Friday, July 12, 2013

Two Uses of "We"

1. We who agree with me – We as community; 2. Like herding cats – Foucault’s oui – Initiating vs. justifying; 3. Deliberating as a group – Whose heritage? Which communitas? – You are a function of we – You cannot reason your way to hope; 4. The we-initiator is prophetic – And arrogant – Emerson’s Sayer: too confident? – Ellison’s Emersonianism – Carlin’s Millian liberalism

1.      One of the things Richard Rorty was taken to task for most often—from teasing to anger—was his rhetorical use of “we.” It was also one of the earliest things his late-coming to moral and political philosophy was criticized for, particularly by those on the left, and here as in most relevant criticism of Rorty, it was his old friend Richard Bernstein: “Rorty frequently speaks of ‘we’ – ‘we liberals,’ ‘we pragmatists,’ ‘we inheritors of European civilization.’ But who precisely constitutes this ‘we’? Sometimes it seems as if what Rorty means by ‘we’ are ‘all those who agree with me.’” [1] This would, indeed, be disastrous if that is all Rorty meant by “we.” However, it is important to recognize that sometimes you do want to talk to just those “who agree with me,” though it couldn’t be “about all things” because you wouldn’t need to talk then (unless it were simply to remind everyone of the things y’all agree on, which isn’t as silly a task as you may think, but one I shan’t talk about for now). This “relevant we” is a community—all questions, assertions, positions are made and taken in front of some particular group.

In Rorty’s original response to Bernstein, he concedes that he has to spell out better who he means by “we,” and so begins his reply with a “political credo” in order to specify “the audience I am addressing.” [2] This wasn’t, however, exactly Bernstein’s problem with those “we’s,” and I want to slowly bring out the back and forth because both angles the two are standing at are important. Rorty is concerned with the ability of political philosophers—or, really, people generally—to identify with a community in solidarity in order to propose reforms. Perhaps this is an ability to stand shoulder to shoulder, if only metaphorically, with an established political party in order to get things done—this kind of solidarity is exclusionary insofar as the solidarity you have is not with the opposing party(s). However, to get reforms for the whole nation, the kind of solidarity we are talking about is larger—identification as an American in order to convince everyone that the reforms of your party are what’s best for everyone. So you are addressing Americans while also acknowledging that they, obviously, do not agree with you about everything.

2.      Rorty, here, was doing something even more narrow—addressing a subset (“the people whom I think of as social democrats”) of a national-political set (the American left) part of the larger array of America. [3] But Rorty thought that thinking in terms of solidarity was necessary for thinking in terms of getting stuff done. The reason one talks to subsets of various kinds is to get people pointed in the same direction, to add force to force to counteract opposing forces. The old cliché of getting leftists to agree on anything is like herding cats is apropos. And so Rorty criticized Foucault through the ‘80s for never being able to quite countenance himself inside of some solidarity group. “[Foucault] forbids himself the tone of the liberal sort of thinker who says to his fellow-citizens: ‘We know that there must be a better way to do things than this; let us look for it together.’ There is no ‘we’ to be found in Foucault’s writings, nor in those of many of his French contemporaries.” [5] Foucault, in I believe his last interview, replied to this particular point during his conversation with Paul Rabinow:
Rorty points out that in these analyses I do not appeal to any “we”—to any of those “we’s” whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions constitute the framework for a thought and define the conditions in which it can be validated. But the problem is, precisely, to decide if it is actually suitable to place oneself within a “we” in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts; or if it is not, rather, necessary to make the future formation of a “we” possible, by elaborating the question. Because it seems to me that the “we” must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result—and the necessarily temporary result—of the question as it is posed in the new terms in which one formulates it. [6]
Rorty thought it was very important to respond to this point. [7] Bernstein quotes this passage, and Rorty responds to it in a footnote after his concession, earlier discussed, that he needs to be more specific about “we”:
I agree with Bernstein that I need to spell out the reference of “we” more fully. I think that this is best done by reference to a view of current political dangers and options—for one’s sense of such dangers and options determines what sort of social theory one is able to take seriously. However, I cannot figure out what Foucault meant when he said (in the passage Bernstein quotes) that “the ‘we’ must not be previous to the question.” With Wittgenstein and Dewey, I should have thought that you can only elaborate a question within some language-game currently under way—which means within some community, some group whose members share a good many relevant beliefs (about, e.g., what is wrong, and what would be better). Foucault seems to be envisaging some sort of simultaneous creatio ex nihilio of vocabulary and community. I cannot envisage this. As far as I can see, you can only describe or propose radical social change if you keep a background fixed—if you take some shared descriptions, assumptions, and hopes for granted. Otherwise, as Kant pointed out, it won’t count as change, but only as sheer, ineffable difference. [8]
Rorty picks out precisely the bit in Foucault’s passage that is most problematical because of the two roles “we” can play: “we” as initiating a community and “we” as justifying an act. The latter is what Foucault finds so offensive about “we,” and this is what he means when he says he doesn’t want to appeal to the “we’s” “whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions constitute the framework for a thought.” If it had just said “consensus,” Rorty may have not bucked the point in the way he did because the idea that some shit’s gotta’ change is based on the idea that the current consensus needs reconfiguration. But including “values” and “traditions” in his formulation of what he wishes not to appeal to is why Rorty suggests that Foucault envisages some “simultaneous creatio ex nihilio of vocabulary and community.” The whole point of the first half of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is that you can’t just make stuff up—you have to use the tools you were acculturated with. Why? Because there is no you until you’ve been acculturated. This is a Hegelian point. And Foucault’s response is just a little too decisionistic, the meta-ethical stance that suggests that you are an empty toolbox that should look around and put the good stuff in. Meta-ethical decisionism is the heart of right-wing individualism and accounts for the left-wing communitarian backlash in the ’70s and ’80s. [9] “The problem is, precisely, to decide if it is in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts.” Who is this one? What are you made of, that can recognize and make decisions, if you’ve emptied out all the values and traditions?

3.      So, first there’s the conceptual Hegelian point that Rorty wants to press back, and then the rhetorical-political point that I made earlier—that to effect change in this world you’re going to need to form a solidarity group. Foucault finds insidious the consensus because when you use a consensus to justify, you necessarily exclude the dissenters from counting in the justification. Republicans still have a Democratic president even though they may not have voted for the person. But that’s the way democratic politics has to work, right? Well, what if you’ve been excluded from the deliberation? That’s what’s really the problem. And Americans, especially, should be sensitive to the problem of somethingsomething without representation. A “we” that gets too close to the justifying sense can seem like an act of exclusion if you use it in the middle of a debate. And this was Bernstein’s problem when he quoted Foucault:
At times … Rorty seems to be insensitive to the dark side of appealing to ‘we’ when it is used as an exclusionary tactic…. Rorty criticizes those versions of ‘realism’ that appeal to a ‘fact of the matter’ that is presumably independent of my (or our) interpretations. Yet he fails to realize that when he appeals to our shared beliefs and our common historical heritage, he is speaking as if there is at least a historical fact of the matter. [10]
Bernstein is summoning the outrage the oppressed who have been excluded from the process of creating those “shared beliefs” and “common heritage” have when they are told that “this what ’Merca ’sabout.” It’s not their heritage.

But whose heritage should we have? Yours? Who are you? If you aren’t American, why should Americans have your heritage? That’s the conundrum if you don’t form that large kind of solidarity group—the intellectual sword wielded in pointing out the exclusion doesn’t simultaneously let you back in. So what does? Rorty thought the only thing that lets you, any you, into the democratic societas is a liberal communitas—liberalism is an ethics of inclusion. In his second run at Foucault’s point, in Contingency, Rorty says to Foucault’s formulation of the problem, as deciding whether or not to take part in the old community or form a new one, that “this is, indeed, the problem. But I disagree with Foucault about whether in fact it is necessary to form a new ‘we.’ My principal disagreement with him is precisely over whether ‘we liberals’ is or is not good enough.” [11] This is because his “hunch is that Western social and political thought may have had the last conceptual revolution it needs,” [12] and this because “expanding the range of our present ‘we’” [13] is central to the liberal communitas.

So—after the Hegelian point that you are a function of a we, while taking on board the point that you are not thus reducible to that we, and the rhetorical-political point that you have to justify yourself in front of some community and form solidarity groups to affect change, there is still the problem of historical exclusion (or, continued exclusion). How do you decide whether or not to be part of the actual American community when it continues to fail regularly at the inclusionary image it prides itself on? Rorty didn’t think there was anything to say to this. You either hope, with James Baldwin, that the American common project of inclusion might be made, if not new, at the very, very least much better than it is currently behaving, though its dreams are more or less the same, or you cast off America as hopeless as Elijah Muhammad and many others have, both alienated intellectuals and working class folks who actually feel the brunt of the exclusions still left in America’s leaky ship so much more often than the leisured intellectuals. There will never be a deciding factor when it comes to deciding whether or not one should hope, at least no factor that will ever be portable. We, each of us, should have reasons for our belief or disbelief in a community, but reason will never decide the issue. [14]

4.      But how should we use “we” then? Sometimes I think people like Bernstein we’re being too hard on Rorty because how else do you decide what a group should do then a bunch of people saying things like “We should no X” “No! We should do Y!” “No, Z!”? Rorty followed Wilfrid Sellars in thinking of these as “we-intentions,” and since communities don’t speak, only individuals do, somebody has got to speak up and suggest things the community should do and think. I think Bernard Williams may have given all the answer Rorty ever needed in his response to this problem in his Shame and Necessity:
More than one friend, reading this book in an earlier version, has asked who this ubiquitous “we” represents. It refers to people in a certain cultural situation, but who is in that situation? Obviously it cannot mean everybody in the world, or everybody in the West. I hope it does not mean only people who already think as I do. The best I can say is that “we” operates not through a previous fixed designation, but through invitation. (The same is true, I believe, of “we” in much philosophy, and particularly in ethics.) It is not a matter of “I” telling “you” what I and others thinks, but of my asking you to consider to what extent you and I think some things and perhaps need to think others. [15]
As I said before, there are two uses of “we”—the we-initiator and the we-justification. The we-justification counts and uses that count as a reason for a belief. “We, in Wisconsin, counted up our votes, and give our electoral votes to Candidate X.” “Indeed, and there’s reason to believe that we in Wisconsin are beginning to go liberal because exit polls show that the margin X lost by in rural districts diminished, showing a rising left tide.” “Well, then we in Wisconsin should have liberal policies. Let’s furnish some.” You cannot, however, add individuals to get a we-community. You need to initiate it somehow. Declare a border or give yourselves a name—“Cubs fans” or “pragmatists” or “humans.” Like Foucault’s question, the we-initiator is prophetic—it proposes a community we could all belong to though we might not yet. It prophesizes an ideal community we should live in by thinking we do and beginning to behave like it (and criticizing each other when one of us doesn’t). It is a request, an invitation, and as Williams points out, it is an invitation to help think through what we are all about.

The reason people still get miffed about “we” is because it is arrogantyou propose to speak for me? Well, no, not exactly, but kind of. Somebody has got to speak for we. This risk of arrogance is at the heart of Emersonianism, for self-expression is the most important general trait of humanity, but not everyone was given equally to it. Emerson was right to imply that the Sayer, above the Doer and Knower, was king in a democracy, but Emerson’s sense of Providence was far too strong. He saw the agon that was a necessary consequence of self-reliance, but he said, “Don’t sweat it. Just ‘speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.’” [16] It shall? How? Emerson has no answer for that except his confidence, his optimism, which is to say his faith that Providence will make sure that everyone’s latent conviction (not those false, external ones) is in harmony (and never mind how we tell the difference between the truly latent and the falsely societal). So I take it that Ralph Ellison’s modulation of Emersonianism at the very end of Invisible Man speaks volumes about what we’ve learned is right and wrong about liberalism’s ethics of inclusion and its Emersonian need for everyone to act their own part:
Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
Who knows?—we will all only know when each of us looks inside and speaks what we find there. There’s a lot on the surface that divides us, but maybe there’s some kind of agreement lower down that needs articulation for us all to realize how much we do hold in common, and how we will need to hold it. And if not—well, there’s always George Carlin’s articulation of Millian liberalism: “Live and let live, that’s my motto. Anyone who can’t live with that, take’em outside and shoot the motherfucker.” [17]


[1] Bernstein, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward: Rorty on Liberal Democracy and Philosophy,” in his The New Constellation, 246-7. This paper was original published in Political Theory, Nov. 1987, where Rorty’s reply, “Thugs and Theorists: A Reply to Bernstein,” was simultaneously published (which I shall be quoting from shortly).

[2] Rorty, “Thugs and Theorists,” 565

[3] In fact, it’s more complicated than that, for the subset he is addressing in “Thugs and Theorists” and, say, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is international—he’s addressing not just Bernstein and Irving Howe, but Charles Taylor of Canada and Jürgen Habermas of Germany. However, in Achieving Our Country he is specifically addressing the American left.

[4] This isn’t, in fact, much of a criticism for Rorty, who attempts to have a much more nuanced set of terms with which to praise and criticize. The burden of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is, after all, the attempt to convince people to treat those with different tasks differently, and not test them all with one thermometer. So, Nietzsche and Heidegger, while getting F’s for political views, get A’s for attempting to achieve autonomy from Plato. Likewise, Orwell and Habermas get A’s for politics, but maybe B’s for philosophy. Rorty’s criticism of Foucault basically amounts to unfortunately running together his attempt for private perfection with a dominating concern for the welfare of others. What makes Foucault curious in this regard is that unlike, say, Plato whose running together of those two things emitted a totalitarian-like fantasy, Foucault’s attempt to do both at once had very few adverse effects on the public utility of his best works. This comes out best in Rorty’s essay “Moral Identity and Private Autonomy: The Case of Foucault” in Essays on Heidegger and Others. The lesson he drew from it was, roughly: “[My] critics on the left … think of themselves as standing outside of the sociopolitical culture of liberalism with which Dewey identified, a culture with which I continue to identify. So when I say ethnocentric things like ‘our culture’ or ‘we liberals,’ their reaction is ‘who, we?” I, however, find it hard to see them as outsiders to this culture; they look to me like people playing a role – an important role – within it” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth 15).

[5] “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity,” EHO, 174

[6] “Polemics, Politics, and Problemizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Rabinow, 385

[7] I say this because of the timing of the essays. Rorty published “Habermas and Lyotard” in 1984, to which Foucault responded in 1984 (just before his death). Bernstein quotes the passage at Rorty in 1987, to which Rorty responds in 1987 in “Thugs and Theorists” (as I will presently elaborate). However, the exchange with Bernstein is after Rorty’s Northcliffe lectures of 1986, which were published that year in the London Review of Books (and Bernstein had already read when he wrote his essay). Those lectures were to become the first three chapters of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, but not before Rorty could add the last section of “The Contingency of Community,” which juxtaposes Habermas and Foucault, and begins with a reconsideration of how to respond to Foucault’s point.

[8] “Thugs and Theorists,” 575n4. Rorty continues: “Attempts at ineffability can produce private ecstasy (witness Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) but they have no social utility. A lot of Foucault’s admirers seem to think that he (or he taken together with Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, and so on) showed us how to combine ecstasy and utility. I cannot envisage this either.” This last points in the direction of Rorty’s concerns in CIS.

[9] A backlash that happened amongst intellectuals, and only some of them, mind you (roughly, those that considered themselves “political theorists” or read Dissent). My right and left contrast here should have obvious resonance in our current American political climate, as it did then, and has in fact throughout the 20th century. However, one should never forget that many of the debates that ebb and flow in academic journals only rarely spill out into the wider political area. It’s often and usually the other way around.

[10] Bernstein, “One Step, Two Steps,” 247

[11] CIS, 64

[12] CIS, 63

[13] CIS, 64n24. This footnote is Rorty’s reconsideration of the passage from Foucault, in which he emphasizes that he agrees with him “that the constitution of a new ‘we’ can, indeed, result from asking the right question. … But forming new communities is no more an end in itself than is political revolution.”

[14] For a reapplication of this line of thought to the "culture wars" of the 1980s and ‘90s, see “The Legacy of Group Thinking,” esp. sections 3 and 4.

[15] Shame and Necessity, 171n7

[16] The (second) quoted bit is from the beginning of “Self-Reliance.”

[17] One of the early jokes from Carlin on Campus (1984).

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