Friday, May 21, 2010

Are There Bad Questions?

Richard Rorty spent the last ten years of his life redacting some of his more controversial rhetorical strategies, which included endlessly apologizing for hyperbole. One of his favorite strategies was to say that there were bad questions: to pursue a certain line of thought was to put yourself on the path to a conversational cul-de-sac, ending in aporia, a seeming inability to get anybody to agree to an answer. This inability to find criteria that you could get people to agree on to explain what a good answer would look like was the tell-tale sign of a bad question. The “bad question” approach to philosophical disagreement is hiding in his earliest writing, but began to truly flower when Rorty first formulated the groundplan for Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1970 with “Cartesian Epistemology and Changes in Ontology,” became solidified in that book, and most famously codified in the introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism. In that intro, the bad-question approach becomes entwined with another strategy Rorty came to embrace: the I-don’t-have-a-theory approach. “[The pragmatist theory of truth] says that truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about” (CP xiii).

The ironic self-contradiction has always been plain to people, though most who have taken to pointing it out leave out the irony and what it means: the pragmatist theory of truth is one about why we won’t have an interesting theory about truth. That’s important, though I’m not sure Rorty always understood quite how important. For a page later he says, famously:
Pragmatists think that the history of attempts to isolate the Truth or the Good, or to define the word “true” or “good,” supports their suspicion that there is no interesting work to be done in this area. It might, of course, have turned out otherwise. People have, oddly enough, found something interesting to say about the essence of Force and the definition of “number.” They might have found something interesting to say about the essence of Truth. But in fact they haven’t. The history of attempts to do so, and of criticisms of such attempts, is roughly coextensive with the history of that literary genre we call “philosophy”—a genre founded by Plato. So pragmatists see the Platonic tradition as having outlived its usefulness. This does not mean they have a new, non-Platonic set of answers to Platonic questions to offer, but rather that they do not think we should ask those questions anymore. When they suggest that we not ask questions about the nature of Truth and Goodness, they do not invoke a theory about the nature of reality or knowledge or man which says that “there is no such thing” as Truth or Goodness. Nor do they have a “relativistic” or “subjectivist” theory of Truth or Goodness. They would simply like to change the subject. (CP xiv)
This “I have no theory” approach gets broadened into “and neither arguments nor theses,” as when he said in the late-70s, “Non-Kantian philosophers like Heidegger and Derrida are emblematic figures who not only do not solve problems, they do not have arguments or theses” (CP 93). This eventually turns into his claim that Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity contains no arguments (evidence to the contrary). The interrelationship between what Rorty means by “theory,” “argument,” and “thesis” at any given moment can be parsed, and I think it would show that it depends on which direction he’s facing—whether towards Platonists, who think we must have a theory, or towards pragmatists, who think they are optional. This can be a complicated needle to thread (principally because it involves the fact that people have, e.g., selves though having a theory or thesis about that fact is optional), but to make the first pass in knitting the row, I would point out that Rorty doesn’t mention who finds the essence of Force or definition of “number” interesting. Because I certainly don’t. There are two different audiences for “number” and then “truth.” In the former case, the audience is likely mathematicians. In the latter case, Rorty’s audience is professional philosophers. And it is those who disagree with how interesting results about truth have been. So what does Rorty mean be “interesting”?

Rorty usually means by “interesting” in these contexts “discernable effect on people’s lives.” In the case of numbers, though non-mathematicians could care less, the fact that mathematics professors do and keep producing results that pan out into the warp of society means that the woof of what they do has interest. This is not the case with “truth” and “good” as of yet, for Rorty’s claim is that inquiry into Truth has not helped people produce more true statements. And by and large (emphasis on the “large”) this is true. The trouble is that Rorty has to admit that for philosophers, inquiry into Truth has helped them produce more true statements—for example, Davidson’s claim that “most of our beliefs are true.” This, as Rorty admits, is interesting and could not have been done without the context of logical positivism and their unacknowledged Platonic goals.

Being forced to face this equivocation in his rhetorical stances, Rorty began to finally admit that he does have theses, or theories, or pictures, of this or that philosophical-looking kind of object (“the self” or “reality” or “experience” or “language”). This means a disentangling of the bad-question approach and no-theory approach. “I have no theory” is really code for “you are going to be really disappointed when I tell you what it is…,” and this because of the Platonic expectations typically carried by people asking for one. But this means that “bad question” isn’t inherent, but rather a conversational stability produced by the instability of criteria for what counts as a good answer. Rorty can answer the question of what truth is, but because of the wildly ranging differences of opinion over what it is good for, it will seem a bad answer to somebody. The light in which Rorty’s answer, or anybody’s, can appear good is a stipulative light—“if for the moment we agree on X, Y, and Z, then this theory will satisfy it.” Rorty’s stipulation on truth has been the stipulation that truth, properly speaking (which is to say “for the occasion of my theory”), is a semantic and radically non-epistemic concept. That is not the only way we use the word “true,” but when push comes to shove, we should stop trying to incorporate those uses, e.g. the endorsing use, into our theory of truth because doing so is what leads to bad questions that we can’t seem to answer, or would have any practical consequences even if we could (like how we know when “snow is white” corresponds to the fact that snow is white). When Rorty would say, “That’s a bad question we shouldn’t ask,” he was suggesting there might be other, more profitable questions to discuss. And when Rorty gave an answer to the bad question, e.g. a disquotational theory of truth, it was intended shut down avenues of thought that have proven interminable cul-de-sacs (hence the epithet for disquotationalists of “deflationists” and, more generally on Platonic questions, “quietists”).

Rorty had begun sorting out these equivocations and changes in stances in his last ten years, but in Rorty’s reply to Jaroslav Peregrin in his installment to the Living Library of Philosophers, Rorty says most clearly what I’ve articulated above (and what produced the impetus to further articulate this point on the scope of his writing):
I should also have been careful not to invoke Wittgenstein’s contrast between “advancing theses” and “practicing therapy.” Doing the former now seems to me a perfectly legitimate, and often useful, therapeutic technique. Peregrin cites Wittgenstein’s claim that he was “in a sense making propaganda for one style of thinking as opposed to another.” He says that this would be a good description of my preferred mode of philosophical activity. I am happy to accept the suggestion, but less happy about this suggestion that “neither Wittgenstein nor Rorty thinks that it is possible to give a theory answering ‘philosophical questions’.”

Consider Davidson’s thesis that most of our beliefs must be true, or Brandom’s inferentialist theory about the origin of singular terms. Such theses and theories provide answers to questions like, “Well, what will we say about the relation between language and nonlanguage, once we abandon the familiar ‘realist’ account?” By providing the pragmatist with such answers, they facilitate his propagandizing efforts. Not everybody feels it necessary to pose such questions seriously, but when somebody does it is nice to be able to gratify her. Though sometimes it works best to say, “that’s a bad question, one that we pragmatists don’t ask,” with some interlocutors it is more effective to reply, “here’s an answer to that question, since you insist on asking it.” (The Philosophy of Richard Rorty 247-8)
If I had to speculate on what most produced this change in Rorty, I would have to say it was the work of his student, Robert Brandom. Rorty grew up, philosophically speaking, on Davidson, who was at Princeton for a time in the late 60s. Rorty spent much of the 60s retooling as an analytic philosopher, which meant falling in love with Sellars and becoming acquainted with Davidson’s cast of mind. Rorty was left to his own devices after Davidson left, and the formative 70s—when Rorty was drawing out the consequences of Sellars, Quine, and Davidson—were also the years Brandom was at Princeton, ’72-’77.

Rorty’s fall from analytic-grace was initially a souring with “system,” with the hopes of pay-off attending all the work that must be done to create a system. Rorty was first and foremost a voracious reader, and he loved reading systems in the hopes there has a hidden source of power in them (he wrote his master’s thesis and dissertation on Whitehead). In the end, I think Rorty liked reading too much—sitting at a desk, pouring energy into getting the system just right, didn’t seem appealing because it took him out of the library stacks too long (or away from the forests where he loved bird-watching). And combine this with his reading of so many systems, whether Kant’s or Hegel’s or Carnap’s or Whitehead’s (or Dewey’s, for that matter), all claiming to have the hiddern power, and all of them contradicting each other, and you have a recipe for someone with a pretty good self-justification for not writing a system himself. Rorty’s disagreement with Davidson throughout his career pretty much amounts to the fact that Davidson always wanted to write a system, but never got around to it—so Rorty would always wonder about the aspiration, since the work he was doing in essays was so good itself. Brandom, however, is a brilliant systematizer, and has done in Making It Explicit what Davidson was never able to do and Rorty never thought worth doing. From the time of that book's publication in 1994, you can see a slow slide in Rorty’s responses to Brandom, beginning with a queasy reaction to his rehabilitiation of “representation” to a final “I still don’t think regular people need a system, but if you want one, get a load of this…totally worth it.”


Addendum on Pirsig

What does Pirsig think about bad questions and systems?

I think it’s important to notice the course of events and presentation. In ZMM, Pirsig describes the S/O Dilemma as an aporia created by a previous agreement on the terms of debate. Pirsig later describes “truth traps,” on the analogy of the “old South Indian Monkey Trap”—which is similar to Chinese finger-cuffs—and interprets the Japenese word “mu” as “unask the question.”

And then ZMM ends (there’s a chance I might be forgetting something). The trick is that Pirsig offers a few half-hearted stabs at sysematizing his thoughts about Quality (don’t forget the diagram in Ch. 20), but the point of the story doesn’t appear to be a replacement system, but rather the resurrection of Phaedrus after chasing down the ghost of reason to Plato. When we move to Lila, I think we should pay close attention to how the Metaphysics of Quality is introduced. Pirsig quickly presents us with the quandry of SOM, a sort of recapitulation of the point of ZMM, and begins to describe his metaphysical answers. What happens then is that Rigel intercedes and objects (Ch. 6). Pirsig then bemoans his answers given, and the problem turns out to be a pernicious understanding of virtue—Pirsig let Rigel and the Victorians decide the terms of debate (the definition of the terms) and so lost before the fight even began.

The Metaphysics of Quality takes flight after a conversational difficulty. Pirsig writes that Phaedrus “realized that sooner or later he was going to have to stop carping about how bad subject-object metaphysics was and say something positive for a change” (Lila 123, Ch. 9). Why? Because “he had already violated the nothingness of mystic reality” (124), he’d already said something positive rather than sticking to the via negativa that mystics, particularly in the West, typically force themselves to stick to, a route that after Hegel (and particularly Adorno) became more and more prominent in non-theological metaphysics, too. Pirsig realizes that he has to say something, even that saying things are good. And this is where the presentation is interesting. The two paragraphs run like this:
By even using the term “Quality” he had already violated the nothingness of mystic reality. The use of the term “Quality” set up a pile of questions of its own that have nothing to do with mystic reality and walks away leaving them unaswered. Even the name, “Quality,” was a kind of definition since it tended to associate mystic reality with certain fixed and limited understandings. Already he was in trouble. Was the mystic reality of the universe really more immanent in the higher-priced cuts of meat in the butcher shop? These were “Quality” meants weren’t they? Was the butcher using the term incorrectly? Phaedrus had no answers.

. . . [ellipsis Pirsig’s] That was the problem this morning too, with Rigel. Phaedrus had no answers. If you’re going to talk about Quality at all you have to be ready to answer someone like Rigel. You have to have a ready-made Metaphysics of Quality that you can snap at him like some catechism. Phaedrus didn’t have a Catechism of Quality and that’s why he got hit. (124)
Pirsig considers metaphysics to be a good thing to do because it gives you an answer to people like Rigel, people who insist on certain questions. The analogy with Catholic practices in particular highlights what Pirsig has in mind. “Catechism” is from Greek roots that mean an “indoctrination.” This has bad connotations to our ears now, as does the other name Catholics have for it: dogma. But all Pirsig is highlighting is how what he is lacking is a systematic way to keep things straight in his line of thought, and how to answer people who press him.

Pirsig immediately goes on to analogize metaphysics with chess, and writes this:
Trying to create a perfect metaphysics is like trying to create a perfect chess strategy, one that will win every time. You can’t do it. It’s out of the range of human capability. No matter what position you take on a metaphysical question someone will always start asking questions that will lead to more positions that lead to more questions in this endless intellectual chess game. The game is supposed to stop when it is agreed that a particular line of reasoning is illogical. This is supposed to be similar to a checkmate. But conflicting positions go on for centuries without any such checkmate being agreed upon. (125)
I’m not sure Pirsig ever comments further on the purpose of this paragraph. But we might notice that Pirsig’s subsumption of “reasonable” to “good” from ZMM should still be in effect, which may explain why “illogic” does not always hold sway. And further, we might imagine that Pirsig did have his Catechism of Quality at the ready when Rigel comes calling—would Rigel have been blown away? Should he have? There is no indication in these early pages, and particularly with the above paragraph, that Pirsig believes that had Phaedrus the MoQ ready to snap, it would have changed Rigel’s mind. It would have, rather, continued the conversation (until, perhaps, Rigel tired out first). Consider, too, the fact that when Rigel returns at the close, there’s no indication that any of Phaedrus’ “answers” are what lead Rigel to come back (for more on this curious aspect see my “Prospectus”).

What sometimes gets lost in metaphysical system-building is the person doing the building, and what the building is for. For Pirsig, there is a strong indication that metaphysics is for keeping yourself straight in conversation—consider Pirsig’s introduction to Lila’s Child where he picks up the chess metaphor again and says that “real chess is the game you play with your neighors. Real chess is ‘muddling through.’ Real chess is the triumph of mental organization over complex experience. And so is real philosophy” (viii). “Muddling through” is one of Dewey’s favorite images, one that Rorty loved to promote. Between Pirsig’s lament about getting broad-sided by Rigel and the Catechism of Quality, there’s Pirsig’s chapter on metaphysical platypi—the outcome of previously made cuts in the metaphysical firmament, previously made choices about which questions deserve answers. Pirsig says early in that chapter that “saying that a Metaphysics of Quality is false and a subject-object metaphysics is true is like saying that rectangular coordinates are true and polar coordinates are false” (Lila 115, Ch. 8). Both are used, are determined better or worse, relative to the purpose with which you are using them. The figure standing there weighing the options between the two alternatives is the philosopher, who sometimes goes missing in the attempt to limn the structure of reality.

And if someone insists on asking whether Quality is in the subject or object? Just say, “both—the object’s made out of inorganic, and maybe biological static patterns of Quality, and for the subject just tack on some intellectual and/or social static patterns of Quality.” And then you have your answer to a bad question. The questions won’t stop, but do they ever?

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