Notes on Richard Rorty’s ‘Philosophy and Social Hope’

The last book read by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network (@PhilofEd) this year was Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope, published in 1999. This book is a compilation of essays, articles and lectures written by Rorty, which summarise his central philosophical beliefs and how they relate to his political hopes. The group invited Paul Showler from the University of Oregon, who is writing his PhD dissertation on the ethical thought of Richard Rorty, to get the discussion going. Paul told us that Rorty is seen as a whistle-blower, who questioned many of philosophy’s basic assumptions. Rorty recognised that his ideas were controversial and writes that he was attacked equally by the political right and left, the right for irresponsibility, and the left for complacency. There have been a number of critical responses to Rorty’s work. An introduction to these can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rorty/

Rorty’s principal philosophical hero was John Dewey, who, he tells us, eschewed certainty and eternity, and early on in his career Rorty found himself moving away from Plato in the direction of Dewey. This ultimately led to his own version of pragmatism, a version which drew fire from a number of fellow philosophers. Apart from Dewey, major influences on Rorty’s thinking were Hegel, Darwin, Heidegger and Davidson.

I did not have time to read every essay in this book before the online reading network discussion this week, and because it was a collection of essays, and after getting half way through, when I knew I was running out of time, I started to select essays that I thought would be interesting. I think others did this too. I knew that I was never going to get a handle on Rorty from this one book, so instead I began to focus on what he had to say about pragmatism and collected a list of statements. Here is the list.

Rorty’s pragmatism

  • Pragmatism is a distinctively American philosophy. Dewey called pragmatism the philosophy of democracy. Dewey thought that the quest for certainty should be replaced with a demand for imagination. We should stop worrying about whether what one believes is well-grounded and start worrying about whether one has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to one’s present beliefs.
  • Pragmatism is an attempt to alter our self-image, to be consistent with the Darwinian claim that we differ from other animals simply in the complexity of our behaviour.
  • Pragmatism is a generalised form of anti-essentialism and an attempt to break down the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic features of things.
  • Pragmatists think of everything as relational, and attempt to get rid of the contrast between reality and appearance. They doubt that anything is unconditional or that anything can be non-relational.
  • If there’s anything distinctive about pragmatism it is that it substitutes the notion of a better human future for the notions of reality, reason and nature.
  • Pragmatists question whether our way of describing things is as good as possible or can we do better? Can our future be made better than our present?
  • Pragmatists do not believe that there is a way things really are. Pragmatists do not think truth is the aim of inquiry. The aim of inquiry is utility. There are as many different useful tools as there are purposes to be served.
  • Pragmatists treat inquiry in physics and ethics as a search for adjustment, the search for acceptable justification and eventual agreement.
  • Pragmatists see scientific progress as increasing the ability to respond to the concerns of ever larger groups of people. They see moral progress as being able to respond to the needs of ever more inclusive groups of people. They want to get rid of the notion of unconditional moral obligation and suggest that we give up the philosophical search for commonality.
  • Pragmatists see both intellectual and moral progress not as a matter of getting closer to the True, or the Good, or the Right, but as an increase in imaginative power.
  • Pragmatism is more than just a set of controversial philosophical arguments about truth, knowledge and theory. It is about open-ended disputes about the basic terms of social life.

In this book Rorty wanted to convince people that ‘relativism is a bugbear’ and that discarding dualisms will help bring us together. Trust, social cooperation and social hope, he says, are where our humanity begins and ends. The most praiseworthy human capacity is to trust and cooperate with other people; to work together to improve the future. He urges us to substitute hope for the sort of knowledge that philosophers try to attain, to substitute imagination for certainty, and to substitute curiosity for pride. Hope (rather than truth) is the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than the past. It is a condition of growth and the direction of growth is unpredictable.

I have not been able to do justice to Rorty’s philosophy in these notes. There was too much that was new for me in the book to be able to get a handle on it in the four weeks we had for reading the book. But I think I now have some understanding of Rorty’s version of pragmatism and appreciate the description on the back cover of the book which explains that what mattered to Rorty was not ‘whether our ideas correspond to some fundamental reality, but whether they help us carry out practical tasks and create a fairer and more democratic society’.

Reference

Rorty, R. (1999). Philosophy and Social Hope. Penguin

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