The Philosophy Cafe at Harvard Book Store

this month's topic:

America's "Broken Discussion"


June 20, 2012
7:30 PM ET


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7:30-9:30 pm, in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.

this month:

As we all know, Congress is in gridlock. The red states and the blue states watch different news stations, have widely different attitudes and priorities and act more like implacable enemies than members of the same nation. We seem to have lost a common American narrative. As David Brooks recently observed  "The country is divided when different people take different sides in a debate. The country is really divided when different people have entirely different debates." 

Come and join the discussion at the June Cafe when we will try to better understand this phenomenon and look at possible ways out of the impass. In particular, we will look at the light that Richard Rorty and John Rawls, two big names in twentieth century American philosophy, can shed on this problem. 

Richard Rorty: Theory of Different Languages 

Richard Rorty 1931 - 2007) is famous for pioneering the idea that different 'languages', like those spoken in the red and blue states, have their own vocabularies and are, to one degree or another, incommensurablethat is not translatable from one to another. We will consider examples of right and left narratives and consider if Rorty's theory holds up. 

Richard Rorty's idea is that language is not like math. In math you can start with a very economical set of first principles and then build from there to all the propositions you need. If you accept the fundamental principles, everything else follows so the scope for disagreement is rather narrow. Language, on the other hand, is circular. A dictionary merely defines words using other words. There is no foundational vocabulary. So the meaning of any concept is inextricably interlinked with all the other concepts in the language. Different language communities have different concepts and so identical words have different meanings. For example think of a concept like 'family values'. It is understood in totally different ways by our red and blue communities. And so while both communities claim that family values are of central importance, they lead to wildly different policy impulses. 

Here are some other examples of clashing narratives: 

Monty Python: Parrot Sketch

NY Times: Gulf Widens Between U.S. and Increasingly Hostile Karzai

NY Times: Activists Fight Green Projects, Seeing U.N. Plot


John Rawls: Attaining Workable Political Arrangement 

John Rawls (1921 - 2002) has considered how societies whose members disagree on fundamental issues can nevertheless work together toward common goals. In finding a working arrangement, Rawls rejects the notion that a society can come to any agreement on fundamental principles.  Rawls emphasizes practical approaches instead as the only way in which  progress can be made. We will consider whether this is an uplifting idea which shows us the path out of our deadlock or a bleak vision of a future in which we are forced to live with an uncomfortable and unstable accommodation. 

Questions to Consider 

1. Is the Rortian idea of incommensrable languages a useful desciption of our current political dialog? 

2. How would you personally feel about putting aside some of your own principles and seeking a practical accommodation instead, where each side gives some and gets some? 

3. What are some of the things that could potentially be 'traded' in such a compromise? 

Additional Readings: 

IEP: Richard Rorty

SEP: John Rawls

Particularly John Rawls looks at the contributions political philosophy can make to improve political dialog. He believed it could discover bases for reasoned agreement in a society where sharp divisions threaten to lead to conflict and describe workable political arrangements that can gain support from real people.

Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

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