Archives For Richard Rorty

Author Information: Jana Bacevic, University of Cambridge, jb906@cam.ac.uk

Bacevic, Jana. “Solving the Democratic Problem.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 50-52.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Bl

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Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

It is a testament to the lasting influence of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty that their work continues to provide inspiration for debates concerning the role and purpose of knowledge, democracy, and intellectuals in society. Alternatively, it is a testament to the recurrence of the problem that continues to lurk under the glossy analytical surface or occasional normative consensus of these debates: the impossibility to reconcile the concepts of liberal and epistemic democracy. Essays collected under the title Democratic Problem-Solving (Cruickshank and Sassower 2017) offer grounds for both assumptions, so this is what my review will focus on.

Boundaries of Rational Discussion

Democratic Problem-Solving is a thorough and comprehensive (if at times seemingly meandering) meditation on the implications of Popper’s and Rorty’s ideas for the social nature of knowledge and truth in contemporary Angloamerican context. This context is characterised by combined forces of neoliberalism and populism, growing social inequalities, and what has for a while now been dubbed, perhaps euphemistically, the crisis of democracy. Cruickshank’s (in other contexts almost certainly heretical) opening that questions the tenability of distinctions between Popper and Rorty, then, serves to remind us that both were devoted to the purpose of defining the criteria for and setting the boundaries of rational discussion, seen as the road to problem-solving. Jürgen Habermas, whose name also resonates throughout this volume, elevated communicative rationality to the foundational principle of Western democracies, as the unifying/normalizing ground from which to ensure the participation of the greatest number of members in the public sphere.

Intellectuals were, in this view, positioned as guardians—epistemic police, of sorts—of this discursive space. Popper’s take on epistemic ‘policing’ (see DPS, 42) was to use the standards of scientific inquiry as exemplars for maintaining a high level, and, more importantly, neutrality of public debates. Rorty saw it as the minimal instrument that ensured civility without questioning, or at least without implicitly dismissing, others’ cultural premises, or even ontological assumptions. The assumption they and authors in this volume have in common is that rational dialogue is, indeed, both possible and necessary: possible because standards of rationality were shared across humanity, and necessary because it was the best way to ensure consensus around the basic functioning principles of democracy. This also ensured the pairing of knowledge and politics: by rendering visible the normative (or political) commitments of knowledge claims, sociology of knowledge (as Reed shows) contributed to affirming the link between the epistemic and the political. As Agassi’s syllogism succinctly demonstrates, this link quickly morphed from signifying correlation (knowledge and power are related) to causation (the more knowledge, the more power), suggesting that epistemic democracy was if not a precursor, then certainly a correlate of liberal democracy.

This is why Democratic Problem-Solving cannot avoid running up against the issue of public intellectuals (qua epistemic police), and, obviously, their relationship to ‘Other minds’ (communities being policed). In the current political context, however, to the well-exercised questions Sassower raises such as—

should public intellectuals retain their Socratic gadfly motto and remain on the sidelines, or must they become more organically engaged (Gramsci 2011) in the political affairs of their local communities? Can some academics translate their intellectual capital into a socio-political one? Must they be outrageous or only witty when they do so? Do they see themselves as leaders or rather as critics of the leaders they find around them (149)?

—we might need to add the following: “And what if none of this matters?”

After all, differences in vocabularies of debate matter only if access to it depends on their convergence to a minimal common denominator. The problem for the guardians of public sphere today is not whom to include in these debates and how, but rather what to do when those ‘others’ refuse, metaphorically speaking, to share the same table. Populist right-wing politicians have at their disposal the wealth of ‘alternative’ outlets (Breitbart, Fox News, and increasingly, it seems, even the BBC), not to mention ‘fake news’ or the ubiquitous social media. The public sphere, in this sense, resembles less a (however cacophonous) town hall meeting than a series of disparate village tribunals. Of course, as Fraser (1990) noted, fragmentation of the public sphere has been inherent since its inception within the Western bourgeois liberal order.

The problem, however, is less what happens when other modes of arguing emerge and demand to be recognized, and more what happens when they aspire for redistribution of political power that threatens to overturn the very principles that gave rise to them in the first place. We are used to these terms denoting progressive politics, but there is little that prevents them from being appropriated for more problematic ideologies: after all, a substantial portion of the current conservative critique of the ‘culture of political correctness’, especially on campuses in the US, rests on the argument that ‘alternative’ political ideologies have been ‘repressed’, sometimes justifying this through appeals to the freedom of speech.

Dialogic Knowledge

In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.

For if social studies of science taught us anything, it is that scientific knowledge is, among other things, a culture. An epistemic democracy of the Rortian type would mean that it’s a culture like any other, and thus not automatically entitled to a privileged status among other epistemic cultures, particularly not if its political correlates are weakened—or missing (cf. Hart 2016). Populist politics certainly has no use for critical slow dialogue, but it is increasingly questionable whether it has use for dialogue at all (at the time of writing of this piece, in the period leading up to the 2017 UK General Election, the Prime Minister is refusing to debate the Leader of the Opposition). Sassower’s suggestion that neoliberalism exhibits a penchant for justification may hold a promise, but, as Cruickshank and Chis (among others) show on the example of UK higher education, ‘evidence’ can be adjusted to suit a number of policies, and political actors are all too happy to do that.

Does this mean that we should, as Steve Fuller suggested in another SERRC article (http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx) see in ‘post-truth’ the STS symmetry principle? I am skeptical. After all, judgments of validity are the privilege of those who can still exert a degree of control over access to the debate. In this context, I believe that questions of epistemic democracy, such as who has the right to make authoritative knowledge claims, in what context, and how, need to, at least temporarily, come second in relation to questions of liberal democracy. This is not to be teary-eyed about liberal democracy: if anything, my political positions lie closer to Cruickshank and Chis’ anarchism. But it is the only system that can—hopefully—be preserved without a massive cost in human lives, and perhaps repurposed so as to make them more bearable.

In this sense, I wish the essays in the volume confronted head-on questions such as whether we should defend epistemic democracy (and what versions of it) if its principles are mutually exclusive with liberal democracy, or, conversely, would we uphold liberal democracy if it threatened to suppress epistemic democracy. For the question of standards of public discourse is going to keep coming up, but it may decreasingly have the character of an academic debate, and increasingly concern the possibility to have one at all. This may turn out to be, so to speak, a problem that precedes all other problems. Essays in this volume have opened up important venues for thinking about it, and I look forward to seeing them discussed in the future.

References

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower. Democratic Problem Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, December 25, 2016. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx

Hart, Randle J. “Is a Rortian Sociology Desirable? Will It Help Us Use Words Like ‘Cruelty’?” Humanity and Society, 40, no. 3 (2016): 229-241.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu

Sassower, Raphael. “Beyond Lamentations: Comments on Justin Cruickshank’s Public Intellectuals, Education and the Need for Dissatisfaction.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 7 (2014): 50-54.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1xI

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Justin Cruickshank’s reply to my last response takes us from the strict examination of the overlapping and distinguishing characteristics of Popper’s and Rorty’s thoughts and writings to a range of topics from public intellectuals, higher education, and democracy. He provides wise accounts of the British experience, including governmental “reforms” and the rise of the extreme nationalist Right. The mention of neoliberal ideology deserves a moment’s notice because of its impact on government policies in the so-called free world.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham, UK, j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

Cruickshank, Justin. “Public Intellectuals, Education and the Need for Dissatisfaction: Comments on Raphael Sassower’s Discussion of Popper, Rorty and Democracy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 7 (2014): 1-4.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1vw

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Raphael’s Sassower’s reply to my last response opened the debate on the sociology and politics of knowledge into the important area of public intellectuals and the broadening of the dialogic community to include laypeople in the attempt to reduce hierarchies. In this piece, I will say something about the social conditions of knowledge production and dissemination with regard to the media and education.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu

Sassower, Raphael. “Problem-Solving Critical Contingencies: Popper and Rorty According to Cruickshank.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 30-32.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1sr

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That Popper and Rorty have more in common than is admitted by their respective disciples is a welcome addition to scholarship by Cruickshank. In his detailed and informed analysis he masterfully continues to switch the focus on “problem-solving” from more general discussions on methodology and the role of metaphysics in debates over science and analytic philosophy. Perhaps because he is interested in juxtaposing the Popper-Rorty constellation onto Bloor’s version of the sociology of science, what Cruickshank surreptitiously accomplishes is to revive the argument that to read them fully is to appreciate their political positions and impact.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham, J.Cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

Cruickshank, Justin. “From Ex Cathedra Legislators to Dialogic Exemplars? Popper, Rorty and the Politics and Sociology of Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 1-12.

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I would like to thank Raphael Sassower for his response to my article on Popper and Rorty. Sassower argued that ‘if we contextualise the writings of Popper and Rorty we could easily understand their respective difference in focus or attitude rather in substance’ (58), with this standing in contrast to the ‘partisan politics of the academy’ which produced dogmatic and superficial readings of their work (57-58). For Sassower (2006a, 2006b, 2014) it is the case that politics can legitimately influence philosophy, not only with normative commitments influencing the solutions proffered for problems, but with normative commitments influencing the construal of what constitutes a legitimate and interesting problem. So, whilst it was the case that Popper and Rorty were engaging in different ways with different traditions in different historical contexts, they nonetheless shared a similar normative motivation which shaped their philosophies. Specifically, neither were conceptualising themselves as ‘disembodied’ intellectuals engaging in purely technical problems abstracted from any socio-political and historical context. Instead, both regarded themselves as engaging in a public conversation about the dialogic nature of knowledge and socio-political problem-solving, where a recognition of fallibilism or contingency precluded appeal to any source of certainty. For both it was important to avoid the authoritarian follies that lurk in intellectuals’ clerical tendency to presume a privileged access to a higher domain of reality, with this being used monologically to legislate on the beliefs and actions of others; as well as avoiding the parochialism of holding that philosophical problems, in effect, have no import for life outside technical philosophy. In place of the intellectual as ex cathedra legislator basing their authority on a particular metaphysical doctrine, or parochial technician, intellectuals were to move public dialogue forward by being interlocutors.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu

Sassower, Raphael. “A Bridge Over Turbulent Waters: A Reply to Justin Cruickshank on Comparing Popper and Rorty.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 3 (2014): 57-59.

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Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that by the 21st century, when some intellectual giants have been gone for a while, that their thoughts can be comfortably compared without the sneering of their respective partisan disciples. On the other hand, it may be simply the intellectual courage of a few, like Cruickshank, to transcend the partisan politics of the academy and find points of connection, even overlaps in thought and perspective between two seemingly different, if not oppositional, thinkers. Be that as it may, what we have before us is a welcome addition to scholarship, with refined and concise overviews of the main philosophical contributions of Popper and Rorty. Perhaps the passage of time requires some background to writings of writers who at the time did not need it (because it was too obvious to belabor).  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham, UK, j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

Cruickshank, Justin. “Problem-Solving And The Social Production Of Knowledge: A Reply to Isaac Reed.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no.2 (2014): 24-33.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1e1

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The Idealisation of Science

I would like to thank Isaac Reed for his careful consideration of the issues that stemmed from my discussion of Popper and Rorty. Here I hope to address those issues and to discuss my view of Popper’s approach to science that was left mostly unaddressed in the original article.

Reed noted that I am developing a new form of pragmatism for social science that was focused less on action and communication than the original pragmatists and more on the development of scientific knowledge and its relation to critical social theory and democracy (40-41). This new approach to pragmatism was then criticised by Reed for prioritising normative concerns in a way that idealised and privileged science, with this being blind to the social production of knowledge and institutional power relations. Reed notes how the distinction between the natural and social sciences was both challenged by those seeking to assimilate the social sciences into the natural sciences, as well as by those challenging the idealised conception of natural science knowledge production as privileged above other domains of knowledge.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Isaac Ariail Reed, University of Colorado, Isaac.Reed@Colorado.EDU

Reed, Isaac Ariail. “Science, Democracy and Sociology in the 21st Century: Response to Cruickshank’s ‘Anti-authority’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): 40-45.

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There would appear to be something particularly useful in the interpretation of classic thinkers when it comes to the hazy yet intellectually essential gray area between philosophy of social science, social theory, and social research. Justin Cruickshank’s essay provides more evidence for this hypothesis. By reinterpreting the philosophy of science of Karl Popper, and relating this interpretation to a kind of revisionist, matters-are-clearer-in-hindsight view of the philosophy of Richard Rorty, Cruickshank does recovery work — saving these thinkers from certain stereotypes — but also, and more importantly in my view, a certain kind of conceptual carving up of “thought space.” Cruickshank uses Rorty and Popper as sculptor’s tools to create a configuration of our understanding of knowledge. One senses a larger project here, a new version of pragmatism for social science, centered less directly on action and communication than were the philosophies of the original American pragmatists. The focus is, instead, on the capacities and needs of scientific knowledge, and the relationship of the pursuit of that knowledge to critical social theory and democratic practice. Here, I assume the obvious — that this project is interesting and possesses clear merit. I also assume that I need not explicate the clear contributions of this specific paper as it stands. Finally, I do not wish to directly challenge Cruickshank’s interpretations of the texts of Popper and Rorty. Rather, I wish to ask some questions about the larger project that is emerging here. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Peter E. Jones, Sheffield Hallam University, P.E.Jones@shu.ac.uk

Jones, Peter E. 2013. “Reality check: Some thoughts in response to Pablé.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (11): 16-19.

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Part 1

House: It was so perfect. It was beautiful.
Wilson: Beauty often seduces us on the way to truth.
House: And triteness kicks us in the nuts.
Wilson: So true.
House: This doesn’t bother you?
Wilson: That you were wrong? I try to work through the pain.
House: I was not wrong. Everything I said was true. It fit.It was elegant.
Wilson: So – reality was wrong.
House: Reality is almost always wrong. [1]

Adrian Pablé, in his thought provoking piece on Richard Rorty and Roy Harris, argues that the ‘Harrisian integrationist considers Rorty’s ideas of knowledge, reality and truth very differently from the realist philosopher’ (2). And his paper sets out an alternative account of ‘reality’ to that offered by ‘the realist philosopher’. Continue Reading…