Some Thoughts on Richard Rorty's Philosophy as a Kind of Writing

Please note that throughout this discussion, I use our definition (lifted from Dummett) of realism: Realism about X means the belief that there are evidence-transcendent truths about X. To deny this is to somehow claim that X is shaped in part by our knowing about X.

Regarding Rorty: Why are we reading this? We're considering different claims that language affects how we can know, and even if we can know, various kinds of things. Structuralism was a movement that held that language meaning was largely, even perhaps entirely, an internal affair: that meanings only existed in a network of meanings (this we call meaning holism) and more strongly perhaps that external objects and reference to external things may not play a significant role in the determination of meaning.

It's not hard to see how this flirts with a very radical view. If I know the world through theory, which is in part made of language; and if language cannot really touch the world, but instead all the meanings of language are determined by the internal relations between the elements of language; then one might propose that when we think we are referring to things outside language we in fact are not doing so. Instead, it's language "all the way down" -- or, as some have said, everything is text.

This is one "post-structuralist" view. The "post" there is irrelevant as far as we're concerned. The basic idea arises from a very strong form of meaning holism, and a related denial of strong forms of reference (such as, recall, the consensus for some form of externalism that we saw in English language -- that is, American and English and Australian -- philosophy of language at the beginning of the semester). Both of these ideas (holism and denying direct or externalist reference) are products of structuralism.

An influential post-structuralist was (I say "was" because it seems his influence is waning) Jacques Derrida. But Derrida's post-structuralism included a devotion to ironically self-aware texts. They are hard to read and, for our limited purposes here, not worth the extreme effort that they require. So we're reading some of Rorty explaining Derrida.

The opening is nicely clear, even if you don't know anything about Alexander Pope or Hegel. Rorty proposes two views of the world, through physics, ethics, and philosophy.

One can see physics, ethics, and philosophy as concerned with accurately describing things outside our language and culture, things which may well be invisible and abstract. These can be particles in physics, the good in ethics, the nature of the real in philosophy and how our thoughts reveal and context to the real and are misled by mere appearance.

Another view is that these are three endeavors in textual exegesis. Physics confronts nature as a book, the way an English professor confronts a poem by Alexander Pope. They interpret it, and are rewarded for interpreting it in new and interesting ways. Ethics is about acquiring some consensus in cultural patterns. Philosophy is about creating an ongoing story, a kind of life-novel, for our civilization -- like David Copperfield for Western Civilization.

The difference here is more radical than just an story with external reference, versus one that is all internal (this is what he refers to as the difference between correspondence theory of truth and coherence theory of truth). "Rather, it is the difference between regarding truth, goodness, and beauty as eternal objects which we try to locate and reveal, and regarding them as artifacts whose fundamental design we often have to alter" (page 143).

Why would we think those things artifacts? Especially when the tradition assumes -- and defines -- them as external or independent of us? This is where the post-structuralist move occurs. The idea that we don't really have a form of external reference, but only internally related meanings, means that there are no independent things like that we can study. They are independent in some senses, perhaps. But there is no way to grasp them, no way to relate to them, except through language (so the argument goes) and really then reality is just more langauge. We never get outside language.

Rorty claims Derrida is trying to show there is no philosophy of language. The reason is straightforward: to believe there is is to suggest that there are non-linguistic things: "The twentieth-century attempt to purify Kant's general theory about the relation between representations and their objects by turning it into philosophy of language is, for Derrida, to be countered by making philosophy even more impure" (page 144). You don't really need to know about Rorty's interpretation of Kant to get his point. He claims that philosophers tried and failed to explain how language connects to the non-linguistic. That Derrida mocks this failure, and the people who continue this tradition, by denying their is anything here to be studied or explained. We don't explain reference to non-linguistic entities because there is nothing non-linguistic to be grasped and referred to.

The passage from Derrida (page 146) will make it clear why I'd rather skip his originals. But consider Rorty's explanation, which I think is fair: "Texts comment on other texts, and we should stop trying to test texts for accuracy of representation..." (page 146). Here he cites Derrida explicitly using Saussure's terminology: "'reading... cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward the referent... or toward the signifier outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language.... There is nothing outside the text" (Derrida quoted in Rorty page 146).

A realist philosopher in the tradition that Rorty mocks might call this linguistic idealism, which is a form of idealism (the view that all that is is formed of ideas) in which the ideas are actually linguistic entities. Stated like that, frankly, it seems to me true by definition that Derrida is a linguistic idealist. But Rorty mocks this claim as wrong-headed. He hopes that we can drop completely the very idea of reference, in which case we'll stop trying to identify what kinds of things we are referring to and so not worry about whether they are linguistic or ideas or whatever.

This kind of move is common in both Wittgensteinian and continental (e.g., Derrida) philosophy. It is sometimes called quietism: to say, hey, let's just be quiet about that. I'll leave you to make your own assessment of this kind of response.

For us, what matters is this. Derrida and Rorty make very clear for us the great importance that reference can play in certain conceptions about knowledge and how we can understand the world. If we cannot refer to things that are not themselves bits of language, then projects like realist science or realist metaphysics seem misguided.

All citations to: "Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida", New Literary History, Vol 10, No. 1, pp. 141-160.