De Vita, Scientia, et Virtute

Veritas Lux Mea

On Language and Classical Liberalism: A Look at Some Thoughts of Richard Rorty

In the course of POLS 386 with Dr. Ari Kohen, we discussed the work of the late Dr. Richard Rorty, a notable contemporary philosopher. I will not be able to fully express Rorty’s thoughts on language and philosophy, but I will be able to provide some key facts to his theories, which we can address, as well as incidentally help me study for the upcoming POLS 386 final in a couple days.

Rorty states that truth is a property of sentences, by which he means that we arrive at “truths” from the languages we use to convey them. Truth is not something that just ephemerally floats through the world, but is merely a property of the sounds we make in speech (and, of course, the markings that we write).

I think this is an interesting concept, but I find it problematic. For how does language do anything but act as a descriptor. We see the apple fall from the tree, that’s describing the action. But does language give gravity its power? It merely acts as a way in which we can come to understand the concept of gravity as a thing. Gravity, as it is, exists regardless of what we call it in our language. We could call it “Fruit Loop” for all that matters, and it still is the pull that masses have on other masses.

But perhaps I am misunderstanding Rorty. Maybe in the case of the sciences language is but a descriptor. I could see where Rorty is coming from though, that in the case of knowing, without language, how can we make sense of properties? But I still think that one cannot say that our understanding of something is undeniably the way in which that thing acts. In the case of the heliocentric-geocentric debate of the Renaissance era, the matter at hand was not like politics in the end (although it was treated as such). In the end, the plain and simple fact was that, in relation to the other objects of the universe, the Earth revolves around the Sun. Case closed. Now, as we describe that, it may be that our descriptions for how this works changes, but the Sun will continue to be the center of the Solar System regardless.

In such a case, I find it problematic when Rorty says there are no certain truths or realities. We encounter too many basic patterns that continue indefinitely. The seasons change regularly, living things are mortal, etc. Perhaps, when it comes to moral truths, there is no Truth, so to speak (something I still find problematic), but, as for science, there are facts.

This is the problem I have always had with Rorty and his “poets”. Descriptions are important, but in the end, they do not ascribe to being “truths”. Rorty, if he was still here, undoubtedly could find ways to pummel my argument, simply due to his advanced knowledge in the matter, but I think he is giving far too much credit to language, instead of realizing it is but a means to an end.

This brings me to his concerns for liberalism. It is important to note that, for most political philosophers, liberalism is not the general American tradition of liberalism, but rather liberalism in the classical sense.

Rorty states that enlightened rationalism is now detrimental to liberal society. He says that enlightened rationalism worked as a foundation for society, but now, we must change to a different self-description.

His argument as to why his thoughts aren’t relativistic basically boil down to “Well, I think we should call it something else.” In fact, he says that question should just be evaded. I find this intellectually lazy. He argues that we should not be scientists, but poets. Again, this strikes me as intellectual laziness as well. Just because reason is harder to use now does not mean we shouldn’t continue to use it.

He continues by honestly hurting his own argument, stating that this opens up the possibility that liberalism can fall to tyrannical forces, if they can provide a better story. Of course, that makes it the job of the liberal to provide better arguments against those things. But I argue, why even let it get to that point? Why not just look at the matter as a matter of truth, and accept that democratic liberalism is preferable to Marxist authoritarianism or something like that?

In short, I find Rorty to be problematic because he just wants to try to tell better stories, instead of find truths. I do not believe truth is something we should allow to die in society, ever.

  • 10 December 2011
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