Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Postmodern Pragmatism and Skeptical Hermeneutics: Richard Rorty and Odo Marquard

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Postmodern Pragmatism and Skeptical Hermeneutics: Richard Rorty and Odo Marquard

Article excerpt

Richard Rorty transforms classical American philosophy in a way that responds to contemporary currents in European thought. German hermeneutical philosopher Odo Marquard is not a well-known name in English-speaking philosophy, though Rorty knew him and his work. I develop some of their agreement and note the differences that comparison brings to light, which allow us to gauge Rorty's concessions (if that is what they are) to European postmodernism.

Richard Rorty transforms classical American philosophy in a way that overcomes some of the ideological limitations of the first pragmatists, and responds to contemporary currents in European thought.1 In braiding pragmatism with postmodern European philosophy, Rorty inevitably accentuates certain strands of the American tradition at the expense of others. Instead of pragmatism as an alternative to continental postmodernism, which is the project of other neopragmatists, including Hilary Putnam and Joseph Margolis, Rorty's is a postmodernist pragmatism.

There had always been two sides to classical pragmatism. One is critical, an iconoclastic assault on the European tradition, especially in epistemology and metaphysics. The other is constructive or, as Dewey said, reconstructive, a program for taking philosophy in a new direction. Pragmatism is not merely a critique of what philosophy has been. It is a new philosophy for a society as new and different as America seemed to be. Rorty suspends this chauvinistic presumption, which may in part explain the international interest in his work.2 Instead of a new American philosophy, he envisions a future in which philosophy itself belongs to the past.

Odo Marquard is not a well-known name in English-speaking philosophy, despite two well-translated collections of philosophical essays.2 He does have appreciative readers, as does his philosophical colleague Hans Blumenberg, and Marquard's volumes are very capably translated by Blumenberg's major translator, Robert M. Wallace. Rorty seems to have known Marquard and his work but to my knowledge he never discussed it in print.3 Rorty tends to be drawn to Continental philosophers whom he can somehow assimilate to pragmatism as he understands it, describing residual disagreement in terms of inconsistent or inadequately radical pragmatization. He tries such readings on Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Derrida, Foucault, and Blumenberg, and I think he might have tried it on Marquard had the occasion presented itself.4 There is enough agreement to create a semblance of consistency between Rorty's postmodern pragmatism and Marquard's skeptical hermeneutics, but also enough difference to make the similarity misleading and incomplete. I propose to develop some of their agreement without neglecting those differences, which allow us to gauge Rorty's concessions (if that is what they are) to European postmodernism. I follow four themes in their work: Skepticism; Contingency; the Value of Philosophy; and Knowledge and Myth.

1. Skepticism

Abschied vom Prinzipiellen, "Farewell to Matters of Principle," the title of Marquard's 1981 collection, bids farewell to the philosophy of principles, to embrace what he calls the unprincipled philosophy of skepticism. Philosophy? Yes, but skeptical of principles. Marquard's ironic motto is, "Here I stand, I can always do otherwise" (FP, 105). But can there be philosophy without principles? Are not principles what philosophy is all about? Let us pause over the history of that assumption.

The Greek word arche ("principle") belongs to the oldest vocabulary of Western philosophy. In ancient usage, arche means: (1) starting point, beginning; and (2) originating cause. Both senses are attested in Homer.6 According to Kahn, the connotations of arche are both spatial and temporal. "Just as the basic sense of the verb archos is 'to lead' [troops in battle], whence it can mean 'to rule' as well as 'to go first, to begin' in any action, so the fundamental idea of arche is that of the first member in a chain of events, whence it can also mean the foundation upon which all else rests. …

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