Saturday, December 18, 2010

Philosophy Books for Literature Students

It is a familiar fact that the term “literary criticism” has been stretched further and further in the course of our century. It originally meant comparison and evaluation of plays, poems, and novels – with perhaps an occasional glance at the visual arts. Then it got extended to cover past criticism (for example, Dryden’s, Shelley’s, Arnold’s, and Eliot’s prose, as well as their verse). Then, quite quickly, it got extended to the books which had supplied past critics with their critical vocabulary and were supplying present critics with theirs. This meant extending it to theology, philosophy, social theory, reformist political programs, and revolutionary manifestos. …

Once the range of literary criticism is stretched that far there is, of course, less and less point in calling it literary criticism. But for accidental historical reasons, having to do with the way in which intellectuals got jobs in the universities by pretending to pursue academic specialties, the name has stuck. So instead of changing the term “literary criticism” to something like “culture criticism,” we have instead stretched the word “literature” to cover whatever the literary critics criticize. A literary critic in what T. J. Clarke has called the “Trotskyite-Eliotic” culture of New York in the ’30s and ’40s was expected to have read the The Revolution Betrayed and The Interpretation of Dreams, as well as The Wasteland, Man’s Hope, and An American Tragedy. In the present Orwellian-Bloomian culture she is expected to have read The Gulag Archipelago, Philosophical Investigations, and The Order of Things as well as Lolita and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The word “literature” now covers just about every sort of book which might conceivably have moral relevance – might conceivably alter one’s sense of what is possible and important. The application of this term has nothing to do with presence of “literary qualities” in a book. Rather than detecting and expounding such qualities, the critic is now expected to facilitate moral reflection by suggesting revisions in the canon of moral exemplars and advisers, and suggesting ways in which the tensions within this canon may be eased – or, where necessary, sharpened. (Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 81-2)
Whatever the specifics of Rorty’s picture of what a literary critic is today (I say this partly because Rorty was reflecting on this at the end of the ’80s), the historical picture he sketches in the first paragraph is roughly what happened and gets at the consequences we still deal with. Because of further reactions to the “Orwellian-Bloomian culture,” the present state of becoming professionalized in an English department has become even more complicated, as the addition of what we call “New Historicism” and “cultural studies” adds even more kinds of possible books to be familiar with (such as adding “history” to Rorty’s list, which is all I think New Historicism amounts to, their protests to the contrary). This creates a frenetically anxious environment for the would-be practitioner, just coming through the door wanting to learn what’s what. By the mid-’70s, Said was already describing the situation as “less background, less formal training, less prescribed and systematic information, is assumed before one begins to read, write, or work. Thus when one begins to write today one is necessarily more of an autodidact, gathering or making up the knowledge one needs in the course of creating. The influence of the past appears less useful and, as two recent critics, W. J. Bate and Harold Bloom, have argued, more likely to produce anxiety” (Said, Beginnings, 8).

That’s only kind of what Bate and Bloom meant, and perhaps Said’s somewhat sunny slant on being the autodidact is because he was already so well-learned. The past isn’t “more likely to produce anxiety,” it just does—and particularly when you have less background, less training, and no systematically arranged information to peruse. The situation of the young literature student starting out is similar to that of the amateur philosopher—both are autodidacts, with many avenues of thought that could be pursued, which presents both the freedom and the dilemma: I can only go one way at a time, so which shall it be? Given the limits of time and energy, you don’t want to waste your time. But, too, Rorty’s pragmatic sensibility reminds you that at some point, you’re going to want to get a job doing this, which means you’re going to need to fake knowing something. Every tenured professor has a youthful story about a book that everyone else around them seems to have read but that they didn’t learn about until later. The goal of every student looking into the future is to minimize the length of that list of books.

It is in this situation that I make the following short list. The American education system does not prepare a young student very well to pursue philosophy, and it does this by slighting a historical background in the major thinkers. As a matter of cultural conversation, it doesn’t help to know that they were mainly white men who are now dead—if everyone assumes you know something about them, then you’d better know something about them. Who this unidentified “everyone” is, however, has been shrinking, at least in the United States. The fact is that after the ’60s and ’70s, if you were a budding literary critic, it’s quite probable that you read some Continental philosophy, like Derrida or Foucault or Lacan, because that was hot in those days. The trouble for us now is that it isn’t so hot: which means you are much more likely an autodidact trying to pick it up by yourself.

What makes Continental philosophy difficult is that their frame of reference is often either the history of philosophy or really weird descriptions of “common experience” (think: Being and Nothingness or Being and Time). The latter can be very useful in an ad hoc way, but it’s difficult to feel like you’re getting in the middle of a conversation because Continental philosophers often don’t talk to each other, but rather to the major figures of the past. And if you don’t know how to negotiate through those old figures, you can get lost pretty quick. The only way to get through that problem is to learn something about the past. But, as Said pointed out, there are no how-to manuals lying around. And on top of that, the philosophers who speak your language are nattering on to almost exclusively each other about problems only they (so they say) find interesting—this is why no one knows anything about Anglo-American philosophy either.

The list below is to help with getting into the Anglo-American conversation, to find an entry point into their conversation (unless you already understand Derrida, in which case go to Samuel Wheeler’s Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy). There’s no particular reason why one would need to, but the anglophone philosophical conversation does have some distinctive things it does better and there is the added bonus of knowing something no one else knows (distinguishability is a valuable intellectual-market commodity). In addition, if you want to know more about the Big Dead Guys, you can’t read just any English-speaker’s introductory version, because they often won’t tell you anything relevant to the way the Continental philosophers are talking about them. (Exemplary exception: Robert Solomon’s Continental Philosophy Since 1750. And also, though a Frenchman, Vincent Descombes’s Modern French Philosophy is a brilliant discussion of the Continental mid-century ferment.) And that’s just what a growing intellectual needs: coin to make your way between disciplines, not burrowing into one extra discipline that might never come in handy. Said’s literary critic as quasi-autodidact is very much right insofar as the problems that a student will become immersed in and seek to solve might take them in any number of directions, and the trick is to be able to very quickly sink into a pile of research without getting lost and going the wrong direction (the problem of the red herring).

What makes the list below what it is is that 1) each philosopher was important at some point to the specialized conversations of anglophone philosophy, 2) the books in some way recapitulate facets of those conversations, 3) they are also about much bigger fish than those narrow conversations, 4) they are very well-schooled in the history of philosophy and the books enter into that larger sequence, and 5) they all have an eye towards an even larger intellectual conversation that, for example, includes literature. Because of those 5 things, the list below is designed to not waste a literature student’s time.

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre—One of the most important books of moral philosophy in the last 50 years, this was MacIntyre’s first extended attempt to link together work in epistemology, philosophy of action, and the fate of our moral and political cultures. And while disagreement with some of its central claims is almost necessary for anyone who doesn’t think God is a necessary presupposition, it is a fascinating tour de force that takes you through the Greeks and the Enlightenment on the composition of communities. In order to get past the notion that Lyotardian postmodernism means the death of continuity and the birth of free-wheeling relativism, one needs a working notion of tradition and practices. MacIntyre offers an excellent version here, while at the same time arguing (as Marxists will love) that liberalism is still undermining their composition. One interesting facet of the book is his treatment of Jane Austen as a moral philosopher.

Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor—Taylor’s book might be an even larger story with a similar perspective as MacIntyre’s, though their titles effectively give you each of their focuses. Taylor’s story is especially important given the kind of sophistication literature students are to show in handling a “character” as a locus of selfhood—for if a character has a self, it might be useful to know how our notions of what a self is have evolved (and thus plunk an author in their own historical milieu). This was a major entry into the debates about “modernity” (even if I think that word is overused), just as Taylor’s recent A Secular Age is a major entry into the somehow still-ongoing debates about secularization. Taylor and MacIntyre were two major thinkers identified as “communitarians”—the position you get when you want to throw away the worst of Marx and keep the best of Hegel. Hegel’s “beautiful soul” is (with good reason) hot right now, and that description of the Romantic self perfectly complements Taylor’s story, which engages heavily with literary traditions, particularly poetry.

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams—this book is largely supposed to be about ethics and political philosophy, but it is something like a comprehensive system inasmuch as Williams situates it within a set of relationships with philosophical neighbors like the philosophy of science and of language. The chapters on their interrelations are some of the best of its kind. Williams also has a historical depth of understanding that is nearly matchless, and his unique ability is to distill the past into its heritage for us today without harming it. Transforming the past into a set of problems to be negotiated is an excellent way to make the actual reading of Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Critiques not just a haze of bare understanding of what’s going on.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty—while MacIntyre’s book distills his earlier work on the philosophy of the social sciences and of action and Williams his work on science and language, they don’t go into extraordinary detail on those conversations. Rorty’s book is, by itself, the most comprehensive recapitulation of the minute details of the “core subjects” of the first 100 years of analytic philosophy available (roughly, 1880 to 1980—Frege to Davidson). It is beautifully Hegelian in its ability to tell a progressive story about how one philosophical position was transumed by the next up to this present (late ’70s) moment. Even if disagreeable in its conclusions, its ability to lay bare the reasons for one position against another is the ideal starting point to understanding what philosophers of language and of mind are going on about. It also situates these smaller conversations into a larger story stretching back to the Greeks and makes inroads to connecting the anglophone conversation with the Continental one.

Must We Mean What We Say? by Stanley Cavell—if it was difficult to choose one book from the array of useful and powerful books from each of the previous authors’ storehouse (it being very difficult not to choose Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity), it was particularly difficult to choose which Cavell book to single out. However, given my commitment to the utility of the book to introduce an autodidact into the specialized conversations of anglophone philosophy, I chose this book on the basis of each essay’s sterling compactness on an array of relevant issues. The Claim of Reason was difficult not to choose, but Cavell’s discussions of Austin, Wittgenstein, and aesthetics and his general performance in the vein of “ordinary language philosophy” (while offering penetrating insight into what the hell that is) are perfect introductions to their subjects and the occasional weirdness of his later work.

Those are my five suggestions, five being a nice round number, though now I will indulge in four more that more or less fail in the “introduction to anglophone conversation” criterion. These are just brilliant.

The Art of Living by Alexander Nehamas—Nehamas is the most eminent philosophical scholar (a philosopher, not a classicist) of Socrates and Plato living today. This book is, actually, an excellent introduction into a host of scholarly problems about reading Plato, with dense endnotes. Its brilliance, however, is in its humane rendering of what the “philosophical life” is, beginning with the impact of Socrates as a figure in the mind of the philosopher. What follows are amazing discussions of silence, discussion, arête, knowledge, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Foucault and, above all, irony. If you work anywhere in the vicinity of the trope of irony, you cannot afford to pass up this book.

The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch—this book is worth getting just for its first essay. Murdoch was a novelist in addition to a philosopher, and she was also a Platonist. Every single person on my list is, in an important (and delimited) sense, an anti-Platonist. So what gives? To my mind, Murdoch offers one of the best, distilled accounts of the problem of the modern notion of the self taken for granted by early liberal theory. In my favorite phrase of hers, it is “a happy and fruitful marriage of Kantian liberalism with Wittgensteinian logic solemnized by Freud.” And while Brandom’s Kant, Cavell’s Wittgenstein, and Lear’s Freud should all be friends of ours, Murdoch points out a pressing problem at that stage of the conversation, and in its face presents an excellent discussion of the pressure of context in ethical decision-making. She puts it in Platonic terms of sight, of “contexts of attention,” but its ancestor, I should say, is rather E. M. Forster. For literary critics who want a good illustration of what a “literary point of view” might be as giving a distinct angle on a philosophical topic, there is nothing better than this very short book.

Ordinary Vices by Judith Shklar—if much good moral philosophy these days is “virtue-centered” in its approach (in contradistinction to a Kantian-style search for principles), then Shklar offers an extraordinary meditation on its darker flipside (much as she does for liberal discussion of justice in The Faces of Injustice). Shklar moves easily back and forth between contemporary practical problems (international, domestic, personal), theoretical problems, history both social and intellectual, and sources of our moral thinking as diverse Machiavelli, Montaigne, Christianity, James Madison, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Thackeray, and Hawthorne.

Evil in Modern Thought by Susan Neiman—if Rorty offers a narrative of what he even puts in scare quotes as the “core subjects” of anglophone philosophy, then Susan Neiman offers a tremendous narrative of the history of modern moral philosophy, which she argues was actually at the core (at least at its early stage in the 18th century). Ranging from close readings of Leibniz, Kant, Marx, Bayle, Voltaire, Freud, and a really interesting one on the Marquis de Sade, Neiman’s story centers on the importance, in particular, of two world-historical events that have shaped in sometimes subtle ways thinking about evil: the earthquake at Lisbon in 1755 and the holocaust at Auschwitz. Her understanding of how our thinking about moral responsibility and the sources of evil have changed and might yet still change (with a short, speculative section on September 11) is penetrating and well-worth thinking about.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Ellisonian Self

Ralph Waldo Ellison is a titan. It is difficult to finish Invisible Man and not be impressed by both depth of thought that clearly went into its making and the execution with which that product of thought was born. It is also difficult to not take very seriously indeed the thought that lies behind his many essays and interviews. An extraordinarily considered and rhetorically skilled writer, Ellison should be considered a philosopher by any other name.

As you dig into the tissue of the relationship between the first three major post-Harlem Renaissance writers, Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison, it quickly becomes apparent how much Baldwin and Ellison wrote in the wake of Wright's early success in Native Son (Wright did, too), and how important coming to grips with Marxism was for all three. Forcing that confrontation was Wright's gift to Baldwin and Ellison, and there was undoubtedly a dramatic (and dramatized) reaction. While Wright became a very early convert to American Marxism, Baldwin and Ellison saw it as something of a curse on the writer qua writer. The interaction between Native Son and Wright's early programmatic essay, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," Baldwin's essays in Notes of a Native Son (especially "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone"), and Ellison's Invisible Man and his essays "Richard Wright's Blues" and "The World and the Jug" provide enough fuel for reflection on a hundred related topics about literature, literary criticism, philosophy, history and politics.[fn.1]

The below takes on the more strictly philosophical side of Ellison's vision. Ellison was a natural pragmatist in his theoretical orientation: while I'm not sure how well-read Ellison was in the work of professional philosophers, Ellison was a natural amateur philosopher and struggled personally with his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson (who Cornel West, Harold Bloom, and Richard Poirier have made us realize was the spiritual progenitor of that professional philosophical movement, pragmatism) and enjoyed and used the work of Kenneth Burke (who was also an amateur philosopher, though we do know he read Dewey). Ellison's vision of culture is deep, and includes a vision of the self and its relationship with society (as every Emersonian struggles with). And while I come from Rorty's professional version of what a pragmatist picture of the self should look like, Ellison's picture--which is only too briefly dug into below--provides a fascinating sidelight on essentially the same picture.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1952, 1980, 1995.

---. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. John F. Callahan. Preface by Saul Bellow. New York: The Modern Library, 1995, 2003.

Kimberly W. Benston, Ed., Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1987.

Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


A repeated figure in the first part of Invisible Man is variations on the phrase “I am who I am.” What is striking about the figure is the static finality of the verb, and it should make us wonder if this figure is Platonic or Nietzschean in its roots. For the Plato of the Republic, people have essences, bronze, silver, or gold in his myth, and justice is done when each is in their rightful place. The Nietzsche of the Gay Science, on the other hand, wanted us to become who we are. More generally, the Platonic tradition uses metaphors of discovery and being and the Nietzschean metaphors of creation and becoming. With the Invisible Man’s statement that the “end is in the beginning” (Invisible Man 6), there would seem to be a statement of inevitability, of inescapable essence. Yet, the notion of a static essence that each of us has inside and must conform to seems antithetical to the spirit of anti-conformity in Ellison’s work. What kind of self is the Ellisonian self?

To figure out what Ellison means, we shouldn’t start at the level of philosophy and build a theory of the self, but rather begin at the ground level of experiencing selves and tailor our theory to fit what we find there. The reason for this comes out of Ellison himself. What we find in Ellison is a broad rejection of isolated, programmatic theory. For instance, in Ellison’s essay “Society, Morality, and the Novel,” we find a constant denunciation of the maneuvers of literary critics who attempt to bind the artist with their formulations (often in the mode of a joke): “Critics would give you the formula that would make the achievement of a major fiction as certain as making a pre-mixed apple pie” (Essays 699). In Invisible Man, this comes out of the Invisible Man’s relationship to the Brotherhood, which is a veiled reference to Marxism. In referring to the Brotherhood’s “ideology” (e.g., Invisible Man 359), Ellison is ironically calling attention to the Marxist pretension to “science.” Marxism explicitly is not an ideology, which is a term Marx put into currency to distinguish all other modes of life. Marxism is rather a science, a theory, a method of uncovering our rationalizations of injustices (ideology) in order to find the essential path to justice and truth. It is this pretension that the Invisible Man will eventually reject.

There is something ambiguous, however, about Ellison’s relationship to Marxism that comes out in this passage from Brother Jack: “Remember too, that theory always comes after practice. Act first, theorize later; that’s also a formula, a devastatingly effective one!” (359) Practice before theory is a formula I would commend to Ellison, the pragmatism common to Ellison and Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach.” Ellison’s comment on Marxism would be that, in practice, Marxists don’t put practice ahead of theory, but rather make the evidence fit their theories. This is punched up when the Invisible Man thinks to himself after Jack offers his formula, “He looked at me as though he did not see me…” (359). The metaphor of sight is deployed to register the sense that the Brotherhood’s theories leave out significant portions of reality. “Outside the Brotherhood we were outside history; but inside of it they didn’t see us” (499). What is deficient about the Brotherhood’s interpretation of reality is that they only offer, as Ellison puts it elsewhere, a “statistical interpretation of our lives” (Essays 75): “It was all a swindle, an obscene swindle! They had set themselves up to describe the world. What did they know of us, except that we numbered so many, worked on certain jobs, offered so many votes, and provided so many marchers for some protest parade of theirs?” (Invisible Man 507) The ambiguity in Ellison’s relationship is that though the Invisible Man rebels against the Brotherhood’s classification and organization of reality, he must classify and organize reality somehow. In the moment that the Invisible Man suddenly realizes that he had not been undermining the Brotherhood by working for them, but rather doing exactly what they wanted, he says, “And in defining, in giving organization to the fury, it seemed to spin me around…” (553, emphasis mine). The Invisible Man hasn’t given up classification, but realized a new classification and interpretation of reality. What Ellison rejects is not organization per se, but the idea of a science or theory of organization, the attempt by some to short-circuit the individual’s experience of reality by authoritatively telling them what they are really experiencing (whether they know it or not).

The vision of reality as in need of organization is a typically Kantian one, but in order to avoid epistemological controversies that Ellison pays no heed to, I would call it a rhetorical vision. A rhetorical vision of reality is one that recognizes the constructedness of reality, rooted in the public means of communication. The major problem for rhetoric, however, has been pointed out by Plato in the Gorgias—if rhetoric requires a common vocabulary between speaker and audience, then how is it not just pandering? How does real change occur if public, inferential communication requires a body of common assumptions for understanding? Ellison knows very well the problems of communication, calling the ideal American audience member “the little man behind the stove” (Essays 495), a symbol of the broadly different forms a writer’s readers might take. Ellison says “the novel is rhetorical” (701) and pondered just that question of communicating to a white audience when writing Invisible Man.[fn.2] But if Ellison has to communicate in the terms of a white audience, how can he change them?

This is a difficult practical problem for every writer, and to help to understand Ellison’s solution we might distinguish between two different modes of presentation that Stanley Fish uses: rhetorical and dialectical. A rhetorical presentation is much like Plato would have it: “A presentation is rhetorical if it satisfies the needs of its readers” (Fish 1). However, “this is not to say that in the course of a rhetorical experience one is never told anything unpleasant, but that whatever one is told can be placed and contained within the categories and assumptions of received systems of knowledge” (1). This presents just the problem, for Ellison wishes to overturn the received assumptions about black Americans. To do so, he uses a format for Invisible Man that is dialectical in Fish’s sense, which is “disturbing, for it requires of its readers a searching and rigorous scrutiny of everything they believe in and live by” (1). Fish says of this experience that “it is nothing less than a conversion, not only a changing, but an exchanging of minds” (2).

This is what I think we see in Invisible Man. The novel is a bildungsroman, but the lessons are not didactic, tacking-ons of easily potted moral lessons, but rather shifts in assumptions about the way the world is that the protagonist finds difficult to cohere with the rest of his working body of assumptions. This makes sense of a motif of incomprehensibility that floats along with the Invisible Man. During the battle royal scene, he accidentally grabs onto the leg of a chair: “I feared the rug more than I did the drunk, so I held on, surprising myself for a moment by trying to topple him upon the rug. It was such an enormous idea…” (Invisible Man 28, first and third sets of italics mine). The surprise is the momentary overturning in practice of a conceptual assumption that shapes his reality, one that by itself is too large to work out and fit with the rest of how he thought reality functioned (where you don’t do things like that to whites). When Mr. Norton is passed out in the Golden Day, the Invisible Man thinks to himself that “the very idea that I was responsible for him was too much for me to put into words” (86). In contemplating Clifton’s selling of the dolls, and the possibility that Clifton believed he’d sold out, Ellison writes, “For a moment I weighed the idea, but it was too big for me” (447). In thinking about Rinehart, Ellison writes, “I caught a brief glimpse of the possibilities posed by Rinehart’s multiple personalities and turned away. It was too vast and confusing to contemplate” (499).

The scene in which the Invisible Man is suddenly given new “organization to the fury” begins, “The words struck like bullets fired close range, blasting my satisfaction to the earth” (552). This is emblematic of the experience of conversion that Fish says follows the dialectical presentation. Such radical change in a mental constitution is difficult to comprehend. For example, the lesson that the Invisible Man says that his grandfather never had to learn was that he was human: “Hell, he never had any doubts about his humanity—that was left to his ‘free’ offspring” (580). This thought had suddenly come over the Invisible Man in the psychiatric hospital, though it is forgotten: “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant” (239). The ECT the Invisible Man receives in that chapter is something like a resetting of his personality, an attempt to wipe the slate clean and begin again. But since the process is imperfect, new thoughts fight against old, hence the Invisible Man’s wonderment at meaning. He can’t put the new thought from the new self together with the old thought from the old self, and so lacks a coherent identity.

It is to this purpose in charting dialectical change that I believe enters the role of narrative. The Invisible Man recognizes by the end of the novel that the past is a necessary part of our identity. Whereas Brother Westrum says of Brother Tarp’s leg chain that “things like that don’t do nothin’ but cause confusion,” the objects of the Invisible Man’s past light his way when he falls into the sewer (567-8). The Invisible Man must tell his own story because he has learned that who we are now in the present is partly because of the way we tell the story of our own lives to ourselves.[fn.3] The “end is in the beginning” (6) not because there is an essential telos around which our identity circles, but because the way in which we tell our own story is determined in part by where we are standing when we begin to tell it—in a hole, in the Invisible Man’s case. When he says, “Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are” (577) I take this sense of “where” to be “where in your own story,” which is partly the loss the Invisible Man feels after the ECT. As Ellison says generally, “the novel is obsessed by the relationship between illusion and reality as revealed in duration and process” (Essays 702). Reality is not a static, Platonic notion for Ellison, but is rather generated by the individual’s experience.


[1] "The World and the Jug" was a two-part exchange with the eminent leftist literary critic Irving Howe, whose addition to the conversation between the above texts can be quite profitable. Howe, in "Black Boys and Native Sons" (published in Dissent, Autumn 1963), wrote something like a defense of Wright against his two rebellious younger brothers, Baldwin and Ellison. The frame itself made Ellison a little peevish, and he responded, and then followed a double exchange of Howe's reply and Ellison's further reply. Howe's original essay with two reflections on the incident (one from 1969 and the other from the retrospective vantage point of 1990) can be found in his Selected Writings 1950-1990. Both parts of Ellison's side of the debate became "The World and the Jug." The exchanges between all four of these great men provide a fascinating, agonistic record of internal dialogue between progressive members of the left.

[2] Michel Fabre quotes a letter from Ellison to Kenneth Burke wondering how to write a “Negro character who would incorporate all of the contradictions present in the Negro-white situation in this country and yet be appealing to whites” (“From Native Son to Invisible Man: Some Notes on Ralph Ellison’s Evolution in the 1950s,” in Speaking For You, 213, emphasis mine).

[3] This is a favorite line of mine that I try to reuse as often as possible. It debuted in one of the first original things I wrote for this blog, a weaving of Pirsig, Rorty, and Virginia Woolf, "Phaedrus, the Woolf," and I quickly recycled it in the third part of an extended rethinking of Pirsig's Lila, "Prospectus" (which is the first time I used Fish's distinction to help make this point). My thinking about narrative was deepened after reading MacIntyre's essay, "Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science" (which I talk about here, and which I incorporate in an entangling of this theme with Fredric Jameson and Sherman Alexie called "Narrative and Making Sense").

Friday, August 13, 2010

Wright and the Figures of Slave Narrative

From a seminar on the three largest post-Harlem Renaissance figures, Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison, this is a fairly pedantic, unexciting piece that just cobbles together some continuities between the slave narrative tradition and the African-American literary tradition that succeeded it. There's no real motivation for it into a thesis, however. The precursor to this, from which I think I borrow a few lines about Douglass, is "Literacy as Symbol and Material Means in Douglass." Like that piece, I was still caught in an overbearing fascination with the orality/literacy thematic, an understanding still largely conditioned at this point by Ong's Orality and Literacy and Havelock's Preface to Plato.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Eds. John W. Blassingame, John R. McKivigan, and Peter P. Hinks. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


I propose to trace out the functioning of three different figures inherited by Wright from the tradition of slave narrative, taking as emblematic Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: curiosity, literacy, and leisure. I will in each case briefly discuss how they work in Douglass before showing how Wright continues, extends, or alters each figure in the changed cultural landscape some 100 years after Douglass’ escape, though I shall spend most of my time on literacy.

An important theme struck by both Douglass and Wright is the repression of curiosity. In Douglass, this occurs frequently, usually in relation to literacy. Curiosity leads you out of your current nest of experience and into a new experience, thus leading to learning. Douglass, who didn’t even realize that literacy was a forbidden object (much as Wright had to learn his lessons the hard way), was taught the basics by his mistress, Mrs. Auld, before her husband corrected her: “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. … He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master” (Douglass 31). This is a “new and special revelation” (ibid.) for the young Douglass and it opens up the “pathway from slavery to freedom” (32). Likewise for Wright, in his own first pass at autobiography in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” when he shows curiosity to learn how to grind lenses, Morrie immediately “grew red.” “Whut yuh tryin’ t’ do, nigger, git smart?” (Wright 228) The notion that blacks might be “uppity” immediately changes the whites’ attitudes to them, as the first hint of it sours situations for both Douglass and Wright repeatedly.

The figure of literacy might be the most important figure in Douglass’ Narrative, functioning as both a symbol for freedom and an actual, material precondition for freedom. Literacy for Douglass is a skill that allows for the free acquisition of knowledge and the ability to negotiate the white man’s world. It is also a precious commodity carefully protected by slave masters, as illustrated before. The pathway of literacy consists in the attainment of “the more valuable bread of knowledge” (Douglass 34), which functions in two ways for Douglass: 1) knowing how to read and write aids materially in his ability to escape from captivity and 2) Douglass learns that slavery is a contingent institution and that one of its main means of enforcement is the stripping of the slave of his humanity.

The first echo we might point to is again in “Ethics.” Wright says, “it was almost impossible to get a book to read. It was assumed that after a Negro had imbibed what scanty schooling the state furnished he had no further need for books” (Wright 235). Wright here, however, doesn’t go into depth about the meaning of literacy, nor play it out much—all we see is that though African-Americans can read, they aren’t allowed access by white-run libraries. We get a much stronger look at how Wright uses the symbol of literacy in Lawd, Today! (his first significant piece of fiction, though only published posthumously). When the protagonist, Jake, goes by the Chicago Library on his way to his friend Bob’s, Jake says to himself, “That’s right. I ain’t never looked around in one of them joints” (69). What is striking is not that he hasn’t been in a library, or thinks there’s a cover charge, but that if he did go into a library, he muses, he could “tell old Bob and Al and Slim all about the big books I seen…” (ibid.). Seen—not read, or even opened.

What’s worse, upon seeing a black boy reading in the library, Jake immediately thinks, right on the heels of his reverie of setting his friends aflame with jealousy at all the books he had seen, that “too much reading’s bad” (ibid.). This is one of a series of stunning reversals of thought that happen within moments of each other, another being the rapid switch in the group’s opinion of the International Negro Uplift Association, from “Yeah, they’s smart” to nine lines later “Aw … They nuts as hell” (109). Jake says of reading that “it was all right to read the newspapers … but reading a lot of books … would drive you crazy.” “It addles your brains, and if you addle your brains you’ll sure have bookworms in the brain” (69). He then recalls, as justification and evidence for his view, that “his poor old grandmother had told him that when he was a child, and he had never forgotten it, and had never had bookworms” (ibid.).

Wright seems to be, at least in part, displaying literacy as a forgotten means of freedom. The psychology of oral vs. literate culture is such that remembered words and phrases, in an oral culture, function as thought-gatekeepers far more than in a literate culture. Words in the mind tumble over each other in sometimes quite odd associations, but the better and easier remembered (like in proverbs, rhymed aphorisms, or bits of wisdom from authoritative sources, like grandmothers), the more likely these bits will be recalled in connection with current experience. For instance, Jake assigns some prestige to books and being in the library, but then Jake sees the black boy, and thinks, “reading’s bad.” Why? Because “his mind went back to his boyhood; he remembered a schoolmate of his who had become queer from trying to memorize the Bible” (ibid.). When Jake saw the boy, he saw his queer schoolmate, and reacted to himself turning queer—his earlier thought (books good, maybe I should go into the library) was derailed by this fragment of memory. And then his mind immediately reinforced this new thought with a further stock association, the wisdom of his grandmother. His brain doesn’t quit, though, and Wright adds a further illustrative crinkle, as Jake then thinks, “But it was all right if you were studying for the pulpit” (ibid.), because God will protect you from going crazy—but then what happened to the kid memorizing the Bible? Jake’s mind has already moved on, however, and such reversals are never brought to account. A mind brought up in a literate culture, however, because of the opportunity to reinforce the ephemeral spoken word with the unchanging written word, has better opportunity to not be led down mental avenues with no hope of returning and asking, “Did anything I just think (say) make sense?” And when you write it down, you can look it over.

There are two other examples with Jake we might recur to for reinforcement. One is the scene in which he reads the newspaper, as he has said is okay to do. The joke of the chapter is that, when Jake reads the newspaper, all he does is read the headline out loud and then run off at the mouth about whatever he thinks about what he thinks the headline means. But there are several telling moments for my purposes. When Jake goes off on FDR and the Democrats, he closes by saying, “I’m going to stick with the Republicans. Old Abe Lincoln is the ship and all else is the sea . . . Now, who said that?” (29) That old chestnut for black electoral politics tells Jake who to vote for, but it is not an actual evaluation of who would be best for him.[fn.1] When Jake attempts to engage with Lil, she says “I wasn’t listening to you reading” (31)—by which she really means, listening to him spout—and Jake replies, “You could learn something if you didn’t keep that empty head of yours stuck into them Gawddamn Unity books all the time” (ibid.). The irony is, of course, that Lil is actually reading, whereas Jake does not (except for advertisements, which he spends much more time reading the entirety of as we see in the following chapter). But what’s more is what Jake says about God: “Gawd’s hooey! It’s a gyp game, that’s all!” It isn’t apparent that Jake is just saying this eristically, but that he truly believes it—at the time, for compare his relative reverence and respect for God in the Library scene discussed above. And finally, there’s the dialectical series between Jake and Lil beginning with his rant about the Communists. Lil counters him on every response, actually challenging him, recurring to the newspaper as a source of her views. Jake, possibly recalling the moment before she interceded having said, “That’s no lie, I was reading it just the other day in the Tribune…” (33), eventually finds himself backed into a corner and says, “Woman, is you a Red?” (ibid.) There are several fascinating points to this exchange: 1) he appears entirely sincere in his thought process and in thinking that Lil must be a Red for challenging him as she does; 2) it isn’t clear at all that Jake is cognizant of having just lost the debate or the jagged shifts in thought; 3) it isn’t clear why he didn’t recur to his response to Einstein, that “these old newspapers sure tries hard to fool folks” (32), when Lil challenged him, and since that is clearly a legitimately open mental avenue for Jake, it just punches up how rough and random any particular turn his mind seems to take.

Possibly the most illustrative example of the oral cast of mind in Jake, and therefore the importance of literacy to the idea of freedom, occurs when Jake is raging about the inspector at work: “You sonofabitch! It ain’t always going to be this way! His mind went abruptly blank. He could not keep on with that thought, because he did not know where that thought led. He did not know of any other way things could be, if not this way. Yet he longed for them not to be this way” (142). Literacy is the key to other worlds, the key to seeing how things might be another way. An imagination that cannot stretch beyond the things told to it by its immediates is an impaired imagination. Reading is what did it for Douglass and for Wright. Reading allows one to escape immediate surroundings and take flight, either to other actual realities (like in nonfiction, history, etc.) or to made-up realities—the effect is the same, as the circle of possibilities expands outwards, thus increasing the flex of mind that allows you to imagine more for yourself.

The last figure of leisure leads directly from here and shows Wright exerting a tremendous alteration over it. For Douglass, leisure time meant time to strategize and to think. The path to freedom lay open, but obscured, and at one point he says, amidst the “perpetual whirl of excitement” of working at the docks in Baltimore, that “I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty” (Douglass 70) The most obvious shift from slave narratives to neo-slave narratives, of course, is that people like Douglass were escaping a fairly literal slavery, while that which holds Wright and his contemporaries is the more intangible cultural slavery left from continued racism. So, in Wright the figure of leisure plays differently. The image of the “lazy” black man is created. But why? Wright tells us—as the group watches some white students get off work, Jakes thinks, “Them white boys always in a hurry to get somewhere. And soon’s they get out of school they’s going to be bigshots. But a nigger just stays a nigger” (117). “Yeah, but ain’t no use of a black man rushing.” “Naw, ‘cause we ain’t going nowhere” (118). Douglass could imagine that slavery could be ended, and that eventually people could co-exist peacefully. Wright, 100 years later, is displaying the crushing, felt defeat at the hands of whites that debilitates the common black imagination and that begins to repeat itself—like Jake’s grandmother telling him that reading is bad.


[1] It was, in fact, Frederick Douglass about the Republican Party. I suspect this was a veiled slap at Douglass by Wright, with regards to the changed landscape of politics and how Douglass stuck by the Republican Party even after its disastrous effort at Reconstruction and subsequent takeover by the rich, of whom Jake says, “them men owns and runs the country!” (29)

Friday, August 06, 2010

One of the Most Important Chapters in the Entire History

I don't think this piece is as interesting as my first piece on the Don, "The Necessity of Adapting to Changing Circumstances," but it fills in a connection with another preoccupation of mine, Romanticism and the form of life it spawns. I use below a trope I like to use to describe that lebensform: a fish-blink life, the life of someone for whom each moment is their first. "Oh, a rhinestone!" [blink] "Oh, a rhinestone!" [blink] "Oh, a rhinestone!" This is an idea that Wyndham Lewis best explicated in Time and Western Man as what the embodiment would be if someone lived the apotheosis of the immediate found in the English Romantics and theorized by Bergson. I find it quite resonate not only with those who philosophize the Quest for Immediacy, but also the regular kinds of people who extol immediacy and the derived mysticisms from that idea. Combine this with Don Quixote's madness, and you have a thesis project.

References are to:
Samuel Putnam's translation of Don Quixote (1949).
The 1971 translation of Foucault's The Order of Things.
Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marin's translation of Jose Ortega y Gasset's Meditations on Quixote (1966).
Anna Bostock's translation of Georg Lukács's The Theory of the Novel.


Taking well in hand the notice that use of superlative is rife throughout Don Quixote, I think we should yet take special note of Chapter 6, Part 2: “Of What Took Place Between Don Quixote and His Housekeeper, Which Is One of the Most Important Chapters in the Entire History.” This chapter functions as something like a portal in Part 2, which as Cid Hamete Benengeli, our Moorish author, says doesn’t really get started until Chapter 8 (Cervantes 651). What we get in this chapter are a series of repeated figures in Don Quixote, most of which we are quite familiar with by now, but some of which are brought to the fore in a special way.

The chapter opens with the niece and housekeeper noticing that Don Quixote, still caught by “his ill-errant conception of knighthood” (637), is bent on going out on more, as the housekeeper says, “adventures but which I call misfortunes” (ibid.). These revaluations of situations between Don Quixote’s view and on-lookers are, of course, a constant feature, but these two, in particular, call on Don Quixote to give us his view of knighthood, and thereby adventure. When asked why he can’t just stay at court like other knights, Don Quixote gives us a neat division between courtiers and knights-errant. Whereas courtiers, Don Quixote says, “may travel all over the earth merely by looking at a map,” we knights-errant “take the measure of the entire globe with our feet” (638). Don Quixote locks down the significance by saying, “We know our enemies not from pictures but as they really are” (ibid., italics mine), which is extraordinary given how Don Quixote’s reality—how things really are for him—is taken from books of chivalry.

The truly extraordinary event—and fairly new as far as self-evaluations of his own situation go—occurs when Don Quixote then promptly says that “We pay no attention to the childish rules that are supposed to govern knightly duels…” (ibid.). For one who is as intent on following the law and letter of the order and rules of chivalry, such stark scorn is startling. Even as Don Quixote might easily reply that he’s only ever upheld the rules for knights-errant, which is what he’s talking about in contradistinction to courtiers, the repeated figure is still that of the order of chivalry, which does go wider than just knights-errant (as the commonality between Don Fernando and Don Quixote displays). The nearest predecessor to this newer explication is even more startling: “Who is so ignorant as not to know that knights-errant are beyond all jurisdiction…?” (481), this to the Holy Brotherhood at the Inn in Part I.

I’ll come back to this figure, but for now I’d like to continue with Don Quixote’s discourse. What we get in chapter 6 is a window into Don Quixote’s sense of self, his sense of what chivalry and knight-errantry are all about, as a result of his (vain) attempt to persuade his niece and housekeeper that all is right in the world. We get the color of this window when the niece attempts to rebut Don Quixote with the obvious (to us) retort, “your Grace must remember that all this you are saying about knights-errant is a fable and a lie” (639). To this Don Quixote exclaims that this is a “blasphemy you have uttered” (ibid.), which is a curious, religious turn of phrase. You normally would only blaspheme against God and his sacred vassals, but—as Don Quixote later explains—“chivalry is a religion in itself” (657).

That the niece would “presume to criticize these knightly histories” (639) prompts Don Quixote to give another extraordinary discourse, this time on a distinction between knights within knight-errantry. Letting loose his anger, Don Quixote recurs to the great Amadis: “What would my lord Amadis say if he could hear such a thing?” (639) Hearing himself exclaim in such a manner as to figure Amadis for vengeance causes Don Quixote—within each distinct moment as he ever is—to hasten to add, “To be sure, he would pardon you…. But there are others who might have heard you, and in that case it would not have gone so well with you” (ibid.). This distinction between Amadis and “rascals” gives us a picture of knight-errantry much like the double figure of God—both smiter and forgiver.

I think we should take Don Quixote’s exclamation of Amadis as a surprising moment for Don Quixote himself, for which he then has to patch up and look reasoned with his further discourse on the two kinds of knights-errant. I think the niece hits the nail when, after this discourse, she says, “in a pinch you could get right up in the pulpit or go out and start preaching in the streets” (640, italics mine). The reason I think we should take Don Quixote as somewhat surprised at himself is that I think Lukács is describing Don Quixote when he says, “The complete absence of an inwardly experienced problematic transforms such a soul into pure activity” (Lukács 99, italics mine). Don Quixote has the unshakeable “inner certitude” (ibid.) from the centeredness he takes from his faith in the order of chivalry, and so simply enacts that order on the reality that confronts him. Now, Lukács says that such a soul is “incapable of any contemplation” (ibid.), to which the obvious rejoinder in the case of Don Quixote would be—does he not reason quite often and quite intelligently? He does, but Don Quixote does not think, he holds forth in speeches and lectures, all internal functions becoming immediately externalized. There is never an “inwardly experienced problematic,” for there never really is any problem—on the inside. All of Don Quixote’s problems arise from his externalizations.

All Don Quixote ever experiences are external problems, which we can otherwise call “adventures.” As Lukács says, “the life of a person with such a soul,” as Don Quixote has, “becomes an uninterrupted series of adventures” (ibid.). And as Ortega says, “each adventure is a new birth of the world, a unique process” (Ortega 132). Don Quixote moves through the world like a fish—every time the fish blinks, it confronts a new world in isolation from the old, and so mainly too with every new, demarcated adventure. That is what it is to be a being of pure action—like a fish-blink life, your whole set of habits are brought to bear fresh on each situation devoid of context, once the “adventure” signal is given. An exemplary example of this is Master Pedro’s puppet show. Don Quixote interrupts the show twice to critique the proceedings, clearly not caught up in the action of the show, but still not reflective on what’s happening. Don Quixote is rather commenting on it from his inner source of action: he interrupts the second time to say that the bells are inaccurate, full of inner certitude at the bells being “beyond a doubt a great piece of nonsense” (Cervantes 807). To this Master Pedro retorts, “Don’t be looking for trifles,” and Don Quixote—action met with action, in this case speech with speech—backs down (“You have spoken the truth”), not because he’s reflected on the issue, but like a sword being parried by another, he must accept the parry and move on—just like his own parry of himself when he surprisingly figured Amadis for vengeance. And from this context of being completely not caught up in the action of the puppet show, Don Quixote suddenly and inexplicably is, as Ortega puts it, “snatched up in the illusory vortex” (Ortega 133). Typically, we would think of a show like this as bringing people like Don Quixote under a spell, slowly putting them to sleep, but Don Quixote's reactions in this scene are like being wide awake one moment and sawing logs the next. The only plausible explanation is through the Ortegean sense of adventure—Don Quixote suddenly received the mysterious signal that a new adventure had started (“Upon seeing such a lot of Moors and hearing such a din,” Cervantes 808), one that required its own new problematic (the Moors are attacking!) and solutions (save “so famous a knight and so bold a lover as Don Gaiferos,” ibid.).

These adventures are the externalized manifestation of the hero’s reality principle. The hero seeks adventures to prove this reality principle, which is why, as Ortega adds, Don Quixote’s will is “obsessed with one single goal: adventure” (Ortega 136). The adventure is the externalization of the hero’s will, which is to be oneself, which is to bring us around in a circle, for the hero's self is his reality principle. Ortega says, “this will to be oneself is heroism” (149). This radical involution—adventure is the externalized will of the hero; the hero’s will is to be himself; he is his reality principle; Don Quixote’s reality is knight-errantry which is adventure—is at the heart of such surprisingly forthright statements of honesty as “We pay no attention to the childish rules” (Cervantes 638) and “knights-errant are beyond all jurisdiction” (481). The order of chivalry attains primacy for Don Quixote only because of a previous act of will, as he continually intimates at almost all points—e.g., in chapter 6, “Heaven wills, fate ordains, reason asks, and, above all, my own will desires” (642, italics mine). Ortega says at one point, “Far from the tragic originating in fate, then, it is essential for the hero to want his tragic destiny” (Ortega 154). The ultimate act of expression for a titanic will like Don Quixote’s was to will the restraints of the order of chivalry on himself, which at the same time are the restraints of constant adventure and enactment of one’s will, “beyond all jurisdiction.”

If one asks what the external point of all this willing of oneself and seeking of adventure to prove the reality of one’s will (or rather, the will of one’s reality) is, then it can only be the record of that titanic will—fame and immortality. Though we get more and more reflections on fame and eternal glory as we move through Part II, more and more involved with the books on Don Quixote as they come out (and Chapter 8 provides us with the first good treatment of fame), Chapter 6 does have those subtle inflections of essential thematic that are inherent in the reiterable essence of chivalry that is Don Quixote. After his taxonomy of knights and then knights-errant, Don Quixote gives us a theory of people: those on the upswing, on the downswing, always up, and always down. Of the latter, he says they had “neither a good start nor a subsequent history that was in any way out of the ordinary and who accordingly will have a nameless end…” (Cervantes 640, italics mine). They “increase the number of the living without any other claim to fame, since they have achieved no form of greatness that entitles them to praise” (641, italics mine). Don Quixote sees “greatness,” not as money or land, or honor or virtue, but as deeds that are recorded—becoming a “name.” The former list falls out from the attainment of the latter, as the promise of an island is continually held out to Sancho Panza. And that is Don Quixote’s tragedy. Don Quixote’s tragic fate, which he wills and desires, is to be Don Quixote—his will is to be the titanic will of Don Quixote, that laughable figure of titanic will. Don Quixote’s tragic fate is to be the immortal, literary figure of Don Quixote. Which is Ortega’s point about epic—the titanic will is out of place, and Don Quixote is that exemplification of an out of place will, and as such is both tragic and comic, buffoonish and sad.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Two Uses of “Rational” and What It Means for Literature

Robert Brandom, Reason in Philosophy, 2009
Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, 1987
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, 1962, 2008
Richard Rorty:
“Reply to Six Critics,” in Analyse und Kritik, June 1984
“Signposts Along the Way that Reason Went,” in London Review of Books, Feb. 16 1984
PMN: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
CP: Consequences of Pragmatism
CIS: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
TP: Truth and Progress
PCP: Philosophy as Cultural Politics

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Robert Brandom is Rorty’s greatest student, and he has done far more often than any other (Jeffery Stout and Bjorn Ramberg are his only nearest competitors) the thing convinced Rortyans are really concerned about: explicating the consequences of Rorty’s vision of culture and overturning specific pieces of the Rortyan oeuvre of claims to better explicate the core of what that vision really is (a formulation that itself owes to Brandom’s Hegelian vision of the implicit/explicit dialectic). Brandom’s Reason in Philosophy is the most succinct account of a number of those alterations, though they are all left implicit (I imagine to give someone like me something to do). By way of an obscure article of Rorty’s, I want to illustrate one revision of a Rortyan commonplace and work out what those consequences might be for some other pieces of the Rortyan picture.

In “A Reply to Six Critics,” Rorty takes up a defense of PMN against a series of articles written for Analyse und Kritik. In his reply to Jay Rosenberg, Rorty says that Rosenberg is “less willing than I to see philosophy as continuous with avant-garde literature on the one hand and the more controversial portions of scientific and political discourse on the other” (82). This is the early version of his notion of “strong poets,” explicated in Kuhnian fashion as the distinction between normal and abnormal discourse in PMN, but pitched awkwardly for philosophy as the distinction between “systematic” and “edifying.”[fn.1] Opposed to Rorty’s conception of edification, which he poses as pointless “chat,” Rosenberg conceives of the philosopher as advancing “a rational vision, that is, one which has a legitimate claim on our reasoned assent and which can be coherently sustained in the face of rational criticisms” (qtd. 82). As a gloss on Rosenberg’s earlier definition of philosophy as “a distinctive intellectual mission within any reflective culture worthy of the name, a necessary project of synoptic self-understanding and self-appraisal” (qtd. 82), Rorty rightly says that “few people who use speech rather than guns do not advance such a vision” (82-82) and that you’d need to “explicate ‘rational’ so broadly that Baudelaire and Brecht and Hamilton will also be advancing ‘rational visions’” (83).

The sense of “rational” that Rorty is forced to fall back on to capture Rosenberg’s sense of the philosopher’s mission—which it turns out is ubiquitous across reflective culture—is as “coherent”: you are rational if you are coherent. For Davidsonian reasons, all people are rational most of the time.[fn.2] Brandom agrees that people don’t walk around in radical incoherence (which would the Cartesian ploy of convincing us that we might be), but he thinks Rosenberg has a point about “a legitimate claim on our reasoned assent and which can be coherently sustained in the face of rational criticisms.” There is something different about what Baudelaire does and Rawls does. Rorty’s concern was metaphilosophical—his point is that “rational criticism” occurs in “normal discourse,” which is to say that a vocabulary/vision has already been chosen as the frame of reference in which arguments can be exchanged. Rorty, and Brandom would agree, is punching up the fact that “synoptic self-understandings” that allow “self-appraisal” aren’t the natural purview of philosophers, but are 1) the implicit background of anyone who’s using a language (Wittgenstein’s point about lebensform) and 2) can be offered by just about anyone using whatever methods and modes they have available.

Most philosophers of language accept (1) these days, but it is (2), and Rorty’s apotheosis of Romanticism (and “literary” writers generally), that still sends chills down the philosopher’s spine. It is here that Brandom wishes to step in. The chill is generated by Rorty’s infamous (and disingenuous) abdication of argumentation (cf. CIS 8-9). This has seemed to most to be a rejection of rationality.[fn.3] Rorty’s right that there is a commonality between Baudelaire, Derrida, Rawls and Sellars at the level of generating a “synoptic self-understanding,” but there are also obvious differences. Or rather, we’ve always thought that the differences were obvious, but now Rorty’s challenging most of the senses in which we’ve tried to explicate them. Rorty usually just falls back on generic differences, but Brandom wishes to help us better understand just what choosing one genre over another does and does not imply.

Brandom’s first step would be to distinguish the Davidsonian sense of “rational” Rorty recurred to above from the sense of “rational” as subject to “rational criticism” that Rosenberg wished to bring into view. He does so by calling the former the “constitutive sense” and the latter the “evaluative sense.” To say that we are rational in the evaluative sense is just to say that we subject our beliefs and choices to the kind of scrutiny that produces reasons (i.e., justification) for believing or choosing X or Y. The insight that Brandom claims Kant first brought out, and Sellars best explicated the consequences of, is that the “evaluative or comparative normative dimension of rationality rests on a conceptually prior constitutive one” (Brandom 2). The pragmatist impetus for critique of the positivist philosophical program since its inception has been against its atomism (the attempt to pair off word-world relations in isolation from linguistic communities) of which Davidson’s holism (the triangulation of world-person-community relations) is the best instance of counterattack.[fn.4] Brandom claims that this holism was, in fact, first Kant’s idea, best captured by Sellars’ slogan of “the game of giving and asking for reasons.” Philosophical atomism is marked by the idea that we use reason to find the correct beliefs to have, the correct word-to-world relations, but this produces a sense of “being rational” beholden to the “having of correct beliefs.” Philosophical holism reverses the way the water flows: one has to be first rational before one can begin the search for correct beliefs—you have to first commit to the game before actually playing the game. (Atomism is what largely produced the notion of an Enlightenment ideology, or the notion that “secular humanism” is a religion, best captured by Gadamer’s pithy slogan about the Enlightenment’s “prejudice against prejudice.” What the Enlightenment was struggling towards was a holistic understanding of reason.)

The relationship between the constitutive sense of rational (which captures Davidsonian holism) and the evaluative sense of rational (which captures the enduring spirit of Socrates that we should have reasons for believing) is that while you cannot be more or less rational in the constitutive sense—once you start speaking a language and having beliefs, you are automatically rational in the requisite sense—you can be more or less rational in the evaluative sense because to be rational in the constitutive sense is to be in the game of giving and asking for reasons, though you can abdicate that responsibility occasionally. “Rational beings [in the constitutive sense] are ones that ought to have reasons for what they do” (Brandom 3). To be constitutively rational is to place yourself under the moral obligation of having reasons. To be evaluatively rational is to agree to offer some.

So—are there reasons why we might want to abdicate that responsibility? Of course, like in writing fiction. One way of understanding the writing of fiction is as a series of “as if” inflections of language. While assertoric prose asks us to evaluate the truth of its individual assertions, non-assertoric prose (which we might just call “poetry”) asks us to “pretend as if” what was being written was true. We might say, somewhat misleadingly, that assertoric prose can be evaluated atomistically, while non-assertoric, as-if prose can only be evaluated holistically. What this catches is the sense in which, for assertions to be evaluated, a background must be taken for granted. For typical assertions, the background is generally well known. It is the atypical ones that catch the atomist off guard, and which seem more like literature, which generates, seemingly ex nihilo, its own background in which individual sentences are to be understood (modern science fiction and fantasy being the obvious cases).

What Rosenberg wants to capture is the difference between the philosopher’s putting forward of a sentence as a candidate for belief in the real world and the poet’s putting forward of a sentence, which seems to skirt in special ways such candidacy. “Special” is the key here, for Rorty does want to claim that poets like Blake were intending to affect real-world belief just as much as people like Newton (which is one reason why Rorty lumped both in his special sense of “poet”). But it doesn’t seem exactly apropos to subject The Book of Thiel to “rational criticism,” while it might to the Principia. This is the point at which philosophers like Habermas, wanting to acknowledge the power Rorty slots under the heading of “metaphor,” distinguish between the “world-disclosing” function of language and the “problem-solving” function. This distinction exactly parallels Rorty’s PMNian abnormal/normal discourse distinction. And when Habermas criticizes Derrida for being blind to the fact that “everyday communicative practice makes learning processes possible … in relation to which the world-disclosive force of interpreting language has in turn to prove its worth” (Habermas 205), Rorty responds that, on his reading, Derrida “knows perfectly well that there are communicative practices to which argumentation by reference to standard rules is essential, and that these are indispensable for public purposes” (TP 313).

What Derrida thinks is difficult to tell, but Rorty’s right that there’s nothing essential to Derrida’s performance that requires him to see non-play (“problem-solving”) as parasitic on play (“world-disclosive”). And though Rorty discussed for years the parasitic qualities of irony—that kind of playful language-use exemplified best by the Romantic poets—when the frame of reference is problem-solving/world-disclosure, it becomes difficult for Rorty to explicate his defense of Derrida while maintaining with Shelley that poets are the legislators of the world (using a Davidsonian understanding of metaphor).[fn.5] For Rorty does want to make the strong poet the essential character in the drama of civilization, forcing the problem-solvers and tinkerers and hammer-outers of new vocabularies to secondary, parasitic status.[fn.6] Brandom, decidedly, does not:
…it has seemed perverse to some post-Enlightenment thinkers in any way to privilege the rational, cognitive dimension of language use. But if the tradition I have been sketching is right [the one that responds to the empiricism of Locke through Kant’s fires to its denouement in “Sellars’s rationalist critique of empiricism”], the capacity to use concepts in all the other ways explored and exploited by the artists and writers whose imaginative enterprises have rightly been admired by romantic opponents of logocentrism is parasitic on the prosaic inferential practices in virtue of which we are entitled to see concepts in play in the first place. The game of giving and asking for reasons is not just one game among others one can play with language. It is the game in virtue of the playing of which what one has qualifies as language (or thought) at all. (Brandom 119-20)
You can just about hear the echoing, “I’m looking at you, Dick,” at the conclusion of that passage.[fn.7]

Rorty wants to apotheosize the poet, and Brandom the philosopher. I find it difficult to decide the answer to that cultural-political question, as Rorty would have wanted it put. However, one thing is clear: Rorty would have agreed with Brandom about the centrality of inference to language, against which divergent uses gain their reflected glory, but the consequences of this thought remained hidden from Rorty because of the terms often used to press it upon him. In the case of Habermas, “problem-solving” doesn’t quite nab the centrality of inference, but rhetorically opposes itself quite nicely in parity with “world-disclosure.” Sometimes we’re solving problems, sometimes we’re disclosing worlds, and sometimes we’re just making stupid puns or spouting gibberish. While Rorty can easily admit that “there are communicative practices” for which reason-giving “is essential” (TP 313), Brandom wants to say that the practice of reason-giving is the essential communicative practice, upon which all other linguistic practices are then parasitic.

I haven’t argued for Brandom’s conclusion, but I am persuaded by it, though it doesn’t tell us which cultural figure to apotheosize. All it tells us is that “rational criticism,” the game of giving and asking for reasons, is the paradigm of linguistic use. So what does that mean for literature? Recurring to Rorty’s discussion of Rosenberg, we might say that while Rorty is right that both Baudelaire and Rawls offer rational visions in the sense of coherent visions, Rosenberg would be right if he said that, while true, Baudelaire himself is not offering reasons to defend against rational criticisms. Rorty will want to agree, but his constant point since the 80s has been that non-reason-giving genres of writing have been just as instrumental—if not more so—as prosaic, assertoric, typically problem-solving genres in cultural evolution.

This verges into the debate still fluctuating in the academy about the role of sentiment in moral progress, and the role of sentimentalism in literary history. Put simply, tear-jerking has seemed like cheating for one side of the debate, who emphasize—like Brandom—the importance of reason-giving in having a healthy secularist culture.[fn.8] I don’t think Rorty ever wanted to deny that emphasis. The issue that Brandom helps make clearer, I think, is how the mechanics of sentiment, or metaphors, work in their impact on our reason-giving practices. The tools were always in place for Rorty: Davidson’s distinction between causes and reasons. The world—or a metaphor or (awkwardly put) a sentiment—can cause us to believe X or Y, but our sudden believing-X does not yet have reasons until it is put into a network of inferential relations. The origins of a belief must be held separate from the justification of a belief (though given a set of practices—such as the practice of first-person observational reporting—referring to the origins of your belief may qualify as an acceptable reason). So little Eva’s death might cause us to believe that slavery is wrong, but our tears are not themselves a (sufficient) reason (it’s doubtful we’d want to admit a practice in which any cause of tears is uniformly extirpated from our culture). And so too does saying, “I’m an abolitionist because I cried when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” seem a little silly, and distinctly not a good reason. It might be the correct explanation of the origins of your belief, but it does not seem a good justification for continuing to hold that belief.

What Brandom helps us to see, with his inferential vocabulary of commitments/entitlements, is the mechanics of inference.[fn.9] And what this can then help us to see is that while non-assertoric, as-if prose must be treated holistically because of its as-if quality, reasons can be generated from it by a holistic translation into assertoric prose: literary criticism. Great novelists and artists do offer coherent visions—which the right critical reading would capture—but those visions themselves aren’t advanced as assertoric, and so cannot be rational in the evaluative sense, though we might later discuss them as if they were. The “as if” works both ways. And in both cases a holistic evaluation is required to pull out bit-sized atoms of reasoning (for either evaluations of the as-if text or premises in our own reasoning about the non-as-if world). It might occur to you that my definition of poetry as a kind of “pretend as if this is true” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for poems like Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” or most poems for that matter. “Among twenty snowy mountains,/The only moving thing/Was the eye of the blackbird.” In what sense are we to treat that as true? Asking what sense is exactly the right question, for asking what makes sense of the poem—the beginning of the act of interpretation—will cause you to produce sentences that, if true, will make sense of the poem’s strangeness (and thus the act of haggling over interpretations is the act of calling out your opponent’s sense-generating sentences as not true).[fn.10]

I’d like to close by going back to Rosenberg’s characterization of Rorty’s “edifying conversation” as “mere chat.” His point was that the kind of chatting Rorty wanted to apotheosize doesn’t have a point, which can be contrasted with the kind that does (which we can call “inquiry”). Rorty’s point about metaphilosophical conversation about which vocabularies we should use for particular inquiries was badly put in CIS as abdicating arguments. What Rorty wanted philosophers to better see is a point Heidegger made in Being and Time about “idle talk.” Heidegger said that idle chatter communicates “by following the route of gossiping and passing the word along. What is said-in-the-talk as such, spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because one says so” (Heidegger 212). Rorty wants to say that such talk is not so idle as it appears, but that it is something like “things are so because one says so.” This is the kind of boot-strapping of a new vocabulary that is really a matter of just getting the hang of it. What Rorty wanted was to help breed a more self-conscious space between “idle chatter” and “pointed inquiry.” There are no neutral criteria for deciding what kind of vocabulary one should conduct an inquiry in, but this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we do need to make reasoned choices. Rorty’s misleading rhetoric that led philosophers to think he was promoting an irrational vision should not blind us to how far his sound point—that there are no knock-down arguments for one vocabulary over another in the high metaphilosophical terrain—does in fact reach. There is only pragmatic cost-benefit analysis for one vocabulary over another, and Rorty wanted to breed higher levels of explicit reflection on why a philosopher thought it was important to do something.


[1] The “Reply” is the beginning of the long sequence of apologies Rorty left littered over his corpus: on 84, Rorty apologies for the whole raft of distinctions in Part III of PMN that reviewers kept conflating together: hermeneutics/epistemology, abnormal/normal, edifying/systematic, Continental/analytic. See, too, Rorty’s amusing apology to the Peirce Society for calling himself a pragmatist (in “Comments on Sleeper and Edel,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Winter 1985). Technically the first retraction Rorty had occasion to make, I believe, is in the introduction to CP (xlvn25), but abdication of a philosophical position (in this case, Peirce’s angle on truth) is a little different than Rorty’s rhetorical apologetics.

[2] This is a highly specialized point to explicate, one which I cannot myself adequately defend (not being a professional philosopher), but it involves the confluence of Davidson’s principle of charity—which establishes the conclusion that belief (qua belief) is by its nature veridical (which is to say, as Davidson puts the point less technically, “most of our beliefs are true”)—and the pragmatist point that justification is our only route to truth (which means that most of our beliefs can be given a rational qua coherent accounting). Davidson’s principle is based, roughly, on the considerations of successful communication: because we successfully communicate with each other, what must be true to account for this fact? What must be true is what two speakers of different languages must do to establish successful communication—assume, charitably, that the other person lives in, largely, the same world as you and that which both of you largely successfully navigate. What is initially (from the Cartesian point of view) a shot-in-the-dark assumption to get language-learning off the ground can then be cashed in as correct when you—as we then say—successfully learn the language.

[3] The queer feeling Rorty gave to the analytic community was first amped up, after PMN, in his presidential address to the Eastern Division of the APA, “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism” (in CP). See, too, Rorty’s review of the English release of Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy in the London Review of Books: “If you want to know what the common sense of the bookish will be like fifty years from now, read the philosophers currently being attacked as ‘irrationalist.’ Then discount the constructive part of what they are saying. Concentrate on the negative things, the criticisms they make of the tradition. That dismissal of the common sense of the past will be the enduring achievement of the long-dead ‘irrationalist’” (“Signposts” 5).

[4] For a pithy rundown on the route from atomism to holism with reference to the issue of those who use the experience-idiom instantiated by Kant and those who use the language-idiom instantiated by Frege (i.e., the still on-going debate about the “linguistic turn”), see my “Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn.” Brandom’s route through is to make explicit the underlying thought of Kant’s that Frege made more explicit in the language-idiom. You can do this by reading Kant’s “concepts” as “words,” and reinterpreting Kant’s way of putting them together with experience—e.g., his slogan “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” (A51/B75)—by reading the integration of “intuitions” (i.e. experience) by “concepts,” not as a cookie-cutter placed upon formless dough (in Putnam’s excellent image), but as the integration of intuitions into a network of inferential relationships. This is the transformation of a cause for belief (e.g., bumping into a rock) into a reason for belief (“Why do you look like you are in pain?” “Because I bumped into a rock.”). The dialogic explication of the transformation of the first parenthetical to the second is quite intentional. For a good, pithy summary of Brandom’s that can be put to immediate work on this issue, see Brandom 167-70. The crown of his rundown is that those who wish to blur the difference between, as Brandom puts it, sentience (beings with sensuous experience, for whom it makes plausible sense to ask “what it is like to be” them) and sapience (language-using humans) must eventually blur the difference between parrots and thermometers, and even between them and rocks—anything that responds to their environment, thus leading to panpsychism (which Nagel, who best conceptualized the qualia-defending retort of “what it is like to be X,” quite consistently entertains in Mortal Questions). Brandom’s claim about the difference between sentience and sapience, while acknowledging all this about differential response to one’s environment, can then be put like this:
The parrot [squawking “Red!” when it sees a patch of red], the photocell [registering the relative volume of noise in a room], and the chunk of iron [responding to the wet outdoors by rusting] can serve as instruments for the detection of red things or wet things, because they respond differentially to them. But those responses are not claims that things are red or wet, precisely because they do not understand those responses as having that meaning or content. By contrast, when you respond to red things or wet things by saying, “That’s red” or “That’s wet,” you do understand what you are saying, you do grasp the content, and you are applying the concepts red and wet. What is the difference that makes a difference here? What practical know-how have you got that the parrot, the photocell, and the chunk of iron do not? I think the answer is that you, but not they, can use your response as the premise in inferences. For you, and not for them, your response is situated in a network of connections to other sentences, connections that underwrite inferential moves to it and from it. … The responsive, merely classificatory, non-inferential ability to respond differentially to red and wet things is at most a necessary condition of exercising that understanding, not a sufficient one. (170)

[5] Rorty’s first discussions of parasitism were about the form of transcendental arguments, notably in “Verificationism and Transcendental Arguments” (in Nous Fall 1971) and “Transcendental Arguments, Self-Reference, and Pragmatism” (in Transcendental Arguments and Science, eds. Peter Bieri et al, 1979). I haven’t given a lot of thought yet as to whether there is a connection between the transcendental argument’s parasitism—which is common to Davidson’s argument about the scheme/content dichotomy and Brandom’s argument about the centrality of inference to language—and irony’s parasitism, or any other “poetic” uses of language. Given my topic, one particularly interesting earlier approach towards the power of irony, and its parasitic quality, is in “Is There a Problem about Fictional Discourse?” It’s tough to say how much Rorty would apologize for its ironic conclusion: “For the ironist poet owes far more to Parmenides and the tradition of Western metaphysics than does the scientist. The scientific culture could survive a loss of faith in this tradition, but the literary culture might not” (CP 137).

[6] A good, late-stage articulation of this point can be found in “Pragmatism and Romanticism” (in PCP).

[7] Terminologically, Brandom sets out to differentiate himself from Rorty by resurrecting the appellation of “rationalism” for his philosophical program (which is decidedly a philosophical system), which in Tales of the Mighty Dead he traces from Leibniz and Spinoza to Frege and Sellars, and saying recently that “pragmatism is not a romanticism” (“The Pragmatist Enlightenment,” from Brandom’s website, which is full of interesting stuff, but specifically this page).

[8] The literary battle, which takes up lines on the moral one, can usefully be seen to begin with Ann Douglas’s The Feminization of American Culture (which argues, roughly, that books like Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin turns us into a bunch of pussies) and the return fire of Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs. The virtue of these two books is that they combine a number of different issues into a coherent vision and argument, though in the end we should disentangle those issues and answer them somewhat separately (for example, Tompkins usefully highlights an underlying modernist aesthetic in Douglas’s canon of good texts, but she leaves it entangled with the issue of the political applicability of the texts).

[9] For a brief account of its basics, see the first part of "A Spatial Model of Belief Change."

[10] I mention “Thirteen Blackbirds,” not just because it is a sweet, aggravating poem, but because my poetry professor had us perform an interesting experiment on it that illustrates what I’m calling the general performance of interpretation. The poem contains 13 small, separated stanzas, all with the word “blackbird” in them (I won’t even be so presumptuous as to begin the act of interpretation by saying they are all “about” blackbirds). The experiment was to treat each stanza as a separate poem and each poem as a response to an implicit question. The trick was then to make explicit the question that makes sense of the poem-answer. So, for the quoted stanza, my question was “If one could discern the horizon, what would stand still?” Naturally, still quite opaque. My favorite two were stanzas 3 and 8:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Can we have theory without praxis in this day?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

You can’t stop thinking about Lenore, either, can’t you?