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Some Remarks on Richard Rorty's Pragmatism

by D.R. Khashaba

Issue 8 of Think, (Autumn 2004), included an edited transcript of a valuable discussion on Pragmatism between Professors Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and James Conant. The discussion was originally broadcast on Chicago Public Radio, anchored by Gretchen Helfrich. In what follows I offer a few remarks inspired by the discussion, focusing on Professor Richard Rorty's contribution. I have not commented on the valuable contributions of Professors Putnam and Conant, with whose views I found myself largely in agreement.

The great founders of Pragmatism, Peirce, James, Dewey, have all made important contributions to philosophical and human understanding. But in representing their philosophical outlook as a 'theory of truth', they, especially William James, were not serving their own cause. I remember in my teens reading William James's Pragmatism. I was shocked; I filled all the wide margins and all the space between the generously spaced lines with angry comments. The whole argument of the book was beside the point.[1]

To my mind, what gives occasion and excuse to the contention of Pragmatists (other than Rorty) that they are dealing with 'truth' is the inveterate illusion of philosophers that they are concerned with truth in the same sense as the natural scientists. This is an illusion that no thinker should have ever entertained after it had been dispelled by Socrates when he renounced all inquiry into natural causes and all examination of pragmata (things, facts) and declared that he was only concerned with logoi (ideas and meanings). Kant found it necessary to reiterate the Socratic lesson and clearly assigned empiricism and rationalism their proper places which they should not outstep; and yet the illusion persists. Pragmatism, in so far as it addresses this illusion, serves a true need, and is pragmatically justified. But Pragmatists overplay their hand; they want to produce a theory of inquiry that is equally good in the spheres of morals, politics, and physics. This is to eat your cake and have it, a luxury not permitted by the gods. Perhaps the least culpable in this respect was the great John Dewey, with his preoccupation with education. He rightly insisted that the business of philosophy was with values and the clarification of ideas.

Professor Richard Rorty, the most eminent contemporary advocate of Pragmatism, may also be free of blame on this count: he denies that he is concerned with 'truth'. But he goes to extremes: he believes that his approach (with its complete banishment of the notion of truth) is good for all areas of inquiry. Moreover, along with the notion of truth, he wants us to throw overboard much without which human life would be, to say the least, intolerable.

The common acceptation of the term 'truth' involves somehow conformity with a given state of affairs. No doubt this conception of 'truth' is riddled with logical and metaphysical difficulties. Plato's Theaetetus long ago showed that. But the juror pondering whether to give a guilty or a not-guilty vote, the historian weighing the veracity of a report, the physicist, the astrophysicist, the microbiologist, all need and make use of the notion, though in each of these areas the notion has a specific character and uses particular criteria relevant to that area. These are different kinds of truth (the fault of most 'theories of truth' is that they assume there is one kind of truth) but they all share the characteristic of agreeing with something objective. The notion of truth as conformity to fact is thus pragmatically vindicated.

While asserting that 'you don't have to worry about whether your belief corresponds to reality', Rorty still emphasizes the idea of 'availability of evidence'. I think the idea of 'evidence' sits very ill in the Pragmatic complex. If you have to respect evidence, to attach weight to evidence, how does that differ from having to comply with objective fact? In philosophy proper we are not, any more than in poetry, concerned with fact. (This is a view I have been urging in all my writings but cannot expand on here.) Of course a philosopher, considering a political or social problem, has to take account of the facts on the ground, but in considering the principles s/he has to uphold, no facts are involved. That it is not always easy to draw a fine line between principles and practical applications is a different matter that should not be allowed to confuse the philosophical issues. Yet, on the other hand, because Professor Rorty is only interested in the human scene, he seems to propose abolishing empirical science. He says, 'I think inquiry is a matter of reweaving a network of beliefs and desires.' I would wholeheartedly endorse that if the word 'inquiry' were qualified with the word 'philosophical' or if it had been replaced by the word 'culture'. But I have to confess I don't understand how that relates to his rejection of empiricism and the notion of experience. I can only think that he is confusing issues.

If Pragmatism was a reaction against scientism, then it has over-reacted. Instead of prescribing to science its proper jurisdiction as confined to giving an account of things as they are, it has sought to replace science with an approach that cannot do the work of science. While W.V.O. Quine had maintained that what science tells us about 'what there is' is all we can know and all we need to know, Richard Rorty tells us we should forget about what science tells us about 'what there is'. Neither position is satisfactory. Quine's position might have been good in a world peopled with robots. Rorty's position might not work even in a world peopled with gods.

Rorty says that 'the word "true" is indefinable'. That's very true. Socrates long ago showed that no word is, strictly speaking, definable. Every word is discovered to be implicated in an endless web of relatednesses and connections. That is why all his elenctic discourses ended without a definite outcome. But the result was not negative. The search for the meaning of a term unravelled complexities, shed light on obscurities, removed misconceptions and prejudices. That there can be no definitive definition of truth (and the common error of all 'theories of truth' is just that they think there can be) does not mean that we should abandon the notion, but that we should clarify it. And if we find that there is a certain area where the notion is strictly irrelevant, we should specify that area, not interdict the use of the term where it is relevant.

To illustrate and to remove a possible misunderstanding: when I said that the result of the Socratic elenctic was not negative I was not suggesting that it arrived at or led to truth: for precisely the Socratic search for meaning is an area to which the idea of truth is not relevant. Even the search for the meaning of 'truth' does not give us truth but clarity. (This is a point where I stand in opposition to the 'accepted wisdom' about Socrates' search for 'definitions'. So, with all due respect, I would say that Rorty's reference to 'the Platonic attempt to say "Hey, we got to have definitions of these terms",' is rooted in a widespread misunderstanding.)

One might sympathize with Rorty's suspicion of high-sounding abstractions. But when he says that in place of an appeal to righteousness, 'it would be better to appeal to a better future', I must say that an appeal to 'a better future' would be morally wrong if it did not incorporate the ideal of Justice with a capital J. President Bush justifies the war on Iraq with the claim that it will lead to and was necessary for 'a better future' for American citizens (though not for the Iraqi children and other civilians who were and continue to be killed or maimed in the process). Granting that the President's claim was 'justified' (to lessen the ambiguity of the word, are we permitted to say 'verified'?), would that make his action just? Would a materially 'better future' not only for Americans but even for the whole of humankind, be in itself just cause for any action? And if we want to remove that mischievous adverb 'materially', how can we do it without invoking such notions as Justice, Integrity, Tolerance, and the like? A 'better future' remains a meaningless blank until it is provided with criteria, and with criteria we are back to our poor, old-fashioned, reviled Platonic Forms. Without norms a 'better future' may be better for pigs but not for humans. I am not suggesting that Rorty envisions a world without values, but I say that his philosophical position deprives us of the language (and behind the language the ideas) necessary for stipulating the conditions that would make the world we dream of fit for humans.

Again, Rorty wants to do away with the need for one 'becoming clear about what one really means by one's concept'. He supports this by saying, 'One's use of a word changes all the time under various rhetorical... pressures'. So once more he produces a correct (how does this differ from 'true') observation (how does this differ from 'factual account'?) to justify a claim that extends far beyond the reach of the pretext offered. Of course one's use of a word changes all the time and has to change with the change of context, but unless one is clear in one's mind on each occasion what one means by the word at the particular time and in the particular context, one gets nowhere. So here again I am using a pragmatic argument which should mean something to a Pragmatist.


[1] No less a thinker than George Santayana, who was a student and admirer of William James, has said the same thing. In "A Brief History of my Opinions" (The Philosophy of Santayana, ed. by Irwin Edman, The Modern Library) he says that "when his book on Pragmatism appeared... it gave me a rude shock. I could not stomach that way of speaking about truth."

© D.R. Khashaba 2004