather than rational thinkers. In effect, people are often motivated into action for emotional rather than rational reasons. Whilst people may be motivated into action for emotional reasons they are still accountable to their fellow humans for their actions. Rorty does support argument but needs to extend argument beyond the rational since his project is to extend philosophical argument to make it more attractive to thinking people everywhere.
As for Truth, well there is no foundational truth about how we should live. Our mind is not the mirror of nature. The way we perceive the world is not necessarily, how the world is. Language does not give us any privileged insight to the world; it is simply a tool that we have evolved to help us survive.

Therefore, what is Truth; well it is basically, what works for us. If we want to believe in a God because it helps us manage our uncertainties then that is Truth for the individual but it needs to cohere with our other beliefs.  An important consequence of his pragmatism is therefore recognising that whole vocabularies are contingent and cannot describe the world completely. In effect, there is no underlying natural vocabulary, only those vocabularies built by human communities. "Languages are made not found". For Rorty, a person's 'final vocabulary' are those sets of words "which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives". Vocabularies determine who 'we' are and therefore determine who 'they' are. For Rorty, a person's vocabulary sits at the core of their interpretation of the world and others in it. A person's vocabulary is their 'tool' to understand the world. This tool provides a foundation for an individual’s world but is constantly revisable in the context of their human community. 

Related to actual experiences and Rorty's starting point was therefore to recognise that science gave us no insight into the human condition. Rorty claimed that there was no self and that we cannot consider questions about the human condition outside of our history. There is no human nature other than an historic one. In fact when thinking about humans we need only think of creatures adapting to their world.  We can effectively take humans as a "centerless web of historically conditioned beliefs and desires". In effect, we have a cultural belief system, a free conscience and the motivation to survive in a world. People's beliefs are not so much driven by our personal experiences but by the beliefs of the communities that we identify with.
So let us look at morality and justice. Are there moral facts? Are there moral experts? Many would argue that there are moral facts, for example they are in a holy text, they are written in the stars, they are programmed into our DNA, or they can be derived using logic. Rorty would argue that they emerge from our cultures and the empathy we have for each other. We identify with our families and friends and we have loyalty to this group. Moral dilemmas are actually conflicts in loyalty to various groups that we identify with and justice is effectively a loyalty to a larger group.
So if there are no ahistoric foundations for any truths then what is the role of philosophy? Rorty would claim that philosophers need to be concerned with the future not the past. He considers philosophers as cultural warriors. Philosophy should have a moral and political agenda which was actually how it started, i.e. with questions like, 'how ought one to live'. Therefore, what Rorty gives us is a very practical philosophy. He is inclusive and a pluralist. He accepts that people will develop different mechanisms and answers to important questions about the way we should live.
He is a liberal democratic because he believes that this structure brings out the best in humans. He also promotes the idea of moral progress. He claims that we need to move to a better world where there is less pain and suffering, less humiliation and more pleasure. He denies that there are any fundamental differences between people and that philosophy is about attempting to focus on what it is that is common between humans rather than what is different. If we are to provide a buttress for morality and enable moral progress then we do this through increasing solidarity and sensitivity rather than through rational means. He believes that 'slogans'  like inalienable human rights and human dignity are a helpful reminder that we have duties to others even though there is no ahistoric foundation for them.

Philosophy does not have the answer to questions of identity and purpose. The arts do, they challenge and set our self-image.

The liberal ironist is his exemplary human who understands that there is no unique access to true statements. The liberal ironist recognises that language is not unified; it is contingent and value laden.

His best known work is  Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979)

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