Getting The ‘Rorty’ In The ‘Putnam-Rorty Debate’ Wrong

In his essay on Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett writes of the ‘famous’ Putnam-Rorty debate as follows:

The crux of their dispute centered on how far to take pragmatism. [Richard] Rorty thought that the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality: There is the stuff we say, and then there is the actual world, and never the twain shall meet. We agree on certain conventions in order to function, but we’ll never arrive at anything like truth. Putnam meanwhile held to the idea, as he wrote, that “there is a way to do justice to our sense that knowledge claims are responsible to reality.” In other words, it was possible, as he saw it, to be a pragmatist without jettisoning truth altogether.

In ‘Getting Rid of the Appearance-Reality Distinction,’ Richard Rorty wrote:

Only philosophers take seriously Plato’s distinction between Reality with a capital R and Appearance with a capital A. That distinction has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. We should do our best to get rid of it.

If we did so, we should no longer wonder whether the human mind, or human language, is capable of representing reality accurately. We would stop thinking that some parts of our culture are more in touch with reality than other parts. We would express our sense of finitude not by comparing our humanity with something nonhuman but by comparing our way of being human with other, better ways that may someday be adopted by our descendants. When we condescended to our ancestors, we would not say that they were less in touch with reality than we are, but that their imaginations were more limited than ours. We would boast of being able to talk about more things than they could. [New Literary History, 2016, 47: 67–82.]

What this excerpt, and indeed, the title of the paper it is excerpted from, show is that Rorty did not think the “the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality”–rather, he thought that the notion of ‘actually connected’ and the ‘actual world’ was incoherent, that ‘reality’ was only of concern to those who believed in the separation between what we thought and the way the ‘actual world’ ‘really, really is.’ Rorty considered one of the primary planks of his ‘neo-pragmatism‘ to be the dismissal of any such separation and with it, a whole host of issues that were of interest to the ‘traditional philosopher’: the epistemological worry about whether our theories of the world were a ‘good representation’ of it, the gap and relationship between ‘world and word’, the realism-anti-realism debate, the nature of the ‘justification’ of our beliefs by the ‘actual world.’ The correspondence theory of truth and metaphysical realism are not false or mistaken theories for Rorty; they are just besides the point, the result of a philosophical mistake of sorts, set right by the dismissal of the appearance-reality distinction. The extremely reductive description above Rorty describes him, at best, as a kind of crude anti-realist, and Rorty was anything but.

Horkheimer And Adorno On The ‘Convergence’ Of Art And Science

In Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (University of Stanford Press, Cultural Memory in the Present Series, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, p. 13, 2002) Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno write:

The prevailing antithesis between art and science, which rends the two apart as areas of culture in order to make them jointly manageable as areas of cultures, finally causes them, through their internal tendencies as exact opposites, to converge. Science in its neopositivist interpretation, becomes aestheticism, a system of isolated signs devoid of any intention transcending the system; it becomes the game which mathematicians have long since proudly declared their activity to be.  Meanwhile, art as integral replication has pledged itself to positivist science, even in its specific techniques. it becomes indeed, the world over again, an ideological doubling, a complicated reproduction.

Physics and mathematics are often said to find a merger of sorts in string theory, whose speculations dabble in dimensions galore and disdain empirical confirmation. Here, physicists may be found approaching registers of speech only thought to be found in ‘pure’ mathematicians; their work appears to be exclusively concerned with, and expressed through, sign and symbol; the beauty of their creations could be assessed as works of theoretical art. Within such an evaluative dimension might lie string theory’s most coveted prize, once it has disdained the grubby business of verification and correspondence. The arc nears completion here. Elsewhere, art is condemned to realist reproduction, censured for flights of irresponsible fancy. It is asked to leave behind its critical and absurdist and skeptical being in favor of one more firmly anchored in the here and now, all the better to clone it, and faithfully and apologetically do its bit for its continued propagation; art is informed of the need to be reactionary. Such critiques might sound old-fashioned to the worldly-wise in the twenty-first century, but they are never too far from the surface when worries about self-indulgent or narcissistic or navel-gazing art are periodically expressed.

As can be seen, the situation that Horkheimer and Adorno described is as present today as it was when their words were originally penned. Realist art and aestheticist science still converge; the former is urged to stick to the sensible and the apprehensible; the latter seeks to move away from tedious correspondence and to go on flights of symbolic fantasy.  Horkheimer and Adorno urged this observation upon us to make us notice its ideological import: science becomes exclusively positivist, unconcerned with intervention; art becomes implicated in the ‘realities’ it seeks to depict. The standpoint of critique is  lost; science and art are enlisted as allies through various understandings that are not normatively neutral. This ideological maneuver is especially acute because science aspires to epistemic hegemony via its apparent commitment to realism and art aspires to radical critique through its lack of fidelity to that same standpoint. The ‘real’ aspires to fantasy; the fantastic is instructed to conform to the ‘real.’ Both are defanged and removed from the realm of critical theory and its interjections into the world of politics and society.

The Philosophical Education Of Scientists

Yesterday, in my Twentieth Century Philosophy class, we worked our way through Bertrand Russell‘s essay on “Appearance and Reality” (excerpted, along with “The Value of Philosophy” and “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” from Russell’s ‘popular’ work The Problems of Philosophy.) I introduced the class to Russell’s notion of physical objects being inferences from sense-data, and then went on to his discussions of idealism, materialism, and realism as metaphysical responses to the epistemological problems created by such an understanding of objects. This discussion led to the epistemological stances–rationalism and empiricism–that these metaphysical positions might generate. (There was also a digression into the distinction between necessary and contingent truths.)

At one point, shortly after I had made a statement to the effect that science could be seen as informed by materialist, realist, and empiricist conceptions of its metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions, I blurted out, “Really, scientists who think philosophy is useless and irrelevant to their work are stupid and ungrateful.”  This was an embarrassingly intemperate remark to have made in a classroom, and sure enough, it provoked some amused twittering from my students, waking up many who were only paying partial attention at that time to my ramblings.

While I always welcome approving responses from my students to my usual lame attempts at humor, my remark was too harshly phrased. But I don’t think it is false in at least one sense. Too many scientists remain ignorant of the philosophical presuppositions of their enterprise, and are not only proud of this ignorance, but bristle when they are reminded of them. Too many think claims of scientific knowledge are only uselessly examined for their foundations; too many assume metaphysics and physics don’t mix. And all too many seem to consider their scientific credentials as being burnished by making a withering attack on the intellectual competence of philosophers and intellectual sterility of their work. Of course, many will do so by making a philosophical argument of some sort, like perhaps that philosophical questioning of the foundations of science is in principle irrelevant to scientific practice.

I get some of the scientists’ impatience. Who likes pedantry and hair-splitting? And yes, many philosophers are embarrassingly ignorant about actual scientific theory and practice. But not most of it. I wonder: Did they never take a class on the history of science? Do they never study the process by which theories come to be advanced, challenged, modified, rejected, formed anew?

I have long advocated–not in any particular public forum, but in some private conversations–that the Philosophy of Science class taught by philosophy departments should really be a History and Philosophy of Science class. You can’t study the history of science without ‘doing’ the philosophy of science, and you can’t study the philosophy of science without knowing something about its history. One can only hope that those who study science with an eye to becoming its practitioners would at least be exposed to a similar curricular requirement. (I made a similar point in a post that was triggered by the Lawrence Krauss-David Albert dispute a while ago.)

Incidentally, I’m genuinely curious: Is it just me or does it seem that this kind of ‘scientific’ rejection of the philosophical enterprise is a modern–i.e., late twentieth-century onwards–disease?