Sunday, August 16, 2009


by Thomas Riggins

Last Saturday, June 8, one of the most influential American thinkers died at his home in California. Richard Rorty was educated as a philosopher but in his later years abandoned that field for the humanities and culture studies. The purpose of this remembrance is to outline his thought and see what, if any relevance, it has for Marxism and a progressive world outlook.

Rorty grew up in a left wing household dedicated to the views of Leon Trotsky. He said that when he was 12 he “knew that the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting for social justice.” Well, he was off to a good start at any rate.

He was more or less known as a conventional analytic philosopher until his 1979 book (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) appeared. In this book he argued that both the British-American analytic and the European philosophical traditions from Descartes to the present were wrong to think that philosophy could reveal some sort on independently existing objective truth “out there” which we could then accurately reflect in our philosophical languages.

Rorty became more and more influenced by the kind of “deconstructionist” thought associated with the writings of Derrida. His thought is summarized by W. L. Reese as follows. Rorty rejects systems and thinks one should be an “ironist, who does not presume any finality in the vocabulary to which he or she is drawn.”

So far so good. If we make a presumption of finality with respect to our positions we run the risk of being dogmatists. Marxists, as well as many others, have fallen (and still fall) into that trap.

But Rorty goes too far. According to Reese he thinks an argument is “merely a rhetorical device” which simply proposes a “new vocabulary” to use for “redescription” of whatever we are arguing about. Since this is the case we should forget building theories about “reality” but, as Reese puts it, “poetize culture, rather than rationalize or scientize it, celebrating not truth but play and metaphor.”

In other words, If I argue with a neocon about the war in Iraq I find myself in the following position. Bush has just made a big speech about weapons of mass destruction and the need to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq, and that Iraq is an existential danger to the United States. When I attack this position what I am really doing is providing a new vocabulary for what Bush has said thus creating a “redescription.” I come up with this: there are no weapons of mass destruction, this is a war for geopolitical regional dominance and for control of Iraqi oil, it has nothing to do with freedom and democracy.

What are the neocon and I doing? We are “poetizing” each others views and playing with metaphors. Rorty may or may not agree with me completely (he was antiwar) but may support me because he is liberal and he thinks “liberals now agree in their abhorrence of cruelty, and hope for the future diminution of suffering and humiliation.”

“Yes,” say I. “That’s my position.” “Mine too,” says the neocon. But my narrative demands this be achieved by stopping the war and withdrawing the troops. “No. no,” replies the neocon. His narrative demands this be achieved by increasing the troops and winning the war. Both narratives, Reese says, for Rorty are “without foundation.” They are not about truth but about metaphor. And, if I think my view has some real foundation, then I am a “liberal metaphysician” in Rorty’s words. A metaphysician, for Rorty, is someone with a fictional view of the world.

A. Quinton, writing on Rorty, says this view is “something like the extreme point of Derrida’s rejection of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, which holds not only that there are no absolute foundations, but that no belief is more fundamental than any other.” So the belief that genocide is wrong is no more fundamental than its opposite. This is not a position likely to recommend itself to Marxists, or anyone else, for that matter, who values rationality and doesn’t think nothing is right or wrong save thinking makes it so.

Rorty himself said, “There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons.” This certainly does not encourage thinking outside the box.

Using this criterion Spinoza would never bother to have developed his philosophy. Galileo should have realized the errors of his ways as well. Often new ideas have to fight against what one’s peers will let you get away with. But without some method which allows one to assert that not all narratives are equal and there is some method to discriminate between different and often contradictory truth claims you are forced to take this absurdist position of Rorty.

Daniel Dennett is quoted in the New York Times obituary as saying Rorty showed “a flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power.”

Rorty may have been a good fellow for having liberal ideas, but allowing reactionaries and fascists, racists and neocons to hold their narratives of reality with the same truth values as his own means he was no friend of the progressive community.

Friday, August 14, 2009


by Thomas Riggins

Personally I don’t think Sen. Sam Brownback from Kansas has much of a chance of getting the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. But you never know. Who would have thought someone of such a low caliber as George Bush would have gotten it in 2000?

In the first debate of the Republican candidates, Brownback raised his hand when the question was put as to which candidates did not believe in “evolution.” Now he has written an article, “What I Think About Evolution”, in the New York Times published as an op-ed piece on 5-31-07.

Brownback wrote the article to clarify his views. It is not, I think, a good article for a man who wants to be president for it shows that he has no understanding of science and that he does not use valid evidence or reasons to ground his beliefs. We have just had two terms of such a president, who has left the country in a mess, and we can ill afford another president whose views are not grounded in reality.

Brownback thinks that the "premise" behind the question is-- either you come out for evolution or "one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24 hour days." For a man who says he wants to bring "seriousness" to the discussion, he is off to a bad start.

First we need a proper definition of "evolution." Scientifically speaking, the word refers to Darwin's theory of changes in species, and the development of new species, by random natural selection. This is the scientific biological evolutionary theory that has obscurantists, reactionaries and fundamentalists up in arms. There are other opponents besides these.

Anyone who believes in "design" is opposed to this theory-- not just the unsophisticated yokels who think every thing was made in six 24-hour days. The "premise" Brownback thinks the question entails is incorrect. He says so himself. But he set it up to make himself look more serious than he actually is, as we shall see.

Brownback says he believes there can be no contradiction between faith and reason. Let's see what he means by this and if he really does believe it.

The issue is: does science explain the origin of the universe and/or man, without the need to postulate a "creator", or is the postulate of a "creator" needed. Brownback's position that faith and reason (science) do not contradict each other is based upon the fact that he just assumes that there is a creator therefore, since that is a fact, what is there for science to contradict.

"The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths." In reality, science seeks to understand the nature of the universe, in practice it does not appeal to a "creator" and Brownback's assumption of a "created order" has no scientific warrant at all. And he seems not to understand that "reason" has little to do with faith.

There is no contradiction because "the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God." Well, there is nothing like assuming in your premises the very conclusion you seek to support by your argument. Reason is obviously not being applied in this type of thinking (valid reason at any rate.)

Brownback fails to realize that there is a real antithesis between science and faith when it comes to trying to understand the physical world and the place of humans within it. "Faith," he says, "supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose." The problem here is a confusion between the descriptive function of science and the prescriptive role of faith.

For example, science can describe the values held by Christians and those held by different groups of non-Christians, what these values mean to the different groups, and what purpose (i.e., function) they play in different cultures. But if these are faith based values, science cannot say one faith based system is right and another wrong. If there was a compelling reason that showed one was right it would no longer be a matter of faith.

Brownback thinks he can reconcile the faith/science dichotomy, but he does it by rejecting science. Here is what he says about evolution. "If belief in evolution means simply assenting to micro evolution, small changes over time within a species [such as a diminishing ability to comprehend scientific theories in Kansans], I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true." But he knows that that is not at all what the theory of evolution is about.

He says he rejects the view that "holds no place for a guiding intelligence" and that is "exclusively materialistic" and "deterministic." But he seems to reject more than that. Some religious folk believe in a guiding intellect and also that, e.g., humans evolved from ape like ancestors. Brownback doesn't say if he goes for that. His concept of micro evolution ("small changes within a species") would seem to leave Lucy and Homo erectus out of our family tree.

Brownback says the question of "whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations-- go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology."

Here he is simply wrong. It is precisely due to advances in genetics, DNA research, physical anthropology, and a host of related sciences, that the question of human origins, and life on earth in general, is primarily a question for the empirical sciences. If there is to be no conflict between religion and science then theology will have to evaluate the discoveries of science not try to ignore them or reject them and pretend it is better suited to give answers based on faith (i.e., based on nothing but a traditional belief from the pre-scientific past).

Science demands an open minded attitude. It bases its conclusions on the best available evidence. Brownback is wholly lacking in the open minded spirit of science. Only if science agrees with his faith based opinions will he accept it. "Man," he says, "was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth [there are none] are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth [no matter how firmly established by modern science], should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science."

An "atheistic theology" is a curious term. It is even more curious to think the modern science of evolutionary biology is any kind of theology at all. Brownback is a US Senator and could (God forbid!) become president. Be prepared for a new Dark Age. The faggot is not far from the fanatic.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at
[PA archives 2007]