Thoughts on Rorty's Neo-pragmatism

Rorty lays out a compelling case for his rendition of pragmatism. Ultimately his claim produces the same effect as the sentence “This sentence has no significance.” By throwing out the ideas of essential truths and knowledge as simply products of social convention, he adopts a pseudo-relativistic view of the world where truth and knowledge are contingent upon the starting points afforded to us by our language. However, he maintains that conversational inquiry has a purpose and maintains a utility, despite where its conclusions may lead. As the aforementioned sentence demonstrates, despite its conclusion or message, we are engaged in an activity that, while futile, allows us to converge in understanding. In the event if we decide to evade the contingency of our starting points and continue the pursuit of higher essences, we do so not as a means of establishing something essential, but to satisfy some “Metaphysical Comfort”. 

Rorty has illustrated the power of language to dictate our understanding of the world. Fundamentally, language is a function of communication used inter-subjectively to exchange and index particular semantics, intentions and beliefs that subjects possess. Rorty takes the road that inquiry involves a choice between abiding by the contingent starting points that are socially dictated by convention and tradition, or evading these starting points in order to reach for higher truths with the Platonist hope of becoming a “properly programmed machine”.

But why does Rorty place such an emphasis on language as the prime mover for inquiry? Because language involves more than one subject, language is a social device. There would be no need for language if there was no ‘others’ to communicate with. In this light the use of language functions just like the use of a tool that aids in a task or purpose. The act of evading starting points in an act that allows for the stipulation of new words and definitions. This creation is the same as the creation of any other tool to serve a purpose. However, the aim of language is to converge on agreement with ‘others’. This convergence or point of agreement is dependent upon the speaker’s intention to determine the aim.

The intention of an interlocutor, then, boils down to the choice of accepting the contingent character of these starting points and converging on an agreement, or evading the starting points in favor of something higher.

At this point I would like to expand on Rorty’s choice and argue that ultimately this choice depends on the “will to power” rather than mere “metaphysical comfort”. Pursuing higher truths requires a struggle to break free from these contingent starting points. The notion of “metaphysical comfort” that characterizes this struggle doesn’t properly accommodate the ego-centrism with this evasion. After all, if these conversational constraints or contingent starting points are inherited from society, evading them would be a direct dismissal of the legitimacy of society’s current agreements and beliefs. The “will to power”, on the other hand, is a more radical and defiant choice of dictating a personal language to the world, regardless of external agreement, that is self-justified.

Pragmatism emphasizes the justification of ‘ends’ or ‘aims’ or ‘purposes’. It holds that the aims themselves are more ethical and arbitrary than necessary and essential. Platonists, and other representationalists, idealists, and rationalists, presume the existence of discoverable truths embedded in reality that activities such as science and philosophy can uncover. They hold that all progress is a result of a convergence on these truths.

One may distill the ultimate aim of life generally to be what Darwin called the “struggle for existence”, or what Nietzsche saw as the “will to power”. Darwin’s description of justification seems more bound to the physicality aspects of life to survive and persist, whereas Nietzsche’s conception seems to accommodate the nature of life physically and consciously to dominate and thrive. I think Nietzsche’s description allows for and accommodates the nature of progress by accounting for the purely arbitrary exchange of power that changes hands that ultimately dictates ends at any given time. This will to power has nothing to do with essential truths or ultimate realities. Instead it is a matter of evolving vocabularies that suit the aims and demands- problems and challenges arising from struggle- facing a group of people at any given time. These vocabularies are self justified and cannot be justified with noncircular reasoning. Rorty says that “Epistemologies are merely the articulations of the preferred vocabularies.” (34) There is nothing inherent or transcendental about their use save their efficiency to achieve an end.

When we talk about the truth and falsity of the external world and reality, about space and time, we cannot overlook that the human mind not only perceives it, but creates this spatio-temporal world. Nothing true, absolute and essential can be said of it that doesn’t include mental states. I want to emphasize the fact that anything said about reality says nothing about essence or the ontic nature of reality: talking about reality at all, as if it is something that precludes mental states and language, is a fruitless enterprise. Any belief about representational knowledge, knowledge being necessary and proper, is nothing more than a sentential stipulation that has yet to be falsified. In this way conversational inquiry is contingent upon the final vocabularies we possess at any given time. There are no clear boundaries of what is true or false, only what can be said. As William James said, true is simply that which is expedient to our thinking.

Rorty is an antiepistemologist; he acknowledges that epistemologies are merely socially justified beliefs and that these beliefs are ethical and normative achievements. This pluralistic view holds that beliefs vary according to conventions, values, and needs of a group of people at any given time. In this way there is no such thing as objective knowledge to speak of. This supposes knowledge as being socially independent. Rorty holds that objective knowledge is really an extension or projection of socially justified beliefs. A subject’s evaluation of whether one is doing epistemology well or not does not indicate that there is a right way or a wrong way. It merely indicates the criteria that they deem to be adequate for socially justified beliefs.

Many argue that Rorty’s antiepistemological argument is relativistic and self refuting. Rorty would deny this claim on the grounds that relativism presupposes true and falsity. This is because adopting the argument for relativism supposes a non-relative epistemic norm which would be an epistemic success and any argument does not adopt it is then an epistemic failure. Instead his argument is an ethical one based on utility. Utility varies by degree according to aim and intention. In this way his argue is not self refuting. It merely presents itself as an additional option for classifying knowledge that seems to suggest arbitrariness.

But what determines good or worse? According to Rorty, arbitrary reasons sorted by the community of inquirers. One may object on the grounds that some reasons are better or worse, that it is not arbitrary for why else would we converge on one knowledge claim over another? Rorty provides a contextualist answer that emphasizes choice between accepting norms and creating norms. Accepting these norms means accepting conversational constraints, the contingent character of starting-points, which binds inquiry to the inherited vocabularies at hand so long as we accept the historical programming. Creating these norms means evading the contingent starting-points in an effort to become a properly programmed machine, as Rorty says. But choosing one knowledge claim over another is arbitrary in the ultimate sense. On a local level it is contingent on historical and political interests, but on a macro level, there is nothing indicating ultimate priority of choosing one belief over another. These choices boil down to utility and self-preservation and these purely depend on ethically chosen ends and aims.

I hold that Richard Rorty makes a compelling argument because it allows for one to maintain multiple conflicting beliefs simultaneously without the fear that there is any ultimate dilemma in doing so. The reason for this is because he acknowledges contingency. Why is this important? Contingency means that things are neither true nor false but depend upon a context. In this way Rorty accommodates the role of change that results in inconsistencies and contradictions.

When Rorty is saying there are no constraints on inquiry but conversational ones, he is saying that all truth is reducible to procedural knowledge, knowledge that justifies itself through activity. Procedural knowledge creates propositional knowledge through action, through conversational agreements. In this way propositional knowledge is not truth, but a confluence of contingencies drawn from historical and community conventions.

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