rorty/scruton: a contrived dialogue


If we examine the gurus of the new university establishment, those whose works are most often cited in the endless stream of articles devoted to debunking Western culture, we discover that they are all opponents of objective truth.
Nietzsche is a favourite, since he made the point explicitly: "There are no truths," he wrote, "only interpretations." Now, either what Nietzsche said is true—in which case it is not true, since there are no truths—or it is false. Enough said, you might imagine. But no: the point can be stated less brusquely, and the paradox concealed.
This explains the appeal of those later thinkers… who owe their intellectual eminence not to their arguments (of which they have precious few) but to their role in giving authority to the rejection of authority, and to their absolute commitment to the impossibility of absolute commitments.


Some people don’t like it when I say that the Platonic search for universal truth is a mistake. They want to see philosophy as some grand struggle to reach a comprehensive view of life, but I argue that there are no transcendental answers. Each of us must reach our own conclusions about life, and try to respect the differences among us. It is the insistence on finding one theory of knowledge that causes so many problems. What happens when your theory isn’t my theory? When you think your answer must also be my answer?


The threat of vacuousness does not deter Rorty, who sees pragmatism as a weapon against the old idea of reason… In his words: "Pragmatists view truth as . . . what is good for us to believe. . . . They see the gap between truth and justification not as something to be bridged by isolating a natural and trans-cultural sort of rationality which can be used to criticize certain cultures and praise others, but simply as the gap between the actual good and the possible better. . . . For pragmatists, the desire for objectivity is not the desire to escape the limitations of one's community, but simply the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of `us' as far as we can." In other words, pragmatism enables us to dismiss the idea of a "trans-cultural . . . rationality." There is no point to the old ideas of objectivity and universal truth; all that matters is that we agree.
A true pragmatist will no doubt invent history just as he invents everything else, by persuading "us" to agree with him. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a glance at history, if only to see how paradoxical and dangerous is Rorty's view of the human intellect. The Islamic ummah—the society of all believers—was and remains the most extended consensus the world has ever known. It expressly recognizes consensus (ijma`) as a criterion of, and indeed a substitute for, truth, and it is engaged in a never-ceasing endeavor to include as many as possible in its comprehensive first-person plural. Moreover, whatever Rorty means by "good" or "better" beliefs, the pious Muslim must surely count as having some of the very best: beliefs that bring security, stability, happiness, a handle on the world, and a cheerful conscience as one blows up the kafirs who think otherwise.
Yet still, is there not a nagging feeling somewhere that those heartwarming beliefs might not be true, and that the enervated opinions of the postmodern atheist might just have the edge on them? On Rorty's account of pragmatism, this is not something a pragmatist can say. After all, postmodern atheists, unlike pious Muslims, don't compose a community—not even an imagined community. They have no credo or catechism, no sacred text, no established consensus. Yet Rorty is a postmodern atheist. Why? Not because he belongs to a community of unbelievers, but because he thinks that atheism is true. The pragmatism that puts consensus in the place of truth turns out to be a sham.