Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty, perhaps America's preeminent philospher, died today. Here, from Lingua Franca's excellent profile, is a short summary of Rorty's essential postmodern argument that continues to bedevil the supporters of natural law (and virtually every other philosophic tradition, for that matter):

Rorty explored these highly controversial ideas in his 1979 classic, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, in which he argued that there was no sense in trying to give a general account of truth. "Granted that 'true' is an absolute term," he wrote in a later essay, "its conditions of application will always be relative." That is, whatever we may hope to mean when we call a belief "true," we use the word only when we feel our belief is justified —and justification always raises the question, "Justified to whom?" To critics who would argue that the justification of our claims may always be relative to a particular audience but that truth is not, because it consists of accuracy to the way the world really is, Rorty had a frustratingly simple response: There's no point in saying that truth has anything to do with the way the world really is.

This is the postmodern paradox. There is no independent "truth" that exists objectively and apart from the subject access of those who seek it. Much like the Schroedinger's Cat paradox, Rorty claims there is no "true" world that philosophers can describe; at best, philosophy can either render the pursuit of truth irrelevant by arguing away the importance of philosophic inquiry. This has driven philosophers up the wall, because it just seems so wrong. And yet, good luck disproving Rorty's argument without making appeals to "natural right" or "God" or some other infallible source of "truth" that are on philosophically shaky ground.

When you're an atheist like me, it's hard to find words of mourning for someone's death, but I will miss Richard Rorty's contribution to philosophy, and indeed, life.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

“This is the postmodern paradox. There is no independent "truth" that exists objectively and apart from the subject access of those who seek it.” – Ben

Always seemed to me that the paradox that postmodernism runs into is Eubulides’s Liar’s Paradox (many variants to the effect, “this statement is a lie”) since it is claiming to make a comprehensive objective statement about the nature of truth ....

-- Big Daddy

8:05 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

I agree BD. But I think part of the confusion stems from the confusion over the definition of "truth." Someone like Rorty does not deny that statements can be true or false; the question is what meaning we give to the word "truth." In the postmodern sense, "truth" is a codeword for "things that we agree we have good evidence for, and/or persuasive reasons to believe, and thus agree must be 'true.'" We could call this "small-t truth." In contrast, some folks -- let's call them "scientists" -- believe that there is an external world that exists apart from our contingent observation and studying of it; we then use methods -- call it "science" -- to reveal this objective, independent world. Call this "big-t Truth." And some philosophers, seeking Truth that relates to human existence, suggest that there is a "Natural Law" or "God" that exists apart from our observation of it/him/her.

So, the upshot of this, is to distinguish the two types of truth. But still, your critique is a powerful one, and I think one of the main reasons people intuitively resist postmodernism's claim about, er, truth.

11:27 AM  

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