Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Putnam and Pirsig

I went into one of the used bookstores around town recently and I found a book I've been dying to get: Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. It's one of those moments, where I find an author whose books I've been dying to get my hands on (stuff by Fish, Geertz, Putnam, Cavell, several others, who I'll just buy upon seeing), and I just lunge at it, clutch it to my chest, and look around as if someone's going to sneak up and steal it. And thankfully, the book was five bucks besides. When I went up to the counter, with my Putnam and a book by Quine and a couple others, the register jockey said as he rang them up, "Ooo, Quine. I see you've found some of the books I had to clear off my shelf. And Putnam! Everyone's favorite neopragmatist." I replied, "Nah, not everyone's." "Oh? Who do you like?" "Rorty, of course," I said with a knowing smile, knowing, of course, that if you like Putnam, you probably don't like Rorty. "Hmm." "I'm guessing you don't like Rorty." "No." As I left I thanked him for the book, being as it was just from his library.

Putnam is one of those that I'm dying to get inside. Everyone knows I've read Rorty inside and out. One of the things that is nice about Rorty is that he drops names a mile a minute, which gives you a good idea (at least from his perspective) of how the philosophical map shapes up. That also gives you, if you are a novice like me, a pretty sizable reading list. You've got people Rorty likes to read and you have his enemies to see where the attacks'll come from. I've found several that I really, really like (Fish, Bernstein, Stout, Geertz, Nehamas, Susan Neiman from a blurb Rorty left on the back of her book). And then there's cats like Dennett, Davidson, and Putnam (not to mention Continentals like Habermas, Derrida, and Foucault). These guys Rorty's been "profitably disagreeing with for years," as he might put it. All sides agree that they agree on a lot--there's just a few outstanding disagreements. Dennett's philosophy of the mind stuff I haven't gotten into much. I guess I'm just not that interested in philosophy of mind. He's a great writer, mind you. I've read pieces and he's just brilliant and very readable and funny. (On a readable scale, I gotta' go with a tight top four of Geertz, Fish, Dennett, Rorty, then slightly below with Putnam, and then much further down Davidson, who, god bless'im, is dry as a friggin' desert.) Davidson--well, Davidson's really technical and hard to understand. Every once in a while I give reading him a go. But Putnam--fairly readable with an interest in history, and he self-identifies as a pragmatist (unlike the other two).

This book is small and tight and centers around his Rosenthal Lectures, "The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy". People who are in love with Pirsig and are interested in branching out into reading professional philosophy should read this book. It basically deals with the same place where Pirsig's philosophy begins--dissatisfaction with the current account of values. And this should provide a good place that Pirsigians are familiar with and thinking about to become familiar with attendant issues. What it adds to the Pirsigian picture is a more detailed account of what is wrong with that picture. I've been arguing for a while that Pirsig's claim that SOMists (in this case, specifically logical postivists) leave out values, cannot account for them, is just plain wrong, and is probably what bolsters the thought that Pirsig's creating a strawman. Logical positivists do account for values, they simply redescribe them into their schematic, a redescription that rubs some of our common intuitions about values the wrong way, but is no more wrong for it. After all, Pirsig says a bunch of things that challenge our common intuitions about subjects. That's the whole object of radical redescription (like calling reality Quality, value incarnate).

What Putnam does is offer a quick rundown of what is wrong with the logical positivist picture, what produces such weird slogans as "values are cognitively meaningless," while descrbing, with Pirsig, what some of the undesirable effects to our practice are. Putnam's picture is that the problems start with Hume, which leads rapidly to Kant and his analytic/synthetic dichotomy. From the Humean saying that "you can't derive an ought from an is," we get Kant's picture of language as broken up into analytic statements that are true by virtue of meaning and synthetic statements that are true by virtue of the world. From this, everything in logical postivism follows. Putnam is basically rehashing the destruction of logical positivism at the hands of Quine, but further arguing that we have yet to fully extract ourselves from that picture--specifically in ethics.

Putnam does a good job of getting from the analytic/synthetic dichotomy to the fact/value dichotomy. He shows us how the two go hand in hand and how to get out from underneath that picture (in particular, you'll notice that the picture Putnam's attacking is the "Empiricist Bachground," which should make us more wary about Pirsig hooking up his train to empiricism). His first two lectures are a good introduction to the material in this area of philosophy. His third lecture, however, goes a step further. In this chapter he tries to show how the fact/value dichotomy has effected the discipline of economics and, through the work of Amartya Sen, can get out from underneath it. This is a valuable chapter. It isn't definitive, but it is exploratory and shows the direction we should be moving (and its a good intro to Sen).

The rest of the book includes pendant pieces about (or dealing in part with) Sen, Habermas, Dewey, Bernard Williams (who I findto be an absolutely intriguing figure; he seems to me to be exceptionally eccentric in his philosophical views, being something of both a Cartesian and Nietzschean), and a good chapter on the philosophy of science, that perhaps should be the first read as prep for the Rosenthal Lectures. What's funny is that, after reading most of it, and seeing the usual potshots at Rorty that Putnam takes (which still seem to me to be misleading at best), I'm still not sure what seperates Putnam from Rorty. It revolves around a stonger notion of truth, and I can see Putnam making those moves against Rorty's supposed cultural relativism, but if I were to take them seriously, I'd have to count Putnam as abdicating his pragmatism. He's not, but I just can't see what space he thinks he's occupying between postivism and Rorty. I guess that will take much more reading. In the meantime, Putnam offers cogent criticisms of post-postivistic leftovers and gives a good picture of current philosophical space. He doesn't have the historical breadth or grand narratives of Rorty, but Putnam is very historically conscientious, and a little more of that would help philosophers.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm, Putnam is on my list. Looks like I'll have to dive in.



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