Tag Archives: philosophy

Science, ethics, and Rorty’s ‘liberal ironist’

To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civlized man from a barbarian.
-Joseph Schumpeter

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming


This post will eventually segue into animal studies and food politics, but bear with me for a bit. I’m about a third of the way through Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and I’m surprised I hadn’t come across it earlier. His focus on the contingency of different ‘vocabularies’ of meaning, to use his jargon, is especially relevant now, when scientism is trying to claim a monopoly on the status of moral truthholder. Broadly, the book is a critique of ‘final vocabularies’ and a defense of what he calls the ‘liberal ironist’, a curious hybrid of Foucault  (an ironist but not a liberal) and Habermas (a liberal but not an ironist). Since my undergraduate years writing a neo-Kantian thesis, I’ve always been much more in the Habermasian liberal camp. But Rorty manages to convert me, at least in part.

Denis Dutton’s review of Rorty’s book closes with this well-phrased passage:

…to describe, say, the introduction of the germ theory of disease as just invoking a new vocabulary, a bit of novel jargon — as though it were all a fuss over “bacteria,” and had nothing to do with bacteria — seems to this reader ludicrous, Rorty’s subtle arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. From a Rortian perspective I am just another sod in thrall of Enlightenment mythology, but his interpretation of the history of science strikes me as one more lamentable exercise in philosophic hubris.

Hubris, however, could not be farther from a just characterization of the tenor of this book. Rorty’s tone is thoughtful and modest, even when his ideas are extravagant. While there is a feeling of settled positions, there is no hint of dogmatism, but rather a sense of opinions hard-won through years of argument and meditation. This book is consistently provocative, and every page excites philosophic thought.

Dutton highlights the danger of viewing scientific revolution as nothing more than one among many ‘final vocabularies’, but Rorty isn’t trying to tear down science so much as to establish that our truth claims are contingent and should be evaluated as such, and that some questions are more useful than others; this is where Rorty as neo-Deweyian pragmatist comes in: “The nature of truth” is an unprofitable topic, resembling in this respect “the nature of man” and “the nature of God,” and differing from “the nature of the positron,” and “the nature of Oedipal fixation.” (Rorty 8 )

The core of Rorty’s pragmatism is enormously useful, once we realize that we don’t have to choose between public morals and private aesthetics: “If we could bring ourselves to accept the fact that no theory about the nature of Man or Society or Rationality, or anything else, is going to synthesize Neitzsche with marx or Heidegger with Habermas, we could begin to think of the relation between writers on autonomy and writers on justice as being like the relation between two kinds of tools — as little in need of synthesis as are paintbrushes and crowbars.” (Rorty xiv) He goes on to explain, in lucid and compelling terms, the impact of Freud on ‘the contingency of selfhood’ (If I were writing this book, I would add a section on Darwin and the contingency of species here…), and, in chapter 3, on the contingency of community in a battle between Foucauldian and Habermasian ideals.

I used to have a problem with this kind of “nonteleological view of intellectual history” (Rorty 16), based for me on the foundationalist critique of relativism championed most cogently by Habermas, and here by Michael Sandel: “If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? In a tragically configured moral universe, such as (Isaiah) Berlin assumes, is the ideal of freedom any less subject than competing ideals to the ultimate incommensurability of values? If so, in what can its privilged status consist? And if freedom has no morally privilged status, if it is just one value among many, than what can be said for liberalism?” Rorty structures his defense around a critique of the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism, but I would suggest that J.S. Mill’s On Liberty provides a non-teleological defense of freedom (of speech, at least) as a ‘keystone value’. From Rorty’s pragmatic perspective, though, the moral foundations of the idea of freedom don’t really matter, and defending “the privileged status of freedom” ends up being somehow counterproductive.

I’ve only made it through the beginning of section two (on irony), and have yet to evaluate his arguments on defending liberalism as an aversion cruelty (he uses Nabokov and Orwell, both authors dear to me, as archetypal examples). His definition of the ‘ironist’, however, is key here: “(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.” (Rorty 73) I agree with 1 and 2, and only disagree with 3 to the extent that I have arrived at my particular vocabulary–a tenuous blend of anti-speciesist utilitarianism and regulated market democracy–with a critical examination of competing vocabularies. I don’t harbor the believe that any of these vocabularies approach the ‘real’ in some more foundational way than Bentham’s original principle of utility, though (and I think this is where I reluctantly give up Habermas’ appealing but ultimately unconvincing story of “asymptotic approaches) to foci imaginarii” [Rorty 67]).

I want to return to two key themes to show how this discussion ties in to animal studies and food politics: the role of science as arbiter in the fact/value dichotomy and what Sandel called Berlin’s “tragically configured moral universe.”

On the role of science: in a passage from Daniel Dennett’s 2007 TED talk on teaching all religions to primary school students, he makes the claim that teachers should teach students about all of the world’s religions using “no values, just facts”, and that teachers and parents should be allowed to preference one religion over another only after having presented ‘the facts’.  As I laid out in a lecture I gave at a scientific conference in Havana, however, the problem here is that it’s very difficult to present only facts. This is true for many reasons, but a big one is what Rorty dissects in his chapter on Davidson’s contingent theory of language–before we even get beyond the structure of our words, so much of what we’re are saying is value-laden at the level of our syntax and metaphor.

This idea that science–and, by slippery extension, social science–presents privileged facts (as against questionable values) that deserve more moral consideration than ‘mere emotions’ is popping up a lot these days, and my response often depends on what is intended by ‘science’ in any particular context. In some sense, David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal, appears to be tying together a range of work in neuroscience and other disciplines, to make a scientific argument that the economic assumptions about homo economicus are at best only partially valid.

This question of ownership of science is critically important both in discussions of food and animals. When researching on farm animal welfare, I found that all relevant parties I was interviewing–from animal advocacy organizations or livestock trade groups–tried to ‘own’ the relevant science, and to dismiss competing findings as unscientific. This did the USDA refer to stress hormone levels to justify confinement housing, while CIWF (Compassion in World Farming) cited ‘vote with your feet’ studies done by Marion Stamp Dawkins and others on the behavioral preferences of farm animals. Both of these are science. Science can give you all the data you want, but I’m still of the mind that you’re really looking for ‘strictly science-based standards’, you’re never going to make up your mind–that’s where politics and policy have to come in.

This gets us to Berlin’s “tragically configured moral universe.” (‘Tragic’ in the Aristotelean sense that a good person cannot behave ethically in the given situation because of conflicting moral circumstances. For example: Creon can either choose his allegiance to his family, Antigone, or his city-state, Athens, but not both.) My conception of the world as it exists today is similarly tragic, and I think the best we can do is to use something like Rorty’s liberal ironism to navigate between competing visions, and to use this pragmatic dialectic to get to an improved synthesis. The reason Rorty’s vision appeals to me above and beyond Habermas’ similar use of communicative reason is that he allows a more prominent role for the sympathetic education (what he calls the poetic, a distinct but overlapping idea) in priming our moral sensibilities to see the world as a home to myriad sentient beings with recognizable interests. The tragedy, though, is built into Darwinian natural selection–in a world of competition for scarce resources, not all beings can fulfill all of their interests. Something like liberal ironism lets us do the best we can with the tools we have.