A review of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Consequences of Pragmatism, by Richard Rorty

Some men write or, to use the relevant metaphor, construct books on topics profound or obscure. Rorty calls these men “systematic philosophers.” They are “philosophers like” (an indispensable Rorty locution) Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Russell. Other men review their books or, in the idiom, deconstruct them. These men are “edifying philoso­phers.” Seemingly solid edifices like Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (PMN) should not deceive us. Rorty’s business is not edificing, but edifying. He is a deconstructor.

But this is an incomplete characterization of the nature of Rorty’s work. There are, it turns out, indirect deconstructors or meta-deconstructors or-and here we begin to get to the heart of things-poets of deconstructors. Rorty’s “heroes”-Quine, Wittgenstein, Sellers, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Dewey, Heidegger, Foucault, and quite a few others-are the direct deconstructors. Rorty is the recounter of their deeds and, much more, the singer of their praises. His genre is the rhetoric of deconstruction.

What exactly is deconstruction, and how does it proceed, and why? To understand these things, it is necessary to sketch Rorty’s view of where philosophy is now; his own role in the emergence of “edifying” philosophy; and his hopes for the results of deconstruction.

We are, according to Rorty, at a certain pregnant point in historical time. Guided by Hegel, Nietzsche, and especially Thomas Kuhn, contemporary philoso­phers are now completely self-conscious about the history of Western philosophy. We are able to see that all philosophizing is comprised of either “normal philosophy,” constructed by the systematic philoso­phers, and “revolutionary philosophy,” which is the deconstruction of normal, systematic philosophy by Rorty’s various contemporary heroes. Of course, there have been previous revolutionary deconstruc­tors, Socrates and Montaigne among them. Rorty’s view of Socrates will figure in our tale as it gets told.

It is difficult to say how seriously Rorty takes this account of the history of philosophy. He neither critically examines it nor defends it, but instead takes it as the framework within which his own thought moves. My guess is that Rorty believes, first, that this account is now widely accepted among those whom he considers philosophers and, second, that it accords well with his own “pragmatic” notion of truth. Pragmatism contends that truth is what gets the job done, here and now. This “story” about the history of philosophy enables Rorty to ignore the possibility that various “philosophies” are other than divergent ungrounded constructions which possess, at best, internal coherence according to some historically bound notion of logic, and a certain perennial literary appeal. That one or the other of them might be the truth about things is dismissed out of hand, since we now know that, for all practical purposes, there is nothing enduring in which to ground truth.

Contemporary revolutionary philosophers have destroyed-sorry, deconstructed-the two char­acteristic modern grounds. These grounds are the mind and language. In his clearest single statement of purpose, Rorty says,

The aim of the book is to undermine the reader’s confidence in “the mind” as something about which one should have a “philosophical” view, in “knowledge” as something about which there ought to be a “theory” and which has “foundations,” and in “philosophy” as it has been conceived since Kant. (PMN, p. 7)

Rorty’s distinctive contribution to this doubt-inducing process is to argue that “linguistic analysis,” “epistemology,” and “textualism” are modifications and continuations of Kantianism. They substitute (generally) semantic criteria for mind and its cate­gories as inter-cultural and extra-cultural regulators and adjudicators of empirical “practices.” Practices, it will become clear, are good things, critical reflec­tion on them much less good.

Rorty’s views on reading texts are of special interest. His essays in Consequences of Pragmatism (CP) on Derrida and “Idealism and Textualism” contend that it is no more possible to discover the meaning of a text than it is to discover the truth about reality. Texts are analogous to experience. What you see in them, or put in them, is what is there for you. No “objective” criterion exists to invalidate your opinion. It is thus impossible to retreat from the world of sense and mind, and establish a secure and meaningful world based on one or another text. He praises the “strong misreader” and “strong textualist,” who “doesn’t care about the distinction between discovery and creation, finding and making. He doesn’t think this is a useful distinction any more than Nietzsche and James did. He is in it for what he can get out of it, not for the satisfaction of getting something right” (CP, p. 152). Texts, like the rest of constructed reality, are best when deconstrued. In Rorty’s view, they cannot be misconstrued.

What is to result from this devastating, or at any rate well-timed, critique of mind, knowledge, and language; that is, of things distinctively human? Two answers are possible, one of which I’ll mention briefly, since I don’t think that it is Rorty’s basic project. At various points, Rorty suggests that the dialectic between normal, systematic philosophy and edifying, revolutionary philosophy will continue ad infinitum, or at least ad terminam universitatas. Edifying philosophy, he says, “can only be reactive.” Its job is to “send the conversation off in new directions,” thus insuring that philosophy not become dry, academic and boring (PMN, p. 378; cf. p. 385).

Philosophical Dance

I find it unlikely either that this eternal philo­sophical dance will be the result of deconstruction, or that Rorty thinks that it will. Once “normal” philosophy is widely held to be a recurring but ungroundable and thus misguided episode in the “conversation,” no sane and duly sophisticated person will find construction worth the effort. To philosophize positively and constructively one must believe that what is sought exists and in principle may be discovered. This is as true of the “New Philosophy”-modern empirical science-as of any other mode of inquiry. Without this belief, philosophy is at best a game, but a game with no point, and such pastimes are poorly played and soon abandoned. Rorty is inclined to acknowledge this. In the concluding and most recent essay in Consequences of Pragmatism, he remarks on what rapidly passing fancies today’s “problematics” have become:

One of the reasons people come to the divisional meetings of the [American Philosophical Associa­tion] is to find out what the fashionable new problems are-what the “good people in the field” are talking about nowadays. For it has now become enough to constitute a problem as “philosophical” that a well-known professor of philosophy has written an interesting paper posing it. . . . We no longer have a story to tell about the relation between our problems and those of the past, . . . (CP, p. 217)

The second possible “consequence of pragmatism” is much more interesting and “constitutes” Rorty as much more than a mere philosophic retailer of Kuhn’s thesis about paradigms. Presumably, the contemporary revolutionary philosophers have deconstructed modern philosophy as the Cartesian-Lockean-Kantian-early-Wittgensteinian project of having the mind, and then language, mirror nature and thus discover truth. Rorty as their poet has, with the aid of Kuhn, placed this current decon­struction in the larger Hegelian-Nietzschean frame­work which makes it possible to see that all philoso­phy in the West has been this “conversation” between systematic and revolutionary philosophy. Thus seen, the conversation is just that, it is conversation for its own sake-not about anything real, only amusing the participants, without endur­ing consequences. Rorty’s posture is never to say “strictly speaking”; nevertheless, strictly speaking this conversation is meaningless, and is now revealed as such.

Thus, Rorty the poet, Rorty the rhetorician, and Rorty the chronicler of deconstruction combine to construct the new reality in which “philosophy” will exist, or try to. It appears that as Plato is the constructor of Socrates the deconstructor, so now is Rorty the constructor of the various contempor­ary deconstructors-who after all may or may not have believed that their work was deconstruction-and, more than this, of the entire “story” of con­struction and deconstruction. But, if Plato was a poet of deconstruction, he took care not to appear as such, and succeeded. Rorty repeatedly contrasts misguided Platonic constructionism-he doesn’t descend to examine the actual constructs-with edifying Socratic conversation. But did Socrates disbelieve in the possibility of philosophy as either an intellectual or a moral activity? If he did, then he and his creator were arch-deceivers, and, after all, we do not usually die for that which we dis­believe in.

After Philosophy

Rorty knows that philosophy cannot survive this “edifying” account of it. Accordingly, in the last-written “Introduction” to Consequences of Pragmatism he sketches “a post-Philosophical cul­ture.” He gives only the most fleeting and appar­ently inconsistent glimpses of this “culture,” or society, or commonwealth, or whatever this “form of life” may be. At times, it seems to be perfectly unruled assemblages of marvelously developed beings who are “simply people who (are) good at being human” (CP, p. xxxix). These are people knowing enough, and psychologically heroic enough, to live fully human lives in the absence of any theory or defensible belief about what human beings are. But they also live dangerously, without philo­sophical protection, with a full understanding of the consequences of their heroic ungroundedness:

. . . when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form “There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.” This thought is hard to live with, . . . – the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, . . . (CP, p. xlii)

It is especially hard, or puzzling, to live with since Rorty frequently remarks that what will mark “philosophy as conversation rather than discovery” is “phronesis [prudence, the virtue of statesmen] rather than episteme [science],” and “civility” (e.g., PMN, pp. 318-19). Can any prudent man believe that it is a sign of practical wisdom to applaud and assist in the deconstruction of a tradi­tion substantially aimed at discovering the roots and grounds of civility, and developing institutions which shore up those grounds and nurture those roots? However misguided one may believe modern philosophy to be, nevertheless the philosophy of mind and of language may well be seen as an effort to discover and defend the distinctively human in a presumptively mechanical world. In passing, and only in passing, Rorty notes that he has not answered the “deep criticism” of pragmatism: “the criticism that the Socratic virtues cannot, as a practical matter, be defended save by Platonic means, that without some sort of metaphysical comfort nobody will be able not to sin against Socrates.” Rorty the pragmatist says, “We just do not know,” and leaves it at that (CP, p. 174).

Underlying his indecision and indifference is, I think, indecision and indifference. Evidently, Rorty has not thought through the relationship between philosophy and politics, and particularly the relationship between the tradition of political philosophy and the modern liberal commonwealth. If he had, he could not be willing “to celebrate bourgeois capitalist society as the best polity actu­alized so far” (CP, p. 210), and yet deconstruct the natural rights foundation on which that polity rests. Rorty has apparent confidence in “empirical practices,” uncomplicated by theoretical construc­tions. Here, presumably, are “simply human beings,” unencumbered by metaphysics, doing wonderfully well the things which human beings do. But which of our practices is uninformed by prior theory and metaphysical belief? More to the point, which of the splendidly diverse human beings engaging in these practices is unshaped by the tradition which Rorty is helping to further the deconstruction of?

At last, it appears to me that Rorty has trouble making up his mind. The true foundation of his thought shifts between an implicit confidence that the liberal polity will endure and continue to develop, no matter what one says or neglects to say about it, and no matter how unreflectively one deconstructs its foundations; between this, and the brooding sense that the epoch is ending, that our fate is sealed, and that the world after philoso­phy is all but upon us. The genuine choice for Rorty is between Dewey and Nietzsche. (See CP, pp. 203-8.) He opts for Dewey but can offer only “hope” and “an ungroundable but vital sense of human solidarity” as “justifications” for his choice. The questions which he might ask-but does not-are these: First, is there a fundamental or significant difference between the views of Dewey and Nietz­sche or, in pointedly pragmatic terms, is the hope imparted by Dewey sufficiently inspiriting to out­weigh both his lack of reasoned grounding and whatever dark attractions Nietzsche’s apocalyptism offers? Second, if there is a decisive difference between Dewey and Nietzsche, is that difference a moral one with grounds which may be discovered in “process” and “interaction”?

Beyond these, if the implicit practical conclusion of Rorty’s books is “Follow Dewey!” then he needs, and lacks, an extended discussion of how Dewey’s writings either reflectpractical wisdom-I at least will forgive him the “mirroring”-or develop it. In other words, Rorty’s uncompleted task is to show how Dewey is a political philosopher superior to those who have made it their work to discover what practical wisdom is and how it may be developed in practice. Until he does, I suggest that “deconstruction” is an idea whose time should never come.