Thursday, February 23, 2006

Richard Rorty vs. Mair

Check out the sociological imagination for a thoughtful, eloquent take on the problems of Christian scholarship. Then check out this post, where I take up one aspect of mair's frustration.

The philosopher Richard Rorty (difficult / easy) addresses part of this issue in an essay/book review of Stephen Carter's excellent "The Culture of Disbelief." I'll take Rorty to be Mair's interlocutor--he represents, in her words, a "champion of tolerance [and] cultural relativity," someone who might be opposed to the inability to separate religion from politics (or in her case, sociology.) We''ll start things off by summarizing Carter's book in one sentence. Sweet.

Carter attacks what he views as the intelligentsia's trivialization of religion--their insistence that religion not be mixed with politics and that it play no role in shaping public policy. Rorty begins his essay by playing the "Jeffersonian compromise" card--he says that people of faith did (and have to) trade the privatization of religious faith for religious freedom, and that this is a good deal for everyone.

BUT, he then concedes a crucial point to Carter: that it's disingenuous for academics/liberals/whoever to insist that people of faith not base their politics on religion, and then to go and base theirs on enlightenment principles/utilitarianism/liberalism/whatever. Good pragmatist that he is, Rorty says that it's impossible to separate your politics from your personal beliefs from your religious beliefs from your morals from the policies you favor, as if these were all distinct entities that one could pick and choose. His modern update to the Jeffersonian compromise: when we're in the public square, we "drop the sources of the premises of our arguments;" IE, it' s okay to argue that abortion is wrong and should be restricted as long as you don't say "Because it's God's will."

Now, whether this (A) works in practice or (B) will satisfy Carter is up for debate. What's interesting about Rorty's take on the whole issue is his admitting that there's no separating "religion" from politics--I think this represents a paradigm shift from previous intellectuals' insistence on or predictions about the destruction of religion.

Mair wrote: "My statements will be necessarily grounded in what I see as a right and true order for society. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and I just want to know why other sociologists do." To pick up Rorty's argument: I think these other sociologists are wrong, and not only that, but they're being incoherent by pretending they occupy some perfectly neutral super-position from which they can see every other position. You can hold their feet to the fire without bringing religion into the picture. We never need to play our hands as Christians in such discussions: the deep incoherence of their position can be attacked by the arguments of members of their own ranks (like Rorty.)

In the meantime, we need to figure out exactly how religion should be brought into the picture. That's a post for another day.


At 5:42 PM, Blogger Mair said...

Great post. I found it to be very helpful. Actually, I read Carter's book in college, for Dr. Campbell's Sociology of Law class. I remember thinking it was a really good book, but that's all I remember. I think Rorty is right here. It is incoherant to disallow another to have a foundation to their assertions, while grounding yours in others that are just as strong, and at time, irrational. So, thanks for taking this issue up. I'm thinking about a new post that will be a follow-up to my first.

At 8:38 PM, Blogger Mair said...

Upon further reflection, I think maybe what Rorty is arguing (and I haven't read this essay) is another version of Mannheim's paradox which essentially says you can never really study ideologies without being enmeshed in an ideology yourself. Or, more lucidly stated, what we think is a product of our life situtation and "life situation" here can be taken to mean anything from post-industrial capitalist society, bourgeoise society, or in the case at hand Christianity.

Is this the right understanding of Rorty's case?

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

Someday, if I get married, I think I want you to impregnate my wife. That way, my kid will be really smart, but I'll still be around to teach him not to throw a football like a fairy.

At 9:01 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Mair: yeah, sort of. Rorty would say that being human means having a particular perspective, but that it also means that we can try to come up with the best perspective. If you asked him "Well, Mr. Slippery Pragmatist, is objectivity possible?" he'd say something like "why do we have to keep talking about objectivity? Why isn't intersubjectivity good enough? Why do we have to get things 'right'? Why can't we just come up with an acceptable solution?" And you'd say something like "The Nazis had an 'acceptable solution," and he'd roll his eyes, and it would keep going.

So, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being Marvin Olasky and 10 being that perfect relativist that doesn't actually exist who is nevertheless demonized by conservatives everywhere, Rorty's a...6, maybe a 7.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

jackscolon: you ask for hard-hitting posts, and that's your comment? You're a relativist who doesn't believe in objective truth, aren't you!

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

This post hit so hard that it rocked my face clean off, so that was all that I could come up with. I totally agree with you, regardless of the fact that Rorty isn't one of the six philosophers we've covered in Intro to Philosophy yet, and even though I'm not sure what "intersubjectivity" means.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

He's right about your football throwing though. I was trying hard not to laugh. I'm not great myself, but you make me look like Dan Marino.


What jacks hasn't seen is your amazing basketball skills. He's pretty good too, but I think I'd put my money on your lanky arms, chuck.

My verification word is oodfr, which is the sound you made throwing that football.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Intersubjectivity (hereafter I.S.) is not as complicated as it sounds--essentially it just means agreement by all parties involved. Some philosophers, like Rorty, who think that a pure, old-school objectivity is impossible, substitute I.S. as their criterion for success. Rejoinders to this argument are easy (and they usually involve Nazis) but Rorty's own theory of I.S., for example, is nuanced, thorough, and not easily refutable.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

That was a good day.

At 11:34 PM, Anonymous John said...

I quite like this essay titled THERE IS NO FACE WITHIN THE SKY




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