Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On Law Professors Misrepresenting Rorty and Philosophy: Comments on Luban and Tamanaha

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. 

As usual, anonymous comments are unlikely to appear, and comments that are not informed and substantive certainly will not appear.


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Okay Brian, you got me (although I happened to read Kim's article and the Stanford entry about Rorty just before posting). I initially hesistated about using "analytical" for the reasons you indicate, but went ahead since that was one of his main targets.

You completely ignored the point of my post, however, which was a reflection on the fact that he (like Berlin) is dismissed by philosophers while being admired by non-philosophers. That strikes me as interesting and relevant to a legal audience. As you know, Rorty was widely read (or at least cited) for a time in legal circles. We can be dismissed as philosophically naive (which I acknowledged in the post) in our admiration of Rorty, but that cannot be the last word. What Rorty said was fundamentally important and resonated with a broader audience. He certainly helped me see things differently.

Posted by: Brian Tamanaha | Jun 12, 2007 2:52:14 PM

I agree with more or less everything Brian and Kim say. Notice that in my balkinization post I describe Rorty's target not as analytic philosophy, but as "academic philosophy, especially analytic philosophy." As Brian suspects, I do not at all think Rorty's only target is a recent "blip" in the history of philosophy. It is (what he took to be) the entire tradition. The reason for saying "academic philosophy" is that Rorty sees the profession, roughly from Kant on, as elaborately working out a set of problems set by Plato, Descartes, and Kant. Rorty simply denied that there is a discipline consisting of attempts to solve these problems. Of course it is true that non-analytic academic philosophers worked on the same set of problems, and Rorty's criticisms apply to them as well.

As for the persistence (or not) of "analytic philosophy," I would respond to Brian that the term can refer either to a particular set of doctrines, now largely defunct, as Brian says - OR as a style and idiom of philosophizing, which is not in the least bit defunct. I prefer the latter usage, simply because without it, there's no name for this style (unless it's "philosophy in the analytic tradition," which rather begs Brian's question!) In the former sense, Quine is a critic of analytic philosophy; in the latter sense, Quine is an analytic philosopher.

One of the interesting features of Rorty's authorship is his ability to write in the analytic idiom when he wants, but to abandon it when he wants as well. Obviously, many philosophers have this ability, but I think it's especially striking in Rorty.

I might add that in my own work I've mostly been a critic of Rorty (and pragmatism more generally).

Posted by: David Luban | Jun 12, 2007 4:06:47 PM

Thanks to Brian and David for their comments.

Brian: I think the cases of Berlin, Rorty, and Unger are quite different, though for reasons that would have deflected my main concern, which is that readers not think that Rorty's target was simply something called "analytic" philosophy. Rorty was not, in fact, "dismissed" by contemporary philosophers: he was intensively critiqued, and in general never joined issue with the critics. Rorty was more "refuted" than dismissed.

David: one of the links, above, takes up the question of whether analytic philosophy can be characterized by a certain "style." I'm afraid that won't work either, since any attempt to describe the style either excludes philosophers like Peacocke or McDowell whom many would want to call "analytic" or clearly includes philosophers long dead, from Descartes to Hume, as "analytic." Once the substantive commitments of mid-century "analytic" philosophy are abandoned, there is no such thing as "analytic philosophy": there is just philosophy that is continuous with two thousands years of philosophy, and then there is other stuff which might be called "philosophy," some of which is intellectually meritorious (e.g., Marx), some of which isn't (e.g., Derrida).

Posted by: Brian Leiter | Jun 12, 2007 5:04:47 PM

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