Sunday, October 16, 2011

Do We Need a Center, or Generalities?

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


By 1980, Richard Rorty had added to his argumentative script the notion that Anglo-American philosophy was splintering into closed specialties that threatened a certain kind of inconversability. Different philosophy departments promoted different paradigms of what good philosophy looked like, based largely on what kind of problems and approaches to take seriously, and this of course produced different kinds of professional training. "The best hope for an American philosopher is Andy Warhol's promise that we shall all be superstars, for approximately fifteen minutes apiece." [fn.1] Rorty's was not, however, a nostalgic lamentation. The further along his career went, and the more acquainted with the situation of other humanities departments he became (particularly English departments), the more the notion that fashionableness was a good marker of disciplinary health rose to the forefront. "Fashion" was a good epithet for Rorty's angle of vision, for by using it as a commendatory term in reference to disciplines, he could at once recognize the utility of curiosity and newness in the intellectual life, while at the same time marking their transitoriness in the face of "the long view"--the view he often took, and the view up in flames from our currently fashionable faith in particularity.

One of reasons I am writing, however, is to wonder: is my sense that this is the case, about our current fashions, even right? More and more I get the feeling that fashions are fast-disappearing ghosts, and not because they are constructed out of our imaginations and flare for only fifteen minutes apiece. Fashionable Foucauldianism aside, culture being a function of the social imaginary makes its products no less real. No, what I have been struck by the idea is that for even the notion of a "fashion" to be applicable, there must be a center to the discipline, a center that judges "what is in fashion." These "centers" and "judgings" will always be wavering, disputed territory--we've learned that much from our theoretical sophistication about the notion of disciplines and communal self-weavings. But the material, disciplinary conditions that made this territory even possible might be disappearing. What made, for example, changes in fashion in Anglo-American philosophy possible was that one could chart those changes. How? By reading what people were writing--but not all of it counts. The notion of "fashion" does include having a periphery (and being "out of fashion"), and as such one judged fashions by looking to the journals that functioned as centers of influence, as gate-keepers to high quality, and thus to fashion. If you wanted to be in the know, philosophers in the middle of the century nearly all read some combination of the Journal of Philosophy, Review of Metaphysics, Mind, and Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Rorty once commented that professionalization, when he was coming of age, consisted in being in "the pre-print loop"--seeing what established people were concentrating their energies on, and thus being able to "get in on the conversation" to thus show your own ability to people who could judge it.

This is disappearing, I think, largely because of the rise of specialization. Our awareness of this fact is not new. But I think we may finally be far enough along the process that we can begin to see what its effects may be. Specialization, the population increase within disciplines, and the "publish or perish" method of advancement have created a disciplinary world in which we may not have a center, nor need one. The one fear of this process for a long time, however, has been that nobody will talk to each other anymore. And the further along the track we have gone, the more I think this is panning out as a truth. That's my sense, at least, and I stand in general curiosity as to its truth. But is it bad, even if it's true? Is the conversational model, the lens with which to perceive disciplinary health, outmoded? What do we replace it with?

As more and more scholars born between 1890 and 1940 die, we get more and more reflections by their most immediate students about the death of the long view at the hands of specialization. Edward Said was already lamenting in the 70s the death of scholars on the model of Auerbach, Spitzer, and Curtius: people who seemed to know everything, read everything. But that kind of thing seems impossible today, and for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that there is simply too much to read. [fn.2] So, if scholarly specialization is, as I believe it to be, on the whole a good thing, what happens to our ability to not just talk to each other, but take that long view, to saying something general? Foucault seems to suggest this is a fading intellectual type, and that that might be a good thing, but should we be suspicious of Foucault, as he was, after all, a mighty generalist?

Walter Jackson Bate, that tremendous critic, scholar, and intellectual historian, was reflecting on something like the above problem when he wrote this in 1982:
The truth is that, with the fading of the Renaissance ideal through progressive stages of specialism, leading to intellectual emptiness, we are left with a potentially suicidal movement about "leaders of the profession," while, at the same time, the profession sprawls, without its old center, in helpless disarray.

One quickly cited example is the professional organization, the Modern Language Association.... A glance at its think program for its last meeting shows a massive increase and fragmentation into more than 500 categories! I cite a few examples: "Deconstruction as Poltics," "Lesbian Feminist Poetry in Texas," "The Trickster Figure in Chicano and Black Literature," or (astonishingly) "The Absent Father in Fact, Metaphor, and Metaphysics in the Middle Generation of American Poets." ... Naturally, the progressive trivialization of topics has made these meetings a laughingstock in the national press.
So, now we know Bate is additionally a snobbish prick. But is there nothing of value in the above lamentation? That passage was quoted in the book that happened to prompt me to these reflections, Barbara Johnson's A World of Difference. It was not finding the Bate, but reflecting to myself, "Why did I even buy this? Does anyone even take Johnson seriously anymore?" The trouble is that I don't even know where to turn to get a sense of how I should answer that question. The more time goes on, the more I get the feeling that the answer to such questions is both, and disturbingly, "Yes, you should care; and no, don't worry about it." I don't think the answer used to be that, back when there was a center, and this might be for the good: the sense of letting a thousand flowers bloom. But when you are job hunting, I suspect the answer is still, "Yeah, you don't wanna' take stock in the passé." But there's no center anymore to tell us what's passé and what fashionable.

But more than that question is the fading of the Renaissance view, the fate of the generalist, being able to take the long view. I'd like to think such a thing still desirable. But we can't read everything, and there's no center anymore to tell you what to read to assure yourself of a job, so splintering forces your head further into very local power structures (i.e. of your narrow specialty), and the force of "publish or perish" is such that nobody will get ahead taking the long view. Is that line of reasoning right? Is there anything to be done? Should we be worried?

I might, in the end, not say that I'm worried, but I wonder about the notion of generality being a specialty. I think it always was, but what's coming to the fore is how it might be becoming impossible to have more than one specialty. Whereas, one used to be able to cut their teeth on a specialty while keeping up on other intellectual pastimes, so that on the backside of one's career, aging in tenure, one could take the long view without worrying about professional advancement (and have enough logged reading and research to be able to take that longer, more comprehensive view), now I'm not sure we have the time to both make inroads on a specialty and keep up on anything else. Even if this is a confession of personal limitation, it has to be an increasing reality for more and more. And if it is, that means we will lack a community to be able to judge general assertions. For who will know? That's the Hegelian model of intersubjectivity at work. That is an actual possibility. And that is what strikes me as fearful: it's the inconversability fear again, but I'm wondering if put this way, it's less snobbish than fearing the death of the heroic, Renaissance übermensch. And the fact of the matter, I think, is that right now there is no professional outlet for specializing as a generalist. And that means no one will be able to do it in the future I'm imagining, and imagining as possible.


[1] Consequences of Pragmatism, 216

[2] Another to think about is the capabilities of our education systems. Auerbach, Spitzer, and Curtius knew absurd numbers of languages, and while we know this kind of continued diversity is possible, in Europe for example, I wonder if part of its possibility derives from the compact space that houses these different language groups. And if global homogenization continues apace, which we have no reason to doubt, then this condition will disappear as well. It isn't, in other words, just that Americans are absurdly exceptionalist, thinking everyone should just speak English. It's also a function of having other languages around, impacting your daily life. The only other route is forced entrenchment through public schooling, and not only is their no will for that, I wonder about its desirability (despite it being likely the only solution).

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rorty's Metaphilosophy

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Rorty was hounded for the last half of his career with a reputation for having given up on arguments. It began when Richard Bernstein, one of Rorty’s more perceptive critics, noted that “although [Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature] is filled with arguments, many of which are brilliant and ingenious, Rorty at several points warns against the love of argument that has characterized one strand in philosophy ever since Plato. What is unsettling and disturbing about Rorty’s argumentative style is that he refuses to play the game…, he doesn’t seem to be primarily concerned with carefully stating issues in such a manner so that one can proceed to develop the strongest arguments in support of a correct ‘position.’”[fn.1] “Style” is a good word here, as is Bernstein’s notion that Rorty has an overall “strategy” that argues at one point, but not at another. This strategy transformed itself into Consequences of Pragmatism’s suggestion that “the really exasperating thing about literary intellectuals, from the point of view of those inclined to science or to Philosophy, is their inability to engage in such argumentation—to agree on what would count as resolving disputes, on the criteria to which all sides must appeal. In a post-Philosophical culture, this exasperation would not be felt.”[fn.2] As this stands, it is slightly misleading to Rorty’s point, for it is not the case that literary intellectuals have an inability to engage in argumentation—it’s just that such argumentation is usually out of point when the main activity is “the inconclusive comparison and contrast of vocabularies” (xli). For, as Rorty goes on but eventually ignores the better wisdom of occasionally in his rhetorical flourishes, “in such a [post-Philosophical] culture, criteria would be seen as the pragmatist sees them—as temporary resting-places constructed for specific utilitarian ends. On the pragmatist account, a criterion (what follows from the axioms, what the needle points to, what the statute says) is a criterion because some particular social practice needs to block the road of inquiry, halt the regress of interpretations, in order to get something done” (xli, second emphasis mine).

“In order to get something done”—this is what ultimately explains a lot of Rorty’s wishy-washiness about philosophy, the activity he was trained to do and continued to do through-out his life, before and after his supposed Kehre in PMN. For Rorty never could become completely convinced that there was something pressing to be done by philosophy. So he couldn’t himself be bothered long enough to work out some of the criteria for “carefully stating issues” in order to “develop the strongest arguments in support of a correct position.” Why would you work hard at developing stronger and stronger arguments for a position that will be aufgehoben tomorrow because (and this is important) the “specific utilitarian ends” to which the position served have passed away? And so, as Rorty felt more and more alienated from his former colleagues at Princeton and more and more welcomed by “literary intellectuals,” this plausible stopping-point turned into his most infamous passage on argumentation: “On the view of philosophy which I am offering, philosophers should not be asked for arguments against, for example, the correspondence theory of truth or the idea of the ‘intrinsic nature of reality.’ … Conforming to my own precepts, I am not going to try to make arguments against the vocabulary I want to replace.”[fn.3] A few perceptive (and apparently kind, though for simply being more clear-sighted) commentators have noticed that there are, like in PMN, more than a few arguments, and good ones to boot. Rorty’s disaffection got the better of him, but his procedure was still the same as it was to remain throughout his career. Berstein calls this “a two-stage strategy” in which the first stage is to offer familiar kinds of dialectical arguments, which are as Rorty points out “parasitic upon” (CIS 9) the entrenched vocabulary you wish to displace,[fn.4] in order to “soften up” (Bernstein’s phrase) the reader for the second stage, which is to account for the historical origins of the entrenched vocabulary.

The controlling motif that underlay Rorty’s philosophy from beginning to end was the sense of philosophy as an on-going conversation. Rather than Whitehead’s metaphor of “footnotes to Plato,” for Rorty philosophy—all inquiry and writing for that matter—is more like a game of telephone: Parmenides said something to Plato who told Aristotle something it turns out is not quite what Parmenides meant. A “science” that has criteria and can argue, then, is something that can only arise if you can get everyone on the same page—say, if Plato had gotten Parmenides right before passing it along to Aristotle. But—why should Plato be required to get Parmenides right? What if Plato’s accidental mishearing and misreporting works better for what Aristotle wants to do? The idea of philosophers wanting to do different things is why Rorty once said that “philosophy is the greatest game of all precisely because it is the game of ‘changing the rules.’”[fn.5] If you don’t want to play Parmenides’ Sorry anymore, you change the rules so you’re now playing Aristotle’s Monopoly (a game which lasted quite a while). Philosophy for Rorty is a game of Calvinball in which the philosopher of the present is Calvin and the future is Hobbes. Calvin could never win against Hobbes because Hobbes was always better at making up rules than Calvin, keeping one step ahead of him.[fn.6] If you view philosophy like this, why would you want to play? This feeling comes out of Wittgenstein, too, and has recently come to be called various kinds of “quietism.”[fn.7]

Given this kind of abuse one gets from actually participating in the game of philosophy, always risking becoming outmoded by the next generation, Rorty pulled further and further back from the game. Pulling back from philosophy to make it your object of analysis used to be called “metaphilosophy.” The trouble with metaphilosophy is that it is still philosophy: metaphilosophy, like aesthetics and metaphysics, is just one more venerable subactivity in the larger form. So there’s a sense in which Rorty has continued to play the game. The question is: by what rules has he been playing by? Rorty’s bad reputation largely comes from the idea that he really did give up on arguments and that arguments are essential components of good philosophical activity. After all, so goes this line, if philosophy really is a conversation, isn’t the right thing to oppose to an asserted claim a counterclaim backed by a justifying argument? Isn’t there something pernicious about not meeting arguments with another argument, something that amounts to plugging your ears and squawking “la-la-la-la-la-la-la!” Rorty has struck some philosophers as wanting his cake and eating, too: remaining in the game without playing by the rules. “But whose rules?” replies Rorty. However, that being said, if Rorty is to commend his own philosophy, there does need to be some sort of explicatable standard according to which he can be shown to not be violating. This is the hard thing to do.

“Philosophy is a conversation” was the first metaphor introduced so let us tangle with its implications first. The notion of a “conversation” gives off a sense of dynamism that’s missing when you read one article or book, but gets re-introduced once you start putting articles and books side by side, “in conversation with each other,” as we say. However—these are still all just theories in a certain sense, a sense James gives when he says: “theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.”[fn.8] Instruments for what? It is paramount that we answer: both for problems outside of philosophy and problems within philosophy. It is hard to keep these two things in view at the same time, and James, Dewey, and Rorty struggled their entire careers to articulate a conception of philosophy that balanced both in a single vision. James and Dewey—because this was against the understanding of the times—typically overemphasized problems outside of philosophy. This was Dewey’s sense of philosophy arising from our contact with the world, in all of its manifestations, for example the story he tells in The Quest for Certainty. Philosophy cut off from the world’s problems, then, is what creates scholasticism, the pointless counting of angels on pinheads. But since all responses are responses to the world in some fashion—even that terribly narrow portion of reality called “philosophy books and the conundrums you’ll find therein”—philosophers cut themselves off from the work of other philosophers at the cost of seeming to play a game by themselves.

This can be fruitful—what, after all, is a philosophical treatise other than, on our first metaphor, a monologue? As I said before, there’s something static about just one vision being articulated, but as Michael Walzer once said, “there are times when we need to listen to a sustained argument, a linear discourse.”[fn.9] This is what Rorty’s detractors feel is missing from Rorty’s later work: there’s no sustained argument. Rorty’s student, Brandom, spent nearly 700 pages articulating a philosophy of language. That’s a long time by yourself, but the game Brandom wanted to set up was intricate and he needed a lot of space, a lot of time alone. So Brandom spent a long time by himself, cut off from other philosophers (in a fashion), and set up his own game to play. What’s Rorty doing? He doesn’t want to set up his own game, he says, but he continues to spend time with other people’s games. What kind of game is this if you do spend some time by yourself (in essays), but it’s primarily with other people’s larger, more intricate games?

Rorty, like his predecessors James and Dewey, wanted philosophy to be a response to life. The principal slice of life Rorty spent his life responding to was philosophy. Uncertain about what was worth standing behind that was philosophical, what was worth pouring energy into creating and strengthening that wouldn’t look like wasted effort tomorrow (when Hobbes the Future changes the rules), Rorty…quit Princeton and moved to Montana to ride horses? No, he spent his life writing about and defending pragmatism, a big fat something if there ever was. So what kind of game is pragmatism and how does one play it?

Rorty’s answer was always that it wasn’t, properly speaking, a game at all, not like say Brandom’s systematic philosophy of language. This is his emphasis that pragmatism—under whose banner he gathered a large number of his favorite philosophers, from Gadamer and Derrida to Dennett and Arthur Fine—only makes negative points against positive programs.[fn.10] But if pragmatism is to be a coherent object at all—something that deserves a single name, even if it is more like a family name than it is a single individual’s—there must be a central vision around which can be identified rules that can come under violation: you need to be able to know whether you are a pragmatist or not outside of the fact that Rorty says you are. Rorty has run the range of derision to teasing about his lists, appropriations, and self-conscious ignorings of his “heroes.”[fn.11] But there is a central vision—why can’t this be the game, the system, the positive program?

“What kind of game is a list of negatives?” Rorty might say. What kind of game is a list of “don’ts” rather than a list of “shoulds or cans”? Every game comes not only with a list of things to prepare for the game (where to sit, what to have like dice, etc.) and a list of rules for how play proceeds (“if you land on a Chance space, draw a card and follow its instructions”), but also the all-important “Getting Started” section. Pragmatism is like a game with a list of things you can’t do, but nowhere does it tell you how to even get started with the game. And that is a horrible way to teach people how to be philosophers, for it tells you nothing about what to philosophize about. In fact, the answer is something like “anything you want,” but what if you philosophize about stuff nobody cares about? Playing solitaire gets kind of boring after a while.

But “anything you want” is the entire impetus behind pragmatism being a movement for putting philosophy back into the flow of life—you set your own agenda so that you can respond to the currents and corrugations of life. There is still this nagging problem for Rorty, though: his particular slice of life he’s chosen to focus on is still philosophy. This is like saying that his agenda is the management of “don’ts.” What are these “don’ts” and why should someone like Rorty be in charge of them? The core of Rorty’s answer emerged fully in his 1979 Presidential Address to the Eastern Division of the APA: “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 think one can decide between Hegel and Plato save by meditating on the past efforts of the philosophical tradition to escape from time and history” (CP 174). Rorty is in charge of the list of “don’ts” because it is a list built out of an experience playing with and looking-on over the games played by others. When a game breaks down or is superseded by another, there stands Rorty trying to figure out why. This “why” is then trotted out as an explanation for other breakdowns—if it works, then it is added as a “don’t”: a warning that if you try and set up your game in such-and-such a fashion, it will breakdown when it reaches such-and-such a point under such-and-such a pressure. One of the easiest examples is the Cartesian skeptic: he will always reply, when you think you know something, “how do you know?” To every response, he simply adds another, “So how do you know that?” The Cartesian game needs a reply to the skeptic that will get him to shut up. No reply, so thinks Rorty and a growing cadre of like-minded philosophers (e.g., Michael Williams), will shut the skeptic up because the criteria for shutting him up are impossible to fulfill. Once you allow the Matrix response as a serious, legitimate response—“what if I were to tell you that this is all a dream?”—to any particular phenomenological experience, then you’ve effectively made it appropriate and relevant to every experience. This is what the Cartesian problematic of beginning with methodological doubt does, so Rorty—following Peirce—says don’t start there.

One of the curious things about pragmatism, then of course, is that it is as much an experimental inquiry as any other. The list of “don’t’s” is grown out of watching experimentations in “shoulds.” The “don’ts” themselves, though, must be experimented on—fiat is not a good reason. “Don’t take things simply by authoritative fiat” we’ve learned through the course of history. Yet—sometimes you need to, like the parents who want to shut up their kid who’s doing his best impersonation of a Cartesian skeptic: “Why? Why? Why? Why?” We don’t have all the answers all the time, so sometimes we have to stop, to block the road of inquiry so we can go on to do something else, and one does that by fiat—one gains legitimate authority for such measures by wielding them only when appropriate. So pragmatism’s list of “don’ts” come with an elaboration of circumstances for appropriateness. As Fish has said, the pragmatist’s principles are “rules of thumb.”

I’d like to go back now to Rorty’s argumentative strategies and the rules of the game he plays and why it’s legitimate. The game of pragmatism, so far stated, consists in a freescape impinged only by a list of “don’ts.” This, on its face, doesn’t seem right, unless “don’t kill people” is suddenly a specifically pragmatist principle. So, the game of pragmatism is first and foremost a philosophical game. As a philosophical game, it doesn’t need to have explicitly rules from other games, it only needs to be able to account for their possibility (recurring to Sellars’ definition in [fn.2]). So there’s a weird sense in which philosophical games are one among many, and yet contain the others within it. The game of pragmatism’s mantra is something like: “get back to life!” which is all those other games. However, this isn’t a disparagement of philosophy, merely the principle that if you can’t make your philosophical game relevant to other games, then you’re doing it wrong. So the philosopher who wants to be a pragmatist has one of two choices: they can either fiddle around with other games in relationship to their philosophical game (i.e. the game of seeing how things hang together) or they can fiddle around with other philosophical games in relationship to their philosophical game. It is this latter practice which is the game of managing the list of “don’ts” by which other hopeful pragmatists keep an eye on in their freescaping. Since philosophical games are both responses to life and tools for improving life, one set of philosophical tools should consist in improving your philosophical tools so they don’t make your life worse. Pragmatism is the game of making sure your philosophical tools are working properly by making sure you can get back to other games with them. (For example, if you can’t shut the skeptic up, you may never have enough confidence that there is an external world out there, and never make it to the In-N-Out you're dying for.)

This doesn’t yet get to Rorty’s own form of list-management. The model I want to suggest for understanding the distinction between philosophy-as-freescaping and metaphilosophy-as-list-management is of war. This is an old metaphor certainly, but what needs to be highlighted is the difference between articulating a strategy and enacting a strategy. On this model, philosophy is what happens when battle is joined between real, live opponents. Metaphilosophy is the devising of strategies for what you would do if a particular kind of opponent appeared before you. Outside of actual war, of course, is peace and all the other kinds of activities one could be doing if one weren’t in the middle of a war. We might say that Rorty’s career, on this model, went something like this: a grunt fighting in the trenches (60s and 70s—e.g., “Mind-Body Identity, Privacy, and Categories” and “Incorrigibility as a Mark of the Mental”) to a captain managing a squadron (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) to a general on the field (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity) to a Professor of Tactics at West Point, teaching the grunts, captains, and generals what they should probably do if they get caught in certain kinds of situations (I’m thinking particularly of the series called “Hope in Place of Knowledge” in Philosophy and Social Hope).

Saying that, however, skews the point of making philosophy a freescape that anyone can do because philosophy is a response and tool for life and we are all living. What we should rather say is that the grunts are all of us in our daily lives, dealing with live, flesh and blood people, and all of us dealing with problems (some of which arise from dealing with each other). The captains we might call “intellectuals,” the kind of person that has gained a reputation—for whatever reason: town elder, supernerd, academic, journalist, therapist, parent—for being able to help with other people’s problems. The generals, on this model, are philosophy professors (I should just say “readers,” but nearly the only people who concentrate hard on books from the philosophy shelves are professional philosophers). They are this because of what Rorty said: they deal almost entirely with the people who keep changing the rules of the game. The difference between clarifying a problem and changing it so you can deal with it better is negligible when you reach this height, overlooking the game of life. And then there’s Rorty: the Tactics Professor, retired and not even on the playing field anymore. What rubs people the wrong way is that Rorty seems to want to tell people how to play the game without anymore playing the game.

“Playing the game” in this sense is giving arguments. The trouble for this prima facie criticism of Rorty is that he does give arguments. What he doesn’t do is sustain them for very long, giving off a sense of being more and more distant from the feeling of being involved in philosophical controversy. And this because of the sweep with which Rorty wishes to encompass, a sweep built less out of an ambitious philosophical gaze (like Brandom’s) and more out of impatience for getting back to things that are probably more important. I say “probably” because I don’t think Rorty ever did shake the sense that meeting philosophical opponents wasn’t a good thing to do. Rorty was glad that Brandom did the things he was able to see him do. He didn’t keep doing philosophy because he needed to pay bills or had nothing better to do (though I imagine some days it felt like it), he did it because he wanted pragmatism to win. He wanted his game to triumph. He did have a horse on the battlefield (to mix metaphors even more quickly than I have so far).

So how, finally, do you manage a negative system? Rorty’s rhetorical pattern—from nearly beginning to end—was to talk about something bigger than himself: whatever ism he was promoting that day. What this allowed him to do was forward arguments that were depersonalized: like generals moving pieces on a Risk board. Rorty wanted to win, but you’re able to relax a little bit more and learn more when you take a little of your pride out of it by such a depersonalizing maneuver. You are not your theories, though there isn’t much more to you than that (at least once you expand the notion of a “theory” to the size that James used). We make growing easier through such an attitude. The second pattern that attached itself to the first was to talk of strategies: the strategy strategy. For pragmatists, beliefs are habits of action. Philosophy is the refinement of belief, not through experimental action to see its consequence, but through projection based on similarity of past cases of action. When you philosophize, you tinker with your habits, which themselves are in place to guide your action when the moment arrives. And when you think about philosophy as first and foremost a dialectical encounter with other philosophers, then you’ll talk about what you would do and say should you meet another philosopher. This is the form that system-building takes for a series of negatives: a list of hypotheticals. If such-and-such a condition is met, then I would do such-and-such.

Rorty’s later writings, when they were philosophical, had the simplifying and unsustained quality they did because he was thinking of the future: his goal was to teach the dialectical techniques and gambits that are, while not being themselves sophisticated (because a sophisticated technique spells several pages), in relatively good working order as first responses. I don’t think Rorty ever expected his shorter and shorter arguments to end argument. He wanted, rather, to display some of the tactics that come in handy and chart what, if an actual encounter should find you victorious, the consequences are having used such gambits. If you doubt the veracity of someone’s claim, you might say, “How do you know?” What Rorty wanted to make sure people knew is when pressing that claim turns into a monster and how you might avoid creating that monster, or believing that the monster really exists whether you created him or not. Is such a mode of philosophizing frivolous and disingenuous? Only if introductory manuals are. Only if kindergarten is. People have to start somewhere, and Rorty made the ambitious, courageous, and unenviable attempt to try and write for people who weren’t philosophy professors. It’s much easier to talk to people in your clique, where you don’t need to explain why you do the things you do. What made philosophers peeved at Rorty was that his simplifying maneuvers ended the argument before they wanted to see it closed. So it always must if you wish to move on to something else—Rorty’s mistake, if you will, was to continue to read, appreciate, and haggle with the top guns in the field and try and make them too-quickly-relevant to the other problems Rorty wished to discuss. I’m not sure this is irresponsible. It would only be irresponsible if people thought that a philosopher’s duty was to foreclose on argument—to end the argument. But Rorty only wished to move it further. The trick to understanding Rorty’s accomplishment in his later phase might be in considering them as advanced introductions—or rather, introductions for advanced thinkers. The sophisticated can become stale tramping around in their tired patterns and circumlocutions, and understanding Rorty’s thought might be to understand Emerson’s notion of self-reliance as a mature youth.


[1] Bernstein, “Philosophy in the Conversation of Mankind” in Philosophical Profiles, 23. I cannot quite figure why Bernstein has quotes around “position” and not “correct.” The standard ironic handling of, from their point of view, philosophically circumspect notions that Bernstein and Rorty share would suggest this was a mistake, but it is in the original printing of the article, too. The only real suggestion I can give about the semantic alteration if they are scare-quotes is that Bernstein is suggesting that Rorty finds the notion of a philosophical position as suspect as (and/or part and parcel with) argument. This is plausible, though out of joint with where Bernstein is in his elaboration and, I think, ultimately misleading about Rorty. To suggest that Rorty’s attempting to conceive of a positionless position is absurd on its face, but the difficulty of finding a comfortable position in a given array of positions that all look uncomfortable is a real motif that came out of PMN.

[2] Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, xli. The capitalization in “Philosophy” is due to Rorty’s distinction earlier between a nonprofessional “philosophy,” which at best is captured by Wilfrid Sellars’ definition “an attempt to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term” (xiv), and professional “Philosophy,” which centers around “interlocking Platonic notions” whose conceptual shape is taken from the impetus to ask “questions about the nature of certain normative notions (e.g., ‘truth,’ ‘rationality,’ ‘goodness’) in the hope of better obeying such norms” (xv, emphasis mine).

[3] Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 8-9

[4] The claim of “parasitism” has a submerged history in Rorty’s argumentative arc that is too much to excavate here. However, it would trace itself through Rorty’s peculiar understanding of Kant’s transcendental argument, in which Davidson’s argument in “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” eventually becomes cast as the “transcendental argument to end all arguments” (in “Transcendental Argument, Self-Reference, and Pragmatism” in Transcendental Arguments and Science, ed. Peter Bieri et al., 1979, 78), to his notion of irony in CIS which is first experimented with in “Is There a Problem about Fictional Discourse?” (in CP). The two aforementioned papers were written about the same time, when PMN was in its final stages of composition.

[5] Rorty, “Recent Metaphilosophy” in Review of Metaphysics Dec. 1961, 301

[6] There’s actually quite a lot to be made of Calvinball as an analogy to life, particularly insofar as one focuses on Calvin’s need to follow the rules as Hobbes makes them up and compares that to Kant and Hegel on the bindingness of norms, particularly as Robert Brandom explicates them.

[7] Quietism is essentially an outgrowth of the idea of philosophy as therapy that Wittgenstein pioneered. For some of Rorty’s thoughts about recent terminology and the struggle over Wittgenstein, see “Naturalism and Quietism” and “Wittgenstein and the Linguistic Turn” in Philosophy as Cultural Politics. While siding with quietists in the former, he makes a distinction between “Wittgensteinian therapists,” the quietists, and “pragmatic Wittgensteinians,” and sides with the pragmatists against the quietists. This is an interesting move that would pay for more thought, especially given the movement between his appeal to Davidson’s “passing theory” argument in CIS (14) and his later criticism of that same section of Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”: “In the case at hand, they wonder whether the ability to cope with Mrs. Malaprop need be described as the ability to converge with her on any sort of theory, any more than the ability of two bicyclists to avoid collision is an ability to agree on a passing theory of passing” (“Response to Donald Davidson” in Rorty and His Critics, ed. Robert Brandom, 75). The “they” opposed to Davidson in that passage are “Wittgensteinians,” and specifically “therapeutic Wittgensteinians.” Given Rorty’s career-long loyalty to Wittgenstein and Davidson as philosophical heroes, ferreting out the ratios of difference given shifted terrain in these instances would give us a good picture of Rorty’s philosophical instincts.

[8] James, “What Pragmatism Means” in Pragmatism

[9] Walzer, “A Critique of Philosophical Conversation” in Thinking Politically, 30. This is a fascinating article, principally about various kinds of ideal-speech theories wielded for political purposes (in particular Habermas). Walzer is that exemplary kind of political philosopher who keeps very well before him the distinction between theory and the real world, the unquestioned need for both, and the unquestioned primacy of the problems of the real world.

[10] For example, after block-quoting Peirce, Derrida, Sellars, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Foucault, and Heidegger all in a row on the so-called “linguistic turn” in philosophy, Rorty says, “This chorus should not, however, lead us to think that something new and exciting has recently been discovered about Language—e.g., that it is more prevalent than had previously been thought. The authors cited are making only negative points” (CP xx).

[11] I’m thinking of, in particular, Deweyans who point out that Rorty violates a significant portion of Dewey’s corpus. See the exchanges in Rorty and Pragmatism, ed. Herman J. Saatkamp, as a representative selection of criticism and how he responds to it. On the teasing end, there’s my favorite from Dennett: “Since I, as an irremediably narrow-minded and unhistorical analytic philosopher, am always looking for a good excuse not to have 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 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and come out about 40% ahead” (“Comments on Rorty” in Synthese 53 (1982), 349-50). Dennett, like Rorty, is his own kind of bizarre philosophical character, and this short piece has some very interesting insights into Rorty’s procedure, all the more so because of their disagreements about how to express themselves metaphilosophically.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

What Is Literary Theory?

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


The underlying intuition to first condition this question is that what is picked out by the word “philosophy” is basically the same as what is picked out by “theory.” “Theory” is whatever part of a discipline that reflects on the tools that discipline deploys to do its work. Thus, for example, “theory” is what is being done when a sociologist reflects on what is picked out by “society” or “group” or an anthropologist on “culture” or “ritual.” Almost every discipline these days has its own theory department, and no longer farms out the work to philosophy. (This didn’t used to be the case.) This has been a problem for philosophy, insofar as it has been harder for it to justify itself, but just insofar as it’s a problem for philosophy, it is—often covertly to those independent disciplines asking philosophy to justify itself—also a problem for the disciplinary theory-heads. The reason for this is that the experience of philosophy for 2500 years has been with abstract concepts and their relationships to each other. It has dabbled in concrete stuff from time to time, but every time it gets on a roll, the group of people in charge of the inquiry become full of themselves and secede from the union (a typical origins-story about disciplines from philosophy’s point of view). Without a doubt, every discipline has its own special problems that it needs its own special tools for, and for the most part it is best that a discipline make and improve its own tools (though outright stealing works, too). However, when it comes to seeing the relationship between those special tools and the special tools that other people are using, no one has any special province. The closest you can get is philosophy—that group of people with 2500 years of experience dealing with that kind of thing.

If you start with this understanding of “philosophy” and “theory,” the relationship between literary criticism and literary theory becomes a little clearer. It’s really the relationship between practical criticism of literary texts and theoretical reflection on the tools you use in those practical contexts. When you read Hawthorne through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis or Melville through the lens of Derridean deconstruction, you’re doing practical criticism when the primary goal of your train of thought is reading Hawthorne or Melville. If you’re trying to make a comment on psychoanalytic theory or deconstruction using whatever insight you may have pulled from reading Hawthorne or Melville, the comment itself is theory and besides the point of reading Hawthorne or Melville. Getting the theory right is a different context than using it to read other texts. It’s important to understand this. In the act of writing, one can attempt to do many things. But to know you’re doing many things, or to just do one thing and not those other things, one needs to see how to differentiate between different activities. And in the terms I’ve laid out, “getting theory right” means doing philosophy, which means attending to the problems generated in a different disciplinary sector than that of getting the literary text right.

Literary theory as a phenomenon in English departments in the United States is the product of the confluence of five things:
1) concern over how interpretation works
2) concern over what interpretations we should give
3) foundationalism
4) the dearth of Continental philosophy in the American university system
5) Baby Boomers flooding the market and looking for a way of distinguishing themselves for tenure and seeing this new thing to do (thus flooding journals and presses with articles and books about it)
The last two are sociological, external to literary-critical practice as such (which is not to discount the impact of the external, e.g. coming from wealth, going to an Ivy League school, being white, etc.). The last in particular I shall pass over without comment, and about Continental philosophy I will say one thing: while Continental philosophy’s seemingly sudden vogue requires more extensive treatment on just why it and not something else (one prima facie reason is that it was more “humanistic,” in a non-technical sense, than analytic philosophy had become), the conjunction of (5) with the lack of an established conversation about post-Hegelian philosophy in the United States produced the need to establish one. So professors in English departments started bootstrapping themselves in. The trouble that we are now seeing, however, is that no one is teaching it. Someone needs to teach it, because we should be reading it, and if it has to be English departments, while being weird and ironic (say it with me: English departments), then so be it—but they need to do a better job at teaching it in-house. Right now it is scattershot at best, and even then hit-or-miss as to quality, but the pressure of the discipline is that you do need to know something about it. I think the pressure is abating, which is a good thing for the discipline in the long run, but it isn’t clear to me that we shouldn’t yet have a better quality baseline education in it.[fn.1]

(1) through (3) are all theoretical, but it has been the conflation of these three distinct things that has produced the most theoretical trouble for literary theorists over the last 50 years. (3) is a distinctively philosophical issue, produced by thinking about “how one knows” isolated from any actual practices of knowing (it’s the isolation that makes it distinctively philosophical). The last 100 years of philosophy has produced a pure antifoundationalist strain of philosophical thinking. Philosophers of an antifoundationalist bent (which we can find all the way back in the Sophists and up to Hume and Hegel) finally reached self-consciousness about foundationalism being an actual problem to focus on in Nietzsche and the American pragmatists, and since then have produced a purer and purer polemic against that particular problem. The most confusing thing of all about the history of literary theory in the United States is that “literary theory” became self-conscious as a subgenre at the same time as the vogue of Continental antifoundationalism—which at the time was comfortably synonymous in many quarters with anti-theory (because “theory,” consciously or unconsciously, was nearly synonymous with “offering a foundation”).

The reason this could happen is that the dominant theoretical paradigm in English departments in the first half of the 20th century was “New Criticism.” New Criticism prided itself, however, on not being theoretical. The New Criticism achieved dominance in English departments, roughly, in part because of the pressure to discipline the discipline of literary studies (which itself was still being born as a university department in the first place), and so lose all the extraneous concerns in being a generally cultured person. What New Criticism combined, we can now see in hindsight, was the practice of “close reading” with foundationalism. To create a distinctive discipline, they claimed plausibly that the practice of close reading was what they did, implausibly that this was the only way one should read, and wrongly that this was the only way one could read. The first two claims are disciplinary claims for literary critics, and so can properly coalesce into a distinctive kind of thing called “literary theory.” The plausibility of their claims is, of course, a judgment by a disciplinary member on the far side of New Criticism’s hegemony. The third claim—the one called “wrong”—is the philosophical claim of foundationalism, where the moral “should” of the second claim turns into the stronger “could” of metaphysical necessity. (I’m not going to articulate and argue for why the vocabulary of correctness is, or rather should be, in play for the philosophical question as opposed to the disciplinary questions.)

I haven’t specified what close reading is as a practice, but granted that it does pick out something one can do, what you don’t want to do is confuse that practice with the question of how interpretation works—concern (1). The first claim of New Criticism is that there is a practice called “close reading,” a practice that can be differentiated from other practices of reading. To many people, this now seems quite plausible, and the first step towards plausibility is to understand that close reading is a kind of writing.[fn.2] But the New Critics sometimes treated it like simply reading, which makes it more plausible to think that what you are theorizing about is the uptake of conceptual information, i.e. interpretation. When you think of it as a kind of writing, the output of conceptual information, you’re more likely to see what you are doing as offering an interpretation—concern (2). The difference between the two is that when one theorizes about the former—interpretation qua interpretation—the focus is on a general human activity: the uptake of conceptual information is something everyone does all the time. One interprets, in this sense, a painting, the newspaper, or a stop sign as much as Hawthorne or Melville. This kind of theorizing will, indeed, be about the metaphysical necessity of how, exactly, one processes concepts and uses them in communication. As concern (1), put into full swing by Kant, philosophers of language from Austin to Brandom to Habermas have a lot that is relevant to say, but literary theorists have also said many relevant things (from Hirsch to Eco to Fish). However, what one should not do—to repeat—is make the mistake Fish acknowledges having made in his early, career-making books Surprised by Sin and Self-Consuming Artifacts: to confuse a reading with reading.[fn.3]

The only way to glue together concern (1) and (2) is with (3): foundationalism. This is how Descartes gets from the New Science to knowing in general (the logical positivists, too) and it’s the only way to get from a practice like close reading to reading in general. What you do is take one practice and claim that it is the foundation-practice upon which all others rest. This is close to what Kant does, but the transcendental maneuver is slightly different: it doesn’t take an object and “privilege it” (in a phrase still often used for antifoundationalist purposes), it asks what makes the object possible. It is essentially a mechanical question: what needs to be the case for this thing to work as it does? Close reading privileges, in the dirty sense, one kind of literary text: short ones. However, the practice of close reading can be used on anything, it’s just easier on short stuff. What made the New Criticism’s practice of close reading foundationalist is that they first gave a bad answer to how interpretation works (the central move is that it works on a text that is fundamentally isolated from the world—much easier to do on a lyric poem than a historical novel) and then claimed that any other kind of interpretation (e.g., through the use of biography, myth, class consciousness, etc.) is not true interpretation (usually qualified in some way to make “true interpretation” a gateway to the other, now extraneous activities—the other readings aren’t fake, they’re just irrelevant).

What happens when you get rid of foundationalism? Apparently what happens is that you spend another 50 years trying to figure out what getting rid of it means. The Continental philosophy imported in the 60s was all resoundly antifoundational in tenor, yet many foundational-esque habits continued. Some, like Fredric Jameson, tried to be upfront about it. But post-Foucauldian theory—which is something like a confluence of the political sensibilities of Marx with the antifoundational tendencies of Derrida—has struggled, to my mind, in shrugging off foundationalist theory because it feels the impulse to amp up the moral claims of “we should read this way” to “we need, nay, must read this way.” If you read “must” expressively, there’s no problem, but often the “must” comes with a battery of theoretical concerns about the nature of representation. “Representation is socially constructed,” we hear over and over again well after it was something that titillated us, “and therefore we must practice deconstructive criticism because showing how meaning is impossible is the only way to short-circuit the hegemony of European power.” If the vague reference to European power seems a stretch, all you need to do is remind yourself that “semantic authority” over descriptions that pass as true—and that passing as true is the only kind of true you get in this life—is what is produced in what we call “education.” And showing that meaning is impossible would indeed short-circuit such semantic authority (ignoring for the moment how one would have understood the meaning of that sentence). But it seems like a non sequitor from “this is the way representation works” to “we have to read this way.” It is basic to the is/ought dichotomy that Hume pointed out, and if you feel the need, as any form of antidualist, to blur that distinction, if you are also a critic of bourgeois liberalism and its ideology, then you’ll want to remind yourself that blurring that distinction is exactly how the liberal ideologists used their so-called essentialism to move from “I think liberalism is good” to “my cultural representations are the way the world works so I need to destroy everyone else’s.” The movement from is to ought has to be treated as a conversational non sequitor for the very idea of progressive change to be possible. If the necessity was understood to be a purely moral concern, a concern about how the practice of literary criticism should move forward, then the theorist would understand that repeating the lesson about how representation works is not an argument directly for the practice of deconstruction, but merely the preparation for clearing the field of old foundationalist dogma. Once the dogmas are clear, there are still a lot more questions about how one should read—or rather, what kind of readings one should offer.

The lesson I’ve tried to articulate in the above is that if you keep “how does interpretation work?” separate from “what interpretation should I offer?” you will find yourself in the proper disciplinary province of literary theory—reflection about the tools of literary criticism. Having some kind of idea about how interpretation works is, in this understanding, philosophical because interpreting linguistic phenomena is a general human activity and not distinctively literary-critical. This is not to say that philosophers are better at understanding interpretation qua interpretation than literary critics, but the questions and problems peculiar to it (as opposed to problems peculiar to interpreting Hawthorne or Melville) come up with more disciplinary regularity in philosophy than literary criticism (if only because the philosopher spends more time focused just on those abstract questions, and if only because all the special disciplines have forced such focus on the philosopher by making special disciplines around all the more concrete questions). Literary theory should be about what kind of interpretations we should be offering, but they shouldn’t turn on notions of metaphysical or epistemological necessity, for the only kind of reading those kinds of general necessity motivate are compositional—questions about rhetoric and clarity and such. Important questions, to be sure, and part of the province of an English instructor, but not special to literary criticism. Once we scrub Marx of his “science” and Derrida of “one cannot escape the discourse of philosophy,” then what we are left with are a number of tools—tools that can be refined by further reflection—and questions about what purposes we would like to fulfill by forwarding such-and-such a reading.


[1] My treatment of literary theory here, of course, is very schematic and far too generalized to count as good history. Still the best single account of how we get from the beginning of the 20th century to the end is Vincent Leitch’s American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (the central movement with the aid of a little imaginative extrapolation), but for the purposes of understanding why French and German philosophy caught on and not, say, John Dewey, Gilbert Ryle, John Austin, or Wittgenstein, Leitch doesn’t make a good answer explicit. Analytic philosophy is introduced almost solely so that one understands that “Continental philosophy” is the other thing that was in fact popular. I don’t think Leitch’s account suffers much at all, but there is a smaller story to be told, one with curious outliers like Hans Frei’s legendary book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, published in 1974. In the preface, Frei acknowledges three major intellectual debts: Erich Auerbach, Karl Barth, and Ryle. The first two are nearly obvious for a book of this sort, but Frei says of Ryle that “anybody interested in hermeneutics has special reason to be grateful to [Ryle’s The Concept of Mind] for its demystification of the concept of intentional personal action, and the author’s steady refusal to divide intelligent activity into separate mental and external components. It is a lesson well applied to the way one views written statements and hence also how to read them” (viii). Frei in fact commends Ryle over the Continentals in doing what he regards as the similar activity of overcoming philosophical dualism. So why did Heidegger and Derrida catch on and not Ryle? Again, there are a few obvious, superficial answers having to do with tone, and Leitch does canvass some of the external motivating factors, but once one gets down to how the superficial facets like tone connect with externalities like the general tenor of American intellectual life and the internal workings of the conceptual dynamics (e.g., what’s attractive about Husserl’s notion of a lebenswelt), as soon as you realize that the conceptual dynamics are more or less the same as those produced somewhere else, you are kicked back to the level of superficialities and externalities. It’s not that superficialities and externalities cannot or do not (or should not) have an impact on the course of history—it’s that what we want out of a good intellectual history is a story that does more than lay down those three different things in parallel tracks and make the gesture “and these three things impacted each other.” I think part of the problem in producing this story is that some are not convinced, as a matter of theory, that the story can or should be told (e.g., Foucauldians) and that for those that are, we still don’t have a simple model of what that kind of historical ligature looks like, and that because—again, at the level of theory—we haven’t a good model of how the material-practical impacts the conceptual-semantic through the mediation of the communal-social (the kind of model people like Ryle and Heidegger were moving toward, and people like Habermas and Brandom have nearly completed).

[2] For an argument about academic reading generally being a kind of writing, see my "Reading Academically." What is articulated there is a special theory of composition attached to the commitment of writing about other writing (this being analogous to the special theory of relativity's relationship to the general one). What is implicit in this kind of composition (i.e., academic) is a practice of reading that readies the uptake of textual information for the output of textual information. "Close reading" is a further kind of special compositional form that requires something like an analogous special reading form. The best theoretical formulation I've heard articulated about the practice of close reading (by Ed Dryden) is that one takes a block of text and treats it is a synecdoche for the rest of the text. Another way of putting it is that you take one passage from, say, The Scarlet Letter and then treat it as a paradigm for reading the rest of The Scarlet Letter. This allows you to say, "By explaining what this passage means and how it works, I've explained what The Scarlet Letter means and how it works." Clearly, then, this kind of model works really well for when you can fit the whole of a text within the whole of the model: when the part you're treating as a whole (synedoche-style) is actually the whole of it. This is why the New Critics were so fond of lyric poetry. The model becomes attenuated when you apply it to longer texts, but the practice of working out the conceptual dynamics of a single passage (my definition of "close reading") still works well for generating the meaning and mechanics of larger texts, even if these larger texts are more complex because sheer size makes it possible to do more textual things (a fact you can grant even if you wish to argue that poetry is semantically more dense than prose: just think of a novel as a prose-poem). If you want to make a claim that The Scarlet Letter, for example, does three things, the compositional way of arguing for this is to generate each particular thing from three particular emblematic passages that do that thing really well. Once you've generated an understanding of "the thing," you can then apply it at will in writing about other passages of the text, relying on your earlier argued-for-claim-backed-by-evidence. What is important to see, however, is that this is a particular model of reading: you are seeing the text differently because you are looking in the text for something specific—emblematic passages. The ends of writing do alter the means of reading (a point made generally in the opening of "Reading Academically"). This kind of reading doesn't work very well on certain kinds of texts and certain kinds of textual phenomena (e.g., narrative action). Despite the fact that generating textual evidence for a written argument will always look something like close reading, close reading isn't always the best foot forward in reading a text.

[3] See the introduction to Is There a Text in This Class?, where he describes the evolution in his thinking, from a thesis about Paradise Lost to a full-blown critical methodology to seeing that that wasn’t right as a methodology (though yet as a specific reading) to finally his theory of interpretive communities.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Lit Crit Stuff Archive

These are a bit dated (for various reasons).

Literacy as Symbol and Material Means in Douglass

Wright and the Figures of Slave Narrative

Necessity of Adapting to Present Circumstances

One of the Most Important Chapters in the Entire History

Uncertainy, Reason, and Trust in "Young Goodman Brown"

Love Poetry, Pain, Distance, and Romance

The Representation of Animals

Bloom and Criticism

Longing for the Apocalypse

Theoretical and Empirical Schizophrenia

Modernism and After in The Art Lover

Eliot, Forster, and Experience

Lewis and Ulysses

James and Woolf

Of Mere Being

Order in Stevens

Phaedrus, the Woolf

Stuff in Intellectual History Archive

These posts are a bit dated (for various reasons).

Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and Reason

Plato: The Immortal Soul: Given or Proof?

Primitivism in Rousseau

Spinoza: God: Now 100% All-Natural

Machiavelli and Humanism

Socrates and Relativism

No More, Please: A Parody for Parity

Various Philosophers and Authors Archive

These posts are a bit dated (for various reasons).

Danto: Voice, Mind, Heart, Spirit

MacIntyre: Epistemological Crises and Dramatic Narrative

Taylor: The Diversity of Goods

Baier: Doing Without Moral Theory?

Austin Gets Rhemed

Oakeshott's Rationalist

Dworkin and Rawls on Liberalism

Putnam and Pirsig

Marjorie Grene

Writings on Religious Topics Archive

These posts are a bit dated (for various reasons).

Cult Followers and Free Thinkers

Verificationism and the Shibboleth Problem

The Myth of Buddhist Peace

Absurdity of Getting High and Having a Mystical Experience

Other Philosophy Stuff Archive

These posts are a bit dated (for various reasons).

Are You Irrational or an Asshole?

Pirsig, Ad Hominems, and the Three Rhetorical Archetypes

Philosophy, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics

Free Will and Determinism: The Contours of Moral Responsibility

Just Bitching

How Not to Start a Philosophical Conversation

A Theory of Rhetorical Overindulgence

The Difference: Conversion and Articulation

On Richard Rorty Archive

These posts are a bit dated (for various reasons).

Rorty: Cartesian Epistemology, or Incorrigibility as the Mark of Something

Rorty: Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?

Rorty: Heidegger, Dewey, Pirsig

Rorty: Heidegger, Dewey, Pirsig II

Rorty: Genres of Writing

Map of PMN

Rorty's Myopia

On Robert Pirsig Archive

These are posts that are a bit dated (for various reasons).

Language, SOM, and the Pathos of Distance

Dynamic Quality as Pre-Intellectual

Excavating SOM

Towards a Narrative of SOM

Notes on Experience, Dewey, and Pirsig

Begging the Question, Moral Intuition(s), and Answering the Nazi

Pirsig, the MoQ, and SOM

Philosophy and Biography

Quality as Archimedean Point

Suggestions About Morality and the MoQ

Midwestern Megalomania

Friday, January 07, 2011

Notes on Mysticism: Madness, Directness, Tears, and Contingency

*NOTE* The internal page links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.
I. Madness
II. Menus and Maps
III. Tears
IV. At a Loss for Words
V. The Feeling of Reality
VI. Madness and Directness as Contingency
VII. Spiritual Exercises

I would like to add a few notes about the surface of mysticism, which is to say the language and discourse that surrounds the mystic experience. The rhetoric of mysticism has often dovetailed with the rhetoric of madness. “Enthusiasm,” often used in older ages to describe the Western mystic, comes from the Greek entheos, which means quite literally “full of God,” and is often interpreted as “divine madness.”[fn.1] The rhetoric of mysticism also often uses the diction of directness, such that our common, conventionally appreciated reality is really an appearance behind that which is the real reality (think of maya from the Hindu tradition). A direct appreciation of the real reality, then, will appear mad or crazy to those still within the conventional modes of appreciation. This creates a problem, for we use the epithets “insane,” “mad,” or “crazy” to identify exactly those who are out of touch with reality. So who is right?

So direct of an antithesis is there between the two that rather than go straight at this question, we should perhaps first contemplate their agreement: variance with conventions. Reality or madness lies beyond conventions—perhaps such a consequential gulf embodied in this disjunct is what creates a sometimes thrilling anxiety. Since at least Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (though Freud’s description of neurosis surely got the ball rolling), Western intellectuals have become increasingly aware of how the position of an “outsider,” specifically in this case the “crazy person,” is created by how we count “insiders”—the conventional canons of inclusion. In order to approach the problem of what’s beyond conventions, I should like to briefly investigate how we break conventions, and thus occlude ourselves.

Menus and Maps
To do this, I will recur to two analogies used by Robert Pirsig. Pirsig’s most famous book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM), did yeoman’s work in bridging typical Western divides between mysticism, art, science, and technology. Its success lay in combining a sophisticated genealogy of the modern scientific mind back to the Greek logos (in the vein Heidegger pioneered) with a down to earth mapping of that mind in the everyday lives of us passive technological consumers. Part of his success, in fact, lies in the fact that he is not a pioneer in any of the vast areas he rambles through, but rather in his vast powers of distillation, synthesis, and communication, using tropes that have floated through the public consciousness but now become welded together as part of a single thematic. As Emerson said, “the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men.”[fn.2]

The two analogies I should like to use come from Pirsig’s second book, Lila. The first establishes for Pirsig the mystic sense of reality he seeks to do justice to, which is difficult because for mysticism “the fundamental nature of reality is outside language”—“Metaphysics is not reality. Metaphysics is names about reality. Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty-thousand-page menu and no food” (72). What is nice about this figure is that it illustrates how the menu can get between you and the food. It also illustrates nicely the linguistic feature of what is between us and reality, and hooks up with the anxiety Plato inaugurated between onoma (name) and eidos (form) in which the lack of a link between the two eventually led to Saussurean declarations that language is conventional and thus arbitrary (because the names are instituted by us and not by reality).

Pirsig shifts his hold on this structural motif by moving to a second analogy: the map. Pirsig’s purpose in Lila is to create an alternative metaphysical understanding of reality (a “Metaphysics of Quality,” or MoQ) to the dominant understanding, which he calls the “subject-object metaphysics” (SOM). One problem with SOM is that it can’t recognize itself as conventional, and thus cannot have an alternative. The SOM version of the history of inquiry is a gradual unfolding of the single, correct understanding of reality. Pirsig doesn’t want to avoid the notion of a “gradual unfolding,” but he does want to say that our metaphysical assumptions are due for an upgrade:
“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. A map with the North Pole at the center is confusing at first, but it’s every bit as correct as a Mercator map. In the Artic it’s the only map to have. Both are simply intellectual patterns for interpreting reality and one can only say that in some circumstances rectangular coordinates provide a better, simpler interpretation.” (114-5)
Pirsig, following a conceptual move prepared for by Mill and James, implies rather that it is the utility of particular conventions that should weighed, instead of thinking of an omnivorous Convention that is whatever is correct. The latter leads to the unhelpful circular logic of “whatever is correct is the Convention; and the Convention is correct, so you must be wrong.” This short-circuits inquiry, for every trendsetter was wrong before they set the new right.

Pirsig’s alternative seeks to include both conventions and mystic reality (which we might define simply and antithetically as “not conventions”). It has to do so in something like this manner: “this conventional understanding of reality includes both an understanding of conventions and of not-conventions, but because understanding is conventional, it can only indicate obliquely where not-conventions are, i.e. at the breakages.”

This is where the power of the map analogy comes into its own, for the notion of a map moves to alleviate anxieties about arbitrariness by tying us to a surface. In Pirsig’s vocabulary, Quality is the primordial, mystic reality from which all unfolds. After the unfolding begins, the locus of any individual object as this particular object is defined as a static pattern of Quality—a rock is an inorganic static pattern, a person an entire rainforest of patterns, at the top of which are our intellectual patterns of conventional understanding. These intellectual patterns are our map. The map qua map does not respond to its environment, the person does. And the person has a pencil, and can keep erasing and adding topographical marks to better negotiate the environment as the person sees fit given the person’s experience.

In the Kantian version of this analogy that Pirsig aims for, however, though we are reacting to the environment, our face is always planted in the map—our mind is conventional, constituted by/as intellectual patterns. So how does one account for the mystic reality, for not-conventions? Not-conventions, in Pirsig’s vocabulary, are Dynamic Quality. Following the old mystic saw about pointing at the moon, think of the mystic reality’s inclusion as the words “Dynamic Quality” written on the map with an arrow pointing at a tear in the map it is next to. This gives us a way of interpreting the diction of directness: when you “look” at Dynamic Quality, perceive the mystic reality, you are actually looking through the map at the ground below. This is one way of describing how Dynamic Quality helps one change the map to evolving circumstances: it describes how we must perceive a hole in which we can fill in new conventions. No tear, nothing new; nothing new, no evolution. On the analogy of maps, one central concern of Pirsig has been to write into our maps a notion of change, of openness, of the element that will always escape Platonic encapsulation (what I've previously called "Quality as an anti-essence").[fn.3] Pirsig wants to bring back down to earth the notion of mystic experience, and one way to do this is to begin the rapprochement at the level of what we all do everyday without thinking: occasionally modify our habits of interaction with the world according to a world that is not our habits.

If this seems to eliminate a lot of the spice of mysticism, I’d like to move back the other direction by considering two basic kinds of tear in the map: perceptual and conceptual. By “perceptual” I mean considerations of reaction based on a novel stimulus from our nonlinguistic environment. Western mysticism has filtered down to us in large part through the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, which is more or less analogous to Pirsig’s reaction to SOM. Consider the similarities between Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Pirsig’s apotheosis of nature and the landscape (Pirsig carries, in fact, on his trip in ZMM a copy of Walden). The modern notion of “aesthetic sublimity” developed by Edmund Burke and Kant came about at the same time as the rise of landscape art as a popular medium. As artisanal technological grasp increased, alongside the spread of democratic egalitarianism (which consequently led to the rise of a customary, polite society), anxieties over a mechanized, conventional life increased. In reaction, we began to conceive of “nature” as an alternative.[fn.4] Though this has had a long tradition in the West, encapsulated by Plato’s antithesis between phusis (nature) and nomos (convention) and Virgilian pastoral, our specifically modern notions are nearer in development. Nature was to be both loved and feared—the sublime, as Burke and Kant conceive it, is scary for the exact reason that it spills over our conventions. “Wild” nature can still kill you. And we can easily see what they mean. Consider the Grand Canyon: the common experience of it is as a “blowing away,” leaving a person “at a loss for words,” “stunned.” These are conventional indications of how the experience of nature can evacuate your sense of how to respond, overflow or tear what Dewey called the “crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness.”[fn.5]

At a Loss for Words
We might call being “at a loss for words” the state of being unable to constitute linguistic meaning. Another kind of experience of the world aside from the perceptual, nonlinguistic variety is the conceptual or linguistic. If regular, conventional, routinized linguistic communication is based on the mutual, correct transference of “what I mean” to “I understand what you mean,” then we can understand a breakdown in communication as itself a kind of tear in the map of understanding. On the Eastern side, we might understand this as the purpose of a Zen koan, what the Greeks called an aporia (literally: “with no way out”). Socrates’ elenchus, his dialectical method of cross-examination, functioned by taking conventional meanings and driving a person using those meanings to their natural ends, where they crashed against walls of conflicting answers—and that was it. Our best accounts of Socrates are that he never moved beyond his professed ignorance, even if Plato did. Partly, no doubt, from his masterful and obsessive use of elenchus-directed-at-aporia, but partly too due to the mask of irony he always kept over him, one of the recurring descriptions of Socrates is of his strangeness: atopia, “being out of place.” Pierre Hadot says of Socrates, with adjectives every one of which link with what I’ve been talking about, “he is atopos, meaning strange, extravagant, absurd, unclassifiable, disturbing.” Hadot then quotes Theaetetus 149a: “I am utterly disturbing [atopos], and I create only perplexity [aporia].”[fn.6]

Socrates’ strangeness is distinctively in language. The tear in the fabric of the map that Socrates represents through irony is a linguistic tear—what has been described as his “silence” is a distinctive kind of linguistic silence, constituted only by the language that surrounds it.[fn.7] Alexander Nehamas heightens this tear when he emphasizes that the peculiarity of irony is that it does not simply “mean its opposite,” but rather more difficultly “not this.”[fn.8] Socrates will always remain a mystery because we will never know what he meant because he never came out from behind his mask. In fact, Nehamas argues that it is the irony—the mask that hides meaning—that produces his reality to us:
“Incomprehensible and opaque, to his author as well as to us, Plato’s early Socrates has acquired solidity and robustness few literary characters can match. That is why he appears more real than fictional. Plato’s implicit admission that he does not understand him, his amazing success in reproducing Socrates’ irony not only toward his interlocutors but also toward himself, is the mechanism that explains why generations of readers have inevitably returned to these texts, convinced that they provide a transparent window that opens directly onto the light of reality.”[fn.9]
The Feeling of Reality
How can this be? How can a conventional creation feel real? This conundrum for literary artists gives us a good window onto the general problem of conventions and mysticism. For “reality” becomes a creation. “Reality” becomes something people sense, and the pattern of that sense becomes the earmarks of a conventional understanding of reality. The gradual unfolding of a better conventional articulation of our sense of reality is partly what a metaphysics is for. As Nehamas points out, we have come to see that it is because Socrates is ultimately unclassifiable, which is to say something that will always escape classification, that we feel he is real, a “transparent window.” This gives us a sense of reality as unpredictable—Socrates lives like a real person because like them he will respond to you occasionally in ways you did not expect.

Frank Kermode charts something analogous to this in narrative fiction. Narrative fiction functions on plot, on the “transformation of mere successiveness” into a meaningful temporal unfolding. The latter is “our way of bundling together perception of the present, memory of the past, and expectation of the future.”[fn.10] Mere chronicity, the mere succession of one damn thing after another (as the old bit about history goes), has no meaning: it is just one thing after another. What creates meaning is a tie between one thing happening and another, causal or otherwise. This creates a past, and as human life moves forward in time, we are always looking forward to another thing happening, and not just any thing (like the endless myriad of occurrences we don’t even register as happening to us everyday) but something we are tied to.

Plot, however, is something artists create: it is a convention. Human meaning, once again, becomes conventional. Kermode recognizes this pattern and calls chronicity, “mere successiveness,” our human sense of reality. As I said, the amount of things we don’t notice and tie are infinitely greater than that which we do, and those unnoticed parts are the overflow of reality over the borders of our conventions. As human culture has progressed, we’ve become more self-conscious about how we are creating the meaning, and this stage is “marked by an understanding that this play of consciousness over history, this plot making, may relieve us of time’s burden only by defying our sense of reality.”[fn.11] So our articulated conventions of meaning “will be humanly serviceable as models only if they pay adequate respect to what we think of as ‘real’ time, the chronicity of the waking moment.”[fn.12] At the same time, we cannot go too far the other way, and Kermode marks both with metaphors of madness. “Schizophrenics can lose contact with ‘real’ time, and undergo what has been called ‘a transformation of the present into eternity.’”[fn.13] This is the collapse of temporally demarcated moments into one single enduring moment, eternity. But too: “To see everything as out of mere succession is to behave like a man drugged or insane.”[fn.14] To see no connections is to behave like no normal person, to function without meaning.[fn.15]

Madness and Directness as Contingency
Partly as a response to triumphalist stories of all kinds, especially of liberalism and its converse Marxism, Foucault theorized and attempted to write his intellectual histories in a way to emphasize the disjuncts, the radical ruptures, of history—to eliminate the connections other histories emphasized. In a Kuhnian vocabulary, this gave the sense of paradigms shifting from one to another for no internal reason (a misunderstanding once foisted on Kuhn that he always had difficulty rubbing away). In an Aristotelian vocabulary, it reinjected what were seemingly accidental features of the essence of a subject (like the history of psychiatry or jails) and showed how they played a live role in their constitution and evolution. In Rorty’s jargon, Foucault emphasized the contingency of events on vast vicissitudes that are only uncovered by the use of a particular vocabulary—and now, after years of recorded history, we can see quite clearly how these particular vocabularies come and go and uncover and recover (both senses) new and old things. Rorty once said that Foucault gives you “a kind of know-how, a way of looking askance and obliquely at contemporary institutions and practices.”[fn.16]

If we put together Kermode’s sense of “mere successiveness” as a kind of madness with this sense of contingency, I think we have a philosophical map for what directness is in the map analogy. What is often qualified as “brute” or “sheer” contingency is the impress of the unclassifiable—you have never encountered it before, but you must encounter it. A vocabulary, on the Kantian version of the map analogy, plots (topographically and in Kermode’s narrative sense) what you see, what you are aware of, but moments of evolution are moments when the map breaks down, when something tears itself through the map unavoidably into your sight.

All of this emphasis on the metaphor of vision will make many post-Heideggerians suspicious (a well-earned suspicion). If we shift from the mode of considering both perceptual and conceptual rifts in a vocabulary (in which it makes perfect sense to say that the sight of the Grand Canyon startles you), we can consider Rorty’s way of describing conceptual contingency: metaphor. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty famously follows Shelley in saying that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.”[fn.17] Rorty expands this notion of poet (Greek for “maker”) to include any “person who uses words as they have never before been used.”[fn.18] This allows him to follow Nietzsche in seeing intellectual history as “the history of metaphor.”[fn.19] So—what is a metaphor? Rorty here follows Davidson in describing metaphor as sheer noise—complete meaninglessness.[fn.20] Pure noise is sheer contingency, a linguistically unclassifiable experience. You can talk about noises, of course, but they don’t mean anything in the sense that you can’t talk with noise. However: talking about the noises, and increasingly with them—as in using them for particular purposes—crushes the metaphor under the weight of intelligibility, thus eventually making it a “dead metaphor” (like the foot of a mountain or the mouth of a river or the purity of a soul). Metaphors, like irony, are linguistic silences, tears in the fabric of meaning, dynamic introductions into a static topography. In terms of our map analogy, the death of the metaphor is the sewing up of the tear in our map, the dynamic, new classification used to pattern our experience.

There’s a sense, then, in which we’ve now classified the mystic tear in reality, or in Pirsig’s vocabulary, Quality. But what kind of classification is this? I called Quality an anti-essence before, and even in the limited Aristotelian sense in which we can still get mileage out of referring to irrelevant accidents, Quality is still an anti-essence: the sense of directness mystics are talking about is that sense in which your sense of relevance changes, in which you notice that which you had previously been blind to. Quality, in another way, is a pure metaphor: so new that it startles, but always just that—the new that startles, the new that calls for attention. If we have a handle on the reality the mystics are concerned about, it is only in the sense of knowing that it is out there, potentially just around the corner, waiting to leap out at us.

Spiritual Exercises
This leads me to the function of mystic practices, which include such sentential attitudes as Zen koans. These practices are what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises.” Hadot, in turn, links the notion of a spiritual exercise to the Greek Christian term askēsis, which means in that context (in Harold Bloom’s version) “self-purgation” or (in Hadot’s) “self-transformation.”[fn.21] In Bloom’s ratios of poetic anxiety-management, an askēsis is the willed curtailment of oneself. One does this, as a poet (always remembering Rorty’s widened understanding), to avoid simply being the repetition of a previous, powerful poet. This, I believe, is the same basic premise of what Eastern traditions call “beginner's mind.”[fn.22] If we are thrown into the world and socialized, then one way to understand the process of individualizing ourselves to break free of the happenstance education we received is to empty ourselves of that which we’ve learned.

If we think of a literal, perspicuous sentence—a sentence that has a “clear meaning”—as having an inferential path from this particular sentence to another (from the first sentence to its meaning, a second sentence), then we can think of poetic metaphor as a moment of dynamic self-creation, a moment in which all of your education fails you and you are allowed/forced to supply something for yourself. For the sentence “love is a battlefield” has no single clear meaning—many paths are available. And even more, “blue is a tree”—what on earth could that mean? The purpose of a mantra in meditation is to help clear your mind, to eliminate it, by saying a phrase over and over until it loses meaning, until what used to be sounds that had meaning become pure sounds, phonemes qua phonemes, not phonemes qua words. And in that moment, when it loses all public meaning, it attains total private meaning for you and you alone, a completely inarticulate meaning lost the moment you turn to articulate it. The practice of attaining inarticulate meanings is thus a purely private exercise—or rather, an exercise of achieving pure privacy. The public benefit of such inarticulate meanings are not the same as those meanings we get from such sentences as “God is Love” or “America is Freedom,” for an inarticulate meaning is nontransferable. Its only public benefit is on the life of the person as a whole. The notion of “inarticulate meaning” is about as close as we are going to get to a meaningful notion of ineffability, which when push comes to shove is the last conceptual bastion of the mystic notion of reality.


[1]E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, 70-75—and the whole chapter, “The Blessings of Madness,” generally—is invaluable on the Greeks.

[2]Emerson, “Art,” Essays: First Series

[3]See "Philosophical Antiauthoritarianism: A Reply to Johnston," particularly para. 6-8. For "Platonic encapsulation," see ZMM, 388. For an early use in an exposition of a couple Rorty essays, where I articulate some qualms I had about Pirsig's position, see "Hediegger, Dewey, Pirsig" (I'm not sure I still have these qualms). See also my "Introduction to Pirsig" for a short exposition of what I take to be his philosophical fundamentals (in terms of theses he holds, at least).

[4]This summary discussion is indebted to Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden. In particular, on landscape painting see 88-90 and his discussion of Tench Coxe that builds up to his emblematic discussion of Carlyle’s disgust with mechanism 162-80.

[5]Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, 183. This famous passage that Rorty popularized as “breaking the crust of convention” occurs at the end of his chapter, “Search for the Great Community,” in describing the place of the artist in the community.

[6]Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 30. See also his Philosophy as a Way of Life, 158. John McDowell translates this as “What they do say is that I’m very odd, and that I make people feel difficulties.” Cornford as: “the ignorant world describes me in other terms as an eccentric person who reduces people to hopeless perplexity.”

[7]Stanley Fish argues in an analogous way about freedom of speech and first amendment law in the eponymous essay in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too. Part of Fish’s point is that if silence (i.e., the mystic reality for our purposes) is surrounded by intelligibility, then unintelligibility/silence surrounds intelligibility: “Without restriction, without an inbuilt sense of what it would be meaningless to say or wrong to say, there could be no assertion and no reason for asserting it. The exception to unregulated expression is not a negative restriction but a positive hollowing out of value—we are for this, which means we are against that—in relation to which meaningful assertion can then occur. It is in reference to that value—constituted as all values are by an act of exclusion—that some forms of speech will be heard as (quite literally) intolerable” (103-4). Compare this flip-flop perspective on meaning and unintelligibility to my description of Dynamic Quality as a tear in the map and Pirsig’s picture of Dynamic Quality as surrounding the static patterns in his SODV,13.

[8]The first three chapters of Nehamas’s brilliant The Art of Living are about the different kinds of irony at work in the Platonic dialogues, but see especially on this particular kind 52-7.

[9]Nehamas, The Art of Living, 91. When Harold Bloom discusses the aesthetic power of particular characters he describes them in the same kind of way, as remaining hidden from their authors, which like Nehamas is what then makes them appear more real, as living, breathing personalities than other kinds of characters. The common denominator is that the creation cannot be reduced to this or that description, something always escapes, is unclassifiable. The ability to represent the unrepresentable is the ultimate task, on a Bloomian aesthetics, of every artist—once a culture has learned how to encapsulate a figure or a text it becomes a “period piece.” This is why Bloom argues, for example, that Shakespeare is our mind and that he has not found his “reader”: to be the mind is to do the reading, and to “read” in this sense would be to reduce and thus to kill what was living and irreducible.

[10]Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, 46

[11]Kermode, 57

[12]Kermode, 54

[13]Kermode, 55

[14]Kermode, 57

[15]I would go further and argue that, for all practical purposes, the notion of continued "pure immediacy" is both a feeling of eternity and "mere successiveness." This is too large a subject to wade into, but see my discussion of Wyndham Lewis in "Lewis and Ulysses" about what I call "fish-blink" time. See too my discussion of Jameson in "Theoretical and Empirical Schizophrenia" for another metaphorical use of schizophrenia and the linked notions of intelligibility and unintelligibility.

[16]Rorty, “Reply to Jacques Bouveresse” in ed. Brandom, Rorty and His Critics, 149

[17]From the close of Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry.” Rorty does not explicitly refer to Shelley in this regard in CIS, but it was undoubtedly on his mind and became an explicit invocation in his writings at the end of his life.

[18]Rorty, CIS, 28

[19]Rorty, CIS, 16. The allusion to Nietzsche is of course to his famous passage about truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” (Portable Nietzsche, 46).

[20]For the Davidsonian account of metaphor, see CIS 18-9 and the longer defense in “Unfamiliar Noises: Hesse and Davidson on Metaphor” in ORT.

[21]See his essay “Spiritual Exercises” in Philosophy as a Way of Life, particularly 82. See also the chapter “Philosophy and Philosophical Discourse” in his What Is Ancient Philosophy? If we were to embark on an attempt to distinguish between theoretical exercises and spiritual exercises (such that we take on Nehamas’s note that philosophy is a way of life that includes the having of theoretical theses—see The Art of Living, 1-6), we will want to take note of Hadot’s suggestion that physics, for the Greeks, was a spiritual exercise and not an attempt for greater control (even predictive) over nature. This is one issue that animates Hans Blumenberg’s attempt to demarcate the ancient Greek from the medieval, and thence the modern. See especially his discussion of Epicurus in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 145-79.

[22]See ZMM, 291-3.