Monday, October 08, 2007

Rorty the Rose

Notes from Epistemology at the Core of Postmodernism: Rorty, Foucault, and the Gospel, by Hinkson and Ganssle.

Richard Rorty rejects the correspondence theory of truth, arguing instead for pragmatism. For Rorty, the search for truth is not about a search for “the world as it actually is.” Truth is socially constructed and, in some measure, a product of wish fulfillment. Rorty even goes so far as to deny any distinction between synthetic statements (ice cream is good) and analytic statements (Chicago is a city in the United States). Scientific reasoning—no less than moral reasoning—is just as much a matter of constructing reality as we want it to be. Into this epistemic vacuum Rorty inserts pragmatism. He writes,

The pragmatist drops the notion of truth as correspondence with reality altogether, and says that modern science does not enable us to cope because it corresponds, it just plain enables us to cope (Consequences of Pragmatism, xvi-xvii).

In other words, we order our lives according to the dictates of science not because science is true, but because it works. But what does he mean “to cope”? Rorty’s sociological agenda is to achieve a “sense of solidarity” within human society, a solidarity based upon the common plight that all people live with a fear of humiliation. Coping then, for Rorty, is anything that enables humans to live together in a society that doesn’t produce a sense of humiliation.

But how do we determine which societal mechanisms are best for avoiding the humiliation of its members? Even more importantly, how do we determine if Rorty’s pragmatism is the best way forward in the first place? If there is no metanarrative—no transcendent reality—that judges all truth claims, then is not each truth claim only valid in relation to the one maintaining it? Does not this inevitably lead to stale relativism? But Rorty insists that his pragmatism avoids the charge of relativism. The pragmatist, he contends, is not advocating a positive epistemology at all. He is instead

making the purely negative point that we should drop the traditional distinction between knowledge and opinion . . . The pragmatist does not have a theory of truth, much less a relativistic one . . . Not having any epistemology , a fortiori he does not have a relativistic one (Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 23, 24).

In short, since the pragmatist is attempting to be purely deconstructive in his epistemology, he cannot be accused of maintaining any sort of epistemology, including a relativistic one.

But does Rorty’s sidestep really avoid the quagmire of relativism? He seems to have merely redefined relativism in constructive terms and then semantically—though not substantively—deconstructed it in an attempt to distance himself from it. But relativism was already a purely deconstructive epistemology. It’s difficult for me to see what livable differences, if any, there are between relativism and Rory’s pragmatism. Both deny the correspondence theory of truth, rejecting the notion that the individual has a burden to discover and adhere to transcendent reality. Both leave it up to the individual to determine what is best. The only advantage that Rorty’s pragmatism has over relativism is that it calls a spade a spade. Truth is either absolute (even if we can only access it imperfectly) or it does not exist at all. Relative truth is an oxymoron. But in the end, Rorty’s evasion seems little more than semantics. A rose by any other name . . .


Sancho Panza said...

See my previous posts on the individualistic construct of truth in your discussion of catholic conversion. Truth is both absolute and infinite. An individuals construct of truth is relative and temporal. This construct ultimately leads to some form of relativism or pragmatism, I agree a rose by any other name-

If truth is both absolute and eternal, and obtainable- then what other possible theory can be espoused except that the truth is to some degree retained by an individual, to some degree woven into the construct they exist in, and then acted upon in daily situations. Only in eternity will the absolute truth and the individuals construct of truth come into clear view in some degree of alignment, juxtaposed or contradictory altogether.

As for the pragmatic dilemma, what if I were to propose that all humans act pragmatically. The only variance in individuals actions would be the degree of overlap with absolute truth v. their own construct of what truth is? Since the construct of truth within a given individual is accepted as fact by that individual, and that idea is as yet unchallenged here, pragmatism can only be defined then as a relative term since the construct of truth within a given person is relative as well. What may appear to be "relative" or "pragmatic" to one individual may indeed be viewed as moral and absolute by another.

Gerald said...


If I follow you properly, I think I'm in basic agreement.

Relativism is unlivable and absolutism is impossible. So there's going to have to be some combination of subjectivity and objectivity in any workable epistemic paradigm.

The problem I have with any metaphysical arealism (such as pragmatism) is that it removes any chance of objectivity. It's one thing to say that perfect objectivity is impossible, and quite another to say that any objectivity is impossible.

I find the postmodern critique, though helpful at certain levels, is entirely too ambitious. Its grasping, deconstructing fingers don't undo metaphysical realism nearly as much as they think they do.

Sancho Panza said...

Yes, yes. The "grasping, deconstructing fingers" is both a vivid and well taken metaphor.

This discussion of pragmatism, absolutism, relativism, etc would take us perhaps into some of SK's (Søren Kierkegaard) thinking and writing on the topic of subjectivity.