Friday, June 20, 2014

Rorty's Early Work

1. 1979 — What was actually radical about eliminative materialism; 2. “The Limits of Reductionism” — The rhetoric of moves — The metaphor of conversation; 3. Why republish the early work? — The technical conversation of philosophy; 4. So much missing — In this age of access — Where are the lectures?

1.      At the end of his career, Richard Rorty was known as a stylish, philosophical crossdresser and stout reformist liberal who was the prime reason for the renaissance in pragmatism that occurred at the end of the 20th century. In 1979, though, Rorty wasn’t known for any of this. Rorty’s reputation at that time was as an innovator in the philosophy of mind, and for being widely identified with the phrase “the linguistic turn.” The combined effect of the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his delivering the APA Eastern Division Presidential Address, “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism,” in 1979 was to wipe out memory of that early work. From then on, for those inside the analytic philosophy establishment he was known as the betrayer, and for those outside...well, they didn’t need to know anything about it precisely because he’d betrayed it. In particular, philosophy of mind could get on without him because his innovation—dubbed “eliminative materialism”—was being carried on by people more radical than he anyways, namely the Churchlands.

This neglect has seemed a pity, particularly as the Churchlands’ “eliminative materialism,” as Robert Brandom notes, has nothing much to do with what Rorty pioneered. [1] However, it makes a certain kind of sense since it is also true, as Stephen Leach and James Tartaglia note in their introduction to the new posthumous collection of Rorty’s early analytic work, Mind, Language, and Metaphilosophy (2014), that Rorty’s philosophical stance changed remarkably little when viewed from the right angle. Indeed, Brandom shows quite well how Rorty’s eliminative materialism quite naturally leads to his mature position on the contingency of social practices, and thus the optionalness of vocabularies. Rorty’s eliminative materialism was the idea that the mind/body distinction is based on the fact that we use two different vocabularies to describe what goes on between our ears, and that we could plausibly phase out the one that refers to it as “the mind” given certain changes in our technical ability to manipulate the brain, the centerpiece of the other vocabulary we use.

The Churchlands took that point—based on Rorty’s view of our practices of observation and reflection—and made it a reductionist claim, that we should eliminate the Mentalese vocabulary and the folk psychology that goes with it as quickly as possible in order to better talk about the world and ourselves, since, after all, all that’s between our ears is really just a brain. As Rorty’s point was simply that it was possible, going the next step and arguing we should make it actual does have the ring of a more radical step. But from the vantage of his later work, one can see how this is regressive—the Churchlands’ claim is just one more metaphysical claim about Xs really being Ys, and that knowing the Truth will help us say more true things. But thinking of Materialism as the Truth just reifies that particular vocabulary, freezing it into the place where we had before thought only Mentalese could exist. Rorty’s thought flowed from the Nietzschean thawing, the realization that all vocabularies are mortal, and thus all should be judged on their own merits for getting a particular job done, not on the false enthronements of a divine right of philosopher-kings.

2.      That Rorty was working his way toward this Nietzschean stance can be seen much more clearly now that Leach and Tartaglia have made Rorty’s early work more widely available. The absolute gem, “The Limits of Reductionism,” (1961) is a wonderful piece of metaphilosophical reflection on philosophical argument, one of a trio of his earliest full essays. He begins with the brazen move of implicitly suggesting that wielders of the epithet “Reductionist!” know not what they wield, for the “general procedure” of inferring from “X has the property of Y” to “X is nothing but Y” is constitutive of abstract thought itself: “all abstract thought takes selected aspects of a subject matter as paradigmatic and ignores other aspects. Thought is reductionistic or nothing, and the criticism only makes sense if it is narrowed down” (39). The idea here is that thinking necessarily uses the “is” to predicate properties, and that rational inquiry can only function if it is legitimate to narrow your inquiry to a single kind of object, with kinds being delimited by the predicate you use to pick it out. [2]

What Rorty is concerned with in the essay is philosophical conversation, how philosophical arguments are traded and for what purpose. Thus the rhetoric of “moves” I’ve already deployed, as in “moves made in a game,” is central to Rorty’s stance and discussions in this early period. What it yields is not only a useful bird’s-eye view of a number of different sites of contention (realists vs. idealists, logical positivists or Marxists or Freudians on the attack, etc.), but an interesting, contextual definition of philosophy. Rorty identifies the three great patterns of argument in the history of Western philosophy as the appeal to simplicity, the appeal to fact, and the appeal to self-referential inconsistency—the latter of which is what the antireductionist is really wielding. What the antireductionist is concerned about is that “the result of the reduction does not permit an account of the reduction itself,” and is thus self-referentially inconsistent.
This treatment of philosophizing as itself a fact in need of explanation is the metaphilosophical attitude par excellence. It is the rhetorical device which moves discussion up to the level on which the questions “Necessary for what?” and “When is a fact not really a fact?” must be raised explicitly. The acceptance of this gambit might indeed be taken as the defining characteristic of that species of discourse which we call “philosophy.” For it is precisely when the gambit is refused, and the reductionist replies that his concern is with a certain delimited subject matter which does not include his own activity of inquiry, that a given type of inquiry is liable to separate itself from philosophy and to set up shop as science. (41)
This, I think, is a tremendous insight with significant ramifications for our understanding of inquiry and its relationship to social institutions. [3] From the beginning, Rorty was concerned with metaphilosophy—thinking about why and how we do philosophy—an attitude impressed upon him most by his teacher at Chicago, Richard McKeon. This collection makes available another gem, “Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?” (1967) This is usefully read as a follow up to “Limits,” focusing now on the specific conversational state of analytic philosophers who took the “linguistic turn” and their older colleagues who resisted the turn by continuing to speak of “essences” and “experience.” Rorty again displays his technique of ad hoc botanization, splitting philosophers into the categories of “critical,” “speculative,” and “empirical,” and though this tempest is largely missing from the teapot these days, it is still instructive to watch Rorty go through his motions. [4]

And it is interesting to see how the man identified with the linguistic turn never really felt comfortable with what it denoted, denying in the essay the usual ways of cashing out the differences between the two putative sides. There are many biographical nuggets like this in these essays, and it’s a little disappointing to see Leach and Tartaglia’s editorial criteria cut Rorty’s “Recent Metaphilosophy” (1961) from being collected. That essay begins with more interesting botanization, the analogy of philosophy to a game, and the first major instance (in, again, one of his first essays) of his deployment of the concept of conversation that he became so identified with in his post-PMN phase, though avant la lettre. Declaring that “philosophy is the greatest game of all precisely because it is the game of ‘changing the rules,’” Rorty goes on to draw the conclusion that the goal of philosophy must be communication, then. ”Since communication is the goal, rather than truth (or even agreement), the prospective infinite series is a progress rather than a regress: it becomes a moral duty to keep the series going, lest communication cease.” [5] But as the essay moves on to minute discussion of two philosophers lost to time, it’s understandable that it wasn’t reproduced.

3.      But biographical nuggets and removing the tarnish from Rorty’s reputation isn’t reason enough to publish the collection. The only people who would care about those two things are people already motivated enough to find the originals (as I have). After all, we already have several complete bibliographies of Rorty available, so the difficulty of finding far-flung essays is reduced. And digital archives make getting essays from the Review of Metaphysics or the Journal of Philosophy easier than getting a copy of the book—so long as you have access to a major research library. [6] But who else is going to be interested than those already with such access?

Leach and Tartaglia’s reasoning, and their view of why Rorty’s early work should be more widely available, is that it has something to say to the current conversations of philosophy. (Daniel Dennett—a contemporary of Rorty’s and a continuously major figure in late 20th century philosophy of mind—says so as well, in his short preface to the volume.) The editors have two basic categories: Rorty’s metaphilosophy and his stuff on language and mind. His reviews have already been cut (this isn’t a “collected works” project), as well as two (excellent) articles in the 1967 Encyclopedia of Philosophy and one essay on Whitehead. [7] But what are his essays on mind and language going to add? A lot of it—in particular “Incorrigibility as the Mark of the Mental” and “Indeterminacy of Translation and of Truth”—was superseded by Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (And some of them, like “Realism, Categories, and the ‘Linguistic Turn’” (1962) and “In Defense of Eliminative Materialism” (1970), just aren’t that interesting.) And again: people working on the technical problems of anglophone philosophy are going to have access to research libraries with databases to throw pdfs right onto your iPad from home.

Essays collected in a book work differently on our psyche, though, that I cannot deny. But the principles the editors used, I think, should’ve been modified. They say they stopped at 1972 because Rorty began his Consequences of Pragmatism collection in 1972 with “The World Well Lost” and that he could’ve, presumably, selected later essays like “Criteria and Necessity” (1973) if he had wanted to. But this is specious as against the designs of their project because this is about the technical conversation of philosophy—and the reason Rorty says in CP that he doesn’t collect them is because they were technical. So instead of “Realism and Reference” (1976), which is referred to (and thus implicitly “up to date”) in “Is There a Problem about Fictional Discourse?” (in CP), we get the utterly dispensable “In Defense of Eliminative Materialism.” [8] But more importantly, we’re missing “Transcendental Argument, Self-Reference, and Pragmatism” (1979), a great piece of metaphilosophy that bookends nicely “The Limits of Reductionism.”

4.      I don’t know what I would’ve done. The criteria Leach and Tartaglia use are kind of arbitrary, but you have to end a book somewhere. When you look out over Rorty’s corpus, though, there are gems everywhere that should be more widely read. The trouble is that there’s no net to capture his career-making (and still fascinating) “Mind-Body Identity, Categories, and Privacy” (1965), the encyclopedia article “Intuition” (1967), “Searle and the Special Powers of the Brain” (1980) in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, “Contemporary Philosophy of Mind” (1982), “Hermeneutics, General Studies, and Teaching” (1982), and “Against Belatedness” (1983)—and this is just a variegated group up through 1983. ”Mind-Body” has historical interest, “Intuition” is interesting, “Searle” is polemical, “Contemporary” is technical, “Hermeneutics” is about education, and “Against” is a book review of Hans Blumenberg. The four basic editorial choices of criteria for inclusion of Influence, Subject, Audience, or Form cannot get all those pieces in the same book, but they all should be somebody.

I assume somebody’s working on a chronological Collected Works edition of his stuff, ala Dewey’s, or at least it’s an obvious enough idea that somebody at the right moment will put it into motion. In this Age of Access, though, I wonder how needed it is after you get a complete bibliography. I already own copies of all of Rorty’s published material. Granted, some of it I was lucky (finding a copy used of some obscure Catholic Association conference proceedings for the one year Rorty was there—can you imagine the odds?) and then not, in one case; I still have not been able to locate The American Peoples’ Encyclopedia with all the high-powered databases at my library. But what do we really need a Collected Works edition for? If the scholarly apparatus doesn’t add a whole bunch of use-value to it (for example, tracking some of Rorty’s sometimes obscure allusions), then I don’t see why we would. [9] What I would like, however, are his lectures. That would be new, and that would be interesting. I see all these collections of lectures by like John Rawls and Stanley Cavell—Rorty taught for years; was it all extemporaneous? They must be hiding in a file folder somewhere at UC-Irvine. Maybe I’ll be the one to have to drag them out.


[1] See the beginning of Brandom’s essay “Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism” in his Perspectives on Pragmatism.

[2] This move is the first instance of a move that Rorty would later use in discussing the antiessentialism common to, e.g., Jacques Derrida and Donald Davidson. Derrida’s attack on “logocentrism,” which foregrounded the presupposed center/margin distinction implicit in the project of metaphysics, produced in certain crowds (mainly harboring English departments) the repetitious parroting of “binary thinking!” every time a distinction was made. Rorty claims that Derrida and Davidson are “antidualists,” but “this does not mean that they are against binary oppositions; it is not clear that thought is possible without using such oppositions” (PSH 47).

[3] For if the Kuhnian perspective is right, that disciplines arise around common sets of problems, but those problems are not “natural” in the sense that the metaphysical tradition has used the term to describe what Reality impresses on us whether we like it or not, then what’s to stop every person from being entitled to set up shop for themselves and work on whatever problem they’ve delimited for themselves? The implicit object-Meinongianism here breeds inquiry-Meinongianism, whereby all it takes for a new one-person discipline to arise is a refusal to answer another person’s question. One might take this to be a reductio ad absurdum, and people have, but I think it forces the right kind of metaphilosophical reflections on the two sides of pragmatism, the Emersonian and the social practice traditions.

[4] I’ve discussed this essay previously in my own “Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?” (I consider it juvenilia, but it mainly presents the content of the essay, so could prove a useful summary.)

[5] “Recent Metaphilosophy,” Review of Metaphysics, Dec. 1961, 301-302. Compare that to “the point of edifying philosophy is to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth” (PMN 377). Also, read it against note 2, above. David L. Hall’s excellent critical introduction to Rorty’s thought, Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism (1994), first dug out this early essay and made much of this line for the continuity of Rorty’s philosophy (see 77).

[6] *NOTE ADDED MAY 2015* In fact, if you know what you're looking for, it's not that hard to discover that the bibliographies aren't quite complete. Rorty wrote a couple short reviews for the Review of Metaphysics in grad school, run as it was out of Yale and partly by his friend Richard Bernstein. (His first was in 1955 on Nelson Goodman's instantly famous Fact, Fiction, and Forecast.) Also, it is unfortunate that Leach and Tartaglia didn't discover the errata for "In Defense of Eliminative Materialism" in the Review of Metaphysics, June 1971. One is a partial misquote of James Cornman on 203, but the other is an entire missing line on 203. It kind of made sense, so it's not too surprising that the original editors of the Review and then Leach and Tartaglia missed it. Here's the sentence reprinted:
Now my answer to (T) is that what appears to us, or what we experience, or what we are aware of, is a function of the language "We customarily use 'F' in making non-inferential reports about X's."
Here's what it should read:
Now my answer to (T) is that what appears to us, or what we experience, or what we are aware of, is a function of the language we use. To say that "X's appear to us as F" is merely to say that "We customarily use 'F' in making non-inferential reports about X's."
As you can see, it doesn't really change anything interpretationally. And besides, of the essays reproduced, "In Defense of Eliminative Materialism" is the most negligible. If I could fault the editors for anything, it would be reprinting it in the first place.

[7] Though another essay on Whitehead is included, presumably because the latter, “The Subjectivist Principle and the Linguistic Turn,” isn’t just exegetical. Whitehead is just not part of the current conversation (“we judged that one paper about Whitehead would probably suffice,” say the editors in a footnote on 7), though those still talking about him did reprint “Matter and Event” (1963), the dropped essay, in 1983.

[8] To be fair, I have no idea what’s happening in the technical conversation of contemporary philosophy professors. (I hope this isn’t too much of a frightening reveal.) My suspicion is that Dennett is being generous when he says that the papers he earmarks should be “required reading” for up-and-comers. But despite my lack of definite knowledge about what current philosophy professors are taking seriously, based on the trajectory of it from the 60s to 90s, which I might claim some know-how with, I doubt that these professors are going to find useful, for example, Rorty’s essay on Kant, “Strawson’s Objectivity Argument.” There’s much to be said about the importance of that essay on a number of different fronts, but none of them seem relevant to what I imagine an aggregate of philosophy professors spend their time on. But maybe analytic philosophy has taken a good turn, back to the concerns that Rorty was speaking to. (Though, come to think of it, that would mean philosophy hasn’t gotten any further than they were 50 years ago. Great for my hero; so much wasted time for philosophy. Or not—if this is all a kind of inquiry, then wasted time is never wasted time because you won’t know which tunnel is a dead-end until you reach it, turn around, and say, “Gee, that was a waste of time.”)

[9] I’ll just add here my general unhappiness with Leach and Tartaglia’s introduction. They largely limit themselves to biographical context for each of the essays as they are chronologically published, and this is sometimes useful for somebody who hasn’t read all the interviews or Neil Gross’ book. (See my review “Waiting for More: Gross and Rorty.”) And they make a few good connections between some early parts and Rorty’s later work, and add some useful bits of historical context. But their critical patter is too often genuinely misleading for an amateur acolyte like myself not to be annoyed. One example: during a discussion of his first paper, a compare-and-contrast of Peirce and Wittgenstein, Leach and Tartaglia say that “Peirce was the classical pragmatist for whom the mature Rorty had least sympathy owing to the former’s lack of concern for moral and social issues, a worry foreshadowed here in an ambivalent footnote” (5). I don’t think there’s anything ambivalent about the footnote. After noting that “renewed interest in pragmatism has led to a new interest in Peirce, who somehow seems the most ‘up-to-date’ of the pragmatists” (16), Rorty footnotes, “perhaps because he was neither as concerned with religion and morality as James, nor as interested in social and political issues as Dewey.” This strikes me as ironic, but not ambivalent. The irony is that analytic philosophy can’t countenance James or Dewey because of those commitments, and so they focus on Peirce. It’s an arrow at the analytic establishment’s aridness, not Peirce’s. The reason Leach and Tartaglia’s comment is misleading about the later Rorty’s reason for lacking sympathy in Peirce is because 1) he stated in Consequences of Pragmatism that it was because Peirce was too Kantian and, more importantly, 2) he’s not entitled to have lack of political utility as a reason for lack of sympathy (at least, consciously—but Leach and Tartaglia’s “owing” is ironically ambivalent in articulating which is their claim). The thrust of Rorty’s understanding of the relationship between those sides of a philosopher’s work is that of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: some people are useful for politics, some aren’t. And indeed, Leach and Tartaglia even use Rorty’s use of that idea on Heidegger (i.e. that Heidegger’s politics is irrelevant to our reception of his philosophy) in their introduction just two pages before. It would be strange for Rorty, who was a huge fan of Sellars’ and Brandom’s very unpolitical work, to hold that against Peirce.

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