U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Neil’s Occasional Quote

I came across this choice nugget in the Introduction to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope, and have been chewing on it for the past day.

“The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do, to bring about consensus on the ends to be achieved and the means used to achieve those ends. Inquiry that does not achieve coordination of behavior is not inquiry but simply wordplay.” (Philosophy and Social Hope, p. xxv)

Provocative and unsettling, I think, with a bit of a scientistic undercurrent. Is what intellectual historians do inquiry? If so, is “agreement… about what to do,” or “consensus on the ends to be achieved,” ever presupposed as the outcome of historical scholarship? Rorty often used Darwinian theory to describe philosophy as a social tool, but he appears to go further here and apply an instrumental calculus to all forms of inquiry. As he puts it, “for pragmatists there is no sharp break between natural science and social science, nor between social science and politics, nor between politics, philosophy and literature. All areas of culture are parts of the same endeavor to make life better.”

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Neil interjects a little philosophy in our blog! Nice.

    So pragmatism (as a form of inquiry), to Rorty, is an instrument for achieving consensus—for democratic compromise. I guess that makes sense in that pragmatism is about being useful, or about creating/discovering useful contingent truths arising from experience—of course subject to modification as new information comes to light.

    But what happens when real differences in the methods of inquiry employed by individuals prevent consensus? For example (building on your last para), maybe historians can agree on methods, but how are they to get along with philosophers and mathematicians and physicists?

    I guess this means that we’d all have to become pragmatists in order to achieve consensus on larger-than-professional issues. – TL

  2. Tim – I think historians are more likely to be pragmatists, or at the very least to behave pragmatically, if or when we found ourselves in such a broadly interdisciplinary situation, at least to the extent that we would have to compromise on and achieve some minimal level of consensus simply to talk across our respective disciplinary boundaries. But what about within the discipline itself? I’ve never thought of intellectual history or history in general in terms of agreement or consensus. Doing history, as I understand it, primarily involves challenging, and if necessary overturning, accepted methods and interpretations. The discipline seems healthiest, accordingly, when it is in a state of “revolutionary science,” to borrow a concept from Kuhn, not when it gets comfortably consensual.

    The quote reads to me like Rorty speaking from the perspective of Dewey the Progressive social engineer, my least favorite of Dewey’s personae, rather than from the perspective of Rorty the postmodern liberal ironist. Put differently, I hear echoes of Achieving Our Country, my least favorite of Rorty’s books, rather than of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

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