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MISREADING RORTY by Konstantin Kolenda Readers of Richard Rorty's writings are often torn between two contradictory reactions. They find his ideas original and penetrating , and yet unbelievable. A telling example of such an ambivalence can be found in Denis Dutton's review of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity .1 After providing an incisive sketch of the book, which Dutton finds modest in tone and thought-provoking in content, he concludes that its recommendations are extravagant and that some of its interpretations are a "lamentable exercise in philosophic hubris." How can we account for such ambivalence? A closer examination of some of Dutton's comments will show, I believe, that he, like many other of Rorty's critics, draws unwarranted inferences. (1) "Helplessness" ofphilosophy. Dutton says that Rorty's liberal ironist "realizes that philosophy will never be able to discover or legislate—via 'arguments'—the reasons why we ought to avoid cruelty." Instead, the ironist is "content to see his language, conscience, morality, and highest hopes 'as contingent products, as literalization of what once were accidentally produced metaphors.' " The assumption here seems to be that whatever is a contingent product or has originated in a metaphor is thereby disqualified from contributing to language or to moral wisdom . That assumption implausibly suggests that a vocabulary that eventually resulted in generating philosophical concepts and theories—epistemological , metaphysical, or moral—was metaphor-free, and that the concepts comprising such theories had unambiguous literal meanings to begin with. Rorty repeatedly reminds us that we are what our previous experiments with language have made us. As heirs of European culture, for Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 111-117 112Philosophy and Literature instance, we are children, or "contingent products," of the Enlightenment in the sense that some doctrines and ideals of that historical era helped to shape our moral and political views and commitments. But we are not, as Dutton puts it, "in thrall of Enlightenment mythology" because we know of a great many alternatives to some problematic, contingently established aspects of that thinking, alternatives that are not statable in the Enlightenment vocabulary but make use of distinctions invented and introduced by so-called postmodern thinkers or derived from other contemporary cultures. Without these new distinctions , initially expressed in fresh metaphors, we would be in thrall. The active, living character of language makes our beliefs historically contingent and always open to modification. (2) "Arbitrariness" ofvocabulary change. Dutton suggests that, according to Rorty, a shift to sympathy for some unfortunate group (Sudanese) is "just another arbitrary change in vocabulary." Like everyone else, Rorty does not think that changes of vocabulary are arbitrary, unmotivated . We change our vocabularies for a reason, from an awareness that a situation callsfor or would be improved by a vocabulary change. But what new terms or redescriptions will be adequate to the situation is a question which cannot be answered beforehand, in the light of familiar distinctions and customary ways of talking. This is why new suggestions of how the situation and its problems could be handled in part depend on fresh, original redescription. Such a contribution can be expected of people seriously grappling with the problem; in this case, how the plight of the poor Sudanese could be coped with. When Rorty refers to Aristotle's or Newton's vocabulary as "jargon," he does not thereby question what either accomplishes; his point is rather to indicate that neither vocabulary is somehow sanctioned by the world. The pejorative word "jargon" is just a dramatization of the fact that both Aristotle and Newton made up their vocabularies, in the hope of giving a helpful description of phenomena they observed, thus enabling us to understand, predict, and control them. It is not the world that decides how well these objectives are met, but people who, familiar with both vocabularies, can adjudicate their success in the scientific enterprise. The Aristotle/Newton distinction is not "glibly" run together, but looked upon as an instructive set of successive attempts to provide a useful description of the world. In this regard we can appreciate the distinction as in some ways analogous to what two poets (Blake/Dryden) may try to tell us about the world. Similarly, it is ludicrous to...


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