Back to CQ Homepage

To: Teed Rockwell

From: Elizabeth Minnich

Date: 9/15/98

Re: "A Critique of Rorty’s Analysis of Modern Epistemology"

Let me respond to your fine paper first by saying where I think it manages to miss Rorty’s basic move, and reasons for making it, and then by going through more point by point both to think a bit about them with you and to see if I can by so doing show why/how I came to think you were missing the most basic move.

I should say, before beginning, that I am hearing what you say about Rorty now from the perspective on his work I have (for the time being, at least) as a result of having heard a working paper he presented to the scholars’ workshop of which I was a member at The Getty this winter, and then participating with him in a 4-hour discussion (and following small dinner gathering). I have also recently read his curious rather autobiographical essay, "Trotsky and Wild Orchids," and that too has had some effect. So, I think I am speaking about my sense of where Rorty is now with his thinking, rather than primarily about the Rorty who is contained in the works you are discussing. You might say that whether I am at all right or quite wrong, I am speaking about what I understand to be a person’s evolving thinking, and you are speaking about a body of work bearing a name, Rorty. These are never, of course, quite the same, but engagement of the two is always at least interesting (perhaps particularly so to those of us interested more in philosophizing than in Philosophy, if I may put it that way).

From my present perspective, then, I want to say that I think the key to the move Rorty is making may be, to use the texts you are using, in the quote you cite on the bottom of p. 6: "To retain the idealist’s holism while junking their metaphysics, all we need to do is to renounce the ambition of transcendence." (Rorty 1993, p.190). In this, the key is, first, "to renounce the ambition of transcendence." That is, I understand Rorty to be trying very hard indeed to get a large and motley bunch of us to stop trying to ground anything, including epistemology, in any kind of transcendental ground of claimed certainty and/or necessity, to give up any such foundationalism. You don’t quarrel with him about that, but you refuse, throughout your paper, to grant him its full definitional import. To make, perhaps to over-make, his point, he wants us not to call anything "epistemology" that does not entail transcendent foundational claims. You, on the other hand, wish to retain the name for what you hold are related if significantly differing kinds of inquiry, argument, explanation, justification.

What difference does it make, this apparent struggle over the term we want to use? I think it makes at least two kinds of difference. I think Rorty wants to protect us from slipping back (as he thought Dewey and James slipped) towards the two-worlds or realms absolutism he discusses, and so wants a very firm barrier set up -- or, better, a reframing that can in a sense begin again on differing grounds. To effect such a profound shift, he seems to think it better to stop what has gone on, and move over to other grounds (to change the subject). Hence, new terms, differing language. I will add here that, from listening to him this winter, I also think he is trying to protect the older tradition from being --what? undone? discredited? distorted? -- by efforts to wrench it into differing framings of the sort you are exploring. That is, I think his protective urges go two ways: he wants to protect us in efforts to think in and of and for our human, changing, plural,never certain, ethically and politically complex and never absolute world, and he wants to protect his and others’ love of the elegant metaphysics et al of older systems. These latter he urged us, at The Getty, to enjoy as aesthetic objects, as it were; to love for the "bliss" of it, for the sake of our own souls (that’s the kind of language he used). Great Philosophy of The Past then becomes a kind of conceptual art gallery, and ‘good for us’ in similar ways that cannot be ‘reduced’ to usefulness even as they can inspire and deeply please us.

You, on the other hand, want precisely to explore usefulness, and to hold moves to enhance or forward it within a tradition that would have had to understand it quite differently than you do.

Both positions have merit, and I am myself quite comfortable examining and learning with and from both. What doesn’t work, I think, is trying to discredit his from the perspective of yours, which is definitionally incompatible with it. Rorty means something like "absolutizing epistemologies" when he says "epistemology," and you want the former to be just one kind of the latter. On one level, it doesn’t matter which ‘wins,’ except of course that you both have other reasons, in the form of desired consequences, for your definitional moves. I’d move, then, to an evaluation of which of the likely consequences of the two positions I might find persuasively desireable -- a good old classical pragmatist position after all, which may matter more than specifications of definitions in this debate. You are both trying out what pragmatism may make possible for you, and we, your audience, can and even should then evaluate on appropriate grounds. I have some sense now of what consequences Rorty has in mind as desireable. I think he wants us to stop wrenching beautiful philosophical systems around in an effort to make them useful to us in our ethical and political struggles in ways that are incompatible with them, and I think he wants us to get on with the task of relearning how to think philosophically in a human, relational, complex, contradictory, changing, perforce always uncertain world. And you? To involve more, including scientists, in epistemology, meaning work on assumptions that shape any and all intellectual enterprises, and hence in what you think would be more, and more responsible, theorizing. I rather doubt if Rorty would find that objectionable, although he might find the desire to reground all knowing, and knowledge, in neuroscience objectionable for its absolutizing, and/or lack of pluralizing, tendancies. And he might want to say that you are indeed still doing epistemology insofar as those tendancies seem to be there......These days, at least, Rorty is not an enemy of common sense. On the contrary, he may be protecting it to such an extent that he is overdoing his definitional, political attacks on Epistemology (and postmodernism, interestingly enough).

Back to your paper:In your first paragraph, I think you may be hearing the sweeping nature of Rorty’s statements without taking account of his definitional moves. "...We must refrain from trying to change our fundamental beliefs about reality...." may be what he says, but it may mean that we should give up claiming a knowledge status for our fundamental beliefs, not any beliefs at all, and that makes a big difference.P.2: " is supposed to contradict common sense. No one would ever attempt to dismiss the expanding universe theory by saying, ‘that is not what we mean by space’........common sense became something to be explained was neuroscience, rather than fundamental ontology, that would provide the explanatory context." I would assume that Rorty, and some other pragmatists, would have issues with a couple of dimensions of this. First, is it not the case historically that even among scientists, prevailing notions do lead to efforts to dismiss new explanations because they do not "make sense" by hitherto prevailing definitions, i.e. by professionalized, professional community "common sense"? So, it seems important to specify whose "common sense" is at issue. If it is ‘only’ the common sense of non-professionals in relation to professional expertise that is to be "explained away," there are other issues to raise. Pragmatically, what are the consequences of people handing the ways they/we commonly, collectively make sense over to professionals, to experts? Strikes me as dangerous, and as troublingly based on a unitary, absolutizing of truth: cannot there be scientific truths accepted by the community of scientists (which themselves change regularly), and daily truths by which we manage our shared lives together? Why the desire to undo one in absolute favor of the other? This, I think, is a reason why Rorty, and some others, want to emphasize, for example, communities of discourse over grounds for Truth. Power is also at issue here."Rorty’s Puritanism about philosophical abstraction": an odd phrase, given the lush metaphysics he loves and wants to protect from being pressed into inappropriate daily service ("Trotsky and Wild Orchids"). A small point, but he sounds to me like an overly protective lover, not a puritan!

p.3: "The web of belief is not a mosaic with independent parts, so to understand how we think we must also understand the patterns that govern how the web is woven, and the meta-patterns that interrelate those patterns." Is that the only alternative to atomism? Are there Patterns governing the web weaving, or perhaps patternings that emerge through the weaving, new each time although always also in relation to familiar patternings differing by time, culture, place.... Are there "meta-patterns that interrelate those patterns"? Why do we need to assume that? Or, of what do those meta-patterns consist? Where are they? Are they only of one kind? Which? Why that one kind? Why not several kinds, at least? What are the effects of trying to come up with one kind of pattern that "govern" and "interrelate"? In short, this doesn’t seem the least bit obvious to me; it sounds like a good old Platonic move, actually, simply shifted to a level of patterns from one of Ideas.I think you are right here: "He calls all thought that presupposes the belief that there is such a division ‘epistemology,’ and says that once we have given up the possibility of finding something that all true sentences have in common, we have changed the subject and are no longer doing epistemology." That’s the definitional move I keep referring to. Showing why you don’t want to make that move is not the same as disproving the move, though -- unless of course you hold to a Platonic notion of the meaning of "epistemology" and cannot therefore abide differing definitions for differing purposes with differing consequences that nevertheless have some family resemblances (enough to make it necessary to make fierce distinctions when one does not want to affirm the family-ness because of all its messy implications).p.4: "..yet no one who believes this thinks that we should therefore refrain from doing botany and zoology." Perhaps not, but I don’t think that’s the issue.

The issue is whether classifying is understood to be following the ‘joints’ of Nature (and Nature’s god), or something less necessary but still reliable, or ‘mere’ convention, or a particular culture’s particular logics at a particular time related to its particular ways of sorting things and people and relations out (cf. Borges, and of course Foucault). You are, I think, again avoiding the definitional issue: what "botany" means can change radically, whether or not people are using the same word, and that doesn’t prove anything except that some habits die hard, or aren’t important enough to bother changing. Rorty thinks they are important enough to change when we are talking about knowledge today; you don’t. That’s the ground of disagreement, so I need to ask why you want to keep the word and whether or not that desire does or doesn’t carry in it a desire to find a new, finally established high, or foundational, grounding after all. Your arguments for why/how "we" are always doing epistemology do keep coming down on some one final kind, or mark, or characteristic, or test, of knowing, so maybe finally the issue is whether you are despite claiming otherwise a closet epistemologist in Rorty’s sense. (I’ve not been sure about that through any of your work so far, actually; fascinating to watch you struggle with it. Such struggles are the sort that drive continuing philosophical work, I think. Hannah Arendt used to tell me about graduate students who would come crowing to her with the claim that they had found a contradiction "at the heart" of one or another of the great philosophers -- "As if," she would say, "that discredits them. On the contrary: it is because there is such a deep contradiction that they were driven to the depths of thought they were.") Not to prolong this, just two more examples. "Rorty claims..that all epistemologies must accept that knowledge has foundations, or they are not worthy of the name. But...this is...not the only possible position on this issue." No, of course not, but the question is whether it is a good idea to use the same name for them all, or not, and on what grounds one might want to restrict its usage. And, p.5: "After the second quote, Rorty adds, ‘this is an awkward, but not impossible position.’ But impossible is precisely the right word for this position, for it contains essentially the same contradiction as the Logical Positivist claim that ‘all non-empirical,non-tautologous statements are meaningless, including this one." I’m not convinced Rorty’s position is "impossible" except within the terms of logic, which is precisely what he is not doing here. He is remembering that there are differing kinds and levels of meanings which need not be reduced or submitted one to the other as if there is a ‘higher’ absolutized/logical/transcendent meaning that reigns over ‘lower’ meanings. Here, I think he’d have to say you are doing epistemology in just the ways that make him want to say, Change the subject. Shift levels; go somewhere else, lest you violate both logic and life.

And now I should also say that I have disagreements with Rorty’s reverence for the philosohic systems he wants removed, like wild orchids, from the fray of politics, since I cannot help but see their implications with the political injustices, and sometimes justices, of their times and so am hardly free to entrust my soul to them in pure pleasure. Nor do I trust people who have not worked through ways that the ‘purest’ thinking can be, has unquestionably been all too often, implicated with injustices to change the subject and start again. So, on my own grounds, I have had quarrels with him. I don’t so much mean to be defending him here; I mean to be trying to clarify what is going on in your paper, and in his work, and as those meet, that’s all.

Best, Elizabeth