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Contingency, Irony, and Trust: An Introduction to Rorty and Brandom

Lecturer: Gilles Bouche

Originally Taught: Evening School Semester 1 2012

The course provides an introduction both to the work of Richard Rorty and to the work of his most prominent student, Robert Brandom. The course reconstructs Rorty’s conception of philosophy, his criticism of analytic philosophy and promotion of a neopragmatist combination of private ironic and public liberal philosophy, then reconstructs Brandom’s neohegelian rationalism as a reaction to this conception. The hope is that understanding the dialectics between Rorty and Brandom will contribute to a better understanding of the relations between very different ways, possibly continental and analytic ways, of doing philosophy and thereby to a better understanding of what it is that one is doing when one is doing philosophy.

The course begins with a reconstruction of Rorty’s criticism of analytic philosophy. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty identifies a tradition reaching from Plato to analytic philosophy which understands philosophy as epistemology, as a body of knowledge on knowledge which adjudicates the claims to knowledge of other bodies of knowledge, and which understands knowledge as objective knowledge opposed to mere subjective pseudo-knowledge, objective knowledge as representation of the objective world, and representation on the model of perception.

Rorty criticizes the conception of philosophy as epistemology by rejecting the platonist conception common to Descartes, Locke, and Kant of us as subjects representing the objective world, as minds mirroring nature, for the pragmatist conception common to Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein of us as subjects coping with an environment. Whereas the platonist conception privileges natural science over art as generating the most fundamental representation of the objective world, the pragmatist conception understands natural science and art as two very different ways of coping with an environment, each useful for some purposes and less useful for others. Making much of Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts, Rorty tries to undermine the platonist contention that the difference between natural science and art (or art criticism) is a difference between objective knowledge and mere subjective pseudo-knowledge by making plausible that the knowledge generated by the former is less objective, and the knowledge generated by the latter less subjective, than the platonist conception suggests.

Rorty rejects the conception of philosophy as epistemology for the conception of philosophy as conversation and understands the problem of subjectivity as the problem of how to continue the conversation which is philosophy in the context of increased awareness of the extent to which the conversation is permeated by contingency and of the extent to which philosophers do not transcend contingency toward necessity, but give contingency the mere appearance of necessity. Should one strive to limit the conversation to fields of conversation in which contingency seems manageable, at the risk of expressively impoverishing the conversation? Or should one strive to keep the conversation as expressively rich as possible and find a way to accept contingency which neither gives up on the philosophical pretension to transcend contingency toward necessity nor gives in to the tendency to give contingency the mere appearance of necessity?

Rorty takes analytic philosophy to try the former, ironic philosophy to try the latter, understanding irony as a means to continue talking in certain ways without fully identifying with these ways of talking, without giving up on transcending them and on revealing the contingency deposited in them. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty takes ironic philosophy to begin with ironic theory and to culminate in a form of writing which does no longer aspire to any form of theorizing, which Rorty sees best exemplified in Derrida’s Post Card.

The course reconstructs Brandom’s neohegelian rationalism as a reaction to Rorty’s neopragmatism. Brandom himself criticizes analytic philosophy, mainly for lacking in systematic ambition and historic vision, for failing to link detailed work on technicalities, which Brandom is very far from denigrating, to the systematic-historic context which gives work on technicalities its point. Like Rorty, Brandom criticizes analytic philosophy for its platonist-empiricist tendency to understand conceptual activity in terms of representation and representation on the model of perception. What Brandom criticizes, however, is not the commonsensical claim that there is conceptual activity which is activity of representing the objective world, but the tendency to understand representing on the model of perceiving and hence to understand the fact that there is conceptual activity which is activity of representing the objective world as a fact which does not stand in need of further explanation.

Unlike Rorty, Brandom takes philosophy to have its own distinctive task. Not the task of epistemology, but the task to give an account of conceptuality – an account of subjects, which are conceptual qua engaging in conceptual activity, as being in and representing the objective world, which can be represented by engaging in conceptual activity because it is itself conceptual qua exhibiting conceptual structure. Brandom understands conceptual activity like Rorty as a way of coping with an environment, but unlike Rorty as a specifically rational way of coping, as rational experience, an ongoing learning process of integrating new beliefs into sets of prior beliefs, of adopting and disadopting, including and excluding, inhaling and exhaling beliefs – a process in which concepts are not only applied, but also instituted and made determinate. Brandom gives an immensely detailed account of conceptual activity as rational experience, then shows that conceptual activity as rational experience is also always already activity of representing the objective world. Brandom gives an account not only of the objective world as giving rise to conscious subjects representing the objective world, but also of conscious subjects as rising into self-conscious subjects representing themselves, ultimately by developing an account of conceptuality such as Brandom’s. In all these respects, Brandom’s rationalist account of conceptuality is neohegelian.

Brandom reacts to Rorty’s philosophy not only by showing that there is still much constructive philosophy to be done, but also with his own discussion of contingency and irony, contained in A Spirit of Trust, Brandom’s yet unpublished book on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Understanding conceptual activity as activity in which concepts are not only applied, but also instituted and made determinate, Brandom understands irony as a reaction to increased awareness of the extent to which the determination of concepts is permeated by contingency – the reaction of understanding the determination of concepts as an activity in which there is only contingency and no necessity, where contingency is given the mere appearance of necessity, to be unmasked as contingency by giving genealogical accounts of the determination of concepts. The result of this reaction is irony, the attitude of subjects applying concepts without ever fully identifying with them.

Following Hegel, Brandom understands irony as the pinnacle of modern alienation – and as based on a misunderstanding of conceptual activity, itself based on a misunderstanding of necessity as incompatible with contingency, of being necessary as being pure of contingency, which closes off any understanding of the determination of concepts as activity not of excluding contingency from concepts, but of incorporating contingency into concepts in a way which turns contingency into necessity. Still following Hegel, and taking over Hegel’s theological vocabulary, Brandom understands the determination of concepts as an activity of turning contingency into necessity which is an activity of confessing and forgiving, an activity in which subjects form a community of trust.

Brandom understands the determination of concepts on the model of the determination of laws in common law, where laws are not instituted as determinate before being applied, but instituted and made determinate by being applied. Each application of the law involves a rational reconstruction of past applications of the law which divides past applications into those which are precedents and those which are not and which exhibits the past applications which are precedents as necessary qua conform to the law. Each rational reconstruction of past applications of the law and hence each application of the law involves an element of contingency. In particular, the way in which past applications are divided into those which are precedents and those which are not is not determined by the past applications themselves. Taking over Hegel’s theological vocabulary, Brandom understands the element of contingency as what the judges have to confess and what future judges have to try to forgive, precisely by giving rational reconstructions of past applications of the law according to which past application are precedents and hence necessary qua conform to the law. Failures to forgive are failings of the future judges, which must be confessed in turn. The judges form a community of trust: Judges confess the contingency involved in their applications of the law and trust that future judges will try as best as they can to forgive them by turning their applications of the law into precedents, thereby turning contingency into necessity.

Brandom’s account of conceptuality has an edifying dimension. On the one hand, it shows that, as a matter of fact, engaging in conceptual activity at the most fundamental level is forming a community of trust. On the other hand, it wants, by showing this, to make us engage in conceptual activity at a more substantial level in ways which are trustful rather than ironic. Brandom himself tries to do philosophy in a way which is trustful. His reading of Hegel is an attempt to forgive Hegel, a reading which does not emphasize Hegel’s failings and blind spots, but tries to exhibit Hegel’s work as rational and progressive.

Rorty and Brandom give us two very different understandings of philosophy, the problem of contingency, and the role of irony. The course will try to clarify the relations between these two understandings. It will try to answer questions such as: Is Brandom’s criticism of irony as pinnacle of modern alienation a criticism of irony as Rorty understands it? Does irony as Rorty understands it have a positive function which Brandom does not consider? Does Brandom’s conception of philosophy as account of conceptuality contain a limitation of the conversation to fields of conversation in which contingency seems most easily manageable, at the risk of expressively impoverishing the conversation – a limitation which allows Brandom to forego irony as a means of managing contingency?

Recommended readings:
Note: While a course reader will be made available, attendees will be able to follow the discussion without making use of the reader.

  • Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (Princeton University Press: 1979, Special Edition: 2008), Chapters 3, 7, and 8.
  • Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press: 1989).
  • Robert Brandom, Reason in Philosophy (Harvard University Press: 2009), Chapters 1 to 3: Animating Ideas of Idealism, downloadable as the 2007 Woodbridge Lectures at http://www.pitt.edu/~brandom/index.html
  • Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust, (unpublished), Chapter 8: From Irony to Trust: Modernity and Beyond, downloadable at http://www.pitt.edu/~brandom/hegel/index.html.

Difficulty Level: Introductory to intermediate