Should Liberals Have a Scientistic or Poetic Vision for Society?

This is a question that Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty used to ask, and he put it another way as well: is it the scientist or the poet who is (or should be) the liberal’s hero? Or to put it yet another way: Is a human being at his or her best when doing scientific problem solving or engaging in imaginative aesthetic reframing and redescription?

I think it’s fair to say that Rorty generally came down on the side of the poet, and he did so for two reasons: 

  • quirky and creative language fashioners don’t pretend to ground their languages in ultimate truth or God or anything that transcends the human—they just make cool languages
  • in a democratic society, nonempirical poetic and eccentric languages make wiggle room for novelty, the imagination, social vibrancy, and diversity

By contrast, scientistic visions try to bring the scientific ethos  beyond its useful and proper domain (which is the realm of prediction). And they tend to cast a blind eye toward their own imaginative constructedness, and claim for themselves, not just predictive usefulness, but the pursuit of objective truth (to which all reasonable people would do well to conform). Metaphorically, the universe has a preference for how humans should talk about it, and science shows the way. Where the Bible once functioned as the warrant for claims, the scientistic vision appeals to the chapter and verse of critical thinking methods and evidence as the ideal arbiters for all human problems and disputes.

Rorty is suspicious of the scientistic adventure, and would seem to want to cut liberal vision loose from it. As he puts it in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989, pg. 21):

[S]ince truth is a property of sentences, since sentences are dependent for their existence upon vocabularies, and since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths. For as long as we think that “the world” names something we ought to respect as well as cope with, something personlike in that it has a preferred description of itself, we shall insist that any philosophical account of truth save the “intuition” that truth is “out there.” This intuition amounts to the vague sense that it would be hybris [an alternative spelling for hubris] on our part to abandon the traditional language of “respect for fact” and “objectivity”—that it would be risky, and blasphemous, not to see the scientist (or the philosopher, or the poet, or somebody ) as having a priestly function, as putting us in touch with a realm which transcends the human.

A priestly function. Once you absent the world of priests—including the priests of science—who will speak for the truth of matters? Rorty’s path feels scary—a wire without a net.

Are each one of us really this radically alone in the world?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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