Saturday, April 26, 2008

Waiting For More: Gross and Rorty

I thought about being sarcastic and urbane in writing about Neil Gross' new book on Rorty, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, the obvious puns coming to mind, but the thought passed as I came to realize that Gross wrote pretty much the book he had intended to write. It is only partly a biography as Gross intends Rorty to be a case study for what Gross calls the "new sociology of ideas." Having only really heard about the book as the first biography, my expectations were for something like what Ray Monk did for Russell and Wittgenstein, though obviously not enough time had passed for something exactly like it. Given this, let me waste no more time and say upfront that if you are looking for a good biography of Rorty's life, keep waiting. This isn't what you are looking for.

I should confess that I didn't read the book straight through. Most of the book is laid out simply as a biography of Rorty's years up to his exodus from Princeton, and so I jumped to the chapters where might lay hidden answers to the most intriguing episodes of his life: his divorce from Amélie and his tenure as president of the Eastern Division of the APA. I read those with great interest and then trailed back to read the whole thing. The book did give me some interesting new details of his life, but no new insights. If you've had the time and obsession to read almost everything Rorty's ever published (small though that number of persons may be), then Rorty pretty much gives you the same insights to his life and work that Gross thinks he is providing. As I read, I began to suspect that Gross was up to something other than biography because, while providing more than a few details and making judicious use of Rorty's unpublished letters, Gross wasn't developing anything like a classic, biographical narrative.

This suspicion was cleared up handily when, after finishing all the biographical chapters, I went back and read his introduction and then his concluding chapters. In the intro, Gross disabuses the reader of the notion that he is writing a biography centered around any of three types: humanistic, contextualist, or poststructualist. The humanistic approach is the kind Monk wrote, whose "goal is to bring life and work together as part of the project of taking measure of a particular intellectual's life, asking after its significance and broader meaning, with special reference to questions of creativity and virtue, the ethics of intellectual and political engagement, the dilemmas of authenticity, the dangers of corruption and self-aggrandizement, and the value of the ideas themselves." (6) Sad for me, since this strikes me as a great thing to do and an enjoyable thing to read, but fair enough: not humanistic. Check.

Gross' "contextualist approach" is exemplified by intellectual historians like Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock. In these, the intellectual historian is interested in "understanding what [a text's] author was trying to do in writing it: what kinds of argumentative moves she or he was attempting to make, against whom, and with what intended effect." (6-7) As I think of Skinner and Pocock as intellectual historians par excellence, this was also disappointing, for they do the kind of work that brings us down to the nitty gritty of what lost-to-time writers' self-image was, of reminding us of what life used to be like and what these writers were saying to themselves about what they did. What Gross called poststructuralist reminds me of what Rorty called Geistesgeschichte: big sweeping stories of where we were to where we are now. In these stories, we tend to ignore what writers thought they were doing to play out what they did to move us further along whatever path we are choosing to highlight. So--not what Hayden White or Foucault were doing? Fine--but what is Gross doing, then? (I should note that the above is not exactly what Gross meant by "poststructuralist," but he suggests that "concern with historical objectivity" and "belief in the singularity of authorial intentionality" (7) is illusory for them, and these are, not only possibly contentious attributions, but certainly philosophical add-ons, not something that conditions the type of histories they write.)

As I said earlier, Gross thinks of himself as writing a case study for the "new sociology of ideas." This endeavor, apparently, is a search "to uncover the relatively autonomous social logics and dynamics, the underlying mechanisms and processes, that shape and structure life in the various social settings intellectuals inhabit: academic departments, laboratories, disciplinary fields, scholarly networks, and so on." (11) Taking off from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins, this basically sounds to my ears like doing for the humanities what Kuhn and Latour did for the sciences. Which sounds great, though indeed a little different from the other three approaches.

What emits, however, in the course of the investigation are what I can't help but think are commonsensical platitudes about how intellectuals live their lives and do their work. Gross first describes the "explanatory models" that Bourdieu and Collins have laid out before him, which is basically a focus on the social network of rewards and punishment in academia: "Struggling with other academics to win as much intellectual prestige as they can, they typically end up cleaving to theories, positions, and approaches defined as high status...." "On the whole ... ideas serve strategic functions for thinkers, helping to position them in academic hierarchies...." (12) This, itself, smells of a foul reductionism--we can read ideas as tools in the academic marketplace, and sometimes it pays to do so, but nobody except--if we believe Plato--the Sophists self-consciously did so at a general level. Intellectuals, even the evil post-modernists, do not believe and think the things they do simply because it will get them money and fame.

Which isn't to say that this is all Bourdieu and Collins (on Gross' account) are suggesting. Their larger point, I am to understand, is something more like, "People from socially privileged backgrounds are more likely to rise in the academic hierarchy because the ones raising others were also from socially privileged backgrounds." This is more pointed, but this is, again, part of at least a leftist's common sense, and still says nothing exactly about why intellectuals believe the things they do from their own perspective. "From their own perspective" isn't, however, what the sociologists are after--which is fine. They want to explain the mechanisms of an academic community's reproduction of itself. And in this sense, pointing out the advantages of the rich and/or well-networked (only the latter in Rorty's case) is to the point. My problem is that Gross writes that "these theoretical frameworks are useful in explaining aspects of Rorty's life":
"Rorty sought to be more at the center of the disciplinary action and so refashioned himself as an analytic philosopher, working to bring himself to the attention of the analytic community. These efforts proved successful, allowing him to convert what was to be a temporary position at Princeton into a tenure-track post and giving him new network connections that made possible his further ascent in the disciplinary status structure." (13)
All I can think is that, while all basically true enough, this is quite the effort to use some expensive, theoretical tools for obvious, commonsensical junk that everyone already understands. I can just imagine conservatives seeing this as an indictment, because Gross' subject is Rorty, against post-modern, sophistical relativists, but all Gross is saying is that to get tenure, you have to impress the people giving it out. And to do that, you have to talk about what they think it is important to talk about. This doesn't seem insidious to me, as it might to some who haven't really thought much about cultural reproduction, but it also doesn't strike me as something path-breaking. Is the sociology of knowledge really in such a state?

Perhaps it is, and in that case Gross' "new sociology of ideas" would seem much needed, though again very boring on its surface. Gross' major addition is the concept of the "intellectual self-concept" to help combat the aforementioned reductionism and its tendency to flatten out the "richness and complexity of intellectual life," (15) which I take to be a huge understatement. The reason I think so is because of Gross' "central empirical thesis":
"that the shift in Rorty's thought from technically oriented philosopher to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central." (15)
I would certainly agree that there was a shift, and one thing that Gross' digging suggests is that the financial difficulties his parent's struggled during his childhood left an impression on Rorty, which in part explains the energy with which he pursued retooling from, roughly, a metaphysician to an analytic philosopher (and the fact that he was trained by McKeon explains how he could do so without a significant change in his identity as an intellectual). But everyone knows that Rorty suffered a shift of some sort because he did it on an international stage. Gross' thesis is still too reductionistic, and in fact I think it may get Rorty wrong. I think Rorty may indeed have liked having the high status of an "important philosopher" at Princeton, the number one program in the country, but nothing Gross offers as evidence really solidifies 1) status considerations as ever being central and 2) that self-concept struggles didn't guide in a significant way his behavior at all stages.

It seems to me, even after reading Gross' book, that Rorty's search for great ideas, his push for an environment that would help develop better and better ideas, his search for stimulating conversation--this explains the same phenomena Gross is looking at and this version shows continuity through his whole life and it ties to his own expressed views (not only theoretical but, for instance, his comments about why he liked Princeton's graduate students). In explaining why Rorty wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Gross says that Rorty,
"well positioned in a variety of intellectual networks, may have been better able to anticipate what the book's reception would be. In an environment where many humanists were coming to have their doubts about the new rigorism, there would be tremendous interest in a book--particularly one written by an insider--that used 'rigorous' arguments to make a case for why foundationalist versions of analytic philosophy, and by implication its cognates in other fields, were ill conceived. That Rorty may have realized there would be such interest helps explain why he was eager to write the book and, perhaps--with the idea in mind of eventually accumulating status by writing it--why he allowed himself to drift more out of an analytic orbit over the course of the 1970s." (315)
This strikes me as just wrong. In the first case, there was no evidence presented that I read to support that Rorty anticipated PMN's positive reception by non-philosophers, and in fact Rorty's said quite a few times in interviews that it still boggled his mind even years after. In the second, it is possible that Rorty may have thought that the book he was writing might help leverage him into a position outside of Princeton, but I certainly don't think it prompted its writing--when Rorty says he was surprised it's because PMN really is an insider book for insiders, written to continue an insider's conversation.

I don't think I'm squeamish about what many people take to be concerns that cloud truth--money, status, job security--because Rorty had always been so frank about it. The problem is that this kind of supposition on Gross' part just seems to punch up the fact that ideas can't be reduced to social conditions, that whatever the sociology of knowledge is going to be good for, it's not telling us why particular intellectuals make the choices they do, because self-understanding is the whole bit: Gross' introduction of the "self-concept" concept seems to add back in the bits that originally would've allowed it to differentiate itself from the humanist and contextualist approaches. But then all we get are badly written biographies that don't claim to be biographies, but science, and say things with big, shiny new theoretical toys that everybody, being people who are not only familiar with biographies, but live out their own biographies, already knows and understands, and then calls it an advance. It's just scientists doing badly what humanists already do well.

An example: "if an intellectual were to find himself in an institution that celebrated and attempted to foist on him an identity he found noxious, he could make an attempt to exit, do his best to ignore the views of those around him, or even try to change the institution." (280) Gee, really? This is supposed to be a claim that "synthesizes contributions from different lines of social-scientific investigation," (278) but it sounds to me as if he read a lot of boring research and forgot that he didn't himself need to be that boring. It sounds like the classic college freshman conundrum: told to always support my argument, what do I do about commonplaces? So they end up citing articles backing them up on the most obvious of "claims." Normally by the time one graduates, you've figured out what you need support for and what not. But more than a little of Gross' argument seems designed to inaugurate platitudes into a field that you begin to think must have been an absolute desert.

Another example: in explaining Rorty's choice in master's thesis topic, he says,
"The theory of intellectual self-concept helps us better explain the intellectual choice at hand. Rorty's time at Chicago occurred during prime identity formation years in his life course and was a period when he was making the transition from one institutional affiliation to another. The institution with which he had been most closely affiliated as a child and young adolescent--his family--had all the characteristics likely to make it a site of identity formation." (304)
I think the really difficult thing would be to find a family that doesn't have "all the characteristics likely to make it a site of identity formation."

I think my main disappointment with the book was not its argument with other sociologists, but that it seemed so close to saying something interesting. The idea of a self-concept, that an intellectual's self-understanding is centrally important to understanding their work, may be a commonplace to biography, but it is also something that Rorty argued for years was missing from philosophy. Rorty argued for years that lack of an historical sense in philosophy has handicapped its ability to understand what it was doing. Opening up the table of contents and seeing a chapter titled, "The Theory of Intellectual Self-Concept," caused me to think that some sort of interesting combination of Rorty's biography and his work to illustrate a larger point about philosophy being a kind of autobiography was in the offing, but nothing interesting ever appeared.

For all this, I was still satisfied in reading the book because for whatever it lacks in art and new insight, it is still quite capable in supplying the material and arranging it in pattern that, though not new, is still largely right. Gross was able to stay out of the way of his subject and is entirely neutral to the content of Rorty's ideas, and in fact his portrait is quite sympathetic and rebuts a few of the more pernicious views of Rorty floating around (like his relationship to Peirce and Dewey). However, as I mentioned at the outset, most of what Gross supplies can be gained by reading Rorty himself. If you want pretty much the same picture Gross offers, I would recommend his autobiographical "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" in Philosophy and Social Hope and the collected interviews in Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself. One thing Gross does do inadvertently is give us corroborative evidence that Rorty really was being as honest and frank as he seemed to have been all those years.

I was extremely gratified to have run across Bruce Kuklick's review of Gross's book in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Winter 2011, and find that the abstract read: "This review argues that the biographical narrative in Gross’s book is excellent, but that its theory is silly." That is essentially the abstract I would've used, and I find it comforting a heavyweight of American intellectual history agrees with me on pretty much every point I make above. Sometimes in the academic humanities, humanists can feel, in the words of Will Ferrell in Zoolander, like they're taking crazy-pills.


  1. matt, i'd recommend that you check out collins' 'the sociology of philosophies', particularly the opening section. i didn't catch much collins in what you report of gross. his model centers not on the role of material factors (though those are in there, for example in his arguments about the importance of the foundation of institutions for the long-term life of intellectual positions), but on the ritual interaction of face-to-face critical exchanges. success or failure to sustain one's ideas in such an interaction leads to a greater or lesser uh 'energy', which then more or less inclines a participant to devote resources to preparing for the next face-to-face meeting. collins thinks that some properties of the energy-economy of this kind of interaction, together with some properties of social networks, mean, among other things, that the number of leading, viable philosophical positions taken at any one time (in a locale?) will be capped at around 6; and he has ways of modeling historical change in positions as dependent on changes in the networks, say for example that when a school goes under, or its leading participants die, its positions tend to be absorbed (often changing them in the process) by other people in the network. (there are also some observations having to do with those members of networks who do the social management work of connecting people and keeping them in touch.)

    i'd guess that the 'self-concept' stuff comes more from bordieu, maybe from 'homo academicus' or 'pascalian meditations', among other places? so perhaps a point of interest in combining the two is supposed to be that a change like rorty's is apparently hard to explain using a model like collins', but 'self-concept' gives some terms for success or failure (of an intellectual endeavor) at odds with the more basic defend-a-position, attack-positions terms which make a collinsian intellectual successful. (?)

    (and again, 'successful' there should be understood as relatively autonomous to the practice: successful at philosophizing, say, not at securing chairs and heading the apa, though of course those things can also be explained sociologically as attendant on success by the primary criteria of 'philosophical success'.)

  2. I remember when Collins' book first came out. I was, and still am, interested in big, sweeping stories about the course of philosophy and, with his occasional off-hand comments and sometimes entire papers devoted to the actual functioning of the philosophical community, reading Rorty had given me a taste for how the behind the scenes integrates with the stage performances. I remember seeing the book at Barnes & Noble and being fascinated by how huge it was and what it seemed to offer inside its covers. But, for an amateur with limited time and resources, it never proved enticing enough to wade through.

    I had never heard his name mentioned since, so it was a nice surprise to see his name back in my purview. What you say about it seems quite interesting, and I think on the face of it, his idea about face-to-face exchanges being an important meter for this amorphous thing we call "energy" has some good legs to it. I think that idea ties in quite nicely to the Peircean/Deweyan idea of doubt being the fundamental concept that drives inquiry--if you have a lot of doubt about something and that doubt is a concern, then your energy will go up in relieving that doubt.

    Of what little I've come to learn of the sociology of intellectuals, I think my main doubt is that it will ever be very good at individual cases, because being good at that, it seems to me, will always be best done by good, old-fashioned biography. On the other hand, I'm guessing the sociologists would agree and say they are doing something else. Sociology charts social dynamics and the smaller the social unit being examined, the more I imagine the "social" trends into the "psychological," which is a slightly different kettle of fish.

    I'm betting that sociology will always be good at informing biography, but not at replacing it. Explaining why a person, as opposed to people did something is gotta' be biographical because the "Why?" is always fundamentally a self-understanding issue, which sociological and psychological study will always be able to inform, but never replace. I doubt Gross would claim to want to replace humanistic biography, but his case study seems to me to be a lukewarm biography with some awkwardly attached sociological disciplinary work.

    Maybe Gross got caught by impatience, but it seems to me that the same thing could've been accomplished in a long paper which referred to primary materials and, for broader interpretation of those materials, other biographical work. Because his broader interpretations stink when they became attached to his sociological theory-work. When he focused on explaining Rorty, he did an alright job, but whenever he tried explaining Rorty with the gigantic machinery of sociology, things fell apart. Biographical work is like husking an ear of corn by hand that you've picked out of a garden. While sociology's threshers are good at the large fields of corn they normally deal with, they just look silly with that little piece of corn.

    As a side note, as I understand Gross, the "self-concept" concept was something he was introducing to compliment the work of Bourdieu and Collins, not something from Bourdieu.

  3. it's a rare writer who can invoke a theory without it being overpowering.

    along those lines, you might also sometime check out one of collins' predecessors, erving goffman, who was pretty much a master of observation and of coining non-technical sounding technical terms to do the bulk of his theoretical work for him. i like 'relations in public' the best. (most anything he wrote would be further away from straight-up sociology of knowledge / intellectual-life sociology, though.)

    i've hardly read most of 'the sociology of philosophies', it's so long, and the chapters on non-western philosophy mean little to me. but given that it cannibalizes a lot of existing histories of philosophy but presents them in a novel way (i love those diagrams!), it's also a useful historical reference. especially for asking and answering some questions, or re-imagining some things, that one would actually have to have lots of knowledge to do with some other book. ; )

    collins' recent 'interaction ritual chains' is a lot more helpful on the ramifications of his model, and has some applications to smoking, sex, and other social phenomena. it was useful for me to see that the basic elements of his model in 'SoP' could be meaningfully connected to some sorts of phenomena i had already seen ritual interaction models (mostly from goffman) used for.

    i have trouble imagining this sociological model functioning well without just as much biography being done of the others with whom rorty may have been in dialogue.


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