Richard Rorty loves sauerkraut pudding

If that sounds like a strange dish, well, Richard Rorty is a strange fellow, an Anglophone analytic philosopher of mind turned Deweyan pragmatist turned Heideggerian historicist. Now, if that sounds to you like a ridiculous combination—this is your fun fact for the post—consider that Rorty matriculated at the University of Chicago at age 14. Trained in the analytic school of Brandom, Quine, and Davidson, Rorty gradually became disillusioned with Western philosophy’s metaphysical and epistemological hubris; the first fruit borne by that frustration was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a meandering critique of the Lockean-Cartesian-Kantian tradition, which posits philosophy as a discipline “foundational in respect to the rest of culture because culture is the assemblage of claims to knowledge, and philosophy adjudicates such claims” (3, all citations from the 1979 edition).

At the headwaters of this project, Locke sought to provide “a ‘theory of knowledge’ based on an understanding of ‘mental processes’” (3), Descartes postulated an interior mind  “in which ‘processes’ occur,” (4) and Kant cast philosophy “as a tribunal of pure reason, upholding or denying the claims of the rest of culture” (4). Rorty positions analytic writers within this tradition “as an attempt to escape from history—an attempt to find nonhistorical conditions of any possible historical development” (9).

However, in the twentieth century, three philosophers—“Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey” (4)—questioned this quest for certainty in fundamental ways, though only, observes Rorty, after painful experiences in trying to refashion and recuperate its illusory certainties. Against philosophy’s flight from history, these three thinkers offered an “historicist” message, one which grounds philosophical pursuits and truth claims in the social and cultural developments of human societies: Heidegger’s historicism is most sweeping, relying on a vast revision of the “history of philosophy,” which “lets us see the beginning of the Cartesian imagery in the Greeks and the metamorphoses of this imagery during the last three centuries” (12). Wittgenstein showed how language could be conceived of as a “game” constructed for the achievement of social pursuits—in Philosophical Explorations, he wrote, “To imagine a language is to imagine a way of life” (§19). Each of these three, argues Rorty, “set aside metaphysics and epistemology as possible disciplines”: they do not so much debunk these realms, he suggests, as simply lose interest in them (4). For them, and for Rorty himself, “The notion of ‘accurate representation’ is simply an automatic and empty compliment which we pay to those beliefs which are successful in helping us do what we want to do” (10): “true statements” are socially functional statements.

This brings us to Rorty’s thesis, which bears a rather longer quotation:

The aim of this book is to undermine the reader’s confidence in ‘the mind’ as something about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view, in ‘knowledge’ as something about which there ought to be a ‘theory’ and which has ‘foundations,’ and in ‘philosophy’ as it has been conceived since Kant (4).

Rorty understands himself as continuing the historicist project of his three heroes, though rather in the manner of a double agent, still operating within the stifled confines of analytic philosophy, and even stealing his “particular criticisms” of that tradition “from such systematic philosophers as Sellars, Quine, Davidson, Ryle, Malcolm, Kuhn, and Putnam” (7). 

I know enough about where this book is headed to be interested in the trip, though I expect to have many a disagreement with our brilliant guide along the way. On one hand (as my title suggests), his deployment of sources is idiosyncratic: each of these three is historicist in his own way, but (perhaps, nudges my instinct) not necessarily in compatible ways. At a superficial level, consider that Heidegger considered Christianity the (quite literally) apotheosis of the mechanization at the heart of Western metaphysics, while Wittgenstein experienced a profound conversion during World War I that left him with a deep-rooted Christian faith (though how orthodox or catholic that faith was is admittedly fuzzy for me). Further, it is far from self-evident that historicism is incompatible with a certain kind of discourse about being: I am thinking here of MacIntyre (who, interestingly, was himself an analytic philosopher “converted” to a sort of Wittgensteinian historicism, though in an Aristotelian and Thomist, rather than Heideggerian, key), and more emphatically, John Milbank. In fact (contra Heidegger, whose reading of Christian history I find unimaginative at best), the very logic of the Incarnation seems to imply that a fully Christian metaphysics must in some sense be historicist, for there is no other “image of the invisible God” except this Jewish man, born of a Virgin and crucified under Pontius Pilate—of course, here I go sounding all Barthian, when a sensible person would let the analogia entis question rest for another day. 

We will surely have occasion later to discuss whether—as Rorty seems to suggest here—viewing truth as socially-constructed need commit one to abandoning the possibility of the “Truth,” of reality as such. MacIntyre argued that it did not, envisioning the possibility of one discourse’s instigating an “epistemological crisis” within a rival; Milbank argues that it does not, because of the possibility of an ecclesial community whose aesthetic splendor would overwhelm all rivals.


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