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).


  1. Matt,

    This is a really fascinating piece. Honestly it gave me goosebumps! :) I've brought together thoughts from several of our discussions here, so it's a little long :(

    1) I'm deeply conflicted on the Rorty vs Foucoult positions you present here and I think I have been for many years. I think this is another manifestation of the situation you described elsewhere as "one of the most interesting moral issues at work in our lives." Let me try to connect this with our discussion on "The Legacy of Group Thinking.” From our discussion over there and this essay I started thinking about the individual and society as a reflection of each other, in that they have the same battles, tensions, and moral questions just on a micro vs macro level. (It's been a long time since I read The Invisible Man, so this might have been a theme already covered there.) On the macro/societal level we have solidarity vs fragmentation/pluralism while on the micro/individual level we have the "coherent” or “transcendent” self vs what I'll call a "polyvocal" or "transient" self. In the other thread you seemed to agree about the apparent transience and seeming impossibility of an actual "coherent-self" ("coherence can only be an ideal striven for, not an actuality," "the structure, like belief itself, is a posit, an image or metaphor we use to try to manage our actions (including our sayings) in the world," "an ideal we try to live up to," "pedestrian ideal of being consistent"). So the connection I drew is that just like there is a choice to be made between solidarity and fragmentation/pluralism at the social level in order to achieve our goals, so is there a choice to be made at the individual level between a “coherent” self and a "polyvocal" self to achieve our goals.

    For Rorty, "solidarity [in the public sphere] was necessary for thinking in terms of getting stuff done," but he would allow for individuals to be idiosyncratic when separate from that public sphere. Could one say of the self that "coherence [when interacting with others] is necessary for thinking in terms of getting stuff done," but that individuals themselves have no need for achieving such coherent selves beyond those interactions? In other words, is the belief/vocabulary/habit of a coherent and transcendent self something we need(want?) to keep for the purposes of achieving our liberal society? Or does it perhaps confine us and hinder us as individuals in an increasingly global, cosmopolitan, pluralistic, integrated, democratic society to have a “self” that we must always be true to? If we saw ourselves as playing many roles in many relationships and stopped worrying about our commitment to a “transcendent” self, maybe it would help to achieve the goal of having more positive interactions with others (aka cause less suffering, previously caused by our prior commitments to a transcendent self)? Another way of looking at it might be to ask if the story(stories) we tell about ourselves serves us better or worse if we see that story as static or dynamic, as singular or plural? What if we just saw the self as the temporary creation of our interactions with others and left it at that?


  2. ...continued

    (“I think it’s hard for us, and philosophers in particular, to think in terms of what may be, especially about ourselves. It’s hard to find our way to those points at which we feel genuinely, and maybe should feel genuinely, ambi-valent.“ I think this fits in here too. Maybe some of us just have a “personality” that leads to a quest for certainty or clarity or coherence? In my experience, I’ve also found that there is a strong professional expectation and pressure for professionals to develop(select?) and hold onto a particular theoretical position or identity in their work, which makes it harder to move freely in their work and thinking. It’s like a professional “acculturation” which crystallizes a person into a particular position that is difficult to escape from)

    2) (I had a few pages of thoughts about Rorty’s politics, but after reading “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” I’ll spare us both. Hopefully the rest of the comments still make sense.)

  3. ...continued

    3) After reading this piece, I think I have always been more of a Foucaultian in the sense presented in this article (what I took to be “not imposing beliefs and values on others”). This has often led me to a place of being unable to articulate any position for fear of imposing a “we” group so to speak (this is a big part of what I referred to as postmodern paralysis in the other thread). This article has given me a different way to look at this predicament and I think it will be some time before I’ve fully digested all that is presented here. It has inspired me to at least reread some Emerson (just reread "Self-Reliance") and perhaps try “Shame and Necessity” too, if I have the time. At the moment, what I will take away from it is a partial solution to a joke I made earlier about a couple of postmodernists sitting around undermining each others’ positions and then just sitting in silence with nothing to say (I imagine the same thing with a group of Foucaultian’s now too).

    The solution I see presented here is that the only way to move forward is if someone actually does say something and starts the ball rolling (“Somebody has got to speak for we” and “Emersonian need for everyone to act their own part”). “Who knows?—we will all only know when each of us looks inside and speaks what we find there” fits in great with our earlier discussion of "think as hard as you can and try to get others to think as hard as they can,” but share your voice in the mix. Lyotard had this idea of paralogy which is "the ongoing creation of meaning. You say something and it inspires me to say something in return. Consensus, Lyotard tells us, is merely a stage in our conversation. What conversation can give us can be much more valuable than that. It can bond us to the process of a dialogue that requires both our parts, and when it works successfully it can awaken our minds to an unending expansion of new ideas." While I like the Emersonian/Rortian idea of each person speaking their mind, I like this idea of paralogy more than what Rorty seems to offer. Rorty seems to present a mostly static view of self and beliefs that seem to bang into each other but remain mostly distinct and unaffected by those collisions (ie “willingness to HEAR the other side,” “stick to their guns,” “stick to one’s deepest convictions”). I guess I prefer to see people and beliefs as more dynamic and malleable than Rorty does? I think a vocabulary that is more change oriented (or sees change more positively) or is at least more explicitly open to the possibility of change is more useful?

    4) All of this leads me to a question I have about “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” and "you have to use the tools you were acculturated with. Why? Because there is no you until you’ve been acculturated." What if a person lived equally in two or more cultures (like our current pluralist society?) and therefore wasn’t acculturated with a single vocabulary/toolbox regarding something? How does this person move forward? If reason is not itself the arbiter of truth between two equally held premises sitting side-by-side in the same person, then what happens? (here is my postmodern paralysis again) Why is it felt that what he’s saying is an “empty toolbox?” Why is someone restricted to using YOUR "acculturated" tools? Could it be seen more as the intertwining of multiple toolboxes (yours and others) to create something new? Not an empty toolbox, but not a fixed toolbox either?

    Thanks again for such stimulating discussions!!!

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Reading your last response, I feel like I’ve misrepresented Rorty’s philosophy. The first section’s construal of coherence/transcendence as static is repeated in the third section’s juxtaposition of Lyotard’s notion of paralogy with what you call Rorty’s “mostly static view of self and beliefs that seem to bang into each other but remain mostly distinct and unaffected by those collisions (i.e. ‘willingness to HEAR the other side,’ ‘stick to their guns,’ ‘stick to one’s deepest convictions’).” I’m not sure where the material in the parenthetical comes from, but I haven’t meant to create that image of how Rorty pictures the self, or how he thinks of conversation. I can’t see that Rorty would disagree with anything in how you’ve characterized Lyotard (especially about consensus being a stage).

      Your sec. (1) shows why I’m chary to use the language of “transcendence” in the first place. I’m not a fan of it because it has been exposed too long to the fire of Kant’s universalist side. (And that’s not to mention the larger cultural forms of Victorian imperialism that put Enlightenment universalism to work in the world.) This has irradiated the concept with this staticness that you make explicit well in posing the two alternatives of coherence/transcendent vs polyvocal/transient. To understand what Rorty wants to mean by “irony,” however, one has to conceive of the self with both of the concepts of coherence and transience. Here’s Rorty’s definition of an ironist:

      (1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. (CIS 73)

      Rorty then uses Sartre’s term “meta-stable” to describe what kind of self ironists have because they are “always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves” (74). Transience by itself, to my mind, snubs too badly the (important) role of trying to make one’s self coherent has in achieving meta-stability. Think about it this way: have you ever talked to a contrarian? Someone who is so transient they will take up and abdicate positions and arguments for whatever reason they feel like?

      Whatever we are going to mean by “coherence,” it is not anything static. What I wanted to suggest by my use of “ideal” was a projection, not a Platonic Form. The “ideal we live up to” is not like a static, crystalline sphere, but rather a movie image projected on screen in front of us. It’s made out of the parts behind us, and it coaxes us forward, but it is as dynamic as it needs to be. Whatever I mean by “ideal,” “coherence,” and “transcendence,” they are as fluid and flexible as we need. Which is to say, those concepts are not where we should be looking for the enemy to fluidity and polyvocality (a good concept)—the pernicious staticness we find in life is created somewhere else (and perhaps not concepts at all). That’s my bet, at least. (One example: I have no use for the Romantic diction of “a ‘self’ that we must always be true to.’”)


    2. ...continued

      Another way to put this is that, when you suggest that some people have a “‘personality’ that leads to a quest for certainty or clarity or coherence,” my instinct is to put the breaks on assimilating “a quest for certainty”—the phrase Dewey used to demarcate Platonism’s foundationalist mark on the history of philosophy—to pedestrian attempts to live our lives. I don’t mean anything so inflated as a Quest—the kind of coherence-making, or consistency, that I’m trying to leave in play for accounting for how we live our lives shouldn’t be assimilated to terms of quest-romance, the knights-and-dragons stories that Don Quixote lampooned. If one deflates those ideas, then one can still have personalities that don’t care much for being certain, clear, or coherent. But they’ll take on a different coloring if there isn’t a bare minimum of it—call them the Bullshitter, the Unintelligible, and the Quixotic. Of the three, I certainly enjoy the latter the most. But, perhaps I should also add, that the coherence Rorty is talking about is certainly not sameness across all spheres of life. The fundamental position needed to even make a private/public distinction is that we can have as many social roles as we have spheres of action, and that there’s no need to reduce oneself to a single role. And that seems like what you’re talking about with polyvocality.

      In (4) you ask about the case of someone living “equally in two or more cultures,” who “therefore wasn’t acculturated with a single vocabulary/toolbox regarding something.” This is tricky to respond to, because when it comes to it, Rorty doesn’t want to suggest that there’s a monolithic notion of “an American vocabulary” that is homogenous. “Vocabulary” is as much as a posit as belief, or coherence as a structure. The first footnote of CIS, in fact, is a response to no doubt his early uses of the concept of vocabulary: “I have no criterion of individuation for distinct languages or vocabularies to offer, but I am not sure that we need one. Philosophers have used phrases like ‘in the language L’ for a long time without worrying too much about how one can tell where one natural language ends and another begins, nor about when ‘the scientific vocabulary of the sixteenth century’ ends and ‘the vocabulary of the New Science’ begins. Roughly, a break of this sort occurs when we start using ‘translation’ rather than ‘explanation’ in talking about geographical or chronological differences. This will happen whenever we find it handy to start mentioning words rather than using them – to highlight the difference between two sets of human practices by putting quotation marks around elements of those practices.” (Does more need to be said here? Probably. But it’s a good starting point.)


    3. ...continued

      Because cultures aren’t monolithic, the kind of case you’re asking about is, I think, something like the case of Christians who have the Creation Story of Genesis, on the one hand, and Darwin’s explanation of how humans got here, on the other. It’s not about cultures at that large of a level, but about two tools that are each to be applied in the same set of circumstances (i.e. “Where did we come from?”). How do they move forward? Pragmatically, as in, Which tool/belief violates the least of what you don’t want violated? You’ll notice you can’t even begin to approach an answer to that question until you actually feel the two tools come into conflict. So, Rorty’s practical/philosophical advice is to urge polyvocality—don’t worry about it until you feel a real conflict. Don’t get caught up into thinking that you can have only one voice for all situations. Be a Christian on Sunday, a democratic liberal on Saturday, and an evolutionary biologist 9-5, Monday through Friday. A loving, soft-spoken father in the mornings, a caring husband when you pick your wife up from work and she needs to unload about the jerk in her department, and a cussing poker player on Wednesday nights. That’s the image you were advocating, and it’s one Rorty endorses. Since most of what you’d like to suggest as against Rorty I sense as things Rorty would love, this is why I began by saying I must have created a false impression.

      What Foucault said sounds like an “empty toolbox” because of the image of creatio ex nihilo standing behind his denial of imagining a “we.” However, it’s not really a polemic Rorty would’ve wanted (or I want) to press very long against Foucault. (You’ll notice I switched to talking about right-wing libertarians—they’re the difficult problem because they’re explicit about the empty toolbox image. Foucault just happened to have stumbled into it because of his suspicion of real world politics. It’s an irony friendly polemicists like Rorty take advantage of to say to their friend, “Hey, see? You don’t want to be found agreeing with these people, do you?”) All Rorty ever wanted was the image of “intertwining, multiple toolboxes to create something new.” The reason, however, I say one begins with one’s “own” tools (whatever you were socialized with, which is to say, whatever entangled, polyglot mishmash of tools your box of a self finds itself with) is because it seems strange to completely abdicate your own sense of right and wrong simply to create something new. We’ve never had sharia law in the U.S., but it seems a mistake to start stoning people just because we’re trying to intertwine ourselves. One isn’t restricted to one’s own tools; it’s just where anyone begins.

  4. Matt,

    This is why I love having the chance to discuss these things with you, you just have such a depth of understanding and a willingness to more fully explore these topics. Thanks so much for so fully answering my question and I feel like I have a much better understanding of this position. I don't think it's necessarily the way you presented Rorty that led me to any confusion I might have had, because I had also been developing these thoughts based on my own readings of his works as well. I guess my thinking is more in line with his ideas than I first realized.

    Thanks for all your time and effort,


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