Tuesday, June 12, 2007
David Luban (Georgetown), in remembering Richard Rorty (1931-2007), writes:
Rorty argued that academic philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, is a pointless discipline that we should simply ignore. This view appeared in his 1979 masterpiece Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but it became increasingly spirited and blunt in the essays he wrote over the next twenty years, collected in six anthologies.
This, however, is a misleading way to describe Rorty's critique, and not only because "analytic" philosophy doesn't exist anymore. (See the "Introduction" to my The Future for Philosophy [OUP, 2004] for more on this.) As Jaegwon Kim correctly pointed out in an illuminating 1980 essay, the argument of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is directed against three very general doctrines, none of which are peculiar to (or even distinctive of) English-speaking philosophy in the 20th-century. Kim identified them (again, correctly) as:
(1) The Platonic doctrine concerning truth and knowledge, according to which truth is correspondence with nature, and knowledge is a matter of possessing accurate representations.
(2) The Cartesian doctrine of the mind as the private inner stage, "the Inner Mirror," in which cognitive action takes place. The Platonic doctrine of knowledge as representation was transformed into the idea of knowledge as inner representation of outer reality. The Cartesian contribution was to mentalize the Platonic doctrine.
(3) The conception of Philosophy according to which it is the business of philosophy to investigate the "foundations" of the sciences, the arts, culture and morality, and adjudicate the cognitive claims of these areas. Philosophy, as epistemology, must set universal standards of rationality and objectivity for all actual and possible claims of knowledge.
As Kim note, there are many philosophers who would be identified as "analytic" who reject all of these views; but more importantly, there are plenty of philosophers whom no one would dub "analytic" who embrace one or more of these. (Kant, Hegel, and Husserl, for example, are far more committed to versions of (3) than, say, Quine or Kim or Jerry Fodor, among recent and contemporary philosophers usually deemed to be "analytic.") Rorty's attack on these three doctrines, then, was not an attack on the now defunct "analytic" philosophy of the mid-20th-century; it was an attack on the central concerns of philosophy going back to antiquity. The problem with Luban's way of putting the point--which is all too typical--is that it gives the wholly false impression that Rorty was simply overcoming a "recent" blip in the history of philosophy ("analytic" philosophy) in order to return the discipline to its "traditional" concerns. (Luban probably did not intend that last implication.) In fact, the opposite is the case: Rorty, like Marx (though for different reasons), would have us give up two thousand years of philosophical inquiry in order to do something else. He pitched part of that case as being against "analytic" philosophy, though the latter was far more continuous with the philosophical tradition than Rorty's (hard to pin down) alternative.
It is certainly true that parts of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature rehearse Quinean and Sellarsian critiques of the logical positivist version of "analytic" philosophy, but even here Rorty drew conclusions that neither Quine nor Sellars necessarily thought followed. So, for example, Quine would quite agree with Rorty that we need to give up (3): philosophy is not, contra Kant, "the Queen of the sciences." For Quine, we might say, "science is the Queen of what is true and knowable," and so philosophy is, at best, the "handmaiden" of the empirical sciences. What Rorty needs to explain is why that is not the right alternative to (3)--as opposed to Rortian epistemic promiscuity, in which (as Luban observes) "there are absolutely no rational grounds for preferring scientific accounts of nature to New Earth creationism," a philosophical thesis that is rather hard to take seriously (partly for the reasons I discuss here).
Brian Tamanaha (St. John's), also writing at Balkinization, makes some of the same mistakes and adds at least one other:
Rorty argued that contemporary analytical philosophy is preoccupied with illusory philosophical problems, much of it a wasted effort. He urged philosophers to instead focus their attention on social, cultural and political problems. Rorty observed that "what does not make a difference to practice should not make a difference to philosophers." When there is no longer an audience outside the discipline that displays interest in philosophical problems, that problem should be "viewed with suspicion," he wrote.
The first philosopher to endorse the pragmatism of the first quote was Marx in the 2nd Thesis on Feuerbach--questions that make no difference to practice are "purely scholastic," and so not worth the trouble, Marx claimed--and his immediate target was obviously not "analytical philosophy," but the metaphysics and epistemology of German Idealism from Kant to Hegel. Yet his broader target, like Rorty after him, was the entire philosophical tradition going back millenia. But Tamanaha's second formulation of the Rortian position (and Rorty himself was guilty of this same slippage) is far weaker: instead of "difference to practice" as the criterion of intellectual value, we substitute the criterion of "audience outside the discipline." But by that criterion, much that is called "analytical" philosophy--now meaning nothing more than Anglophone philosophy that aims at clarity and argumentative rigor--easily passes muster, as scholars in linguistics, computer science, and psychology, for example, can all attest. Although contemporary Anglophone philosophy is the most richly interdisciplinary of all the humanities, Rorty, amazingly, left scholars in literature departments, and some law professors, with the opposite impression.
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