A rejoinder to Béla Egyed
In May 2007, Kritika & Kontext published an article by Richard Rorty originally delivered as a lecture in Tehran. Béla Egyed's response to it is published in the forthcoming issue of Kritika & Kontext, along with Rorty's rejoinder, perhaps the last text he wrote before his death, and Samuel Abraham's editorial to the issue. [ more ]
Democracy and philosophy
A rejoinder to Béla Egyed
Richard Rorty. Editorial for "Kritika & Kontext" 34 (2007)
Like other critics of Plato, such as Dewey, I have urged that we salvage Socrates' critical attitude toward traditional beliefs while abandoning Plato's hope to achieve certainty by escaping from temporal contingencies and viewing things under the aspect of eternity. If we do the latter, I have argued, we shall view history and imaginative literature, rather than philosophy, as helping us achieve what Egyed calls "a more or less liveable view of the world". Study of historical developments – of what happens when you secularize politics, or give women power, or use the State's monopoly of force to redistribute wealth – take the place of attempts to find guidance from something lying outside history. Reading imaginative literature helps us grasp what the world might be like if people chose to live one way rather than another.
Richard Rorty's death on 8 June 2007 prompted a number of journals in the Eurozine network to publish obituaries and articles. We republish them here along with articles from the Eurozine archive. [ more ]
Jan Philipp Reemtsma
Richard Rorty. An obituary
The afternoon of a pragmatist faun
Samuel Abrah‡m, Richard Rorty
Without illusion, but with conviction. The pragmatism of Richard Rorty
Samuel Abrah‡m, BŽla Egyed, Egon G‡l, John Hall, Russel Jacoby, Richard Rorty
The dull decencies of normality. A debate on the contemporary uses of liberalism
I think it would be a mistake for liberals to try to beat conservatives at their own game – to pander to people's desire for an escape from time and chance. I doubt that we can separate the idea of philosophical foundations from such escapism. Religious fundamentalism appeals to our desire for security and certainty, and so does the rationalistic tradition in philosophy – the tradition that binds Plato together with Spinoza and Kant. From the point of view of both Nietzsche and Dewey, this is an ignoble desire, one that we should try to discourage rather than cultivate. To succumb to this desire is not to move to higher ground. It is to substitute an irresolvable clash of abstractions for a willingness to consider the concrete consequences of alternative policies.
Egyed thinks of "debates about gay marriage, abortion and 'intelligent design' as "raising fundamental philosophical questions". I do not. The question whether marriage should be restricted to heterosexuals, or to members of the same race, is not illuminated by ascending to the level of abstraction at which utilitarianism (if it doesn't hurt anybody, there's nothing wrong with it) confronts natural law theory (homosexuality and miscegenation are unnatural, and therefore bad). It is, however, illuminated by history and literature – the history of communities in which various different stances toward homosexuality and racial difference have been adopted, and biographies and novels portraying the lives and loves of homosexual or mixed-race couples. Nobody knows how to resolve the abstract opposition, but consideration of concrete cases often does change people's minds.
Attempts to discuss abortion in terms of the unanswerable question "when does human life begin?" provide another example of pointless recourse to abstract principle. One's view on abortion will be determined by whether one's sympathy for the foetus is greater or less than that for the reluctant mother. The more one becomes familiar with the concrete details of the life of either, the more likely one is to distribute one's sympathies sensibly. Nothing in Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, or Dewey is likely to help one make up one's mind.
To attach the sort of importance to philosophical foundations that Egyed does requires belief in a source of truth called "Reason". It requires taking seriously the question "What does Reason say?" (Plato's, Spinoza's, and Kant' substitute for "What does God say?") But as I see it, rationality is not a faculty. It is simply the willingness to converse, to use words rather than blows. So when Egyed says that Plato offered a "critique of tradition in the name of reason", I demur. "In the name of reason" seems to me as empty a rhetorical gesture as "in the name of God". I am all for rationality – for Socratic open-mindedness and willingness to hear the other side. But I do not think that being rational has anything to do with the search for foundations, or with the attempt to reduce moral disagreements to clashes between abstract principles.
Original in English
First published in Kritika & Kontext 34 (2007)
Contributed by Kritika & Kontext
© Richard Rorty/Kritika & Kontext