Never Knowing Where We’re Going We Can Never Go Astray

by Aug 4, 2015Culture, Epistemology, Theology1 comment

Read this while poking around the Internet for philosopher Richard Rorty’s obituary:

Michael Williams, philosophy department chairman at Johns Hopkins University, said Dr. Rorty, one of his mentors, “taught the lesson there are no fixed and permanent foundations for anything, that anything could be changed. Where some see this as cause for despair, he saw this as cause for hope because it meant we could always do better.”

Now I actually like pragmatist philosophers, because Stanley Fish is one, and he displays an intellectual clarity about fundamental issues that is lacking elsewhere. I listened to a Rorty lecture the other week, and despite my profound disagreements with him I found that same clarity, and I found it refreshing. Pragmatism can see that the fight over which human values are good and which aren’t is a never-ending one as long as we have no agreed-upon referee. And we’ll never agree on one if left to ourselves.

Which makes me wonder if Michael Williams really grasped what Rorty was saying. I don’t know, perhaps he did, but in a world without fixed and permanent foundations for anything, by what standard (another word for a foundation) can anything be called “better”? You can’t be on the right or wrong side of a history that goes in circles and curlicues.

As the great C.S. Lewis said while summarizing evolution, “Never knowing where we’re going we can never go astray.”


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1 Comment
  1. Layton Talbert

    Isn’t that basic modern educational philosophy? If there are no grades, I can never fail.
    Similarly, if there is no accountability, I can never be wrong. Somehow we know instinctively that life simply doesn’t and couldn’t work that way in the day-to-day world on a micro-level (like at your job)–yet we think it can explain everything on the macro-level. Pragmatism doesn’t seem very … pragmatic, but highly theoretical. After all, if we can always do better, can’t we always do worse?

    P.S. BTW, on a more personal note in honor of your imminent western migration, I offer you this bit of wisdom. I just read this last night, and your Lewis quote made me think of it: “The world is so much larger than I thought. I thought we went along paths–but it seems there are no paths. The going itself is the path” (from Perelandra).