Rorty, Trust and Education

Rorty in Barcelona

Richard Rorty, in the papers presented in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (1991), set out some objections to the dominant Anglo-American philosophical focus on objectivity, transcendence and truth, and the supposed alternatives, relativism and scepticism. He lauded a general Franco-German trend away from a realist position but saw as problematic some after-effects of embracing Marxism by several of the more influential French writers. Instead, he urged

that whatever good the ideas of ‘objectivity’ and ‘transcendence’ have done for our culture can be attained equally well by the idea of a community which strives after both intersubjective agreement and novelty – a democratic, progressive, pluralist community of the sort of which Dewey dreamt.

The dominant Anglo-American philosophical view contrasts objectivity, dependent upon some version of a correspondence theory of truth and an independent reality, with relativism either in the form of communal agreement or personal whim that constructs reality. Rorty noted the linguistic turn in Anglo-American philosophy in the mid-twentieth century shifted the focus from mind to language. However, he noted a subsequent return to reliance on transcendence and a shift away from the kinds of approach advocated by Dewey, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. This transcendence required an ability to think about something from a standpoint other than the one in which the problem was formulated. For Plato, this was the philosopher-king having seen the light. Hilary Putnam criticised such a God’s-eye view. Transcendence, to do the job required of it, needs a qualitative difference in the point of view and not merely just another alternative. Without that authoritative platform from which to view reality, the existence of a single independent reality can be posited but never identified. The objective properties of that reality (truth, goodness and beauty) can also never be established. Likewise, the project of perfectibility becomes problematic.

Personal construction of reality and ‘true for me’ has limited popular attraction but lacks philosophical justification. On the other hand, a community based on intersubjective agreement in judgements about reality, purposes, values, procedures, standards, and the like that go to make up an evolving tradition is something that has philosophical justification. Truth is something established in the operation of the tradition but subject, in principle, to change as the tradition evolves. But is such change or, in Rorty’s terms stated above, ‘novelty,’ something arising from survival of the fittest in blind evolution or is it something that can be rationally considered and decided?

A range of truths may be established in a closed tradition which may tolerate some divergence where those differences do not threaten the continuing existence of the tradition. It is possible that a change in the environment may favour a divergent view and those holding that view thrive while the others die out. In that way, a tradition evolves or becomes extinct.

An open tradition must, of necessity, recognise alternate systematic ways of seeing the world, each of which involves holding a different set of truth claims. If a tradition has some process for rationally accepting truths, other than acquiring them in the course of daily living, then it may be possible for individuals and the community to consider changing what is accepted as true. Questions of the justification of truth claims are central to this process, but correspondence to an independent reality is ruled out. A question of the form ‘What counts as sufficient evidence to justify a claim as true’ admits of very different answers in different circumstances when asked for different purposes. So it is hard to provide a general answer to such a question. It is often not all that easy to provide an adequate answer, even in specific situations. A narrow focus on something like ‘scientific method’ as the means to answer this question may ignore the crucial elements of problem identification and standards for acceptance of an answer in a particular context. A further limitation of the usefulness of answers to this question is that in more recent times, truth claims have been thought of as not germane in some matters, e.g., value or aesthetic judgements, but instead limited to some propositional statements.

Philosophical attention to objectivity and transcendence was an attempt to understand the world and judge how to act appropriately by overcoming the limitations of the immediate, local, and personal perspective. Rorty states

If you give up on the project of escaping from ‘human peculiarities and perspectives,’ then the important question will be about what sort of human being you want to become.

… With what communities should you identify, of which should you think of yourself as a member?

… What should I do with my aloneness? The first question is about your obligations to other human beings. The second is about your obligation to, in Nietzsche’s words, become who you are.

A consequence of giving up on the project of perfectibility is that these questions just become a lot harder. If perfectibility is accepted, then the outcome to be sought is already established independent of a particular being. The question is how to achieve perfection. If we cannot escape the human peculiarities and perspectives, then both the outcome and the means to achieve it are in question. Novelty and personal responsibility assume greater significance when truth, goodness and beauty lose their objective certainty. If truth is no longer the independent arbiter of what exists, what to believe, or how to act and to what end, how is a person or a community to decide these matters? Truth, as some form of ‘warranted assertability,’ locates truth firmly in the context of the immediate, local, and personal. By being ‘warranted,’ it removes it from being mere personal whim and locates it in the warranting community. In so doing, however, it does not address the obligations pointed to by Rorty above. Transcendent truth provided no opportunity for individual choice or responsibility. Given such an opportunity in communal truth, it does not seem obvious how an individual should choose in particular circumstances between agreement in judgement and novelty. That is one reason why I suggest that, rather than focus on truth as either an objective property of reality or a communal agreement in judgement, it may be more useful to consider the trust relations available to the individual in the particular situation. This consideration is not open to the charge of individualistic relativism if it is recognised that the world underdetermines but limits what counts as a successful consideration.

One way of seeing the world is in terms of fixed truths to be discovered. Another way the world may be seen is as a set of evolving trust relations accepted by a community to which the individual contributes in the course of their participation. It is within that community that an individual has their own set of trust relations. Most of an individual’s trust relations are acquired unwittingly in the course of daily living. This is the important role of informal education that begins at a very early age. One example of this education is the acquisition of trust relations pertaining to the agreements in judgement inherent in the development of language. Such acquisition and refinement of trust relations continues throughout life. Formal education is a selection of trust relations in desirable traditions into which a person is initiated as a participant. Those engaged in traditional formal schooling consider the initiation as acquisition by students of accepted means to achieve predetermined ends (perfectibility). Some alternative formal schooling emphasised novelty and considered initiation as the discovery by students of means to achieve self-determined ends. Formal schooling that takes seriously Rorty’s two questions (above) needs to consider both intersubjective agreement and novelty.

Schooling based on objectivity and transcendence commonly expects a teacher to present unquestioned truths didactically to achieve acceptance by unquestioning students. Alternatively, a teacher presenting communally agreed judgements as relations trusted in the community does so for acceptance as relations to be trusted by students but with the proviso that both are subject to question in principle. One consequence of legitimating questioning is that it increases the prominence of the question of why a student should trust what the teacher says. Schooling would therefore have to deal directly with issues of the trustworthiness of testimony.

The alternative approach requires a change in the general attitude towards knowledge from being something that is fixed to something that is subject to change. That imposes an additional requirement on teachers to teach students when and how it is appropriate to question relations in order to judge whether the relations are trustworthy. Teaching critical thinking, not based on objectivity and transcendence, in a community of inquiry may be one way to help students acquire the trust relations needed to question effectively. Part of that task is to teach how to recognise a situation as problematic and to recognise a proposed change as being for the better.

This change in the general attitude also applies to moral trust relations. Students would understand themselves as having a moral career that requires attention and care to develop in desirable ways for their benefit and the benefit of others. A shift from moral justification based on objectivity and transcendence may require an ethical theory quite different from those dominant over the last few millennia.

Rorty made his own position clear:

What seems to me most worth preserving in Dewey’s work is his sense of the gradual change in human beings’ self-image which has taken place in recorded history – the change from a sense of their dependence upon something antecedently present to a sense of the utopian possibilities of the future, the growth of their ability to mitigate their finitude by a talent for self-creation…. His own effort to overthrow representationalist doctrines … was undertaken because he thought that these doctrines had become impediments to human beings’ sense of self-reliance…. The papers in the following volume are largely devoted to arguing … that such a sense of self-reliance is a good thing to have.

This self-reliance, or self-trust, are the various trust relations required for a person to become an active and productive participant in a tradition in order for the tradition to evolve and become better and thereby for the person to evolve and become better. One desirable outcome from this participation would be for an increase in the level of generalised trust within the tradition, which, of itself, creates a more productive environment. The self-trust relations would require substantial change in any tradition that saw a shift from an expectation of perfectibility to one that expected self-creation and personal responsibility for selection of a utopia. The place of hope and faith would also change in such a shift as signalled by Rorty:

I read Dewey as saying that discarding these [Platonic] dualisms will help bring us together, by enabling us to realise that trust, social cooperation and social hope are where our humanity begins and ends.

Rorty saw much to admire in the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard: ‘we want to drop metanarratives. Unlike him, we keep on spinning edifying first-order narratives.’ A difference between them is Lyotard’s focus on revolution and Rorty’s focus on reform. For Rorty and pragmatists like him, the practices and language of a tradition are subject to change and ‘if these new terms have been adopted as a result of persuasion rather than force, they will be better than the ones we are presently using – for that is analytic of their meaning of “better.”’ Rather than engaging in class warfare or identity politics, his preference is for democratic reform based on persuasion in which argument and evidence have a significant place. The outcome of such persuasion may be a dramatic change, for example, the abandoning of the objectivity/transcendental view of philosophy, such that it is regarded as a revolution. That is why Rorty is correct to emphasise the distinction in terms of force/persuasion. This places the onus on schools to educate students to understand the significance of their participation in a tradition, for students to accept the responsibility to engage in these processes of persuasion and provide them with the skills to do so effectively.

An objection to this view of education is that not all members of a tradition are, or need to be, actively engaged in resolving the controversies that lead to evolutionary change in the tradition. Many of the participants in a tradition are only engaged in routine activities, particularly if the rate of change in society is slow. This point has nothing to do with elitism or class distinction. If controversies arise from major developments in artificial intelligence or robotics or climate change, then bakers (… bankers, barbers, baristas, barristers, beauticians, beekeepers, bookkeepers, boilermakers, bureaucrats …) and butchers, as well as the unemployed candlestick makers, are all likely to have to be actively engaged in resolving the controversies and to face the consequences of the changing trust relations in their traditions. However, it is important that all participants recognise expertise in the conduct of both those activities and rightfully aspire to do as well as they can. Mutual recognition of the importance of each type of participation enhances the possibility that a tradition and its participants will thrive. It would accord with Rorty’s view if this recognition and aspiration in a democratic society is informed by persuasion rather than force.

The difference between what these authors discuss and what is proposed here is that the language used in this persuasion is seen not as marking truth-ascriptions but as marking trust relations that carry with them personal and social commitment. Participants use the trust relations extant in the tradition as the basis on which to make particular judgements about how to act. They also use existing trust relations to judge how to change specific trust relations as a result of the resolution of a controversy. There is no transcendent platform from which to make those judgements nor from which a philosophical critique of a tradition is possible. In pointing to trust relations in a tradition, instead of truth ascriptions, I seek to provide the kind of critique identified by Michel Foucault:

Critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest.

Pointing to the role of trust relations in a tradition does not presuppose some philosophical transcendental metanarrative upon which to base the critique. The power to be a convincing critique depends instead on it providing a description of the tradition that is more useful for practitioners to achieve specific purposes accepted in that tradition. Insofar as the critique selects some specific purposes, so the critique relies upon a narrative (or, as Rorty puts it, utopia). A different kind of critique is conducted by practitioners when engaged in controversy resolution. Rather than describing what is, they seek to establish what ought to be accepted/true therefore trustworthy in that tradition.

Rorty attacked forms of philosophy that sought some transcendental way to discern essences to provide Cartesian certainty as distinct from contingent appearances that are liable to mistake and change. He considered philosophy as more concerned with tackling issues arising in the vocabularies of evolving traditions. Clarifying and resolving issues through careful consideration of meaning as use in traditions and identification of truth as a mark of assertions that are warranted by the standards of a tradition would be a way to make a philosophical contribution to the evolution of those traditions. What is proposed here is consideration of the trust relations in a tradition to help clarify and resolve issues and thus contribute to the evolution of those traditions. In particular, for philosophers of education to consider the trust relations in schooling with a view to improving the education of children and thereby helping to create a better society.

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Bruce Haynes

Bruce Haynes, FPESA, FPE, is retired after 34 years in teacher education and 50 years of PESA membership. He is founding member, a past president and fellow of PESA, and been always been active member. PESA honours him and Felicity by holding a named lecture at conference. His 2009 papers, in the Educational Philosophy and Theory special issue, Celebration of PESA 40 years, include Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia: The official record, and PESA and I: A long engagement, tell us a lot more about his contribution to PESA.