The Vacuum at the Heart of Neopragmatism

Today’s post is a bit more philosophy-rich than I am usually comfortable with and, thus, than I would normally post. But, as I was reading the book named below (and stretching my brain cells), I realized that the topic and observations are at least as, if not even more, relevant today than when written almost 20 years ago. Plus, there is application across the three main topics of this blog, so it’s a nice fit.

Rorty quote on truthfulness under oathThe excerpts that follow are from Phil Johnson’s Reason in the Balance (1995), a follow-up to his iconic Darwin on Trial. In the chapter titled “Realism and Rationality”, Johnson discusses the philosophical system of Richard Rorty (d. 2007), who is considered the epitome of the postmodernist rejection of realism. Rorty grew up in a Trotskyite family that also admired American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. In particular, he was attracted to the emphasis on reducing pain and eliminating cruelty, which he felt was a universal moral obligation, even if this couldn’t be proven by religion, philosophy, or science. In trying to marry his love for the wild orchids of his youth with his instinct for “social justice”, Rorty investigated Anglo-Catholic Christianity (via T.S. Eliot’s poetry) and Platonism.

“Rorty came to believe that the test of philosophical truth was overall coherence rather than correspondence to objective reality or deducibility from universally granted first principles. That meant that there can be competing truths based on different first principles, mutually contradictory but equally coherent and hence equally ‘true’.”

This led Rorty to Hegelian historicism, then to Heidegger’s postmodernism, and back ’round to Dewey. Since he could not bring himself to believe in God, “a surrogate parent who embodied love, power, and justice in equal measure,” he reluctantly decided that

“[The] whole idea of holding reality and justice in a single vision had been a mistake…. [T]here is no way to weave together one’s personal equivalent of Trotsky and one’s personal equivalent of my wild orchids.”

These thoughts coalesced into the philosophical “system” known as neopragmatism. (Oddly, it actually seems to anticipate the abolition of philosophy itself. Rorty thought that, as theory is replaced by narrative, literary critics and storytellers will take over the territory formerly held by philosophers.) As you might imagine, there are several problems with the Rortian view. For example, though Rorty refused to admit it, the system is clearly relativistic in nature. Also, when and to what extent is the coercion of others justified, in order to ensure, for instance, that the resources needed to alleviate pain are available?

“To a radical redistributionist it is the pain of the poor that counts, and to heed the protesting squeals of the exploiters is mere squeamishness that leads to more misery in the end. If Rorty is too tenderhearted to countenance the infliction of pain in the fight for social justice, then I do not think Trotsky would reciprocate his admiration.”

The question here is one of internal consistency and practicality. Ironic, eh?

Johnson goes into more detail:

“The test of moral realism, or scientific realism, is not whether everybody is willing to listen to reason. No doubt there will always be people who think the earth is flat, and even people high in government have been known to consult astrologers. We rightly judge such people irrational. But whether we can extend metaphysical realism from the factual realm of natural science to the moral realm is, as [philosopher Dr. John] Searle noted, highly questionable for those who accept modernist metaphysics. If morality, like wild orchids, is just a matter of taste, it is hard to see what Rorty could even mean by the statement that ‘our’ (liberal) morality is better than any competing view. To say it is better because it is ours is to say nothing, and to say it is better on some objective standard is to deny the essential premise of neopragmatism.

The vacuum at the heart of Rorty’s philosophy becomes more apparent if we invoke as an example not a demon from the past but a true living alternative to agnostic liberalism like the Roman Catholic teaching of Pope John Paul II. On what basis could Rorty’s ‘we’ claim to have a better morality than that of the pope? If Rorty means that his morality is better because it is in accord with ultimate reality (metaphysical naturalism) whereas the pope’s morality is founded on a delusion (the divinity of Christ), then Rorty is basing his philosophy on exactly the kind of strong metaphysical position he claims to have abandoned. If he does not realize this, it is probably because he associates only with a narrow academic elite that takes naturalism so much for granted that it seems merely ‘the way we think today’ rather than a controversial statement about the nature of reality.

The abandonment of realism in morality is supposed to produce a kindlier, more tolerant society, but what it actually does produce is tribalism or partisanship. In keeping with his conviction that he needs to justify himself only within his self-chosen group, Rorty engages in genuine dialogue strictly within an ideological party, composed of those whose politics are liberal to radical and whose minds were formed by the philosophical tradition extending from Hume through Kant and Hegel to Dewey and Heidegger.”

I almost decided to end the citation here. But, the next section really gives the reader a fuller understanding of the practical implications of Rorty’s thinking. (Well, it is neopragmatism, after all.) This is how it cashes out in the politico-cultural milieu, so you need to read this, too.

anti-PC police badge“To outsiders, Rorty speaks only propaganda. He defines liberalism platitudinously as an aversion to cruelty, with the implicit (and often explicit) dismissal of nonliberals as people who either are indifferent to cruelty or positively endorse it. Those who believe in traditional biblical sexual morality — whom Rorty caricatures as ‘the people who think that hounding gays out of the military promotes family values’ — are ‘the same honest, decent, blinkered, disastrous people who voted for Hitler in 1933.’ It doesn’t take much imagination to see that Rortian liberalism in practice implies marginalizing ‘them’ — that is, the many millions of Americans whom he thinks constitute Hitler’s natural constituency — by employing the techniques of conceptual manipulation available to those who control education.

The mixture of extreme partisanship with relativism is what has created that absurd fanaticism of the victims which goes by the name of ‘political correctness’. The campus speech codes and sensitivity-training sessions seem fanatical only to outsiders, of course, and ‘they’ are by definition oppressors. If the elite university campuses of today are providing a preview of the postmodernist society of tomorrow, we may be in for an era of self-righteous bullying.”

See what I mean about it being so very relevant for today? Johnson was exactly right. Bullying by the “PC police” in the name of (a twisted definition of) “tolerance” has become rampant in America (and probably anywhere influenced by this sort of thinking). The influence of Rorty and his ilk on the past couple generations is to blame for a lot of it, along with a general pervasiveness of worldview confusion, based on the postmodern rejection of rationality and realism.

Makes me thankful for the average modernist atheist. At least we (mostly) have a mutual foundation in reality and rationality, even if we do interpret certain data differently….

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