The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy

Richard Rorty

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

The quarrel between philosophy and poetry that I have sketched elsewhere, the one that was revitalized by the Romantic movement, still goes on. Nowadays it takes the form of a face-off between philosophers described (though not by themselves) as “postmodern relativists” and their opponents. The two camps disagree about whether Plato was right to assert that humans beings can transcend their finitude by searching for truth or whether Nietzsche was right to treat both Platonism and religion as escapist fantasies. Philosophers who view postmodernism with alarm typically argue that Nietzsche was right about religion but wrong about Platonism. They resist the Nietzschean idea that reason works only within the limits that imagination has set—that rationality is simply a matter of making acceptable moves within a set of social practices. They agree with Plato that there is more to reason than that, and they regard their own discipline as a paradigm of rationality.

An account of what is going on these days in the world’s philosophy departments must start by distinguishing between social and political philosophy on the one hand, and the so-called core areas of philosophy on the other. The latter areas include metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language. The philosophers who work at the margins usually have little communication with those at the core. Those who specialize in social and political theory typically read many more books by professors of political science or law than books written by fellow philosophers. They do not read books about the relation between the mind and the body, or that between language and reality. The converse also holds. The authors of books on the latter topics are typically ill informed about the state of sociopolitical theory.

Once we bracket off social and political philosophy, the analytic-versus-Continental split becomes the most salient feature of the contemporary philosophical scene. Most analytic philosophers would still agree with Frank Ramsey that Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions is a paradigm of philosophy. Most nonanalytic philosophers think that nothing Russell did compares in importance with Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit or with Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism.

Someone who thinks of herself as an analytic philosopher of mind and language will almost certainly be familiar with Russell’s theory. But she may never have read, and may have little ambition to read, either Hegel or Heidegger. Yet if you teach philosophy in most non-Anglophone countries, you must be prepared to talk about both The Phenomenology of Spirit and Letter on Humanism. You can, however, skip the theory of descriptions.

In order to bring out the contrast between the self-images of these two kinds of philosophers, let me briefly describe the theory of descriptions. Russell designed it to answer such questions as “Given that the words used to form the subjects of sentences refer to things, and that a sentence is true if things are as the sentence says they are, how is it that some true sentences containing a referring expression become false if one substitutes another expression that refers to the same thing?” Russell’s example of two such sentences were “George IV wished to know whether Scott was the author of Waverley,” which is true, and “George IV wished to know whether Scott was Scott,” which is false.

The theory of descriptions answers this question by saying that the description “the author of Waverley,” unlike the word “Scott,” does not pick out a particular individual. What George IV really wanted to know, Russell said, was whether there existed an individual who had the property of being the author of Waverley and who was identical with Scott. Putting the matter that way, he claimed, reveals the true “logical form” of the sentence in question, and solves the puzzle. That the sentence has this logical form can be revealed, Russell said, by invoking distinctions that were built into the new symbolic logic developed by Russell’s master, Gottlob Frege. A knowledge of this logic is still regarded by most Anglophone philosophers as essential to philosophical competence. Many of their non-Anglophone colleagues find it optional.

If you suspect that Russell’s theory provides a clever answer to a pointless question, you are in good company. You have many eminent contemporary philosophers on your side. These philosophers, ranging from the Heidggerians to the Davidsonians, do not think that questions about how things in the world make sentences true are of any interest. They take these questions to be good examples of what George Berkeley called “kicking up the dust and then complaining that one cannot see.” The dust cloud is created, in their view, by taking seriously the Platonic idea that some ways of speaking are better suited to put us in touch with the really real than others.

Philosophers who prefer Russell to Hegel and Heidegger often point out that the tradition in philosophy that Frege and Russell founded makes a virtue of spelling out exactly which questions it is currently attempting to answer. Whether or not you find the analytic philosophers’ problems intriguing, at least you know what they are. The only question is whether you should bother about them. Analytic philosophers typically claim that the issues they discuss should intrigue you because certain intuitions that you yourself had before you ever opened a philosophy book are in tension with one another. One such intuition is that sentences are made true by the extralinguistic entities that they are about. The value of the theory of descriptions is that it rescues this intuition from some apparent counterexamples.

Hegel and Heidegger, by contrast, did not care much about either common sense or ordinary language. Whereas Frege and Russell hoped to make things clearer, Hegel and Heidegger hoped to make things different. Russell’s admirers want to get things straight by finding perspicuous relations between your previously existing intuitions. Hegel, Heidegger, and their admirers hope to change not only your intuitions but also your sense of who you are, and your notion of what is most important to think about. To use Emerson’s language, they are trying to draw a larger circle—trying to lure their readers out into as yet uncharted spaces. In those spaces, old intuitions are up for grabs, and it is hard to argue in a straight line. It is hard to know when one has gotten something right, because it is never quite clear what exactly one is talking about.

Given all these differences between analytic and non-analytic philosophy, one might wonder whether there is any point in treating Frege, Russell, Hegel, and Heidegger as being in the same line of business. The two sorts of philosophers have, in fact, often tried to excommunicate each other. Analytic philosophers often describe Hegel and Heidegger as “not really doing philosophy.” Hegelians and Heideggerians typically rejoin that their analytic colleagues are intellectual cowards who feel insecure outside a familiar professional environment. This exchange of insults has been going on for some fifty years, and seems unlikely to cease.

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Richard Rorty, who died in 2007 at age 76, was one of the leading philosophers and public intellectuals of his generation. His books include Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). Copyright 2016 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, on behalf of the University of Virginia Press. This is an excerpt from the full essay, which is available in the print edition of The Hedgehog Review. Subscribe here to read.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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