Friday, March 21, 2008

Philosophy and Social Hope

Remember those scenes where young girls at Elvis Presley concerts scream deliriously and faint? Well, that is what Richard Rorty would do if John Dewey were to somehow make an appearance. In his book "Philosophy and Social Hope" Rorty mentions Dewey, oh, I don't know,5 million times. Rorty, a leading American Pragmatist, feels Dewey is the grand-daddy of the current era of philosophy. In one sense, because this approach disregards the search for ultimate truth in favor of creative discussion for possible futures, Rorty sees Dewey as ushering in the ultimate phase of philosophy. I did not agree with everything in this book, but it definitely made me think. I will outline my pros and cons below.


1. "She" as a pronoun. I hate it. I get that liberal-minded people are trying to support gender equality, but please figure out a way to do it that isn't so damn annoying. Am I alone in this? Rorty uses this literary device throughout and the book loses significant points for this offense alone.

2. Rorty is too combative. He draws lines in the sands of academia in nearly every chapter. At times this aggression comes out in petty insults or sarcastic jokes that distract from the topic at hand. The undoubtedly numerous disputes between professors should be handled in a less public forum. It lacks class to do so otherwise.

3. Using "we" instead of "I". Rorty constantly uses "we" to establish his positions. It is either "we pragmatists" this or "we liberals" that. Don't assume to speak for everybody. I guess it is an attempt at humility but it doesn't work.

4. Now for the bigger problems. Rorty claims that pragmatism is the philosophy that takes Darwinism to it's logical conclusion. He thinks this because pragmatism doesn't recognize Godly influence in our intelligence, simply luck. However, Rorty then claims that pragmatists see human culture as pure social-construct. Our beliefs, emotions, and values to him are the result of habit. What? Doesn't Darwinian thought necessarily lead to an understanding that these attributes are heavily influenced by our genes? We do not love our children more than strangers because we were socially programmed to do so.

5. Lastly, I don't agree with Rorty's central argument that reality doesn't exist independently of human interpretation. I need to explore this more, but my understanding is that Rorty believes that there is no essential essence to anything beyond what we say about it. This means that when we look at my shoe we can say "it was made in china" or "it is size 11" or whatever, but that we can not know what it truly "is" because everything is contingent on everything else. I agree with contingency and am awestruck at its implications, but I still believe concrete reality exists. We may not be able to communicate the independence of any object or event, but our languages' limitations should not be imposed upon reality as well. Rorty believes that instead of fact or truth we should talk about usefulness. But there are true and false statements. I can't say my shoe is made of wood and be correct. This indicates that there is a reality that resists mere interpretation.


1. The destruction of dualism. The mind/body distinction is dead. Rorty correctly cheers the possibilities that await us as we let go of that relic of metaphysics. He claims it is a remnant of Plato's "higher world" and led us to incorrectly separate our bodies from something beyond ourselves. I am not sure where the distinction originated, but it is useless today.

2. Pragmatism's regards to Truth strike me as true with regards to ideas and opinions. Avoiding the paradox of the last sentence, let me explain. Reason replaced the Church as the means to understanding ultimate reality. Rorty argues that reason doesn't have any special access, either, because there is not ultimate reality. Everything is open to being understood through an infinite number of perspectives. The same event seen through the eyes of a feminist, a communist, a priest, or whomever will be unique to each. Reason will not get us to the correct answer, it is just a tool to be used by a perspective. For example, it is equally rational to be either pro-choice or pro-life. What we must accept is that there is no correct answer. That it is up to us to create solutions that will provide us as much happiness as possible and that we deem just.

Pragmatism is America's major contribution to philosophy. It is deceivingly complex and I have more questions than answers. I would recommend "Philosophy and Social Hope" to anyone looking for an introduction.

No comments: