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The Objective truth of Rorty

Richard Rorty, more than any other philosopher, perhaps due to his apostasy from strict Analytic Philosophy, has become the symbol of a seen-to-be corrosive Relativism, one that distains any notion of truth or objectivity, besides the pragmatic regulative of “sentences which work”.

This manifested itself in a more than decade long debate between himself and Donald Davidson, a philosopher whom he held in great esteem, and whom he worked to help popularize in his best selling books and essays. Rorty wanted to tell Davidson that he was merely a pragmatist, who had failed to drop the last vestige of metaphysical thought, the notion of “truth” in need of a theory. And Davidson wanted to tell Rorty that the skeptic needed to be answered, that a theory of “truth” was the very thing that (neo) pragmatism was missing. The two intelligent readers talked “passed” each other in a spirited way, with Rorty trying to appropriate Davidson’s position, without Davidson’s permission.

Finally this stalemate broke with Bjorn Ramberg’s essay: “Post-Ontological Philosophy: Rorty vs. Davidson”. In it he told Rorty that he had been misreading Davidson’s concept of truth all along, and that if Rorty indeed was devoted to a notion of a community of values, he must be also devoted to a distinction of truth. To my surprise (when reading the volume, Rorty and His Critics), Rorty agreed.

I can think of no such a reversal in the context of modern contemporary philosophy, where a near-career-long position is abandoned in favor of a better argument, with that argument being presented in a single, turning essay (even if for literary effect). Surely there were many other factors involved, but for an intellectual authority as willful and criticized as Rorty enjoyed himself to be, to admit that he had always misunderstood the philosopher he had read closely, is an event worth commemorating.

Below are some of the worthy quotes from his response to Ramberg’s essay, those which characterize his admission that a theory of truth rests on the recognition that the prescriptive preceeds the descriptive.

Rorty, at times quoting Ramberg, at times referencing Davidson, wrote:

I have turned a blind eye to the fact that the mind-body distinction is intertwined with the person-thing distinction. I have not tried to relate the two distinctions. Davidson by combining a theory of action with a theory of truth and meaning, has. Ramberg helps bring Davidson’s two lines of inquiry together when he says that an account of truth is automatically an account of agency, and conversely. He helps us see that Davidson, like Dewey, is trying to break down the distinction between knowing, theorizing, spectatorial mind and the responsible participant in social practices…

…Ramberg suggests that we see the ability to ascribe rights and responsibilities (along the lines of Brandom’s “social practice” reconstruction of the vocabularies of logic and semantics) as (usually) a prerequisite for the ability to predict and describe. The key to understanding the relation between minds and bodies is not an understanding of the irreducibility of the intentional to the physical but the understanding of the inescapability of the normative…

…As Ramberg says “Describing anything, if Davidson is right, is an ability we have only because it is possible for others to see us as in general conforming to the norms that the predicates of agency embody.” Agency-the ability to offer descriptions rather than just make noise-only appears if a normative vocabulary is already being used: “descriptions emerge as descriptions of any sort at all only against a taken for granted background of purposive-hence normatively describable behavior on the part of the communicators involved…

…‘The basis of knowledge, any form of knowledge, whether of self, others, or shared world, is not a community of minds, in the sense of mutual knowledge of neighboring belief-systems…Rather, it is a community of minds, that is, a plurality of creatures engaged in the project of describing their world and interpreting each other’s descriptions of it. (Ramberg, pp. 361-2)’

I can epitomize what Ramberg has done for my understanding of Davidson by saying that he has helped me understand the point of a sentence of Davidson’s which I had previously found utterly opaque. Ramberg quotes Davidson as saying:

‘We depend on our linguistic interpretations with others to yield agreement on the properties of numbers and the sort of structures in nature that allow us to represent those structures in numbers. We cannot in the same way agree on the structure of sentences or thoughts we use to chart the thoughts and meaning of others, for the attempt to reach such agreement simply sends us back to the very process of interpretation on which all agreement depends.’

I did not understand the second sentence in this passage until I read it in Ramberg’s way. Read in that way, it can be paraphrased as saying, ‘Whereas you can, in the course of triangulation, criticize any given claim about anything you want to talk about, you cannot ask for agreement that others shall take part in the process of triangulation, for the attempt to reach such an agreement would just be more triangulation.’ The inescapability of norms is the inescapability, for both describers and agents, of triangulating.”

“Response to Ramberg,” in Rorty and His Critics, (371-374).

It still amazes me to hear a philosopher say of a sentence that she/he had read and reread countless times, “I did not understand this sentence”.

For myself, I think that there is indeed an analytic wisdom buried in the “the prescriptive precedes the descriptive”, something that upturns the is/ought distinction and chasm. Because prescription precedes description, a normativity of communication pervades any of our notions of “is” and guides our capacity to act, in a sensus communis, in the world.

 

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One response to “The Objective truth of Rorty

  1. Dean December 8, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Reblogged this on Re(-)petitions and commented:
    My friend James MacCormac alerted me to this blog post, relevant to my recent reflections on Rorty. Thanks, James.

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