The late Walter Kaufmann, a Nietzsche translator and philosopher, once wrote in a foreward to a volume of Nietzsche, that Nietzsche is the kind of writer who you can read all your life. You keep coming back to him at different phases of your life and he’s still relevant. There’s always more to get. It hasn’t turned out that way for me with Nietzsche, but just recently I picked up old essays by the philosopher Richard Rorty - someone I have gone back to and learned from over the last twenty years - and was still impressed. I learn new facets of a radically different perspective that I find attractive.
I like his framing of the idea that our modern search for the Truth and the Good is really a replacement for the pre-modern search for God. That we yearn so strongly for a non-human something to be answerable to – reality, the Truth, the world as it is, the Absolute – that we concoct these God replacements because we don’t want to admit that it’s really just us. We’re answerable to human others and that’s it. So that’s why Rorty poses the question “Solidarity or Objectivity?” and opts for solidarity. We can’t know what the world is like beyond our particular human cognizing and experiencing, but we can try to come to some agreement with, and solve the problems of, us humans.
For years, even after having read Rorty’s critique of The Truth, I’ve always tried to make sure what I say is true by comparing it to The Truth. But I never seemed to be able to grasp The Truth. It was always just out of reach. Rorty is suggesting that this idea of The Truth (or The Good) serves the same role today as God did for previous generations. Foucault called it “the shimmering mirage of truth.” Instead of discovering what was true all along, we make what we call true - or best justified for now - in our interactions with others and the evaluation of each others beliefs.
There is no standard of perfect or absolute objectivity. Objectivity is determined case by case as people share their criterion of validity and agree or disagree that me or you have or have not met the criterion that we may or may not agree upon.
Just learned that a fourth volume of Richard Rorty’s essays has been published. I’ve been reading him for over twenty years now and, despite the negative opinions of his work that you hear frequently from conventional philosophers, I find his characterizations of philosophy and contemporary thought illuminating and rarely in disagreement with what I’ve read.
One of Richard Rorty’s recent concerns is how we mistake concepts for things. Because we use concepts (which, we often forget, are words) like “mind,” “consciousness," “money,” in everyday life we mistakenly think that we can, by thinking about those concepts more rigorously, get at what the things they refer to really are, their essence. Because in everyday life we use the word “consciousness” for many practical purposes we mistakenly think that it is an objectively existing entity which has a definable essence we can grasp. We wonder and ask: What exactly is consciousness?
He’s saying that we are taking a concept that has arisen for practical social purposes and has a multiplicity of meanings – because a multiplicity of uses – and also a history of different meanings caused by different uses in different cultural contexts and mistaking it for identifying an objective entity which has a persisting nature or essence which we can pin down and, by so doing, capture an aspect of reality.
Yet, it’s objected, this thing called “consciousness” seems so palpable, present, intimate, right here. And so it is, but the movement from the experiencing to the describing need not include the idea that we are getting at a piece of the world. Is that what words are doing? Rorty would say the describing is what we do to solve practical problems and make our way in the world, they should not be thought of as mirrors of reality.