Friday, October 07, 2016

The Legacy of Group Thinking, IV

“Race and the Limits of the Rhetoric of Fiction“

1.      Matthew McKnight recently took up the position David Bromwich occupied facing multiculturalism, but now facing the much more politically energized and organized force of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM is in fact the eruption of the stance that underlied ‘80s and ‘90s multiculturalism, just as multiculturalism was the diffusion of the energy that underlied ‘60s and ‘70s black nationalism. If there is an important difference with BLM, it might simply be that the accessibility and fluidity of social media has made the reality of police brutality to non-white persons inescapable. You didn’t have to tell African-Americans growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s about that reality, but too often it didn’t escape the communities where it existed. Like gossip, it was an immutable code of operation for some and an easily dismissed apparition for others.

It is the ghost of American slavery that we are still haunted by, and it is that ghost that McKnight and Bromwich—like everyone else on the left—want to exorcize. The difference between those like McKnight and Bromwich and those energized by multiculturalism is, from one perspective, a matter of means. McKnight draws a parallel between BLM’s success in using video taken of police brutality and Frederick Douglass’s use of the burgeoning technologies of photography. McKnight notes that the “national attention” BLM has focused “on police injustice is a commendable achievement. However, for all its dynamism and appeals to moral goodness, the movement shares a foundational belief with Douglass: the ideology of race as a natural fact.” [1]

McKnight sees affirmation of the existence of race, which he thinks a fiction and created by the use of concepts like “race” and “racism,” to be the wrong move when facing the destructive force of white supremacy. He follows Karen and Barbara Fields, in their Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality (2012), in thinking that racism “always takes for granted the objective reality of race,” and that the latter demands “the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits.” [2] This ideology of race, however, is a fiction—“No operation performed on the fiction,” the Fieldses say, “can ever make headway against the crime.” The conceptual field of race is a bear trap, and to acknowledge the reality of its grasp is to amputate part of yourself as the only response. McKnight, like Bromwich, sees individualism as the worthy end that lies beyond race, racism, and group identity. Individualism is the hope that, as McKnight puts it, “you and I might be able to define ourselves by individual and ever-expansive terms.” Group thinking reduces us. “An individual,” McKnight acknowledges, “might be compelled to contend that it’s her individual choice to identify as black, or that being black is a matter of culture, not race—but those are just different, perhaps more consoling, points of entry into the same trap. An individual who proclaims an identity based on diffuse general terms begins the work of erasing herself.”

2.      Just like Bromwich’s, this is a powerful, Emersonian argument that I have much sympathy for. But if McKnight and Bromwich represent the Emersonian left opposed to the Hegelian left of multiculturalism, then I still find myself reaching for Hegelian philosophical weapons to repair the equally Emersonian individualism I want to affirm. [3] McKnight makes the unfortunate choice of exchanging what we might call Reality Depth Charges with what he calls the ideology of race. Racism takes the “objective reality” of race for granted—but it’s just a fiction, fake, not there! McKnight’s rhetoric of fiction (as well as ideology) implies that the objective reality is, rather, not-race. It requires, at the level of theoretical hygiene at least, some sort of epistemological defense of that claim, some sort of argument for thinking you’re seeing reality objectively and the other person fictionally.

From the perspective of philosophical pragmatism, this is a tactical misstep, but it is one that obscures the real power of multiculturalism and BLM. McKnight cites Nikole Hannah-Jones as an example of falling into the trap of the ideology of race:
How do you explain the visceral and personal pain caused by the killing of a black person you did not even know to people who did not grow up with, as their legacy, the hushed stories of black bodies hung from trees by a lynching mob populated with sheriff’s deputies?
McKnight comments, “The reader, here, is assumed to share a belief in the tenets of racecraft: that race is genetic, that one can know how another might think and behave based on the presumption of race, and that the order of our society is fixed.” McKnight’s attribution far outstrips the actual work of that sentence. The only thing required by that rhetorical question is the participation in a community that exchanges those “hushed stories.” McKnight overreads Hannah-Jones at this point because he’s operating under the assumption that the concept race requires geneticism. The benefit of the Hegelian stance that community precedes concept is that one can avoid the trap of thinking that concepts come necessarily with any conceptual baggage. Rather, words are learned in communities and communities teach them for particular historical reasons to respond to particular situations. You can’t short-circuit the task of understanding a community by jumping straight to conceptual implication.

3.      I don’t mean to imply that McKnight is not the sensitive cultural critic he actually displays himself to be in “Black as We Wanna Be.” But his argument that racecraft is as illusory as witchcraft (which is the analogy the Fieldses designed) is the kind of cavalier attitude that masks an acknowledgement of the courage actually required to abandon race as cultural category. McKnight gets this, but still fudges the difference when he says: “We’ve lived with racecraft for so long that the mere thought of abdicating one’s colorness can feel like being asked, in a duel, to lower your gun first.” That’s just the problem—it feels like a duel because it is a duel. We can’t just wish the gun away when there are real consequences to not being conscious of the color of one’s skin in certain situations. Conceptual pragmatism is a kind of philosophical idealism in which we create the world in which we live—there is no reality to be seen clearly to correct our concepts, no reality that we can just get everyone to wake up to all at once. [4] McKnight cites Douglass’s own pragmatism (rather than any ideology of race as natural fact) when Douglass says, “All subjective ideas become more distinct, palpable and strong by the habit of rendering them objective.” Douglass is describing an activity of making what one thinks the reality that others have to operate in. Douglass, McKnight, Bromwich, the Fieldses, and BLM all want to replace one reality with another, but it won’t be accomplished by hoping our long, national nightmare is like the Salem Witch Trials.

McKnight is right that “in the face of what often feels like a siege against all of the people who identify and are identified as your kind, self-preservation is a powerful impulse.” [5] He’s also very right that “self-preservation alone cannot lead us to a more equal society, because self-preservation would never let you put the gun down.” This perfectly characterizes the moral courage actually required in our cultural situation, as opposed to pretending the gun doesn’t exist. While I’ve tried to identify something cavalier in McKnight’s argument, that is not how I would characterize McKnight’s stance as a whole. I think the stakes are just as he describes them, on the “intellectual and spiritual plane.” The fact that The Nation carries this conversation among leftists is a tribute to the vitality of leftist debate. Though the Emersonian left is often overshadowed because it unsettlingly echoes the right’s magic words of “individualism” and ”choice,” the still too-Marxist intellectual left in America needs to be reminded of its own implicit agreement on what the America they want to achieve looks like: a just freespace of self-definition.


[1] All quotations of McKnight are from “Black as We Wanna Be,” The Nation, Oct. 10, 2016.

[2] Quoted in McKnight.

[3] For some context for this vocabulary of discussion, see sec. 2 of “The Legacy of Group Thinking.”

[4] A clear moment of fudging the difference between having courage and being cavalier is when McKnight says, “Neither have we healed from racism’s trauma; neither have we awoken from racecraft’s spell.” It takes courage to grow from one’s trauma; it’s cavalier to think that trauma is just a hypnotic sleep we can be snapped out of. See my own use of “trauma” to talk about Bromwich’s cavalier stance in sec. 5 to the end of “Legacy.”

[5] I think one should emphasize “are identified” much more, which was the major argument I took to Bromwich’s book in "Legacy." See sec. 5’s argument about “racial wisdom,” especially with footnote 9.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Lit Crits Reading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

0.      The main bits of what follows (along with some other bits I’ll post about Rorty soon [1]) were written during my last re-reading of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity with a reading group I’d convinced some colleagues to participate in a couple summers ago. I produced the below as a general introduction to Rorty and to analytic philosophy generally for an educated audience with no background in it—specifically, however, for graduate students in English departments. I’ve decided not to mess with the intended audience, so some of it isn’t generally applicable. So what you’ll find below is this: Part 1 is a little background and a general pitch to read Rorty (largely, my imagined audience is lit crits for this section). Part 2 is a summary of its (table of) contents. Parts 3 through 6 are a motley crew of diverse topics based on my sense of what objections to reading Rorty without knowing him come up, along with different potted summaries of important philosophical elements: “On Rorty’s Interpretations,” “On Pragmatism,” “On Antirepresentationalism,” and “On Argumentation.” In large part, these sections are extended summaries of both historical and conceptual background to Rorty’s positions so that a reader of Rorty can be in a better position to accept or reject what he’s talking about. Since I think criticism of Rorty has been lacking in acute understanding of what he means and of the implications of what he says, this has seemed to me important. (And in the case of my defensive background to antirepresentationalism, it’s somewhat on the other side of what Rorty says.) I’ve also included two appendices. One is a select bibliography for post-linguistic turn pragmatism. The other is an itemizing of the main riffs of the book—like a more detailed table of contents. This might be the most useful thing in the post, ultimately.

1.      During the 1970s, Rorty came to prominence as an “analytic philosopher,” a designation used loosely to identify Anglo-American philosophers who read Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and symbolic logic with more avidity than Nietzsche, Heidegger, and intellectual history. During the 1980s, Rorty—rightly or wrongly—became known as a traitor to his faith because of his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), which was read with far more avidity by those outside American philosophy departments than those in it. It purported to hoist analytic philosophy by its own petard, an insider’s account using the most insidery of authorities and lines of argument to call into question the mission and purpose of those on the inside—and those on the outside, having been annoyed by the closed club, tended to agree that it succeeded in doing so. Rorty’s betrayal coincided with his rise in popularity with literary critics, as he wrote more and more often about literary theory and the topics and people literary theorists talk about.

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) is the central text of Rorty’s career—all of his work before moves towards it and all of his work after extends out from it. It sketches a philosophy of language, an epistemology, a political and moral philosophy, a literary theory (-ish, of sorts), and a story about the history of Western metaphysics and moral progress. And maybe a few other things as well.

There are two general reasons for a budding literary scholar to dabble in Rorty’s book today: 1) to better know from the inside a prominent conversation partner from the heyday of literary theory (which I take to be the ‘80s and ‘90s) and 2) to strengthen one’s own theoretical scruples against a comprehensive viewpoint (though just what “comprehensive” would mean for Rorty is one of those things widely misunderstood). Rorty is a stringent antifoundationalist, and his monomaniacal attempt to think through what philosophy and theory should look like after one swallows that pill—taken from any number of the heroes that cast their shadow over English departments: Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, post-structuralism, New Historicism, post-colonialism, cultural studies—can be a useful test to exercise one’s own philosophical instincts. [2] Or to help you find some.

There are two further reasons to read Rorty, depending on your specialty. If you are a romanticist (British, German, American, French, whatever), Rorty sees philosophical pragmatism as a submovement to the larger Romantic movement. His picture of language, the self, and community can be seen as an interpretation of what’s living in Shelley’s “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (If you are a modernist, Rorty once said that postmodernism in philosophy and theory was just philosophy catching up to literary modernism.) If you are an Americanist, pragmatism as America’s indigenous philosophical movement has been gaining more attention lately as literary scholars try to identify the larger intellectual currents at work, which one can find in not just philosophers, but other cultural performers (since, as I implied earlier, the philosophers themselves aren’t about to do it). This has had a lot to do with Stanley Cavell, but if Cornel West is right, and I think he is in The American Evasion of Philosophy, then the philosophical movement that begins with Peirce, James, and Dewey and continues to Rorty, Putnam, and others has its roots in Emerson. [3] Rorty didn’t talk much of Emerson until the very end of his career, but it isn’t difficult to see the genealogy.

2.      This is the outline of the book
Part I: Contingency
1) The Contingency of Language
2) The Contingency of Selfhood
3) The Contingency of a Liberal Community

Part II: Ironism and Theory
4) Private Irony and Liberal Hope
5) Self-Creation and Affiliation: Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger
6) From Ironist Theory to Private Allusions: Derrida

Part III: Cruelty and Solidarity
7) The Barber of Kasbeam: Nabokov on Cruelty
8) The Last Intellectual in Europe: Orwell on Cruelty
9) Solidarity
Part I sketches the basics of Rorty’s pragmatist philosophy, as both epistemology and political philosophy. Its highlights are his account of metaphor as the basic unit of language, his attempt to efface the final remains of Platonic essentialism from Romanticism, and his account of left-liberalism in the face of Marxism (a particular highlight here being his deft schematization of Habermas and Foucault—the former is “a liberal unwilling to be an ironist” and the latter “an ironist unwilling to be a liberal”).

Part I culminates in the fourth chapter, the first of Part II. It is here that Rorty outlines his infamous figure of the “liberal ironist.” He also begins to say nice things about literary critics and outlines the utility of the classic liberal distinction between private and public spheres as a means of dividing up lists of books—the first are books good for self-enlargement and the second are books good for holding a community together. This then divides the second movement of the book, which includes the last two chapters of Part II and the first two of Part III.

Chapters 5 and 6 give an account of the “end of metaphysics” sequence of Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida by suggesting that their importance is to those who were already caught up by the power-dreams of Plato—Plato’s dream of ruling the world with his mind. [3] The account is particularly intended to suggest that this sequence does not have any particular consequences for how we think about life together with each other—that any moral or political consequences of their work (their anti-metaphysical work) can be brushed off. [4]

Chapters 7 and 8 concentrate on books good for public morality. Since Rorty follows Judith Shklar in defining the liberal as one for whom “cruelty is the worst thing one can do,” the books he suggests bring out that thematic. His chapter on Nabokov focuses on Lolita and Pale Fire as about heightening our awareness of how we are privately cruel to each other (through obsession), and attempts to balance against that Nabokov’s own aestheticism (his hatred of “topical trash” that helped public morality). Rorty’s chapter on Orwell focuses on 1984 as a scenario about what intellectuals would do in a world given an antifoundationalist picture of culture—conceptual humiliation. O’Brien is a picture of what is latent in all of us who are smarter than others. (And balanced against this picture of Orwell is Orwell’s own sense that “truth” is an effective weapon in the nightmare of 1984, which Rorty argues is not an available position for thorough-going antifoundationalists.)

And Chapter 9 just kinda’ sums things up.

In the rest of this space, I will talk about some of the special issues that can come up in reading Contingency, and try to fill in some special gaps in philosophical background one might have in approaching the book. One might first, though, peruse my “Introduction to Rorty.”

3. On Rorty’s Interpretations      When Rorty says at the beginning that “parts of this book skate on pretty thin ice – the passages in which I offer controversial interpretations of authors whom I discuss only briefly. This is particularly true of my treatment of Proust and of Hegel – authors about whom I hope someday to write more fully. But in other parts of the book the ice is a bit thicker” (xi)—take him seriously, but ask yourself what this means in terms of our responsibility as readers and writers. For the professionalization of the humanities has meant increasing specialization, as big problems are broken into smaller and smaller problems, which begin accumulating their own histories, as the scholarly literature on a subsubsubject stretches further and further into the past. Being a scholar in part means knowing your way around the major players and arguments of your field, but the difficulty of this in an age of specialization was already being felt in 1938, when A. O. Lovejoy—often marked as a progenitor of the history of ideas as a subdiscipline—said, “…it is now plain that the scholar who wishes to understand sufficiently the material within almost any one these divisions [of subfields in intellectual history, e.g. history of science or literary history] must take account of material lying, according to the conventional boundary-lines, in other—often in several other—divisions. But no man, obviously, can be a competent original investigator in many provinces even of history.” [5]

I point this out first because one important criticism of Rorty has been not only on the accuracy of his interpretations—a category he quite nearly (and misleadingly) abjures—but on his moral irresponsibility in promulgating them. One of the implicit lessons of Contingency is the importance of having a large view—a large synoptic account of the history of, well, everything. Or if not that, a large view that engulfs your own activities—a view in which you can situate yourself. Rorty was fond of Wilfrid Sellars’ definition of philosophy: “an attempt to see how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term.” But this clearly borders on professional irresponsibility, for who could specialize in that? [6]

4.      But do it we must, and a good way of thinking about taking the long, large view of history and thought is as inherently philosophical—taking a big view automatically means you are taking a stance on today’s conceptual issues by which you narrate the path to those views. Taking a big view means waging philosophical war—and that means you have to gird yourself with the right equipment. Whether it’s the history of literary criticism (a history of the tools the critic uses), the history of literary conventions (a history of the author’s tools), or the history of other stuff, like the history of philosophy, or politics, or class warfare—you can’t be a specialist in all of these things, but you might need to have a view of them. And doing so means picking out one thread among many—and argument about that choice will be philosophical, insofar as it is inconclusive because about guiding assumptions, rather than about how to work out the implications of agreed upon premises.

Rorty’s “other stuff” would be primarily filled in by the history of philosophy. Though Rorty doesn’t officially make a distinction between the genres of poetry, philosophy, and the novel, he is yet specifically concerned with generating philosophical views from his readings, which is different than other concerns one might have doing literary criticism, or other things more generally. However, I think it is important to see that for Rorty, there is nothing inimical to Rorty’s procedure in the impact of other concerns on the meaning of a text (e.g. economic or political history). People often criticize Rorty for, essentially, not talking about what they want to talk about, but that’s a social faux pas, not an argument. But—say you understand Rorty well enough to reply, “wait, but doesn’t Rorty think that the only real thing to do against assumptions and premises you don’t want to use is to change the subject, not argue against them?” (See CIS 8-9) He does think that, but if one has come round to it, then one should also see that the real faux pas wasn’t Rorty’s, but the critic for tactlessly formulating their objections as direct arguments—for whining that he isn’t talking about you. The only way out of this circle of offense is an easygoing ecumenicism—there is room for many concerns. That doesn’t mean we abjure entirely the activity of being critical of each other’s concerns, but it does mean we carry that activity on in a different manner.

As for what even Rorty thought of as his particular, slanted interpretations of individual thinkers, I leave the last word to Daniel Dennett, a reply to the paper Rorty cites in CIS 13n4:
I find Professor Rorty’s bird’s-eye view of the history of philosophy of mind both fascinating and extremely useful, full of insights and provocation, and, of course, flattering [it was a progressive history that ended in Dennett’s lap]. Rorty proceeds by deliberate and knowing oversimplification – often a useful tactic – and since it is useful on this occasion, it would be particularly counter-productive for me to succumb to the powerful temptation to plow seriatim through his account restoring all the complications he has so deftly ignored. My first reaction, though, is that the momentum he builds up in the course of his interpretations leads to a certain overshooting of the mark. Also, like many other revolutionaries before him, Rorty has trouble deciding whether to declare victory, declare that victory is inevitable, or implore you to join in a difficult and uncertain struggle against the powers of darkness. I ask myself: Am I a nominalist? Do I declare the death of theories of the mind? Am I – or should I be – a Village Verificationist after all? [All imputed notions by Rorty.] I always seem to want to answer: not quite. Since I, as an irremediably narrow-minded and unhistorical analytic philosopher, am always looking for a good excuse not to have to read Hegel or Heidegger or Derrida or those other chaps who don’t have the decency to think in English, I am tempted by Rorty’s performance on this occasion to enunciate a useful hermeneutical principle, the Rorty Factor: Take whatever Rorty says about anyone’s views and multiply it by .742. After all, if Rorty can find so much more in my own writing than I put there, he’s probably done the same or better for Heidegger – which means I can save myself the trouble of reading Heidegger; I can just read Rorty’s PMN and come out about 40% ahead – while enjoying the reading at the same time. … Balancing the prima facie presumption in favor of authorial authority is the well-known fact that people battling it out in the trenches seldom have a clear perspective on what they’ve accomplished, or even what the deeper point of their skirmishes might be. [7] (bold is mine)

5. On Pragmatism      One of the most important formulas for coming to grips with what Rorty takes pragmatism’s core to be is belief is a habit of action. For Rorty, the fundamental identity of pragmatism is the reversal of Plato’s attitude that theorists should dictate to the world—it instead amounts to saying that praxis has priority over theoria. This fundamental orientation emits into the social-practice theories we associate with Dewey in particular, and then Sellars, Rorty, and Robert Brandom, though it goes back to Hegel (and thence to Marx in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” in a different genealogy). Every theory is grounded in practice; every saying is a doing, such that not only can you give an account of what you are doing by what you say (such as Austinian speech-act theory), you should (must) be able to give an account of what it is for a doing to count as a saying—that would be a pragmatic, Wittgensteinian account of language such that “meaning is use,” emitting in an inferential semantics grounded in a normative pragmatics (à la Brandom).

Four good precursor moments are these:

The idea itself about beliefs being treated as habits of action should be traced to Alexander Bain: a belief is “of that which a man is prepared to act” (The Senses and the Intellect, 1855). Peirce and James encountered Bain through Nicholas St. John Green in the Metaphysical Club, the famous group of mid-19th century intellectuals.

Peirce said in his pragmatist tract, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (1878), that belief is “the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit.” This is the central articulation of pragmatism about belief. (He also said in the same paragraph that belief “is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life,” which makes me think of Kenneth Burke: “the symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude.” [8])

James uses this idea in “The Will to Believe” (1896): “The maximum of liveness [from James’s criteria of a genuine option for thought as forced, living, and momentous] in an hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.” And then see, more famously, James’s articulation of what he calls “Peirce’s principle”: “To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all” (“What Pragmatism Means,” 1906).

But if the formula about belief comes most directly from Bain, one must still compare Emerson: “The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action” (“The American Scholar,” 1837).

6.      One important element in Rorty’s understanding of pragmatism that is connected to the priority of practice to theory is his construal of language as a tool rather than as a medium of representation. Here are three nice precursor passages to Rorty’s argument:

Wittgenstein: “Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.” [9]

James: “Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest. You know how men have always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part in magic words have always played. If you have his name, or the formula of incantation that binds him, you can control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. … That word names the universe’s principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself. … But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.” [10]

Dewey: “Speaking from the standpoint of anthropology Franz Boas says: ‘The two outer traits in which the distinction between the minds of animals and man finds expression are the existence of organized articulate speech in man and the use of utensils of varied application.’ It is antecedently probable that sole external marks of difference are more than external; that they have intimate connection with such intrinsic differences as religion, art and science, industry and politics. ‘Utensils’ were discussed in the last chapter, in connection with the useful arts and knowledge, and their indispensable relation with science pointed out. But at every point appliances and application, utensils and uses, are bound up with directions, suggestions and records made possible by speech; what has been said about the role of tools is subject to a condition supplied by language, the tool of tools.” [11] (bold is mine)

7. On Antirepresentationalism      If fundamental pragmatism is in some manner the priority of practice to theory, then how does one apply that to theory, to philosophy? Rorty thought that pragmatism’s role in the history of thought was the codification of a certain set of philosophical views that had accrued to the attempts to do philosophy in the Platonic manner. Central to this orientation is the idea that life is an inquiry and refinement of our attitudes and beliefs. If that has priority—like in the Socratic mode of living an examined life—then one will find it easy to swallow Peirce’s maxim that “one must not block the way of inquiry” (“The First Rule of Logic,” 1898). Rorty followed Dewey in often deploying Locke’s conception of the philosopher as an underlaborer, moving out the conceptual debris that accumulates after special disciplines blow the rock out for new pathways of thought. The main concern here is that old modes of thought can make new ones difficult to hew. So Rorty’s main targets in philosophy are Platonic artifacts, since Rorty takes the moral of the last 2500 years of inquiry to be that Platonic philosophy has become outmoded. [12]

This being the case, the priority of this orientation to philosophy assures that the specific theses that a philosopher might hold as a pragmatist are up for grabs. Eventually, many of the positions that the classical pragmatists held and promulgated might be found wanting on specific kinds of ground. This irony is embodied in the joke so often made by critics of pragmatism about the so-called “pragmatist theory of truth”—that its definition, “truth is what works,” must be false because it doesn’t work. [13] For some time during the 20th century, pragmatism was thought to stand or fall on its theory of truth, as if that was centrally what it was or had to contribute. Rorty’s suggestion that pragmatism doesn’t, popular conception to the contrary, even have a theory of truth was one way that Rorty tried to make this point about pragmatism. [14] Pragmatism is, in this sense, first a metaphilosophy. What the priority of praxis to theoria means for philosophy is that specific theses must be picked up one at a time and tested on their ability to pass the pragmatist test—what’s the difference that makes a difference?

8.      Since in philosophy it can often be hard to see what practical difference follows from a theoretical position, and even just what would count as a practical difference, pragmatism often functions as a set of negative dialectical devices—a set of “anti-”s employed against currently identified Platonic ghosts, still haunting our attempts to make our way about the world. Pragmatism as a tradition, in this sense, is the accumulated wisdom of anti-Platonism. One of these is antirepresentationalism. However, before talking directly about it—since Rorty does most of the elaboration of it in Contingency—I think it’s useful to begin with C. G. Prado’s remark:
“Teaching Rorty is difficult. Students respond favourably, but superficially, to his critique. They consider it iconoclastic and exciting, but few of them have had the time to feel the grip of what he rejects. They may appreciate in an abstract way that it is unproductive to do epistemology but few can feel liberated by Rorty’s critique because they have not been captives of [Richard] Bernstein’s ‘Cartesian Anxiety’.” [15]
Prado’s point is that one won’t understand the point of pragmatism unless one feels the force of Platonism, just as one won’t see the point of a Road Clearing Service unless one sees the debris blocking the highway.

“Cartesian Anxiety” was Bernstein’s helpful name for the peculiar epistemological trouble that Descartes imprinted upon modern philosophy. You won’t feel Cartesian Anxiety just because you’ve been burned a few times about what is the case in the world— doubt of some current beliefs is not enough to induce the specific kind of doubt that Descartes represents. You need additional collateral commitments to fall into a global skepticism about all of your beliefs, or what Peirce lampooned as “fake doubt.” As Bernstein says of Descartes’ Meditations, “the specter that hovers in the background of this journey [of the soul] is not just radical epistemological skepticism but the dread of madness and chaos where nothing is fixed, where we can neither touch bottom nor support ourselves on the surface.” [16]

Ultimately, what induces Cartesian Anxiety is commitment to a theoretical project aimed at accounting for the relationships between persons, words, and the world. This general theoretical project—philosophy—can be broken down into a lot of smaller projects trying to do smaller things. The image here is of philosophy as the origin-inquiry, a tree growing out of the ground of life, and when a branch of philosophy falls off, it sometimes grows its own roots in the ground, becoming a special science of some kind. When these special disciplines, like physics, break off from philosophy, they typically take the problems they work on with them—this narrows what philosophers do as other people successfully specialize. As more and more special disciplines arose, the fewer things philosophers thought of as their purview.

9.      Cartesian Anxiety is a modern manifestation of a broader current: commitment to explaining how knowledge works plus respectful fear of an infinite regress. Pressing the claim “How do you know?” eventually pushes a conversation toward attention on the verbs doing the work of articulating the activity involved in framing the claim—this inevitably makes the conversation about how knowing works. Respect for the problem of the infinite regress is a commitment to the idea that one should justify each claim—but since each justification is itself a claim, this could go on indefinitely, thus committing you to a life of nothing but self-justification. Special disciplines don’t care about the infinite regress—when pressed about how they know a certain claim of theirs is true, they eventually stop and say, “because I’m a physicist—that’s how I know there’s gravity.” Physicists aren’t required to have a general account of how knowledge works; they only need an account of how particles and waves work, just declaring at the end that they’ve added to our knowledge. Fear of an infinite regress, however, makes one edgy about just how that knowledge composes itself. The primary response mechanism in European philosophy has been foundationalism—the attempt to stop the regress upon something hard, stable, and unjustifiable, er, self-justifying.

Foundationalism begins with Plato’s notion of the “land beyond hypotheses.” [17] Plato understood that claims are moved forward by supposing a P and working out its inferential consequences in Q and thence to R. You have to hypothesize the truth of P to get an inferential chain off the ground, though, because else you’ll spend the rest of your life moving backwards, justifying P with O, O with N, on and on. Aristotle’s notion of the “Prime Mover” picks up the same idea, dealing not with the conceptual-epistemological realm of reason but the material-metaphysical realm of cause—what was the finger that flicked the first domino? Modern foundationalism begins when Descartes turns the infinite regress into a weapon—follow the rabbit down the hole until you reach the bottom: What can I not doubt? This made answering the skeptic—who doubts ever claim you throw out, always asking, “How do you know?”—the problem that took priority in doing epistemology, and thus structuring the inquiry.

So—modern epistemological foundationalism is a function of the theoretical project of accounting for how knowledge functions and of the fear of an infinite regress posed by the skeptic: this is tantamount to making certainty central to one’s epistemological problematic rather than any other concept (authority, belief, truth, justification, etc.).

But—doesn’t that make foundationalism and not representationalism the Platonic ghost?


10.      Philosophical theses are bound up with one another, and themselves bound up with metaphors and images we use to articulate the structure of those theses—for example, a foundation, like under a house. However, the metaphors themselves don’t intrinsically carry with them philosophical theses. For example, if I were asked for the grounds of my claim (“on what grounds do you believe that?”), despite the fact “ground” belongs in the same family as “foundation,” the question is perfectly non-foundationalist—I’m simply being asked for my justification.

It’s important to remember this point every time Rorty talks about rejecting metaphors or images—it’s the cloying attachment of philosophical theses born out in traditions of thought that makes Rorty nauseous. Representationalism is a philosophical family of theses that treats language’s primary purpose to be the accurate representation or mirroring of or correspondence to the world. This is largely an epistemological issue, and since it has most recently been fought out on the turf of philosophy of language, this accounts for Rorty’s particular modes of elaborating the pragmatist position. Different Platonic enemies would have called for different modes of being anti-Platonist.

But as philosophy became increasingly focused on how language functions, it has opened up new vistas upon which to think about the idea of representation. For example, on the semantic score, representationalism—because it focuses on the relation between person and world via media (ideas, words, etc.)—has centered on “aboutness”: how something is about something else (e.g., a word about the world). Rorty has been accused of relishing a spirit of free play by authorizing a relinquishing of concern about the world in his abjuration of representationalism (mainly because of his early paper “The World Well Lost”). The argument is that by getting rid of representation one is getting rid of constraint imposed on one’s practices by the world—there’s nothing on the other end of the “about,” no object to check against what you want to say about it. But Rorty will often say that there’s nothing in antirepresentationalism that speaks against using the word “about.”

11.      And then there are all the other kinds of representation—literary representation, political representation, geographical. Typically so-called “symbolic” modes, as in the first two cases, seem more obviously unaffected by Rorty’s polemics: the strike against representationalism is a strike against realisms that say the world tells us how things should be described. But maps seem to bring us around to the problem again by forcing us to seriously consider how exactly we redescribe relevant modes of discourse—we draw the lines on the map, but we didn’t put the mountain on the earth. So—not only how do we describe modes that seem to have obvious forms of isomorphism with “the world” (maps, “the cat is on the mat”), but how do we precisely describe differences in modes?

Any and every theoretical collapsing move you encounter (“Xs are really nothing but Ys”) is in the service of some purpose. Since there is more than one purpose with which to service speech acts (and therefore descriptions, distinctions, and entire modes of discourse), having a fine grained sense of when to give a shit about antirepresentationalism can be as important as trying live by its consequences.

12. On Argumentation      One of Rorty’s most provocative positions is on the utility of arguments, and certainly his most provocative moment (for philosophers) is when he says at the beginning of Contingency that he isn’t going to offer any. One of the reasons Rorty thinks of arguments as subsidiary to interesting philosophical work is because he thinks of interesting philosophy as world-disclosure—this is like hanging things together, but throwing out some new stuff to hang together during the process. In this mode, his early dictum that “any philosophical position can be made impervious and self-coherent with enough time and ingenuity” suggests that a clever enough visionary can always add the necessary epicycles to refine his account and make counter-arguments fall flat. [18]

So the question to ask about argumentative holes is not “can the position be saved?” but “how seriously should I take this objection?” This latter question is the more difficult one of assessing the motivations of the objection and the history of cultural production that has produced them. This is the problem of vocabulary choice, which occupies most of Rorty’s attention. It is not that arguments are unimportant, it is that they are abbreviations for visions—internal arguments with members of your own party affiliation are disputes about how best to get the vision in working order. External arguments, while pointing out holes that need addressing, are also dismissive in the sense that they are meant to induce you to drop the vocabulary entirely. So assessing an (external) argument is partly an assessment of whether you the philosopher take it seriously for a reason you haven’t made explicit to yourself and that just might override your current vocabulary choice—but it wasn’t the argument that overrides, it was the vision that you in the end decide is better or more important.

13.      An important notion to understand here is what Rorty means when he says arguments are parasitic. What he means is that logical inference functions on this model of the syllogism:
Premise 1          P
Premise 2          If P, then Q
Conclusion 1     Q (because of modus ponens, which is Latin for “how a conditional locution works, dumbass”)
On this model, you have to assume two things as your premises before you can draw the conclusion, or prove it or justify it. “Why ‘Q?” “Oh, because ‘P’ and ‘If P, then Q’.” “Oh, I see, you’re assuming P. But I don’t think P is actually a good claim at all.” Ah, but for the purposes of the inference, it is assumed. But now you are being asked to defend P, which makes you move backward in the constellation of your claims.
Premise 1          R
Premise 2          If R, then P
Conclusion 2     P
But what if your interlocutor questions R? This could go on ad infinitum, and indeed this problem is what motivated Plato and Aristotle to be concerned about infinite regress and suggest foundationalism for how argument works: all good arguments actually rest their back on the foundation whether we as of yet know it or not, and if we could find this foundation, then we’d be able to sort out which arguments are good or bad. So Rorty sees that the attack against foundationalism is an attack on how arguments (are thought to) work.

14.      Starting with John Stuart Mill, the idea that the premises in arguments are actually self-reinforcing became a rising star in logic. (Notice the “actually”: is this a metaphysical noise?) Mill said in his System of Logic that “if logic did not contain real inferences, all deductive reasoning would be petitio principii, a begging of the question.”

Rorty is essentially denying that there are these things called “real inferences” because it is Platonic: a “real inference” would work from a “fact,” and not from the definition of words, and that fact is what would make the inference real and not question-begging. (If you are familiar with the idiom, a real inference would be synthetic and its opposite analytic, and Mill is saying that some of our inferences have to be synthetic. [19]) Thus Rorty’s polemic against facts, which all have to be stated in a vocabulary: words that reinforce each other. (Look in a dictionary for an example of how words reinforce each other.) So if you abjure the vocabulary a fact is stated in, then you are abjuring all those things the people who use the vocabulary call “facts.” But: are you denying the facts or the ability to state those facts?

When Rorty calls arguments parasitic, he’s saying that an inferential argument against the facts—to deny those facts—has to be stated in the vocabulary that created those facts. But to deny the vocabulary denies the ability to even state the facts, and thus begs the question because you’ve denied the person the ability to say what he wants to say because you’ve assumed that starting that way is the wrong way. I say “assumed” because if a vocabulary is self-reinforcing—in the manner that if you had above asked for justification of R, I would have given you a proof that assumes Q, thus running around in a nice circle—then there’s nothing to break reinforcement except for not entering the whirlpool.

15.      What Rorty does with this point is to say that what we need, then, is a new constellation of self-reinforcing commitments—i.e., a new vocabulary. He’s abjuring argument now because he has to put in place the new commitments that will argumentatively reinforce each other later.

Another way to put this is to make a distinction between two types of claims: there are entitlement-claims that justify a commitment and there are commitment-claims that express a commitment. [20] One reason why we need to make a distinction between the two is to avoid a practical infinite regress: if we in practice did not make a distinction between the two, then a person’s mouth would open and then never close (“I believe P because Q because R because S because...”). So, because this is obviously not the case, we in practice make a distinction between entitlement-justifying-claims and commitment-expressing-claims. What Rorty’s announcing in his abjuration of arguments is that he will be making claims (and so stating “how things are”), but they will be commitment-claims and without (largely) their attending entitlement-claims. The reason why he thinks he needs to do this is because “vocabulary,” in his vision, equates to “commitment-claims,” and so he needs to lay out a bunch of commitment-claims and show how they hang together before he can start plausibly using those commitment-claims to justify the other one’s in the constellation (see Ch. 4 on “final vocabularies”). In other words, he thinks you need a bunch of the commitment-claims out there before you can start plausibly converting them into entitlement-claims. And this would be what “holism” demarcates, or the “hermeneutical circle.”

16. Conclusion?      This has been an odd exercise in writing, and I’m not terribly sure it was a good one. It wasn’t really a summary of Rorty’s book, so I’m not really sure if any of the last sections are useful to someone who hasn’t read any Rorty before. One reason I’m confused, as a writer, is that I was finished with everything I was going to say at the end of the last section—but it clearly didn’t feel like an ending.

So, let me just close by saying: some people don’t like Rorty because of the way he sounds. Some people don’t like Rorty because of the philosophical positions they think he takes. Some people don’t like Rorty because they think he’s an irresponsible scholar.

I like Rorty. I have a personal relationship with the voice embedded in his writing. [21] A friend of mine read a little of Rorty and thought he was arrogant. I have nothing to say to that. It’s like when someone recommends a band to listen to—if you hate the band, you might wonder why the friend ever suggested you’d like it. Sometimes it’s because the friend is piously trying to get everyone to like what they love. I don’t have that interest. I have an interest in defending Rorty’s philosophy, because it’s pretty much the place where I begin mine, but I don’t care if everyone has the same experience reading him as I do. One can have a philosophy that corresponds to all the tenets I think important to hold without having read Rorty, or any pragmatist for that matter.

17.      But if one thinks one disagrees with Rorty’s philosophy, it’s important to bear in mind just how trashed an image he has—trashed by, basically, gossip. I don’t mean something risqué, like de Man’s anti-Semitic writings or a cuckolding. I mean how people make claims about Rorty’s philosophy when they are easily refutable by citing Rorty’s work. I take as an example somebody who could not possibly be taken for a virulent critic of Rorty (though there are many I would count as those): Ian Hacking. Hacking is a wonderful, clear, powerful philosopher in Rorty’s generation. I don’t know Hacking’s corpus the way I do Rorty’s, but I can’t think of anything important they might disagree about. In fact, this must be widely perceived, because Cheryl Misak, one this generation’s more important analytic pragmatists, hounded Hacking to write a contribution to her collection of articles from powerful contemporary pragmatist(ish) voices, New Pragmatists. So he wrote one, with due apology, called “On Not Being a Pragmatist.”

In that paper, he says
I have recently been deeply influenced by Bernard Williams’s last book, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. This has received a pretty lukewarm reception, like Colin McGinn’s. If we may take Richard Rorty’s review as expressing the neo-pragmatist reaction, then this book shares almost nothing with pragmatism. … Williams takes truth to be timeless, to have no history, to be part of the structure necessary for human linguistic communication. … In contrast, Williams takes truthfulness about a subject matter to have a history and to have a beginning. … I had the good luck to express the idea correctly in 1982: “although whichever propositions are true depends on date, the fact that they are candidates for being true is a consequence of historical fact.” … These ideas of truth, truthfulness, and objectivity are foreign to neo-pragmatism.
I have the deepest admiration for Hacking’s work as a philosopher, but this made me sad. Williams comes close to being a virulent critic of Rorty’s, but I’ve come to think of him as more of a friend than an enemy. Williams has some detailed things to say about Rorty in that book, but I think they are ultimately negligible. (And answerable, though I’ve yet had the opportunity to work it out.) For if Hacking’s right in his broad-brush characterization of the upshot of Williams’s book, then Rorty’s totally on board. “Williams takes truth to be timeless”—Rorty says, “Truth is, to be sure, an absolute notion.” [22] “I had the good luck to express the idea correctly”—Rorty uses Hacking’s notion of a “truth-value candidate” in Contingency to express the historical quality of vocabularies (or in Hacking’s vocabulary, styles of reasoning). [23] Hacking says that from Rorty’s review, Williams’s book must having nothing in common with neopragmatism: then why does Rorty praise the historical, last half of Truth and Truthfulness?

What bugs me when this kind of thing happens between two powerful philosophers (like whenever Hilary Putnam opens his mouth about Rorty) is that really interesting differences are avoided—worse, the real issues that should be talked about aren’t allowed to be brought up. From reading Rorty’s polemical use of Williams as a realist in the essays on the philosophy of science in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, I had initially thought of Williams as a “bad guy”—a realist, a Platonist, a representationalist, a metaphysician in the vocabulary of Contingency. After reading more Rorty on Williams and Williams himself, I’ve come to think of Williams as very odd—a perfectly compatible moral philosophy (i.e. historicist, anti-Kantian, and Nietzschean) with a realist epistemology/philosophy of science. Whether or not Rorty’s philosophy of science is compatible with the moral philosophies staked out in Williams’s books is a good question, and it would clarify just what the major philosophical commitments are in play. But that’s not what we usually get.

18.      One of these real issues in the background is about Rorty’s scholarship. I raised the issue in my comments about Rorty’s interpretations. Williams denounced Rorty’s scholarly abilities in his scorching review of Contingency. But I think Rorty’s writing fulfills an important function for the scholar, even if I would concede they don’t take a scholarly form. For example, I have for years been unable to trace Hacking’s notion of a “truth-value candidate” that Rorty from time to time refers to—all uncited. Sometimes Rorty is being allusive, but sometimes you don’t remember—the scholar (and it has to resound in your head with a deep, slow lilt) would never write something that wasn’t properly researched and cited. But the mode of writing Rorty is involved in has somewhat different standards. It’s hard to specify what they are, but it is certainly more relaxed. I think the idea is “though I can’t remember where he says this, you should trust me that he does, because the important thing is to keep the conversation going.” It’s a style we sometimes see referred to as “unforced erudition.” It’s something we don’t get to see much these days from many of our academics, but you can still find it in venues like the London Review of Books. These are venues where scholars can say fresh things, sometimes timely things, without needing a dense forest of books in a bibliography that appear in long, pointless endnotes that are just lists of books the author half-read. Maybe it makes sense, then, that the first three chapters appeared in 1986 in the LRB.

(See—doesn’t that feel just a little bit more like an ending?)

Appendix 1
Select Annotated Bibliography of American Pragmatism for Lit Crits

This is just a short list of books that might be useful for tracking down features of American pragmatism. There are three categories that I use to talk about pragmatism, the first two being traditional designations. One is classical pragmatism—the late 19th, early 20th century originators (Peirce, James, Dewey, but also F. C. S. Schiller, George Herbert Mead, and perhaps others). The other major label is neopragmatism—this is almost always used primarily to designate mid- to late 20th century practitioners that took the “linguistic turn.” However, throughout the period of neopragmatism there have been what we might call “originalists” who disdained analytic philosophy and the linguistic turn, and who mainly contented themselves with being scholars of their classical heroes (e.g., John McDermott). Recently, though, there has been a resurgence of mainstream philosophers who wish to “turn back the linguistic turn.” This has bolstered the confidence of pragmatists who disdain analytic philosophy and allowed them back into the main centers of discussion. I call these retropragmatists. I mainly ignore the retropragmatists. [25]

The best introduction to the core philosophy of classical and neopragmatism:
John P. Murphy, Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson – terribly difficult to find, but well worth it. It is the pithiest and most effective pedagogical tool to bootstrap yourself into the core philosophical issues that stretch through this particular, selected canon (Peirce, James, Dewey, Quine, Davidson, Rorty). Since Murphy died before it could be published, it includes a short introduction by Rorty (since he was asked to complete the task of getting it ready).

The best introductory philosophical history of pragmatism:
Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism – What makes West’s story most interesting is that he spends the first three chapters hammering out pragmatism’s roots in Emerson, before taking us through Peirce, James, and Dewey. And second, after finishing Dewey he takes us through W. E. B. DuBois and Lionel Trilling before getting to Quine and Rorty. It’s an illuminating tour that requires no previous knowledge of the subjects—West’s style is less critical-analytical than one might hope for, but he supplies large, sweeping quotations of passages, which makes it a good introductory read. Another good book along these lines is Russell B. Goodman’s American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition.

Self-identified neopragmatists would have to include: Morton White, C. I. Lewis, W. v. O. Quine (first gen); Richard Bernstein, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty (second gen); and Robert Brandom and Huw Price (third gen). Because of the story that some of these pragmatists tell about pragmatism and what counts as pragmatism, the honorary list has been extended to include: Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars (ancestor and first gen), and Donald Davidson (second gen). There are also two important hangers-on: Stanley Fish and Jeffery Stout.

The first generation is probably negligible, except for the honorary Wittgenstein. He’s interesting for all kinds of reasons for literary critics (e.g., his highly idiosyncratic style of doing philosophy). However, if you really want to read some Quine, Sellars, and Davidson, here are the important bits for seeing their pragmatism:

Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” in From a Logical Point of View

Sellars, Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind – originally collected as a long essay in Science, Perception, and Reality, the edition that stands alone is a must for a non-philosopher because it includes an introduction by Rorty and, most importantly, a Study Guide by Brandom. Sellars was notoriously dense and difficult to read for even insiders. [26]

Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation [27]
---, “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge” in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective
---, “The Myth of the Subjective” in same
---, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” in Truth, Language, and History [28]

A very good, though hard to find, systematic introduction to Davidson is Bjørn T. Ramberg’s Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language.

For Wittgenstein, indispensable is the Philosophical Investigations. Much good scholarship, however, has gone into discovering just what’s going on in there (against, for example, some early interpretations). So, equally indispensable is as a first step, I think, Stanley Cavell’s “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” in his Must We Mean What We Say?

Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History – Putnam was at the center of many of the most interesting philosophical conversations of hardcore analytic philosophy. This book is something like his turning point (much like, and in which he is most like, Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature), and so dives into the middle of technical analytic controversies and comes out with Hegelian, pragmatist positions. His books before it are technical and difficult. His books after are in large part collections of essays, and I’ve found many of them too light. However, one might also try Pragmatism and Beyond the Fact/Value Dichotomy. (I might, however, just have a personal grudge against Putnam given the way he treated Rorty in writing.)

Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism – this might be the best introduction to the philosophical concerns and figures that surround Rorty’s move from just analytic philosophy to include continental philosophy. It mints the idea of “Cartesian Anxiety,” which I find indispensable in describing foundationalism, and considers the very idea of anthropology (through Peter Winch, who applied Wittgenstein to social science), the philosophy of science (by rehearsing the storm of controversy that erupted after Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), and then turns to a critical engagement with and synthesis of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, and Rorty. (I should add that Bernstein is one of the few writers on Rorty that is any good. Among that number is also Stout, Ramberg, and Brandom. He and Rorty were born just one year apart and had nearly identical educations (same BA, MA, and PhD)—the only difference, as Bernstein likes to put it, is that Dick B. discovered the importance of Dewey at the beginning of his career, rather than the middle of it as Dick R. did.)

Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? – if you want a social-practice version of interpretation (which is to say, a pragmatist one), then this is it. (Rorty’s two pithiest essays on this specific subject are “Texts and Lumps” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth and “The Pragmatist’s Progress: Umberto Eco on Interpretation” in Philosophy and Social Hope). Two other good essays for approaching Fish as a pragmatist are:
“Rhetoric” in Doing What Comes Naturally
“Truth and Toilets” in The Trouble with Principle

Jeffery Stout, Democracy and Tradition – this book picks up, and substantially thickens, the kind of political philosophy Rorty articulates in Contingency and in Achieving Our Country. Stout is a philosopher of religion, and through partly criticizing Rorty’s extant engagement with religion, Stout has elaborated a sophisticated philosophy of democracy for the here and now: meaning the United States as we find it now, with terrorism and evangelical conservatism. What I love most about this book is its first two chapters: “Character and Piety from Emerson to Dewey” and “Race and Nation in Baldwin and Ellison.”

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club – this is the now standard book to historically situate Peirce, James, and Dewey.

David Hollinger, “William James and the Culture of Inquiry” in his In the American Province – works excellently with James in his historical context. Hollinger is an American intellectual historian, and the other essays in this volume are also useful for our literary concerns (e.g., one on modernism and another on Perry Miller). Another important essay, when it comes to the history of pragmatism, is James T. Kloppenberg’s “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?” (collected in several places, including The Revival of Pragmatism, mentioned below).

Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy
Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism
– both excellent books on Dewey and American political-intellectual history generally.

Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism – this book anchors an important beginning for a research paradigm into the nature of pragmatism. Poirier identifies pragmatism as “linguistic skepticism”—a notion that I think makes Poirier’s pragmatist nearly identical to Rorty’s ironist. Poirier then discusses Emerson and Emerson’s influence on William James, before using the fact that James taught Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein to broaden our understanding of the genealogy of pragmatism. Rather than a genealogy focused on theoretical theses, Poirier articulates a tradition of practice—a peculiar practice of writing that should be identified as pragmatist (so goes his argument).

Joan Richardson, A Natural History of Pragmatism – published in 2007, this book is at the forefront of the current conversation, begun in earnest by Poirier, about expanding our histories of pragmatism to include more than just parochial American philosophy professors. Other literary critics involved in this expansion might include Jonathan Levin, Andrea Knutson, James M. Albrecht, and Paul Grimstad.

The last book makes clear that, especially for literary critics, we will want to pay attention to our own people and their influence on something called “pragmatism.” I think the most important person in making the pre-history of pragmatism relevant to philosophy is Cavell—who does not consider himself a pragmatist. But in thinking about “philosophical literariness”—or whatever you want to call thinking philosophically with a text while not caring what genre the text is—his books The Senses of Walden and In Quest of the Ordinary are indispensable (he has a book of essays on just Shakespeare, too). (His The Claim of Reason is his opus, and one might think of it as a very Wittgensteinian version, in both form and content, of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.)

The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture, ed. Morris Dickstein – this must have been an amazing conference. It’s from 1998, so its essays are fairly up-to-date (as scholarly things go). Almost every contributor is a heavy-hitter: Rorty, Putnam, Cavell, Kloppenberg, Westbrook, Bernstein, Nancy Fraser, John Patrick Diggins, Richard Posner, Poirier, Menand, David Bromwich. And more.

Appendix 2
Analytical Table of Contents of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

Part I
          Ch. 1
3-5 – scientist vs. poet as hero
5-7 – sentences vs. vocabularies
7-9 – redescription vs. argumentation
9-11 – Davidson against “medium”
11-13 – vocabularies as tools
13-16 – passing theories, intentional stances, and there’s no such thing as language
*Act Break*
16-17 – nonteleological view of intellectual history
17-19 – Davidson on metaphor
19-20 – Nietzschean/Darwinian history of culture
*Act Break*
20-22 – against the priestly function
          Ch. 2
23-25 – tracing home the blind impress
25-29 – poetry vs. philosophy; confronting contingency
29-30 – the will to self-overcoming
30-32 – de-divinizing the self
32-34 – against reason-as-faculty and return to the concrete
*Act Break*
34-35 – dull vs. interesting, Kant vs. Nietzsche
35-37 – every life as a poem
37-39 – “genius” is what catches on
39-40 – the power of redescription and “the world”
*Act Break*
40-43 – strong poet as parasitic
          Ch. 3
44-45 – foundation vs. redescription
*Act Break*
45-47 – against relativism
47-51 – rationality as internal to a vocabulary
51-52 – truth is the upshot of free and open encounters
53-54 – poeticized culture
54-56 – philosophy is not neutral
56-57 – post-Marxist suspicion vs. pragmatic muddling
58-60 – principles as abbreviations for practices
60-61 – reform vs. revolution
*Act Break*
61-63 – Foucault vs. Habermas vs. Rorty
63-64 – against Foucault: the benefits outweigh the costs
64-65 – against the longing for total revolution
65-66 – against Habermas: don’t fear world-disclosure
66-68 – against “communicative reason” as foundation
68-69 – from epistemology to politics
Part II
          Ch. 4
73-74 – final vocabularies, irony
74-78 – common sense/metaphysics vs. ironism/nominalist-historicism
*Act Break*
78-79 – Hegel and philosophy as a literary genre
80-82 – literary critics as moral advisors
*Act Break*
82-83 – irony as irresponsible
84-85 – take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself
85-88 – objection: irony will dissolve social glue
88-90 – objection: irony is illiberal, humiliates
90-91 – irony doesn’t empower
92-93 – morality as skill at imaginative identification
94-95 – theory as private perfection/literature as social hope
          Ch. 5
96-98 – ironist theory
*Act Break*
98-100 – rearranging little mortal things
100-101 – theory and dialectical progression
101-102 – exhausting possibilities, apocalyptic novelty, prophecy
102-103 – debunking authority
103-105 – the Problem of Self-Conscious Theory: How do I end my book?
105-108 – beauty vs. sublimity
*Act Break*
108-109 – demands of theory and of self-creation
109-110 – Being and Time as transcendental project
110-112 – “history of Being” and exhaustion, a vocabulary both serious and ironic
112-114 – elementary words
114-116 – letting sound matter
116-117 – necessity of bildungsromans, house vs. tools
117-119 – litany vs. narrative, public resonance
119-121 – duty to self and duty to others
          Ch. 6
122-123 – Derrida against Heidegger
123-125 – Rorty against American deconstructionists
125-126 – fantasy as endpoint of ironist theory
126-127 – The Post Card and idiosyncratic obsessions (especially metaphysics)
127-130 – Plato, Socrates, and sex
130-131 – Freud and Heidegger
131-133 – “Fido”-Fido, Searle
133-134 – poetry as “off the hook from bad questions,” against method
134-137 – why is Derrida different? What is he good for? Is it philosophy?
Part III
          Ch. 7
141-144 – four categories of books across two distinctions: private/public, familiar/unfamiliar
*Act Break*
144-146 – aesthetic bliss and topical trash
*Act Break*
146-149 – Nabokov saving Dickens from “participative emotion”
149-152 – running together literary and personal immortality
152-154 – Platonic atemporalism and anti-Platonic sensualism
154-156 – an oversized sense of pity and hope for future generations rather than immortality
*Act Break*
156-158 – Nabokov as cruel aesthete (between Kinbote and Shade)
158-160 – the vice of incuriosity and the fear that ecstasy and kindness swing free of each other
161-164 – the monster of incuriosity in Lolita
164-167 – the monster of incuriosity in Pale Fire
*Act Break*
167-168 – summary: a private mythology of a special elite
          Ch. 8
169-171 – topical trash: sensitizing to a set of excuses for cruelty
171-172 – redescribing communism and inventing O’Brien
172-173 – Orwell as a metaphysical realist
173-175 – in search of some new political scenarios
175-176 – O’Brien: not Thrasymachus, but a rogue elephant
176-177 – if we take care of freedom, truth can take care of itself
177-179 – psychological torture as breaking one’s final vocabulary
179-180 – the object of torture is torture
180-183 – the fantasy of endless torture—the really scary part
183-185 – on the psychological implausibility of characters
*Act Break*
185-187 – ironists need to talk
187-188 – O’Brien as last ironist in Europe
          Ch. 9
189-190 – fundamental premise: a belief can still regulate action even if caused by nothing deep
190-192 – taking the sting off of “we vs. they”
192-195 – against the Kantian moral obligation tradition
195-196 – fuzzy but inspiring foci imaginarii
196-198 – philosophy in the service of democratic politics


[1] Next week, as “Some Other Bits I’m Posting about Rorty.”

[2] A newer -ism on the scene is posthumanism. See my discussion “Posthumanism, Antiessentialism, and Depersonalization” for an application of a Rortyan antifoundationalism.

[3] If you’ve read some Derrida, you’ll probably have no problem seeing Plato as power-mad, but perhaps the best expression of this same dream as it lives today was given by Robert Nozick in his Philosophical Explanations: “The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premisses you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief. … Wouldn’t it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddha-like. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. How’s that for a powerful argument?” (4)

[4] This had a certain urgency at the time because of the controversies/scandals surrounding Heidegger and Paul de Man. Heidegger, of course, was a member of the Nazi party, and when Heidegger started to become popular in English departments, a more general push against his philosophy on political grounds arose (or at least got more press). The intellectual historian Richard Wolin is an important figure in this regard. When de Man died, it came out that he had published some anti-Semitic articles in his youth in occupied Belgium. Because de Man’s work was seen as almost a direct extension of Derrida, this was thought to have a bearing on that American product, deconstructionism. The de Man scandal included some other things as well, and still has not died—cf. Peter Brooks’ review of Evelyn Barish’s recent biography of de Man in the New York Review of Books, “The Strange Case of Paul de Man” (April 3) and his exchange with David Lehman in the May 8 issue.

[5] This was from Lovejoy’s “The Historiography of Ideas,” collected in his Essays in the History of Ideas (quote on page 7). One might note his use of “original” and wonder whether originality matters in a professional, specialized inquiry. It’s always struck me that there’s an underlying tension, in the idea of “original scholarship,” between the Good and the New. It scares up your intuitions on the problem if you ask, “Would you rather be right or say something never before said?”

[6] I’ve talked about some of these problems with regards to literary criticism in “Do We Need a Center, or Generalities?”

[7] From Dennett’s “Comments on Rorty,” 349-50 in Synthese, November 1982

[8] See my discussion of this line and its pragmatism in “Literature as Equipment for Living and as Spiritual Exercise,” esp. section 3.

[9] Philosophical Investigations, §11

[10] “What Pragmatism Means”

[11] Experience and Nature, Ch. 5

[12] A good summary of Rorty’s stance, combined with his stance about argument, is from his introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism: “Pragmatists follow Hegel in saying that ‘philosophy is its time grasped in thought.’ Anti-pragmatists follow Plato in striving for an escape from conversation to something atemporal which lies in the background of all possible conversations. … I do not know what would count as a noncircular metaphysical or epistemological or semantical argument for seeing them in either way. So I think that the decision has to be made simply by reading the history of philosophy and drawing a moral” (174).

[13] This orientation of pragmatism’s is the focal point of my pithy introduction to pragmatism, “What Pragmatism Is.” The joke about pragmatism’s theory of truth comes up a lot when I talk about pragmatism and truth, but it is essentially the background of my somewhat eccentric “Rhetorical Universalism.”

[14] This was the way Rorty put it in the opening of his intro to Consequences. A good example of reticence by analytic philosophers to think of pragmatism any other way is Donald Davidson, whom Rorty greatly admired. Rorty continually tried recruiting Davidson into the pragmatist canon because he thought Davidson’s writing about language and truth were the right way to think about them, but Davidson always resisted because he couldn’t be convinced that pragmatism should be treated as having a disquotational theory of truth as opposed to a reductionistic assertional one (e.g. Dewey’s treatment of truth as warranted assertibility). I should also add here that Rorty’s attempt to scrape off the damning criticism of pragmatism’s theory of truth isn’t the only mode of trying to recontextualize the understanding of it by emphasizing other elements of the classical pragmatists. One way that has been steadily gaining steam over the last 30 years has been to give priority to their metaphysical construal of experience, e.g. making James’s radical empiricism the proper context in which to understand James’s pragmatism. I’ve discussed this mode under the moniker of “retropragmatism” in “Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism.”

[15] Alan Malachowski quotes Prado’s remark, from the latter’s The Limits of Pragmatism, in a helpful appendix to his collection Reading Rorty entitled “On Teaching Rorty.”

[16]Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 18. This book, which came out in 1983, is Bernstein’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Those two books should be read side-by-side to get a clear picture of what advanced post-positivist pragmatism should look like.

[17] The Republic, 510b

[18] This dictum is from the beginning of “Recent Metaphilosophy” (Review of Metaphysics, 1961), one of the fascinating early essays not included in Leach and Tartaglia’s recent anthology of Rorty’s early work (see my discussion). That being the case, I reproduce a large part of Rorty’s sweeping definition of metaphilosophy:
Metaphilosophy maybe defined as the result of reflection upon the following inconsistent triad:
(1)       A game in which each player is at liberty to change the rules whenever he wishes can neither be won nor lost.
(2)       In philosophical controversy, the terms used to state criteria for the resolution of arguments mean different things to different philosophers; thus each side can take the rules of the game of controversy in a sense which will guarantee its own success (thus, in effect, changing the rules).
(3)       Philosophical arguments are, in fact, won and lost, for some philosophical positions do, in fact, prove weaker than others.
The most obvious resolutions of this inconsistency are perhaps the following three:
(a)       One may say that (3) is false, and that it has an appearance of truth only because some philosophers are too dumb to make use of the device of changing the rules. If one takes this view, one will emphasize (2), and insist that any position which states itself in sufficiently general terms will be able to make itself impregnable. For any philosopher who is charged with, e.g., generating an infinite regress or arguing in a circle should, with a bit of ingenuity, either be able to invent suitable distinctions which will cut the regress or break the circle, or else be able to distinguish between good from bad regresses and vicious from fruitful circles. With the examples of Aquinas and Hegel before him, any philosopher who can neither distinguish away, nor aufheben, his opponent’s heuristic terms may fairly be judged to be incompetent. The existence of such incompetence, which is the only conceivable reason for ever losing a philosophical argument, is no more relevant to a discussion of the nature of philosophy than the existence of mistakes in calculation is relevant to a discussion of the nature of mathematics. I shall call this position metaphilosophical scepticism. …
(b)       [this position denies (2) and erects itself as basically representationalism—facts about terms determine how terms must be taken]
(c)       finally, one may deny the truth of (1), and say that, on the contrary, philosophy is the greatest game of all precisely because it is the game of “changing the rules.”
Rorty goes on to say some things about studying the patterns by which rules are changed—this is also where he first formulates his famous notion of “conversation” that played an important role at the end of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: “Metaphilosophers of this [(c)] stripe see the function of philosophy as making communication possible…. Since communication is the goal, rather than truth (or even agreement), the prospective infinite series is a progress rather than a regress: it becomes a moral duty to keep the series going, lest communication cease. To keep communication going is to win the game….”

[19] To be more precise, Rorty wants to reject the premise that suggests that there are only two options: either there’s a fact in the area or the truth is definitional (like “All bachelors are single” seems to be). Not being more precise, however, is why pragmatism has always seemed to court idealism.

[20] This is Brandom’s vocabulary. For an introduction to it, see “On the Asymmetry between Practical and Doxastic Commitments,” section 2 and 3.

[21] See my “Touchstones” for some reflection on this kind of orientation in reading.

[22] Truth and Progress, 2

[23] CIS 18

[24] I have to confess, though, that it drives me bananas in Harold Bloom—who, as far as I can tell, has never cited a single thing in his life (except, perhaps, under duress). Even David Bromwich, who is a master of easy erudition, sometimes drives me crazy.

[25]For a discussion of Rorty’s relationship to their main ideas, see “Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism.”

[26] For a philosophical background to Quine and Sellars, see “Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn.”

[27] For a philosophical introduction to this essay, see my “Davidson’s ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.’”

[28] Minus “Myth,“ these can be found in The Essential Davidson.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Legacy of Group Thinking, III

“From Philosophy to Cultural Politics”

1.      This is something like a conclusion to “The Legacy of Group Thinking” and its addendum, "Probability, Community, and Criteria." Whereas the addendum was closer to a reworking of the same set of issues in the microcosm of two particular examples Bromwich uses in Politics by Other Means, this piece gets to the point of wanting to formulate an answer—what is the legacy of what Bromwich disparages as “group thinking”? Because if I’m right in the first two, then thinking should be more complex in relationship to group identification and one’s community of origin then Bromwich at times lets on. And moving toward that assessment raises the larger question that lurks in the background of discussion of “political correctness” and affirmative action policies—how do you change people?

Rorty gradually came to identify philosophy with what he called “cultural politics.” Rorty’s attack on what he referred to as the Cultural Left in Achieving Our Country—the tenured post-Civil Rights generation that transformed, in particular, English departments—cannot be understood properly until one makes the connection between his dismay over their abdication of money as an issue and his sense that all philosophy has ever really been is cultural politics. One way to see why Rorty entitled his last collection of essays Philosophy as Cultural Politics is a characterization I first encountered in Alan Malachowski’s book on Rorty. At the close of his introduction, he has a short section called “Philosophical Propaganda” that draws a parallel between Madhyamika Buddhism and the position Rorty had been trying to establish with the idea of “edifying philosophy” in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his ostensible abjuration of argument in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. [1] The idea is that explicit, premise-matching-premise argument won’t get you far in debating deeply held commitments. The only thing to do is to try and explain why your own commitments are more attractive than your cultural opponents, which is kind of like propaganda. [2]

2.      There are two thoughts underneath this position about philosophy as cultural politics: 1) that any conceptual position, given enough time and ingenuity, can be made coherent with the rest of one’s beliefs; 2) we should make a distinction between long-term utopic dreaming and short-term political reform. Since the first, in particular, is contentious, I should like to give a little plausibility by outlining the kind of options that Rorty is thinking of. Let’s say argument/non-argument and long-term/short-term mark two axes. The different combinations would give us a box diagram like this

Short-term Long-term
Argument Political Debate Philosophical Debate
Non-argument Political Propaganda Philosophical Propaganda

This is helpful to have up front before thinking about Rorty’s point coherence, because it is linked to his thinking about argument. It importantly involves the conceptual point that a conclusion only follows as a consequence if one accepts the premises of an argument. One, then, is always free—argumentatively speaking—to reject the premises of the argument an opponent wields to wriggle free from a conclusion. Then the task is to make sure your rejection of the premise is consistent with all the other things you want to say. This sounds sophistical because one isn’t supposed to reject premises simply because one doesn’t like the conclusion. But I suspect it’s more complex than that given this problem: when are you supposed to know when to reject a premise? Do you just naturally know a false premise when you see it?

I suspect the latter is not the case, but it’s hard to spell out why without running into all kinds of philosophical choices. The main issue is that I don’t think people just walk around with a bag full of premises they endorse that they can then check against when confronting an argument. Inferential thought works via syllogisms with premises and conclusions, but thinking doesn’t. So I think a perfectly reasonable cue for “hearing a note of falseness” in an argument, as one might say, is reaching a conclusion you’re violently opposed to from premises that are innocuous. Like inferring from “Thomas Jefferson is the best” and “Thomas Jefferson was white” to “white people are the best”—it’s okay to get to the conclusion and think that something has gone awry.

3.      So, say something sounds wrong with Rorty’s conclusion in (1), and you withhold acceptance of the full point that, given enough time and ingenuity, any conceptual position can be made coherent with the rest of one’s beliefs—we don’t actually need the full point to see the point of having the four boxes. Let’s say that Philosophy is, broadly speaking, the attempt to make all of your beliefs coherent—to make them all explicit and laid out and systematized so there are no contradictions or tensions between beliefs. Reflecting on the point that Philosophical Debate in the European tradition has been going on for 2500+ years—somewhat arbitrarily marking it with the Ionians—with hardly a true death for any particular philosophy, it seems safe to concede that the attempt to make yourself coherent is a process more prone to the death of participants than positions.

It’s different for Politics. Whereas Philosophy is about Thoughts hooking up to other Thoughts, Politics is about Thoughts hooking up to Actions. Democratic politics has a terminus—whatever agreed-upon point at which debate ends, and people vote for one action over another, with the stipulation that everyone in the debate abides by the vote. Of course, as we know, you don’t have to agree with the action, but the institutional apparatus has been empowered to act. Debate might be taken up again, at a later point, to act differently—but this simply marks the difference between Thought and Action. Action is radically contextual in a way that Thought is not. Whereas it might always have been, and always will be, true that the United States should not have entered Iraq under the always false auspices of weapons of mass destruction, it’s not true that you can just sit around and wait for all the facts to be turned in before you act—just look at Philosophy. If you waited around to get all of your philosophical ducks in a row, you’d never do anything.

The claim that Action is radically contextual in a way that Thought is not should, indeed, seem contrary to pragmatism, which teaches that thoughts are themselves actions, and therefore always contextual. And the point can be made from a different direction as well, since conclusions are only binding in the context of endorsed premises. But this claim seems to be what underlies Rorty’s distinction between short-term and long-term, which I think is ultimately the thought that underlies the rejection of Peircean, truth-is-at-the-end-of-inquiry pragmatism. Perhaps truth is only there, but by Peircean strictures that means absolutely nothing since it couldn’t possibly make a difference to how we act. [3]

4.      But what if you need to believe that truth is at the end of inquiry to reach the truth at the end of inquiry? Who would know the answer to this but those at the end of inquiry? I think this is the really difficult question that binds short- and long-term together, and it is why Rorty characterizes Philosophy as cultural politics. Philosophy in the long-term, Philosophical Propaganda, is like prophecy—it’s about spelling out a vision of future possibility. Philosophy in the short-term, Philosophical Debate, is system-building and making sure the details of the vision can be produced and fit together. But the system and the details can only be worked out if you choose a vision—so how do you do that? This choice is why William James, in “The Will to Believe,” described faith in terms of a hypothesis—you fill in the if, and hope then the living of the if works out in some manner. James’s great argument was that everyone makes the choice whether it’s self-conscious or not. Living a life means living out a choice of if, a vision of life, a movement toward a possible future. Because Philosophical Debate is dependent on philosophical vision, Philosophy is more about the long-term: don’t ask for pragmatic consequences now because, like theoretical physics, we won’t know what those might be until far into the future.

But a choice we must make. We have to decide now what if to start working and acting on, and that’s the tough problem, and what cultural politics is about. Politics is first of all, unlike Philosophy, about the first-person plural, not the first-person singular. You don’t need to wait around for everyone to agree with you before moving on and pulling out more philosophical consequences from the philosophical position you’ve taken—but in Politics, you need enough people on board. Additionally, Political Debate is about deciding what action we should take now about some short-term problem that needs a solution—and because the problem is narrow, local, and particular argumentative debate is the obvious form to use. On short-term problems, all we have are our current assumptions and values, since that’s what we currently are, so let’s try and work through what those assumptions and values should make us choose to do. The great long-term problem, on the other hand, is What assumptions and values should we have? What we should we be? Propaganda, in the sense I’m using it, outlines assumptions and values. If long-term is about the future and should and short-term is about the present and is, then Political Propaganda is rightly regarded as dangerous because all it does is use fear that our current values are at risk somehow—for why else would you tell people about the values they already know they have?

5.      Sometimes, perhaps though, that is something you need to do—it’s hard to be a progressive in America and not think that people have forgotten what it means to be an American. And that’s why this form of propaganda (style dimension) and philosophy (temporal dimension) is cultural politics. It’s about what future culture you want to persuade everyone to think we should all try to work to achieve. It’s visionary but tied to action; it’s debatable but hard to debate. Rorty thought that you just have to keep nudging people—but how do you do that to have an effect on the world? If two people with different values and assumptions technically beg the question over each other if in debate, then what does persuasive nudging look like?

6.      In the United States, persuasive nudging often takes the form of law. Lawyer up and sue, or shove a new piece of legislation through a broken-backed Congress. It seems like this mode began to really assert itself after the Civil War, as the federal government tried to fix racism with Reconstruction, the South fought back, and the moral energies of Abolitionism got redirected into the Temperance movement, culminating in Prohibition. Americans are known the world over for being litigious, and Judith Shklar gives a good explanation for why: rights in America seem inherently legal. Shklar suggests that the development of Abolitionism preceding the Civil War developed with it “a doctrine of justice which can be summed up in the expression equal protection of the laws, that is, in the demand that laws be applied equally to all, … which finally became, in modern times, the foundation of civil rights, that is, the idea of equal liberty for all citizens.” [4] Shklar calls this a “liberalism of rights,” and “even though one still believes in natural rights in the United States, one knows perfectly that despite the Declaration of Independence they are not self-evident. They are constitutional rights, and the courts decide what they mean in practice. … Equal protection of the laws … [should be understood] as the political and legal realization of the idea of natural rights” (121).

But 150 years on, Americans are tired, so tired of the constant legal battles, and grandstanding, and high-handing, by Congress and the Supreme Court. Rorty once lamented how the Rehnquist Court was destroying the reputation of the last branch of government that could claim to be more than just naked politics, but when you look from the other direction—and at how Rorty talks about legal pragmatism—it can be hard to muster a distinction between the activism of the Warren court of the Civil Rights era and the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts of the renascent right-wing. [5] I have to believe it can be done—I hope it can be done—but I couldn’t tell you how to do it off the top of my head. It’s this difficulty, telling the difference, that fuels the attrition to everyone’s psyches.

7.      What became pilloried as political correctness codes was an outburst of this fatigue. Leftish stand-up comics, in particular, had an easy time tapping into a common reservoir of exasperation. [6] Bromwich opens Politics by Other Means with an example of code-enforcement that does seem over the top. [7] A college student—what we would now call a “bro”—put several Penthouse centerfold pictures on his dorm room door. The dorm supervisor cited him for “lewd and indecent behavior,” calling the centerfolds “degrading and abusive to women.” The bro fought back, saying it was a free speech issue. Bromwich’s reading of the case, as usual, is acute—he points out that “the usual standard of moral surveillance enforceable today in America” was the bro, by his actions, having “established that he was a vulgar young man.” Indeed, and Bromwich terms the active dorm supervisor’s charge a mark of “rhetorically upping the ante,” a common tactic for the new, explicit and codified standard of moral surveillance.

Bromwich thinks we should stop short of saying that the pictures themselves, or the bro’s act of hanging them on his door, are degrading and abusive. I think he might be right. Bromwich calls the old standard of moral surveillance manners:
Thus far, we may seem to have been occupied in the realm of manners: such debates go on in any culture, over what people think it is proper to advertise or to restrict, to endorse or to reprobate. But when the stakes for approval are high enough, the subject matter of such debate can incite the energy necessary for devising explicit codes of conduct: prescriptive, and not merely general and negative, guidelines that aim to control what can and cannot be said. (8)
I think Bromwich is right to call this a matter of manners, and I think he is right later when he says, “Manners are in this sense more than the costume or outward expression of morals. They are themselves a source of morality” (146). But I think Bromwich is wrong about the case, and about the (for Bromwich, future) legacy of the Cultural Left on America. Should the dorm’s RA be allowed to force the bro to take down the Penthouse centerfolds? Sure—why not? It’s gross to have to look at that in public. Bromwich says the supervisors weren’t speaking for the same community that let’s newsstands sell Penthouse on the street, but he elides the crucial difference—if you can’t walk around the street with your dick in your hand, then you shouldn’t be allowed to show a gaping vagina either.

If you were offended by my language just then, all that tells you is that I’m right—your sense of propriety was stung by the image my words painted. [8] But was my language abusive? Was the way I put my point inherently an abuse of women? That I have more difficulty in seeing. As the true heir of the Carlin tradition, Louis CK, said, “There are a lot of words, they’re not bad words, but some people start using them a lot to hurt other people and then they become bad.” [9] Intention, I think, can and should matter, though at the same time it isn’t a universal exculpatory method. The problem underneath the charge of abuse is sadism. And I think Rorty is right, in Achieving Our Country, that the Cultural Left has made the public arena less casually sadistic. “Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. … The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as ‘politically correct’ has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago” (81, writing in 1998).

8.      What Shklar calls “legalism” may indeed have had a role in helping to break apart the crust of propriety that it then needs to compensate for—but the problem is that the manners weren’t working for whole classes of citizens in the first place. And since words are tied to thoughts and thoughts to actions, it’s hard not to think that our manners of speaking help create the milieu in which terrible actions take place. [10] But we still can’t legislate manners. People can’t be locked up for being assholes. So how do you change people?

Rorty’s moral sentimentalism fills in this hole, but it’s an abstract fill. When the issue of argumentation comes up in relationship to morals, Rorty occasionally transmuted it into the question: How do you answer the Nazi? There is no knockdown argument to answer the Nazi with, Rorty said, but whereas I don’t know how to argue down a consistent, committed, and clever Nazi without begging the question, I do have some ideas on how to convert him—tell him sad stories of mothers having children torn away, Jewish mothers like your Nazi mother.

But this is tougher than it seems. For one, we aren’t dealing with Nazis all the time. So the tools of conversion aren’t all the time obvious. What’s the analogue for anti-choice protestors? Worse, since what we’re talking about is commitment conversion of all kinds, what’s the analogue for climate deniers? Another problem is cynicism—if everyone’s trying to change your mind all the time, what stops the heart from hardening? The difference between having your heartstrings tugged and being manipulated is hard to tell. It’s impossible, I dare say, to watch Sarah McLachlan’s dog PSA, the one with “Angel”—you know what I’m talking about—without getting a little sick at its heavy-handedness. Reaching for pathos all the time can produce the opposite effect intended.

9.      Even worse is an argument of Stanley Fish’s in The Trouble with Principle. In a sort of capstone chapter, “Beliefs about Belief,” Fish articulates a pragmatist model of the self. For the pragmatist, the self is a Quinean web of beliefs in which any particular belief is the sum of its relations to the other beliefs—like a dot on a graph, which is nothing but its spatial coordinates. The main argument Fish pursues in that chapter is that one’s belief about belief—one’s theory or model of the self and its constitution—has no effect on your beliefs. [11] The subargument is that every belief will have internal to it a reason for its own revision. Since Fish agrees that beliefs aren’t discrete marbles in a bag, the “beliefs” here are largely invisible to us. They are us so we’re constantly acting out of them, but we aren’t self-consciously aware of their every dimension all of the time. (Think about it: if a belief is a spatial node, then there are an infinite number of potential relations to know about.)

To concretize his argument, Fish gives an example of a former white supremacist telling his story of conversion. One day the supreme supremacist was rattling off all the people that would be carted off, and on the list were a number of “defectives,” including people with cleft palates. It so happens that the now suddenly former white supremacist has a daughter with a cleft palate, so that was that, and off he goes to write an exposé. Fish draws two morals from the story. The first is my point about the Nazi conversion: it’s so particular, how do you make any generalizations about how to change beliefs? It’s the second, though, that makes belief change mysterious:
[I]t needn’t have turned out as it did. It would have been perfectly possible for the devoted father to have said to himself, “Well, I really love Mary, but the cause is the cause and I guess she’ll have to go.” After all, remember Abraham and Isaac and the demands of faith. It is only in retrospect that we can construct a cause-and-effect account of how this or that change of mind came about, and that account will tell us nothing about what might happen next time. (282) [12]
Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right? The flipside of course is that you won’t know if you’re going to die until you live, or become a murderer until God quickly tells you it was a sick joke. We won’t ever know whether our beliefs are strong and stable or precarious and weak until testing day—and the problem is that the only way to be sure that a belief is currently strong is to continually test it. [13] But we’re now sure that that’s probably sadomasochistic—I must constantly be tempted to be sure I can resist temptation! That’s just to say evil must exist so that I can be good.

Fish must be right about the retrospective nature of knowing the mechanisms of belief change, but does that mean there’s nothing to be generalized about how to change people’s beliefs? Fish’s mystery-mongering overshoots the mark in its correctness because what we’re interested in is the via media.

10.      To help focus this final area, and pull together a number of threads from “The Legacy of Group Thinking” series, I find it helpful to think about a story David Sedaris tells. I’m going to quote a bit of it, but Sedaris is not only one of the finest comedic writers working today, he’s also a considerable wisdom-writer. In the larger story, “Something for Everyone” in Naked, Sedaris works as a housepainter for an anti-Semitic Lithuanian named Uta.
Jews and Jewesses were a big thorn in Uta’s side. She tried explaining it to me once, but I found the story difficult to follow after hearing the date 1527. According to Uta, Adolf Hitler was completely misunderstood, “as most great thinkers frequently are.”…

She left to run a few errands, and I started bubbling the paint off the kitchen door. While working I listened to the radio, a local AM station that broadcast old serials and comedy programs every Saturday. I enjoyed both Suspense and The Shadow but when The Life of Riley began, I found my mind beginning to wander. William Bendix plays the sort of predictable, good-natured idiot guaranteed to get his finger stuck in a bowling ball the night of the big fellowship dinner. He’s a garden-variety doofus who seemed to set some sort of standard for generations of succeeding television programs featuring overstuffed closets and family dogs who snatch the holiday turkey off the table while everyone’s eyes are closed in prayer. In real life you’d beat a dog senseless for pulling a stunt like that, but instead, these are the sort of characters who sit down to a meal of frankfurters and stuffing, pretending they’ve learned the true meaning of Thanksgiving. This was a world where people were enlightened by a single word or deed. Lessons were learned and lives were changed over the course of twenty-three minutes. Even as a child I had trouble accepting the concept of such rapid spiritual growth. If it were that easy to change people, surely I would be sitting upon a padded velvet throne before a nation of willing servants. Who didn’t want to change people? When Uta spoke of the Jews, I’d done nothing more than stare down at my feet. I could have named countless Jews who didn’t fit her bill, but that wouldn’t have changed her opinion, as her mind had been made up a long time ago. The most you could do with a woman like Uta was to change the subject to a medical mishap, hoping that a good turn to the stomach might shut her up for a while.

I once worked as a runner on a construction site and lost my job when the head carpenter, a fully grown man with a Sir Lancelot haircut, discovered I was a homosexual. We’d gotten along fine all summer, but the moment I questioned his thirst for beating up transsexual prostitutes, he came at me with a hammer. The foreman had let me go as gently as possible, explaining that if he ever hired an all-girl crew, I’d be the first person he called. For a long time afterward I thought of this head carpenter, always placing him a position of grave, physical danger. The walls of his cell were closing in. A train was headed for his bound-and-gagged body. A bomb was set to go off and only one person could save him. “But first you have to take it all back,” I imagined myself saying. “And this time you have to say it like you really, really mean it.” I fantasized about it for a few months and then moved on to something else. My hands tend to be full enough dealing with people who hate me for who I am. Concentrate too hard on the millions who hate you for what you are and you’re likely to turn into one of those unkempt, sloppy dressers who sag beneath the weight of the two hundred political buttons they wear pinned to their coats and knapsacks. I haven’t got the slightest idea how to change people, but still I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out. (213-215)
When the white supremacist heard “cleft palette,” his life changed, irrevocably, but we do know precisely what Sedaris means here in being skeptical of such rapid spiritual growth. The hope for a silver bullet is what stymies much political action because problems in life are often more complex than something that has a single, quickly applied remedy.

But what should we do, then? What I like most about juxtaposing Sedaris’s story with Fish’s is the space of agreement they share over change. Fish has argued for years, most recently in Save the World on Your Own Time (2008), that teachers should focus on their discipline and not try to affect moral or political change in their students—there’s no way to judge the latter, and its unlikely to happen anyway, so focus on your job. What I find disturbing about Fish’s argument about teaching—though the space of agreement he shares with Bromwich in Politics by Other Means would have surprised Bromwich, and I agree with Bromwich—is that it seems antithetical to the idea of a liberal education. A liberal education is about spiritual growth, not a body of knowledge. What I like about facing Sedaris to Fish is the irony introduced: Sedaris is professedly lazy, greedy, and egocentric, a tried and true navel-gazer. Just look at the passage: I don’t think it’s a mistake that Sedaris’s emblem for turning from political action is aesthetic. And when he fantasized about the single word? The prize wasn’t “world peace” but “an army of sycophants.”

These are vintage Sedarisian moments, and his wisdom is of a distinctively 19th-century kind: the horrors of egotism. His humor is almost entirely self-deprecatory, and his inability to act gets him in trouble at the end of this particular story. The complexity of the scene lies in one of the reasons why we laugh at his joke about the political pins—is that doing any real work at political change? The person he’s pointing at is the poseur, wearing the equally aesthetic garb of politics. We know those kinds of people. (Well, if you don’t, hang out at colleges or non-Starbuckian coffee houses more.) They are, in fact, the parallel of the target of Bromwich and Rorty’s barbs at the Academic-Cultural Left who, in David Hollinger’s phrase, “gave at the office.”

11.      How do we change people? How do we persuade people to let go of deeply held beliefs, particularly if you can’t legislate them with law or education? Sedaris’s moment of “say it like you really, really mean it” matches not only the skepticism of Bromwich about “political correctness,” but Fish’s skepticism about Rorty’s optimism at increased civility. I think Rorty’s right, it has gotten better and partly because of the efforts of the Cultural Left, but Fish is also right in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech when he says that racism has just gone underground.

How do we change people? Some we try and find the commitments we share in common, what we think is best about ourselves, like our kindness, and try and get them to apply it to areas they aren’t used to, like economics. Argument can work here, but activating those commitments often is the effect of storytelling and other indirect methods. Philosophical propaganda, cultural politics, I think is done best with a mix of honest reflection on the outer limits of your own ideas with as much imaginative, intellectual sympathy for the ideas you find backwards. Never pretend, never condescend, never manipulate or pose—just think as hard as you can and try to get others to think as hard as they can. That’s the Emersonian pose of the American Scholar, avoidant of “group thinking” as Bromwich defined it and attracted to the difficulties of true interchange with ones fellows, what Emerson called thinking in circles.

Some we try to reach and talk to. Some can be changed, though you might never know it; some simply need to be understood, though they won’t think you do. Some we just need to outlive. [14]


[1] Rorty indirectly endorsed Malachowski’s point years later in his reply to Jaroslav Peregrin’s essay in Rorty’s entry in the Library of Living Philosophers. He approved of Peregrin’s citation of Wittgenstein’s claim that he was “in a sense making propaganda for one style of thinking as opposed to another” (PRR 247).

[2] A lot has hinged on just what “attractiveness” is supposed to mean here.

[3] Ironically, both of these thoughts are stated clearly in Peirce’s “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” The pragmatic maxim for meaning is at the end of section two: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” And then half way through section four, Peirce says, “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.” Though many pragmatists, including Rorty, have been lulled into defending a version of Peircean explanations of truth, Rorty came to think of this as like explaining why opium puts people to sleep with “because it has dormitive power. And rocks fall because they have falling power, and helium balloons rise because they have rising power, etc., etc.” Molière’s trope is a favorite of Rorty and other philosopher’s for disposing of the non-explanation explanation. For a defense of pragmatism that rejects the Peircean view using Robert Brandom’s sophisticated notion of a “pragmatically mediated semantic relation,” see my “Better and the Best.” One might consider how the relationship between the possible and the actual functions there and how it functions at important moments in the “Legacy” series—see section 9.

[4] Shklar, Redeeming American Political Thought, 117

[5] For Rorty’s legal pragmatism, see his two essays on law in Philosophy and Social Hope. It’s fairly typical, I think, for us on the left to have a pretty dim view of the neoconservative judges’ respect for the law as an independent body from politics. It’s hard to not see a pattern in five Catholic judges—five!—continually chipping away at Roe v. Wade. It’s hard to read Chief Justice Roberts’s decision in the abortion clinic buffer zone case of McCullen v. Coakley, as when he essentially describes yellers of “baby murderer” as petitioners not protestors and writes that “petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks…. If all that the women can see and hear are vociferous opponents of abortion, then the buffer zones have effectively stifled the petitioners’ message”—to read that and not think Roberts either is an idiot, lives in a cave, or is barely trying to cover his opinion about abortion. However, David Cole’s recent article, “The Anti-Court Court” in the New York Review of Books (Aug. 14, 2014), is an interesting antidote to this gut reaction. Reviewing several recent books on the Roberts Court, the consensus is that “simple partisan politics cannot explain the Court’s results.” Indeed, particularly illuminating is the conclusion of a book about Scalia—that Scalia, despite his acerbic and powerful pen, has in fact been one of the most impotent of Justices.

[6] The best of these, as in most things comedic, is George Carlin: “When it comes to changing the language, I think [feminists] make some good points. Because we do think in language. And so the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language. So maybe some of this patriarchal shit ought to go away. I think ‘spokesman’ ought to be ‘spokesperson.’ I think ‘chairman’ ought to be ‘chairperson.’ I think ‘mankind’ ought to be ‘humankind.’ But they take it too far, they take themselves too seriously, they exaggerate. They want me to call that thing in the street a ‘personhole cover.’ I think that's taking it a little bit too far!” (Doin’ It Again, 1990) Carlin’s premise is why he is one of the premier philosopher comedians, as well as a tremendous close reader of our cultural habits.

[7] Most of the story happens on 4-6.

[8] I’ll concede—it’s not the only thing it tells you. I have to admit that I have a lot of flexibility when it comes to “watching my language,” as one is told by one’s parents, and am not the kind of person who swears for the principle of the thing—as if my sense of what’s right is the only thing that counts. I’m about to mention sadism, and violating people’s proprieties on purpose is also a kind of sadistic thrill. (Louis CK makes this noise in most of his routines, saying something he calls “terrible” or “the worst.” Why? As he says in, I think, Hilarious, he just likes making the audience uncomfortable.) I’ll also add that I have difficulty with the word “offended” in all of these contexts. I have a hard time saying why, but I have trouble using it to describe something I’ve ever felt. I can be grossed out, made uncomfortable, or horrified at bigotry—but offended? It’s just not part of my emotive lexicon. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s a concept that’s outdated, part of a puritanical interpretation of manners that should be an artifact of pre-democratic days. But I don’t know.

[9] This is from the beginning of Chewed Up (2008), in a bit that is probably the culmination of Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words. One should also see it in the context of CK’s later reflection during the poker game scene in episode two of the first season of Louie.

[10] A recent example I heard on the radio is the conviction of Theodore Wafer for the murder of Renisha McBride. Wafer, on the stand, argued that he was in fear of his life when he opened the front door of his house and shot the unarmed McBride with a shotgun. He said, “I drew first, that’s how I see it.” We can’t make necessary or sufficient causal connections between the idioms we use and the actions we take, but I find this disturbing and telling. Our self-image does have something to do with how we behave.

[11] This is a corollary of the type of stance Rorty took in relation to philosophy, that philosophical theses, like the philosophical problems they are directed toward, are not natural, insofar as that means “universal and inescapable to the mind.” Once one drops the notion that some problems have the potential to arise for any particular mind simply by reflecting, it is a short step to dropping the idea that people have implicit metaphysical theses operative in their daily lives, simply by existing. Once one takes these steps, the relationship between philosophical activity and other activities becomes much more complex. However, this is a deep problem, inasmuch as it was already hard to tell the relationship between the mind/body problem and cooking eggs, so what we’re being told here is equally hard to tell.

For example, Fish is technically wrong that beliefs about belief have no effect on beliefs for the simple reason of his own argument. Fish says that any particular belief only has particular mechanisms for its change, and no general explanation of mechanics is going to affect a particular mechanism, just as the theory of gravity didn’t affect how rocks fell (see especially 280). As Fish suggests, though, the activity of “general explanation” is its own particular activity with particular mechanisms that connect to each other, just as Newton’s theory didn’t affect rocks but did affect Aristotle. So what Fish needs is to argue that one peculiar set of particulars cannot be connected to other sets of particulars. He could do that, but notice he’d no longer be explaining—and thus taking the external view like Newton and rocks—but intervening into how people put together particular beliefs with particular beliefs, an internal view like Newton’s argument with Aristotelians. If a person did believe that Platonism about the self required them to believe in God (for whatever reason), then if Fish converted them to pragmatism it would threaten their belief in God. Fish could wave around his hands and say, “Naw, there’s actually no connection!” but if it is also the case that the only reason they believed in God was the Platonism (as hard as that is to imagine), then it’s just hand waving—the damage has been done if the person can’t find another reason for belief in God. That’s why the relationship between pragmatism and life is complex and Rorty ends up being a little more right than Fish about it. (See, e.g., Fish’s criticisms of Rorty in “Almost Pragmatism: The Jurisprudence of Richard Posner, Richard Rorty, and Ronald Dworkin” in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech.)

[12] Dave Chappelle has a brilliant version of this in the premiere episode of Chappelle’s Show.

[13] Compare my discussion of Bromwich’s use of this problem in section 2 of “Legacy, II” and its relationship to probability in section 4.

[14] That’s what keeps me up at nights—the premise of the movie Idiocracy. Unfortunately just a passable movie overall, considering the premises for the jokes themselves are all funny, the first five minutes are really quite good and chilling in their likelihood: what if the jocks outbreed the nerds? Poor Luke Wilson wakes up from a deep freeze to wander a desert hellscape in which they water plants with Gatorade because the Gatorade slogan tells them it’s the best at quenching thirst. And aren’t the plants thirsty? The great punchline of the movie is when Wilson finally convinces them to use water to save the planet from starvation. The only explanation they’ll understand for how the water does this? Magic.