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March 22, 2009


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Re: there is not much in this presentation in terms of universal norms that could ever really satisfy the likes and desires of a bourgeois liberal like Richard Rorty...

While it is true that Rorty might be described as a "bourgeois liberal" of sorts, he was not very fond of "universal norms." Indeed, and for example, his understanding of morality is closer to Fingarette's Confucius than Liberalism, as made clear in a discussion by Roy Bhaskar (and qtg. Rorty): "Morality ceases to be conceived as the voice of a divine or rational part of ourselves and comes to be conceived as 'the voice of ourselves as members of a community, speakers of a common language.' 'The importance of this shift is [that] it makes it impossible to ask the question "Is ours a moral society?" It makes it impossible to think that there is something which stands to my community as my community stands to me, some larger community called 'humanity' which has an intrinsic nature.' [....] The role of the universalism common to Christian and Kantian ethics and abstractions such as 'humanity' is, [for Rorty], to provide us with an inspiring *focus imaginarius* to remind us to keep trying in a Fichtean way to expand our sense of 'us' as far as we can." Which is to say that Rorty's liberalism, such as it is, is a very attenuated and idiosyncratic version that is rather parochial and provincial to the degree that it is more avowedly political and pragmatic than moral or philosophical.

For an excellent analysis and withering critique of the bulk of Rorty's philosophy, please see Roy Bhaskar's Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom (1991), esp. pp. 1-136.

Hi Patrick,

What a pleasure to wake up to a comment from you!

Yes, Rorty-- Is it not possible to say that he remained a real slippery fish right till the very end? Not only was he in the habit of changing his mind to the extent of being practically philosophically strategic, but even in precisely the way you point out-- even in his "bourgeois liberalism"-- he was, in fact, unusual, wasn't he?

Yes, you are right, he didn't seem to be much of a devotee to universal principles and in that, he was unusual. But his project to expand our sense of "us" as a normative project had some real similarities with the neo-liberal project, don't you think? (And, you know what? If you pressed me I might have to concede that much the same couldn't be said about the Confucian project as well...)

Rorty has been much on my mind this week, though.

I don't think you were around when we did the Daniel Bell human rights book reading... I am going to organize all the posts I wrote-- which link to Chris', Sam's and Baumler's posts-- in a category above (I'll call it Our Man in Beijing and put it up in a few minutes in case you would like to go through and take a look)... when I was preparing to write my posts, I read as many reviews and as much commentary I could find on his work and then of course engaged in the online discussions here and elsewhere. To be honest, I was stunned at the way the emotional reaction his work brought out in people. Very few who disagreed with him ever actually took him on at the level of his ideas-- and in fact many seemed to not bother even trying to get a grasp on the basic arguments involved (which is always disccouraging).

It happened again over at China Beat the other day about Bell's article about the looted bronzes from the Summer Palace The Right Target for a Boycott. While I disagree with the author's argument, again I was discouraged that only one person bothered to discuss the argument-- the other comments seeming to be more what I would call knee-jerk reactions to the Man (including the usual ad hominem attacks) or misunderstandings about the way his analogy functioned logically within his argument.

I was discouraged but it also brought home the point again to me that so much of our moral lives are probably in the end governed by what I would call our predilictions (I start this particular postoff with that idea, in fact).

And these predilictions are both personally and collectively held.

You probably didn't notice this post but in it, I held up Stanford Professor Robert Harrison as an example of Confucian virtue as sexy charisma (something the crew had been talking about here and at Manyul's place a few weeks ago→see: 色)

Well, one of my favorite Entitled Opinion programs with the Heavenly Harrison was one he did with Richard Rorty (I cannot seem to link to it, but it's easy enough to access). I really recommend it. I would love to write an entire post on it but the transcripts are not available and so it seems rather impossible.... but the most thought-provoking part of their exchange was when Rorty declared that he thought the rest of the world *should* become more like America and that America *should* become more like Norway.

The hero of the program-- a polyglot extraordinaire(the readers of these pages will know this is a key term in my world)-- I think had to be as stunned as I was. "How can you say that?" And in precisely the way you suggested above, Rorty basically said, I say it because I believe it's true-- look around. The bourgeois liberal project is better than anything else we have to choose from, he said.

But, our hero pressed on, but are there not in fact other traditions that can lead to human happiness-- how can you really say that liberalism offers more toward human happiness and human flourishing than Buddhism, for example? And Rorty answered like this: Well, we can say that. All we have to do is look around.

So, yes, I am left with parochial, pragmatically-informed predilictions.....

Even though it may seem like I am painting our "bourgeois liberal" as the bad guy in all this-- in fact, that is not how I feel. Some of my own strongly held normative values are themselves really in the end nothing but parochial, pragmatically-informed predilictions (for example, I am reading Bell's chapter on sex work in his new book and concerning this topic for example, my beliefs probably are based on nothing more than this kind of practical intuitive feeling).

I guess it is the addition of "universalism" as "universal norms" that perhaps evokes the trouble we see... maybe?

By the way, during the Daniel Bell book reading, I really enjoyed a radio program with Martha Nussbaum on Animal Rights on the Philosphers Zone. When speaking of human rights, it is very productive I think to bring up animal rights, and I wanted to recommend that program to you as I think if you haven't listened to it, you might enjoy it!

Anyway, Patrick, it was a delight to see you here and I hope you will read again sometime! Best.

Hi Patrick I just added the category above: Our Man in Beijing. I will only leave it up a little while though and you can actually get the idea of what I was talking about by just checking out the China Beat Comments I linked to above.

The Philosopher Zone programs with Nussbuam (including transcripts are here
Part 1
Part 2



I'm not sure we're in much disagreement, though you've certainly pointed out more nuance in Fingarette's discussion of the relationship between the ceremonial vessel and the ceremony. Fingarette's point is, as you say, that the dignity of the gentleman is spread out, as it were, between his preparation of himself for the ceremony *and* the ceremony itself. Maybe "function" is too crude a description here. Nonetheless, it indicates that the value of the individual can't transcend the particular set of ceremonies in which the individual is embedded. My point about the Zhou rituals is that on Fingarette's reading, Confucius is committed, then, to the value of individuals being tied specifically to the Zhou ritual ceremonies. I don't think Confucius could say something more Rorty-like--namely, that though the particular tradition is dependent on historical contingency, with a bit of irony and reflection, we can embrace the historically contingent and imbue it with value that we recognize to be contingent, since there isn't any non-contingent value to be had in any case. In other words, Confucius could not think of the Zhou rituals as being historically contingent; he thinks they are absolutely (universally, even) valuable. That doesn't mean Fingarette's Confucius is committed to universal values; it means he doesn't really think in terms of universal versus historically (or culturally) contingent values. His commitment to the Zhou is, as it were, naively universalist in it assumption of superiority to the norms and mores of "the barbarians."

I don't know, does any of this make sense? I'm on a sleep-deprived diet of Scotch and background sports on the TV. Such is parenthood.

I always love hearing from you, Manyul!

How was the game?? Did we win? (I was voting for your side, just to annoy you know who).

...the value of a person does not transcend function in terms of ritual and preparation for ritual (as self-cultivation)

As long as by "value" we mean normative value as human excellence then I am with you.

I think where we disagree is perhaps on your interpretation of Zhou rituals in the scheme of things.

Is Fingarette really insisting on that strict a version? He went to such lengths in th proceeding chapter to discuss this idea of "re-animation" or "to animate" the ancient rituals of the past--which is different than to replicate for example. Even in Huizong's day this "Return to Antiquity" I believe was written: 復古 (that is the Japanese gloss at least) and the choice of "復" gives this same feeling, I think of re-animation/revival in spirit.

So, reading Fingarette I felt rather friendly to this idea of "reanimating the old" --not as a "picking and choosing among bits of tradition for whatever saying or practice suits the present need" (like we see often in the New Age Movement, for example) but rather as a "genuine and profound love of the past" (68), which really is not unlike the Italians of the Renaissance in terms of locating the exemplerary models in the past (rather than positing a future-positioned utopia)...

Rorty, of course, is doing the opposite-- looking toward the future. And, I am with you on the barbarians, as indeed, for Confucius, in the end, like you said, there really was no concept universal versus historically (or culturally) contingent values.

On the other hand, however, I think what Patrick was really getting at was how the normative values are conceived (and in this case, as Patrick suggests, Confucius and Rorty do probably share this communal approach as the locus of our ideas concerning morality-- in the voice of the community etc.)

What do you think?

Finally, here is the link to the Entitled Opinion program with Richard Rorty

The program was outstanding and I really recommend it. You can also access via Robert P. Harrison's Homepage see archives Non 23, 2005


Thanks Peony. I'm very familiar with Nusssbaum's writings in the area of animal ethics although I've not listened to the material you're kindly making available. In fact, I have a fairly extensive bibliography available for "animal ethics, rights, and law" at the Ratio Blog: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/06/animal-ethics-rights-law-bibliography.html

Re Rorty: Slippery fish, moving target, yes, but there's some consistency or clearly identifiable views in his work and I think Bhaskar does a fairly good job of characterizing those views in several domains of philosophy with regard to science, language, epistemology, ethics, etc. (and of course there are not a few contradictions here and there). I was compelled to read Rorty closely and carefully in graduate school seminars many years ago and thus I agree, yes (as is the case with many philosophers), few have taken the trouble to read most or all of what he wrote, he does indeed arouse strong passions (*sometimes* for the wrong reasons) one way or the other, and I'm quite sympathetic to much of what he set out to accomplish (or deconstruct as it were) in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, although I do think nothing he wrote subsequently came close in ambition or quality to that deeply flawed book (it said some things that needed to be said but, alas, the penduluum swung too far in one direction, and then the critics struck back with equal force...). Having been trained in Religious Studies and forced to read (and discuss) Gadamer's Truth and Method (1960) and all the subsequent debates on hermeneutics, I was/am constitutionally disposed to look with favor on Rorty's fondness for hermeneutics. Many of Rorty's complaints have to do with the profession of philosophy qua profession, and I happen to think there's much of value in those complaints, and they appear to have struck a nerve with those a bit too wrapped up in their professional identity as philosophers.... My hunch is that this is one of the reasons for the vehemence if not ad hominem quality of the attacks on him. And of course there's Pragmatism, pragmatism, "pragmatism," and so on. The pragmatism of a James, Dewey or Rorty, for example, is a bit different from the pragmatism of a Quine, Sellars or Putnam, or Robert Brandom, and I find much of value througout these "traditions," although I wouldn't identify myself as a "principled" pragmatist.

And you're also right about me missing out on your earlier discussions about Daniel Bell's work, which I'll try to look at but will not have time to comment on even though I'm certain to have strong views on the subject! As to the truth(s) of various worldviews, I raise some issues and make plain my take on matters in a very cursory or introductory fashion in the introduction to my posted bibliography for Buddhism: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/12/buddhism-basic-bibliography.html

I happen to think many of the arguments/polemics against "universalism" are deeply mistaken or misguided and that the best work in ethics and political philosophy is unabashedly universalist (or 'nomative' in the best sense), although I would venture to say that term is ill-understood in many quarters (Onora O'Neill has addressed this, as has Martha Nussbaum, in her work Sex and Social Justice, for example). Universalism, properly understood, is perfectly compatible with sensitivity to particulars, the contingencies of circumstance, epistemic perspectivalism, etc. Sorry to sound so dogmatic, although I can't blame it on being sleep deprived, or a diet of Scotch for that matter, just the need to get back to work (that Puritan work-ethic thing I remain in the grips of).


Our children, Seamus and Bethany, are 28 and 20 respectively, so trust me when I say that sleep-deprivation will soon pass. Indeed, you may soon look back with a kind of nostalgia on this period.... (I'm assuming your not sleep deprived because a young teen has been out all night and you've been up waiting for him or her to arrive home).

Hi Patrick,

You don't sound dogmatic-- just very well-read. I will certainly have to track down the book on Rorty (thank you very much). More than the Nussbaum programs, I actually really enjoyed the program with Stanford's Robert P. Harrison (in 2005 with Rorty) I finally found a link and recommend this particular program highly (unfortunately, there are no transcripts-- audio link in my above comment).

Regarding universalist polemics, perhaps the more truly thought-provoking critiques are those which seek to undermine or question the validity of universalist thought as linked with that of teleological approaches to history (forgive me, it seems I have "bourgeois liberalism" on the mind today). To me, this is in truth an interesting point: exemplary models as having existed in the past versus the working toward future utopias. Rorty in the interview says something like we have replaced God or metaphysics with ideas of human progress and that the present liberal model is better than anything that has existed previously.

Hence: Norway.

Harrison questions not the universalist approach as much as he questions the wholesale exporting of these values as "enshrined principle"? I think it is a valid point-- especially in terms of human flourishing.

Thanks again for stopping by-- you made my day!

With our man Seneca in Nanjing this week, I've been imagining all the delicious meals he is eating as he is enjoying the sights, sounds, smells in that part of the empire. Here for Sam: a Roman Feast.

Regarding the Revolution, Patrick responds at Manyul's-- see here.

And as to my mood-- it remains, alas, the same as yesterday


I just left a comment to Eric about my previous post Picnics and Other Persian Pastimes. I thought it might be of interest to anyone who has read Bell's chapter "critique of critical thinking" from his newest book

To me, of interest is this idea of transmitting exemplery models as metaphysical underpining of in higher eduaction in ancient times: both Plato and Confucian-- see my post stuck inside a bronze ding part 2


I know you said you are extremely busy so I am guessing this won't interest you, but if you ever wanted to write a post about something that interests you about Fingarette-- you would always be welcome to post it here... and I don't want to speak for Manyul, but I feel pretty confident that he would welcome you at his (more esteemed) abode as well.

Before we started this book reading, I scoured the Net for any information on Fingarette and there is a surprising dirth of information on him. I still don't know much about his academic or career background-- was he at Cal or Santa Barbara?? I would love to know something about the man...Best.

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