Rorty and the game of philosophy

In an article entitled “Recent Metaphilosophy”, Richard Rorty starts off by presenting an “inconsistent triad of philosophy”, and then continues by reviewing two books on metaphilosophy by Everett W. Hall and Henry W. Johnstone Jr. Some issues brought up here I plan to discuss later on. Now I’ll just give short presentation of this article.

Inconsistent triad of philosophy

“(1) A game in which each player is at liberty to change the rules whenever he wishes can neither be won nor lost.
(2) In philosophical controversy, the terms used to state criteria for the resolution of arguments mean different things to different philosophers; thus each side can take the rules of the game of controversy in a sense which will guarantee its own success (thus, in effect, changing the rules).
(3) Philosophical arguments are, in fact, won and lost, for some philosophical positions do, in fact, prove weaker than others.”

Abandoning (3) or (2)? No abandon (1)!

Abandoning (3) Rorty calls “metaphilosophical sceptisism”. Subgroups are “positive sceptisists” and “negative sceptisists” (negative sceptisists makes the conclusion that philosophy is pointless, “nothing for grown up men”…)
Abandoning (2) Rorty calls “metaphilosophical realism”. Subgroups are “common-sense realists”, “historical realists” and “eschatological realists”

To abandon either (2) or (3) seems to many people be the only alternative. I will not present these positions further here, as it is not the way to go anyway according to Rorty. Rorty’s solution would be to abandon the first (1) statement.

“[P]hilosophy is the greatest game of all precisely because it is the game of “changing the rules.” This game can be won by attending to the patterns by which these rules are changed, and formulating rules in terms of which to judge changes of rules.”

(One can tell Rorty is going to put himself in trouble for saying things like this. I.e. I found a blogger who picked up this quote by Rorty and wondered if Rorty wants to turn philosophy in to a game of Calvinball. I think though that Rorty is concerned with cruelties of this world, and that his philosophy is intended to be read from that kind of perspective. Philosophy is genuine concerns for him, and not merely light-hearted fun.)

Henry W. Johnstone Jr.: ad hominem arguments are the only valid philosophical arguments

Rorty reviews two books on metaphilosophy, Everett W. Hall’s Philosophical Systems, and Henry W. Johnstone Jr.’s Philosophy and argument. Here I will just quote some of the things he mentions about Johnstone, as I found that book more interesting:

“In Johnstone’s eyes, philosophizing is not a transaction between a man and a non-human reality against which he checks himself, but essentially and primarily a transaction between two or more human beings.”

“If the truth or falsity of any philosophical statement is relative to the argument that establishes or disestablishes it, then, unlike the truth or falsity of a scientific statement, it is not relative to objective facts. Hence there is no argumentum ad rem [to the thing] to establish or disestablish any philosophical statement. This leaves open only the possibility of an argumentum ad hominem [to the person] .” (Rorty quoting Johnstone here)

“Since we cannot decide the validity of a philosophical argument either by an appeal to evidence or to internal consistency, the only alternative is an appeal to consistency with the intention of the original propounder of the argument. The general schema of an argumentum ad hominem is that it is a reply to a previous argument which shows that the first argument ‘defeats its own purpose'”

(this line-of-thought makes an argument why philosophy in a sense has to be therapeutic)

Looking forward, Rorty’s conclusions

“It is quite as important to ignore irrelevant distinctions as to formulate relevant ones, and fruitful philosophical controversy is possible only when both sides have the patience to investigate their opponents’ criteria of relevance.”

“[T]he considerations which both men [Hall and Johnstone] present badly need to be backed up and filled in by discussion of the relations between philosophy and other disciplines. In isolation, metaphilosophical reflections can easily be dismissed as “abstract,” “formalistic,” and “parasitic.” United with analyses of scientific procedure and political controversy as they are, for example, in Polanyi‘s “Personal Knowledge” they have more force, and are less easily ignored.”


Richard Rorty – Recent Metaphilosophy

Internal links

Introduction to some ideas and concepts of Richard Rorty


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
This entry was posted in Game theory / game analysis, Metaphilosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rorty and the game of philosophy

  1. Marcus Todd says:

    Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this paper. I read it and found it comforting in a way. Could you link me to the blogger that referenced Rorty and calvinball? Look forward to your thoughts on this.

  2. Dandre says:

    Here is a link to the blogpost:
    At first I thought he was just scorning Rorty. But taking a closer look I find it more sympathetic. It is written by a guy who claims he has read all the works Rorty has written.
    BTW, Marcus, before I looked for an e-mail address on your site, but didn’t find any. Is there one I can contact you at? In your comment here you entered a gmail address, is that one OK?

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