From ‘Philosophy and Social Hope’, by Richard Rorty

Giraffenfell
Photo by Oceancetaceen Alice Chodura – CC BY-SA 3.0

“‘Platonism’ in the sense in which I use the term does not denote the (very complex, shifting, dubiously consistent) thoughts of the genius who wrote the Dialogues. Instead, it refers to a set of philosophical distinctions (appearance-reality, matter-mind, made-found, sensible-intellectual, etc.): what Dewey called ‘a brood and nest of dualisms’.
These dualisms dominate the history of Western philosophy, and can be traced back to one or another passage in Plato’s writings. Dewey thought, as I do, that the vocabulary which centres around these traditional distinctions has become an obstacle to our social hopes.

[…]

The title ‘Hope in Place of Knowledge’ is a way of suggesting that Plato and Aristotle were wrong in thinking that humankind’s most distinctive and praiseworthy capacity is to know things as they really are – to penetrate behind appearance to reality. That claim saddles us with the unfortunate appearance-reality distinction and with metaphysics:
a distinction, and a discipline, which pragmatism shows us how to do without. I want to demote the quest for knowledge from the status of end-in-itself to that of one more means towards greater human happiness.

[…]

In our century, the most plausible project of this sort has been the one to which Dewey devoted his political efforts: the creation of a social democracy; that is, a classless, casteless, egalitarian society. I interpret James and Dewey as giving us advice on how, by getting rid of the old dualisms, we can make this project as central to our intellectual lives as it is to our political lives.

[…]

I hope that the papers in this volume may help convince people that relativism is a bugbear, and that the real question about the utility of the old Platonic dualisms is whether or not their deployment weakens our sense of human solidarity. I read Dewey as saying that discarding these dualisms will help bring us together, by enabling us to realize that trust, social cooperation and social hope are where our humanity begins and ends

[…]

The epithet ‘relativist’ is applied to philosophers who agree with Nietzsche that ‘”Truth” is the will to be master of the multiplicity of sensations’. It is also applied to those who agree with William James that ‘the “true” is simply the expedient in the way of believing’ and to those who agree with Thomas Kuhn that science should not be thought of as moving towards an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself. More generally, philosophers are called ‘relativists’ when they do not accept the Greek distinction between the way things are in themselves and the relations which they have to other things, and in particular to human needs and interests. Philosophers who, like myself, eschew this distinction must abandon the traditional philosophical project of finding something stable which will serve as a criterion for judging the transitory products of our transitory needs and interests. This means, for example, that we cannot
employ the Kantian distinction between morality and prudence. We have to give up on the idea that there are unconditional, transcultural moral obligations, obligations rooted in an unchanging, ahistorical human nature. This attempt to put aside both Plato and Kant is the bond which links the post-Nietzschean tradition in European philosophy with the pragmatic tradition in American philosophy.

[…]

To sum up what I have said so far: We pragmatists shrug off charges that we are ‘relativists’ or ‘irrationalists’ by saying that these charges presuppose precisely the distinctions we reject. If we have to describe ourselves, perhaps it would be best for us to call ourselves anti-dualists. This does not, of course, mean that we are against what Derrida calls ‘binary oppositions’: dividing the world up into the good Xs and the bad non-Xs will always be an indispensable tool of inquiry. But we are against a certain specific set of distinctions, the Platonic distinctions. We have to admit that these distinctions have become part of Western common sense, but we do not regard this as a sufficient argument for retaining them.

[…]

So we say that the vocabulary of Greek metaphysics and Christian theology – the  vocabulary used in what Heidegger has called ‘the onto-theological tradition’ – was a useful one for our ancestors’ purposes, but that we have different purposes, which will
be better served by employing a different vocabulary. Our ancestors climbed up a ladder which we are now in a position to throw away. We can throw it away not because we have reached a final resting place, but because we have different problems to solve than those which perplexed our ancestors.

[…]

Pragmatists hope to break with the picture which, in Wittgenstein’s words, ‘holds us captive’- the Cartesian-Lockean picture of a mind seeking to get in touch with a reality outside itself. So they start with a Darwinian account of human beings as animals doing their best to cope with the environment – doing their best to develop tools which
will enable them to enjoy more pleasure and less pain. Words are among the tools which these clever animals have developed. There is no way in which tools can take one out of touch with reality. No matter whether the tool is a hammer or a gun or a belief or a statement, tool-using is part of the interaction of the organism with its environment. To see the employment of words as the use of tools to deal with the environment, rather than as an attempt to represent the intrinsic nature of that environment, is to repudiate the question of whether human minds are in touch with reality – the question asked by the epistemological sceptic. No organism, human or non-human, is ever more or less in touch with reality than any other organism. The very idea of ‘being out of touch with reality’ presupposes the un-Darwinian, Cartesian picture of a mind which somehow swings free of the causal forces exerted on the body. The Cartesian mind is an entity whose relations with the rest of the universe are representational rather than causal. So to rid our thinking of the vestiges of Cartesianism, to become fully Darwinian in our thinking, we need to stop thinking of words as representations and to start thinking of them as nodes in the causal network which binds the organism together with its  environment.

[…]

we pragmatists cannot make sense of the idea that we should pursue truth for its own
sake. We cannot regard truth as a goal of inquiry. The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do, to bring about consensus on the ends to be achieved and the means to be used to achieve those ends. Inquiry that does not achieve coordination of behaviour is not inquiry but simply wordplay. To argue for a certain theory about the microstructure of material bodies, or about the proper balance of powers between branches of government, is to argue about what we should do: how we should use the tools at our disposal in order to make technological, or political,
progress. So, for pragmatists there is no sharp break between natural science and social science, nor between social science and politics, nor between politics, philosophy and literature. All areas of culture are parts of the same endeavour to make life better. There is no deep split between theory and practice, because on a pragmatist view all so-called
‘theory’ which is not wordplay is always already practice.
To treat beliefs not as representations but as habits of action, and words not as representations but as tools, is to make it pointless to ask, ‘Am I discovering or inventing, making or finding?’ There is no point in dividing up the organisms’ interaction with the environment in this way. Consider an example. We normally say that a bank account is a social construction rather than an object in the natural world, whereas a giraffe is an object in the natural world rather than a social construction. Bank accounts are made, giraffes are found. Now the truth in this view is simply that if there had been no human beings there would still have been giraffes, whereas there would have been no bank accounts. But this causal independence of giraffes from humans does not mean that giraffes are what they are apart from human needs and interests. On the contrary, we describe giraffes in the way we do, as giraffes, because of our needs and interests. We speak a language which includes the word ‘giraffe’ because it suits our purposes to do so. The same goes for words like ‘organ’, ‘cell’, ‘atom’, and so on- the names of the parts out of which giraffes are made, so to speak. All the descriptions we give of things are  descriptions suited to our purposes. No sense can be made, we pragmatists argue, of the claim that some of these descriptions pick out ‘natural kinds’- that they cut nature at the joints. The line between a giraffe and the surrounding air is clear enough if you are a human being interested in hunting for meat. If you are a language-using ant or amoeba, or a space voyager observing us from far above, that line is not so clear, and it is not clear that you would need or have a word for ‘giraffe’ in your language. More generally, it is not clear that any of the millions of ways of describing the piece of space time occupied by what we call a giraffe is any closer to the way things are in themselves
than any of the others. Just as it seems pointless to ask whether a giraffe is really a collection of atoms, or really a collection of actual and possible sensations in human sense organs, or really something else, so the question, ‘Are we describing it as it really is?’ seems one we never need to ask. All we need to know is whether some competing
description might be more useful for some of our purposes.
The relativity of descriptions to purposes is the pragmatist’s principal argument for his antirepresentational view of knowledge – the view that inquiry aims at utility for us rather than an accurate account of how things are in themselves.

[…]

what Derrida calls ‘a full presence beyond the reach of play’, […] a luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision. By now I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and such a vision is a bad idea. The main trouble is that you might succeed, and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings.

[…]

Pragmatists -both classical and ‘neo-‘ -do not believe that there is a way things really are. So they want to replace the appearance-reality distinction by that between descriptions of the world and of ourselves which are less useful and those which are more useful. When the question ‘useful for what?’ is pressed, they have nothing to say except ‘useful to create a better future’.

[…]

They are limited to such fuzzy and unhelpful answers because what they hope is not that the future will conform to a plan, will fulfil an immanent teleology, but rather that the future will astonish and exhilarate. Just as fans of the avant garde go to art galleries wanting to be astonished rather than hoping to have any particular expectation fulfilled

[…]

Dewey wanted to shift attention from the eternal to the future, and to do so by making philosophy an instrument of change rather than of conservation, thereby making it American rather than European. He hoped to do so by denying -as Heidegger was to deny later on -that philosophy is a form of knowledge. This means denying that there is or could be an extra-cultural foundation for custom, and acknowledging openly that, ‘In philosophy, “reality” is a term of value or choice.’13 He wanted to get rid of what he called ‘the notion, which has ruled philosophy ever since the time of the Greeks, that the office of knowledge is to uncover the antecedently real, rather than, as is the case with our practical judgments, to gain the kind of understanding which is necessary to deal with problems as they arise’. In saying that democracy is a ‘metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature’, he is saying that the institutions of a truly nonfeudal society would produce, and be produced by, a nondualistic way of thinking about reality and knowledge. This way of thinking would, for the first time, put the intellectuals at the service of the productive class rather than the leisure class. Pragmatism would, for the first time, treat theory as an aid to practice, rather than seeing practice as a degradation of theory.

[…]

[Davidson and] Dewey agree that we should give up the idea that knowledge is an attempt to represent reality. Rather, we should view inquiry as a way of using reality. So the relation between our truth claims and the rest of the world is causal rather than representational. It causes us to hold beliefs, and we continue to hold the beliefs which prove to be reliable guides to getting what we want. Goodman is right to say that there is no one Way the World Is, and so no one way it is to be accurately represented. But there are lots of ways to act so as to realize human hopes of happiness. The attainment of such happiness is not something distinct from the attainment of justified belief; rather, the latter is a special case of the former. Pragmatists realize that this way of thinking about knowledge and truth makes certainty unlikely. But they think that the quest for certainty -even as a long-term goal -is an attempt to escape from the world.

 

From ‘Philosophy and Social Hope’, by Richard Rorty

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