Friday, September 26, 2014

Richard Rorty on Feminism and Pragmatism

In the context of my research into positive examples of postmodernist historical writing, I stumbled into Richard Rorty's 1990 Tanner lecture, Feminism and Pragmatism, published in 1992, now accessible in Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Cambridge 1998.

In Feminism and Pragmatism, Rorty looks at the question of what could be meant by a feminist view of the world.
Only if somebody || had a dream, and a voice to describe that dream, does what looked like nature begin to look like culture, what looked like fate begin to look like a moral abomination. For until then only the language of the oppressor is available, and most oppressors have had the wit to teach the oppressed a language in which the oppressed will sound crazy—even to themselves—if they describe themselves as oppressed. (p.4f)
Feminists are trying to get people to feel indifference or satisfaction where they once recoiled, and revulsion and rage where they once felt indifference or resignation. (p.5)
Rorty reminds reader in (p.5 Fn 6) that in the 1920s, the Canadian Supreme Court in the context of the eligibility of women to becoming senators denied that "person" could refer to women as well, since it never had, until overruled by the privy council. The satisfaction or revulsion toward language use changes, and thus new language can be constructed through new uses (p.6). Rorty discusses the issue in the analysis of universalist (e.g. Kant) versus historicist (e.g. Hegel) philosophies of morals; the former requires a realist stance toward morals, which the latter does not (p.6), assuming (p.7) instead that only the actualized is known at the present.
By dropping a representationalist account of knowledge, we pragmatists drop the appearance-reality distinction in favor of a distinction between beliefs which serve some purposes and beliefs which serve other purposes—for example, the purposes of one group and those of another group. (p.8)
Memes are things like || turns of speech, terms of aesthetic or moral praise, political slogans, proverbs, musical phrases, stereotypical icons, and the like. Memes compete with one another for the available cultural space as genes compete for the available lebensraum. (pp.8-9) 
But this leads to a somewhat weak statement; and who would want to fall behind the negative examples given by Rorty (p.6).
So the moral world does not divide into the intrinsically decent and the intrinsically abominable, but rather into the goods of different groups and different epochs. (p.9) 
[When Rorty wonders with Michael Gross and Mary Beth Averill about the use of the male-connotated "struggle" for evolution, in preference over the bountiful aspects of nature (p.9 Fn 10), one wonders whether they are not aware of the way in which, say, bird chicks toss their siblings from the nest, or shark mothers eat their own young.]

Rorty's point is that (p.10) feminism is much easier to accommodate pragmatically, because under the guiding oppressors the claims just sound crazy. Thus any language suggesting realism should be avoided.
Arguments for the rights of the oppressed will fail just insofar as the only language in which to state relevant premises is one in which the relevant emancipatory premises sound crazy. (p.10)
A rhetoric of “unmasking hegemony” presupposes the reality-appearance distinction which opponents of phallogocentrism claim to have set aside. Many self-consciously “postmodern” writes seem to me to as trying to have it both ways — to view masks as going all the way down while still making invidious comparisons between other people’s masks and the way things will look when all the masks have been stripped off. ... || … I agree with Stanley Fish that much of what goes under the heading of “postmodernism” exemplifies internally inconsistent “antifoundationalist theory hope”. … (p.12 Fn 17)
I have argued in the past that Deweyan pragmatism, when linguistified along the lines suggested by Hilary Putnam and David Davidson, gives you all that is politically useful in the Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida-Foucault tradition. Pragmatism, I claim, offers all the dialectical advantages of postmodernism while avoiding the self-contradictory postmodernist rhetoric of unmasking. (p.14)
We pragmatists are often told that we reduce moral disagreement to a mere struggle for power by denying the existence of reason, or human nature, conceived as something which provides a neutral court of appeal. We often rejoin that the need for such a court, the need for something ahistorical which will ratify one’s claims, is itself a symptom of power worship — of the conviction that unless something large and powerful is on one’s side, one shouldn’t bother trying. (p.14 Fn 21)
An adoption of the pragmatist stance would free feminism for having to develop a general theory of oppression (p.14). Instead, women are encouraged to create and experience themselves through language, tradition and identity (p.16), since there is no reality behind these things that they could be 
describing more accurately. Rorty distinguishes his stance from radicals, who are trying to hunt down a mistake somewhere at the root. For pragmatism, a community that is imagined to think and treat and speak differently is the solution (p.18). 
This mean that one will praise movement of liberation not for the accuracy of their diagnoses but for the imagination and courage of their proposals (p.18).
… do not charge a current social practice or a currently spoken language with being unfaithful to reality, with getting things wrong. (p.22)
Drop the appeal to neutral criteria, and the claim that something large like Nature or Reason or History or the Moral Law is on the side of the oppressed. (p.23)
For us pragmatists, … we see personhood as a matter of degree, …. We see it as something that slaves typically have less of than their masters. This is not because there are such things as “natural slaves” but because of the masters’ control over the language spoken by the slaves—their ability to make the slave think of his or her pain as fated and even somehow deserved, something to be borne rather than resisted. (p.25) 
I am suggesting that we see the contemporary feminist movement as playing the same role in intellectual and moral progress as was played by, for example, Plato’s academy, …. For groups build their moral strength by achieving increasing semantic authority over their members, thereby increasing the ability of || those members to find their moral identities in their membership in such groups. (pp.30-31)
Rorty leaves the outcome open, of whether the group remains separate or gets assimilated, because the masters wish membership for their own children, and woven into the language of the dominant (p.31).
For to be a full-fledged person in a given society is a matter of double negation: it is not to think of oneself as belonging to a group which powerful people in that society thank God they do not belong to. (p.31)
We say that the latter groups [such as Galilean scientists or romantic poets, RCK] invented new moral identities for themselves by getting semantic authority over themselves. As time went by, they succeeded in having the language they developed become part of the language everybody spoke. (p.33) 
 “Truth" is not the name of a power which eventually wins through, it is just the normalization of an approbative adjective. (p.34)
To sum up for the last time: prophetic feminists like MacKinnon and Frye foresee a new being not only for women but for society. They foresee a society in which the male-female distinction is no longer of much interest. Feminists who are also pragmatists will not see the formation of such a society as the removal of social constructs and the restoration of the way things were always meant to be. They will see it as the production of a better set of social constructs than the ones presently available, and thus as the creation of a new and better sort of human being. (p.35)

Bibliographic Record

Richard Rorty, Feminism and Pragmatism, [published in 1992], in: Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Cambridge 1998, pp.202-227. 

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