Rorty on Davidson and Descartes

by Brian on October 9, 2003

Richard Rorty has an article in today’s Boston Globe arguing that Davidson showed that “reality can’t be an illusion.” (Note: that quote is from the subhead not from Rorty.) Since it’s Rorty it’s little surprise that I don’t believe a word of it (sadly I don’t have time to write a long enough post to convincingly say why) but it’s a much better philosophical article than you’ll normally see in an American newspaper. (Thanks to the APA News service for the link.)



David M 10.09.03 at 9:11 pm

mmm, ‘Ren Descartes’ — that would be the ‘undeservedly influential 17th-century philosopher’ whose smarter but little-known brother was Stimpy Descartes, would it?


Chun the Unavoidable 10.09.03 at 9:23 pm

I’m still waiting for someone to give me a sociological explanation of the reactionary belligerence of the David Stove school of Australian philosophy.

You get bonus points if you explain how Stove was wrong about women and Darwin but right about Feyerabend and Kuhn.


David 10.09.03 at 9:35 pm

From Daniel Dennett’s philosophical lexicon:

rort, n. m. (1) orig. sport Carty marri giblet, or confused discourse. “Don’t talk rort.”


enthymeme 10.09.03 at 9:36 pm

And don’t forget his pathological aversion to Popper . . .


a different chris 10.09.03 at 10:56 pm

God that was deadly dull. They don’t pay you people enough. I’m guessing the people who wrote “The Matrix” get to go to a lot better parties…

OTOH, I did finally start to giggle over Mr. Rorty’s unfortunate choice of the “beaver” example.

I mean, I could go down to the local gun shop and invite the guys to go “beaver hunting”- and a certain shared reality would exist.

However, if I poked my head into a Pitt frat house and made the same invitation, there would be exist an equally intense but totally different shared reality…


Jack#2 10.10.03 at 5:40 am

Unless, of course, you follow superstring theory, in which case we are all illusions created by the vibration of strings that manefest themselves as the fundamental building blocks of all matter. Simply put, we are just illusions with all of our components at the atomic scale simply the appearance of a resonant frequency of the vibration of the string. (From Greene, although Hawking provides an equally compelling discusion).

So, can reality perceived by an illusion, no matter how correctly, be reality? Moreover, can the theories of a person composed of illusions from a different reality be really real? Partially really real? Slightly really real?


Shai 10.10.03 at 2:21 pm


the whole is
more than
the sum of its parts


Thomas Dent 10.10.03 at 3:19 pm

I didn’t read the Globe article since Brian’s recommendation – ‘much better than the usual philosophy article you’ll see in an American newspaper’ means about as much as ‘much better than the usual malt liquor you’ll get out of a 32-ounce bottle’.

I think the authors of superstring theory would be horrified if anyone identified them as anti-realists. Quantum field theory already said that ‘particles’ were no better than wave-like vibrations in a field. In string theory they’re wave-like vibrations on a string. Is there some reason why a particle is intrinsically more real than a wave?

Superstring theory (if true) explains the appearance of the particles we see – it doesn’t explain them _away_.


Nabakov 10.10.03 at 3:44 pm

Given recent developments in the Californian political landscape, one could also argue that illusion is a reality.


Brian Weatherson 10.10.03 at 6:09 pm

Thomas, it wasn’t meant to be a much stronger recommendation than that, though it was much better than I expected from Rorty. (I’ll stop with the weak praise now.)

I agree entirely that there’s no reason to think of superstring theory as anti-realist. What it tells us is that reality as we know it is quite differently constituted than we may have guessed, not that it doesn’t exist. The same has been true of lots of scientific theories throughout history. The people who proved that there earth, fire, water and air are all non-atomic didn’t show that they don’t exist, just that we were wrong about their structure. Same for superstring theorists.


cw 10.10.03 at 7:28 pm

You can’t just say it’s not correct but then not explain why. As Wittgenstein said:

“You can fool some of the people some of the time, but the rest of the people are still waiting for you to climb down off you high horse.”



Gabe 10.10.03 at 7:37 pm

Say what you will about Rorty. At least he tries to make philosophy accessible. Dumbing down happens, but it seems to me that philosophy more often errs on the other side. I like Rorty, though, so I’m inclined to defend him. Brian, if you disagree, how about a letter to the editor. Or a guest op-ed in teh PROJO?


Brian Weatherson 10.10.03 at 8:33 pm

I wasn’t objecting at all to the ‘dumbing down’. In fact I thought it was a very good (i.e. clear without sacrificing accuracy) presentation of a view that has lots of virtues, and the vice of being false. If I didn’t have a few too many deadlines hanging over my head, I might try saying more about why, though I think I’ll just be repeating things that Jerry Fodor and/or Ernie Lepore have said already. Actually Ernie would be a good person to write a reply here because he’s (a) a good writer, (b) a close friend of Davidson’s and (c) not sympathetic to Rorty’s line here, although he agrees with a lot of the other parts of Davidson’s program.


Fabian Delecto 10.11.03 at 3:05 am

What we really ought to figure out is what we could possibly mean by or do with expressions like “the world is real” or “the world is unreal” or even “appearances are real,” etc. THey’ve been reiterated so many times we take it for granted that they are worth repeating and the questions they give rise to worth answering. I won’t say they’re meaningless because all language is, but they’re useless. In a world where digital imaging makes worlds not just manipulable but actually “creatable”, I see little value in debating reality or lack of it. Although Rorty is willing to dispense with the idea of mental representation he does not have the balls to dispense with the idea of representation in general, with all the associated notions of correct / incorrect, true / false, good / evil, etc. The Matrix was not about Descartes or even Wittgenstein, but Baudrillard. N.B. Neo has to evolve various new faculties. . .essentially magick ones which make him able to “hack” what I suppose Rorty and many of the rest of you would want to call “reality.” But when reality becomes ESSENTIALLY HACKABLE, everything is simulacular. It is no longer a question of reflecting on reality to sort the real from the fake, the permanent from the fleeting, but of assessing possibilities for fabricating simulacra which would be “good”–i.e., interesting, life-augmenting, and so on. When Hassan i Sabbah said, “Nothing is true and everything is permitted,” his point only really worked in the hashish-fueled land of Arabian vision, but you need not even smoke up now.


McGruff 10.13.03 at 6:34 pm


I wish you’d explain for the intrigued, but philosophically challenged why Rorty’s wrong. What do Lepore or Fodor have to say? Inquiring minds wanna know.


Chris Hoerter 11.07.03 at 9:24 am

Better late than never, I reckon, coming across this series of posts in response to Rorty’s article.

Response to the other chris: the beaver example only has two dimensions, and you missed both. First, whether or not you would be experiencing two different realities in the event you announced an invitation to go “beaver hunting” vis-a-vis the frat boys and the hunting enthusiasts begs the question that literal meanings (the chance for heroic punning) have value beyond what speaker and listener meaning assign to them. For example, as a speaker, you don’t need to have either meaning specifically in mind (female genitalia or actual rodent beaver)in order to guarantee a reference that produces the linguistic tensions that organize behavior (towards female genitalia or actual rodent beavers). Your mental representations a fortiori have no practical consequences, and therefore, your linguistic behavior is the efficient cause of “reality.”

OTOH, the sufficient cause of “objects” (such as they are understood to be either female genitalia or actual rodent beavers), is the extent to which they are depicted from one “reality” to the next “reality” qua object. So let’s say we’re talking rodents, we’re talking beavers. The second dimension of Rorty that you missed was a literary allusion to WV Quine’s ‘Gavagai’ in _Word and Object_ (the example where the rabbit runs in front of you and the native, and the native hollers “Gavagai” – and you ask, ‘gee what does ‘gavagai’ mean’? is is ‘rabbit’? is it ‘look there’s a rabbit running fast’? or is it something very precise and scientific like ‘undetached rabbit part’?

Who knows? is the answer, and without enough time to spend to develop a grammar satisfactory for the purposes of writing a translation manual, at a minimum ‘Gavagai’ has something to do with rabbits, and communication has occurred.

Even though we need not share a common language in orer to communicate, if your use of the word “beaver” is radically different from mine, then I cannot communicate with you about beavers, which begs the question how we could communicate about anything in the first place, at least enough to imagine white rodents atop sand dunes.

Indeed, perhaps this is one for the social scientists and statisticians. The Flying Circus documents an 18 storey hedgehog named Dimmesdale, who seems to inhabit a universe much more interesting than ours.

BTW, the correspondence theory of truth was debunked as soon as Rorty wrote its epitaph in 1979 with _The Mirror of Nature_, whereby “truth” is nothing more than a property that either attaches itself to a sentence or not.

Karl Popper should have remained in physics. String theory will be lonely in the dustbin of history without him. As a mathematical model, string theory provokes curiosity and ingenuity, but to the extent that “strings” have not been observed in nature, we can only keep trying to G.U.T. this fish before we catch it.

Happy hunting

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