Book Review: Philosophy and Social Hope

Philosophy_review.jpgPhilosophy and Social Hope

Author: Richard Rorty

Publisher: Penguin (1999)

Reviewed by Stephen Keim

Just over a year ago, my brother, L, gave me a book by a twentieth century, American pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty. Taking into account my knowledge of such things, the odds were that this would be a gift that broadened my horizons.

Mr. Rorty was born in 1931. By 1999, he had been studying, teaching and writing philosophy for almost half a century. Philosophy and Social Hope is an anthology of previously published essays, a sort of greatest hits selected with an eye to the needs of the general reader.

Rorty aims to bring that general reader to a sense of pragmatist philosophy by sharing his own journey to becoming a believer and purveyor of that same philosophy. Rorty’s parents were friends of John Dewey , the leading American pragmatic philosopher of his time. Rorty’s father had almost accompanied Dewey to Mexico City for the Dewey Commission which heard evidence and produced a report declaring Leon Trotsky innocent of the scurrilous allegation of crimes levelled against Trotsky by the Soviet Union and its leader, Josef Stalin.

Rorty’s parents were, themselves, followers of Trotsky, opponents of Stalinism and active socialist campaigners who worked on the campaign of Norman Thomas , the Socialist Party’s campaign for President. Rorty imbibed socialism and a sense of social justice, as a twelve year old living with his parents in the Chelsea Hotel and being roped into running errands for his parents and the campaign.

But he also loved rare wild orchids; sought them in their hiding places in the mountains of north-west New Jersey where he and his parents also lived and studied their botany, back in New York at the 42nd Street public library. While he was a one person cheer squad for his wild orchids, Rorty felt touches of shame suspecting that such an esoteric, personal passion might not quite meet the approval of the now murdered Trotsky and his socialist followers.

The social activism of Rorty’s parents is not surprising in that Rorty’s maternal grandfather was Pastor Walter Rauschenbusch , a central figure of the Social Gospel movement which is credited by Earl Shorris as the intellectual forebear of the New Deal.

When Rorty first got to read philosophy, at the ripe age of 15, at the University of Chicago, he was attracted to Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy and the idea that there were absolutes by which the good and the true could be measured. He was equally attracted to Plato’s idea that a chosen few could reach the hallowed state that came with the knowledge of those absolutes. It resonated with his arcane knowledge and love of his wild orchids. It was, essentially, an anti-democratic idea.

This meant that he sneered at the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey whose principle that growth was the only moral objective was seen as empty and shallow in the post Hitler world in a University philosophy department peopled by brilliant Jewish refugees from the Nazis. This, conveniently, placed Rorty in an intellectual rebellion against the philosophy favoured by his parents and their left wing friends.

But, though for five years, Rorty worked on his love affair with Platonism, he found himself dissatisfied with the idea of absolute values. It was one thing to believe in absolutes. It was impossible to establish what they were or to find a method which would convince others that what you thought might be the criterion for what was good should also be accepted by them as that criterion.

And so twenty-year old Rorty started his journey back to the approaches and the philosophy that that had been favoured by his parents and their friends. He found his way back to the pragmatism of John Dewey and William James .

Rorty spends some time, in the Introduction to Philosophy and Social Hope explaining the difference between philosophers like himself, usually, bad-mouthed by others as “relativists”, and everyone else who may be broadly grouped as followers of Plato and Kant. Relativists do not accept the distinction (made by Plato and other Greek philosophers) between the way things are, in themselves, and the relationships they have with other things, especially, to human needs and interests.

One result of abandoning the underlying nature of things is that “anti-Platonists” like Rorty find no benefit in searching for eternal unchanging values that apply in all situations across time and culture. It is in this sense that Rorty is a disciple of John Dewey.

The area in which pragmatism is most attacked as relativism is in the area of moral philosophy. If there are no absolute values against which actions may be judged, say the critics, there is no reason to seek good rather than evil. Rorty’s reply is that, for pragmatists, the moral struggle is continuous with the struggle for existence. What matters for Rorty is the devising of ways of diminishing human suffering and increasing human equality and increasing the chance of each human child to start life with a real and equal chance of human happiness. Rorty adopts the view that the objective of a better future is the best moral guide.

Happily, for Rorty, he felt that this view also made room for idiosyncratic personal pursuits such as the love of wild orchids along with future creating activities such as social activism.

Rorty says that many of the values which are posited as representing underlying and eternal values are merely habits of past generations, the actions of our ancestors, that we most admire. Thus, if we are attracted to the principle that all human beings are brothers and sisters as representing an eternal value, we are simply reflecting the fact that recent generations held this principle as a religious belief. A different religious culture would produce adherents of radically different eternal values.

Rorty makes two points which might be called concessions. First, he acknowledges that there is no means of rational argument by which a pragmatist and a Platonist can convince the other of the validity of their own point of view so as to settle the difference between them.

Second, he acknowledges that another pragmatist, and German philosopher, Martin Heidegger , is his example, may choose Nazism as the solution to the moral struggle: as the path to a better future. Rorty, himself, regards increasing equality and equality of opportunity as the way to increase human happiness and to strive to make the future better than the past and the present.

Rorty explains, in response to charges that pragmatism leads to relativism and on to moral nihilism, that a follower of pragmatism does not believe that all values are equal. Rather, his pragmatism leads to beliefs about the importance of increasing human happiness by increasing equality of opportunity. From Rorty’s perspective, Nazism is not just as good, in terms of values, as a socially progressive form of democracy. But, as with any other source of moral values, pragmatism does not provide a means by which Rorty can persuade Heidegger that his adherence to Nazi values is inherently wrong including in terms of the pragmatic philosophy which they share. Indeed, Rorty denies that any philosophy, necessarily, leads to a particular set of political beliefs.

Ironically, the limited claims made by Rorty’s pragmatism to prove to others that their idea of truth or virtue is wrong makes Rorty’s pragmatism a little like the famous dictum attributed to Socrates in which the philosopher claimed an advantage over others who claimed to be wise through the self-knowledge that he, Socrates, knew that he knew nothing. That is, one of the advantages of pragmatism is that it does not claim to unveil eternal truths. Such claims are at the heart of Platonic philosophy, claims upon which such philosophers cannot and do not deliver.

Rorty explains that pragmatists refuse to distinguish between a justified belief in a proposition and a true belief. William James stated that, when we say that a belief is true, we are saying that it is a belief that has proved itself useful for definite assignable reasons. Rorty goes on to say that, because humans can only operate in their environment, a belief will only endure (and prove useful) if it takes into account the constraints of that environment. A belief that I can engage in unaided flight will cease to be useful the moment I leap from a tall building. In contrast, a belief in the physics of powered flight will prove useful every time I need to travel interstate for work or pleasure. In this context, says Rorty, nothing is to be gained by hypothesising a truth and reality independent of human existence. There is no point in hypothesising a world outside Plato’s world inside the cave .

Some of the chapters of Philosophy and Social Hope, including those from which the above summary has drawn, explain the essential notions of pragmatic philosophy and canvass different aspects of those underlying principles. Other chapters, however, seek to apply the pragmatist approach to different aspects of society.

In discussing legal questions, Rorty suggests that pragmatic philosophy had made its contribution to the law in previous generations and been accepted by most legal practitioners. Most lawyers had rejected legal formalism, the idea that, in any case, the right answer could be achieved by applying previously established principles to the facts of that case.

In discussing statements by Ronald Dworkin and Richard Posner and other contemporary writers, Rorty argues the orthodoxy of the proposition that, subject to the acceptance that coherence of the law is a source of advantage, the law cannot be explained by any overarching legal theory.

Rorty also points out, using some of John Dewey’s more inspired writing, that pragmatism, along with its philosophy, has a visionary tradition that will find expression in those cases where legal principles and the surrounding political environment are shaken to their foundations. Rorty describes such cases as being based on a conviction that the political waters badly “need roiling”.

Rorty uses as his examples, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka ; Roe v Wade and, writing in the nineties, Rorty predicts the case of Laurence v Texas 539 US 558 (2003) which struck down the respondent’s anti-sodomy law. Rorty describes the decisions as deciding, respectively, like it or not, black children are children, too; like it or not, women get to make hard decisions, too; and, like it or not, gays are grown-ups, too. Pragmatic philosophy explains that seismic decisions cannot be explained or justified by a new super-theory of law. Rather, they are the result of, and contributions to, a visionary tradition in which lawyers have happened to enter into an open-ended dispute about the basic terms of social life.

Rorty also turns to discuss education in the light of contrasting views expressed by Allan Bloom and E. D. Hirsch in the late 1980s on the subject of what our schools and universities should teach. Bloom’s contribution to the culture wars still simmers, today, thirty years later. His Straussian values led him to prescribe a heavy dose of classical texts for his leaders of the future and to attack the analysis of society’s structures on race and gender based themes. Rorty’s response reflected both his pragmatic philosophy and his own progressive democratic values. It was the role of secondary schooling, in particular, to inculcate into the adults of tomorrow the products of past learning and thinking. But colleges and universities should not be constrained to a similar task. Tertiary education should help its students find their own values and thinking and individuality by which they can question past orthodoxy and contribute to a new set of orthodoxies for the society in which they will work and live. Only by such questioning and re-formulation can a democratic society enrich and strengthen itself.

Rorty is an interesting writer who challenges and expands the belief structures of his reader. He is well-read and is agile at bringing the results of his learning to each controversy with which he wrestles. On and off, I read Philosophy and Social Hope for most of the year. It was mainly commitments to work that made the read so interrupted. Willingly, however, with smart phone and Wikipedia by my side, I kept coming back to the text and the task.

Richard Rorty, that descendant of the Social Gospellers, has indeed expanded my horizons. My brother must feel pleased with his efforts and the results of his gift.