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Fellow Traveling with Richard Rorty


Paths to Story Telling as Life:
Fellow Traveling with Richard Rorty

Paul Grobstein
2 July 2007

(comments welcome, go to end;
see also Rorty, Non-Foundationalism and Story Telling: A Conversation)

I first encountered Richard Rorty's work rather late in both our lives. Having done so, I regret never having met him and, with his death on 8 June 2007, the loss of the chance ever to do so. Perhaps though its all for the best. Following a quite different path, I found myself in interesting places that Rorty too had reached. That different people can get to a place in different ways, and in the absence of any direct connection with one another, provides reassurance that there is some kind of a meaningful there there. And a reason to share stories both about how one got there and where one might explore next.

I'm very fond of Rorty's 1992 essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids", and think its a good place to start ...

"So, at 12, I knew that the point of being human was to spend one's life fighting social injustice ... But I also had private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests ... [including a] desire to learn all there was to know about orchids ... At fifteen, I escaped ... to ... the University of Chicago .. to reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or esthetic framework which would let me - in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats - ' hold reality and justice in a single vision' ...

I read through Plato during my fifteenth summer, and convinced myself that Socrates was right - virtue was knowledge ... Socrates had to be right, for only then could one hold reality and justice in a single vision. So I decided to major in philosophy ... I wanted very much to be some kind of Platonist, and from 15 to 20, I did my best. But it didn't pan out ...

The more philosophers I read, the clearer it seemed to me that each of them could carry their views back to first principles which were incompatible with the first principles of their opponents, and that none of them every got to that fabled place 'beyond hypotheses'. There seemed to be nothing like a neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles could be evaluated.

Since that initial disillusion ... I have sent 40 years looking for a coherent and convincing way of formulating my worries about what, if anything, philosophy is good for. My starting point was the discovery of Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit ... If philosophy can be, at best, only what Hegel called "its time held in thought" ... that might be enough ... one might do what Marx wanted done - change the world ... For quite a while ... I thought that the two greatest achievements of the species ... were The Phenomonology of Spirit and Remembrance of Things Past (the book which took the place of the wild orchids when I left Flatbrookville for Chicago) ... It was the cheerful commitment to irreducible temporality which Hegel and Proust shared - the specifically anti-Platonic element in their work - that seemed so wonderful. They both seemed able to weave everything ... into a narrative without asking that that narrative have a moral, and without asking how that narrative would appear under the aspect of eternity.

About 20 years or so after I decided that the young Hegel's willingness to stop trying for eternity, and just be the child of his time, was the appropriate response to disillusionment with Plato, I found myself being led back to [John] Dewey. Dewey now seemed to me a philosopher who had learned all that Hegel had to teach about how to eschew certainty and eternity ... I had gotten back on good terms with Dewey; I had articulated my historicist anti-Platonism; I had finally figured out what I thought about the direction and value of current movement in analytic philosophy; I had sorted out most of the philosophers whom I had read. But I had not spoken to any of the questions which got me started reading philosophers in the first place. I was no closer to the single vision which, 30 years back, I had gone to college to get.

As I tried to figure out what had gone wrong, I gradually decided that the whole idea of holding reality and justice in a single vision had been a mistake - that a pursuit of such a vision had been precisely what led Plato astray ... I decided that only religion - only a non-argumentative faith in a surrogate parent who, unlike any real parent, embodied love, power and justice in equal measure - could do the trick Plato wanted done ... So I decided to write a book about what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt to hold reality and justice in a single vision.

That book - Contingency, Irony and Solidarity - argues that there is no need to weave one's personal equivalent of Trotsky and one's personal equivalent of my wild orchids together ... The two will, for some lucky people, conincide ... But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so ... Singlemindedness ... is the quest for purity of heart - the attempt to will one thing - gone rancid. It is the attempt to see yourself as an incarnation of something larger than yourself ... rather than accepting your finitude. The latter means, among other things, accepting that what matters to you may never matter much to most people . But that is no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off [your particularities] ... There is nothing sacred about universality which makes the shared automatically better than the unshared. There is no automatic privilege of what you can get everybody to agree to (the universal) or what you cannot (the idiosyncratic).

This means that the fact that you have obligations to other people (not to bully them, to join them in overthrowing tyrants, to feed them when they are hungry) does not entail that what you share with other people is more important than anything else. What you share with them ... is not 'rationality' or 'human nature' or 'the fatherhood of God' or 'a knowledge of the Moral Law', or anything other than ability to sympathize with the pain of others ... There is no particular reason to expect that your sensitivity to that pain ... [is] going to fit within one big overall account of how everything hangs together. There is, in short, not much reason to hope for the sort of single vision that I went to college hoping to get.

Socrates and Plato suggested that if we tried hard enough we should find beliefs which everybody found intuitively plausible, and that among these would be moral beliefs whose implications, when clearly realized, would make us virtuous as well as knowledgeable ... unwobbling pivots that determine the answer to the question: Which moral or political alternative is objectively valid? For Deweyan pragmatists like me, history and anthropology are enough to show that there are no unwobbling pivots, and that seeking objectivity is just a matter of getting as much intersubjective agreement as you can manage.

[Philosophers] are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is 'rational and objective' rather than 'just' a result of how you were brought up ... There are still ... 'philosophical slop-shops' on every corner that will provide such confirmation. But there is a price. To pay the price you have to turn your back on intellectual history and on what Milan Kundera calls 'the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood ... the wisdom of the novel'. You risk losing the sense of finitude, and the tolerance, which result from realizing how very many synoptic visions there have been, and how little argument can do to help you choose among them ...

Despite my relatively early disillusionment with Platonism, I am very glad that I spent all those years reading philosophy books. For I learned something ... to distrust the intellectual snobberywhich originally led to read them.

If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls 'a full presence beyond the reach of play', for a luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision. By now, I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and such a vision is a bad idea. The main trouble is that you might succeed, and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings. The democratic community of Dewey's dreams is a community in which nobody imagines that. It is a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters. The actually existing approximations to such a ... community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species. In comparison, even Hegel's and Proust's books seem optional, orchidaceous extras."

There are lots of things in Rorty's story that resonate for me. Perhaps most generally, its a story of ... inquiry, of ongoing exploration of the world, of oneself, and of the relation between the two. And hence its a story of change, and of creation. Rorty continually challenged both himself and the worlds he found yourself in, and used that challenging to conceive both for himself and for others ways of being that might not have existed but for his explorations. Lives like Rorty's are to be celebrated, taken as a model to aspire to and to encourage for others ... and valued as the wherewithal for further exploration.

More specifically, Rorty's is a story of the discovery that there are no "unwobbling pivots", and of conceiving in their stead new ways to make sense of and deal with the human condition. Its here where the different paths Rorty and I took to a similar place seems to me worth noticing. Rorty's path was through philosophy and the conclusion that "There seemed to be nothing like a neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles could be evaluated". Having read widely and thought deeply and critically about some of the most sophisticated products of human thought, Rorty recognized that such products seem invariably to derive from foundational principles and that there have not yet existed foundational principles which cannot be challenged by further human thought.

My own path to a recognition of the absence of "unwobbling pivots" came through empirical science rather than philosophy, and so I coined the term "empirical non-foundationalism" to describe the view from what I am pretty sure is the same position (From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide to Inquiry). The point is not only that a humanist and a scientist might converge on a particular story but something deeper as well. Rorty recognized important limitations in deductive thought and the stories one tells based on them : their reliance on challengeable first principles (as had earlier the Greek skeptics, and more recently Godel and Turing and work following from theirs). My own recognition was of the limitations of inductive thought: the impossibility of deriving universals from collections of observations (as had Kant, Popper, and others). It is not only that universals require an infinite number of observations, but also that any finite set of observations is consistent with multiple conceivable universals (cf The "Problem of Unconceived Alternatives" and Its Significance and Thinking About Science: Fact versus Story Telling).

Rorty's story and my own are not only compatible but mutually reinforcing. If there are actually genuine "unwobbling pivots" to be found, it would have to be by some process other either deductive or inductive thought. Neither philosophy nor science seem capable of providing them.

One might of course turn to one or another religious (or political or humanist) tradition for "unwobbling pivots". This, though, amounts to ignoring both the philosophical problem of how to justify any chosen unwobbling pivot, as well as the empirical evidence that one doesn't seem to get to them through observations. And, perhaps more importantly, it leaves untouched the human problem of people asserting different unwobbling pivots and commiting atrocities on one another in defense of them. Far better Rorty suggests, and I agree, to accept that "there are no unwobbling pivots" and find a different way to conceive and deal with the human condition. "Maybe at this point in human history we've finished cataloguing all the possible things that one MIGHT have used as a solid starting point for continuing inquiry and we can conclude (for the moment at least?) that NONE of them are in fact a solid starting point, in the sense that none can be taken as a given not subject to further skepticism and exploration. Maybe its time to seriously entertain the possibility that looking for a single solid starting point just isn't the right way to go, that one has to find another, different way to proceed" (Writing Descartes...).

There, though, is the rub for many people. No unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points? How is one to proceed? One can feel the threatened decline into immobility, into the existential angst about which Albert Camus and other existentialists wrote, or into the similar contemporary fear of rampant individualism or "the dictatorship of relativism". But Rorty saw other more appealing paths, and I do as well. As Camus wrote of Sisyphus, his existential hero, the absence of eternal order "makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among humans ... [hence] he knows himself to be the master of his days. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go ... One must imagine Sisyphus happy".

There are additional substantial similarities, as well as some perhaps useful additional complementarities between Rorty's story and my own. We share a feeling that it makes sense to not only accept one's "finitude" but to actively enjoy "irreducible temporality". We share as well an appreciation for John Dewey and the pragmatists, and their efforts, in the early part of the 20th century, to move away from Platonic approaches both in philosophy and in human affairs generally. We also share a sense that there is no reason to privilege "the universal" over "the idiosyncratic", "no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off [your particularities]" (cf Diversity and Deviance). We share too a sense of the importance of "the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood ... the wisdom of the novel", of the potentials inherent in declining a "self-sufficient synoptic vision" whether created by others or oneself, and of the worth of "all those books" in helping one to get to new places.

Do all of those similarities follow in turn from a similar recognition of the absence of unwobbling pivots and unchallengable starting points? Or are they each distinct "orchidaceous extras" for both of us, perhaps ones that collectively contribute to a recognition of an appealing absence of unwobbling pivots and unchallengable starting points? Its an interesting question in its own right, and particularly important if one is (as Rorty and I both are) trying to get "as much intersubjective agreeement as [we] can manage". Are we, despite ourselves, offering an alternative "foundational" story, or something else? And if the latter, on how much commonality in orchidaceous extras does it depend for its appeal?

I'm not sure how Rorty would have answered these questions. Let me take a crack at them though for both of us, recognizing that my suggestions reflect my distinctive path through science and empiricism. Maybe this is another place where such a path come be helpful. I've been very much impressed by the notion that biological evolution can be thought of as an undirected process of exploration of the possible forms of living organisms, that there is apparently only a randomness driven process of trying things out from which comes the enormously rich and adaptive complexity of life that we see around us (and that includes ourselves).

Biological evolution, undertstood in these terms, may well be the archetype of a process proceeding without unwobbling pivots or unchallengeable starting points. And of pragmatism. And of "finitude" and "irreducible temporality". And of the value of the idiosyncratic. There is no way to say what works except by trying it out. What exists at any given time is what has worked. What is next tried out is influenced but not determined by the past, and it in turn influences but does not determine the future. As the process proceeds new possibilities come into existence that derive precisely from the particularities of what has existed so far. The story of biological evolution suggests not only that life can be successfully lived without unwobbling pivots or unchallengeable starting points but that such a life can be enormously productive .

A second set of observations I've encountered along my path has to do with the organization of the human brain, and what I call its "bipartite" organization. The basic idea here is that because of how the brain is organized all the things we experience (including perceptions, understandings, and aspirations) are inevitably "stories", ie one of a variety of ways to make sense of the world and ourselves that are grounded in unexamined (and hence challengeable) presumptions of which we are unaware. From this, of course, and the added feature that all brains are somewhat different, follows the notion that one cannot in principle find anything like a complete "neutral standpoint".

More importantly, perhaps, the organization of the brain is such that it itself contains, at any given time, not one set of understandings but a variety of them, some of which we are aware of and others of which we are not. And the various understandings need not be and frequently are not consistent with one another. We contain within ourselves both "idiosyncracies" and "universals". Indeed, our "universals" are constructed by one part of our brain in an effort to provide a coherent story of our idiosyncracies. Just as biological evolution uses particularities to open new possibilities, so too is our brain organized to create and update new understandings/stories/universals out of our idiosyncracies (together with the stories of others and our interactions with them and the rest of world around us). It is that process that yields "the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood ... the wisdom of the novel".

Rorty's quotation was from Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, an exploration of literature, but both Rorty and Kundera had much more in mind than the literary novel. Kundera himself, at another point in the same book, writes of "the novel's wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty)". What is being recognized and celebrated as the "imaginative realm" by both Kundera and Rorty is neither "universals" nor "idiosyncracies" but rather the play between the two from which the "novel" (as in "new, not previously existing") derives. And this capacity to generate the novel exists not only despite uncertainty but precisely because of it, in both biological evolution and the brain (Variability in Brain Function and Behavior).

What all of this in turn suggests is that whatever different orchidaceous elements brought Rorty and I to the same location, there is a single element that will suffice: an inclination to at least acknowledge, and perhaps even to enjoy, uncertainty. If there exist non-deterministic process in the world, it follows that conclusions made inductively from observations must always be held tentatively since an inconsistent future observation is always possible. Similarly, any conclusions based on reduction of observations to date to "first principles" and deduction needs also to be understood as subject to reconsideration and revision.

Perhaps, then, there is an underlying single reason for our inability to locate unwobbling pivots and unshakeable starting points either deductively or inductively? Perhaps we are living in a universe that itself consists of a "randomness driven process of trying things out", and are both a part of and a resultant of such a process. In such a universe, it would not be surprising to have evolve entities, like living organisms in general, who collect observations about things outside themselves and use them inductively to modify themselves in ways that enhance their persistance. It would further not be surprising for such entities to make use of some degree of randomness to further adapt to their surroundings, as all living organisms do to one degree or another. Finally, it would not be surprising if there subsequently came into existence living entities like ourselves, who create and share stories about their observations. Nor surprising if there were some who began to wonder if there special stories, based on unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points, from which all observations (past and future) could be derived. That would, of course, be the ultimate way of assuring persistance.

One might imagine that it would be quite a shock to such entities to be told that their imagined ultimate way of assuring persistance is simply not to be found, and that they are better off acknowledging their own "finitude". One can imagine responses like "romantic bourgeois liberal" (a phrase Rorty used for himself in acknowledgement of antipathies he provoked in others), "cultural relativist", and "weakens our intellectual resilience and leaves us even more open to rhetorical seduction" (

For other story tellers, though, the notion of living in an uncertain universe, of being part and parcel of imagining new things and trying them out without relying on unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points may seem less surprising, perhaps even so familiar as not to require special notice. It is, after all, the world we are born into and that most people live in most of the time. It is a world where people have experiences, create stories that give them some imperfect but improved ability to anticipate the future and suggest new ways of being, have further experiences, and modify their stories accordingly. What's wrong with such a world?

Lots of things, one might say. Ranging from "I don't know what I want" to "I'm not getting what I want" to "lots of people have more than other people have" to "people are doing horrible things to one another" to "we are as a species threatening the world in which we live and hence our own existence". Yes, of course, that's all true. But the question at hand is not whether there are things wrong with the world but whether asserting the existence of unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points is a useful way of approaching whatever problems one would like to fix.

I'm inclined to argue (and suspect Rorty would agree) that empirical evidence to date suggests it is not, indeed that assertions of particular unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points have proven to be at least as much of a problem creator as a problem solver. Monotheism, in its various forms, brought into existence some useful new things but also created new problems. The same holds for the enlightenment and its commitment to rationality, and for democracy, free market economics, and socialism and communism. As expected of an evolutionary process, new things create new problems ... and new opportunities. And that, of course, takes us back to Rorty's interest in "what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt to hold reality and justice in a single vision", to my more general suggestion that "one has to find another, different way to proceed", and to "finitude", "pragmatism", and the "wisdom of the novel".

My argument (and I think Rorty's too) is not only that the search for unwobbling pivots and unshakeable starting points is frustrating and creates more problems than in solves but that it is unnecessary. We already have what we actually need to get on with life (and inquiry), always have and always will. One acts, out of whatever combination of coherent/incoherent feelings/thoughts/motivations/stories one has at any given time, "observes the consequences of action, and then uses those observations as part of one's on-going inquiry into anything and everything for which they have relevance. If they raise questions about the stories of other people, so be it. If the raise questions about the appropriateness of thinking, that's fine too. And the same of course holds for the validity of the feelings one had, or the logic one was using, or the sense data one had collected. Its all open to reconsideration and renewal". Both the world one finds oneself in and ... onself. "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am" (Writing Descartes...).

Is that too simple? Too Pollyanna-ish? Does it "weaken our intellectual resiliance and leave us more open to rhetorical seduction"? Is it "abject relativism" ... "letting oneself be carried here and there by the winds of doctrine"? Does it leave one passive in the face of oppression, of ourselves and others, relying only on "the tolerance and decency of ... fellow human beings"?

I don't think that was Rorty's bottom line, and it certainly is not my own. "Empirical non-foundationalism" is not a justification for "a dictatorship of relativism" but rather an antidote for it, one that declines the temptation to challenge old foundationalisms with new ones but provides nonetheless clear and compelling directions for action, both individual and collective. Rather than weakening "our intellectual resiliance", leaving us to be "carried here and there by the winds of doctrine", it strengthens our resistance to doctrine from whatever origin, insisting that we treat all doctrines with skepticism, that we take from each what is useful at any given time but deny that any precludes the need to keep questioning and exploring. There is no "authority" but our own, the one we are continually creating and reshaping within ourselves.

And the "authority" we grant ourselves we grant equally to all others. As Albert Camus says in The Rebel: "The rebel undoubtedly demands a certain degree of freedom for himself ... The freedom he claims, he claims for all ... Therefore there is something more in history than the relation between mastery and servitude." The point of rebellion is not to replace one authority with another but rather to find "something more in history", something yet to be conceived that will open new directions in the ongoing exploration. And what this depends on is not only our similarities with other people, our current "intersubjective agreements" about yet to be challenged "universals" but, at least as importantly and perhaps more so, on our particularities, our idiosyncracies, the differences between us out of which come things beyond those any of us could have conceived alone.

The point of empirical non-foundationalism is not simply the principled rejection of foundational claims but the use of that rejection as a platform for continuing exploration, for conceiving new ways of being that solve old problems and in turn open new avenues for exploration. And the point is not to privilege the individual over the community but rather to bring about communities of individuals who respect and value one another for their differences and the contributions those make to the further development of new stories, individual and collective. Rather than simply relying on "the tolerance and decency ... of fellow human beings", we should be building communities in which we can count on a shared sense of value in each other, communities in which, as Rorty says, it is being human, "rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters."

Accepting, even enjoying, uncertainty gives us not only a way of living in and dealing with an exploratory world but a motivation for finding better ways for dealing with our fellow human beings as well. As explorers, inquirers, we each rely on and need the different but related explorations that our fellow human beings are engaged in. We need communities that "take the time to feel and reflect and think, to tell and listen to each other's stories ..." and that are committed "to finding ways to tell our collective human story in ways from which no one feels estranged" (/serendip/11sept2001/). Can such communities be created? Not easily, but the directions seem clear (Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Creation). Would they create new problems? Of course, but that is is the nature of evolution, and there are lots of existing problems they would seem to solve (Culture as Disability). Conceiving of human cultures as part of an ongoing exploration by the universe as a whole might in addition help us to appreciate our interdependences with other living organisms and our planet.

Would Rorty have endorsed my story of "empirical non-foundationalism"? I doubt it. After all, it is a story, one of many ways of making sense of things even if we shared the same observations, which we didn't. And one that has underlying pivots and foundations, both visible and, probably, as yet to be discovered. Can one really subsume all of the "orchidaceous extras" under a recognition and enjoyment of uncertainty? of finding new ways of being? Probably not.

I'd like to think though that Rorty would have appreciated the story of empirical non-foundationalism for what it is, a story that relates closely to his own, and is potentially useful to both him and others. Though the story has pivots and foundations, as any story must, they are neither unwobbling nor unshakeable. Is there still a place for people who prefer to search for unwobbling pivots and unshakeable assumptions? for certainty? Yes, indeed. Work of this kind has contributed importantly to both Rorty's story and my own, and is likely to go on contributing importantly to humanity's story. Might someone yet find a way to establish that there are in fact some set of unwobbling pivots and unshakeable assumptions that everyone will agree to? Yes, neither Rorty nor I would claim to have proven that that could not happen; that would itself constitute a claim of an unwobbling pivot/unshakeable foundation and hence be inconsistent with the thrust of both Rorty's story and my own. What both stories say only is that such foundations cannot be found along particular paths. To which I would add that empirical observations of the universe might me think it is unlikely they will be found along any other paths either. And that a world in which everything follows from a set of first principles wouldn't, in any case, be a very appealing one in which to live, for me at least. I would prefer a universe in which there is enough uncertainty to assure that the future has new things in it, and enough to allow me to conceive of rectifying existing wrongs and perhaps even contribute to doing so (even at the price of creating new problems).

Exploring, trying things out, enjoying both our idiosyncracies and our efforts to conceive "universals" will get us to the unwobbling pivots/unshakeable foundations if they exist. In which case, both my story and Rorty's will have been proven wrong. In the meanwhile, I hope both stories, and their intersections and complementarities, provide useful tools that others can employ in their own explorations and efforts to get places that no one has yet gotten to.


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Pramod P Kaimal's picture

Oneness (shared? Unshared)?

Isness the (LIVING) BIND BETWEEN (if there is a between?)THAT IS.. HOW CAN THERE BE UNSHARING?

Serendip Visitor ruggerio's picture

my exploration of my mental travels as a book

Here it is, see what you think-

Serendip Visitor's picture

uncertainty, ambiguity and the living in between

The "in between" would seem the space between the neural synaptic firing seeking a path for release, mainly a patterned path, and the possibility of an alternate path, as yet "untraveled, "unmade," for release. To what extent can we "control" or "orient" the synaptic path? To what extent can we affect the "effect," that is the story we tell, and further, the multitude of stories that we could "tell"? I think we have unexplored potential in this area. While I am no scientist, nor a philosopher, merely an interested inquirer on life's journey, it would seem that with 100 billion cells and 100 trillion synapses, there is sufficient, unused capacity to learn to intentionally author, one might go so far as to say, "control" our own story/stories for our own good, and in turn, the good of the collective. ( I use "good," though a loaded word to be sure, to describe those characteristics and behaviors that aid the collective species, namely humans.) I am interested in this creative capacity, not as a "passive" ability, but rather, as an affirmative, intentional direction, a creative, orchestrated endeavor, where process "I" meets output "I" and the linguistically constructed "dualism" between the "I's" as just described disappears. In other words, the distinction between process "I" and output, consumption "I" is no longer relevant. It is one organ functioning as a neural network interconnected throughout. I think what we will discover about the braIn over the next quarter century will revise our collective and individual narratives revolutionarily.

Much of our linguistic dualisms seem to me no longer relevant, that is to say, no longer useful. I will not go down the "sociological" path as that would truly stir up some controversy, but there is evidence, in "on-ground" work of inner city leaders, that lead me to believe that our ways of describing and labeling inner city problems would be better "tabled" in favor of a completely different narrative that shines the light on problem solving rather than the "'whys" and "wherefores' of the existing "woes." We can extrapolate this to our individual lives as well. How much of our existing linguistic constructs create unnecessary, irrelevant, and therefore non-pragmatic, stories focused on "whys' and "wherefores" of the conventional narrative notions of our view of the world, rather than to possible pragmatic solutions made available to another, as yet unauthored narrative, to our daily problems.

Much to ponder...

Interested in thoughtful inquiry with other of life's inquirers. Many thanks!

Paul Grobstein's picture

continuing the discussion re Rorty

Ashley Dawkins's picture

I have to saw that I felt

I have to saw that I felt this paper was a bit complicated to understand. After discussing it with the team and Paul, it became clearer and a lot more interesting. As I began to understand what Rorty was actually proposing, I found myself disagreeing more and more with his ideas about “unwobbling pivots”. From what I understand Rorty disagrees with the existence of “unwobbling pivots”; or something that we tend to base our lives on. Or the search for the ultimate “unwobbling pivot”; or something that everyone can base their lives around. The ideas he suggests are interesting, but at the same time they are also saddening. For example, he suggests that what matters to me may never matter to the majority of people in the world. This idea forces me to wonder, “ what the point?”. I almost think that this is not the case though; many people have similar interests and general things that they care about. Often you become friends with someone because you have something in common with them. In certain cases, there may be less people who share a certain interest, but there most likely will be someone out there that does. This is just one example of many that could pertain to this idea. My next question is, would following the ideas of Rorty be a satisfying way to live. I ask this mostly because of his idea of not having “unwobbling pivots” in our lives. Therefore, if you like something, just do it. To me, this idea paints a picture of someone wondering from one thing to the next without. Although I am still trying to figure out what exactly having an “unwobbling pivot” in your life means and how it changes your behavior, it seems as though having one in some ways may justify your behavior. Also, after finding more about Rorty, it is my impression that he set out to change philosophy because he was not happy with its state. But, I would ague that since he sought out to change something; he had an “unwobbling pivot”. What does this all mean in relation to Paul? I almost think that their lives don’t math up as much as he says. I say this because Paul’s idea of storytelling and story sharing inherently produce change and acknowledging what people have to share. This does not go along with Rorty’s most people won’t care about what matters to you idea. If this is true Paul’s storytelling idea would fair, but I’ve seen it work in my own life. My next question is, does Rorty leave room for agents of change? As I stated before, I am still trying to understand all the Rorty had to say. What I know as of now, I don’t agree with. I also am questioning whether or not Richard and Paul’s path cross. I know Paul believes that he has no “unwobbling pivots”, but I have made it my mission to show him that he does.
Paul Grobstein's picture

wobbly "unwobbling pivots"

There's a big difference between arguing against "the existence of 'unwobbling pivots'" and arguing against "the search for the ultimate 'unwobbling pivot'". Rorty did indeed set out to "change philosophy", precisely (and not too successfully) by arguing that it should stop searching for ultimate unwobbling pivots. To put it differently, he had an objective behind his work but that objective was to free both himself and others from the constraints and problems of believing there are ultimate unwobbling pivots to be found. He didn't advocate not having objectives, but did believe (as I do) that one's objectives at any given time are themselves subject to challenge and alteration (see Writing Descartes).

I also don't think its quite fair to Rorty to accuse him of defending a "if you like something, just do it" posture. Rorty was deeply committed to social justice and social change (much more than most philosophers). At the same time, he recognized what we all recognize but are perhaps less inclined to say out loud: different people have different degrees of commitment to different things, and there is no way to get them all to agree.

There is indeed something "saddening" about that as the bottom line. And it may in fact have been so for Rorty (see Thinking Cheerfully). For me though its a valuable take off point and a good deal more positive. Yes, the "idea of story telling and story sharing inherently produces change and acknowledges [even celebrates] what people have to share", which is, of course, precisely their differences (see Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective). What's appealing to me about this (and I like to think Rorty would have agreed) is that it frees people to be different from one another AND provides them with a rationale for both being so and for continual exploration/revision, both individually and collectively.

Is that MY "unwobbling pivot", one that I think everyone should ultimately share? No and no. Its the best story I know at the moment and am pleased when others find it useful in their own lives, but it is (for me at least) inevitably wobbly. I'm expecting you (and others) to come up with better ones.

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Tillich's "Ultimate Concern" & Rorty's "Unwobbling Pivot"

Paul Tillich said in Dynamics of Faith that we all have ultimate concerns (similar in some ways to Rorty's unwobbling pivots) but that we can never actually know what they are. We can't name them and we can't really describe them (though perhaps that's the objective of the arts!) but they shape our behavior nonetheless. The state of what he terms "faith" therefore is the state of being "ultimately concerned" and each ultimate concern can be thought of as each person's interpretation of god.

It's possible to search for unwobbling pivots fully conscious that you'll never arrive at any one preconceived destination, but rather that you're continually creating the path you take to get to this illusive destination. The path is the big deal, not the place, or, as Gertrude Stein would phrase it, "when you get there, there isn't any there there."
Mawrtyr2008's picture

Natural Philosophers

I enjoy reading articles like this that relate the scientific world to the philosophical world. They remind me of something I learned in eleventh grade Physics, that the earlier term for "scientist" was "natural philosopher". I've always found philosophy and science to be very closely linked. To the point, perhaps, that science attemtps to describe the same ideas of philosophy using different mechanisms and approaches. Both fields share an essential skepticism and experimental nature. I like being reminded of this as it reinforces the need for interdisciplinary work.

Through my research this summer, I have found that the terms modernism and postmodernism are a useful way of describing trends in the fields of science, education, and mental healthcare. Thought these terms are often limited to literature studies, they have many applications elsewhere. This paper, to me, reinforces some of the central ideas of modernism and postmodernism.

Rorty touched on an important distinction, and I would argue, reason why the fields of education and mental healthcare aren't working as well as they could, in the line "Singlemindedness... is the quest for purity of heart - the attempt to will one thing - gone rancid. It is the attempt to see yourself as an incarnation of something larger than yourself ... rather than accepting our finitude". To me, this quote highlights the dangers of trying to view all the workings of the universe through a single lens (be it the lens of "truth" "justice" "happiness") as modernism would have it. I personally find Rorty's approach, one of recognizing he decentralized nature of knowledge and appreaciating that lack of a common center, to be very appealing.

I remain uncomfortable with two side issues that come of this shift in emphasis from the central universal to the decentralized diverse. First of all, I wonder if the notions of Rorty's "singlemindedness" and diversity are actually fundamentally incompatible. It isn't that viewing the universe through one lens, one unwobbling pivots, makes appreciation for differences difficult, in fact, it's that it makes appreciation of diversity impossible. Secondly, I think it's upsetting that instead of holding everything in one vision, it isn't enough yet just to learn and explore.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Rorty and modernism

Interesting connection, two of them in fact. "Modernism" = "seeing the world through a single lens" and "singlemindedness" as a problem in both education and mental health, ie "modernism as a problem in both education and mental health? That's worth developing further.

Rorty would, I think, agree that singlemindedness and appreciation for diversity are in fact incompatible. Why does that make you "uncomfortable"? And why is it "upsetting" that "it isn't enough yet just to learn and explore"? Isn't enough for whom? Rorty would, I think, argue that it is enough for him, and might be enough for everyone if they let themselves do it.

biophile's picture

Thoughts before the discussion...

Why do people need unshakeable first principles? Why do we look for a grand unified theory or a paradigm that encapsulates all that there is? It’s a very peculiar drive to have. After all, how can an artificial construct made by the human mind cover all that there is in existence? Even if we knew everything there is to know (which I think is impossible to do) how could it all be organized and fit under one little umbrella? The world we see is a mass of contradictions and exceptions seem more common than the rule. It’s a very important point that is being made here: not everything we do has to fit within the larger scheme of things and not everything has some underlying property that relates to a universal.

What I find especially intriguing here is the parallel to biological evolution. Variation is essential to the evolutionary process, implying that peculiarities are more important to the emergence of life than some form that we consider to be universal or lasting. Although many developmental mutations are detrimental to the functionality of an organism, it appears that such mutations helped to bring about the forms we now see. Although some Platonists may argue that the Form of treeness is what makes a tree a tree and that Forms such as treeness are what constitute reality, it is not self-evident that the forms we see around us rely on some fixed and eternal concept. What is more clearly seen is that the world around us is constantly in flux with little fixity over time. Perhaps what we perceive to be unchanging is not really so, but rather we search for patterns of being and, upon seeing some similarities between objects or events, say that we know the essence of that thing. It seems true enough that some things endure- people are usually born with functioning organs, trees grow root first, the Sun appears to rise near the East according to our vantage point and so on. Does that mean that there are eternal forms or truths that make these things possible? Things do not have to proceed in the way that we predict they will, even if they’ve been playing out that way for time untold. As was stated explicitly in the article inductive reasoning cannot be trusted since another set of observations may come along that topple the conclusion we reached based on old data. Exploration and an open mind are key, I agree.

Another thing I appreciated was the admission that this point of view- that there are no unwobbling pivots as far as we can tell- is not itself an unwobbling pivot. Although we should not assume that there are such foundations, it would be hypocritical to declare them absolutely nonexistent. The bottom line of Rorty’s argument seems to be that we cannot assume that they do exist and that we need to base our decisions and our goals on something more ephemeral, i.e. our time period or our happiness. I do wonder what the philosophical community would do, though, if unwobbling pivots could no longer be used in their arguments.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Rorty, before and after

I'm glad you like the evolution parallel, and think you've developed it nicely. In fact, as the story goes, its not only that things might be different in the future but that they were in fact different in the past. There was a time when the sun didn't rise in the East, and when there weren't any trees, functioning organs, or other "enduring" things. So the point of Rorty's argument, that we need to base our activities on something "more ephemeral", is reachable both philosophically and empirically. Maybe that would make the philosophers happier?
Ian Morton's picture

Empathy: Necessary But Not Sufficient

In considering a non-foundational approach to life, within oneself there will undoubtedly arise a sense of discomfort (existential angst). It is apparent that we as humans are attached to having a sense being grounded in a world wherein there exists some form of certainty, Truth or Meaning, and to have the foundations we can rely on in an already complex and uncertain world cast into the shadow of existential uncertainty, is sure to agitate some gut wrenching reaction. I wonder, how much of our attachment to “unwobbling pivots” comes from predispositions arising from the nature of the mind (connecting to Paul Bloom’s concept of ‘primitive psychology’?”) and how much is a result of social conditioning/learning? While this is not a question I pose to answer, it is one worth considering, for if we hope to move past our attachment to unshakable foundations, as Paul suggests we do, it would behoove us to first understand the nature and origins of this attachment. However, for now I only wish to discuss the notion of non-foundationalism.

Is it beneficial for us to even consider non-foundationlism? Our gut reaction is to resist it, so is that reason enough to dismiss it? Perhaps our gut reaction itself indicates that we should further investigate this subject. Just as science progresses from “being wrong,” from making observations that defy the previous “rules” thus promoting new thoughts and new ways to summarize our surroundings, so too could our view of the human condition progress from questioning the rules we now have, from edging our comfort zones. I believe Rorty was of such a mindset, striving to direct us away from the false sense of security we derive from rationality and certainty, to revolutionize the way we (philosophers in particular) think. Similarly, Paul is suggesting that we may benefit from sacrificing our attachment to certainty, to recognize the dynamic character of reality and therefore the transitory nature of any story one creates to explain it. When we can accept the discomfort of uncertainty we see that the pursuit of Truth and “unshakable foundations” has thus far been in vain, and that we should rather understand inquiry as the pursuit of “less wrong” summaries of observed reality subject to temporality and subjectivity.

So where do we go with this notion of non-foundationalism as to addressing social justice? As Rorty writes, “What you share with them … is not ‘rationality’ or ‘human nature’ or ‘the fatherhood of God’ or ‘a knowledge of the Moral Law’, or anything other than ability to sympathize with the pain of others … There is no particular reason to expect that your sensitivity to that pain … [is] going to fit within one big overall account of how everything hangs together,” (Rorty, 1992). In other words, just as there are no foundational laws, there too exists no universal code of ethics, no categorical imperatives, no collective sense of ethical responsibility. This poses interesting problems when trying to promote the movement towards an “ethical” and “moral” society. How can we shape an ethical society when we have no foundation of ethics from which to build? Can there be an ethical society in which there exists no universal code of ethics?

In his essay, Trotsky and the Wild Orchids, Rorty contends that we should spend our life pursuing our “orchids,” or that which interests and pleases us, and that we can rely on empathy and a shared sense of humanity to protect us from falling into a world of anarchy and chaos, wholly lacking in “ethical” behavior. Rorty’s view is idealistic with an echo of an Aristotelian sense of happiness (the “good”) and an existentialist call for freedom and self-determination. While Rorty’s picture of an ideal society is nice, I do not believe it to be feasible. My main concern is Rorty’s reliance on empathy. I do not intend to deny the power of empathy, but want to stress the reliance of empathy on the interpersonal, on seeing the Other. Quite simple, one does not feel empathy for another if one is not confronted with the suffering of another. While the neurological basis of empathy has not been defined, it seems clear to me that it depends on first perceiving an Other. Following from this initial perception, one must then recognize the Other to be suffering, which must then trigger an internal series of firing patterns that give rise to a sense of shared suffering. (Some research suggests mirror neurons may play a key role in this.) The main point is that in order to feel empathy for another, it typically requires that we be in proximity to one who is suffering, through being either physically there or through the medium of images or perhaps aural cues (a scream or moan).

Here one may reasonably ask why this stipulation for the felt sense of empathy can prove problematic to Rorty’s image of an ideal society. While empathy may rely on proximity to an Other, there are plenty of people in this world, thus plenty of people in proximity to one another, so as to efficiently attend to the suffering of every other person. This is true, however this assumes everyone is equally capable of helping one another. This is not the case, as a healthy, privileged, American has more of the necessary resources needed to help a starving, sick child in Africa than a poor man in Africa would. When one considers the fact that it is the poor man in Africa who will see the starving child, who will feel empathy for that child, not the American who is blissfully ignorant of that child’s suffering, it is clear to see that a system relying on empathy alone has the potential to fall far short of its intended purpose. Essentially, I am arguing that Rorty’s system would be limited to very localized ethical behavior, as this system combined with the nature of how empathy is born fails to facilitate global ethics.

Additionally, one must not overlook the notion of resistance. That is, while we may know of the suffering of others, it is easy for us to turn a blind eye to that suffering. In fact, we prefer to do so. I doubt that any of us like to take an hour or two out of our day to think about the injustice of the world, to see the suffering that is occurring around us. Why we have this resistance to recognizing/seeing the suffering of others, a prerequisite for feeling any empathy towards those others, is complex and multidimensional. Simply, it just isn’t pleasant to see the homeless woman strung out on crack or a child emaciated to the point of incapacitation. However, this gets more complicated when we consider all the reasons why it is unpleasant to see such things. Perhaps seeing the homeless woman is unpleasant because it makes us feel guilty (guilty because we aren’t doing the most we can to help her, guilty because we require the suppression of others to have the privilege we do, or maybe we feel guilty because we pity them). Perhaps seeing the starving child is unpleasant because it forces us to face the injustice of the world, to recognize the cruelty of men. We may also resist seeing the suffering of others because we don’t want to feel empathy, we don’t want to feel a demand from the other to ease his/her suffering. I cannot hope to explain why we resist seeing the suffering of others, but I do hope I have made it clear that we do have such a resistance, and that the source of that resistance is complex and therefore not something to which we can draft a quick and simple solution.

Rorty may retort by arguing that through abandoning our attachment to unshakable foundations we may be more fit to attend to our empathy. For instance, perhaps we resist seeing the suffering of another because it reflects the injustice of life, thereby calling into question the existence of meaning in life and even the existence of God (If God is all-Good, why is there suffering in the world?). Out of attachment to our unwobbling pivots we resist seeing anything that confronts our sense of certainty and Purpose. (This is not asserted as fact, but is a possibility.) Consequently when we are able to give up our need to preserve our sense of security/certainty we will be more open to facing the injustices in the world. I cannot refute this possibility, but I still do not believe that empathy alone would be enough to promote a “just” or “ethical” society.

More thoughts to come.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Rorty, empathy, and "ethical" societies

Looking forward to "thoughts to come," but already intrigued by what's here. My guess is that Rorty would not argue that "empathy" is a "quick and simple solution" to the problem of human indifference/cruelty to other humans. And I certainly wouldn't. At the same time, he (and I ) might well argue that "when we are able to give up our need to preserve our sense of security/uncertainty, we will be more open to facing the injustices in the world" and perhaps other useful things as well.

Rorty's point is not so much that "empathy" is a guarantee of a "just" or "ethical" society, but rather that the place to start in thinking about human collective well-being "is not with looking for something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings," not with "a knowledge of something not merely human" but rather with "mere" humanness itself. The position is not really so extreme. Its quite similar to John F. Kennedy's "the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings", an assertion that we should look to ourselves rather than to some external authority to find ways to solve our problems (see On Being a Lonely Atheist).

Along these lines, a couple of other points you touch on seem relevant. The first is that Rorty would probably argue (and I certainly would) that there isn't any such thing as "just" or "ethical" in the abstract, ie no place to get to but only the ongoing process of seeing where one is and what one would like to change (Oliver Wendell Holmes made this argument as a Supreme Court Justice; see The Metaphysical Club). Maybe there would be less resistance to change if we looked for local consensus on small projects rather than trying to get wide-spread agreement on where we want to get to for eternity? Perhaps "an ethical society in which there exists no universal code of ethics?"

Along these lines, maybe we're putting too much emphasis on the importance of identifying with the suffering of others? After all, social interactions are not based solely on shared experiences of pain or unhappiness but also on shared experiences of enjoyment and creativity. Perhaps we would all find it easier to contribute to improving the lot of people who are suffering if we thought first not about sharing/relieving someone else's pain but rather about what new places we and they could reach by closer interactions? This in turn might spread "localized" activity into more global forms.

Finally, your writing verges on the argument that certain things can't be done because of "human nature". But, "I am, and I think, and therefore I can change who I am," which in turn says that what we think about what we are at any given time isn't the end but rather the starting point of a discussion of what might yet be, both individually and culturally?

Anne Dalke's picture

unwobbling pivots

I've enjoyed and learned from the records of both Rorty's and Grobstein's travels--but find myself surprised and puzzled by this most recent Serendipish conversation with a dead friend. Why desire, on the one hand, to "get as much intersubjective agreement as we can manage," if on the other hand, "nothing makes the shared automatically better than the unshared"? If shared experience or understanding is not more valuable than unshared, why is it encouraging to find stories that are "not only compatible but mutually reinforcing"? How do "different people getting to a place in different ways" provide "reassurance that there is some kind of meaningful there there"--if (as it seems) there is no there there anywhere?
Paul Grobstein's picture

must something be MORE valuable?

Rorty says

"there is no need to weave one's personal equivalent of Trotsky and one's personal equivalent of my wild orchids together ... The two will, for some lucky people, coincide ... But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so ... Singlemindedness ... is the quest for purity of heart - the attempt to will one thing - gone rancid. It is the attempt to see yourself as an incarnation of something larger than yourself ... rather than accepting your finitude. The latter means, among other things, accepting that what matters to you may never matter much to most people ."

Yep, "nothing makes the shared automatically BETTER than the unshared" but that doesn't preclude one valuing both. Nor does it preclude oneself having a taste (shared or not) for getting "as much intersubjective agreement as we can manage". Nor for seeing "different people getting to a place in different ways" as evidence of a "some kind of meaningful there there", ie of a there about which there is some intersubjective agreement. Yes, there can be other kinds of "meaningful there"s but that's among the good ones. In my particular multi-minded "finitude" (and probably Rorty's as well), offered for whatever use it might be to others.

Anne Dalke's picture


Ron C. de Weijze's picture

No foundation for pragmatistm?

I think that living in the age of binary decisions closely relates and indeed enhances, pragmatism or empirical non-foundationalism. After the episode that nothing went anymore, anything goes again, which illustrates our revolutionary epoch of the internet, multiculturalism and the redistribution of happiness and sadness in-the-making. Life is becoming a graphic fractal of nature, an orchid indeed, where stories are pulled into stories ad infinitum. Bergson called this the 'fabulating fuction', the ability of human kind to transform his own history and wisdom into stories, such as the Bible. The White Heat of the Big Bang is cooling down and in the process, of evolution, matter is created and clutting together to form life. All life-forms are but 'footprints in the sand' and can readily change. All experience is, let there be one universal, differentiation, immediacy, actuality, continuousness, change, equity, newness and simplicity (ref the binary - rcdw). We need to learn to see all the 'qualia' of this experience, as Rorty coined them. I admired his Philosophy and the Mirror Image of Nature a lot and was struck by his apparent questioning of the foundations of all those theories of all those who inspired my teachers to make me believe what they taught me: their correctness and of their followers/favorite pupils. A blessing in disguise it must have been, to never find myself one of those. My distrust of society in general and teachers in particular had lead me to choose social psychology, to study that basic unrighteousness of society. I guess I am at the age now that Rorty was when he had found enough answers to write his Mirror Image, so the reflection must now be even stronger. Indeed we need to wipe it clean from time to time, as he writes, to remember some of that wisdom of his, shaky or not, coming from ALL those studied stories, nonetheless empirical and foundational, at least for pragmatists.

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