Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Difference: Conversion and Articulation

I've been thinking lately about the differences between me, Rorty, and Pirsig. There are, of course, many differences, at least between Rorty and Pirsig, but one of the areas one can search for differences or similarities is in the area of a person's biography, in their own self-image as a philosopher and how they got from childhood to where they are now. Pirsig's biography, of course, is linked intimately and explicitly to his philosophy (despite the fact that we often suffocate those links to recontruct his philosophy), but Rorty's biography is only now just gaining more attention. With the publication of his autobiographical essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" in Philosophy and Social Hope and particularly with the publication of a collection of interviews, Take Care of Freedom and Truth will Take Care of Itself, Rorty's biography is becoming more explicitly seen.

One of the things that comes out of Rorty's writings is the notion that he's a fallen metaphysician. In "Trotsky", he says quite explicitly that he wanted as a child to have that kind of state of bliss that is associated with religion and Platonism. Until he was 20, he looked for a way to be a metaphysician. People use this knowledge to characterize why he is often considered to be an "end of philosophy" philosopher. Almost all philosophers of note who are even symathetic to Rorty still have qualms about the extremes he goes to. They take it that Rorty is a person who was fooled by Platonism, and he never wants to be fooled again.

Pirsig's path is a bit different. We might describe Pirsig as a recovering metaphysician. Pirsig sees something worth rehabilitating in the area that both he and Rorty want to vacate. The difference may be that Pirsig saw something ailing, something dying that needed help, whereas Rorty sees much ado about nothing. Pirsig's reaction to his experience in scientific study suggests that Pirsig took it as very important that somebody mount a response to the problems in the philosophy of science he inadvertantly discovered (which eventually leads to larger problems about reason). Rorty, on the other hand, thinks that for the most part we get along just fine in day to day life, and that the only short-term importance in mounting these responses are for those philosophers that are plagued by them.

What typifies both of them is a fall. Rorty fell after attempting to be a Platonist, to find the One, and Pirsig fell after attempting to be a realist scientist. My difference to the two is that I fell from nothing to nowhere. I went from mumbling about God to mumbling about Reason or Science, not really believing in either, so my conversion to Rortyan pragmatism didn't resemble a rejection of anything, or really a conversion at all, I simply felt like I was better able to articulate what I had been believing and acting for quite awhile.

I'm not quite sure what the difference is between the feeling of conversion or articulation. I have a feeling it amounts to what a person becomes obsessed with or fearful of. I find further enunciation of pragmatism to be interesting, but I have a feeling I'd be far more reconciliatory to those who think Rorty goes too far than Rorty might be. I'm less likely to become engrossed in subsidiaries of the epistemology industry. And much the same goes for Pirsig. I think his fear for the fate of the West, its spiritual crisis, is too overblown. I think it grows out of his own biography and creates an hysteria over the problems he considers. Things are neither as bad in the old framework as Pirsig thinks them, nor better in the framework Pirsig suggests. What Rorty helped me enunciate is the sense that just not that much hinges on what philosophers talk about--at least it looks that way compared to the scope at which most philosophers talk.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rorty's Myopia

I've read numbers of reviews of Rorty's work over the years and I've never been very satisfied by them. Maybe that shouldn't be very surprising. One of the things that is given often is the accusation that Rorty's a little myopic. This happens most often in reference to Rorty's take on the history of philosophy and on political philosophy. For a long time I've thought that comment to be unfair: Rorty delineates what he's going to talk about, and the range of material he feel's comfortable in being authoritative over, so it seems unfair to demand that every person do everything--doesn't it?

The first type, philosophers who think that philosophy-as-epistemology is too narrow a view of philosophy, is given good voice by Susan Neiman. But there are many others. The trouble with this critique is that is true but unavoidable. Philosophy is the kind of thing that you have to delimit the area you are working in. All things are like that, but philosophy is so amorphous that in no other subject can so many things fit under its mantle comfortably and not connect up to each other. For this very reason Rorty has been shunning the idea that he's an "end of philosophy" philosopher. He intimates such things every so often, but the reason latent in his writings (sometimes quite explicitly) is that he's talking about philosophy that looks to epistemology first. That is the kind of philosophy he's deconstructing. So philosophers who take other kinds of philosophy as primary, and criticize Rorty for missing them, are cutting him at cross-purposes. It's why we see on the backs of the best of these books (like Neiman and Toulmin's) Rorty's praise.

The second type, philosophers and others who that Rorty's political philosophy is too narrow or shallow, is given good voice by people like Richard Bernstein. Like the first, I think it's true, but it again cuts Rorty at cross-purposes. Rorty's political philosophy is very general and rarified and I don't think it cuts us off from anything more we would like to see done in political and social criticism, so-called criticisms of Rorty (and pragmatism) being not radical enough or in favor of the status quo.

In thinking about these kinds of critiques and how I view them is when I realized that thinking that Rorty is mypoic is the exact response he is looking for. When we look at the way Rorty is suggesting that we change the conversation, the response that Rorty isn't talking about the things he should be by his own lights tips us off to the idea that--if that's the only response you have--his work has done its magic. Rorty wants us to shift our attention to the construction of different narratives of philosophy, narratives he doesn't always offer us. Rorty wants us to concentrate on the more concrete in political and moral philosophy. Rorty's myopia is only a bad thing if one also thinks that a philosopher, or any other person, must do everything. Rorty has suggested that what he does is more like what Locke conceived of philosophy, as an underlaborer clearing away conceptual debris. After the debris is cleared, one is opened to the construction of better responses to problems, problems that will be different than the ones engendered by the epistemological debris.

If one is bored by Rorty or thinks he doesn't go far enough, that is not a bad response to have. It means that whatever in Rorty or pragmatism that one might have learned has already been internalized. Rorty wants to induce boredom in the problems he deconstructs so people will move on to other things. Rorty's simple dichotomies are there to be rejected because a good rejection of them will mean that one has evacuated the area in which Rorty was occupying, at which point there's nothing to criticize Rorty for because you've done what Rorty wanted. The only point of criticism is to say that Rorty should move on, too. That Rorty's effectively worked himself out of job, so why doesn't he get a new job? But that might only prove strong if there weren't still people who ended up on the wrong side of Rorty's simple dichotomies, the same people the person bored by Rorty would still need to fight. It's like Rorty's got the backs of all those wanting to do something other than epistemological philosophy, defending their right to do it, and in fact commending them for it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Philosophy, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics

“Metaphysics” is an overworked word that gets people into trouble, particularly pragmatists. There are so many ways of defining metaphysics, like epistemology, that Rorty has remarked that we should just leave it alone, that it is undefinable. While true, philosophical conversation would be a good deal harder since everybody still insists on using it, even Rorty. Given that Pirsig defines his philosophy as a “metaphysics” and Rorty defines metaphysics as the most basic philosophical wrong turn, I’ve often been asked how the two are supposed to hang together, as I’ve claimed they can. My answer is typically that Pirsig’s definition of “metaphysics” is basically the same as what Rorty and pragmatists would define “philosophy”: a really big, general view of things. Rorty’s use of metaphysics, however, is more narrow than that, basically commensurate with the way Heidegger defined it: Platonism. Maybe not Plato himself, but the whole line of footnotes that extend from him. In what follows, I’d first like to offer definitions (in the form of questions) of my title characters and suggest the ways in which I see them hanging together.

1) Metaphilosophy: What way of life are we going to follow?

2) Philosophy: How do things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term?

3) Metaphysics: How do things really hang together?

The first is taken from Pierre Hadot (in, for instance, What is Ancient Philosophy?), which is a use that rhymes quite well with Wittgenstein. Each form of life uses certain vocabularies with which they make sense of the world. So while doing philosophy (stolen from Wilfrid Sellars), we try and develop a vocabulary with which we try and get the rest of our vocabularies (scientific, moral, religious, literary, political, etc.) to hang together. Doing metaphilosophy involves a conversation about which form of life is better, which kind of philosophical vocabulary we should be using to get our other vocabularies to hang together. One way of describing metaphysics, then, is as a particular kind of philosophical vocabulary, a kind of philosophy that tries to force metaphilosophical consequences by an outside source. By bit by bit hammering down how things really hang together, the choice of what form of life we are going to be is taken away from us, determined instead by something other than us (e.g., Reality or God).

In the sense of these terms, most propounded philosophies by philosophers are a tangle of metaphilosophical and philosophical theses, though most philosophers in the past (and present for that matter) take their meta- theses for granted and disentangling them is a bit of a chore. What Rorty shunts under the name “pragmatism” is mostly just metaphilosophical theses, though from time to time he’ll be inconsistent (in the sense that pragmatism is only the name for a metaphilosophical stance, which historically it hasn’t only been) and attribute a philosophical thesis to pragmatism. But with the above distinctions in hand, it is fairly easy to distinguish Rorty’s meta- from philosophical theses (with the realization, then, that he spends most of his time doing metaphilosophy).

Doing philosophy can sometimes vault us up into metaphilosophy. Philosophy can have metaphilosophical consequences, or rather, some philosophies won’t be appropriate for some forms of life. This isn’t so much because of any “metaphysical hammering,” but because the two are more like on a continuum, there isn’t a hard and fast distinction between the two (which is why philosophers like Stanley Cavell say that there isn’t any such thing as metaphilosophy). Sometimes when doing philosophy you are forced into a discussion about what form of life we want to be. This happens when, for instance, there isn’t anywhere else for the conversation to go, when a straight out argument isn’t going to work because both sides seem to be begging the question over each other. What distinguishes metaphysical philosophy from nonmetaphysical philosophy is that metaphysics tries to get things hammered down by something else, e.g. Reality or Facts, whereas in nonmetaphysical philosophy the only thing doing any hammering are people.

What I'm trying to get a distinction between is the view that “there is a way things are” and “there is a way things really are.” The way pragmatists see philosophy is as taking common sense and finding something wrong with it. Common sense, as ways in which we make our way about the world, entails a way things are. That's what it is. A rock is a rock exactly because it is a rock and not a book of philosophy or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What the metaphysicians have taken to be philosophy is the correction of common sense by getting at the way the things really are. What fully pragmatized thought tries to do is change common sense by offering us better ways of thinking how things are.

So, if I, as a (hopefully) fully pragmatized philosopher, am to be identified as a materialist (as in thinking that corpuscularianism is a good way of thinking about what science does), or a nominalist (as in thinking that, if there is distinction between universals and particulars, it can only be made within a language and not between language (universals) and non-language (particulars)), or a Darwinian (as in thinking that humans are simply one more species of animal doing its best), it is not because I think that any of those ways entail a way things really are (or rather, the way things really are entails them), but that they entail a way things are, in that I act and behave and think as if those things are the way they are--because that's what common sense is: “the way I act and behave and think.”

What metaphysicians think is that our common sense can be corrected by the way things really are, that the ways we act, behave, and think can be changed by ascertaining the way things really are in the world. Pragmatists only think that the ways we act, behave, and think can be changed by alternative ways of acting, behaving, and thinking and that the “ascertainment of the really real” is a wheel that plays no part in the system. It’s not that the metaphysicians aren’t motivated in their redescriptions by their belief that their redescription is closer to the way things really are, but I’m suggesting that there’s no difference between redescriptions offered by metaphysicians who think that they finally have it and by pragmatists who think that this is just one more potentially better alternative to try out. So by an act of Ockham’s Razor, we’d like to cut out the wheel spinning all by itself.

So in practice there is often no difference between what a metaphysician and a poet does: they offer redescriptions of our language to expand the space of reasons, to expand what we can talk about and direct our attention towards what we should talk about. We can offer a distinction between two different kinds of metaphysicians to be more detailed: speculative and empirical (see the beginning of "Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?"). Speculative metaphysicians proceed by offering gigantic redescriptions of their subject and eventually tack on the claim “this is how things really are.” Empirical metaphysicians proceed by making an inquiry into a suitably large and fundamental topic like “Truth” or “Reality” or “Language” and, when finished with such an inquiry, suppose they’ve found out something essential about their subject. But on both sides these are tack-ons. For instance, sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker think that their work in biology or the brain or language say something about the large, important sounding topic philosophers have called “Human Nature” and that finding out the way we are will tell us something about what we should do. Pragmatists think that not only is the notion of “Human Nature” too metaphysical to tell us anything useful, but that how we are or have been will never do more than give us a starting point or possibly guidance towards what we should do or become.

Particularly with empirical metaphysicians, the difference in practice between metaphysicians and non- is that metaphysicians will tend to waste time and effort trying to make an impossible establishment of essence, of how things really are rather than sufficing with making the case that this is the way things should be. Pragmatists side with the Romantics in thinking that the human species is an infinitely malleable creature. Platonists believe that there is an essential way we are and it is by distorting this essence that bad things happen, like injustice. Neo-Romantics like pragmatists, however, think we can toss the representational notion of “distortion” and still be able tell the difference between better and worse and change are practices to make things better.

The choice between Romanticism and Platonism is the major struggle in metaphilosophy. One of the particular battles is over whether pragmatists can be Romantics and still hope for the same things Platonists hope for, like the end of injustice. Platonists don’t think they can. Pragmatists think that shared hopes about the end of injustice and the particular possibilities opened up by redescriptions are more important than the Platonist tack-on. But Platonists think that without the tack-on you cannot have the hope or the redescriptions. So for philosophers, the last major site of battle is over Platonism, though nothing else seems to hang in the balance. Platonists think everything hangs, pragmatists think nothing hangs, but at the end of the day they both have the same hopes and dreams. Pragmatists think this bodes well for them, for it at least foists the burden of proof on Platonists. 2500 years of having the burden of proof and being driven further and further back has marginalized Platonic philosophy (i.e. academic philosophy) from the rest of society. The more society gets on well enough and improves itself without having what Platonists think it requires, the more pragmatists think this suggests that Platonism is a scholastic endeavor that adds little to society. Pragmatists would like to end the scholasticism and get on with something else. Rather than harassing everyone else about how they are living in bad faith, nonmetaphysical philosophers would at least be able to add some small measure of perspective to their compatriots work in other areas.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Voice, Mind, Heart, Spirit

I first became aware of Arthur Danto while going through Nietzsche studies. His 1965 Nietzsche as Philosopher, despite Walter Kaufmann’s earlier efforts, did the most to make anglophone philosophers aware of Nietzsche as a serious philosopher, or rather, a philosopher to pay attention to. Danto was an able and up and coming analytic philosopher at the time and related Nietzsche to English-speakers by taking him to have philosophical theses that they recognized. I since found out that Danto was an aesthetician and art critic, though I also found a little book of his called Mysticism and Morality which covers Eastern philosophy for Westerners. Obviously a well-rounded guy. The other day I picked up a recent book of his used, The Body/Body Problem, which is a collection of essays. I was particularly excited to read it because its last essay was called “In Their Own Voice: Philosophical Writing and Actual Experience”. This is an area I am particularly interested in.

The essay itself is fairly tricky. Firstly, I should apologize to every teacher, friend, TA, or critic who has yelped at me for being easily distracted and side-tracked—to which I normally respond, “Oh, quiet! It’s part of the larger plan, man! Off my case!” I now know what they mean. Danto moves over several topics in the course of the essay and it’s not entirely clear that they all involve one another. They all do relate to each other, but Danto’s movements are so quick that you don’t realize until later that while he’s talking about blind submission now, he used to be talking about Cavell. So I apologize for snapping at anyone over my penchant for following my mind wherever it goes.

Danto begins his essay with some interesting talk about the difference between philosophers who have to submit papers to editors and philosophers who are requested to give papers. He says that Donald Davidson once told him that he’s never had to submit a paper to editorial review, and comments, “Instead, those parts of his papers which an editor might peremptorily have written ‘Clarify!!!’ next to in the margin have given rise to mighty rivers of commentary and analysis, and doubtless have seen more than one critic through to tenure as a specialist in the philosophy of Donald Davidson.” (228) Danto continues his musing on this topic by noting that, possibly since most of these star philosophers write papers to be read before audiences, they are filled with devices designed to hold an audience’s attention. These interesting insights continue until Danto reaches Wittgenstein (and Heidegger and Dewey), reckoning that the strongest philosophers have the strongest styles, styles others wouldn’t dare try to imitate, at which point he asks, “Does that mean that philosophy and philosopher are inseparable? Or that there is a deep connection between philosophy and voice?” (229)

I tend to want to answer in the affirmative. Ever since Rorty tossed off the locution “philosophy as a kind of writing” while further implanting the latent notion (that only Toulmin pulled out explicitly) of “philosophy as a kind of autobiography,” I’ve been excited and energized by the idea. I take such a slogan to infuse many of the other philosophical positions pragmatists take. However, from those same readings, I know it's not entirely true. Or rather, Danto’s questions cannot be answered entirely in the affirmative. Pragmatists are suspicious of anything deep, especially anything related to that amorphous subject “philosophy.” You can’t help but define philosophy by the very activity of doing it, but every definition eventually bites you in the ass. But if there is something deep about philosophy, it would be the connection between philosopher and philosophy, philosophy and voice, but still—how deep is that?

By moving to Wittgenstein, Danto proceeds very slowly to answer those questions negatively. The rest of the essay is basically a long, drawn out and unfinished, slowly spoken “Nooooooooowell, maybe.” He moves by first telling us in a parenthetical, after writing “Wittgensteinian ‘truths’”, that “I am employing quotation marks because I want to leave the reader a bit edgy with the idea that there are such things as Heideggerian or Wittgensteinian truths rather than truths which happen to have been uttered by Heidegger or Wittgenstein”. This indeed leaves me a bit edgy. This raises the specter of truth distinguished from rhetoric, the Platonic distinctions that Rorty and Pirsig tell us got us into all of this footnote trouble in the first place. Rortyans would prefer to say that, maybe there aren’t Wittgensteinian or Heideggerian truths, but there are truths we began to speak only after we began to speak Wittgensteinese or Heideggerese.

But still, Danto isn’t entirely off point here. There is a difference between the style a truth (or point) is made in and the truth (or point) that is made. This has to do with translatability, in the ability of a particular point to be made in different styles or vocabularies. We see Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Dewey all making the same points when we translate them all into a vocabulary that houses them all, which is what Rorty specializes in. However, not all truths or points can be made in every vocabulary, which is probably the point at which we can call them false. And Danto’s style of making this point, the language or vocabulary, probably makes me suspicious because of his penchant for making the distinction too coarsely between truth and rhetoric. Danto does this, I think, because he takes much more seriously the notion of “representation” than do pragmatists. Danto is at odds with pragmatists over this issue, but Danto, despite being an unrequited user of it in the face of antirepresentationalists like Rorty, seems to use it an ameliorated sense that raises less problems for pragmatists.

The next section of Danto’s paper sees him bridge from Wittgenstein to Stanley Cavell on Wittgenstein, providing a tremendously illuminating commentary on Cavell and his style of writing. He eventually makes the point that Cavell mirrors Wittgenstein in that his writing style embodies the philosophy put forward. The style of the Philosophical Investigations embodies Wittgenstein’s suggested attitude towards philosophy (one of therapy) and Cavell’s writings, particularly A Pitch of Philosophy, embodies Cavell’s suggested attitudes towards philosophy (one of dialogic conversation). “…what is the connection, if any, between the what and the how of saying? The philosopher may be the writing, which means that to discipline the writing is to regiment the philosopher. But is there any internal connection between the writing and the thought? Can, that is, any thought be expressed in any voice, even if not all styles will embody or exemplify it?” (238) I have already answered this last question in the negative. Not all thoughts can be expressed in any voice, that is, not all things can be said in every vocabulary. To answer the question positively, as Danto intimates he would, would be to fall for Plato’s fantasy of universal truths that underlie all ephemeral ways of speaking. Rorty’s point in creating what his student Robert Brandom has called the “vocabulary vocabulary” was to dissuade us of such a notion.

But Danto continues by quickly bridging to the topic of blind submission. His comments here, again, are very illuminating. I won’t cover them (except to say that Danto half-imagines a case of blind submission in which a star philosopher writes in defending his own philosophy and a lesser philosopher writes in defending the star’s philosophy, and both of them are equally cogent to the point of flipping a coin over which one to blindly choose for publication—a situation, I have to confess, I daydreamed myself being in with Rorty) and instead skip to the end. One could imagine from what has come before that Danto will land in favor of blind submission—what, afterall, could matter if truth is divorced from rhetoric?—but Danto actually lands a bit on the other side. “The reason voice is relevant to philosophical writing is that philosophical writings by a single person form complex systems and constellations of ideas—they have pasts and futures as well as presents—and the reasons we are interested in voice are those which explain our interest in philosophical creativity. Creative philosophers do not do philosophy by producing atoms of bottom-line ‘good’ philosophy. What they write carries what they have written and what they hope to write as the aura of a total vision.” (242-3)

I have my suspicions about “total vision,” but I see what Danto is talking about. And he’s quite right. “This means that suppression of our facticities results in a distorted representation of the world, the world according to Nobody. And this makes bottom-line philosophy abstract and distorted and surrealistic.” (244) We see Danto’s latent realism rising up again, but his conclusions are resonant: “Philosophy in its professional practice has loosened itself more and more from the world as we really experience it anyway, in our embodied and historical natures, in its drive to secure something disembodied and timeless. And I think a dreadful price, the price of irrelevance, is paid for this: nobody reads philosophy but philosophers. … Let blind review continue, but blind philosophy might to everyone’s profit stop being written. Philosophers should be encouraged to speak in their own voice about the world that means something to them. The freer the voice, the better the philosophy. For now, that is the only connection I see.” (244-5)

That’s not the only connection I see and that’s probably because of Danto’s seeming realism, but I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on Danto (least of all through his roaming essay), but I feel like his heart is in the right place—if that is to be discerned from the last pages of a piece. But if that were true, I would have to accept “Good is a noun” and there’s no way I’m swallowing that. But perhaps there’s a difference between a person’s heart and their spirit and perhaps Pirsig’s spirit lies elsewhere from his heart. Mind, heart, spirit: the written lines, the written conclusion, and everything else in between—the lines or otherwise.

This lands us in the lap of translation, or interpretation (which is how Davidson translates that Quineanism), which is where I left us with voice. “Voice” is a metaphor that pragmatists can get along with. Ever since Gadamer and Sellars, Dewey and Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Nietzsche, it’s been harder and harder for philosophers to just assume that we can break away from language, harder for them to use bodily metaphors, and harder for them to use theological metaphors. If Dennett is to be believed, the “mind” isn’t all we thought it was. If Susan Neiman, then the “heart” must include more than good intentions. If Bloom, the “spirit” just is what we make of it. However, I think all three combine to make up the “voice” of a philosopher. This is all like Davidson’s triangulation of world-person-community, which, translated into textual interpretation, plays out into text-writer-reader. Understanding a language takes Davidson’s triangle and understanding a philosopher takes it, too. Interpretation is the collusion of the three parts, and no part can be understood separately.

A philosopher’s voice includes her mind, her heart, and her spirit. It includes how she’s getting to a place, where she’s going, and where she will end up being—the now, the little bit later, and the far into the future. Not all minds are cogent, not all hearts good, not all spirits living—not all arguments sound, conclusions useful, or philosophies engaging. But the philosopher, the voice, includes all of these. Not all of Pirsig’s arguments are successful, not all of Pirsig’s conclusions are acceptable, and not all of his philosophy is interesting. But Pirsig’s voice is powerful and inimitable, capturing our attention still. And though Pirsig’s voice may cease to echo someday, that voice will still be a sharp, loud thunderclap for those who discover him, if one delivered in a room with bad acoustics.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Cartesian Epistemology, or Incorrigibility as the Mark of Something

There’s an early essay by Rorty, “Cartesian Epistemology and Changes in Ontology” (1970), that I think marks the point at which Rorty figured out that he had to write PMN and how he would do it. The paper serves to point in the same general direction and uses the same style of partial historical, argumentative narrative and partial contemporary engagement of issues. The paper is, for the most part (like most of Rorty’s earlier papers, though probably more so), entirely replaceable by PMN . . . but essays are so much shorter. And, in my experience, Rorty has a way of saying the same thing over and over again in rarely the same way. Each experience opens you up to new angles. I’m not going to lie and say that I can reread every single piece of his writing with relish, but for being predominately a self-acknowledged one-note Nelly, he has the surprising capacity to hold your attention throughout most of his corpus of writing. I’m not sure the same can be said for many others. But then again, maybe I just have the same obsessive interests as he does and like hearing that one same thing over and over again. At any rate, I’d like to take that earlier paper and use it to help illuminate a portion of Pirsig that has always gotten my panties in a bunch.

First, I shall present Rorty’s six claims he hopes to make:
1. A necessary condition for participating in ontological discussion during what I shall call the ‘Cartesian period’ was that an answer be given to the question: Given that we have incorrigible knowledge only of the contents of our minds, how is it that we can know about anything else?

2. The paradigm of an answer to this question was the claim that the nature of the object of knowledge—reality as opposed to appearance—was different than either common sense or science conceived it.

3. The justification for the existence of ontology as a distinct discipline came to be the fact that neither science nor common sense could offer an adequate reply to the epistemological sceptic. Giving such a reply became the paradigm of what it was to do philosophy.

4. The refusal of many contemporary philosophers to take seriously the suggestion that reality is different from either common sense’s or science’s picture of it is due to the fact that they no longer accept or find it necessary to answer the epistemological sceptic.

5. The reasons why this premise is no longer accepted can be traced back to the abandonment of certain more general principles.

6. These principles are such that, once they are accepted, it is not clear why there need be a discipline called ‘ontology’ over and above empirical science. The justification of the existence of such a discipline thus requires to be rethought. (275, emphasis his)
The first thing I should note is Rorty’s use of common sense and science. These were his earlier years and I do not think that he’s suggesting that only science gives us knowledge, or some such thing. The object of his attack is the notion that there is a special discipline called “philosophy” (or ontology, in this case) that gives us a special kind of knowledge that only it can give us, something different than what we gain from physics, sociology, literary criticism, or walking down the street.

The second thing I should note is that Pirsig doesn’t seem to obviously fit in this schematic of claims. There are three reasons: 1) it isn’t obvious that Pirsig is practicing a discipline called “ontology” that is over and above anything, and this because 2) Pirsig doesn’t consider offering a reply to the epistemological sceptic to be a big deal, and this because 3) Pirsig doesn’t talk about something called the “mind” a lot. Pirsig really doesn’t have a philosophy of mind, just as it would be curious to say that he has a philosophy of language. He has latent views about mind and language, but he doesn’t spend time constructing a large view of the subject that hooks up to other views and can be used to rebut perceived criticisms. However, time and time again I find things in the philosophy of mind and language that make me think of Pirsig, but not always in a good way. In particular, it’s Pirsig’s notion of “immediate experience” that always raises my hackles. “Immediacy” is notorious for causing philosophical problems. With respect to the above, it’s Pirsig’s attendant claim that the value that is immediately experienced is known with absolute certainty. (Lila, 76) This certainty is a mark of the mental, of mind, that Rorty popularized as “incorrigibility.” But if Pirsig doesn’t obviously have an extensive notion of the mind (let alone a problematic one), what is a problematic mark of the mental doing in Pirsig’s account (Rorty has said that incorrigibility is ­the only property of the mind that can make it problematic, or at least make epistemology seem necessary)? What is it doing? Is it problematic?

I think it can be, but it all depends on how it is put to use. For instance, in Pirsig’s example the notion of us being certain about our experience is completely commonsensical. Of course we are going to be absolutely certain of whatever value-experience we have with the stove. The trouble is when Pirsig pushes this certainty into other services. Pirsig will eventually want to claim that mystics shouldn’t be ignored because they have direct experience with Quality. And, in fact, this direct experience carries with it the full weight of being absolutely certain knowledge because it was an immediate, direct experience. This is where things become problematic. For instance, if somebody says that they see water, should we believe them? What if you’re in a desert and it turns out to be a mirage? What happens to the absolute certainty? By using such an example we should notice how far the certainty extends: not very far at all. If the person who saw water was being sincere, then we can say that they were absolutely certain that they saw water, or even that they did actually experience the sight of water. It turns out, however, that they were wrong. They didn’t experience the sight of water, they experienced an optical illusion. This is what I’ve called the shibboleth problem: when do we believe the mystic? Do we believe all mystics? How do we tell the Lao-tzus from the gun-toting, compound nut-jobs (aside from the guns)? They both claim a direct relation, so how do we tell?

There are obvious, pragmatic answers to this (like the guns), but they burn a hole in the binding of “immediate experience” with “absolute certainty” that Pirsig affects, which then destroys the reason he gives for including formerly excluded mystics. I think the bridge can be built again to include mystics, but I think a different route needs to be taken.

I'm not going to explore this particular issue further, but I’d like to bridge back to the Rorty essay. The claim I’d like to make is that it would appear that when Pirsig makes claims about the exclusion of mystics, which hinge on a problematic mark of the mental, he’s tripped into doing a special discipline called ontology.

Here’s Rorty:

The mind-body problem is an offspring of the theory that knowledge consists in the having of certain representations of reality (including perceptual ones), by the subject. As [Wallace] Matson has recently pointed out [in “Why Isn’t the Mind-Body Problem Ancient?”], the Greeks had a soul-body problem but not a mind-body problem—or, at least, not the mind-body problem which has bothered philosophers from Descartes to Feigl. Before this mind-body problem can be made to seem urgent (as Matson also notes) one has to have the notion of ‘immediate awareness’, and to believe that the things we want to know about (tables, other men, stars, the moral law, and the gods) are not things which we are immediately aware of. Once one believes all this, one will have to grant the existence of a realm to contain the objects of immediate awareness. This will be the Mind, or the Subject qua Subject. Psychophysical dualism follows from epistemological dualism. In the great systems of the Cartesian period, the primary task of ontology was to get the Subject and the Object back together. Solutions to the mind-body problem appear as simple corollaries to solutions of the Problem of Knowledge.

Thus the ontologies of almost every important non-sceptical philosophy from Spinoza to Russell consisted in a redescription of the Object—that which we want to know about—according to which the Subject and the Object turned out to be much the same. The concomitance of the modes of the two known attributes of Spinoza’s God, the pre-established harmony of Leibniz’s monads, the variations on what Austin calls ‘the ontology of the sensible manifold’ (Berkeley, Kant, Russell), the perfect union of appearance and reality in Hegel’s or Royce’s Absolute, and Whitehead’s panpsychism are so many ways of showing that if you know enough about the sort of thing you are directly aware of (the contents of your mind) you will know everything there is to know about everything. In short, the mainstream of ontology has been a redescription (specifically, a ‘subjectivizing’) of the Objects—a redescription which would not have been thought necessary had not the original claim about direct awareness been swallowed. (278-279, emphasis his)

I want to point out the family resemblances between Pirsig and what is said here. First is the claim that “psychophysical dualism follows from epistemological dualism.” While it isn’t immediately apparent that Pirsig carries with him a notion of representation (though I have my suspicions about that, partially articulated here) or that he practices a special discipline called ontology, it should be clear that his direct/indirect distinction is some sort of epistemology, some sort of claim about knowledge and knowing, and that the Dynamic/static distinction which houses the direct/indirect distinction seems to be more than an epistemological distinction. While Pirsig wouldn’t seem to have a psychophysical dualism, the Dynamic/static dualism does deal with “stuff,” what is real, such that we have “things” on one side and “no-thing” on the other (Paul Turner has been working on disentangling Pirsig’s epistemology from his metaphysics). These are pulled together in a muddle which can produce weird effects.

Second, when Rorty says that to engender the mind-body problem “one has to have the notion of ‘immediate awareness’, and to believe that the things we want to know about (tables, other men, stars, the moral law, and the gods) are not things which we are immediately aware of,” notice that while Pirsig doesn’t seem to be hampered by the mind-body problem, he is hampered by both of these notions: we are immediately aware of Dynamic Quality and the things we want to know about are what we are not immediately aware. All things are housed under static patterns—that which we are only indirectly aware.

And third, while Pirsig has rejected claims that Quality is similar to Hegel’s Absolute, one can see here why they were offered. In ZMM, Pirsig takes the Subject/Object divide and shows how they are not divided in Quality—thus fulfilling “the primary task of ontology” of getting the “Subject and Object back together.” There is an immediate difference in that Pirsig is in some sense saying that the divide is illusory, that Quality is primary and the divide is secondary, not the other way around which engenders the problems. This is important and, I think, right. But look at what else Rorty says about these ontologies: they all “consisted in a redescription of the Object—that which we want to know about—according to which the Subject and the Object turned out to be much the same.” They are all Quality. And Rorty suggests further that “the mainstream of ontology has been a redescription (specifically, a ‘subjectivizing’) of the Objects”. Before Pirsig, “quality” was thought to be something that humans had or found, not something that rocks had. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think that critics of Pirsig would call his saying that Quality is Reality is anthropomorphic, a subjectivizing of reality.

These family resemblances begin to mount up. But, hey, Rorty himself obviously has many family resemblances to such despicable characters as the logical positivists. However, I think Pirsig’s family resemblances collude to produce the Myth of the Given. Pirsig’s claim that static patterns are what are deduced from the immediately apprehended Dynamic Quality seem to me to produce the idea that we are Given something completely untainted by language or distinctions or anything else we might do to it, some unblemished content, to which all of our dealings with it, linguistic and such, are the persistence of a certain scheme. Pirsig thinks that our current cultural scheme is unjustly giving mystics the short shrift and that if we got back to the content, we would be able to create a better scheme (see Pirsig’s comments about “cultural immune systems” in chapter 4 of Lila).

This cuts back to what I was saying about how far the absolute certainty of touching a stove or seeing water goes. Rorty calls his Sellarsian thesis the Principle of the Relativity of Incorrigibility:

That a given sentence is used to express incorrigible knowledge is not a matter of a special relation which holds between knowers and some object referred to by this sentence, but a matter of the way in which the sentence fits into the language of a given culture, and the circumstances of its user, at a given time. (282, italics his)

Again, not immediately applicable given that Pirsig isn’t motivated by the epistemological sceptic. I think that this is good, but I think we can still see him in these lines. First, with incorrigibility—we gain our absolute certainty by our special relation to Dynamic Quality. And second, Rorty’s linguistic alternative makes knowledge internal to a language game and Pirsig would prima facie reject that because we directly know Dynamic Quality before any language. The differences between these two treatments of incorrigibility are summed up later by Rorty: “The importance of the principle of the Relativity of Incorrigibility is that it undercuts the attempt to discover this nature by casting doubt on the first move which the sceptic makes—namely, to have found some case of knowledge which is a clearer case than others, and is thus a clue to the essence of what it is to be knowledge. It causes this by saying that the cases in which ‘doubt plays no role’ are cases in which we do not let doubt play a role, not cases in which we are in a different natural state.” (283, emphasis his)

Why Rorty should say “the sceptic’s first move” I’ll skip over. Pirsig isn’t interested in finding the essence of knowledge, but he is interested in being more Dynamic. Dynamic Quality is obviously the kind of “clearer case than others” when compared to static patterns. Dynamic Quality is direct, static patterns are only indirect. The direct knowledge of Dynamic Quality is better and replaces the indirect knowledge of static patterns (the resemblance to the appearance/reality distinction should be apparent). It does this because we don’t doubt it. Its high or low Quality is absolutely certain. However, what of the guy in the desert? In Rorty’s case, it makes perfectly good sense to absolutely believe the guy you see put his hand on the flaming stove when he tells you that he’s absolutely certain that his hand experienced low Quality. However, it also makes perfectly good sense to have some doubt when the guy in the desert says he sees water. Because of our circumstances of being in a desert, though the linguistic cue of “I see…” tells us that he’s absolutely certain he is seeing something, we let doubt play a role. It’s not clear how this is to pan out in Pirsig’s philosophy. It seems perfectly reasonable that Pirsig could frame incorrigibility the same way as Rorty does. All this means is that the person who’s experiencing X has changed his beliefs in a certain way (experiencing a hot stove, the sight of water, the hearing of a good Republican argument). What it doesn’t mean is that everybody else has to change their beliefs (or static patterns) just because the other person did. The absolute certainty, and particularly not the experience of high or low value, doesn’t travel that far. As I suggested before, however, this is damaging to the way Pirsig claims that mystics have been left out of the conversation of mankind. I think one should toss Pirsig’s particular argument. I think that argument tries to put commonsensical distinctions to philosophical use, which is the way philosophical problems are created. Pirsig is better when he is seen as dissolving philosophical problems and suggesting cultural criticism, not using a philosophical apparatus to tell us that we have to do something. Some of the tools Pirsig leaves lying around are good for some purposes, but bad for others.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Diversity of Goods

Charles Taylor is one of those philosophers (like so many) that I've learned about through Rorty and have their books on my shelves (which I've been talking about a lot lately, all those unread books, staring me down). Taylor and MacIntyre are both philosophers who have been called "communitarians" as part of the revolt against liberalism. Many others have been called communitarians, too, and part of why I think this particular battle line, communitarians v. liberals, bad and outdated is because most of the communitarians look like good liberals to me.

What intrigues me about Taylor is that, like Bernard Williams, he appears to advocate the ripping down of Kantian moral philosophy, but he also still advocates a hard distinction between the natural sciences and humanities. I've commented before in relation to Williams that I find this quite striking, particularly with the thoroughness in Taylor and Williams' narratives of moral philosophy (I'm thinking of, for instance, Sources of the Self and Shame and Neccessity). I still don't know what to make of it, but lately I've been setting aside such issues to emphasize the positive.

Taylor's "The Diversity of Goods" (found in the Anti-Theory book I've been reading) is a general attack on monolithic moral theories, specifically utilitarianism, and what Annette Baier called "normative moral theories". Taylor opens by saying that utilitarianism had a lot going for it, “its seeming compatibility with scientific thought; its this-worldly humanist focus, its concern with suffering. But one of the powerful background factors behind much of this appeal was epistemological.” (223) This attack on modern, Cartesian epistemology is what I take to be in common to Rorty, MacIntyre, Taylor, and Baier. Taylor suggests that utilitarianism caught on because of the craze to make everything “scientific,” that with it we “could abandon all the metaphysical or theological factors—commands of God, natural rights, virtues—which made ethical questions scientifically undecidable. Bluntly, we could calculate.”

There is another contemporary variant of moral philosophy distorted by modern epistemology, and these are the kinds of neo-Kantian formalisms that we get with Hare and Donagan. What both utilitarianism and formalism offer is “the hope of deciding ethical questions without having to determine which of a number of rival languages of moral virtue and vice, of the admirable and the contemptible, of unconditional versus conditional obligation, are valid.” (224) What Taylor suggests is that both of these options flow directly out of a substantive moral insight, “one of the most fundamental insights of modern civilization, the universal attribution of moral personality: in fundamental ethical matters, everyone ought to count, and all ought to count in the same way.” (224-5)

Taylor points out that this insight is historically parochial, that the Greeks for one did not share it. What modern moral philosophies have done is to take this moral insight and enshrine it as a principle to which everything else in the realm of morality must follow. However, Taylor says, “they look like formal principles only because they are so foundational to the moral thinking of our civilization.” (226) But as insights, rather than first, axiomatic principles, we find that these insights are “in need of justification like the others. This points us to one of the motives for construing them as formal principles. For those who despair of reason as the arbiter of moral disputes (and the epistemological tradition has tended to induce this despair in many), making the fundamental insights into a formal principle has seemed a way of avoiding a moral scepticism which was both implausible and distasteful.”

The reason the Cartesian epistemological tradition has come to cause this despair is because it modeled itself on the successes of the fledgling natural sciences. Because “reason” during this time period became so associated with science, and moral and political conflict seemed so interminable in comparison with the rapid beating back of nature, post-Cartesians thought that the only thing that could save morality from being completely irrational was making it quantifiably empirical or axiomatically formal. The successes of Galilean science were so rapid that they essentially made reasoning look simple. And anything that was hard must not be using reason. This seems patently silly, but one can see the line of reasoning that brings us there. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to make life easier? So utilitarians and formalists suggest their ethical theories as providing firmer foundations, as making life easier.

Taylor says that “these claims to firmer foundation are illusory. What is really going on is that some forms of ethical reasoning are being privileged over others because in our civilization they come less into dispute or look easier to defend. This has all the rationality of the drunk in the well-known story … who was looking for his latch key late one night under a street lamp. A passerby, trying to be helpful, asked him where he had dropped it. ‘Over there,’ answered the drunk, pointing to a dark corner. ‘Then why are you looking for it here?’ ‘Because there’s so much more light here,’ replied the drunk.” (234)

Taylor argues that “the price of this formalism, as also of the utilitarian reduction” has been the creation of “the unity of the moral”: “one of the big illusions which grows from either of these reductions is the belief that there is a single consistent domain of the ‘moral’, that there is one set of considerations, or mode of calculation, which determines what we ought ‘morally’ to do.” (226) Taylor suggests, instead, that the “boundaries of the moral are an open question” and that he would argue “that the universal attribution of moral personality is valid, and lays obligations on us that we cannot ignore; but that there are also other moral ideals and goals—e.g., of less than universal solidarity, or of personal excellence—that cannot be easily coordinated with universalism, and can even enter into conflict with it. To decide a priori what the bounds of the moral are is just to obfuscate the question whether and to what degree this is so, and to make it incapable of being coherently stated.” (226-7)

Taylor says that we need a notion of “qualitative contrast” to embrace the plurality of purposes and goals of ethical thinking. The notion of qualitative contrast “is the sense that one way of acting or living is higher than others, or in other cases that a certain way of living is debased.” (229) He suggests that treating them monolithically as all pointing towards the attainment of some common good distorts these individual values. “Integrity, charity, liberation, and the like stand out as worth of pursuit in a special way, incommensurable with other goals we might have, such as the pursuit of wealth, or comfort, or the approval of those who surround us. Indeed, for those who hold to such views of the good, we ought to be ready to sacrifice some of these lesser goods for the higher.” (230)

Not only that, but recognizing the distinctions between these goods “is an essential condition of his realizing the good concerned.” We wouldn’t often apply the virtue of charity to a person’s actions if they themselves didn’t recognize the high value of acting charitably. Taylor says that “motivation enters into the definition of the higher activity or way of being in all these cases.”

Another part of these virtues is that they are obligatory in some sense. Wealth may be a goal for some people, but we don’t usually look down on those who don’t have that goal. “By contrast, it is in the nature of what I have called a higher goal that it is one we should have. Those who lack them are not just free of some additional instrumental obligations that weigh with the rest of us; they are open to censure.” (231)

Not all qualitative contrasts are in the moral realm. Taylor points out the aesthetic domain and the judgments we make there. It is here that Taylor lays out most plainly the fuzzy nature of the moral realm. Taylor suggests at several points that perhaps one term, “moral”, may not suffice for all of our language, for our ways of condemnation and appraisal. We can make ad hoc distinctions, but they all remain fuzzy. Most of Taylor’s paper consists in attacking the pretensions and illusions engendered by epistemological distorsions (including a very good one about another motivation for formalism and reductionism: naturalism), but it paves the way in suggestive ways for the greater appreciation for “qualitative contrasts”.

*All citations for Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism, ed. Stanley G. Clarke and Evan Simpson.

Important Rorty Essays, or So You Want to Dig Into Rorty?

I figured I’d give a run down of important essays of Rorty to read for people who like reading lists. The essays I’ll be choosing from are the ones that are anthologized, ones that are easily accessible. If you’ve never read Rorty and want a general intro to him, there’s no better place than the beginning of his Philosophy and Social Hope (PSH):

1. “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”: his autobiographical essay, this gives a brief synopsis of his philosophical motives and his general project. Probably the best overall single essay for getting one oriented with Rorty.

2. “Truth without Correspondence to Reality”
3. “A World without Substances or Essences”
4. “Ethics Without Principles”: these three essays taken together probably outline succinctly the effects of pragmatism Rorty foresees in the broad areas of philosophy, roughly metaphysics and ethics (meaning, "What happens to the other two traditional branches of philosophy, metaphysics and axiology, when you take out the third branch, epistemology, at its knees?"). I also leaned on these three essays for my Intro to Richard Rorty.

Outside of that, the single best essay for seeing the broad brush of pragmatism is:

5. “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism” in Consequences of Pragmatism (CP)

Aside from that essay, the next best two are:

6. “Solidarity or Objectivity?” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (ORT)
7. “Philosophy as Science, as Metaphor, and as Politics” in Essays on Heidegger and Others (EHO)

The best essay for Rorty’s philosophy of science is:

8. “Is Natural Science a Natural Kind?” in ORT

The best essay for Rorty’s mature views of materialism is:

9. “Non-Reductive Physicalism” in ORT

The best essay on Rorty’s political philosophy is:

10. “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” in ORT

The two best essays for Rorty on literary criticism are:

11. “The Pragmatist’s Progress: Umberto Eco on Interpretation” in PSH
12.“The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature” appended to Achieving Our Country

Aside from that, everything else is cake. Of Rorty’s two books, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (CIS) is the most important and probably worth reading straight through after reading several of the above, or first (if you have the time) because it (somehow) blends together pretty much every preoccupation Rorty has ever had. Everything before leads up to it and everything after leads out of it. The first third blends Davidsonian philosophy of language, Freudian moral philosophy, and Rawlsian political philosophy into a pragmatist picture of language, self, and community. The second third blends this all together with his preoccupations with Heidegger and Derrida. And the last third takes the mess and throws in his love of literature. I say “mess”, but the result, in my opinion, is very successful. He somehow manages to include quite a lot of subjects and gear them all in the same direction, and all under 200 pages. For something that can be seen to be so comprehensive, it is by far the shortest great work of philosophy in the 20th century.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (PMN) is worth reading on its own merits, but for people just looking around for extra tools or a little excitement, you can probably neglect it. It is something of a Mystery Tale for Pragmatists, and most philosophers consider it to be a classic, but those philosophers are professional philosophers. For amateurs (like myself), one can neglect it unless (a) you’re really jiving for more Rorty and want to work your way backward into the older stuff, (b) you want more specific, technical arguments for some of the issues raised in his later work, or (c) you want to learn about the history of early 20th century analytic philosophy.

If (c), then I couldn’t suggest a better place, though just remember that it all ends in Rorty’s lap. If you want other suggestions about the history of analytic philosophy I would suggest John Passmore’s comprehensive A Hundred Years of Philosophy and Ian Hacking’s Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy?.

If (b), then knock yourself out, just remember that they are ­technical, which means it will be difficult to understand them without understanding what analytic philosophy is up to. Thankfully, my answer to (c) suggests that PMN does that for you along the way, which it does, but, in my experience, it is still difficult to get into. PMN was definitely not the first thing I read.

If (a), then oddly enough I don’t think reading PMN is the best place to start unless you already understand some technical, analytic philosophy. What this means is that, if you want to read back into Rorty, start further back, not with PMN—again, unless you already understand some analytic philosophy. I seem to be repeating this a lot, but you won’t understand why until you try getting into technical analytic philosophy. I didn’t find it easy. I still don't find it easy. I still don't understand it and I still don't like it. God, I'm reading a paper right now by Michael Williams, one of Rorty's former students, and it's about Davidson and it's all like "Convention-T" and "if and only if" and some other incomprehensible words all strung together.

My advice for amateurs looking for a way into Rorty’s old stuff is his three papers of 1961, pretty much the first things he ever wrote: “Recent Metaphilosophy”, “The Limits of Reductionism”, and “Pragmatism, Categories, and Language”. The last is technical, but if I remember correctly it’s readable and a great lead on a number of issues. Aside from them, there’s no better entry point for Rorty’s old stuff then the heavily anthologized “Mind-Body Identity, Privacy, and Categories” of 1965 which is the paper that made Rorty’s name.

If you want to read PMN, or back into his corpus, my advice is to read CP’s “Is There a Problem about Fictional Discourse?” and the volume's large Introduction as a litmus test. If you can read the former, you’re good to go. If you can only read the latter, then you’re almost ready and could give it a run. But if you still can’t get into PMN, try reading the beginning of Richard Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. That book parallel’s PMN and Rorty and Bernstein disagree on very little. The latter half of the book has more to do with Continental philosophers than analytic, but the first half is about analytic philosophy of science which may help gear one into the terminology. Another outlet is some of Hilary Putnam’s later work. I’ve suggested The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy before, but there is also Putnam’s Reason, Truth, and History. I haven’t spent a lot of time with that book, but it sees Putnam at his closest to Rorty and it even suggests that you can read the last half before the first if you aren’t acclimated to technical philosophy.

Okay, I’ll close with three more essays. The first is the best about Dewey, the second the best about Derrida, and the third is an important essay about education.

13. “Dewey Between Hegel and Darwin” in Truth and Progress
14. “Deconstruction and Circumvention” in EHO
15. “Education as Socialization and as Individuation” in PSH