Quotes from chapter 5 "Truth in ethics and politics. Sartre vs. Rorty".
While Sartre is certainly not one of Rorty's philosophical heroes, it is surprising, given their obvious differences, how often Rorty turns to him in support of his views. The explanation for this surprising fact is quite simple, however: Rorty simply misreads Sartre at every turn.
Here is a striking example. One of Rorty's favorite passages from Sartre...is the following:
"Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are."
Rorty's comment on this passage is this:
"This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together-the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions."
Consider, in this regard, Piotr Gutowski's remark, issued immediately after offering an objection to Rorty's argument that we should dispense with the distinction between finding and making:
"As Professor Rorty ponders this objection of mine, I hope he will consider the big green giraffe, just behind him, that is trying to cat the violet leaves growing on his head. Is Professor Rorty able to see this giraffe? If not, can he make the giraffe he there, occupying part of what (probably) seems to he empty space? Rorty might say that he cannot do this as an individual, but that there night he some cultures where it is possible to do so....
Well, I cannot imagine any culture creating the picture I sketched, for the simple reason that nobody can find green giraffes here in this portion of space and time and because there really are no leaves growing on Rorty's head. There has to he a certain composition position of molecules in any portion of space we find that enables us to make anything, and this is also an objective restriction for any nonhuman "making." Obviously, someone might say that there is a giraffe here, but he or she would simply he wrong."
Here is Rorty's reply:
"Now about giraffes: I want to urge that if you have the distinction between the idiosyncratic and the intersubjective, or the relatively idiosyncratic and the relatively intersubjcetive, that is the only distinction you need to take care of real versus imaginary giraffes. You do not need a further distinction between the made and the found or the subjective and the objective. You do not need a distinction between reality and appearance, or between inside and outside, but only one between what you can get a consensus about and what you cannot."
Thus, objectivity, for Rorty, turns out (though he does not point this out himself) not to be something hard-won, and something which could be lost. No, objectivity means being in agreement and solidarity with "us," where "us" is not some independent pendent group with which I might, despite my best efforts, fail to achieve agreement and solidarity-no, it is simply those with whom I do feel solidarity and with whom I do agree!
...he [Rorty] often says such things as, "for us 'rational' merely means 'persuasive' ... ," and, as we have seen, he repeatedly insists "that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed."
In a similar vein, Rorty claims that "to see a common social practice as cruel and unjust ... is a matter of redescription rather than discovery. It is a matter of changing vocabularies rather than of stripping away the veil of appearances from an objective reality, an experimentation with new ways of speaking rather than of overcoming coming 'false consciousness'."
Everything, thing, from Rorty's point of view, turns on whether you happen to like or dislike a given description, and whether you will or not depends upon historical contingencies and rhetoric, not reason.
Let us consider one final instance of Rorty's repeated insistence that he is not a relativist:
"A sense of moral obligation is a matter of conditioning rather than of insight.... We decent, liberal, humanitarian types (representatives of the moral community to which both my reviewers and I belong) are just luckier, not more insightful, than the bullies with whom we struggle. This view is often referred to dismissively as "cultural relativism." But it is not relativistic, if that means saying that every moral view is as good as every other. Our moral view is, I firmly believe, much better than any competing view."
The quick way to deal with this is to point out, once again, that "relativism" rarely refers to such a crude view as that "every moral view is as good as every other." But let's look deeper. Note that Rorty admits in this passage that his first-order moral views have arisen as a result of his conditioning, rather than his insight. But what about his second-order views-that is to say, his views about his moral views-and in particular his claim that his (and "our") moral views are better than any competing views? Does that claim arise from genuine insight, or is it merely the product of Rorty's conditioning? On the former interpretation Rorty seems either to contradict himself or, at the very least, to be granting an arbitrary and undefended privilege to second-order moral views...
Rorty's difficulties are typical of those plaguing social constructionism generally. To bring this out, let's critically examine... Rorty's most explicitly social constructionist statements.
"Everything, including giraffes and molecules, is socially constructed, for no vocabulary (e.g., that of zoology or physics) cuts reality at the joints. Reality has no joints. It just has descriptions more socially useful than others."
"There is nothing to people except what has been socialized into them."
"It is pointless to ask whether reality is independent of our ways of talking about it. Given that it pays to talk about mountains, as it certainly does, one of the obvious truths about mountains is that they were here before we talked about them. If you do not believe that, you probably do not know how to play the usual language-games which employ the word "mountain. But the utility of those language-games has nothing to do with the question of whether Reality as It Is In itself, apart front the way it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in it."
Here Rorty seems to be defending, indeed, even calling it an "obvious truth," the idea that mountains existed before we talked about them, and thus that they have an independent existence. But notice that this is so, for Rorty, only because it is useful to play a language-game in which mountains are understood that way. Thus, the seemingly human-practice-independent status of mountains turns out, for Rorty, in the final analysis, to depend upon the utility of certain human linguistic practices.
...I will content myself by recalling just one of Sartre's major points, namely, that the embracing of an anti-truth epistemology serves as a general foundation for a wide range of specific excuses-that is, in a global way, it serves to relieve us of our responsibilities (just as the acceptance of determinism does). Specifically, it relieves us of the responsibility to discover the truth, and to act accordingly. Similarly, it entails that we need never fear having to change our way of life on the grounds that some aspect of it might be inconsistent with what is true.
To see the relevance of this to Rorty, consider the following four passages from his writings. In the first he urges us "simply [to] drop the distinction between rational judgment and cultural bias." In the second he asserts that "we heirs of the Enlightenment think of enemies of liberal democracy like Nietzsche or Loyola as ... `mad.' .. . They are not crazy because they have mistaken the ahistorical nature of human beings. They are crazy because the limits of sanity are set by what we can take seriously. This, in turn, is determined by our upbringing, our historical situation.")
In the third he endorses a position which "makes it impossible to ask the question `Is ours a moral society?" Finally, in a brief discussion of the Vietnam War, Rorty criticizes those who "attempted to rehabilitate Kantian notions in order to say, with Chomsky, that the War not merely betrayed America's hopes and interests and self-image, but was immoral, one which we had no right to engage in in the first place." So the problem with the Vietnam War was not that what we did to the Vietnamese was immoral; rather, the problem was that it betrayed our self image. Can anything more narcissistic be imagined?
In any case, Rorty's position leads either to anything-goes goes relativism (if we grant the same privileges to other people with other cultures and traditions), or else to a crude and thuggish ethnocentrism, in which no outrage visited upon outsiders can be condemned as unjust unless our own traditions and customs happen so to decree it (as Rorty explicitly admits, as we have seen, in connection tion with the Vietnam War).
When one goes the ethnocentric route, defining truth in terms of consensus, basic questions become insulated from critical examination, or even from thought itself. When everyone who counts agrees with your basic principles, you tend not even to be aware of those principles. They become as invisible as the air you breathe. When you encounter people who disagree with them, however, you are forced to defend them, which requires focusing on them and thematizing them. Such a focusing on and debating of fundamental principles, often taken for granted, is a fair characterization of philosophy, and one can readily see its importance to anyone who wants to engage others responsibly. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Rorty's endorsement of ethnocentrism goes hand-in-hand with his rejection of philosophy.