of them has much in the way of arguments.
Q. r’;hat do you make of Donald Davidson and the
contemporary philosophy of action, which has been
taken very seriously on the continent?
A. I never found it very interesting. It seems to
me to be a hang over from the problem of free will.
I’m afraid that after reading Hume on the compatibility of free will and determinism I never looked back.
Unlike some German writers, I don’t see it as having
much to do with moral philosophy.
Q. And the work of the Oxford philosopher Michael
Dummett? Are you worried by the problem of intuitionism? Some philosophers might say that, as a
matter of fact, the giving of grounds often comes to
an end with an appeal to intuitions, such as when we
say ‘I see that’ or ‘It’s not clear’.
A. I don’t see a problem. Either one refers to what
we all intuit or to what we all normally do. It
doesn’t make much difference.
Q. Are you worried by the charge that there is a
contradiction between the idealism of your metaphilosophical views and the materialism of your
A. Idealism as a metaphysical view is pointless: the
old idealist attempt to find some phenomena which the
materialist cannot explain fails. But I think, as
Sellars shows, that you can have all the advantages
of both materialism and idealism if you just make a
few distinctions. So be a materialist if you want to,
but realise that being a materialist is simply putting
a bet on what the vocabulary of the predictive
disciplines will turn out to be.
Q. So the doctrine which creates the impression of
tough-mindedness doesn’t have much tough content.
Would you take the same approach to scientism? Do
you think that the only reliable, valid knowledge we
have is scientific knowledge?
A. That way of putting it presupposes that knowledge
is a natural kind. I think it’s better to say that
there are lots of different justifiable assertions,
including not only scientific assertions but aesthetic
and social judgements. One end of the spectrum has
an elaborate machinery for establishing the norms
behind it, just as there are experts at one end of
the spectrum, the other not. But the two kinds of
enterprise are one. So there is really no need to
worry where knowledge stops because the distinction
between where you go to explain something and where
not is not a distinction between knowledge and
opinion. It’s a sociological distinction.
Q. Nonetheless, you do cling to a form of
A. I think of myself as stealing the point from
Sellars that one’s categories in metaphysics should
be the categories of the sciences of one’s day.
But that’s simply to say what a boring subject
Q. Can we end on the problem of your approach to
history. You began as a McKeonite comparativist
taking the larger historical view, and have now
returned to it. Yet your philosophical training
does not really help you all that much with the
problem of how to influence future historical developments. It does train you in the art of destruction
and you could be seen as attempting to destroy
philosophy as the theory of knowledge just as Adorno
attempted to destroy social philosophy. But such
destructions often have unintended effects. How can
you envisage them, let alone take responsibility for
them? In sum, you don’t have a theory of history?
A. No, I don’t.
I’m not a historicist in Popper’s
Q. But you are perhaps an historicist in the sense
of one who holds that history is all-important and
that it is usually helpful to take careful account
of changing historical circumstances a~d exact
processes of historical genesis. Could you perhaps
say something about your relationship to the British
philosopher of history, R.C. Collingwood?
A. I read Collingwood a long time ago in my twenties
and forgot most of it. I now realise that I may have
recently taken up things which I originally read in
Collingwood. We have to take history seriously.
I see post-philosophy continuing the conversation
of mankind in that context.
11: Edifying Discourses
Rorty’s book* has already been the centre of a good
deal of attention. It has been widely regarded by
students and teachers of academic philosophy as saying
important things about the past, present and future
of their subject, and the paperback comes decked with
tributes from notables, pointing to the same conclusion. Its significance is further acknowledged by
* Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,
Basil Blackwell, 1980, £4.95 pb.
the publication of an interview with the author in
this issue of Radical Philosophy. This review will
try to provide a backdrop to the interview and to the
debate by setting out and assessing the themes of the
They seem easy enough to state. The book is, above
all else, an attack on the tradition which sees philosophy as, essentially, epistemology. Its central
concern on that view is the adjudication of claims to
knowledge, and since culture is the assemblage of
such claims, philosophy is foundational in respect to
the rest of culture. Epistemology, since its invention in the seventeenth century, has been pursued as
a general theory of representations, images in that
great mirror of nature which is the human mind. The
roots of this way of thinking go back, however, to
the foundations of Western thought, to the Greek insistence that man’s essence is ‘to know’, and that
knowledge is to be conceived of by analogy with
perception and explicated through the use of ocular
metaphors. As against all this, Rorty’s main philosophical thesis is that knowledge is a matter not of
a certain relation between subject and reality but,
of social justification, of what is endorsed by one’s
community or of what one can get away with in conversation with one’s peers. This in turn yields a conception of philosophy in which epistemology is
succeeded by hermeneutics and knowledge by edification.
It is no longer to be seen as foundational, as concerned to establish a permanent, neutral matrix for
all inquiry, but rather as itself a particular cultural genre, a ‘voice in the conversation of mankind’.
The major difficulty with the book arises in regard
to its positive aspect, its alternative vision of
philosophy. The difficulty is not, as Rorty seems to
suggest in the interview, that the vision is incompletely spelled out: it is that what is said about it
is not coherent. This shows itself in a straightforward way in the language of the presentation.
Hermeneutics, we are told, is ‘what we get when we are
no longer epistemological’ (p.325). But the chapters
which expand this idea do so in incompatible ways.
In Chapter 7 it is consistently maintained that the
epistemology-hermeneutics contrast is one between
‘discourse about normal and about abnormal discourse’
(p.346), so that hermeneutics is ‘the study of an
abnormal discourse from the point of view of some
normal discourse’ (p.320). The doctrine of Chapter 8
is that hermeneutics is itseZf abnormal discourse.
Horeover, ‘to insist on being hermeneutic where
epistemology would do’ is to make ourselves able to
view normal discourse ‘only from within our own
abnormal discourse’ (p.366). Hermeneutics is, it now
appears, abnormal discourse about normal discourse,
the mirror image, as it were, of the previous conception. Perhaps Rorty simply changed his mind between
chapters, and it may be that the incongruity can, in
any case, be resolved at some deeper level. But the
puzzle should not be left to the reader to sort out.
There are other puzzles in this area. Hermeneutics
is linked in Chapter 8 to the project of ‘edification’!
that is, of ‘finding new, better, more interesting,
more fruitful ways of speaking’ (p.360). Edifying
philosophy, we are told, is ‘supposed to be abnormal’
(p.360), is ‘peripheral’ as opposed to ‘mainstream’
(p.367), is ‘essentially reactive’ (p.366) and ‘can
be onZy reactive’ (p.378). This line of thought is
intelligible enough as it stands. But Rorty also
wishes to take seriously the suggestion that
epistemology-centred philosophy is merely ‘an episode
in the history of European culture’, to be comprehensively superseded by edification: ‘Perhaps philosophy will become purely edifying … ‘ (p.394). It
is at best not obvious how all philosophy could conceivably be ‘abnormal’, ‘peripheral’ and ‘reactive’.
Once again the reader seems entitled to more guidance
than the text provides.
The charge of incoherence can draw support from
elsewhere. It arises also in connection with the idea
of conversation. Edifying philosophy aims at ‘continuing a conversation’, and philosophy in general is
best appreciated as a voice in the conversation of
mankind. There are various grounds for misgiving
here. For one thing, it is far from clear what
taking part in a conversation involves. On the
negative side, Rorty insists that it is not merely
an ‘exchange of views’ and positively, that it is
‘saying something’ (pp.371-72). These are enigmatic
clues, but they are all we get. Obviously there is
an element of paradox in the fact that philosophy’s
credentials in the conversation of mankind rest on
the superseded tradition of Aristotle, Descartes,
Kant and Husserl. Moreover, the invocation of Dewey,
Heidegger, and Wittgenstein as the pillars of the
edifying alternative seems adventitious and unconvincing. At any rate, all awareness of contemporary
reports of what it was actually like to encounter the
last two of these figures socially must be repressed,
if one is not to find something risible in the idea
of them as heroes of the cause of conversation. The
real problem, however, lies elsewl,erp.
It lies in the fact that the image of the conversation o~ mankind is a deeply discordant element in the
scheme of the book. The phrase itself and the inspiration behind it are, as Rorty acknowledges, derived
~rom Michael Oakeshott.
The implication is clear in
Oakeshott, and is any case hard to avoid, that the
conversation of mankind is a blending of past and
present, a communion of the living and the dead to
which all the ‘voices’ contribute in their own distinctive, unitary ‘modes’. This is a wholly
ahistorical conception, a paradigm of the ‘attempt
to escape from history’ of which Rorty accuses
traditional philosophy. As such, it is the characteristic product of the declining days of a school,
English Idealism, which he explicitly recognises as
being, even in its best days, resolutely non-historicist (p.165). How can it be reconciled with his own
much-canvassed historicism, his feeling for the discontinuity and diversity of ages and cultures and his
sense of the significance of abnormalities in discourse, of ‘incommensurable aims in an incommensurable
The conception is problematic in other ways. It
is presented by Oakeshott in an idiom that straddles
the language of aesthetics and that of etiquette.
This aspect is whole-heartedly taken up ‘by Rorty.
Philosophical .i udgement becomes for him a species of
connoisseurship, with terms such as ‘tact’ and
‘civility’ the key instruments. Thus, we are told:
‘To think of Wittgenstein and Heidegger has having
views about how things are is not to be wrong about
how things are exactly; it is just poor taste’ (p.372)
This is surely an ·admission of intellectual collapse.
In the quasi-aesthetic mode, one might suggest that
here American philosophy has achieved decadence at
one bound. The question that arises is how it was
possible for a tough-minded hIstoricist to fall for a
concept as precious and vapid as ‘the conversation of
mankind’. Why should a sophisticated, contemporary
Mid-Westerner assume the persona of a fake eighteenthcentury English gentleman? The answer must lie in
something deeply congenial in the Oakeshottian V1Slon.
It may be poor taste to say so, but its appeal seems
to be fundamentally ideological.
What is appealing is Oakeshott’s conservatism. In
this context the image of the conversation of mankind
is wholly appropriate in so far as it sponsors a
contemplative acceptance of the perennial riches of
the human condition. Rorty’s conservatism, however,
is overlain with radical rhetoric. He likes to tease,
but always with the final assurance that this philOsophy too leaves everything as it is. The urge to
have your cake and eat it finds expression in ways
that are sometimes mundane, even slightly comic.
Thus, it might be supposed that the thesis of the
book has depressing implications for the practice of
philosophy as a sociological reality. After all, it
tells us that the analytic movement ‘now has little
more to do’ (p.173), and, more generally, that the
pro~essional philosopher’s self-imape collapses with
the loss of the mirror of nature idea (p.392). Perhaps, to put it crudely, we should start worrying
about our jobs? It is hard not to feel that the
frisson the book has induced in the profession has
something to do with such suspicions. Rorty is sensitive to this aspect of the situation and at the end
of the book takes steps to render it harmless. He
notes that the rejection of the old professional self·
image might seem to ‘entail the claim that there can
or should be no such profession’. But ‘this does not
follow’, more especially because ‘the need for teachers who have read the great dead philosophers is
quite enough to insure that there will be philosophy
departments as long as there are universities’ (p.
393). The terms of this reassurance are precisely
weighted. The residual need is for people to teach
the writings of the mighty dead. This should indeed
serve to’secure philosophy a legitimate place in the
academy, with the status of, say, classical philology.
That is to say, it suffices to guarantee a philosophy
department in Princeton, though not in Peoria. The
expansion of the profession in recent years in the
United States and Britain has been lubricated by the
sense, obscurely felt and yet influential inside and
outside the academy, that the philosophers were on
to something important or, at any rate, prestigious.
This generous view can scarcely be accommodated to
the claim that their role is to be expositors of a
handful of classic texts. Institutional arrangements
can, of course, survive the loss of their legitimating .. ideas. Nevertheless, this loss must always be a
serious matter, and Rorty’s fellow professionals do
well to regard him as a dangerous person, for all his
His conservative instincts work against the grain
of his thesis in more important ways. The tension
shows itself in the way the argument loses its grip
whenever reassurance is being dispensed. Thus, for
instance, we are told that ‘the view that there is no
permanent neutral matrix within which the dramas of
inquiry and history are enacted has as a corollary
that criticism of one’s culture can only be piecemeal
and partial – never ‘~y reference to eternal standards'” (p.179). There is a false opposition here,
and without it the claim that criticism must be piecemeal is merely gratuitous. If one has ‘eternal
standards’ to refer to, criticism can be as piecemeal
as one likes. The standards license it to home in on
objects of any level of generality in the human world.
The point is surely that in the light of such standards the distinction between what is and what is not
piecemeal and partial, so significant for Rorty’s
‘holism’, is of no theoretical interest. If, however,
one takes him literally it becomes quite hard to see
how piecemeal criticism is even possible, or, at any
rate, how it can ever be justified. For, on his
account, justification at this level must presumably
be in terms of those culturally accepted practices
which the criticism is calling into question. On the
other hand, his historicism makes it easy enough to
see how criticism can be directed to the whole. For
it can appeal to the conception of a systematically
different way of doing things. After all, the questioning of the philosophical tradition in the name of
an edifying alternative shows what is possible. Moreover, Rorty’s thinking in this area draws, as he
explains, on the Kuhnian distinction between ‘normal’
and ‘revolutionary’ science. He should therefore
have no difficulty in acknowledging the link between
criticism and the kind of paradigm switch that Kuhn
describes. He should be prepared, if ideology did
not get in the way, to present himself as a prophet
of revolutions in the realm of concepts.
This is to suggest that the logic of his theory
makes him a kind of Young Hegelian. The idea is not
as fanciful as it may appear. From one point of view
the interest of the book lies in the way it displays
the whole analytical movement struggling to catch up
with Hegel, who figures as a discreet, yet powerful,
presence throughout. He stands, as Rorty recognizes,
at variance with the Kantian-epistemological tradition
that is the chief target, and, perhaps for that
reason, the references to him are by no means unsympathetic. Thus, there is something highly agreeable, at least to the present reviewer, in the explanation of why Hegelianism failed to appeal to the
professors: it ‘made philosophy too popular, too
interesting, too important, to be properly professional’ (p.135). That history is currently permitting
a second shot at the ivory tower is strongly suggested
by Jay Rosenberg’s conclusion, quoted by Rorty: ‘we
must come to see the physical universe as an integrated physical system which necessarily “grows knowers” and which thereby comes to mirror itself within
itself’ (p.297). Moreover, Rorty keeps a careful eye
on the links between Hegel and the heroes of analytical philosophy. Thus, he refers to the ‘Hegelian
implications’ of ~uine’s ‘behaviorism and holism’
(p.195) and to Sellars’s self-description of
‘Empiricism and the philosophy of Mind’ as ‘incipient
Meditations HegeZiennes (p.192). One can hardly help
feeling that if only the closet Hegelians in the
analytical movement would come out, the whole business
might yet limp on to Feuerbach. All sorts of possibilities must surely then open up.
The opposition to historicism and conservatism is
but one instance of a tendency to face different ways
at once. Some others may be briefly noted.
(1) Rorty seems uncertain where he stands as regards the fact-value distinction. Thus, Sellars is
commended for keeping it (p.180, n.13) and Gadamer for
giving it up (p.364). Moreover, their treatment of it
is in each case taken to be central to their achievement.
(2) It is not clear how the various accounts of
‘truth’ fit together. It is referred to indifferently
as ‘what it is better for us to believe’ (p.lO) and as
‘what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away
with saying’ (p.176). These formulas, standing
respectively, one might suppose, for Rdrty’s pragmatism and his epistemological behaviourism, do not
obviously amount to the same thing. Neither can
safely be identified with a third, ‘the homely use of
“true” to mean roughly “what you can defend against
all comers'” (p. 308). This use has nothing ‘homely’
about it, as anyone who tries it out on their nearest
and dearest will surely discover. It is a philosopher’s construct designed to flatter the professional
debater who alone will find it plausible to think, as
Rorty puts it elsewhere, of ‘rational certainty’ as
‘a matter of victory in argument’ (p.156). It is not
easy to see how one can simultaneously be pragmatist,
behaviourist and sophist in this area.
(3) Structural uncertainties are reflected in the
curiously short-winded character of the discussion at
key points. For one who values continuing the conversation above all else, it is remarkable how often
Rorty confesses to being able to see how something or
other should be ‘debated’ or ‘argued’ (e.g. pp.28, 97,
178, 364; cf. interview on the impossibility of arguing with Kripke). Perhaps the most important example
of this enervation is the handling of Kuhn’s suggestion that ‘there is a serious and unresolved problem
about why the scientific enterprise has been doing so
nicely lately’, in the sense of ‘repeatedly producing
powerful new techniques for prediction and control’.
This is, of course, the central problem to which
scientific realism addresses itself, and through which
it has made its fortunes in recent years. Rorty’s
response is to recommend that we should not feel it
acutely and should not regret our inability to resolve
it: here as elsewhere, the rule is that there is
nothing to be done but describe ‘what counts as justification within the various disciplinary matrices constituting the culture of the day’ (p.340). This laid
back attitude will seem unimpressive if one allows
that philosophy may, and should, be responsive to
cultural concerns outside the academy. In our day
nuclear issues are among the most pressing of these,
and they provide also a spectacular illustration of
the link between theoretical advance and technology.
Rorty might have been expected to deal more responsibly with the intellectual challenge of understanding
science as the voice in the conversation of mankind
that makes it possible to put a stop to the conversation. But even if the whole enterprise, or at least
the European role in it, now seems set to end with a
bang, it is still a pity that analytical philosophy
should go before with such a tiny whimper, however
The elegance, at any rate, is not in doubt. The
literary merits of Rorty’s book are substantial and
do much to account for its impact. Its style is vigorous, supple, self-assured, with many incidental
fel:i ci ties of expression. More narrow I y intellectual
merits are evident chiefly in the treatment of the
history of ideas. This displays mastery of the
material, a fresh eye for its connections and disconnections and the ability to fix the results in
striking generalisations. Admittedly, it is all done
in terms of the achievements of Great Men, Descartes’
‘invention of the mind’ and so on, and this individualised historiography sits somewhat oddly with the
socialized epistemology, the sense of the community
as th~ source of epistemic authority. But within its
familiar limits, it is a valuable and stimulating discussion. It is perhaps ironic that Rorty should be
best at the broad historical sweep and fairly unimpressive, as this review has tended to show, as
regards the feature for which, in the interview, he
particularly commends the analytical movement, the
‘insistence on detail and mechanics’. But, of course,
it is a commonplace enough sort of pathos to find
individuals and movements priding themselves most on
qualities they do not in fact possess.
In other ways Rorty is admirably self-aware.
Behind the flamboyance, he is intelligently modest in
his conception of the book, insisting that it adds
little to the ideas of its heroes, but is concerned
rather to present them in a therapeutically effective
way (pp.7, 13). As a cultural document which crystallizes certain tendencies of the day, its importance
is indeed undeniable. It is essential reading for
anyone who wishes to understand current stirrings in
the academy, and, more especially, the rapprochement
now in process between certain elements of the analytical and continental traditions. It does nothing,
however, to ease suspicions that this development is
being conceived along somewhat opportunist lines and
is fuelled on one side by the simple discovery that
Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault and Derrida are eminently
assimilatable, and, once one gets over their exotic
idiom, represent no threat to anything. There is
obviously a negative lesson here, that of showing
what radical philosophy in these times is not. But
Rorty’s pioneering efforts have also something positive to teach. Here one must return to the project of
edification to note that he wishes to retain the implication of relevance to guiding moral choices (pp.384,
388). If one combines this point with recalling the
distinctive ideological cast of his own practical
preferences, the contrast between knowledge philosophy
and edification philosophy begins to sound like a
variation on one of the oldest of themes, that of
lordship and bondage:
The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes;
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.
In the context of this dialectic Rorty’s book appears
as an attempt to unite the academy in the West behind
the edifying discourses of the butterfly. Anyalternative approach must try its stand on the knowledge of
the toad, and seek to be the voice of that knowledge.
It still has no better starting point than Hegel’s
treatment of the theme, with its assurance that the
future belongs to the toad as the agent of spirit.
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HOW In you structured by Hollywood hegemony?
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WE MAY NOT HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.
BUT AT LEAST WE’RE ASKING THE QUESTIONS
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