Monday, October 23, 2006

Dewey, Pirsig, Rorty, or How I Convinced an Entire Generation of Pirsigians that Rorty is the Devil: An Ode to David Buchanan

A little background: When I fell in love with Pirsig, it was for all the wrong reasons. Well, maybe not all the reasons were wrong, but I see much more clearly now that the biggest reason was because reading and liking him would piss off my teachers. Or, at least that's what I imagined. After all, it was my Phil 101 teacher, the petite, lithe, dancer extraordinaire, Kay Picart, who (re)introduced me to Pirsig. Reading Pirsig was more fun than Plato or Nietzsche, let alone Sartre or Russell (and god forbid, Heidegger), so when it came time to write a final paper for my Contemporary Philosophy class, I chose Pirsig and dove into Lila. And Pirsig told me that academic philosophers hate him. And lo' and behold, when I told my teacher (who, unlike Picart, shall remain nameless, though largely because she was forgettable and forgotten) that I wanted to write on Bob, she said that I should write a comparison between Pirsig and someone else more established. The Man was holdin' me down, a feeling I then transferred to Pirsig. The Man was holdin' Pirsig down. And really--neither of us were being held down.

Having aged a bit since then, I think it was quite nice that my teacher should even have let me write about Pirsig at all. And, more extraordinarily still, that my Existentialism teacher, Edward Beach, should not hold it against me when I turned a 10-12 page final paper into a 20 page monstrosity that contained far more excursus on one Robert Pirsig than one would expect in a paper on Albert Camus (though its not as if he even had any idea it was coming down the pike; he didn't "let" me, I just did it). I have a much greater appreciation for the role of the teacher these days, and sometimes kids just have to be reigned in. In the old days, I would've been cuffed up side the head, and I probably would've deserved it.

I think it was a total quirk of fate, a complete accident, that led to my obsession with Robert Pirsig. I read Pirsig saying he's being ignored and reviled by the institution, and then I immediately "see" first hand his backhand treatment. Being something of an outsider myself (a feeling that is itself paradoxically balanced by what you might call my cultural traditionalism), my mind latched on to this. Pirsig's philosophy inflammed my mind and I began the journey that has led me here. Before I became literally here, at this little blogspot I call my own, my obsession and meanderings in thought were housed by That website is dedicated to Robert Pirsig, and anybody who lasts any length of time at its discussion groups is in some way obsessed with Pirsig.

Now, if Pirsig had been a putz, then clearly I wouldn't still be obsessed. But Pirsig isn't a putz, though I now see that he isn't everything I wanted him to be. Pirsig was a useful halfway point, a stepping stone, between the way I naively saw philosophy then and the way I see it now. As I see it now, Pirsig was a useful mix of old-school traditional style philosophy, the kind that dealt in big concepts and revolutionary changes, the kind that kids think of when they think of philosophy and Plato and Nietzsche, and the kind of pragmatic, ironic philosophy that makes fun of Plato and Nietzsche.

It is that kind of talk right there, of course, which has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years at When I started evolving from Pirsigian monotheism into a more polytheistic, open-ended pantheon, I started making noise about this movement. And because everybody already talked about Pirsig, I began to talk about my new hero, Richard Rorty. And I talked a lot about him because I thought he could help us, all of us, in our shared desires of extending Pirsigian philosophy.

That was my mistake. Granted we should all talk about Pirsig at But is it necessary that everybody be as excited about Rorty as I am? Granted he might yet be of interest, but I made a huge error in judgment in my angle of presentation: I criticized Robert Pirsig. A lot. For a long time. In the end, it was totally predictable. What led me to latch on to Pirsig is likely the same thing that led me to latch on to Rorty: I was bucking the establishment. I had illusions of grandeur that I was pissing off academia by writing about Pirsig, and now that there was a new establishment in my town, one fairly sedimented audience, I proceeded to piss them off.

But at, this was a little less than a complete illusion. I mean, on the one hand, who was I, a barely twenty undergrad at a minor, piss-ant state school in Wisconsin, going to piss off in academia? I didn't even know who they were (and that's the first sign that you're making up your enemy). But the ruckus I've caused off and on over the years at is a little more real and evident. Which isn't to say that I still don't have an overdramatization streak that extends to this very moment (just take a look at the title). I may have the memory of an elephant, but most people at forget all too quickly who was raining fire and brimstone a week ago if they're no longer writing. Such is the way these things are, and it's just as well for the discussion group, better in fact. Less anxiety about being the first to write about whatever. Let's you feel like a pioneer, of which, sadly though predictably, I wasn't even one of (though it's a trait Pirsig's commentators share with Pirsig). So, grant the fact that I'm probably indulging in a little hyperbole and just keep your saltshaker around.

Back to my "a little background" story which is supposed to be a small preface before I get to some actual philosophy: I made the mistake of criticizing Pirsig. That, of course, as any rhetorically sane person will tell you, is not a mistake. And yet on the other hand, Aristotle did tell us to know our audiences if you hope for any legitimate shot of being heard fairly. My audience, surprise, surprise, was a lot like me: Pirsig fanatics (or, "enthusiasts", to put it more politely) whose lives rose and set with ZMM and Lila and, most importantly, had an incorrigible cynicism, distrust, and almost preternatural revulsion for academia. They were outsiders. That's why they were there and not in universitity departments. You don't go into a Catholic Church and start badmouthing God and neither do you go to and describe yourself as a "fallen Pirsigian priest". On the one hand, I do think I wasn't treated fairly or understood, but in their defense, I was a little punchy. It would have just been plain smarter to sing the praises of Pirsig and Rorty together, in harmony, for a while before pointing out where I think there are some discordant notes. But no, I seemed pretty eager to kill my intellectual father at the altar of my new one.

Because I started by adopting a critical stance towards Pirsig in my post-Rortyan years, it became almost impossible to take any other stance. Every time I might open my mouth, I was taken to be a heretic. Rightly or wrongly, the rest is history. As I grew, though, particularly at those times when I was away from the hustle and bustle of, I began to see the error in my first, overly enthusiastic steps as a pragmatist. I saw why people reacted so vehemently, I saw where my original writings went askew. In moments of correction, though, my original sin was never fully forgiven. Rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, I almost single-handedly gave Rorty a bad name at the discussion groups.

Thank God for short memories, right? Well, there are others who have longer memories. And those are my main interlocutors. What prompted this reflection was a letter from one of my most outspoken critics at, David Buchanan. David has taken up the study of pragmatism, particularly Dewey, and he has been pleasantly surprised at how much better he likes Dewey through the eyes of his professor, David L. Hildebrand, than through the eyes of Rorty (which are then filtered through my eyes). He is particularly excited by the fact that Hildebrand is critical of Rorty, giving voice to the same things he's been critical of me for over the years. So David invited me to comment on one of Prof. Hildebrand's short pieces about Rorty available at his website.

The paper is a short, succinct summary of things Hildebrand has expanded on elsewhere in his retreat from Rorty and it does sound like the things David and others have been telling me for years. But I still can't see my way around it. Hildebrand does a pretty good job of summarizing Rorty up and notes, more or less correctly, the sides of Rorty that would seemingly get in the way (for instance, what he calls Rorty's theoretical approach). I'm just not at all sure they do.

On the face of it, it all revolves around this term “experience.” I'm still not sure what people who dislike Rorty and love Dewey/Pirsig think it is. Take one example from the second page. Hildebrand says, “Linguistic pragmatism, then, eschews philosophical terms that refer to non-linguistic entities or effects.” This gives me a queer feeling because I feel like I'm being led into a trap. On the one hand, do I agree because the specifically analytic notion of “reference” never panned out (which is one reason the correspondence theory of truth can’t get off the ground)? Or do I disagree, noting that Rorty has no trouble with the word “rock”?

On the one hand, Hildebrand does specifically say "philosophical terms," which leads me to think he is talking about the whole reference problem. But what's the problem with that? After all, do a lot of people have "rock" as a central term in their specifically philosophical vocabulary? On the other hand, however, why would Hildebrand reference "non-linguistic entities or events" unless he was talking about rocks, which is the constant complaint about linguistic pragmatism--its solipsism by (only slightly) other means. But I've never been able to wrap my head around that complaint. Rorty isn't saying that we shouldn’t use words that don't refer, or even that words don't refer at all--all words refer to something.

The trouble was when philosophers tried to isolate one half of our language, the half that referred to non-linguistic entities (like "rock"), from the other half of our language, the half that only referred to other linguistic entities (like "good"). (I should add that that example isn't the only attempt to isolate language into types, just one example of isolation.) These philosophers then set up one side as "really referring" or some such better, or more assured, relation. Classic representationalism. On this formulation of Rorty's point, linguistic pragmatism isn't suggesting that we get rid of reference, its simply suggesting that we stop trying to figure out when we are referring or not--its pretty obvious we are always referring.

The "reference problem" is something that distracted positivists and we can use their example to see how this invidious distinction is created. For early positivists following the Vienna Circle, particularly Rudolph Carnap, propositions were broken into three different groups: analytic, cognitively meaningful, and cognitively meaningless (or emotive). Analytic propositions were those true by definition, i.e. they only referred to other language, the classic being "All bachelors are single." All non-analytic statements were then taken through the verifiability test: if they can be empirically verified, they are meaningful, if not, then not. Rocks yes, morals no (hence ethical emotivism). The positivists did this in part because they were a little tired of all the wide-ranging, completely unarguable metaphysical speculation. They wanted some results, like the sciences. This is why Carnap, and Quine for that matter, hated Heidegger.

This all fell apart for the positivists, of course, when you ask if the verifiability criterion for meaningfulness is itself verifiable. It is obviously not true by definition, but neither is it empirically true according to the definition of empirical that they were using. That is, of course, where Pirsig enters to hammer on how everything is empirical, i.e. experience. Blowing that door open, however, also blows many of the other walls on positivism off. (For more on verificationism, see my "Verificationism and the Shibboleth Problem".)

The reference problem comes in when you try to save the idea of empirical verification as a criterion for truth (something that Pirsig flirts with in his list of criteria for truth). How do you know your words are hooking up properly and accurately to non-language so that you know your statement "there is a rock" is empirically true as opposed to something less empirically true, like analytic statements? For common sense, asking the question just seems plain stupid, but for hi-tech analytic philosophy it became a major problem. The only reason they kept fighting about it, and using increasingly sophisticated, complicated, and remote tools and jargon, is because they wanted to save the correspondence theory of truth. They wanted to say that science (and rocks) are made true by something "out there" (because they obviously and commonsensically do) whereas morality and values are not (because it is not at all obvious what commonsensically “out there” “good” would correspond to). They expanded from the trivial sense that "there is a rock" is made true by the fact that there is a rock in front of me (which I can point to) to an invidious distinction between facts and values. This is where Pirsig steps in again. Pirsig did see presciently that knocking down the empirical/non-empirical distinction down also knocks the fact/value distinction--experience = reality = value. It should excite Pirsigians to hear Dewey say that reality is itself an evaulative term.

Once we free ourselves from representationalism, we can get along quite fine with the trivial sense in which "there is a rock" corresponds to the rock (or is isomorphic with the rock, as one of the hi-tech tools would have it). Rorty admitted as much many years ago, though people who fear the loss of representationalism still take his long-ago titled paper "The World Well Lost" (which even by the early 80s he thought was misleading) too seriously and think he's saying there's nothing at all out there, mysteriously or trivially, that we need pay attention to.

This is why I've probably done a great disservice to Rorty during my first year or two talking about him at I understand why people like Platt Holden or the more recent Ham Priday don't like Rorty. They show all the reaction traits of representationalists, and are even explicit about it sometimes. But with David and Anthony McWatt, I think I've mislead them into a poorer image than need be. Anthony has usually harped most on Rorty's political philosophy, but I might be willing to say that that's a separate beast than his post-linguistic antirepresentationalism (besides which, I’m sure his image of Rorty was gained elsewhere). I've never been quite sure what I did that turned so many people off about it--no, wait, all that "language, not experience" talk.

Well, I really think it’s not as big a deal as I or anybody else has made it. What I think reading Rorty can do for pragmatist-leaners of all strips is give a number of argumentative tools that are useful in puncturing representationalism. I remember when I squabbled with Paul Turner for a while about Rorty some time ago. I think what happened is that he left for a while, read some Rorty away from my distracting taint, and came to his own appreciation for him. If you look at his blog, he considers Rorty and Pirsig to be two of his philosophical heroes. I think the big thing he gained was a bunch of tools. Stuff he doesn't like, he disregards.

Another way of getting at what I think makes many disgruntled with Rorty is taking the footnote that occurs directly before the line I quoted above from Hildebrand’s paper. In footnote five, Hildebrand quotes Rorty in response to Hartshorne (found in Rorty & Pragmatism):

"Because I think of the enrichment of language as the only way to enrich experience, and because I think that language has no transcendental limits, I think of experience as potentially infinitely enrichable."

Hildebrand himself emphasizes with italics this portion of Rorty, but does not comment any further. However, I can almost preternaturally sense what, I would guess, raised hackles on Hildebrand. Rorty says that language is the only way to enrich experience. Rorty's just plain wrong here. But as far as I can tell, it’s more like he misspoke than he was repeating for the 100th time a fundamental plank in neopragmatism. Who knows what new non-linguistic items we will create in the future that will expand and enrich experience? New metals, materials, activities, drugs—whatever. The invention of the activity of surfing expanded our experience over and against the invention of the word "surfing," which also then expanded our experience. There is nothing in Rorty's philosophy, as far as I can tell, that would necessitate the thesis that language is the only way to enrich experience. The thesis is obviously false on its face. Rorty's emphasis in this passage, and the part that is both indispensable to Rorty's philosophy and, as far as I've ever been able to tell, agreeable to Deweyans and Pirsigians alike, is the notion that experience is "potentially infinitely enrichable." I think everyone who likes Rorty or Dewey or Pirsig can get behind that.

What I think lays at the heart of Hildebrand's criticisms, which leads him to say (what I would call) quasi-dubious things about Rorty's philosophy (though as I suggested before, Hildebrand is refreshingly clean, fair, and agreeable in this paper, much more so than many, many I've read on Rorty) is his distinction between the "theoretical" and the "practical". Now, things get pretty hairy and nuanced at this point, and I don't think I have the time or energy or experience to get it right. But I would like to say this: I think we need to keep his distinction between Rorty's (supposed) theoretical approach to philosophy and Dewey's (supposed) practical approach distinct from his distinction between "reflective" and "pre-reflective". Hildebrand, following Dewey, raises this distinction, but I get the impression that people kinda' conflate the two: that because Rorty does (what we are calling) "theoretical" philosophy, he ignores the "pre-reflective". Hildebrand never does explicitly pull those two sets of distinctions together (I think wisely), but if he doesn't, then it isn't at all clear what the problem with Rorty's approach to philosophy is. (For more on what I currently think of "pre-reflective", see my "Dynamic Quality as Pre-Intellectual Experience".)

Many people have criticized Rorty's approach, some fairly, most not so much. What I think people misunderstand about Rorty's approach is that it isn't exclusive. There can be many different approaches. Whatever this "theoretical approach" is that Rorty's engaged in (diagnosis of and elaboration of these differences being the hairy part and not something I have time to pursue currently), there is nothing in Rorty's writing that suggests that there is a right or wrong way to do philosophy--there is no first philosophy that all must pass through (as Descartes saw epistemology and Michael Dummett saw philosophy of language). There are only more and less efficacious and useful ways of doing philosophy for various particular things. Are Rorty's writings always the most efficacious and useful according to his own philosophy's lights? No. That's the part many people can't wrap their heads around. There are many things that Rorty leaves untouched. Rorty has always remained modest and always been surprised by those who attribtute to him prophetic or revolutionary sight, or some such thing. Many people, however, seem to think that the truth of, say, antirepresentationalism stands or falls on its espousers ability to say something about everything. Rorty, on the other hand, doesn't think he's equipped to be able to do everything. He writes about philosophy. He sometimes writes about politics, but even then most of that is advocation of the cool things someone else has said better in the hopes that he can turn a few people on to the other writer.

In his letter to me, David repeats an often applied diagnosis, one Rorty has acknowledged in a certain way: Rorty is a broken-hearted positivist. I think one of the bad impressions that I may have given (and that Rorty has regretted giving himself) is that, as David also says of Rorty, "the failure of the positivistic project is central in such a way that it changes everything about philosophy". It is a big deal for a certain kind of philosophy (the post-Cartesian "epistemology industry," as Dewey called it, and all the subsidiaries who work in its shadow), but philosophy is one of those things where there is always more than any particular, arbitrarily demarcated section of it (remember Pirsig's advice from Lila that Pirsig sometimes forgets: never define philosophy). Rorty's past works feed that image whenever he said something to the effect of "the linguistic turn was the greatest thing to ever happen to philosophy." Hildebrand picked out a quote like that in his paper: “By focusing our attention on the relation between language and the rest of the world rather than between experience and nature, post-positivistic analytic philosophy was able to make a more radical break with the philosophical tradition.” (from Rorty’s “Dewey’s Metaphysics”) Rorty regrets to a certain extent saying things like that now.

It is instructive to pick up the reprint of his famous anthology, The Linguistic Turn, and read the postscripts to it. The intro to the anthology is gigantic, judicious and extremely informative on what analytics thought of themselves at that period (reading it is as good as most classes on positivism). He says in it, though, that:
Linguistic philosophy, over the last thirty years, has succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition, from Parmenides through Descartes and Hume to Bradley and Whitehead, on the defensive. It has done so by a careful and thorough scrutiny of the ways in which traditional philosophers have used language in the formulation of their problems. This achievement is sufficient to place this period among the great ages of the history of philosophy.
In the "Ten Years Later" postscript, he talks less enthusiastically about analytic philosophy (he was writing PMN, the book analytics hate, at that time). But in the "Twenty-five Years Later" postscript, he says “What I find most striking about my 1965 essay is how seriously I took the phenomenon of the ‘linguistic turn,’ how portentous it then seemed to me. I am startled, embarrassed, and amused to reread the [above] passage…. That last sentence now strikes me as merely the attempt of a thirty-three-year-old philosopher to convince himself that he had had the luck to be born at the right time….” Or, “Er, yeah, ya’ know when I said linguistic philosophy was better than sliced bread? Yeeeah, that was a little overboard, wasn’t it?”

What I suggest what one does with all those passages where he lauds the linguistic turn is to read them as saying, "the linguistic turn was good for academic philosophy because it has led them to more and more doubt representationalism" (which we can see by the renaissance of pragmatism). There isn't any necessary reason for this to have happened. Becoming post-linguistic doesn't give you necessarily a better philosophy, nor does it necessarily make you immediately more predisposed to pragmatism. Many of the doctrines pragmatists call their own, for instance holism, were precursored by philosophers who didn’t think all that much about language.

Saying that, though, I do tend to agree with Rorty that antirepresentationalism does seem less counterintuitively when stated in "linguistic terms," or, as Hildbrand quotes him, “‘Language’ is a more suitable notion than ‘experience’ for saying the holistic and anti-foundational things which James and Dewey had wanted to say.” Again, “suitable” is perhaps the wrong word, but the point is that it really doesn't matter which notion we use. I suggest we read those comments as historical comments about the way things have turned out and progressed, not as statements about where we should necessarily go or how we should necessarily do things. Its philosophy: there are all sorts of things we can do and still stay out of the way of representationalism.

So when David defines radical empiricism in his letter as "there is no reality outside of experience AND that there is no good reason to exclude any kind of experience from an account of reality," I can only concur and say that Dewey, James, Pirsig, and Rorty would all fall into place, too. I think there are two things that bug Pirsigians about Rorty in this regard. One, he doesn't talk about mysticism, which Pirsig is quite focused. In this regard, the answer I've been trying to forward over the years is that Rorty isn't denying the empirical nature of mystical experience. He just doesn't have anything to say about it. He isn't offering a general account of reality, he's giving arguments against representationalism (which is very pervasive, far more than some think, though that's probably a debatable point). Like I said before, there are a lot more different kinds of philosophy than the kind Rorty and academics do and Rorty considers the function he plays is as an underlaborer (an image pioneered by Locke and used a lot by Dewey, and even by Pirsig at the beginning of ZMM) for clearing out all the arbitrary divisions that keep out stuff like mysticism. Its kinda' like Rorty engages the academics on the behalf of mystics (and others), though not as a mystic. He wants people to stop thinking that philosophy looks like this and not like anything else. It is possible that Rorty doesn’t find mysticism interesting, but surely it doesn’t follow that the effect is that he denies its possibility. If one can accept the idea of beer and not become a beer drinker, then one can find beer uninteresting and still find a place for it in their account of reality.

The second thing that I think gives Pirsigians a bad taste about Rorty is the fact that Rorty doesn't give a general account of reality. They see Rorty suggesting that Dewey's hankering after a general account of reality and experience in Experience and Nature is bad metaphysics and, because they like that kind of thing (which is what Pirsig does), they get the feeling that Rorty's doing something bad. What I want to suggest is that giving an "account of reality" is necessarily a never-ending task if one accepts what I suggested all pragmatists can get behind—experience is infinitely expandable. And if that's the case, than a non-exclusionary "account of reality" will look less and less like a series of propositions about reality and more and more like a series of history books that keeps adding volumes. If there is "no good reason to exclude any kind of experience from an account of reality," then because there will always be the open-endness of experience, there will always be the possibility of new kinds of experience. That means that a truly full "account" will look less like something you can do generally and more like something you need to stay in the particular about. That, I think, lays at the heart of Rorty's suspicions about Dewey's Experience and Nature, which is where most of Rorty's talk against the philosophical concept of "experience" comes from (and even Dewey later in life distanced himself from that book). And remember: it’s just about "experience" as a philosophical concept. He just finds it personally easier to stay away from it when attacking representationalism.

This aversion of the general is also what keeps me from sidling up easily to David’s sometimes virulent anti-theism. I've never been quite able to put my head around it, how one can stay pragmatist and not think that James was right in "The Will to Believe". Don't get me wrong: when it comes to politics, screw Bush, Robertson, and Fatwell. But when it comes to individual believers, and not politics and institutions, I have trouble dissociating what Christians would call an "experience of God" from what mystics would call a "mystical experience". I'm not saying they're totally interchangeable terms, that what Buddhists call Enlightenment, Christians call God. What I am saying, however, is that when we consider that what gets mystical experience in the door of radical empiricism is that it is reported as happening (because that is exactly what gets every experience in the door, from rocks to moral disgust), then I'm not sure how "experience of God" gets booted, thus making theism look stupid and making one an anti-theist as opposed to anti-Christian Coalition or anti-clerical (which is what Rorty has started to call himself in the last six or seven years). (For some other takes on mysticism and atheism, see my "What is Enlightenment?" and "How is Atheism a Religion?".)

Granted the above contains some possibly disputed points (like "reporting" being the door to radical empiricism) which can be discussed, but the simpler question is simply, "How can we say 'experience of God' has never happened and 'mystical experience' has?" As far as I can tell, when I go to write up my account of reality, I'll have to include both. I haven't experienced either, but other people have and I have no good reason to exclude them from my account.

One thing I really wish I could persuade people like David and Pirsig in doing is dropping talk about language's inability to capture an experience. I know what is being driven at: "beer" is not the same thing as a beer. However, I still think the idea that language cannot ever capture experience is the flip side of representationalism's idea that it can sometimes. What we ought to do is just drop the idea that it is in the capturing business. David and I have had a long conversation about this exact thing, and it spurred me on to what I consider some of my best writing, but as I said then, language is not a pirate. (See my "Language, SOM, and the Pathos of Distance".) I think that that generalization from the trivial and acceptable point that "beer" is not the same as a beer is the same kind of mistake that I suggested the representationlists made in generalizing from the trivial sense in which "there is a rock" corresponds to a rock to a full-blown correspondence theory of truth. I think both our flip-sides of each other and I think both are best left behind. Just as Rorty seems to be captivated by language, I think Pirsigians look like their captivated by its flip-side—not-language. We need to stop being enchanted by either notion. The movement from theoria to praxis, as Deweyans and Pirsigians might point out, doesn't mean we leave language behind or our ignoring it. But I think it should be stressed that it doesn't have anything to do with language at all—which is exactly what I take the point with the movement to be: we're no longer captivated by its image, pro or con. We don't occupy our time with thinking about the Forms, or God, or the mind, or language isolated from everything else. Instead we think about our practices in a society with other people. Those practices may make reference to any or all of the above, but the above are not in isolation from the practices that reference them.To bring it around again to Hildebrand, the distinctions between “theoretical/practical” and “reflective/pre-reflective” may lay at the heart of the dispute over "experience" as a philosophical term, the dispute between Deweyans and Rortyans. Is there a correct way of doing philosophy? What is theoretical philosophy as opposed to practical philosophy, and why is theoretical philosophy banned, or at least displaced? How does the notion of “pre-reflective” play into this?

I see two probable directions: either one defines "experience" as something less than completely synonymous with reality so that you can oppose experience to something that is not-experience and argue (initially plausibly given the baggage of the terms) that practical philosophy deals with experience (and is therefore good) and theoretical philosophy does not (and is therefore bad and disengaged), or one defines "experience" as totally synonymous with reality, which effectively makes everything an experience, everything a practical activity—theoretical philosophy as much as any other kind of philosophy. If the first direction, it would be easy to make Rorty look bad, but then it would be hard to justify the places in Dewey and Pirsig that suggest the second direction. If the second direction, then one has effectively disarmed themselves of the weapons they were using (the theoretical/practical distinction so conceived) and a new weapon must be taken up.

The first direction silently makes the leap from "experience" to "non-linguistic entities" which Hildebrand made in his paper, the same leap I silently left uncovered at the very beginning of my remarks about Hildebrand. The second direction says that talking and language is just one more facet of experience. Until somebody explicates the connection between experience and non-linguistic entities, one which does not hold between experience and linguistic entities and finally takes a stand and says that talking, reading, thinking, and language is not an experience, then Dewey and Deweyans like Hildebrand, Sleeper, Margolis, McDermott, etc., look like they're waffling between two definitions of experience, dipping into both, and claiming all the advantages and none of the disadvantages.


This overlong meditation has functioned as something of a brief rejoinder to Hildebrand, a kind of elaboration on the continuities and discontinuities between Dewey, Pirsig, and Rorty, a furthering of my conversation with David, and as a personal apology to David and all others who despise Rorty because of me. No one should despise another because of what somebody else has said about them and I regret the actions that may have led anyone to a certain, despicable impression. One should be able to read Rorty, or anyone for that matter, without the persistent voice of another in their ear. Rorty should rise and fall on his own merits, not my meager ones.

David said to me in his letter that our conversations were helpful in preparing him for his return to academia. Indeed, our conversations have been an integral element in my own evolution. I thank David for his constant criticism. Though our conversations were often heated, unruly, and belligerently antagonistic, it is certainly an obvious and undeniable fact that he has been the direct impetus for many of the views I've developed, elaborated, and now hold. We may not agree, but David has certainly pushed me to greater and greater levels of writing.


  1. Good stuff. But a) you know what I think about 'experience'; b) there is a response to your atheism essay brewing, but it'll come after the weekend.

    You're remarkably charitable.

    Also: the social level is the language game.

  2. Hi Matt,
    Most teachers, myself excluded, are stuck in SOM. I don't think they deserve any other excuse. I promise to come back and read it thru completely when I have a few hours of free time. Happy Halloween, by the way.

  3. I echo Sam's sentiment on your charity to the people arguing against you.

    Every time you write a bit more about Rorty I think I understand a bit more. I've never been "anti" Rorty, just usure of what he was actually saying that was particularly original. I like your points about his thoughts evolving, a healthy sign, and the problem of being criticised for somethig he wasn't actually trying to describe anyway. I know the problem.

    A propos my previous comment on the pervious post ... the atheist stuff ... this quote is directly relevant.
    "what Buddhists call Enlightenment, Christians call God" That was almost my summary of what the Archbishop was actually saying ... little more. "faith as “sense-making intellect”, and god as that “sense”" He even used the word "bliss" earlier.

  4. Greetings,

    Matt, your essay here seems to divide into two parts with the following as the dividing line:

    “This all fell apart for the positivists, of course, when you ask if the verifiability criterion for meaningfulness is itself verifiable. It is obviously not true by definition, but neither is it empirically true according to the definition of empirical that they were using.”

    This is indeed the received wisdom and your ‘of course’ shows just how ingrained it has become. The fact that I disagree with it probably goes some way to indicating why I found the second half of your essay frustrating.

    Rorty and I suggest you, make the mistake of seeing Logical Positivism as based on a foundationalist epistemology in the sense of providing the foundation for science, (see Rorty, Philosophy and Mirror of Nature – 1979 – Princeton – pp59, 332-333), yet this is in fact the opposite of the truth. See, for example, Schlick, The Philosophical Significance of Einstein’s Relativity – 1915 – pg153, which reads:

    “It is primarily or even exclusively the principles of the exact sciences that are of major philosophical importance, for the simple reason that in these disciplines alone do we find the foundations so firm and steeply defined that a change in them . . . can influence our world view.”

    This is standard Logical Positivism which sees itself as a logical analysis of science and not a foundation of science. The verification principle, seen under this light, is therefore not an empirical truth claim but a recommendation for the use of language. To put it another way, science underpins the verification principle, not the other way around. As it is not a truth claim, it is obviously not open to verification.

    All the best,


  5. I appreciate your comments Struan. I can agree that I was spouting received wisdom, but I would beg forgiveness for simplifying. It was a conscious choice to move from a certain understanding and follow that out.

    In objecting to the received wisdom, I can follow you most of the way, if not the whole way. I'm not entirely sure that there were no foundationalists who identified as logical positivists, but I can certainly agree that postitivism did evolve after the attacks on some of their central principles, for instance Carnap's response in "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology" (which can essentially be seen as a move towards pragmatism).

    As Rorty sees it, it is always possible to repair a philosophical position--just add on more epicycles. Rorty's preoccupation with this occurence, where philosophical positions never seem to argumentatively die but simply become forsaken out of boredom or lack of ingenuity or lack of energy to do the repair, is an important background factor in his movement from his early writings to his later.

    It is often suggested that Rorty construes, rightly or wrongly, everybody as a foundationalist. While I'm not sure that's exactly true, the more important point behind Rorty's attack in, say, PMN (something he doesn't always bring out explicitly enough) is that it is unclear what is interesting or useful in analytic philosophy if it is not so construed. If not some project of foundationalism (or something equally interesting and controversial), then what are you doing?

    The reply of making language use recommendations is significant. Rorty makes that formulation of analytic philosophy in his introduction to The Linguistic Turn. But the question becomes, why does science need analytic philosophy, why does it need a "logical analysis"? This leads to the empirical question of, how many scientists read analytic journals? How many are effected by anything that goes on in analytic philosophy? My suspicion is that scientists aren't really interested or find useful stuff that goes on in philosophy of science. If that's the case, then you are naturally drawn to the question of "What are we doing? How do we justify what we are doing?"

  6. Hey Matt:

    I do not despise Rorty because of you. You brought him to my attention, but he is easy to despise even without any help from you. You use a Rorty quote that I can agree with almost entirely. He said, "the failure of the positivisitic project is central in such a way that it changes everything about philosophy". If the last word were changed to "positivism" then I'd agree completely. The failure of the positivistic project changed everything about positivism. This is why I characterize him as a broken-hearted positivist. Apparently, he believed in it so much that its failure meant the failure of all philosophy since Plato. Sorry, but I think that is ridiculous.

    David Buchanan

  7. Hey Matt:

    Thanks to my new computer I could listen to your voice. Sorry to tell you this, but you sound a lot like me. I grew up in Michigan so we even have a similar accent. Your sense of humor was equally charming. And hilarous too. Do some more of that, will you?

    Yep, its offical. I wanna buy you a gallon of beer. I'm also thinking of starting a blog and naming it after myself. Then maybe you can hear my voice too. Naturally, I'll try to outdo you by plastering pictures of myself all over the damn thing. Ha! Arrogant pricks of the world unite!

    Seriously, 'twas charming as hell.

  8. Thank you, Dave, I appreciate that. Oh, the things I had planned with the audio thing.... They just never materialized. Maybe with more time on my hands I'll get back to some more of those little audio sketches.

    And you better hurry up with the blog. Now that my girlfriend's around, being as she's the one that knows how to work a digital camera and all that junk, you can be sure there'll be more pictures. As my one-time history professor, John Sharpless, once said about the Baby Boomers, it's all about me--me, me, me.

    Oh, and I never remembered getting the comment you sent in November, or at least I never said anything about it. What I can say about the Rorty quote is that you are right in a way, it didn't change everything about philosophy. In Rorty's earlier period, he's much more apt to say such things, and they are just too general. He's much less likely since the 90s to say such things.

    What Rorty should have said is that the failure of positivism was important because it changed some things about philosophy, particularly academic, professional philosophy. There are many dialectical threads that extend out from Socrates, and some that we might want to call philosophy that don't even originate with him (take Eastern philosophy), but one of those dialectical threads, or maybe a couple, the ones that extend from Plato's Theory of the Forms and his notion of dialectic, were changed after the failure of positivism, which in Rorty's narrative had its origins in those threads.

    The thread can be named many things, but some of them are the usual pragmatist enemies, essentialism, foundationalism, universalism. Pirsig added another name, called it SOM. The idea is that philosophy that centered itself on epistemology, taken to mean the enterprise of answering the skeptic (which is not, I take it, how you might define that term), has become bankrupt--which we agree on. And I agree that there are a lot of things that have been written that can have the residue cleaned off, or weren't even touching it, and made use of and praised.

    Someday we will have to get that drink. But if its alright with you, I like foo-foo drinks, particularly screwdrivers. I'll get you a keg of New Glarus Spotted Cow if you bring a gallon Grey Goose (and maybe some orange juice to take the edge off).

  9. Oh, just for posterity sake, David said above that I quoted Rorty saying, "the failure of the positivistic project is central in such a way that it changes everything about philosophy." And then I repeated, in my reply, that that was a quote from Rorty.

    That's wrong. I was quoting David's characterization of Rorty in one of his letters to me. However, its not a big deal because Rorty has said something to that effect, what I quote above from his anthology The Linguistic Turn, though, as evidence towards my defense of Rorty, he has regretted that sentiment in print, namely in his 25-years-after reflection in the new edition of the anthology. I think it was Putnam who has also used the phrase "Carnapian scorn" to characterize some of Rorty's earlier writings, and Rorty's replied in print that he regrets that tone, too (though not some of the points he was making).

  10. Hi there Matt,

    So you got a blog? I think you told me that once in an email. I don't get on the internet that much these days, and my only access is at work where is a banned domain. At least it used to be, but now I guess I can get on.

    But, you expect me to read all this stuff. Phhewww, Philosophy! It make sme break out in a sweat. I guess that is what was appealing about Rorty, whom you introduced me too, to a non-philosopher. And, also, I suppose that is what makes those who identify as philosophers dismissive of Rorty, meaning his appeal to those like me.

    And David Buchanan? Whom was once my liberal hero at only to become a defacto opponent after he so eagerly dismissed you and your Rorty/Pirsig bricolage. Time heals everything, though and it is nice to see you both are on speaking terms.

    I have to say I sort of just blew on by. I don't think much about MOQ or Pirsig anymore. Not sure if I ever did really. I stopped by while searching for some foundations for my PhD thesis in Economics. I was one of those who was always searching, but never finding. I read through so much material that I never stop for long at one place.

    Anyway, there I was at and immediately I was drawn in by the political arguments between David, Platt and some guy named Roger. Well, I thought I knew a thing or two about politics, but I had yet to experience how nearly everything on the internet eventually breaks down to a political argument. So, I thought what was happening at was special and I stayed a while. Glad I did, because, eventually, long comes Matt and his Rorty.

    Some things stick with you that you read. But mostly everything becomes one jumbled mess. For someone who has never been impressed with foundations (never did get that PhD in Economics, after all that time - I suppose because economic research requires that we begin with some very solid foundations. Anything else, isn't really economics. I suppose this is what made me think of Pirsig) I latched on to what Matt was saying and it has stuck with me.

    But as I have moved on, Pirsig has been left behind, but Matt and Rorty have stuck with me. What I think Matt calls a dialectic argument and the sort of puttering around and taking a little of this and a little of that while listening attentively to our interlocutors (a word I use all the time now, and one I never heard of tell Matt - I read a lot, but I'm not that bright) till we come up with something that is useful and helps us keep puttering to the next stop. I have stopped being an antagonist to my political opponents whom I come across on the internet and instead attempt to seek some common ground for consensus. I owe this all to Matt and Rorty.

    Where I have been since MOQ and Pirsig is a long story of puttering around. I was infatuated with education and the thoughts of John Taylor Gatto for awhile. One of Gatto's villains is Dewey and trying to read Gatto while keeping Rorty in mind was interesting. Then I moved on to Wendell Berry and I suppose I am still suck on Berry because he's the one who finally got me to put aside all of this reading and go plant my garden and begin my transition to being a organic farmer and organizer for community projects in my neck of the woods that have to do with bringing community together and supporting a local and sustainable economy that doesn't rely upon the pecuniary global economy. A huge goal, but one that seems practical when you put Rorty, Gatto and Berry together with all of their emphasis upon hope, love and community. Where Pirsig fits into that I have no fucking clue.

    Anyway, Hello to all of you

    Andy Bahn

  11. After reading the interviews with Pirsig I can see he does not fit in with the idea that hope, love and community can remake the world.

    He calls himself a democrat, but I think he thinks a democrat accomplishes things from having a system that proves that liberal ideas trump conservative ideas - a theory of everything. But, for anyone who has spent any time on we can see that a MOQ can be used by either side or any side to support their position.

    In politics or in the hope for political change that brings a more humane and less cruel world, we have to rely upon humans reaching consensus, however and not on having a system or theory of everything that can prove one idea is more beautiful or more truthful than another.

  12. Hi Matt,

    A few thoughts...

    "Now, if Pirsig had been a putz, then clearly I wouldn't still be obsessed. But Pirsig isn't a putz, though I now see that he isn't everything I wanted him to be. Pirsig was a useful halfway point, a stepping stone, between the way I naively saw philosophy then and the way I see it now. As I see it now, Pirsig was a useful mix of old-school traditional style philosophy, the kind that dealt in big concepts and revolutionary changes, the kind that kids think of when they think of philosophy and Plato and Nietzsche, and the kind of pragmatic, ironic philosophy that makes fun of Plato and Nietzsche."

    That sounds about where I am right now too.

    "It would have just been plain smarter to sing the praises of Pirsig and Rorty together, in harmony, for a while before pointing out where I think there are some discordant notes. But no, I seemed pretty eager to kill my intellectual father at the altar of my new one."


    "Because I think of the enrichment of language as the only way to enrich experience, and because I think that language has no transcendental limits, I think of experience as potentially infinitely enrichable."

    This sounds like one of those slogans that Stout would call wrong on what it explicitly claims ("language as the only way to enrich experience") but right about what it implicitly denies, i.e., any limits on human capacity for self-creation through language use.

  13. Yeah, that's a good point, Leela. It's one of those things that Stout would be like, "Oh, Dick--do you have to make it harder on us, out here, the ones trying to be pragmatists in real life?"

  14. Interesting. The Lanka Sutra stresses the problems of language and does say that "beer" is not the same as beer, but also insists that, without the scriptures, the teachings wouldn't have been transmitted, and thus states that there must be some middle way between total distrust of words, and blind trust in words.


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