Rorty and philosophy in America

I’ve mentioned before Rorty’s sentiments on philosophy in America and thought I would go a little more in depth. The following is from an essay he wrote, Philosophy in America Today, written in 1981. Even though the article is 27 years old, his analysis fits with my impression of philosophy departments in the US from my perspective in Germany (his more current work not only affirms what he wrote at this time but is even more critical).

A quip by Quine helps explain the direction American philosophy has taken – namely, “that people go into philosophy for one of two reasons: some are interested in the history of philosophy, and some in philosophy.” Being interested in “philosophy” means being interested in solving a set of identifiable problems (Quine is giving credence to the American tradition). Here in Germany the problems of philosophy are problems in writing the history of philosophy (something less valued by the mighty Quine). That is mainly why my current research on Karl Löwith is accepted as doing philosophical work in Germany but would less likely be accepted by American universities since I am not addressing a specific philosophic “problem” or entering into a specific philosophic debate.

Rorty continues on to describe the scientific, argumentative American style of philosophy in contrast to a “literary” Continental style:

The former style asks that premises be explicitly spelled out rather than guessed at, that terms be introduced by definitions rather than by allusion. The latter style may involve argumentation, but that is not essential; what is essential is telling a new story, suggesting a new language-game, in hope of a new form of intellectual life.

Training in analytic philosophy has become akin to the training done in law schools. Arguments and problems are treated with standard casebook procedures in attempts to find objections or weaknesses.

Students’ wits were sharpened by reading preprints of articles by currently fashionable figures, and finding objections to them. The students so trained began to think of themselves neither as continuing a tradition nor as participating in the solution of the “outstanding problems” at the frontiers of a science. Rather, they took their self-image from a style and quality of argumentation. They became quasi-lawyers rather than quasi-scientists – hoping an interesting new case would turn up.

This description fits my experience as a Masters student in California. The most “lawyer style” of philosophy done at my department was in the form of an Ethic’s Bowl (see detailed description here). Undergraduate students are asked to prepare cases in the field of ethics and be able to debate these cases against other teams. Philosophers and philosophies are invoked much like a lawyer invokes past cases to support their claim (bringing utilitarianism to bear on a problem is a small step from bringing Engel Et Al vs. V. Vitale Et Al to bear on a court case).

On the other hand, popular philosophers of Continental philosophy (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault) were encouraging their readers to give up notions of “system”, “method” and “science” – notions that find central importance in Analytic philosophy. They wanted to “blur the lines between disciplines” and were against the idea of philosophy having a set of problems that were foreign to other departments.

While in California there were also talks about bridging the divide between Continental and Analytic philosophy. For Rorty, such a “project would make sense if, as is sometimes said, the two sides were attacking common problems with different “methods”. But in the first place, there are no such common problems…”

For those living in America and interested in Continental philosophy comparative literature departments, where a literary style is accepted, are the departments to turn to. Popular philosophical projects here in Heidelberg are akin to projects done in comparative literature courses in the US – one such project, “The God of the Philosophers”, I will hopefully address in the future.

Rorty describes the problem as such:

Although philosophy is not something which once was whole and now is sundered, something else is – namely, the secular intellectual’s conception of himself.

and later:

It is the contrast between the “scientific culture” and the “literary culture.” It is the antagonism which begins to become explicit when analytic philosophers mutter about the “irrationalism” which rages in literature departments and when Continental philosophers become shrill about the lack of “human significance” in the works of the analysts.

Saying that philosophy is on its deathbed comes from the Rorty interview that I’ve mentioned all too often on this blog. He claims that the argumentative Analytic philosophy has lost substance, that the problems they are fascinated with go out of style within a generation and that they produce a body of literature that is forgotten within 10 to 20 years.  He said this, of course, as a Professor of Comparative Literature.


theology on its deathbed?

During this semester two fliers from the Theology department have crossed my hand. One was advertising a colloquium that was to discuss the question, “is Theology on its deathbed?” The second was a typical science versus religion discussion where the theologians were to do battle against the theories of Richard Dawkins (the flier asked the question, “has science finally disproved religion?”).

Here I thought that it was 19th century German philosophy that scooted theology out of the land of academics – but here is 21st century Germany asking if theology is still a healthy academic discipline. I’m amazed until I remember that this is officially a Christian nation.

Somehow public American Universities got the hint and left the study of Theology out of their course books and instituted Religious Studies (an area of study that doesn’t rise and fall with the interpretation of one book) as a replacement. The true heir to theology, however, thanks to the mighty influence of Hegel, has been philosophy.

Philosophy could also be on its deathbed – at least the late Richard Rorty thought so and at least in the US (Germany is a little behind in sending academic disciplines floating away on their fiery caskets). The scary thing is that I agree with Rorty’s sentiments. Philosophy won’t stop being a subject in the US anymore than theology has stopped being a subject in Germany. But maybe, somewhere, comparative literature departments will consume philosophy more and more, taking what’s necessary and leaving behind what’s stale. Kind of like scraping off the burnt part of toast… Then the people from those departments can pick up fliers from the people over in philosophy and scoff.


Der Wanderer über dem NebelmeerI forgot how busy I am during the week – hence the delay.

I’m kind of embarrassed about the content at the end of the last post – “philosophers as storytellers”. Not that I don’t think it is an adequate description, it just betrays a level of sentimentality that one shouldn’t reveal when attempting to be taken seriously. Getting excited about philosophy can be dangerous – like running into a new forest, inhaling new experiences and then wanting to describe them coherently to a group of friends. How do you start? Without going about it methodically (i.e.; types of trees, types of colors, origin of the odors, noises, etc.) it is extremely difficult to make cogent sense of this forest experience. Being excited means wanting to explain it as a whole, as an experience not of the particular elements but of them smashed together. The explanation of this smashed together experience might sound like this: “it’s breathtaking!”, “it’s soothing”, “calming”, “the most gnarly sensory overload!” Not that I don’t think that these are adequate descriptions, they just betray a level of sentimentality that one shouldn’t reveal when trying to be understood by a group of friends. Alone, the exclamations themselves don’t help give a sense of what really was going on. Claiming that philosophy tells the “human story” is to shout out the first thing that comes to mind in an attempt to lump different impressions into one expression.

In Germany I can’t seem to open a philosophy book or sit in on a lecture without either hearing about Hegel or hearing Hegel’s philosophy in what is being discussed. It is more or less accepted that Hegel revolutionized the way we think – a point that isn’t easily understood after hearing it only for the first or second time. The way we think just seems to be the way we think, thinking about others ways to think is not the easiest to do. Hegel gets credited for endowing us with a historical consciousness. My study buddy, Löwith, rehegel-lecture.jpgmarks in his critique of Nietzsche that the Greeks thought of time in a cyclical manner (which he relates to Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same) as opposed to post-Hegelians who think of history in a linear manner. Thinking of history linearly leads one to think of a telos (or goal) of history or to thinking of history as progressive. The French Revolution was such a fascinating event for 19th Century philosophers because they saw it as an event that served the progress of history. Therein hides two ideas that supposedly arrived with German idealism – that one can serve history and that history is progressive.

When Rorty tells Harrison (in the interview I mentioned last post) that to decide between the reformists and the revolutionaries is to decide based on what you want for the future the first thing that came to mind was Hegel (whispy hair, large turned down nose and all). Like the French Revolution was seen (and is seen) to serve history we are told by major contemporary philosophers to choose philosophical allegiance based on how we think it will promote a history of our liking. Where does that leave the queitists and the naturalists (the other two trends in analytic philosophy that Rorty names)? The naturalists’ idea of history is that it servs “truth” as they see their knowledge as being based upon and superior to all prior knowledge – that their work should be to help knowledge move along this path of progress. The queitists are there to make fun of the naturalists by referencing Wittgenstein.

The reformers and revolutionaries don’t accept this notion of “the progress towards truth” and have differing modes of historical thought that motivates their writing. The reformers are utopia builders whose wish it is to “maximize happiness” – this is historical because it struggles to build an ethic and politic that will lead to such a society. The revolutionaries see the history of men and women as the history of self-alienated beings and it is their goal to free men and women from that which binds them. I think this is why the philosophies of the so-called revolutionaries appears to me to be more human. Although the reformers are more concerned about well-being, they talk and philosophize about ideals, not humans per se. Philosophy books from the “revolutionaries” are dialogues with the individual reader – individual challenges in intellectual and personal honesty.

So what is telling a “human story”? I think it is telling the story of our historical position (something which is possible thanks to German idealism), I think it is a challenge to individuals to analyze their lives and it is a constant critique of those forces which constantly invade our lives (the political, the social, technology, etc, etc).

Well, that’s the best I can do right now in attempting to be a little more specific than shouting “it’s the most gnarly sensory overload!”

orienting oneself within philosophy

Returning to Rorty’s distinctions –

I don’t want to go through Rorty’s distinctions thoroughly and question whether or not these categories of contemporary philosophy are accurate. I think it is safe to trust Rorty that these different trends exist, I think sitting a philosopher under these titles is also a helpful tool for understanding different philosophical debates. In my own, still very “young”, impressions of philosophy I want to agree wholeheartedly with Rorty and where he places certain philosophers under the titles of certain trends. I want to have a discussion in this post with myself about my philosophical interests using Rorty’s grid as a background for placing otherwise stray thoughts and confusions. This will most likely mean, however, that this post will not be interesting to the general random person who finds this blog – or to the person who doesn’t give a hoot about what I want to do in philosophy (a most understandable position!).

I liked Rorty’s book Consequences of Pragmatism so much because he explains and exercises what he, in the Stanford interview from 2005, describes as quietist philosophy. The strains in analytic philosophy that I’m drawn to are those strains that attempt to dissolve philosophical problems, “problems” that are given weight and importance by naturalist philosophers. Reading these attempts at “dissolving” philosophy (Wittgenstein and Quine / “web of ideas” comes to mind) is reading an attempt to stop philosophers from treating philosophy as a science. Without giving an (inevitably inadequate) account of what treating philosophy as a science tries to accomplish and why I dislike it I will simply orient myself with the quietists against the naturalists. For me there is nothing more frustrating than having to study logics or a “metaphysics” of language – items that seem to be on the plate of analytic naturalist philosophers. Placing myself comfortably here, in bed with the quietists, however, isn’t something that took much thought. I have always had a deep suspicion of this kind of philosophy and if it were the only kind of philosophy that existed I would not be studying philosophy at all. What is more interesting for me is the distinction Rorty makes within the continental philosophers.

Reformers and Revolutionaries. I can be sympathetic to Rorty’s treatment of Dewey and also find merit in his conclusions regarding the social well-being of societies. I get turned off when Rorty (in the interview and most likely elsewhere as well) talks about the grandeur of western civilization. He is not willing to say that the kind of society we have in the West (he has the US in mind but includes Europe as well) is the best there could possibly be. He says only, that this society is the best there has been so far. When asked about capitalism his response is similar – that it is the worst economic system ever developed except for all the others that have ever been tried. With this attitude of “it isn’t perfect but it’s the best we have” comes the conclusion that (like I said in my last post) the world should be more like America and America more like Norway. The destruction of smaller civilizations / traditions is inconsequent compared to the benefits of adopting a society like the one to be found in the US. This is in contrast to philosophers who have many negative things to say concerning American society – Zizek and Agamben being two of the “revolutionaries” that he names.

Rorty is then a quietist reformer. It sounds boring. A quietist reformer? Yaaawn… During the interview he was asked what shape philosophy should take, he doesn’t have an answer. When being pressed by Professor Harrison that perhaps the task of the philosopher is a more social one Rorty only responds, no – that task is too large. Asking Rorty about the future of philosophy is like asking Nietzsche about the future of theology – there just isn’t any and thankfully so. Having experienced my own nihilistic confrontation (sounds grand and existential, doesn’t it?) with philosophy this attitude of “there is no future of philosophy” is a little worrisome. The books I own are definitely those of the revolutionaries and I don’t (after consideration) mind being a critic of the best society humans have ever made – even if it makes me the spoiled crying child with all the money and leisure one can desire. Isn’t that what Foucault did? Even though he lived very comfortably in Parisian society he was not stopped from criticizing hidden suppressive elements and exposing power struggles taking place around his fancy apartment (not that I know anything about his living conditions in Paris so I’m just assuming that, as a famous professor who could pack two lecture halls while giving only one lecture(!), he made a comfortable wage).

And when I listen to or read philosophers like Zizek, I find something more appealing than just “revolutionary” statements that criticize Bush, the US or western life in general. These people are story tellers – Zizek accused himself last week of not being able to think outside of examples or metaphors. The story they are telling is (I know it’s cheesy) the human story. To put my simple twist on things – There is a kind of Marxist assumption in the thought of the revolutionaries that man/woman is self-alienated. Unlike Marx this alienation is not only related to production but is also tied to political systems, economic systems and societies in general (e.g.; capitalism and materialism as self-alienating). The goal of the revolutionaries is to tell the story about how man/woman is self-alienated and about how certain living conditions alienate individuals from themselves. This is the philosophical problem that I think so many people can relate to that is discussed by philosophers like Zizek. That’s just my impression.

I want to become a story teller and the person living comfortably abroad who complains about hidden suppressive elements in the world. I think the revolutionaries have a much more attractive position because, even if this is the greatest society the world has known, it still needs philosophers yelling at it to become better.

This post isn’t complete but I’ve already spent more than a reasonable amount of time writing so I guess there will be a part three tomorrow or the next day. I’m not done thinking about (or writing about) philosophers as story tellers so it would be best to continue the thought later. (Sorry that there are no distracting pictures, I need to be studying!)

the schisms of philosophy

robertharrisonBefore I start ranting I want to recommend to anyone who finds this blog to check out the fabulously free educational resources Stanford University has for your consumption. One of these resources that I have been fervently consuming this weekend is the Entitled Opinions radio show by Professor of Italian Literature Robert Harrison – search through the archives on the left hand side and you can listen / download some pretty interesting interviews / conversations. If you have Itunes his show and other talks hosted by Stanford can easily be found by doing a quick search.

I listened to Professor Harrison’s interview of the late American Philosopher Richard Rorty twice. I casually listened to it for the first time last night and decided that it was worth listening to a second time today – this time while taking notes. One of the nice things Rorty does in this interview is categorize contemporary philosophy into four neat “approaches” or affiliations.

He starts off by describing the origins of Analytic Philosophy as an attempt to show that the enterprise of metaphysics was an impossible one – that we are unable to say something True about the world. He goes on to say that these philosophers got “bored” of this attack and decided that they too wanted to make universal claims about the world. Here we are given the rortytwo schisms within analytic philosophy: the quietists , or those who want to dissolve philosophical “problems” and show them as nothing more than conceptual confusions and the naturalists, or those philosophers who have returned to a core set up problems in philosophy and see their task as solving these problems.

Rorty describes himself as a quietist and further explains his position with the following clarifications: “there is no such thing as a nature of the world”, “real only has a sense when it is applied to something specific,” “metaphysics is a game without rules”. An example of applying a sense to real through something specific he gives is that of dairy creamer or non-dairy creamer. We have rules that let us determine whether or not the creamer in front of us is dairy or non-dairy – the same thing cannot be done, however, with questions of the world. I share his fear of metaphysics because, as he says, there is no real way to argue against statements that the world is “spirit”, “will to power”, etc. If we want to know the nature of metaphysical terms (calling them such will surely make some people suspicious) such as “Mind”, “God” and “Matter” all that we need to do is learn the history of discourses in which these terms were used. When these discourses or stories are told, everything about the “nature” of “Mind” (as an example) is discovered as “all there is to know is how the words are used.” (If you are actually interested in listening to this interview yourself the current discussion occurs in the 25th minute).

According to Rorty, the problems that the naturalists are fascinated with go out of style within a generation. That they produce a body of literature that is forgotten within 10 to 20 years – thus implying the futility of their efforts and the banality of their subjects.

The next two approaches Rorty places under the Historicist or Continental philosophical Tradition. On the one hand there are the reformers such as Mill, Dewey, Habermas and Berlin. The reformers are convinced that since the French Revolution humans have figured out how life ought to be lived – namely, as much individual freedom as possible under a system that is as democratic as possible. Rorty takes Mill’s book, On Liberty to be the exemplar of such thought.

Rorty names the second branch within Continental Philosophy the revolutionaries and the branch is led by philosophers like Žižek, Agamben and Foucault (Professor Harrison adds Nietzsche and Heidegger to this list with Rorty’s approval). These philosophers think that there is something radically wrong with this attempt to create a utopia on earth (one that the reformers would support), that there is something radically wrong with bourgeois liberalism, modernity and secular society. They think that the “progress” that is accepted by the reformers is nothing more than a form of domination or suppression.


The reformers are contrasted to the revolutionaries via Nietzsche’s conception of the “last man” which Rorty describes as a man without an idea of greatness, who has his “pleasures in the morning and his pleasures in the evening” (i.e.; they are small, fleeting pleasures). The reformers have no problem with this picture and are much happier to busy themselves with maximizing happiness (the utilitarian dictum) than ideas of greatness. The picture of the “last man” is an ignoble one for the revolutionaries which is capsulized by the famous quote from Nietzsche – (which I can’t remember word for word) that man doesn’t live for happiness, just the English (supposedly talking about Mill) and women (supposedly referring to Nietzsche’s awkwardly inadequate view of women). The way to choose sides between these two “camps” is to ask yourself what kind of future you want for humanity. The answer will help you be pulled either towards Dewey or towards Nietzsche… I suppose an answer has to choose between ideas of greatness and ideas of generalized happiness.

Rorty calls himself a quietest and a reformer and shows his support for the success of the US with the statement: “the best we can hope for is a globalization of the kind of society we’ve created in the modern west” (35th minute). And that America needs to be more like Norway (welfare state) and the world more like America.

I think I want to take another night to sit on these ideas before I try and write what I think of the content of this interview. I hope this synopsis will suffice until tomorrow. (Don’t forget to click on the cows – it IS a thumbnail!)