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A STUDY OF RICHARD RORTY’S IRONISM

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CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION

  • Background to the Study

Based on a motivational book and two novels I wrote, I was called one day by a Catholic youth organization at Abakaliki to deliver a lecture on the art of creativity and innovation. The organizers of the programme wanted me to explain, in practical terms, how to use imagination to create literary works of art, especially novels.

Based on Egwu U. Egwu’s concept of creative thinking,1I explained that to create a new idea was to generate a mental image in one’s mind and to express it in writing. But when the parish priest, the special guest of honour, asked me to demonstrate the idea of generating mental images in one’s mind, I resorted to description of individuals’ actions, certain events and states of things. After this, he asked me to explain how my descriptions constitute images, and whether the images I was talking about existed outsides my descriptions, and I said yes. He then asked me where they existed, and I said that they existed in my mind. “Can you, without using words (descriptions), show us your mind and the images in it?” he asked me again. At this point, I became confused and helpless. The aim of the lecture was to teach the youth how to create practicable ideas, and not how to do a mere intellectual speculation. And if I argued that generation of images in my mind was different from my descriptions of the images, then how could I make a practical demonstration of how images were generated in my mind without using the descriptions of the images?

It was my failure to answer this intractable question that made the parish priest, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Richard Rorty’s philosophy of language, to refer me to Rorty’s most popular book titled Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.2In this book, Rorty talks of an Ironist who redescribes final vocabularies (use of old words in new senses) to recreate himself rather than searching for truth as opposed to a metaphysician who searches for truth or the intrinsic essence of things. With this distinction, Rorty argues that philosophy is all about creation of new ideas with words, and not a search for truth (the essential), because truth is not an objective reality, but a function of sentences made by humans. Based on this, I realized that I was unable to explain imagination (creative thinking) in a practicable way, because I saw it in a speculative way as the metaphysician does. It was this experience that made me to choose Richard Rorty’s concept of Ironism as the topic of my doctoral thesis.

1.2       Statement of the Problem

The problem of the study is examination of Rorty’s claim that metaphysics and philosophy are replaceable by Ironism and literature.

1.3       Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study is:(i) to explain the philosophical origin, development and use of Ironism which Richard Rorty is talking about; (ii) to do a detailed exposition of Rorty’s concept of Ironism as an attempt to eliminate metaphysics; (iii) to  do a detailed exposition of metaphysics as understood and done by philosophers for comparative analysis; (iv) to point out that the strength of Ironism is that it enables us to understand and explain creativity and innovation in an explicit rather than a speculative way, and the weakness is that Ironism  is not distinct from metaphysics but a pragmatist kind of metaphysics; and (v) to conclude that Rorty’s attempt to eliminate metaphysics, to replace philosophy with literature, did not succeed.

1.4       Thesis of the Study

            The study is made to demonstrate that Ironism as an attempt to eliminate metaphysics is a misnomer; that it is a philosophy of creativity and innovation, not a replacement for metaphysics, because metaphysics is unavoidable in linguistic pragmatism, literature and all other activities that involve use of words.

1.5       Explanation of Key Terms

(i)  Ironism: This is redescription of vocabularies aimed at elimination of metaphysics. Redescription of vocabularies means use of old words in new senses. Richard Rorty uses the term Ironism to describe Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc. as philosophers who oppose the traditional philosophy of essence in Plato, Descartes and Kant, by redescribing old vocabularies of Platonic metaphysics rather than searching for the essences of things, so as to create new kinds of philosophy for themselves.

(ii)  Metaphysics: This is the view that there is an essential or a necessary cause behind the existence of all contingencies—- things that are subject to change. It is the Platonic view that there exists a world of Forms or ideas which produce all material appearances, and that such a world is spiritual and eternal, while that of material appearances is physical and temporal. It is this Platonic view that there is that which is spiritual and changeless which Descartes, Kant, and other idealists are searching for through reasoning that Rorty calls metaphysics and strives to eliminate with Ironism.

(iii) Redescription: This is use of old words of metaphysics in new pragmatic senses, as a method to replace the speculative talk about the essences of things with the pragmatic talk about human practices. For instance, redescription takes place when Rorty argues that the word “reason” is not a source of authority, but the process of reaching agreement by persuasion. Thus, the denial of the idealist sense of “reason” and affirmation of the pragmatic sense of it is what is meant here by redescription. It is opposed to inference which is relation of propositions to one another aimed at justification of knowledge claims. Redescription is not about knowledge, but about use of words to achieve desired goals.

(iv)PCI: This means Philosophy of Creativity and Innovation. PCI is the knowledge gap which the study has uncovered by arguing that Ironism as an attempt to eliminate metaphysics is a misnomer. It is an argument that Ironism is not a replacement for metaphysics, but an innovative idea of doing metaphysics in a practicable rather than speculative way.

(v)  Creativity: This is an act of creating new ideas of doing things by using old words in new senses. Creativity here, for instance,  refers to Rorty’s redescription of “reason” which has created a new idea of discussing persuasion rather than knowledge; Nietzsche’s redescription of truth as a mobile army of metaphors rather than an objective reality which makes Rorty to be arguing that truth is a human creation, not something universal or eternal; and Heidegger’s redescription of “being” as existence of temporal humans rather than that of spiritual or eternal entities, which has led to promotion of existentialism against idealism.

(vi) Innovation: This is new and usable ideas created by using old words in new senses. When Rorty says that “reason” is not a source of authority (old sense of “reason”), but the process of reaching agreement by persuasion (a new practicable sense of “reason”), he has created a new and usable idea of a philosophical research on persuasion. When Heidegger says that “being” is the existence of temporal humans who have control over their future (a new and usable sense of “being”) and not the essence of eternal spiritual entities in the other world (the old sense of ‘being’), he has created a new idea of motivational philosophy different from the old idea of passive idealist philosophy. These new ideas that border on human desires which result from using old words in new senses are what we mean here by Innovation.

 

1.6       Scope of the Study

            The study is limited to Richard Rorty’s attempt to eliminate metaphysics which he calls Ironism. It borders on explanation of the origin, development and use of Ironism which Rorty is talking about; on exposition of Rorty’s concept of Ironism; on exposition of metaphysics as understood and done by the metaphysicians themselves; and on evaluation of Rorty’s concept of Ironism.

1.7       Significance of the Study

            The study has practical and academic uses to the reader. Practically, it can offer the reader the skills to:(i) create new and usable ideas by using old words in new senses; (ii) dissolve old and redundant arguments or puzzles by changing the meanings of the old words that form the key concepts of the arguments or puzzles;(iii) understand and explain the art of imagination, creativity and innovation in an explicit rather than a speculative way; (iv) make a distinction between creation of new ideas and searching for knowledge, between doing and knowing: the former is based on redescription of vocabularies and the latter is based on inferring propositions from one another;(v) use persuasion rather than blows to make people do what the reader wants.

Academically, the study informs the reader (the philosophical researcher) that a new area of philosophical researches called Philosophy of Creativity and Innovation (PCI) is now born. It tells the philosophical researchers in the traditional, analytic and linguistic philosophy that we need to shift attention from the talk of the ultimate spiritual causes of appearances or the pictorial relation between propositions and empirical realities to that of how to create new ideas of doing things with words. In PCI, the focus is on study of how new ideas for control and prediction of human behavior are created by using old words in new senses. This is a new area of research which the study of Rorty’s Ironism has revealed to the reader. And more importantly, it has offered the reader a new and practicable theory of imagination named redescription. Instead of saying in the speculative way that imagination is generation of mental images as idealists do, the reader can now say in the practicable way that imagination is redescription of vocabularies (i.e., use of old words in new senses) as the pragmatists do.

  • Methodology

The qualitative design was used for this study. Data were sourced from books, journals and biographies. The expository, hermeneutic and evaluative methods were employed. The expository approach was used to present Rorty’s concept of Ironism as an attempt to eliminate metaphysics. The hermeneutic approach was used to reinterpret Rorty’s concept of Ironism. The evaluative approach was used to point out the strengths and weaknesses of Rorty’s concept of Ironism.

 

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