Is the truth out there?

June 6, 1997

Regarded with suspicion by thinkers on both the left and right, who accuse him of vagueness and relativism, Richard Rorty is continuing unabashed with his project to disprove the existence of objective truth. Sean Sayers spoke to him in London

If the idea that there is no such thing as universal truth is familiar these days, that is thanks in good measure to the work of Richard Rorty, one of the most controversial philosophers in the English-speaking world. Yet I would not have guessed it when I met him at his hotel in London.

I was greeted in the lobby by a quiet, diffident man with a head of white hair reminiscent of the film star Lee Marvin. He had just flown in from Edinburgh for a conference and a hasty visit to Sussex before returning to Amsterdam, where he is visiting professor of philosophy. He seemed distinctly reluctant to engage in small talk. Could this taciturn man, I wondered, be the author who had stirred up so much furious debate?

As soon as we were installed in his cramped hotel room, however, and the conversation turned to ideas, Rorty came alive. Defending his views is something at which he is well practised. His philosophy starts from an iconoclastic rejection of notions of truth, rationality and objectivity, concepts which have dominated western thought since the scientific and intellectual discoveries of the 17th century.

Knowledge, Rorty argues, is not a matter of "getting reality right", it is a practical matter of learning how to cope with the world. Instead of talking about "truth", we should talk about how well our ideas suit our purposes. "When we praise an idea as 'true' or 'useful', or a proposal as 'right'," he explains, "we are not saying that it accurately represents a mind-independent world." In a typically self-deprecating way, he adds that his first book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, "was just a tract saying we don't need the notion of representation. I have been saying it over and over again ever since."

Rorty says he "starts from Darwin's picture of human beings. We do not differ in kind from the animals. All that distinguishes us is the ability to behave in more complex ways. The older, pre-Darwinian conception is that animals can't grasp 'how things really are', whereas humans can. From the post-Darwinian perspective there is no such thing as 'how things really are'. There are simply various descriptions of things, and we use the one which seems most likely to achieve our purposes. We have a multiplicity of vocabularies, because we have a multiplicity of purposes. As history goes along, new vocabularies develop as new purposes emerge. But none of these vocabularies or purposes will be more true to 'human nature' or to the 'intrinsic character of things' than any of the others, though the purposes served may get better".

In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity Rorty extended these ideas to morality and politics. Moral and political ideas are social products, developed in particular situations for particular purposes, he argues. They are inescapably historical and relative. We are the children of our times. There is no fixed human nature or unchanging principles which can provide foundations for our moral or political values. We must recognise the historical contingency of our beliefs and adopt what Rorty calls an "ironist" stance towards them.

Expressed in provocative and uncompromising terms, and with a characteristic mix of erudition and slangy directness, these views have won Rorty a huge audience. Equally, however, they have aroused the suspicions of many of his professional colleagues in analytical philosophy, who criticise his writing as vague, fuzzy and aimed only at pleasing the grandstand.

Rorty is well aware of the mixed reactions his work provokes. He knows that only a small proportion of his readership is in philosophy departments; but he is not vexed by this. "Analytical philosophy has become a narrow academic subject. Most of the rest of the university doesn't know what it is for or what goes on in it. But we should live and let live. If people want to do that sort of thing they should be able to. That is what academic freedom is all about." Appropriately, back home at the University of Virginia he holds the post of university professor of humanities. "That's code," he explains. "It is a title you give to someone who cannot get along with his colleagues; so you yank him out of his department and make him freelance. It's a wonderful position. I haven't been to a departmental meeting in 15 years."

Rorty is often called a "postmodernist". He is not happy with that label but seems resigned to it. The ideas he is putting forward were first expressed around the end of the last century by philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and William James. "So postmodernism doesn't seem the right term," he says. He also frequently mentions his intellectual debt to the American philosopher John Dewey. Dewey's work is not well known these days, even among philosophers, but he was perhaps the most important American philosopher in the interwar years. As well as being a pioneer of progressive education and a major political thinker, he was one of the founders of pragmatism; a philosophical method which measures the truth of a proposition by its practical outcome. This remains the only indigenous American philosophy and still has an important influence in American thought.

Whatever its label, however, Rorty's philosophy is controversial. It is denounced both by left-wing thinkers, like Terry Eagleton, Christopher Norris and Norman Geras, and by right-wingers, such as Roger Scruton, John Searle and Allan Bloom. And, strikingly, the criticism is essentially the same from both quarters: Rorty's "postmodernism" undermines any notion of reality and objectivity and leads to a vicious relativism. Moral values and political ideals are thus eradicated.

When I ask how he responds to these charges, he replies in weary tones: no doubt he has had to answer them many times before. If "relativism" means that every view is as good as every other then, Rorty insists, he rejects it. He believes that modern scientific ideas are preferable to those of earlier times; and he is a committed defender of liberal democratic political ideas. Indeed he maintains that American democratic society is the "best sort of society yet invented".

"Best by what standards?" I ask. "There are no neutral standards," he replies. But that does not mean that these views are any the less worth fighting for. "All you can say to persuade people is that in a liberal society people would be happier. If you want to convince people of leftist values you tell them stories about the sufferings of the poor, women, gays and the colonised - all the usual stories. If that doesn't work, then giving them a philosophical theory is not going to work either." All that we can hope to achieve is a free consensus in a democratic community. "There is no point in asking whether or not this consensus accords with the nature of things," he continues, "if only because the answer would make no difference to practice."

For Rorty, objectivity is just a matter of getting as much agreement as possible. And he is remarkably optimistic about the prospects. "Around the world, liberal democratic intellectuals share a sense of common purpose. They want peace, prosperity, social justice, equality, an end to racial and gender prejudice - all the usual things. Most of the issues that divide political philosophers are pointless technicalities compared to the consensus among them about what kind of world they want." After a pause he adds: "The idea that a particular philosophy leads you to a particular politics is an example of the evil influence of Marxism. For one hundred years Marxists have told us that some metaphysical views are objectively reactionary and others objectively progressive. It is a terrible idea, but it has sunk into the consciousness of progressive intellectuals."

Despite his hostility to Marxism, Rorty situates himself "wholeheartedly on the left". This is how he was brought up, he says. "My parents were part of the anti-communist left which centred on Dewey in America." His father, James Rorty, was a well-known New York writer and socialist. "When I went to college, I fell in love with Plato because it was the opposite of what I had been raised on. I spent some years trying to turn myself into a Platonist absolutist believer in objective values. But I failed. So I went back to the way I had been raised."

A defence of liberal democracy in the context of left politics is the theme of his latest work. Just before leaving for Amsterdam, he gave a series of lectures at Harvard on the American left in the 20th century, soon to be published under the title Achieving our Country. "America had a good leftist tradition from roughly 1910 to the mid-1960s. There was a solid coalition of intellectuals and trade unionists which was social democratic and anti-communist." Both phrases are spoken with approval. "This collapsed as a result of the Vietnam war and the formation of the new left. Though the student radicals succeeded in ending the war, the aftermath was a funny kind of academic left which disassociated itself from national politics and focused on cultural issues. I criticise it for conveying to students the idea that plain, ordinary, nuts and bolts politics in America is now a meaningless farce conducted within a system that can no longer be taken seriously. Instead, an immense amount of attention is given to questions like 'Are we in a postmodern epoch?' or 'What shall we say about life under late capitalism?' These notions strike me as pretty useless. The sense of disgust with America which used to be expressed by Marxism is now expressed by people who follow Foucault and Heidegger and all that stuff."

We are running out of time, so I ask about his plans. He tells me that he has a third volume of Philosophical Papers in the pipeline, to follow the two which appeared in 1991. And in July he will be spending a month at the Villa Serbelloni, a luxury study centre on Lake Como run by the Rockefeller Foundation. There he plans to write up some replies to critics, an activity which now takes up much of his time. The rest is more and more devoted to writing on Dewey and William James because he thinks they are still not taken seriously enough. "I am going to try to shape this material up into a monograph, something like 'Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Pragmatism'." Including, presumably, some suitably controversial ideas.

Sean Sayers is reader in philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury and reviews editor of Radical Philosophy.

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