Richard Rorty's 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature': An Existential Critique [Book Review]

Journal of Value Inquiry 22 (1):67-76 (1988)
Abstract
Seeing philosophy as conversation with a number of fruitful avenues of discourse, Rorty seems to be caught in limbo, unwilling to follow through or commit himself to any particular line of discourse for fear of closing himself off to alternative discourses. Choosing to adopt this particular attitude he still has made a choice: he has made a commitment to non-commitment, or as Ortega puts it, “decided not to decide.” Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, trans. anonymously (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1957), p. 48. Such a commitment or decision is in no way neutral, for it attempts to enforce, by moral requirement, Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 394. a new vocabulary which views philosophy as conversation between speakers, with a whole range of obligations and implications included. Thus the Rortian alternative, like the alternatives he criticizes, plays the role “of the cultural overseer who knows everyone's common ground — the Platonic philosopherking who knows what everybody else is really doing whether they know it or not, because he knows about the ultimate context ... within which they are doing it.” Ibid., pp. 317–318. In fact, Rorty even refers to “conversation as the ultimate context” Ibid., p. 389. In assuming to know everyone's common ground, that every-one is participating in the conversation of humankind whether they realize it or not, Rorty seems to fall prey to a similar “self-deceptive ... absurdity of thinking that the vocabulary [he uses] ... has some privileged attachment to reality which makes it more than just a further set of descriptions.” Ibid., p. 361.One implication of such a position is that despite its holder's claims that he or she will at least attempt to incorporate abnormal discourses of all sorts, the conversationalist will not be able to consider seriously a number of types of discourse. If the edifying, hermeneutical philosopher were really “willing to pick up the jargon of the interlocutor rather than translating it into his own terms,” Ibid., p. 318. it would often be necessary to drop the notion of conversation as being a fundamental practice or moral obligation. Rorty is obviously unwilling to really pick up the jargon of the epistemologist and the meta-physician he criticizes, or of Nietzsche and Stirner, for each of these does not have contained within them, at least as a primary consideration, the continuing of the conversation of humankind. Because he imposes his vocabulary and descriptions on them - they are merely speakers in a conversation - he will see them as merely threads in a larger social fabric, he will be translating their “jargon” into his own, and thus will never be able to take their position seriously, never be prepared to adopt their position as his own. Being possessed by the notion of continuing the conversation, he is closing himself off to traditional epistemological and metaphysical projects, as well as to the perspectives of thinkers like Stirner and Nietzsche, despite his claim to be open to all of them. He can only consider them as topics of conversation as long as he remains committed to conversation, and thus never consider them as live options, or consider them as alternative life-projects to be pursued on their own terms. In insisting on the moral obligation of philosophers to continue the conversation of the West, he is insisting on the moral obligation of philosophers not to whole-heartedly adopt any of the alternatives which would tend to close off this conversation. Therefore, instead of decrying “the very notion of having a view, while avoiding having a view about having views,” Ibid., p. 371. Rorty has a rather clear view about having views: one should not hold any view whole-heartedly except the view that philosophy should be conversation, and this conversation should be the way to decide among views; that is, the way to decide among all views except the view that conversation should be the way to decide, which for Rorty is not open to discussion, but is a moral obligation. All perspectives are encouraged in the conversation, but the conversational morality has already prescribed that these views should not be whole-heartedly adopted by responsible individuals. Requiring that philosophy be conversation, Rorty closes off numerous possible life-styles, and almost all traditional philosophical projects: he merely saves the appearances of these alternatives. Morally required to continue the conversation, philosophy becomes just talk. Along the same lines, when Rorty claims that the normal and abnormal discourses “do not compete, but rather help each other out,” Ibid., p. 346. he assumes that the epistemological and metaphysical discourses will be helped by various abnormal discourses, and assumes thinkers like Nietzsche and Stirner will be helped by being made to see the significance of societies which have fallen together and are united by civility. Yet, in doing this, Rorty is not attempting to understand - either sympathetically or intellectually - what it would mean to help these projects on their own terms, and as such is not trying to understand and assimilate these alternatives as he claims he is. Rather, he is holding each of these alternatives up to his own ideal of an “open conversation,” and judging what it would mean to “help out” these alternatives only according to his own particular standards. In continually translating what others are offering into his own particular frame of reference, he does not appreciate these philosophical alternatives for their worth as individual activities which can contribute to life and/or society, but values them only for what they can contribute to his larger project, the conversation of humankind. However, if these alternatives were taken seriously, then they would surely be seen to compete with his view which advocates social criteria for adjudicating disputes, thereby denying many of the fundamental aspects of the above-mentioned alternative philosophical under-takings. It should be seen that contrary to what Rorty suggests, edification also “provides only some, among many, ways of describing ourselves,” Ibid., p. 361. and is only one type of human project among many others. In suggesting that we shift our focus “from the relation between human beings and the objects of their inquiry to the relation between alternative standards of justification, and from there to the actual changes in these standards which make up intellectual history,” Ibid., pp. 389–390. Rorty neither breaks free from traditional concerns, nor brings the focus of attention onto our own lives. As Bernstein notes, “there is a sense in which Rorty himself is obsessed. It is almost as if he can't quite ‘let go’ and accept the force of his own critique. It is as if Rorty himself has been more deeply touched by what he is attacking than he realizes.... He himself is obsessed with the obsessions of philosophers.” R.J. Bernstein, “Philosophy in the Conversation of Mankind,” pp. 767, 775.As a result of this, Richard Eldridge correctly notes that Rorty is unable to realize that “[c]riticism matters just insofar as it enables us fruitfully to develop our lives and our practices out of the past.” Richard Eldridge, “Philosophy and the Achievement of Community: Rorty, Cavell and Criticism,” Metaphilosophy 14, No. 2 (1983), p. 124. As an alternative to the Rortian attitude, I invite the reader to entertain a perspective which is not primarily concerned with identifying oneself in accordance with, or in opposition to, particular traditions, but rather with assimilating and utilizing all previous philosophical labors in order to achieve the greatest appreciation of one's own personal possibilities, and the fullest expression of one's own powers
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