Thursday, 24 July 2014

Richard Rorty on Analytic Philosophy’s a Priori

What is it, precisely, that Richard Rorty thinks analytic philosophy is trying to achieve?

Let us take the ‘linguistic turn’ for starters. The aim of philosophers at that period (according to Rorty)

"was to mark off a space for a priori knowledge into which neither sociology nor history nor art nor natural science could intrude". (EHO)

Basically, Rorty believed that philosophers were trying to find "a space" for themselves. They wanted their own playground. That's why they needed a priori knowledge: that is, non-empirical knowledge. The things which only needed a philosopher’s brain and nothing more than a good armchair.

This was part of a long tradition.

Take Kant.

Before the linguistic turn, Kant had formulated his own "transcendental standpoint". In Kant’s case, it was the mind which provided us with the a priori limits of experience. Then it was meaning – or language – which provided all that is a priori. If language or meaning can offer us with the a priori, is that the same thing as claiming that the mind does too?

Donald Davidson also spoke out against this a priori notion of language or/and meaning. He wrote that we

"must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language users master and then apply to cases." (‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’).

What can language as a "clearly defined shared structure" possibly mean? It sounds as if Davidson thought that philosophers are treating language - or a language - as some kind of quasi-object or entity. Thus such philosophers were reifying language it as if it is there – as a given – before people actually used it. That is, as something with necessary structures which are out of people’s control.

Surely, then, it must follow that the invariability of language’s givens must flow from the invariants of minds. Where else could language - or a language - come from? If we can ‘master’ language, then it must already be there. This is saying more than the fact that language is passed on from adults to children. In a sense, it's passed onto adults; who themselves pass it on. 

We can imagine the logical constants being, well, constant - as some kind of given. Perhaps certain inferential relations between propositions too. Though it's still hard to understand - without examples - what certain philosophers mean by the word ‘language’.

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