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When I think of my position in the cognitive science community, I am often reminded of a J.Wesley Smith cartoon, which shows Wesley dressed like a French courtier surrounded by an angry mob, to whom he is saying "But I'm a revolutionary, too. I joined the court so I could burrow from within!" When confronted by true revolutionaries like Rorty and Minnich, I often wonder how much we Cognitive philosophers may have given up to be part of the Scientific Enterprise. We do have a place at court these days, even though it may be only that of court jester. But I think that court jester is a very important position, and I am not willing to trade it for something more exalted, if it means that I have to stop asking silly questions that no one knows the answer to. (This seems to be the path advocated by Bickle in his CQ posts, and to some degree followed by the later work of the Churchlands) Nor am I willing to violate court decorum so completely that I will get myself thrown out and declared to be a revolutionary. I admire the process of rational argument based on careful research, and I thinks it's important to use those tools to change the minds of those who share that admiration. Most importantly, I think that members of the scientific community need to be aware of ways in which these tools have turned in on themselves and discovered their own limitations.

This is what Rorty has done with an admirable persistance shared by few other members of the analytical philosophy community. Almost no one else has had the courage to accept all of the scarier implications of Quine and Sellars, not even Quine and Sellars themselves. If anyone was ever positioned to burrow from within, Rorty certainly was. But this courage has cost him the respect of many in his former community, partly because his conclusions are so frightening , and partly because his new lack of faith in rational argument has prompted him to be not as scrupulous at observing its rules as he was in his analytical youth. So for many of my cognitive philosophy peers, critiqueing Rorty seems like a waste of time. His methods, as well as his claims, seem to be so completely out of the loop of good scientific method, who would take the trouble to defend him? (despite the fact that the tiny rooms he is given at APA conferences are always filled to the rafters.) Who indeed, but Elizabeth Minnich, my revolutionary conscience, and the one person on my committee who will always question what everyone else takes for granted.

It is difficult to know exactly how to reply to either Rorty and Minnich, for they have positioned themselves firmly on the ambiguous fringes of rational discourse. I think that can be a worthwhile position, but many of my colleagues do not, and I have spent too much time with them to be completely comfortable there myself. No doubt some newspaper columnist with pretensions of rationality would have self-righteous fun quoting out of context Minnich's statement that "I’m not convinced Rorty’s position is "impossible" except within the terms of logic, which is precisely what he is not doing here." But I've gotten enough insight from reading the Tao te Ching ( which would simply be a list of contradictions if it were translated into symbolic logic) to know that she is making a valid point. The problem is, I'm not sure that this is what Rorty is not doing here, and I don't think that he's sure, either. If what he wants to do is use paradoxes to make profound points about the human condition, he has my blessings. I've been known to do the same thing myself. But it appears that he is claiming that paradoxes are the only way to say anything profound about human knowledge, and I don't think he can justify that claim.

If Rorty were simply tired of talking about epistemology, he could simply change jobs the way Bob Atkins did when he became an attorney. But he is not just changing the subject, he is claiming that "We" ought to change the subject. This is why I must, in Minnich's words "discredit his [position] from the perspective of [mine]". I know this makes it sound like a quarrel between two small boys, but "he tried to discredit my(and Dewey's and James') position first!". In order to do that, Rorty has to show not just that there are paradoxes in trying to answer epistemological questions, but that there are more problems with epistemology than with other subjects we could change to. Because all of the Quinean-Sellarsian-Kuhnian problems he reveals in epistemology are equally present in the sciences, his demand that we ought to change the subject has no force. I've tried to justify this claim with rational argument (which I do not think is identical to predicate calculus, although there is some overlap.) I'm willing to recognize that rational discourse is able to point towards it's own limits, and I will consider arguments that claim to show where this is necessary. But I'm also going to continue to try to catch Rorty in inconsistencies, conflations and other sins against rationality, because Rorty and Minnich are both still playing that game to some degree, and I still think that such methods are one very important way of protecting ourselves from theories that can lead us into dangerous errors.

A familiarity with these methods is also the only way to fully appreciate the lush metaphysical landscapes that Rorty claims to admire so much; a fact that is easy to forget when those methods have become second nature. This statement may sound dogmatic, but I've never met anyone who sat down with the Critique of Pure Reason and read it like a novel, and I don't think anyone would appreciate it if they did. In order to appreciate a great philosophical system, you have to care deeply about the questions it is trying to answer, try to find answers for yourself, and then discover that again and again you find yourself being drawn back to the vision described in that system. And you have to appreciate the standards of discourse it presupposes, and believe that those standards are important. If one tried to teach the great philosophers by only having a conversation where no one cared deeply what the answers were and how they should be evaluated, I don't believe a single student would take the trouble to fight their way through the jargon. Here, alas, I come up against the limits of rational discourse, at least as it is conceived of in the analytic tradition, for I cannot prove any of this. I speak only from my own experience, and hopefully my experience is similar to that of many of my colleagues. But I don't think that Rorty has any experience that contradicts this, for anyone who has read his early classic papers can tell that he played the game for keeps when he wrote them. He can appreciate the beauty of these systems now only because he had past experiences of caring where the argument would lead him, and how it was constructed.

Or so it appears to me. I'm grateful for Minnich's updating me on Rorty's new attitude towards epistemology, but it seems from her description that "Puritanical" is still in some sense an appropriate description. Puritans often vacillate from seeing their beloveds as either goddesses or strumpets. Rorty's admiration for epistemology turns her into a goddess on a pedestal, who is to be admired for her beauty, but not permitted to do any useful work. I think that is as demeaning and dismissive as his old attitude. "wrenching beautiful philosophical systems around in an effort to make them useful to us" is what they were designed for, and I think that when they illuminate our world, they are at their most beautiful. (This is equally true of great art, most obviously with literature and theater, but more subtley with music and painting.) How can we fully appreciate the beauty of a philosophical system if we cannot see what the system can do? Even beauty contests have talent shows.

But before someone calls in the metaphor police, let us resume playing the game in a more orthodox way, where it is possible to at least maintain the appearance that one of us is winning. Minnich and Rorty are both conflating two closely related concepts, and I think that one of the pragmatist's greatest insights was that these can and ought to be separated. I am referring to the concepts of 1) ground and 2) transcendence. Besides the fact that 1) is a bottom-up "earth" metaphor and 2) is a top-down "sky" metaphor (a common switcheroo that occurs when discussing hierarchies) the most important difference is that "ground" strongly implies certainty and transcendence need not (although it frequently does). A transcendental claim has pretensions of grounding knowledge only if it also claims to be certain. Dewey's concept of experience, and James' of Radical Empiricism, says that experience is shot through with transcendental claims which are not certain. As Susan Haack puts it, the pragmatists believed that "the notion of concrete truth depends on the notion of abstract truth, and cannot stand alone." (Haack 1993 p. 202 ), and as I put it "once we have accepted holism, transcendence is no longer an ambition, it is a duty and a curse." Rorty claims that he has rejected the foundationalism of the empiricists. But as long as he believes it is possible to renounce the ambition of transcendence, he is still implicitly accepting the assumption that it is possible to separate the immanent from the transcendent. Minnich (subconsciously?) captures this tension when she says "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". How can we protect ourselves from dividing the world by setting up a barrier? What Rorty has done is to divide the world and then demand that we stop talking about what's on the other side of the barrier. This is the basically the operationalist and positivist gambit that pragmatist epistemology was designed to oppose, and which Sellars and Quine demolished in their post analytic pragmatist revival.

Because Rorty claims to base his dismissal of epistemology on these Quinean-Sellarsian points, the fact that these points actually work against him is a lethal contradiction for his basic claims. There is more at stake here than losing the logic game. Subconscious contradictions (Unlike consciously acknowledged paradoxes) often lead those who believe them into real errors in real life. This is why I am not willing to just have a conversation about this subject, but feel that Rorty's claims need to be actually refuted. Modern psychology, which tried to 'change the subject' by isolating itself from philosophy, discovered this first hand, as Baars' 1986 book eloquently documents. My references in the last half of the paper to Baars, and to the more helpful assumptions that underlie modern cognitive science, were meant to be what Minnich calls an evaluation of the consequences of Rorty's position. {Note to Elizabeth: the paper was reoganized to put all of that material in one section when I incorporated the Haack quotes. Hopefully it's purposes are now somewhat clearer.}


As a pragmatist, I believe that any transcendent assumption will lead us into some errors, which is why no such assumption can be taken as grounding us in certainty. It is often possible for even science to live with transcendental assumptions that contain logical inconsistencies; Leibniz pointed out many incoherencies in Newton's concept of absolute space which were safely ignored for hundreds of years, and from what I hear, Quantum Physics is full of ontological contradictions. I also think that science needs a pluralism that tolerates different, even contradictory, transcendental assumptions for different activities, and that those human activities which bear a close enough family resemblance to physics don't deserve to be priviledged as the one true description of things. But I also believe that some errors are more dangerous than others, and that the errors that follow from Rorty's assumptions are very dangerous. That is why it is necessary to make an inquiry into the nature of knowledge until we come up with a new set of transcendent assumptions that will enable us to conduct science and other human activities with an acceptably lower error rate. Rorty is right that the old assumptions don't work, but he was wrong when he claims that we can deal with this problem by being more cautious and less speculative in hopes that therefore we won't get fooled again. What we need to do is inquire into the problem in good Deweyan fashion: Make a bold transcendental assertion, try living on the assumption that it is true, and if that doesn't work try to come up with another one. That is what Dewey was trying to do in Experience and Nature, and what I was trying to do in my paper on Dewey and Sellars. This is also what I was trying to do with my comments about patterns and web weavings, which Minnich justly points out are in need of further development. I probably should have stuck to explaining why Rorty's position is an epistemology, and why it is a bad one, rather than offering an alternative epistemology of my own. That is the subject for at least a whole other paper.

I have distinguished between three different activities, which I think Rorty unjustifiably conflates.

1) changing the subject

2) changing the questions about the subject.

3) offering new answers to the same questions about the subject.


My claim is that Rorty is frequently doing 2) and 3), while claiming to do 1). Minnich, as far as I can tell, does not acknowledge this distinction to be valid. The distinction seemed pretty obvious to me, and crucial to the issue. Unfortunately, like a lot of philosophical distinctions, it doesn't seem quite so obvious once I have to defend it. Minnich apparently believes that if you change the answers and the questions enough, you are no longer talking about the same subject. Perhaps she's right for a lot of fringe cases, but I think for this particular issue the distinction is pretty clear, and that Rorty offers no real justification for blurring it. I'm not willing to let Rorty play Humpty Dumpty and define epistemology however he wants to. As he is the one who is trying to shut down epistemology, I think the burden is on him to show that what he is doing isn't epistemology. What I've tried to show in my paper is that although Rorty thinks he is offering something new with his dismissal of epistemology, he is not only still playing the game, but even using moves that have already been tried and don't work.

I also believe that the pragmatists had something genuinely new to say about these questions, and that Rorty's inability to see this has not opened up new possibilities, but closed them off. My primary motivation was to make the epistemological insights of Dewey and James available for those of us who are still trying to understand the nature of knowledge. Because I respect Rorty, I had to show why his attempts to dismiss their epistemology are invalid. I think I have done this to my own satisfaction, and hopefully to the satisfaction of some of my readers as well. I still feel that Rorty is right about the loss of a priviledged epistemic place for both science and philosophy, and that far too few people are aware of this. But I believe giving up pretensions of certainty does not require (or even permit) epistemologists to do less than we did before. It merely requires us to keep doing more or less what we've always done, but be less smug about the longevity of what we produce. To some degree this requires a bit of bad faith, for most of us feel we've gotthe right answer when we come up with a good answer, even though we acknowledge intellectually that this is essentially impossible. But I think this is the bad faith that makes any productive work possible in the realm of Samsara, where all things must eventually pass.