Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Richard Rorty and idea of research

[This post is a little different from others; it summarizes my engagement with the works of the philosopher Richard Rorty.  I like Rorty's work a lot but interestingly enough, I find that he helps me less as "research" and more as a guide to understand how to live a good life (on which, more to come some other time).  This post argues that Rorty was subtly dismissive of research itself (and his reasons for doing so!) and this, in turn, is why systematic thinkers don't care for him all that much.  Why Simon Blackburn, for instance, calls him the "professor of complacency" or why Thomas Nagel doesn't even deign to mention him in The View from Nowhere.]

When I started reading Richard Rorty's magnum opus "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," the first thing that surprised me was that Rorty's heroes -- according to him, the three greatest philosophers of the twentieth century: Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Dewey -- were hardly to be found in the book.  The book was instead focused almost completely on analytic philosophers: Quine, Sellars, Davidson and Kuhn, among others.  Most of Mirror of Nature is occupied with understanding how the notion of the mind (and knowledge) as the "mirror of nature" came to be so widely established, as well as how recent developments have shown that this notion is mistaken.  Instead, Rorty argues:   
[...] "objective truth" is no more and no less than the best idea we currently have about how to explain what is going on.  [...] inquiry is made possible by the adoption of practices of justification and [...] such practices have possible alternatives.  They [i.e. these practices] are just the facts about what a given society, or profession, or other group, takes to be good ground for assertions of a certain sort.  Such disciplinary matrices are studied by the usual empirical-cum-hermeneutic methods of "cultural anthropology."  [Page 385]
Consider what Rorty is saying here.  The discipline of philosophy has long conceived itself to be an arbiter of knowledge claims.  Now typically, all disciplines (psychology, history, geology, physics etc.) make knowledge claims so the job of philosophy (once the physical world had been ceded for explanation to the natural sciences) was to adjudicate between these claims, to put upstart disciplines (say, like sociology or cultural anthropology) in their places and to proclaim the superiority of, say, physics as an ideal for all other disciplines to look up to.  But behind this, says Rorty, is the presumption that the mind is a mirror of nature and truth means a correspondence between words and things.  Recent developments in analytic philosophy itself -- the work of Quine, Sellars, Davidson, Kuhn -- have led to a breakdown in this idea.  Truth is far better described in terms of the practices of justification used by communities of practitioners to "prove" something is true rather than in terms of correspondence, the key question being how communities of human beings (quantum physicists, mathematicians, etc.) with their own methods and cultures decide to agree upon certain things (what counts as evidence, what counts as good evidence and so on).

Now these are just the sorts of things that are studied by the sciences of society: sociology and cultural anthropology* (and to a much smaller extent, psychology).  This would make cultural anthropology the arbiter of knowledge claims, no?  Taking over the status of philosophy and all that?

Well, no, not really.  The most irritating thing in Mirror of Nature is the cavalier way Rorty treats his beloved "practices of justification" -- the same ones that he thinks are the key to understanding knowledge and epistemology.   Not as a topic of research, not as an area where we are far from having the last word, but as a solved problem, something to be dismissed as just cultural anthropology.  Whereas it's far from clear that we have actually figured out just what those practices of justification work. 

However, as I read more, I realized what Rorty was trying to do.  To remove the pretensions of philosophers (and philosophy) that they stand at the top of the great-chain-of-disciplines is one thing.  But it would be counter-productive to do this and then simply replace philosophy with another discipline as THE discipline that adjudicates knowledge claims.  So Rorty, preferring to remain true to his non-hierarchical conception of the disciplines, studiously plays down cultural anthropology.  Fair enough.

But sometimes, he seems to go further than that, actually disparaging the very idea of research.  As an example, consider this sentence:
To say that we have changed ourselves by internalizing a new self-description [...] is true enough.  But this is no more startling than the fact that men changed the data of botany by hybridization, which was in turn made possible by botanical theory, or that they changed their own lives by inventing bombs and vaccines.  [Page 386]

The passage seems to be doing two things at once.  First, it makes a cognitive claim: that, as a topic of investigation, changing one's life by internalizing a self-description should be given no more importance than, say, the change in human life caused by the invention of vaccines.  Fair enough.  But it also seems to imply that the problem of how human beings internalize a particular self-description is already solved.  But is it really?  No!  So why would Rorty try and hint something like that?  [In my copy of Mirror, I have scrawled "But how???" next to this paragraph.]

The key to what Rorty is trying to do lies in a section called "Systematic Philosophy and Edifying Philosophy" (page 365).   Here, he points out that there are two types of philosophers.  There are systematic philosophers whose aim is to do research; meaning that they are interested in systematically investigating certain issues (say epistemology). Systematic philosophers can be revolutionary, meaning that they can change completely the vocabulary of the field itself.  But even these philosophers are committed to a vision of philosophy as research and would presumably like their own vocabularies to be institutionalized.  In contrast to these, there are edifying philosophers (or thinkers) who do not attempt to be systematic, are not interested in research per se.  Even if they offer some revolutionary thoughts (like, say, the later Wittgenstein), they dread having their own vocabularies institutionalized; they most emphatically do not want to initiate a new research tradition.

One way to see edifying philosophy as the love of wisdom is to see it as the attempt to prevent conversation from degenerating into inquiry, into a research program.  Edifying philosophers can never end philosophy, but they can help prevent it from attaining the secure path of a science.

(Even I -- as someone generally sympathetic to Rorty's cause -- was riled when I read the line above about conversation degenerating into inquiry.)  

You can see this extension being extended to all types of thinkers in general, not just philosophers.  By thinkers I mean physicists, biologists, cultural anthropologists, historians, novelists, poets, actors, directors; anyone who expresses herself in a certain way though a certain medium.

The distinction between systematic and edifying thinkers then turns out to be this: systematic thinkers like to understand the world but they aren't very interested in changing it.  Or rather, while they may be interested in changing it, they are far more interested in the abstractions that come out of their research.  Which is not to say that their research cannot have uses -- nor that it can't change the world -- but just that they aren't interested in it for that reason.  Also they are read by only a limited set of people i.e. other specialists.  Physicists, chemists, molecular biologists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, mathematicians -- every one of us who likes systematic research -- all fall into this category.

As opposed to this, there are edifying thinkers.  They too have abstract interests but their work has the capacity to change the world simply because their work is accessible to more people.  Novelists, poets, ethnographers, journalists, social workers and above all, politicians, fall into this category.   At their best, they broaden the horizons of the human experience, they make us understand and empathize with others, those with whom we couldn't possibly have had any contact otherwise.  Edifying thinkers -- along with edifying technologies: the novel, the television program, the play -- are responsible for improving human solidarity and making today's liberal democratic societies possible.

Richard Rorty wants you to be an edifying thinker, not a systematic one.  Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature can be looked at as an exhortation to pursue a career where there is more of a possibility to change the world -- if not in an earth-shaking way, then, at least, in a much smaller way.  The most astounding thing is that, despite being a book about epistemology, it succeeds.  E.g. Matthew Yglesias admits that Mirror "convinced me that fascinating as I find the problems of philosophy to be, it made more sense to spend my time trying to apply the skills I learned thinking about them to the problems of the world than to the problems themselves."  I would argue that this is exactly the kind of response that Rorty would have wished for. Certainly Yglesias influences far more people now, writing about politics and public policy as a blogger, than he would have otherwise, even if he had tried to become a Rortyan "edifying philospher."

In his review of Mirror, Ian Hacking argues that Rorty's arguments from Quine, Sellars and Davidson can be taken as against a certain kind of epistemology, one that models knowledge as a static unchanging representations of things that are "out there," but another kind of epistemology is certainly possible that is more holistic and looks at knowledge as a a historical phenomenon that is made possible by (or "constructed") certain changes in the constitution of societies.  Indeed, Hacking and Foucault can be considered to be practitioners of this new epistemology.

I don't think Rorty would disagree with that.  But he doesn't want us to be doing epistemology, period -- even if it is historical ontology.  He wants us to do things that change the world tangibly and becoming practitioners of the new epistemology would do nothing to change the world; as it is a science that is more interested in looking back and then even further back.  Hacking's "history of the present," Rorty would argue, doesn't really change the present, except in that it initiates new research programs, all of which, in turn, keep looking backwards!

It is sort of this subtle hostility (but no outright antagonism) to research that Rorty exhibits -- and its all-too-apparent success in weaning off promising researchers e.g. Yglesias -- that I think is the reason why researchy philosophers (Nagel, Searle, et al) are in turn so hostile to Rorty.  It's also the main reason that as an epistemologist, I find Rorty to be not-so-useful.  Because Rorty doesn't want to promote any research agenda and has a (deliberate) tendency to treat interesting problems (of practices of justification, inter-subjectivity, etc.) as solved or not-so-interesting, his synthesis of Sellars, Quine, Davidson et al is only useful to a point.  Once you read him, you can go to all the sources that he points -- Hacking, Davidson, Sellars, Kuhn, Foucault, Heidegger, Dewey -- who agree with Rorty about the Mirror of Nature but unlike him, are also committed to understanding knowledge. 

[Rorty, however, is a wonderful philosopher of life, a point that I may address sometime in another post.]  
* E.g. on page 381 Rorty says:
I want to claim, on the contrary, that there is no point in trying to find a general synoptic way of "analyzing" the "functions knowledge has in universal contexts of practical life," and cultural anthropology (in a large sense which includes intellectual history) is all we need.

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