Autumn-winter 2004
 

 

  Autumn-winter 2004

  ON PROGMATISM
  Richard RORTY
 
 
Over a year ago, in the fall of 2002, a completely unique Bosnian collection of Richard Rorty’s essays appeared in Sarajevo under the title Pragmatism and Other Essays. It contains six Rorty’s essays that had been written between 1999 and 2002 – “Pragmatism”, “Spinoza, Pragmatism and Love of Wisdom”, “Beyond Theism and Atheism”, “Analytic and Transformative Philosophy”, Trapped Between Kant and Dewey: A Situation in Contemporary Moral Philosophy”, and “Pragmatism and Contemporary Philosophy”, which is actually a text of Rorty’s talk given in Sarajevo in June 2000. This unique 134 page-collection is enriched by short Rorty’s interview made by editor and translator of the book, Asim Mujkic. Mujkic is also an author of the book’s Afterword titled as “The Epistemological Disarmament of Culture”. The publication of this precious book, as it is underlined in the Afterword, would have been impossible without kindness and understanding of Professor Rorty.

Odjek will share the Preface to this book with its readers:

Preface to Bosnian translation of selected essays

There is a considerable difference between what philosophy professors think about in English-speaking countries and what they think about in most European countries other than Great Britain. In the jargon of the Anglophones, this is the difference between “analytic” and “Continental” philosophy. These terms are quite uninformative, but they have become current nevertheless. The essays in this volume attempt both to bridge the gap between these two intellectual traditions and to give reasons for preferring, for certain purposes the latter to the former. So it may be appropriate, in this preface, to say something about this cultural difference. I shall approach this topic from a somewhat different angle than that adopted in the essay (reprinted below) titled “Analytic philosophy and transformative philosophy”. In that essay I talked about the differences between the kinds of training philosophers in different countries received, and about their different attitudes toward the claim that philosophy can and should be put upon the secure path of a science. Here I shall focus on their different attitudes toward natural science. Analytic philosophers typically take natural science to be special, to have a privileged status. They take it to be the area of culture that tells us what the world is like, and thus an area with which all other areas of culture must come to terms. So these philosophers worry about such topics as the place of value in a world of fact, and the place of intentionality, or of consciousness, in a central nervous system. Questions about “the objectivity of values” and about “the status of the psychological” are among the central preoccupations of the analytic philosophers who refer to themselves as working in “the core areas of philosophy”. There is much less interest in such questions among philosophers outside the analytic tradition. This is because there is much less willingness to assent to the claim that natural science tells us what the world is really like. More generally, there is little interest in the question “what is the world really like?” To put the matter rather crudely, analytic philosophy is more metaphysical and “Continental” philosophy more pragmatic. Continental philosophers have typically read Hegel and Heidegger, and been persuaded, at least to some degree, that one should historicize one’s thinking. One should talk more about the differences between Weltanschauungen and less about which Weltanschauung tells one how things really are in themselves. One should talk about more about the utility of ways of describing our situation than about which way corresponds to the intrinsic nature of reality. This way of drawing the contrast may seem paradoxical, since analytic philosophy is typically seen as growing out of a movement, logical positivism, one of whose slogans was “An end to metaphysics!” But the term “metaphysics” did not mean the same thing to Carnap and to Heidegger. For Carnap unified natural science had made metaphysics unnecessary—it had taken the place metaphysics was once supposed to occupy. Metaphysics was to end because it had been supplanted by something better. For Heidegger, however Carnap’s physicalist outlook was itself just one more example of metaphysics. It was an attempt to trimming the rest of culture to the template of modern science, just as St. Thomas’ adaptation of Aristotle had been a matter of accommodating the rest of culture to the Catholic religion. Heidegger did not think Newton and Darwin had come any closer to the nature of reality than had Aristotle, because he thought that the very idea of “the nature of reality” was misguided. Because historicism comes naturally to them, Continental philosophers find the title of a recent book by Robert Pippin—Modernity as a philosophical problem perspicuous. But to most analytic philosophers it is not. For them, something is a philosophical problem only if it is generated by the contrast between sets of intuitions—intuitions that are do not vary from epoch to epoch or from culture to culture. That is why the apparent conflict between free will and determinism, and the apparent mystery of the existence of conscious experience in a world in which all phenomena are supervenient on the behavior of physical particles, are counted as among “the basic problems of philosophy.” “Modernity”—the difference between today’s belief-system and that of our ancestors—is, in the eyes of analytic philosophers, not the right sort of thing to count as a problem. Philosophical problems, for them, can be discussed without reference to historical change. Another, and related, way of describing the difference between these two philosophical cultures is by reference to their handling of the theme of universality, and in particular of the idea of beliefs and obligations that are, or should be, shared by all human beings, simply qua human. This idea plays a much more conspicuous role in the “analytic” tradition than in the “Continental” one. Most analytic philosophers take it for granted that there is a philosophically significant difference between knowledge and opinion, and that Plato was right in saying that knowledge is belief that can be and should be shared by all inquirers. Knowledge is what has universal validity. Natural science is special because it is the paradigm of knowledge. Even if one puts aside the metaphysical question of whether what natural science gives us an account of how things “really” are “in themselves”, the non-controversiality of scientific results can be thought of as sufficient to show that this area of culture enjoys a special epistemological privilege. Most analytic philosophers take for granted not only the Platonic distinction between knowledge and opinion but the Kantian distinction between morality and prudence. They also take seriously the question of the source of authority of moral obligations. This is because they think of a moral obligation as one which is universally applicable. Prudence may require different things of different people in the same situation, but morality returns a single right answer to the question “What should be done?” The prudent thing to do can vary according to the way someone was acculturated, but morality is transcultural and transhistorical. It resembles natural science in this respect. But though the non-relativity, the universality, of the propositions of natural science can be thought of as signaled by their non-controversiality, there would seem to be real, and perhaps irresolvable, controversy about moral issues. So analytic philosophers often read and write books like The Sources of Normativity—a recent book by the prominent analytic moral philosopher Christine Korsgaard, defending Kant against his critics. Korsgaard takes Kant to have solved the crucial problem of the place of moral obligation in a world of atoms and void. Those who question the utility of the knowledge-opinion and morality-prudence distinctions, as I do, are often said, by analytic philosophers, “not to believe in objective truth”. For it is typical of analytic philosophers to think that there is a certain way things really are, that true beliefs correspond to that way, that human beings are obliged to find out what they way is, and that natural science tells us what it is. It is also typical of them to think that all human beings are subject to the same moral law, and that it is the business of moral philosophy to spell out what that law is. It is by no means the case that all contemporary anglophone philosophers hold the views I have just described, but almost all of them take the subjective-objective distinction with great seriousness. That is why they concern themselves with questions about what there is a “fact of the matter” about. The question “is there a fact of the matter?” is never raised in connection with the question of whether water is H2O. In the case of the propositions of natural science factuality is taken as self-evident. But whether there is a fact of the matter about the wrongness of abortion or the meaning of an utterance is taken as a serious philosophical issue. This habit of partitioning culture into the areas where there is what Carnap called “cognitive meaning” and Dummett called “a matter of fact” and areas where there is not seems to me unfortunate. I view it as a relic of the collision, in the seventeenth through the ninteenth centuries, between religion and science. One of the results of this collision was Kant’s attempt to consign science to the realm of appearance. Another was the logical positivists’ attempt to consign moral deliberation to the realm of “expressions of emotion”. I have argued that this collision has not played a significant role in the intellectual life of the West for a century or so. Most intellectuals have tacitly adopted William James’ pragmatic view of the matter: that religion and science serve different purposes and need not get in each others’ way. James’ attitude becomes plausible as soon as one drops the metaphysical quest for a description of reality as it is “in itself”. I regret that analytic philosophers, playing the role of the last metaphysicians, are still attempting to keep an obsolete quarrel alive—that they keep fighting the battles of the nineteenth century. The problems thought to be generated by the putative incompatibility of science and religion provide much of the analytic philosophers’ bread and butter. Most of these philosopher’s still think of themselves as the nineteenth century positivists did, as defending science against prejudice, superstition and unreason. So they think of philosophers with views such as mine, philosophers who do not see natural science as paradigmatic of rationality, as selling out to the enemies of reason and of moral progress. I think that it would help put the putative “warfare between science and theology” behind us if we stopped thinking of natural science as a better paradigm of rationality than, say, constitutional jurisprudence. The reason analytic philosophers tend to exalt the former over the latter is that they believe that natural science seeks, and indeed obtains, universal validity. On my account, however, we should just drop the notion of universal validity and replace it with the idea of non-controversiality. We can grant that physical theories are less controversial than constitutional amendments, bnt we should explain this fact sociologically and historically rather than epistemologically. We should say that there is more agreement on what we want such theories to do for us than on what we want political arrangements or religious convictions to do for us. That is why there is more agreement on how to choose between alternatives among physicists than among jurists or theologians. If we were able to drop the search for universal validity and replace it with the search for intersubjective agreement, we could stop propounding metaphysical theses: we could stop saying with Democritus that the universe is “really” atoms and void, or with Fichte that it is “really” the sensible material of our duty, or with Nietzsche that it is “really” will to power. Then we would cease treating the clash between universalism and romanticism as, for example, Habermas does--as a clash between reason and politically dangerous unreason. Instead we could treat it simply as a pointless over-dramatization of the difference between the need to gain intersubjective agreement for cooperative projects and the absence of any such need when we turn to our private, individual, searches for perfection. We would be able to admit that John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, had said the last word about how to balance these two parts of our lives. The kernel of truth in the claim that philosophers like myself “do not believe in objective truth” is that we do not believe in universal validity. We do not think that either the utility or the non-controversiality of physics is a result of its having achieved, or of its attempting, such validity. Nor do we think that there is any point in saying that the practical decisions we favor are the result of our awareness of universally binding moral obligations, as opposed to prudential considerations about what is the best thing to do under the circumstances. We are willing to say that horror at the actions of a Hitler or a Milosovic, and admiration for those of a Lincoln or a Mandela, are the result of a historically produced consensus, springing from particular social and economic conditions, rather than from our awareness of truths that express moral knowledge rather than merely moral opinion. But we think our reactions of horror or of admiration are none the worse for that. Our historicism takes away whatever comfort there is to be found in the claim to universal validity, but does not take away the intensity of our hope that that someday there will be a world without tyrants.

Richard Rorty
January 25, 2002