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Mr. Rorty and his animal fellows

Olavo de Carvalho
O Imbecil Coletivo ("The Collective Imbecile"), 5a ed., pp. 60-67.

(Translated by Pedro Sette Câmara)

"Error speaks with a double voice, one proclaiming the false and the other denying it; it is a dispute of yes and no, called contradiction... Error is condemned, not by the mouth of the judge, but ex ore suo." -

Benedetto Croce


"Philosophy originated from the attempt to escape to a world in which nothing changed. Plato, who founded this field of culture we today call 'philosophy', believed the difference between past and future to be minimal."

Thus begins the full-page article Mr. Richard Rorty published in Folha de São Paulo1 on March 3, 1994. Well, when I started working on journalism, more than thirty years ago, such a paragraph would be mercilessly cut off at the copydesk, who also would not miss the opportunity to send the author a note such as follows: "But how, smarty boy, could Plato so anxiously desire to escape to a world of changeless stability, since in this world itself he did not see any big difference between past and future?" Today, flagrant nonsense like this is printed as a deep manifestation of philosophical thought, and nobody from the copydesk is there to say that that is not acceptable even as would-be journalism.

Besides starting his article with such obvious nonsense, Mr. Rorty intends yet to use it as the basis for conclusions which constitute an assault on the most elementary historical truths. So he continues: "It was only when they began to take history and time seriously that philosophers replaced their desire to know another world with hopes for the future of this world. The first attempt to consider time seriously was with Hegel".

To begin with, it is widely known that Plato, like all the Greek philosophers, did see an immense difference between past and future: if the very fact of change did not seem to him worthy of attention, he would not make any effort to discover a changeless pattern behind the fleetingness of things. Secondly, the preoccupation with "the future of this world" was a strong characteristic of Plato's project, which was rather the work of a social and political reformer than of pure contemplative theoretician.

Thirdly, to place in the philosophy of Hegel the beginning of the preoccupation with History and time is to jump over two millennia of Christianity, a religion which differentiated itself from the Greek understanding of the world precisely because of its emphasis on the temporal and historical character of human life - and this is already clear enough in St. Augustine.

Fourth. What is the reason for supposing there is a contradiction between a concern with History and the desire for eternity, when it is precisely the inseparable union of both these topics that constitutes the fundamental inspiration of Hegel himself?

Fifth. When Mr. Rorty interprets the desire for eternity as an "escape" or a fleeing, he's just doing a word game, and one that's easily reversible: the impulse to revolutionise the world and accelerate historical change can just as well be interpreted as a form of hübrys, of alienated agitation, of relief valve before realities that are permanent and ineluctable, such as death, physical frailty, the ignorance of our ultimate destiny etc. These depreciative interpretations bear no more than a rhetorical value, if they can do so much. To take them as an inquestionable given is not an honest procedure.

Grounded on all these assumptions, Mr. Rorty finishes the article's opening paragraph stating that "the combined influence of Hegel and Darwin took philosophy away from the question "What are we?" and brought it to "What can we become?". This pompous historical generalisation denies the reader the information that, for Hegel, these two questions were rigorously the same - "Wesen is was gewesen ist". The Jena philosopher, besides, was not distancing himself from Greek thought with it, but only folowing the logical development of Aristotle's doctrine of 2, according to which the essence of a being is not its static form considered in a given moment of time, but the purpose underlying in its development. Mr. Rorty also leaves out that Darwin never said a word about "what we are" or "what can we become", but was only interested in "what we were"; thus, he mistakes the theory of evolution with evolutionist ideology, which is the work of Spencer and not of Darwin.

In a single paragraph, there are so many absurd implications that maybe it is the very own compressive force of the falsehood rapidly injected in his brain that makes the reader dizzy and incapable of realising he's before a cheap impostor, disguised by the marketing as a philosopher.

But I do not believe Mr. Rorty writes likes this due to sheer stupidity. He knows he's lying - and the secret behind the fascination he exerts over hordes of pedant youths consists precisely in that, disbelieving any truth, they envy the power of telling good lies. There's a lot people dreaming of becoming Mr. Rorty when they grow up.

But, do you really want to know who this man is? Do you wish to have an idea of how ridiculous it is to honour him as a philosopher? Going a little beyond what he said in the newspaper, let's follow a brief examination of his more general concepts.

"Language is not an image of reality", assures Mr. Rorty, a pragmatist and anti-Platonic philosopher. Should we interpret this sentence in the sense Mr. Rorty calls 'Platonic', that is, as a denial of an attribute to one substance? It would be contradictory: a language that is not an image of reality cannot give us a real image of its relations with reality. Therefore, the sentence must be interpreted pragmatically: it does not affirm anything about language, but only indicates the intention to use it in a certain way.

The main thesis of Mr. Rorty's thought is a declaration of intentions. The sentence "language is not an image of reality" rigorously means this and nothing else: "I, Richard Rorty, am firmly decided to not use language as an image of reality." It is the sort of unanswerable argument: an expression of someone's will cannot be logically refuted. Therefore, there is nothing to debate: keeping the limits of decency and law, Mr. Rorty can use language as he may wish.

The problem appears when he begins to try to make us use language exactly like him. He states that language is not a representation of reality, but rather a set of tools invented by man in order to accomplish his desires. But this is a false alternative. A man may well desire to use this tool to represent reality. It seems that Plato desired precisely this. But Mr. Rorty denies that men have other desires than seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. That some declare to desire something else must be very painful to him, for, on the contrary, there would be no pragmatically valid explanation for the effort he puts in changing the conversation. Given the impossibility to deny that these people exist, the pragmatist will perhaps say that those who look for representing reality are moved by the desire to avoid pain as much as those who prefer to create fantasies; but this objection will have shown precisely that these are not things which exclude each other. The Rortyan alternative is false in its own terms.

In the face of such a painful realisation, Mr. Rorty claims that his philosophy consists in the proposal of a new vocabulary, in which the differences between absolute and relative, natural and artificial, true and false, will be abolished. He acknowledges having no argument to offer in defence of his proposal, since it, "not being able to be expressed in Platonic terminology", is above, or below, the possibility of being proved or refuted. "Therefore", he concludes in the name of all pragmatists, "our efforts of persuasion take the form of a gradual inculcation of new ways of speaking." Mr. Rorty, therefore, does not intend to convince us of the truth of his ideas: he only intends to "gradually inculcate" in us his way of speaking; which, once adopted, will make us gradually forget to ask if what is said is true or false. But, to gradually inculcate in others a linguistic habit, while at the same time putting it beyond the reach of any rational arbitration, is sheer psychological manipulation. We leave, therefore, the field of philosophical discussion - which Rortyanism rejects as "Platonic" - to enter the field of the subtle imposition of wills achieved through the repetition of slogans and the change of vocabulary. It is what George Orwell has called Newspeak in his novel 1984.

This is perhaps the deep and secret reason why, after saying that men are nothing but animals in search of pleasure, and reducing language to an instrument for the domination of weak animals by the strong ones, Mr. Rorty still can declare that "we, pragmatists, do not behave like animals", when his words seemed to indicate the exact opposite. The truth is that they are, actually, animal trainers. A man who trains horses does not argue with them: he just makes use of psychological influence in order to "gradually inculcate" in them the habits he desires them to have.

Like all trainers, pragmatists are driven by pious intentions: "What matters to us s to create means of diminishing human suffering." It is with such a noble goal the Mr. Rorty proposes the abolition of the oppositions between false and true, real and apparent, absolute and relative etc., which have been causing great distress to philosophy students, and suggests the universal adoption of the Newspeak.

Once such a measure is approved, philosophical debates will cease to be as they used to, that is, an uncomfortable clash of arguments and proofs, to become an effort to make all the more pleasurable and pain-free the gradual inculcation of new habits in the minds of the audience. New theories will not anymore call to their help the heavy weapons of logic, but rather the delicate instruments of marketing, giving out free gifts to new followers, and putting smiling Playboy bunnies in the cover of academic works.

But Mr. Rorty's decisive contribution to the relief of human suffering is his fierce combat against the idea that life may have a meaning. It is understandable that, in a meaningful universe, Mr. Rorty feels very bad - an outsider, a stranger, just like a non-pragmatist would feel in a meaningless world. However, Mr. Rorty sees no use in arguing with those who do not feel like him. The controversy over the existence or non-existence of a meaning intrinsic to the universe, as he says, "is way too radical to be judged from a neutral point of view". There is no way to argue: all that a man can do is to express his desires. Therefore, once again, Mr. Rorty's thesis is a declaration of intentions: he Richard Rorty, will do everything within his power in order to guarantee that life makes no sense whatsoever. And he does that, by the way, with great zeal and competence. There are those who believe that it is the lack of meaning that makes human beings unhappy , but Mr Rorty just couldn't care less. He defends democratic pluralism, the expression of all points of view.

Yet, the confrontation of points of view, unable to be arbitrated by any intellectually valid means, becomes a mere competition between desires, which will have as winner the party with the greatest ability to manipulate.

Those who know Mr. Rorty personally guarantee he is a really nice person. I believe that. But I doubt he wags his tail. After all, he's not the animal in the story3.


1 Translator's note: Folha de São Paulo is the best-selling Brazilian newspaper, even though it is read by the 'elite' of the country. We can say that it similar, in tone and ideas, to The New York Times and the other big liberal newspapers.

2 A case in point: Viktor Frankl, the never enough praised Jewish psychiatrist who, inside the hell of nazi concentration camps, found out that the meaning of life is more necessary to man than freedom itself. Frankl said to an American audience: "It was not just some Berlin ministries that invented the gas chambers of Maidanek, Auschwitz and Treblinka: they were prepared in the offices and classrooms of scientists and nihilistic philosophers, among which were and are some Nobel-laureate Anglo-Saxon thinkers. It's just that, if human life is nothing but an insignificant by-product of some protein molecules, little does it matter whether a psychopath be eliminated as useless, and that to the psychopath a few inferior people are added: all this amounts to nothing else logical and consequent reasoning." Man's Search for Meaning.

3 Re-reading the proof sheets of this chapter, it occurred to me reminding the reader that a proposal like Mr Rorty's contains in itself, together with the refusal of rational proof, a crowd f antibodies against any attempt to refute it in the serenity of an academic discussion. "Gradual inculcation" never comes face to face with arguments, but takes advantage of the reader/listener's moments of distraction to surreptitiously induce in him a mood change. Its modus argumentandi is neither the philosopher's nor even the rhetorician's, but that of the neurolinguistic programmer: it works below the threshold of conscience, after inducing the victim to relax its defences by means of nice conversation. Against this kind of action, the only possible defence is to face the enemy in the field he has chosen: that of psychological action. It is not the case, therefore, of arguing, but of unmasking, as in psychoanalysis. During Mr. Rorty's stay in Brazil, I was shocked at his audience's inability to perceive the difference between argumentation and seduction: since Mr. Rorty himself admits there is no use in arguing, what could his apparent arguments be but a diversionist manoeuvre, a trompe l'oeil aimed at entertaining conscious attention while below and beyond any critical supervision, the gradual inculcator discretely manipulates the depths of the distracted audience's souls? But, what small-town girl would be foolish enough to try to rid herself of a seducer using polite sentences that would only lengthen the conversation? In order to repel the seducer it is necessary to definitely refuse him any sign of sympathy from the very beginning. These days, many are the trends of opinion that prefer psychological influence to logical argumentation. They do not try to conquer our adhesion, but to monopolise our attention. Extending a conversation which even they do not acknowledge as leading to any intellectually valid results, they gradually involve us in its atmosphere, so that without ever having explicitly agreed with them, we suddenly find ourselves speaking their language, judging by their values, acting according to their rules. Thus they obtain, above or below our superficial disagreement, our most complete obedience. There is no way to oppose them but with overt manifestations of antipathy, so that they grasp that what separates us from them is not just some intellectual disagreement, but also an absolute moral rejection; that, in short, we don't like their conversation. The tone of the present book [chapter] has therefore a prophylactic meaning.