Rorty’s Ways of Arguing

by Tim Sommers

This past Friday, 3 Quarks Daily linked to a review by George Scialabba of the recent posthumous publication of a Richard Rorty lecture series called Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism. The review was called, “Should Philosophy Retire?” I promised myself I wouldn’t respond to it. That I wouldn’t respond, for example, to the claim that philosophy “led Western thought into a dead end and should be retired”.

Or Scialabba’s claim that Hume, Mill, and William James would agree with this, and Rorty’s that Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger would too. But when Scialabba went on to insist that Rorty is “widely-revered”, I had, at least to ask this much. “Widely-revered” by whom? Not by philosophers, surely.

But let me start by saying something positive about Rorty. Rorty is a clear, crisp, concise writer whose  prose style fits firmly within the analytic tradition. Analytic philosophers are seldom credited as great writers, but the best are great. “I prefer desert landscapes,” Quine said in explaining his thinking, but it might as well as been his prose he was describing. “To be is to be the value of a bound variable,” was his answer to the mystery of existence. “Science,” he wrote “ is not a substitute for common sense, but an extension of it.” And Donald Davidson, another great writer, spare but whimsical, famously wrote that “Conceptual relativism is a heady and exotic doctrine or would be if we could make good sense of it. The trouble is, as so often in philosophy, it is hard to improve intelligibility while retaining the excitement.” (Keep that one in mind for later.) Rorty had a similar style and a similar talent for turns of phrase. “The world does not speak,” he wrote, “Only we do.” Since Rorty was one of the few analytic philosophers widely read outside the field, I think he is, as a writer, if not a thinker, our prose emissary to the wider academic world.

It was Rorty’s argumentation that was infuriating.

And it was complicated by the fact that he frequently denied that he was arguing anything. Rather, he was, as he said, “showing how the other side looks to us”, “kibitzing”, or “edifying”, doing anything except “systematic philosophy”. Nonetheless, here are some of the rhetorical strategies frequently employed by Rorty – that drive most philosophers crazy.

(1) Everybody is always on Rorty’s side. He combines argumentum ad verecundiam (argument from authority) with argumentum ad populum (argument from  the majority): most of the famous philosophers agree with me. There is this tendency in Rorty to pile up name after name and assert, without evidence, that they all agree with him. Do they? Without being, say, a Nietzsche or a Hegel scholar yourself, it’s hard to say. But there are some testable cases: Rorty’s contemporaries. Rorty insisted that Putnam, Quine, Donald Davidson, John Rawls, Derrida, and Foucault all agreed with him. They all insisted that they did not.

I once had a chance to talk to Rorty briefly outside a lecture hall at Yale. Being young and rude, I told him that the much-abbreviated account of the history of philosophy he had just offered was cartoonish. He laughed and said, “Yes. Cartoonish, I like that. That’s about right. Cartoons have their uses.”

(2) The whole capitalizing thing.  For me, this is the worst. Rorty likes to say things like, “We have to give up on Truth with a capital ‘T’ and focus on truth.” Or “I am defending democracy, not Democracy with a capital ‘D’.” But there’s only so much philosophical work capitalizing can do. I think it’s the notional equivalent of saying you reject absolute truth, but not truth. I don’t know how Truth with a capital ‘T’, or absolute truth, for that matter, differ from truth, so it’s hard to argue about it.

(3) Philosophy is not interesting anymore. Okay, I was wrong it’s not the capitalizing thing that’s the worst, it’s his frequent use of argumentum ad taedium, the argument from boredom. He describes something as as no longer interesting, then concludes it should be set aside – that we should just stop talking about it.

He started out in the philosophy of mind as an eliminative materialist,  arguing, that our so-called folk-psychological concepts like belief and desire should be set aside in favor of more causally, neurophysiological accurate concepts. Since folk psychological beliefs don’t smoothly reduce or translate into their material equivalents, mind-talk does not map directly onto brain talk, we may never solve the mind/body problem. Who cares? It’s boring to keep on about it. Eliminate the mental, which is really just a no longer useful way of talking about ourselves, and move on. (At this point it’s hard to see what would be attractive in this view to humanist scholars outside of philosophy. Imagine novels that only talked about people’s brains and said nothing of their inner lives, for example. Most eliminative materialist are extremely scientistic, in fact. (See, Patricia and Paul Churchland, for examples.))

However, Rorty went on, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, to apply this same move to all of philosophy. He openly owns the accusation that he doesn’t  have an argument to overturn all of philosophy. It’s just that philosophy and its problems are no longer interesting.

The question, of course, is interesting to whom? Most people never thought these problems were interesting in the first place, so in one sense he’s preaching to the choir. But some people still find them very interesting. What should we do? Explain to them why they shouldn’t be interested anymore? I think he should leave people to decide for themselves what’s interesting and what’s not. And, in fairness, Rorty eventually did. Not long after, he left philosophy for good for to become an intellectual rock star among nonphilosophers, while mostly still writing about philosophy.

(4) The true version is not exciting, and the exciting version is not true. I have heard this form or argument called the motte-and-baily fallacy, the Continental two-step, and deconstruction.

Consider. What are we to make of that Rorty quote from earlier? “The world does not speak. Only we do.” It’s related. I think, to this quote, which looks more like an argument: “Truth is a property of sentences, since sentences are dependent on vocabulary, and since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths.” We don’t really need the vocabulary bit. ‘Truth is a property of sentences, sentences are made by human beings, therefore, so are truths’; that is, truths are made by human beings.

Here’s one way of seeing what’s wrong with this argument. The property of being fast (though not furious) can be a property of a car. Cars are made by human beings. Therefore, “fastness” (the property of being fast) is made by human beings. But what about the property of fastness when characteristic of a cheetah? Is that made by human  beings, too?

Here’s another way of seeing what’s wrong with this argument. Remember, Davidson. “The trouble is, as so often in philosophy, it is hard to improve [the] intelligibility [of a theory] while retaining the excitement.”

Here’s the exciting version of Rorty’s argument. Truths are made by human beings. Even the truth about how far it is to the nearest star to ours is made by human beings, presumably. That seems obviously false. Whatever that distance is, it’s not determined by what humans say about it. The exciting version can’t be right.

Here’s the  less exciting version. Sentences are human things. So, when we express the truth that Proxima Centauri is just over four light years away we do it with a human sentence. So, again, sentences are made by humans, but the property of being true is not.

But we make the sentence, we don’t make them true.  (It’s actually more complicated than that. For example, we all do make some sentences true by what we do. It’s now true that I am typing. But if I stopped it wouldn’t be. We can leave those cases aside.)

Truth is a property that applies to some sentences, and not others, like fastness does to some things and not others, and the way that it is applied is not determined by humans simply stipulating it. It’s determined by some interaction between language and us and the world.

(5)  Rorty’s core argument undermines a lot more than philosophy. “We have to drop the notion of correspondence for sentences  as well as for thoughts,” Rorty says “and see sentences as connected with other sentences rather than the world.”

But if language is a closed circle that never makes contact with anything outside of itself, if no part of language is representational, this doesn’t just rule out philosophy and science, but as Jaegwon Kim argued, it makes it “unclear how any cognitive activities can be carried out in a language in which no views can be expressed.” It’s not even clear how we can disagree, or agree, for that matter, with Rorty – or with anyone about anything.

At the height of his influence, some people argued, and others vehemently denied, that Rorty was a postmodern relativist. But the problem was not that he was a relativist, and certainly not that he was a postmodernist. The problem was that his relativistic arguments, like so many of his other arguments, were fallacious – or simply didn’t hold up under scrutiny. As I tried to show, his specific argument for linguistic relativism is just wrong.

But that’s not really the point.

There are nihilists, relativist, radical skeptics, and all manner of crazy philosophers, or, anyway, philosophers who might be considered to have crazy views. There’s a famous article called “Why I Do Not Exist” and a new movement called anti-natalism that argues it would have been better to never have been born and it’s wrong, therefore, to have children. There is no particular view, the holding of which, excludes one from being a philosopher. What some thought excluded Rorty, post-Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, from philosophy was not the content of his views, but his failure to adequately defend them.

But what is Rorty’s appeal? He’s a good writer. Beyond that, I would argue, the very things that I call vices are also his appeal. He writes about famous philosophers as if they were characters on a sitcom. We feel like we know them. We feel comfortable trotting them out later in conversation. Rorty chucks out all the boring parts of everything. It’s great to think that whatever  we find boring is, in fact, not worth talking about. It’s all just talk, Rorty says, and we are all just “showing how the other side looks to us”. We should never have to feel like we are ”wrong” about something. We always just have are own point of view. People like that. Who can blame them?

(James Roper, my mentor at Michigan State, was more irritated by Richard Rorty that anyone else has ever been. Jim died last year. He’s somewhere now still complaining about Philosophy and Mirror of Nature, I just know it. This is for him.)