Who Is Responsible For Doing “Something Else”?

In his essay on the passing of many great figures of post-WWII analytic philosophy, the professionalization and specialization of philosophy, and the shift towards philosophy as a vocation, Brian Leiter discusses and rejects Rorty’s view of the field:

…Richard Rorty (1931-2007), who felt so confident that the philosophical problems of millennia –about the nature of truth and knowledge – were misguided and pointless (all cases of chmess?), that he wanted philosophers to give up on the traditions running from Plato to Hume to Hegel, to do “something else”. What the “something else” amounted to was, alas, never very clear – and why philosophers should have been thought especially competent to do it even less so. One doesn’t need to be trained in the history of philosophy, after all, to produce pablum about “liberal” patriotism, as Rorty, sadly, ended up doing. Rorty may have garnered a substantial following among those who knew little about philosophy and its traditions, but it is a safe bet that, in the era of intellectual specialisation, his actual influence on philosophy will be short-lived.

My view of philosophy doesn’t follow Rorty’s anymore, if it ever did.  I’m at most a fellow traveler so far as I suspect that the field may have an inaccurate image of what it can hope to accomplish.  And do pay attention to that “suspect…may have…” in the previous sentence.  There’s far too little that I understand to be confident about what type of philosophy needs to be done.  So when I speak for Rorty, in what follows, remember both that I’m not speaking for myself, and that I may be distorting what Rorty would’ve thought.

Those caveats aside, I’m doubt that Leiter’s charge is particularly accurate here.  Actually there are three charges: that it was never too clear what “something else was” (I agree with this–the closest I ever saw were hints in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity); that it wasn’t clear why philosophers were the ones who should be doing that particular “something else”; that Rorty’s own later writings often looked like liberal pablum (this hits close to the bone).  It’s the second charge, that current philosophers might just be ill-suited to doing work that interests me.  I’m not sure it’s as damning as Leiter thinks it is.

Of course the people who are now in philosophy departments were selected because their abilities match the work now being done, and there’s no guarantee that they’d be suited to doing something different.  But if the work being done in philosophy departments is misguided, it’s no defense to say that the people in philosophy departments couldn’t do the truly important work.  It often happens that developments in a field leave its old practitioners ill-equipped to contribute.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the genuinely important developments in logic in the early 20th century cut many people with important insights out of the philosophical conversation.  An opposite phenomenon concerns philosophers who have a great insight, but struggle to show the importance of that insight given contemporary understanding of the field (you might think of Frege’s work here).  I think it’s just uncontroversial that the skills that make a good philosopher are not always those that characterize the field at a particular moment.

Rorty certainly should’ve conceded that a lot of people who had trained as philosophers had gone into the wrong field, so that his appeals concerning what philosophers should do are only aimed at some people in academic philosophy.  Perhaps others should have been linguists, or scientists, or mathematicians, but came to believe that there were more important questions to be answered in philosophy.  Refocus philosophy on the sort of humanistic concerns that Rorty cares about, and they’d stop wanting to be philosophers (not that humanistic insight is essentially antagonistic to interest in science).  On the other hand, there are also people now in philosophy departments who have been shoehorned into doing the kind of work that has a high profile, but would be more comfortable under Rorty’s new regime.

More speculatively, I wonder how Rorty’s exact target makes a difference.  I would think that often it’s not so much the questions that philosophers are investigating per se that Rorty objects to, so much as the framing that attaches to them (but maybe Rorty rules out this reading).  There are obviously sensible questions about the word ‘know’ that we can ask, and they might be very important questions, even without philosophical motivation.  I’m confident that there are many examples of this type of obviously important questions within philosophy of science.  All that Rorty should do is deny that answering these questions gives us any particular philosophical insight.

Or perhaps it’s the case that the philosophical projects attached to our investigations of the word ‘know’ bias our research so that we can’t contribute to the important non-philosophical topics at hand.  But no matter what happens to philosophy, qua topic critiqued by Rorty, there would be fruitful research that could be done, perhaps even by current philosophers.

Leiter ends on a deflationary note†:

There will, we may hope, continue to be world-historical geniuses – “seers and prophets” as it were – but there is no special reason to look for them in academic departments of philosophy anywhere. From those departments, we may quite reasonably look for incremental contributions to understanding of our sciences, of our moral and political lives, and of our language and our mental capacities.

The question about why such prophets would be found in academic departments is hard to answer, especially if you think that Rorty never managed to articulate the kind of work that his future philosophers should do.  But that does not prove that philosophy departments should continue to go on in the same way.  Perhaps there should not be philosophy departments, or perhaps they should shrink drastically.  Philosophy departments and philosophers will always need to reflect on what makes their work have philosophical value.  Rorty’s charge is that all the current answers are bad ones.

† Being fair, Leiter is not necessarily attributing the view that seers and prophets would be found in philosophy departments to Rorty.

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