Richard Rorty: Education, Philosophy, and Politics
reviewed by Ignacio Gotz - 2003
Title: Richard Rorty: Education, Philosophy, and Politics
Author(s): Michael A. Peters and Paulo Ghiraldelli Jr. (Editors)
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742509052, Pages: 224, Year: 2002
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This book is a collection of critical essays on the work of Richard Rorty. The critiques concentrate on Rorty’s philosophical positions, on his views about politics, and on the applicability of these to education. The essays are uneven, but the book as a whole contains a wide-ranging examination of Rorty’s ideas. To me, the book is worth reading if only for the excellent essays by Rodrigues and by Best and Kellner.
Writing a review of such a book as this presents certain special challenges. There is a temptation to engage Rorty’s writings rather than the essays themselves, while at the same time there is the question of the accuracy of the authors’ views of Rorty. There is a tendency among them to get lost among the “posts” – “ post-Darwinian,” “post-Nietzschean,” “post-modern,” and so on -- and perhaps a certain unselfconscious itch to find error everywhere. Only a few of the essays really come to grips with Rorty’s philosophical positions; most of them tackle tangents that seem, in a way, inconsequential or petty. I was reminded of Nietzsche’s statement that the errors of great people are more fruitful than the truths of little people. At the same time (and this applies both to Rorty and to his critics) it is difficult to take seriously a philosophy that, in its critique, ignores more than half of the world’s philosophical outlook. If, according to Rorty, the goal of philosophy is to re-describe rather than to prove, it should be incumbent upon us to pay attention to the descriptions of Vedantin, Taoist, Buddhist, and Islamic thinkers. Of this, there is not a trace in the book or in Rorty’s work.
In his very interesting and well-written essay, Rodrigues points out that, according to Rorty, political action does not need philosophical backup but only engagement. If this were true, it would apply equally to education. In fact, in his own article, Wain reminds us that Rorty claims that “philosophy has nothing to say to education” (p. 163) even though many authors have tried to drag his views into this field. Still, it would seem that pedagogical narratives have an important role to play in the shaping of teaching styles and schooling policy.
In this context of education I found the inclusion of Garrison’s essay puzzling, since it concerns itself mainly with an effort to justify Dewey’s rejection of Aristotelianism rather than with a critique of Rorty. I think that Garrison’s reconstruction of Aristotelian metaphysics is mostly in error, partly due to his faulty reading of Aristotelian terminology and partly due to his effort to make Dewey’s contribution to the history of ideas larger than it is. To claim that Dewey dismantled Aristotelian philosophy flies in the face of the historical record and ignores the fact that their points of departure were different. Aristotle’s is a dualistic metaphysics while Dewey’s is monistic. The terms used, therefore, mean different things within each system. For example, eidos does not translate into species, much less into “species” in the biological sense. The orientation of entelechies is fixed in inanimate nature but not in humans; essence, for Aristotle, is not the ultimate origin of action but of identity; and essences, for Aristotle, are not logically constructed but, rather, discovered; and so on. Rather than reject a metaphysics of presence, Dewey saw Nature as what becomes present in a multifarious and ever-changing way.
I was also puzzled by Ghirardelli’s claim that “Philosophy since the Greeks sought death” (p. 75), a view he mistakenly attributes to Nietzsche. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche took pains to show how tragedy had arisen from the Greeks’ love of life in all its manifestations, which he called Dionysian, and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Dawn, he made this love of life the touchstone of the “higher men.” Philosophy, even in Schopenhauer, has never sought death. It was seen as a preparation for death because it helped one live in such a way as to be ready for death. That it wanted transcendence, or eternal return, or reincarnation, meant simply that it wanted life, and to the maximum. Education, then, would be a process in which one acquired the perspectives needed to live and to do so most abundantly. Whether the emphasis is on the process, on the striving, or on the achievement of inner and outer peace, the point is to live.
Similarly, I am not sure I understand what Marshall means when he says that we must “aim at an egalitarian society” (p. 80). The Swedish experiment, designed to eliminate socio-economic inequalities, failed to do so due to the stubborn fact of inborn unequal talent or capacity. Equality of opportunity, therefore, even when deliberately enhanced, did not eventuate in socio-economic equality. Plato understood this sobering fact of unequal talent when he introduced the “Myth of the Metals” in the Republic. Similarly, cognizant of this fact of unequal ability or talent, Madison argued in The Federalist, No. 51, that the end of government is not equality but justice, no matter how obstreperous to the contrary our current demagogues may be. The aim, therefore, would seem to be justice, whether in a Rawlsian sense of fairness, or in the traditional view of distributive justice.
Rorty’s “poetic nominalism,” as McLaren calls it (p. 141), is not an easy position to argue against, much less refute, partly because it calls into question the very tools one would use in its refutation. But perhaps refutation is the wrong tack. Pragmatic critiques of philosophic theory are useful in that they may serve to keep philosophers grounded and to eschew an obsessive concern with proof which, as Aristotle, Gödel, and Wittgenstein have shown, has limits of its own. This comment applies to Rorty as well. Also, rather than “abandon all attempts to radically criticize social institutions” (p. 103), as Rorty suggests, one could practice, rather, what Ortega y Gasset called “institutional atheism”: use the institutions without believing in them. This is, perhaps, the best weapon against tradition and convention.