Friday, May 23, 2008

Richard Rorty's Integral Philosophy?

Ovi had an article earlier this month that looked at the work of Richard Rorty. Some of the critique felt to me like he was moving toward an integral philosophy that rejected "the intellectually bankrupt representationalism and foundationalism of modern philosophy."

From Wikipedia: "Richard McKay Rorty (October 4, 1931 - June 8, 2007) was an American philosopher. He had a long and diverse career in Philosophy, Humanities, and Literature departments. His complex intellectual background gave him a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the analytical tradition in philosophy he would later famously reject."

His major and most likely his enduring work was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty argues that the central problems of modern epistemology depend upon a picture of the mind as trying to faithfully represent (or "mirror") a mind-independent external reality. If we give up this metaphor, then the entire enterprise of foundationalist epistemology is misguided. A foundationalist believes that in order to avoid the regress inherent in claiming that all beliefs are justified by other beliefs, some beliefs must be self-justifying and form the foundations to all knowledge. There were two senses of "foundationalism" criticized in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In the philosophical sense, Rorty criticized the attempt to justify knowledge claims by tracing them to a set of foundations; more broadly, he criticized the claim of philosophy to function foundationally within a culture. The former argument draws on Sellars's critique of the idea that there is a "given" in sensory perception, in combination with Quine's critique of the distinction between analytic sentences (sentences which are true solely in virtue of what they mean) and synthetic sentences (sentences made true by the world). Each critique, taken alone, provides a problem for a conception of how philosophy ought to proceed. Combined, Rorty claimed, the two critiques are devastating. With no privileged insight into the structure of belief and no privileged realm of truths of meaning, we have, instead, knowledge as those beliefs that pay their way. The only worthwhile description of the actual process of inquiry, Rorty claimed, was a Kuhnian account of the standard phases of the progress of discipline, oscillating through normal and abnormal science, between routine problem solving and intellectual crises. The only role left for a philosopher is to act as an intellectual gadfly, attempting to induce a revolutionary break with previous practice, a role that Rorty was happy to take on himself. Rorty claims that each generation tries to subject all disciplines to the model that the most successful discipline of the day employs. On Rorty's view, the success of modern science has led academics in philosophy and the humanities to mistakenly imitate scientific methods. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature popularized and extended ideas of Wilfrid Sellars (the critique of the Myth of the given) and W. V. O. Quine (the critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction) and others who advocate the doctrine of "dissolving" rather than solving philosophical problems.

Here is how Emanuel L. Paparella talks about this seminal book:

Rorty holds that with Descartes there begins within modern philosophy a scientification of the same which has in turn produced several centuries’ worth of fierce debates between rationalists (Kant, for example) and empiricists (Hume, for example), idealists (Berkeley, for example) and materialists (Hobbes, for example) which were all based on a false premise. The false premise was the idea that the mind was a “theater of representation,” forever dealing with a reality outside itself which it observes objectively. Also faulty, for Rorty, is the later attempt to replace mind in the equation with language. He is convinced that the arduous philosophical search for foundational values, true nature, a priori truths, though sometimes fascinating and stimulating would forever fail to yield the hoped for results, that is to say, non-controversial results concerning matters of ultimate concern.

While paying lip service to God as the ultimate ground of philosophy (a God who is not the living God with whom Jacob wrestled all night thus receiving the name Israel, but the God of the philosophers demonstrated with rational proofs) the Cartesian project had in effect substituted science for God and had gone nowhere; it had in fact prepared a dehumanized world devoid of the poetic wherein we would think of our brains as so much hardware and the very concept of soul would no longer be grasped. Its only achievement, as Rorty sees it, was to elevate philosophers to an eminence they really did not deserve.

So the question is, what does Rorty substitute for what he considers the intellectually bankrupt representationalism and foundationalism of modern philosophy? He offers us “epistemological behaviorism.” We know what our society lets us know. What we accept has nothing to do with how well a statement mirrors the world; it has everything to do with how well it fits in what we have already come to believe, and the answers as to why we believe what we believe will be found in psychology, sociology and even biology, not philosophy.

The next crucial question is this: what is philosophy good for? A lot less than most philosophers care to admit, according to Rorty. By elevating the mind above and beyond physical reality, and taking that mind as their own intellectual territory, analytic philosophers had, in effect, placed themselves above and beyond other intellectual disciplines. They had made themselves the judges of what was real and meaningful, had placed themselves outside of history. So, what is the role of philosophers? If, as Rorty claims, there are no foundations to be uncovered, no a priori truths (that is to say, truths who do not need empirical evidence or experience) to be discovered, then philosophers were mere “conversationalists” and “re-describers.”

As someone who often feels philosophy is hopelessly out of touch with reality, Rorty's ideas (which were certainly controversial) are refreshing. His view that we are limited in our understanding by our cultural context is a powerful idea that moves philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the real world.

He is also way ahead of the curve in suggesting that we know what we know not due to philosophy (read: introspection), but rather due to psychology, sociology, and biology. There is no mind-body problem because mind is embedded in the body and the culture in which that body lives.

As far as philosophy is concerned, this borders on an integral (read: AQAL) form of philosophy. Hopefully there are others who will pursue this avenue of inquiry in Rorty's absence.

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