4 thoughts on “Teaching 1

  1. Rorty’s views on progress are tricky to pin down, in my experience. I used to think the only goal he embraced was to reduce cruelty.

    But I can’t think of where he has emphasized the priority of increasing the “distance away from negative goals”. I’d love to see his views on this. Do you have an essay of his you could point me to?

    My reading of Rorty has taught me that progress can be assessed in terms of the “positive goal” of increasing our ability to generate novelty. While Rorty warns us that we must “balance the need for [solidarity] and the need for novelty” (‘Consequences of Pragmatism’), he does appear to privilege the latter as ‘the point of human existence’:

    ‘Talk of the point of human existence will always be an expression of admiration for the talker’s own gifts, or for his own heroes. My own talk on this topic is an expression of admiration for Romanticism, and in particular for the form this movement takes in the best book written by one of my earliest heroes – Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Brandom is equally in awe of that book, and so the two of us agree that the point of human life is

    “to make and understand an indefinite number of novel claims, frame an indefinite number of novel purposes, and so on, subjecting oneself to constraint by the norms implicit in a vocabulary [which] at the same time confers unparalleled positive freedom – that is, freedom to do things one could not only not do before, but could not even want to do.”‘

    ‘Rorty’s Response’ to ‘Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism’ in ‘Rorty and His Critics’

    In his ‘Intellectual Autobiography’ he describes such progress in generating an ever-increasing amount of novelty in terms of the metaphor of a Kaleidoscope:

    ‘A consistently historicist view would envisage intellectual and moral progress not as getting closer to something non-human but as the process by which the kaleidoscope keeps getting bigger and more colorful. To hope that such progress will continue is to hope that the human imagination will keep inserting new bits of glass, colored in previously undreamt-of hues.’

    I find this a beautiful and moving way to describe progress.

    1. Hi, Nick. Thanks for your comment. The idea (though not the exact language “negative goal”) came from page 28 of Rorty’s eerily prescient 1997 book Achieving Our Country. “The culminating achievement of Deweys’ philosophy was to treat evaluative terms such as ‘true’ and ‘right’ not as signifying a relation to some antecedently existing thing — such as God ‘s Will, or Moral Law, or the Intrinsic Nature of Objective Reality — but as expressions of satisfaction at having found a solution to a problem: a problem which may some­day seem obsolete, and a satisfaction which may someday seem misplaced. The effect of this treatment is to change our account of progress. Instead of seeing progress as a matter of getting closer to something specifiable in advance, we see it as a matter of solving more problems. Progress is, as Thomas Kuhn suggested, measured by the extent to which we have made ourselves better than we were in the past rather than by our increased proximity to a goal.” I’m calling a problem to be overcome a negative goal — we are moving away from a confusion or a stare of affairs we want to change, not toward something specific. If you work in the field of design, this is an incredibly handy concept: “No, I cannot tell you what the solution will be before we do our research, synthesis, ideation and iterative testing, but I can promise you that the solution we end up with at the end of this process will be better for your business, your employees and your customers than what you have now.”

    2. I agree that the view of progress you have presented here is beautiful, and it is consistent with the passage I quoted from Achieving Our Country. It is also consistent with the book I am reading currently — Isabelle Stengers Thinking With Whitehead — down to the section I read this morning “[Deleuze writes] ‘We are all contemplations, and there­fore habits. I is a habit. There is concept wherever there is habit, and habits are made and unmade on the level of immanence and radical ex­perience: they are “conventions”. This is why British philosophy is a free and savage creation of concepts. Given a proposition, to what conven­tion does it refer, what is the habit that constitutes its concept? This is the question of pragmatism’. … ‘A free and savage creation of concepts,’ perhaps: but one can only ‘think with Whitehead’ if one is willing to separate the adjective ‘free’ from the noun ‘freedom,’ in the sense of absence of constraints, and the adjective ‘savage’ from the noun ‘savagery,’ in the sense of an appetite for destruction. Free and savage creation, therefore, but not, especially not, fe­rocious, not defining that with which it deals as a prey to be attacked . The point is not to declare war on the conventions that bind us, the habits that enable us to be characterized . Instead, it is merely to place on the same level­ that is, in adventure-all of our judgments, or our ‘as is well knowns,’ and thus to separate them actively from what gi ves them the power to ex­clude and to disqualify.”

      1. But now you’ve got me worried about saying “negative goal.”

        Yes, we do move away from “here” the current state of affairs, but the point is not to move away from here to anywhere (as “negative goal” implies). The point is to move toward an indefinite “there” which is better than where we started, whatever that turns out to be.

        Relative goal is probably closer to Rorty’s meaning. Movement toward any number of possible betters, versus flight from a worse.

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