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Rorty’s Duct Tape, Part 1

“Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.”

-Richard Rorty

For this reason, I must highlight Rorty. For Rorty’s brand of duct tape seems to *stick* out from the bunch.

With no reasonable doubt, Rorty was raised into the impressive nature philosophy he seemed to instinctively present. Rorty’s mother was raised into socialist politics, and was popular during her age for writing periodicals, books, and more. For more intellectual concretion, his father was a socialist. The majority of his father’s life was spent criticizing specialization, academic distinctions and isolation in politics; he was a generalist. To sum it up, he was brought up in high literacy, political passion, and analysis. This apple, Rorty, never left the tree.

The topics which Rorty covers range in many, many directions, including epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, liberalism, philosophy of the mind and much more. Furthermore, he wrote a myriad of books, illustrating the ideas he pursed in his lifetime. This is explicable in four main categories:

  1. Philosophy regarding society
  2. Philosophy regarding philosophers
  3. Philosophy regarding philosophy
  4. Philosophy regarding self-knowledge

Of course, his pursuit of knowledge was far broader and branched much further than the few outlined above. These are just a few building blocks in the pyramid which is Rorty’s Philosophy.

The first and most important step, he believed, was what philosophers concern themselves with in this advanced age. Rorty believed that modern epistemology is constantly trying to “mirror” independent, external reality. He states that in order to accomplish this, a large portion of the existing philosopher-population uses foundationalism as a tool. Simply stated, he disagreed. He believed that foundationalism is a faulty progresser in the world of philosophy and that it impedes the progress of the disciplines. Instead, Rorty took on a “Kuhnian” approach to the goal of philosophical inquiry; that being to act as a “philosophical gadfly”, trying to trigger a new approach and a revolutionary breakthrough in philosophy. In addition to this, the goal of philosophy should no longer be questioning whether beliefs properly represent reality. In opposition, he stated that the pursuit of knowledge should be concerned with using these beliefs to progress. At last, a practical philosopher! In order to accomplish this, he believed that philosophers should use whatever method of discovery the day best employs. In other words, don’t continually fall back on science, simply because others have criticized your attempt at change.

As for how philosophers attempt this, Rorty was led to create “ironism“. This is outlined in his book Contingency, Irony, and SolidarityIronism, in the words of Rorty, is

  1. She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered;
  2. She realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts;
  3. Insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.

In short, he said that philosophers should be in pursuit of newer vocabulary, and should not criticize others.

In terms of the mission for philosophers, Rorty believed that philosophers should be divided among themselves to philosophize for either the public or the private. He felt that each philosopher should devote their time to either societal issues, or issues concerning personal growth and self knowledge.

In a societal sense, Rorty was one of the first to simplistically state that personal ideals and standards of truth are not important. He mirrored Rawl in the sense that there should be a balance/coherence among beliefs, arrived at by mutual adjustment in general principles and particular judgements. He stated that humans have a very general sense of moral judgement and motivation, and this general sense could allow for a synchronized and civil society, if people could focus on the bigger picture, rather than pointless details in their personal philosophy. By Rawls, this is summed up as a “reflective equilibrium“.

On a personal level (private), Richard Rorty covered self-knowledge in a very bleak, simplistic manner. He stated that there is no answer to “Who am I?”, nor should there be. In unison with other philosophers examining the self (like Sartre), he believed the self is ever changing. As for describing the self, Rorty had a very unique approach:

“The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that. ”

His major belief was that we cannot definitively describe ourselves, but we can relentlessly try. He believed that because the self is ever-so-dynamic, we have the opportunity of using newer, more justified language to describe ourselves over time. These new words would be no more objective, but hold greater value in terms of the way they are used.

Rorty considered this process of self-definition “self creation”. He initiated the theory that the process of coming to know one’s self, one’s contingency causes the creation of one’s self.

Rorty’s involvement in philosophy impressed upon me a great interest in the role of philosophers and philosophy in society. Rorty concerned himself with not only solving problems, but how we should be solving these philosophical problems. His practicality, range of topics, as well as personal endeavours in philosophy all impressed me greatly.



4 thoughts on “Rorty’s Duct Tape, Part 1

  1. I like the direction you’re heading here, especially bringing Discourse into your analysis i.e., the language others use to describe us and the world around us presents the greatest evidence to our existence in the world as we know it. Have you considered the theory of “possible selves” presented by William James? (Also referred to as multiple selves or “many selves” see: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-couch/201104/our-many-selves). This theory, based in psychology, states that each individual presents multiple selves, and that each is valid and a part of your person-hood, rather than an integrated Self. Thus Rorty’s “self creation” would fall under critique because he assumes each individual possesses one self that comes into being over time. What say you?

    Posted by GNA | October 25, 2012, 7:31 am
  2. GNA (for I don’t know how you actually write your name),

    You bring up some good points here – on the subject of multiple selves. I read your theory of multiples selves – while I myself believe it is perfectly plausible, I don’t think that it would be able to co-exist with Rorty’s philosophies on the self. This is for a few reasons:

    1. In order for multiple selves to exist (in the way you describe them), each self would have to have a definitive description. If this cannot happen on a large scale, how is it any more plausible on the bases of more selves? Rorty believed that no definition of a self could come to light, because such facts about one’s self do not exist.

    2. Another reason it would fail to comply with Rorty’s reasoning would be the personalities set in stone. If we were to be composed of mutiple selves, there would be no change in each self. This means that we are only working with a set of preexisting selves, rather than an everchanging self. Though this could result in a ‘overall self’ that is continually transforming, there would only be a finite possibilities of selves available. Rorty believed that the self is continually changing due to numerous events occuring in nature – which gets into predestination a little bit. Regardless, throughout all of Rorty’s work, he clearly states that there is no concrete definition in anything – that nothing can be set in stone, but rather, described in a different manner.

    Now, while we have that side of it out of the way, I agree with the article you bring up, in a way. The fact that we are continually drawing on different parts of ourselves, in order to have a differently composed self seems much more logical than a single-dimension unified self. I do find , in an odd way, that this could actually be intertwined with Rorty’s work – the “everchanging self” that he speaks of COULD technically be composed of these multiples selves.

    The hang up I have with it is the same that Rorty does – having multiple definite, describable selves seems a little bit out there. Even the method of categorization would be hard: would you base it off of virtues? The sterotypical evil vs. good? Or many full fledged selves, intertwined as one?

    Thanks for bringing that article to my attention. It really brings out some of Rorty’s theories in a different way. What do you think? Could it coexist with Rorty’s existing theories?


    Posted by JonathanToews | October 29, 2012, 2:07 am
    • Jonathan,

      I appreciate your thorough response to my comment. (Please forgive my delayed response.) Ideally, an individual would, over their life-span, mature (develop) into an integrated Self. This is ideal because the opposite, a fractured self, especially in old age, would be maddening–literally. Can you imagine being 80 years old and still questing to identify and integrate your moral, religious, gendered, ethnic, intellectual, etc. “selves.” Perhaps the language and theory of multiple selves conflicts with Rorty in the realm of discourse and not much more? Keeping that in mind, I recall another take on human development (esp. identity development) by Chickering. He speaks of Vectors. Check this one out here: http://www.cabrini.edu/communications/ProfDev/cardevChickering.html You will undoubtedly note some similarities in the content of Chickering’s Vectors and the theory of multiple selves–take particular note that in both cases the individual can be moving about, interrogating aspects of his or her Self simultaneously. Coming back around to Rorty, I do not believe either of these intrapersonal-psychological developmental theories are in conflict. Then again, I’m only as familiar Rorty as you’ve taught me here (so far). Looking forward to your presentation in class.

      Keep pressing,

      GNA (and yes, that’s how you spell my name)

      Posted by GNA | October 31, 2012, 2:56 am


  1. Pingback: Rorty’s Duct Tape, Part 2 « Philosophy 12 - October 25, 2012

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