Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Philosophical Rorts

Around bursts of technical support for students trying to familiarise themselves with the class wiki, I’ve been reading through Richard Rorty’s work. I haven’t read Rorty for some time, and have never read him systematically. I’m not in general a fan of pragmatism – something that I may have reason to post about on another occasion – but I am finding myself thoroughly enjoying Rorty’s writings. Some of this is simply related to how well Rorty writes – whether I agree or disagree with the points he is trying to make, I often find myself admiring the way he frames an issue, and the analogies through which he clarifies an otherwise complex topic.

The other thing I’m enjoying, however, is watching Rorty wrestle with what it implies, if you take seriously the claim that our knowledge and beliefs are historical at some fundamental level. Rorty tackles this issue by describing our commitment to key values and beliefs – in universal human rights, for example – as “ethnocentric”.

By itself, of course, this is nothing new – many social critics have levelled this kind of accusation, as a means of debunking purportedly universal values, by demonstrating that those values actually express and serve the quite particular interests of a particular segment of society, in a particular historical period. Labelling values “ethnocentric” is a common theoretical move, when you intend to debunk and dismiss the values in question.

The interesting thing about Rorty is that he does not label values “ethnocentric” in order to debunk them but, rather, as a step toward validating those values, while frankly acknowledging their contingent social and historical origins.

In this respect, I regard Rorty as a fellow-traveller – one who does not believe that transhistorical justifications are required for us to make meaningful value judgments about the just and unjust dimensions of our social environment. At the same time, I think Rorty sells short the historical potentials of our present moment, by accepting too readily the validity of a strong distinction between “Western” and “non-Western” societies in the contemporary historical period.

I won’t have time or space to do justice to this point here, but I wanted at least to suggest that – for all the multitude of meaningful differences between parts of the world in the current era – nevertheless, one of the things that we have unintentionally created in the past several hundred years is the – dare I say “pragmatic”? – basis for certain concepts, including pivotal moral concepts such as those underlying the notion of universal human rights, to be conceptually available to persons living throughout the world.

What I have in mind when I make this claim is something like a fully historicised version of Habermas’ project: as I’ve written in other contexts, Habermas’ primary goal is to explain why certain core values of liberal democracy are conceptually available to everyone in contemporary society – such that everyone currently has the ability to “grok” the concepts, to understand what they mean and to deploy them in critiques of existing social practices and institutions – even though Habermas believes, from the historical record, that many people in previous historical periods would not have had this same ability. Habermas does not require that everyone agree on how the values should be applied, on how far these values should be extended, on what social practices and institutions ideally express these values – pace the critics who claim that Habermas is seeking a utopia of soporific consensus, Habermas leaves room for enormous disagreement and contestation on all aspects of social experience. What is universal, he claims, is only the capacity to understand what is going on, when someone criticises a social practice in the name of a liberal democratic ideal.

Habermas’ weakness is that, even though he poses a fundamentally historical problem, he can’t quite bring himself to offer a fully historical solution – he can’t quite surrender an appeal to a “true” universal. Liberal democratic ideals are therefore, in his framework, something like the historical emergence of a “natural” human trait, one that has always been embedded in human communication, but that has only burst into consciousness in very recent history.

Rorty offers a healthy corrective to Habermas, in that he relishes the historical contingency of even the most cherished democratic values. Yet Rorty doesn’t seem to consider whether Habermas might also have the right idea, when it comes to the level of abstraction on which these values operate: perhaps the important issue, in defining where one “society” ends and another begins, is not where human communities draw the line in their application of rights talk, but rather whether the members of the contemporary global human community have a reasonable idea what is being discussed, when we use rights talk at all.

Seen in this way, we can begin to analyse whether – and how – we may have practiced our way into something like a meaningful historical universal in the past few hundred years – to analyse whether we might have so transformed our global social environment that people throughout the world now share at least some pivotal common experiences, in addition to the many unique experiences that also shape diverse individuals and communities. If these common experiences can then be tied in a meaningful way to the gestalt that enables someone to “grok” liberal democratic discourse – as I’ve suggested gesturally in some of my writing on Lakoff – we can move toward a fully historical understanding of key critical values. This approach would allow us to acknowledge, in Rorty’s terms, our own “ethnocentrism”, while still grounding Habermas’ insight that there is something distinctive and important about the emergence of “universal” values as a “real abstraction” in the modern era.

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4 responses to “Philosophical Rorts

  1. MT March 17, 2006 at 1:20 pm

    Nice to have you back, although to show it I’m just going to be my usual skeptical self (pretty much the only strategy available to me, being an ignoramus on the scholarship in question). Is grokking well defined? How would you know when you have it? Do cultures grok or do individuals grok? A pygmy can study political philosophy at Cambridge, but I suppose you wouldn’t see that as proving anybody’s point. What proves it? You don’t have to buy our culture to buy our Snickers bars or even to watch Dallas. I imagine your average mass-appeal product by necessity is more anthropically embedded (and class embedded) than ethnically embedded. I’m not even sure how culturally “freighted” such things are. We may be exporting less than we imagine. Probably we also export a lot other than what we imagine, because you can enjoy a movie, for example, without appreciating everything in the way its creators intended.

  2. N Pepperell March 17, 2006 at 4:26 pm

    Yeah – I missed the blog conversations, and was worried that the long absence would drive everyone to more productive pastures… The move itself went smoothly, but then I came down with something that it took weeks to shake, and then I had to get my courses together… Fortunately, I’m teaching very familiar subjects this term, so I’m more-or-less caught up now.

    I have ambitions to use “grok” in a peer-reviewed philosophy publication one of these days – but no, the term isn’t well-defined: you either grok it or you don’t… ;-P

    Seriously, though, to take your questions in turn:

    On the issue of whether I’m talking about inidividuals or cultures: I’m talking about the social availability of certain concepts to the individuals within a certain social context.

    You’ve mentioned before that you like Hacking: I don’t know if you remember much about his introduction to the Emergence of Probability book? Hacking positions his work very similarly there to how I would position mine. He says something like: isolated individuals in other times and places may have grasped key concepts of probability, but the existence of such idiosyncratic individuals does not take away from his basic point, which is that, in a certain historical period, it suddenly became very common for a wide range of people to grasp basic probability concepts – and the mathematics of probability therefore made a very rapid leap forward.

    He suggests (but doesn’t develop the point fully in this book) that something must have shifted to make the concepts underlying probability more conceptually available than they used to be – or, in the terms I used above, it suddenly became easier for people to “grok” probability. This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone understood those concepts, or that all people understood them to the same degree. But the likelihood of encountering individuals who understood at least the basics of probability became vastly greater after a certain period.

    I’m after something similar, except that, when I speak about Rorty and Habermas, I’m looking at the “problem” of the emergence of the sorts of political ideals we associate with liberal democracy. My suggestion is that – even if people want to limit these values in different ways, and even if some people want to reject these values entirely – these disagreements shouldn’t distract us from the peculiar historical circumstance that, by and large, very different people in very different settings in the contemporary world still often demonstrate that they understand the basic concepts underlying these political ideals.

    Habermas looks at this situation, and decides that this provides evidence for the innateness of these values. Rorty is uncomfortable with the notion that such things might be innate – but, as a consequence, may overstate the differences between the Anglo-European nations and the rest of the world. I’m trying to fumble toward something more historically-grounded than Habermas, but more global than Rorty…

    I don’t, incidentally, believe that people “grok” these values because they’ve been “exported” by the west. I don’t contest that western governments and corporations do their fair share of attempting to export values of various kinds. I just don’t believe that ideals are easily imported from other places, unless something about the local context makes those ideals relevant to local circumstances.

    There is quite a bit of historical evidence for this sort of dynamic, whereby values are very rapidly assimilated – but only once social circumstances are ripe on the receiving end. I personally think that the sudden importation of Greek philosophy into medieval theology via Islamic scholars is a good example – but this is probably too big an example to develop in a post…

    The basic point is that I think you’re right to be skeptical about whether cultural values are necessarily exported along with material goods. There is some quite good ethnography on the different appropriations of even “iconic” western goods, when those goods make their way into various local settings.

    I’m interested in a different, and more abstract issue: whether there are certain social practices that have diffused through much or the world – and here I have in mind very abstract social practices, like the tendency to supply everyday needs through wage labour and market exchange, or the tendency to promote economic growth – which themselves might serve to make certain concepts more readily available than these concepts would have been in previous historical periods.

    This approach is quite compatible with research that shows, for example, that a particular consumer good takes on very different meanings in different places. At the same time, it provides a counter to claims that democratic values have somehow been foisted on the world by the west: the practical experience of living in any contemporary culture may also include certain widely-shared experiences that cut across national or regional cultures, providing a practical basis for some shared concepts and ideals – even if we then may disagree drastically over what to do with these shared concepts…

    But I think this comment is getting longer than my original post…

  3. MT March 20, 2006 at 9:15 am

    That sounds sensible. Perhaps what sparked my skepticism was the feeling that you are joining in style of historical explanation that I think over-credits ideas for shaping events and preserving institutions. I’m sure the idea of liberal democracy mattered a lot to Jefferson, but I don’t think ideas about liberal democracy affect our governance very much on the day to day. I also think it might be more on the mark to talk about Jefferson’s ideas as having been very lucky to have found themselves in the head of Jefferson in the time and place that they did. My instinct is that plenty rides on charisma, rhetoric, material circumstances and what’s come before. Similarly I imagine senators and judges and police and administrators going about their days more less as I do, guided more by habit and psychology. I could think about why I am an American citizen every day, but the reason foremostly is that I was an American citizen the day before. There are ideas that get embodied in constitutions and contracts which have a kind of persistence as a result, but not one that is continuous and mental and prevalent throughout the population of actors. I imagine a would-be social explainer must resort to shorthand or abstract talk, but history and scholarship are replete with wrongheaded explanations, and my own feeling is that shorthand and abstractions–not to mention a kind of reification of our rationalizations– are partly to blame. Or maybe I was short changed at the cash register once as a child and so now I insist that anyone offering me the result of a calculation shows me her work. Dunno. Hopefully I managed to say something worthy of consideration in there.

  4. N Pepperell March 21, 2006 at 1:56 am

    I would actually agree very strongly that the sorts of things I’m analysing are, by and large, the result of habit and represent a kind of psychological path of least resistance. If most people were making full conscious, self-aware, continuous choices about the sorts of things I analyse, the sort of analysis I provide would not be particularly useful.

    What interests me is understanding how and why certain forms of thought and behaviour came to be habitual, when the historical record suggests that they haven’t always been so.

    Strange as it may sound, scepticism is actually at the heart of the project. The questions I ask, and the way I try to answer them, are designed to provide the basis for a kind of grounded scepticism: to explore and expose those areas where we may be particularly vulnerable to embracing ideas with inadequate evidence.

    We can, of course, make all kinds of random, individual mistakes and wrong judgments – but what particularly interests me are those mistakes and wrong judgments that whole groups of people make at roughly the same time. Or, to approach the same issue from the other direction, those insights and discoveries that whole groups of people seem to achieve at roughly the same time.

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