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Reviews Philosophy, Literature and Truth L.P. GERSON Richard Rorty. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity Cambridge University Press 1989. 288. $34.50; $10.95 paper Richard Rorty has repented of his former occupation as professor of philosophy. He is now professor of humanities at the University of Virginia. He is also exceedingly difficult to dislike. He writes beautifully, with candour and clarity. In his latest work, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, he plumps for democracy and kindness. This will displease those whose tastes run to sophistical argumentation on behalf of, say, fascism or pedophilia. Rorty believes, though, that he has in principle no non-circular arguments to offer against those who spit on his amiable liberalism. Of some men it is said that they are better than their philosophies; of Rorty it must be said that some of his conclusions are a good deal more plausible .than his reasons for thinking that he has no reasons for them. The crux of Rorty's position is that most people, including most intellectuals, are burdened with an age-old obsession with 'knowing the truth about the world.' According to Rorty, until Kant's 'Copernican revolution' two hundred years ago it was simply assumed that truth was what philosophy, science, religion, and common sense claimed to possess or pursue. The trouble with this view, says Rorty, is that truth is not 'out there' but rather contained in sentences which purport to describe the world. Sentences, however, are inseparable parts of historically contingent languages. The world does not 'tell us' to describe it in one way rather than another. It is benignly hospitable to descriptions which are eventually discarded for no other reason than that they are no longer useful to those who prefer to describe the world in another way. Hence 'true' can only mean 'true in this or that language.' Basing himself on a rather crude theory of language, Rorty infers the illegitimacy of any intellectual enterprise which aims to discover deep truths or to know the nature of things. All we can ever hope to do in this regard is arrive at descriptions of the world which satisfy our temporary needs. A Rortyan hero is not someone who possesses some sublime truth but someone who redescribes the world in a compelling way. Truth is not discovered but made to measure. Rorty's position will appeal most surely to those who are weary of dogmatiC UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 59, NUMBER 3, SPRING 1990 450 L.P. GERSON logomachies and long for the soothing assurance that there is nothing to be lost by choosing the wrong side because there is no such thing. Rorty is an authentic inheritor of the ancient Pyrrhonistic Sceptics who held that peace of mind is attained by correctly answering three questions: (1) what is the nature of things? Answer: indeterminate; (2) what attitude ought we to adopt as a result? Answer: suspension of belief; (3) what will be the net result of such a position? Answer: absence ofanxiety. In reply to the obvious objection that one still has to live and so believe some things, the Sceptics' reply (and Rorty's) is that we will believe whatever we will believe as a result of the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. Although such beliefs are no more true than any others, including their opposites, 'they can still regulate action, can stillbe thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that [they are] caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstances.' The claim that people die defending ill-founded beliefs is unremarkable; the claim that they die defending beliefs they know to be ill founded is remarkably silly. The irony of the title refers to the attitude of one who is conscious of the contingency of language and belief and who has no illusion about the existence of some neutral standpoint from which one can judge competing claims. Any judgment one makes is within one's own vocabulary. The ironist views criticism not as a means to attaining the truth but as a device for doing what the sophist Protagoras ingenuously claimed to do, namely, make others believe what you believe, and like it. For Rorty...


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