Down with authority!

An unprecedented series of lectures sets out pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty's views on religion, truth and ethics, centering on the lack of accountability of humans to any non-human authority (such as God, Reality or universal obligations).

The work of Richard Rorty (1931-2007) strives to restore the nobility of a philosophical movement emerging in the United States at the beginning of the XIXe century and who ended up being absorbed by analytical philosophy: pragmatism. at a time when philosophy was being torn apart by rivalry between analytical philosophy and continental philosophy, this renewal was thought of by Rorty as a third way. In 1996, Rorty gave a series of ten lectures at the University of Grone entitled “Anti-authoritarianism in epistemology and ethics”. Although several of them were taken up sparsely in various collections of articles, the whole was only published in full in its original form in Catalan and Spanish in 1998 and 2000. The present publication thus offers for the first time the possibility of appreciating this article in English. cycle that Eduardo Mendieta describes, in his afterword, “the most synthetic and detailed explanation” (p. 194) of Rorty’s philosophy. Taken separately, these lectures can be considered as a thematic panorama successively exposing Rorty's point of view on religion, truth and ethics. Put here in their place, these different themes become clearer as different moments of the same reflection centered on the notion of anti-authoritarianism, that is to say on the refusal to recognize that humans can have responsibilities towards something non-human (like God, Reality or universal obligations).

A religion without sin

For Rorty, pragmatism is first and foremost a philosophy which appropriates and generalizes the approach that the philosophers of the Enlightenment had developed to criticize religion. In the traditional conception of religion, an action can only be recognized as moral if it respects the will of God. In this case, it is because we seek to respect God that we come to recognize certain specific dietary practices as forbidden even though they seem to harm no one (p. 2). The Enlightenment philosophers answer that we do not need God to have moral rules. We can, for example, recognize that killing one's neighbor must be prohibited without having to appeal to any canonical prescription to justify this proposition. We just need to agree that murder should be considered a prohibited act. The contribution of Enlightenment philosophy is thus to have shown that in matters of morality consensus can replace divine law. What pragmatists take away from this proposition is that there is something liberating in this passage. For Rorty, the problem with traditional religious beliefs is that they are “discouraging” (p. 3): they lead us to consider that, because moral rules do not depend on us, we do not have to consider whether we can improve them in a way that human life happier and richer. Shifting from an anti-authoritarian conception of morality then gives oneself the right (and the duty) to change tradition to improve society.

However, it would be hasty to consider that this criticism of religion goes hand in hand with the defense of a radical atheism definitively disqualifying any possibility of deriving something good from reading sacred texts. In fact, the only thing that the anti-authoritarian approach requires is that we not treat these texts as a source of unalterable moral rules. Starting from Dewey, Rorty outlines the possibility of a detheologized religion which renounces the idea of ​​sin (i.e. the duty to humiliate before God) to concentrate on the idea of ​​love (i.e. the duty to cooperate with others for the general interest) . What we can then still expect from religion is that it promotes in us the aspiration for a common life, marked by trust and solidarity.

A pistmology without Realit

Rorty, 2005

extended to the domain of epistemology, this approach leads to a critique of the classic definition of truth as correspondence between a proposition and “Reality”. writing “Reality” with a capital “R”, Rorty suggests an analogy: Reality is epistemology what God is religion, an unconditional and non-human authority that we must respect. The classic definition of truth invites us to distinguish what pertains to truth of what concerns the justification. To tell the truth about the rain or about bears is to speak about it in a completely different way from what we say about it to justify what we do to shelter ourselves or to avoid bears (p. 2). To tell the truth is to tell what things are in themselves, in Reality, independently of how we respond to them in practice. The pragmatist extension of the anti-authoritarian approach to epistemology leads us to say that we do not need Reality to speak of truth. This statement may come as a surprise. However, we have no difficulty recognizing that the proposition “2 + 2 = 4” is true without having considered that it is its adequacy to a supposed mathematical reality which justifies it. To do this, we just need to recognize that this proposition does not contradict the other mathematical propositions that we accept. Rather than correspondence it is, once again, a form of consensus which leads us to accept a proposition as true, a consensus not based on anything other than the search for a generalized coherence between the propositions which we use. The pragmatist approach (which Rorty also attributes to Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jgen Habermas or Bruno Latour) consists of extending this coherentist definition of truth to all the propositions we make use of, including those relating to the field of natural sciences.

For Rorty, claiming that a proposition is true is adopting the posture of a lawyer who asserts the coherence of his thesis in relation to the body of evidence at his disposal. What we recognize as true is never true unconditionally, but always in relation to the elements we take into account. At any time, new evidence may be added to the file and force us to revise our judgments. This way of seeing things does not necessarily imply that we have to abandon the ambition to develop universally valid propositions, although such an ambition is not necessary for a community to be able to treat the propositions it uses as true (for this, the relative coherence of the propositions it accepts is sufficient). ). For Rorty, the search for universality is the distinctive feature of certain societies admitting that these members act by curiosity, that is to say by having the desire to expand and enrich their repertoire of propositions as much as possible by continually integrating new data (p. 71). For pragmatists, universality is never something that we hold absolutely, it is a guiding idea allowing us to justify the approach of wanting to transform tradition in a way that makes our judgments ever more inclusive.

Ethics without universal obligation

extended to the domain of ethics, the anti-authoritarian approach leads to a critique of the Kantian conception of morality as a set of unconditional rational rules. If, in epistemology, the traditional conception of truth led us to oppose truth and justification, in ethics, the Kantian conception of morality leads us to oppose morality (as a set of unconditional rules of conduct) and prudence (that is– that is, the attitudes that we adopt to adjust our behavior to certain specific configurations of our environment). For Rorty, the problem with universal morality is that it maintains the myth of a non-relational self that only seeks within itself unconditional rules of conduct for a “cold, self-interested, calculating psychopathic self” (p. 131) that does not need to worry about others to know what to do. If, in epistemology, Rorty proposed to reduce truth to justification, he proposes, in ethics, to reduce morality to prudence: our duty consists of granting our actions in such a way that they do not come into contradiction with the actions of those we recognize as our fellow human beings.

No more than in epistemology, this coherentist conception of duty does not prevent us from engaging in the quest for universal duties by striving to be ever more inclusive in the way in which we define the field of those we recognize as our fellow human beings. This search for ethical inclusiveness takes us into the realm of the question of education. For Rorty, the function of education is to socialize young generations in such a way as to prevent them from developing a “psychopath ego” and to make them show themselves capable of recognizing as fellow human beings the widest possible part of humanity. For Rorty, the development of this inclusive recognition is not something that could be achieved through argument: it is not with arguments that we can make anti-Semites, racists or homophobes more inclusive. Here, reason is not enough. To become more inclusive, we must be put in a situation where we recognize, we could even say feel, that this or that category of person is similar to us. The pedagogical device that Rorty favors to put students in such situations consists of having them read stories written in the first person as The Diary of Anne Frank, Black Boy Or The mystery of the lake stories allowing them to witness what Jews, blacks or homosexuals experience and to sympathize with them (p. 79).

Supporting his argument with historical considerations, Rorty suggests that pragmatism relies on the humanist dimension of Enlightenment philosophy to justify a Hegelian conception of philosophy as a liberating reflective practice. With the first pragmatist philosophers with James, Pierce and especially Dewey, this humanist emancipation project took the form of a philosophy entirely dedicated to the realization of a democratic policy. The present work offers us a luminous example of the form that this type of philosophy can take today: a philosophy which invites us to renounce the ideas of sin, of Reality and of universal obligation to draw our attention to those of trust, solidarity and inclusiveness.