Friday, May 28, 2010

Rhetorical Universalism

I shall define universalism as the philosophical position taken by any range of claims of which it is said that a claim might be true whether someone believes it or not. For a universalistic claim, truth swings free of belief.

To weigh the universalist claim, I would distinguish two questions: 1) Is it true? and 2) Is it effective?

On its face, to distinguish these two questions seems to concede the issue to the universalist—the effectiveness of a claim is its ability to claim belief. So to distinguish between effectiveness and truth as two different questions is to already claim that truth swings free from belief.

To justify this distinction, I would suggest that attempts to move around the distinction fall into two camps, two different reductionisms: Platonists and Sophists. The battle between Platonists and Sophists is the battle between Platonists who think that the second question collapses into the first (truth automatically produces effectiveness) and Sophists who think that the first question collapses into the second (effectiveness automatically produces truth). Each camp, however, needs to explain their own set of anomalous occurrences. The Platonist needs to explain why the truth isn’t always effective—why isn’t hearing a true statement always convincing? Why does it sometimes fall on “deaf ears”? The Sophist, on the other hand, needs to explain the smell of sulfur—why is her claim not just an excuse to tell lies, since we all know lies can be as effective as truths?

The way I’ve described both anomalies cues both camps to their own pernicious, and unsatisfactory, responses. The Platonist can claim that it is just deafness on the part of some, which at its extremes is a kind of willful plugging of the ears. The Sophist can claim that that’s all truths are—just lies we all believe, and the name of the game is getting people to buy what youre selling, however you do it. Both of these responses are unsatisfactory for the same reason—they are too easy, both ending discussion with a dogmatic assertion of how things are. And if the retort from either is, “ah, but that doesn’t mean what I’m saying isn’t true,” then we’ve already moved further into the game I’m suggesting—that truth and effectiveness are distinct.

To defend their reductionisms without contradiction, without reducing and distinguishing in two separate, analogous breaths, both the Platonist and the Sophist need to suggest a mechanism by which we can tell when one side has been reduced to the other. This mechanism would then be able to suggest to us what cases of pernicious static do in fact look like. For example, for the Platonist to not look like a jerk who cries “you are deaf to the truth!!!” every time someone disagrees with him, the Platonist needs a method that’s publicly available that will tell us when a person really is just willfully plugging their ears or spitefully blinding themselves in order to hold on to some cherished, though now falsified, belief. Likewise, for the Sophist to not look like a devilish, insincere fraud who will say anything to get her way, the Sophist needs a method that’s publicly available that will tell us when a particular line of reasoning or justification that up-holds some particular belief is sincere truth and not simply convenient falsehood. In other words, the Platonist and the Sophist are looking for the same thing.

Since a search for a theoretical method or theorem that will ascertain truth is a typical trope for what we think of as Platonism, but not the Sophist, I will say a little bit more about the Sophist. For, have not philosophers occasionally argued that we do not need truth, that all we need is justification? Justification, when properly distinguished from truth, is relative to an audience in a way that truth is not. Your ability to justify yourself in front of an audience is relative to your ability to communicate with them, which means sharing a language, relevant concerns, and a sense of what counts as evidence and good and bad reasons. This means that you could find yourself in front of an audience that counts as a good reason a belief (e.g., in God) that you yourself do not hold. So what is stopping you from grasping at the disbelieved straw if it gets your audience to do what you want?

One might say the virtue of sincerity, but Platonists don’t think this option is available to the Sophist. They don’t understand why, if one really thought that all you needed was effectiveness, one wouldn’t grasp at whatever means were available at any moment to attain one’s ends. I don’t have an answer to this because I honestly don’t see the difficulty—it is unclear what the relationship is, to use Bernard Williams’s distinction, between truth and truthfulness (from his book Truth and Truthfulness). It is that relationship that further needs theoretical adumbration, a mechanism.

In my first formulation of Platonism and Sophism, I claimed they were reductionisms and that this reduction requires a mechanism. In this sense, they both deny the distinction between truth and justification. On this formulation, however, it makes as much sense to say that Platonists can use whatever justification they want, just so long as they know the true truth in their hearts. For if you know the truth, but have no mechanism available to convince other people, what aside from sincerity keeps you from grasping whatever means of persuasion you can? But this lack of mechanism includes the link between truth and sincerity, so if it is denied the Sophist, so too for the Platonist. And the fact of the matter is that I think there is historical precedence for both phenomenons—for pernicious liars who are pathologically only out for themselves (e.g., the Hitler administration) and for pernicious Holders of Truth who will do what they need to do because they know it’s true in their gut (e.g., the Bush administration).

I’d like to note that I modulated earlier from “truth reduces to justification” to “all you need is justification.” The “all you need” formulation is a modulation from the reduction-formulations to try and capture a wilier version of this problem, to try to avoid stawmen as much as possible. But look what happens when we apply both versions to Platonism and Sophism. The picture of the Platonist looks normal when wearing the notion of a mechanism, but the Sophist does not. So to help the picture of the Sophist I modulated from reduce-as-mechanism to reduce-as-“all you need.” But “all you need” is not a reduction in the strictest sense because what it requires is a firm distinction between two things (only one of which you need). The picture of the Sophist looks normal when wearing the notion of reduction, but the Platonist looks a little odd with “all you need” because we are used to associating the Platonist with Up-Holders of Truth. As I’ve suggested, though, without the “Up-” of mechanism, the Holders of Truth could produce just as much nasty material as liars.

So what is going on? James, Dewey, and Foucault all seemed to toy with the Sophist reduction. Foucault’s channeling of Thrasymachus in the formula “knowledge is power” is just the darker-seeming flipside of James’ more optimistic-seeming “the true is the good in the way of belief.” The more neutral formula of what both come to is Dewey’s “truth is warranted assertibility.” But what does this reduction amount to without the mechanism? So-called “postmodern” reductions of truth to illusions, of which Foucault’s is one of the more sensible (once you understand what Foucault means by “discipline”), themselves founder for the same reason the appearance/reality distinction does—if you aren’t going to offer a method for discerning truth from illusion, using the rhetoric of illusion for anything is self-referentially inconsistent at the level of theory.

I would like to say that the dialectic between Platonist and Sophist I’ve brought us through helps us better appreciate the situation we face when considering the universalist claim. The idea that truth swings free from belief is often associated with the Platonist side of the dialectic, but notice that if we don’t get a mechanism—which is what drove the seesaw—it is unclear what the universalist claim gets us: the Platonist wanted more truth, but without the mechanism, what more does the universalist claim give?

Rorty’s strategy for dealing with the situation was to claim that truth and justification are distinct, but that justification is the only route we have for making a claim of truth. I want to call this rhetorical universalism. By the time the Sophist side of the dialectic with Platonists reaches Dewey, it has become clear that Dewey would need a mechanism as much as the Platonist. This realization causes us to notice the similarities. Against reducing truth to justification that has been a typical strategy of pragmatists, Rorty sides with Donald Davidson’s claim that truth is a semantic and radically non-epistemic notion. Truth swings free of belief, but that tells us nothing about what to believe.

If we call the universalist claim—a claim might be true whether someone believes it or not—the realist intuition, we can see the impetus behind philosophical realisms and Platonisms and the force of Davidson’s theory as a way of paying homage to that intuition. The realist and Platonist want to emphasize that what we happen to believe now might not be the truth. Davidson is saying that it is the case that truth swings free of belief, but that there is no way to motivate this in a way that tells us which particular beliefs are false (aside from the universalist claim itself). The key is motivating truths—how do you motivate the realist intuition that is, e.g., housed in the semantic, disquotational theory of truth: “X” is true iff X. Davidson claims that the disquotational theory of truth is all the theory we are going to get. All it tells us is how the word “true” works: a sentence is “true” if and only if what the sentence says is the case. “Snow is white” is true iff snow is white.  What it doesn’t give us is a mechanism for ascertaining the truth of the sentence. What Davidson is saying is that the realist intuition is true, but that’s as far as it goes.

But say we accept all this—is there not still something left to account for in coming to terms with the realist intuition? For, where did the realist intuition come from? Even if we don’t believe in various supernaturalisms, positing various kinds of “intuitive” faculties; even if we are naturalist through and through, that still means the realist intuition came from somewhere.

In fact, intuitive faculty explanations turn out to be the easy way out. To say that an intuition of some kind, some belief you have about this or that which you have no easy explanation to offer about its source, to say that it came from a “direct” relation to reality is to basically halt the explanatory sequence at that the claim of directness. Doing this changes the subject of explanation from “where did this particular belief come from?” to “what is this ‘direct relation’ exactly?” The former question is a perfectly understandable, naturalistic historical-rhetorical question. The latter question is a perfectly suitable, specifically epistemological question. If your interests are to move from questions anybody can answer to a disciplinary question only specialists can answer, then this performs the delimiting magic required. However, to delimit the field of inquiry in this manner—to construct “epistemology” as a subject that asks questions which are not historical-rhetorical—is to revert to a Cartesian-Kantian understanding of epistemology. Specifically, I am suggesting that direct-relations claims will at some point need to fall back on a faculty psychology, one that is anti-naturalistic.

So to return to the difficult historical-rhetorical question (rather than posing a different, non-natural question)—where does the realist intuition come from? What is it about the world that produces the sense that some things are true whether or not you believe them (like snow being white)? The answer that I think Davidson would suggest is that to use “the world” in stating the question has been what has misled us into creating philosophical realisms all these many years. There is a hidden, pernicious distinction in the question between “the world” and “us,” how “the world” is that produces something “in us.” For Davidson, the fact of successful communication presupposes triangulation, an inseparable triad of person-community-world. So the best answer about where the realist intuition comes from may be “it comes from the fact that a single person is typically successful in her communicative negotiations with other people and the world at large, and that the idea of ‘success’ presupposes an occasional unsuccess, which produces in the single person a sense that she might be, on occasion, corrected in her attempts at communication.” Or to put it more simply: “I feel like I’m right, but I have to allow for the fact that I might be wrong.” The realist intuition is just fallibilism. Philosophical realisms have been trying to convert our occasional wrongness about the world into a theory. When the topic has been truth, it has taken the guise of a certifying theorem that will convert historical-rhetorical justifications into irrefutable, infallible true statements that are impervious to further inquiry. But we have found out—so goes the Rortyan story about the march of 2500+ years of philosophical dialogue—that there is no theorem that will relate justification and truth in this way. There is no route from fallibility to infallibility.

What I’m calling rhetorical universalism is the claim that we are always and everywhere situated in a rhetorical web, and that this is true whether or not you believe it. Davidson’s arguments about triangulation, the disquotational theory of truth, the principle of charity, the rejection of the scheme/content distinction—all of these dovetail into a description of how communication must work for something called “communication” to be said to be happening at all. And since we agree that we do most of the time successfully communicate, it follows from this very simple fact that we are always situated in a historical-rhetorical community—that “rhetoric goes all the way down.” This truth has not always been recognized, would not have always been justified, would not have always been rhetorically effective. But there is nothing contradictory between holding these two things, just so long as you distinguish between two questions: Is it true? and Is it effective?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Are There Bad Questions?

Richard Rorty spent the last ten years of his life redacting some of his more controversial rhetorical strategies, which included endlessly apologizing for hyperbole. One of his favorite strategies was to say that there were bad questions: to pursue a certain line of thought was to put yourself on the path to a conversational cul-de-sac, ending in aporia, a seeming inability to get anybody to agree to an answer. This inability to find criteria that you could get people to agree on to explain what a good answer would look like was the tell-tale sign of a bad question. The “bad question” approach to philosophical disagreement is hiding in his earliest writing, but began to truly flower when Rorty first formulated the groundplan for Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1970 with “Cartesian Epistemology and Changes in Ontology,” became solidified in that book, and most famously codified in the introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism. In that intro, the bad-question approach becomes entwined with another strategy Rorty came to embrace: the I-don’t-have-a-theory approach. “[The pragmatist theory of truth] says that truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about” (CP xiii).

The ironic self-contradiction has always been plain to people, though most who have taken to pointing it out leave out the irony and what it means: the pragmatist theory of truth is one about why we won’t have an interesting theory about truth. That’s important, though I’m not sure Rorty always understood quite how important. For a page later he says, famously:
Pragmatists think that the history of attempts to isolate the Truth or the Good, or to define the word “true” or “good,” supports their suspicion that there is no interesting work to be done in this area. It might, of course, have turned out otherwise. People have, oddly enough, found something interesting to say about the essence of Force and the definition of “number.” They might have found something interesting to say about the essence of Truth. But in fact they haven’t. The history of attempts to do so, and of criticisms of such attempts, is roughly coextensive with the history of that literary genre we call “philosophy”—a genre founded by Plato. So pragmatists see the Platonic tradition as having outlived its usefulness. This does not mean they have a new, non-Platonic set of answers to Platonic questions to offer, but rather that they do not think we should ask those questions anymore. When they suggest that we not ask questions about the nature of Truth and Goodness, they do not invoke a theory about the nature of reality or knowledge or man which says that “there is no such thing” as Truth or Goodness. Nor do they have a “relativistic” or “subjectivist” theory of Truth or Goodness. They would simply like to change the subject. (CP xiv)
This “I have no theory” approach gets broadened into “and neither arguments nor theses,” as when he said in the late-70s, “Non-Kantian philosophers like Heidegger and Derrida are emblematic figures who not only do not solve problems, they do not have arguments or theses” (CP 93). This eventually turns into his claim that Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity contains no arguments (evidence to the contrary). The interrelationship between what Rorty means by “theory,” “argument,” and “thesis” at any given moment can be parsed, and I think it would show that it depends on which direction he’s facing—whether towards Platonists, who think we must have a theory, or towards pragmatists, who think they are optional. This can be a complicated needle to thread (principally because it involves the fact that people have, e.g., selves though having a theory or thesis about that fact is optional), but to make the first pass in knitting the row, I would point out that Rorty doesn’t mention who finds the essence of Force or definition of “number” interesting. Because I certainly don’t. There are two different audiences for “number” and then “truth.” In the former case, the audience is likely mathematicians. In the latter case, Rorty’s audience is professional philosophers. And it is those who disagree with how interesting results about truth have been. So what does Rorty mean be “interesting”?

Rorty usually means by “interesting” in these contexts “discernable effect on people’s lives.” In the case of numbers, though non-mathematicians could care less, the fact that mathematics professors do and keep producing results that pan out into the warp of society means that the woof of what they do has interest. This is not the case with “truth” and “good” as of yet, for Rorty’s claim is that inquiry into Truth has not helped people produce more true statements. And by and large (emphasis on the “large”) this is true. The trouble is that Rorty has to admit that for philosophers, inquiry into Truth has helped them produce more true statements—for example, Davidson’s claim that “most of our beliefs are true.” This, as Rorty admits, is interesting and could not have been done without the context of logical positivism and their unacknowledged Platonic goals.

Being forced to face this equivocation in his rhetorical stances, Rorty began to finally admit that he does have theses, or theories, or pictures, of this or that philosophical-looking kind of object (“the self” or “reality” or “experience” or “language”). This means a disentangling of the bad-question approach and no-theory approach. “I have no theory” is really code for “you are going to be really disappointed when I tell you what it is…,” and this because of the Platonic expectations typically carried by people asking for one. But this means that “bad question” isn’t inherent, but rather a conversational stability produced by the instability of criteria for what counts as a good answer. Rorty can answer the question of what truth is, but because of the wildly ranging differences of opinion over what it is good for, it will seem a bad answer to somebody. The light in which Rorty’s answer, or anybody’s, can appear good is a stipulative light—“if for the moment we agree on X, Y, and Z, then this theory will satisfy it.” Rorty’s stipulation on truth has been the stipulation that truth, properly speaking (which is to say “for the occasion of my theory”), is a semantic and radically non-epistemic concept. That is not the only way we use the word “true,” but when push comes to shove, we should stop trying to incorporate those uses, e.g. the endorsing use, into our theory of truth because doing so is what leads to bad questions that we can’t seem to answer, or would have any practical consequences even if we could (like how we know when “snow is white” corresponds to the fact that snow is white). When Rorty would say, “That’s a bad question we shouldn’t ask,” he was suggesting there might be other, more profitable questions to discuss. And when Rorty gave an answer to the bad question, e.g. a disquotational theory of truth, it was intended shut down avenues of thought that have proven interminable cul-de-sacs (hence the epithet for disquotationalists of “deflationists” and, more generally on Platonic questions, “quietists”).

Rorty had begun sorting out these equivocations and changes in stances in his last ten years, but in Rorty’s reply to Jaroslav Peregrin in his installment to the Living Library of Philosophers, Rorty says most clearly what I’ve articulated above (and what produced the impetus to further articulate this point on the scope of his writing):
I should also have been careful not to invoke Wittgenstein’s contrast between “advancing theses” and “practicing therapy.” Doing the former now seems to me a perfectly legitimate, and often useful, therapeutic technique. Peregrin cites Wittgenstein’s claim that he was “in a sense making propaganda for one style of thinking as opposed to another.” He says that this would be a good description of my preferred mode of philosophical activity. I am happy to accept the suggestion, but less happy about this suggestion that “neither Wittgenstein nor Rorty thinks that it is possible to give a theory answering ‘philosophical questions’.”

Consider Davidson’s thesis that most of our beliefs must be true, or Brandom’s inferentialist theory about the origin of singular terms. Such theses and theories provide answers to questions like, “Well, what will we say about the relation between language and nonlanguage, once we abandon the familiar ‘realist’ account?” By providing the pragmatist with such answers, they facilitate his propagandizing efforts. Not everybody feels it necessary to pose such questions seriously, but when somebody does it is nice to be able to gratify her. Though sometimes it works best to say, “that’s a bad question, one that we pragmatists don’t ask,” with some interlocutors it is more effective to reply, “here’s an answer to that question, since you insist on asking it.” (The Philosophy of Richard Rorty 247-8)
If I had to speculate on what most produced this change in Rorty, I would have to say it was the work of his student, Robert Brandom. Rorty grew up, philosophically speaking, on Davidson, who was at Princeton for a time in the late 60s. Rorty spent much of the 60s retooling as an analytic philosopher, which meant falling in love with Sellars and becoming acquainted with Davidson’s cast of mind. Rorty was left to his own devices after Davidson left, and the formative 70s—when Rorty was drawing out the consequences of Sellars, Quine, and Davidson—were also the years Brandom was at Princeton, ’72-’77.

Rorty’s fall from analytic-grace was initially a souring with “system,” with the hopes of pay-off attending all the work that must be done to create a system. Rorty was first and foremost a voracious reader, and he loved reading systems in the hopes there has a hidden source of power in them (he wrote his master’s thesis and dissertation on Whitehead). In the end, I think Rorty liked reading too much—sitting at a desk, pouring energy into getting the system just right, didn’t seem appealing because it took him out of the library stacks too long (or away from the forests where he loved bird-watching). And combine this with his reading of so many systems, whether Kant’s or Hegel’s or Carnap’s or Whitehead’s (or Dewey’s, for that matter), all claiming to have the hiddern power, and all of them contradicting each other, and you have a recipe for someone with a pretty good self-justification for not writing a system himself. Rorty’s disagreement with Davidson throughout his career pretty much amounts to the fact that Davidson always wanted to write a system, but never got around to it—so Rorty would always wonder about the aspiration, since the work he was doing in essays was so good itself. Brandom, however, is a brilliant systematizer, and has done in Making It Explicit what Davidson was never able to do and Rorty never thought worth doing. From the time of that book's publication in 1994, you can see a slow slide in Rorty’s responses to Brandom, beginning with a queasy reaction to his rehabilitiation of “representation” to a final “I still don’t think regular people need a system, but if you want one, get a load of this…totally worth it.”


Addendum on Pirsig

What does Pirsig think about bad questions and systems?

I think it’s important to notice the course of events and presentation. In ZMM, Pirsig describes the S/O Dilemma as an aporia created by a previous agreement on the terms of debate. Pirsig later describes “truth traps,” on the analogy of the “old South Indian Monkey Trap”—which is similar to Chinese finger-cuffs—and interprets the Japenese word “mu” as “unask the question.”

And then ZMM ends (there’s a chance I might be forgetting something). The trick is that Pirsig offers a few half-hearted stabs at sysematizing his thoughts about Quality (don’t forget the diagram in Ch. 20), but the point of the story doesn’t appear to be a replacement system, but rather the resurrection of Phaedrus after chasing down the ghost of reason to Plato. When we move to Lila, I think we should pay close attention to how the Metaphysics of Quality is introduced. Pirsig quickly presents us with the quandry of SOM, a sort of recapitulation of the point of ZMM, and begins to describe his metaphysical answers. What happens then is that Rigel intercedes and objects (Ch. 6). Pirsig then bemoans his answers given, and the problem turns out to be a pernicious understanding of virtue—Pirsig let Rigel and the Victorians decide the terms of debate (the definition of the terms) and so lost before the fight even began.

The Metaphysics of Quality takes flight after a conversational difficulty. Pirsig writes that Phaedrus “realized that sooner or later he was going to have to stop carping about how bad subject-object metaphysics was and say something positive for a change” (Lila 123, Ch. 9). Why? Because “he had already violated the nothingness of mystic reality” (124), he’d already said something positive rather than sticking to the via negativa that mystics, particularly in the West, typically force themselves to stick to, a route that after Hegel (and particularly Adorno) became more and more prominent in non-theological metaphysics, too. Pirsig realizes that he has to say something, even that saying things are good. And this is where the presentation is interesting. The two paragraphs run like this:
By even using the term “Quality” he had already violated the nothingness of mystic reality. The use of the term “Quality” set up a pile of questions of its own that have nothing to do with mystic reality and walks away leaving them unaswered. Even the name, “Quality,” was a kind of definition since it tended to associate mystic reality with certain fixed and limited understandings. Already he was in trouble. Was the mystic reality of the universe really more immanent in the higher-priced cuts of meat in the butcher shop? These were “Quality” meants weren’t they? Was the butcher using the term incorrectly? Phaedrus had no answers.

. . . [ellipsis Pirsig’s] That was the problem this morning too, with Rigel. Phaedrus had no answers. If you’re going to talk about Quality at all you have to be ready to answer someone like Rigel. You have to have a ready-made Metaphysics of Quality that you can snap at him like some catechism. Phaedrus didn’t have a Catechism of Quality and that’s why he got hit. (124)
Pirsig considers metaphysics to be a good thing to do because it gives you an answer to people like Rigel, people who insist on certain questions. The analogy with Catholic practices in particular highlights what Pirsig has in mind. “Catechism” is from Greek roots that mean an “indoctrination.” This has bad connotations to our ears now, as does the other name Catholics have for it: dogma. But all Pirsig is highlighting is how what he is lacking is a systematic way to keep things straight in his line of thought, and how to answer people who press him.

Pirsig immediately goes on to analogize metaphysics with chess, and writes this:
Trying to create a perfect metaphysics is like trying to create a perfect chess strategy, one that will win every time. You can’t do it. It’s out of the range of human capability. No matter what position you take on a metaphysical question someone will always start asking questions that will lead to more positions that lead to more questions in this endless intellectual chess game. The game is supposed to stop when it is agreed that a particular line of reasoning is illogical. This is supposed to be similar to a checkmate. But conflicting positions go on for centuries without any such checkmate being agreed upon. (125)
I’m not sure Pirsig ever comments further on the purpose of this paragraph. But we might notice that Pirsig’s subsumption of “reasonable” to “good” from ZMM should still be in effect, which may explain why “illogic” does not always hold sway. And further, we might imagine that Pirsig did have his Catechism of Quality at the ready when Rigel comes calling—would Rigel have been blown away? Should he have? There is no indication in these early pages, and particularly with the above paragraph, that Pirsig believes that had Phaedrus the MoQ ready to snap, it would have changed Rigel’s mind. It would have, rather, continued the conversation (until, perhaps, Rigel tired out first). Consider, too, the fact that when Rigel returns at the close, there’s no indication that any of Phaedrus’ “answers” are what lead Rigel to come back (for more on this curious aspect see my “Prospectus”).

What sometimes gets lost in metaphysical system-building is the person doing the building, and what the building is for. For Pirsig, there is a strong indication that metaphysics is for keeping yourself straight in conversation—consider Pirsig’s introduction to Lila’s Child where he picks up the chess metaphor again and says that “real chess is the game you play with your neighors. Real chess is ‘muddling through.’ Real chess is the triumph of mental organization over complex experience. And so is real philosophy” (viii). “Muddling through” is one of Dewey’s favorite images, one that Rorty loved to promote. Between Pirsig’s lament about getting broad-sided by Rigel and the Catechism of Quality, there’s Pirsig’s chapter on metaphysical platypi—the outcome of previously made cuts in the metaphysical firmament, previously made choices about which questions deserve answers. Pirsig says early in that chapter that “saying that a Metaphysics of Quality is false and a subject-object metaphysics is true is like saying that rectangular coordinates are true and polar coordinates are false” (Lila 115, Ch. 8). Both are used, are determined better or worse, relative to the purpose with which you are using them. The figure standing there weighing the options between the two alternatives is the philosopher, who sometimes goes missing in the attempt to limn the structure of reality.

And if someone insists on asking whether Quality is in the subject or object? Just say, “both—the object’s made out of inorganic, and maybe biological static patterns of Quality, and for the subject just tack on some intellectual and/or social static patterns of Quality.” And then you have your answer to a bad question. The questions won’t stop, but do they ever?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Blake and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

This is a fairly uninteresting piece, gerrymandered together out of reading Blake, Horkheimer and Adorno (H/A), and a Romanticist named Mark Lussier (for a class reflection in ecocriticism). In my understanding, H/A formulated one of the most thorough articulations of the post-Rousseauian longing for total revolution, a phrase borrowed from Bernard Yack. I think this longing is one of the most important conceptual pieces to understanding much about modern thought. Once one identifies society as the problem and pervasive, you begin to wish it would all go away--somehow. English Romanticism contains this longing, but like Rorty, I see something else going on, too. I think American Romanticism--Emerson--does much to overcome the problem of this longing, and I take it to be the tension between what Emerson termed "solitude and society" and the identification of that tension as power.

There isn't any of that here, but what Harold Bloom calls Emerson's "dialectics of power" has echoes in this discussion of people "across the pond" (as we stuffy litcrits apparently like to say), and what I identify below as Blake's sly humbling through metonymy is Emerson's mode in Nature. So while below I suggest that Blake's Platonism can't break through H/A's formulation of the dialectic, the real problem isn't Blake's Platonism (which I take to be ironic like Emerson's), but the formulation--the longing--itself. In Blake, the dialectics of power that shirks this longing shows up as the dialectic between Poets and Priests found in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, also not discussed here. To understand this dialectic, between self-alone and self-among-others, it helps to translate Blake's categories into Bloom's: poetry and belief. Santayana helps beautifully with this, too: "Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry" (Interpretations of Poetry and Religion v). Working out the involution of that sentence will move one far towards understanding what Rorty means by metaphors as the catalyst of cultural change and his public/private distinction.

What I have left to work out in these stories is the relationship between mathematics (an enemy common to H/A in the Dialectic of Englightenment and Heidegger in, e.g., "The Age of the World Picture") and the ironic Platonism I find in Romantics from Blake and Emerson to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. I suspect that I find their Platonism ironic precisely because Platonism took the path of method identified with mathematics, and that this path ironically transformed into materialism in the New Science (an irony charted by Blumenberg)--hence, the needed irony of a return to Plato and Greek idealism.

References are to an article by Lussier, "Blake's Deep Ecology," in Studies in Romanticism Fall 1996 (my pagination is not coordinate to the hardcopy). The H/A translation of the Dialectic of Englightenment used throughout, except one place noted, is to the new Jephcott translation.

*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.


The story Horkheimer and Adorno tell about the history of thought is compressed and dense, but one of its central components is that “in thought, human beings distance themselves from nature in order to arrange it in such a way that it can be mastered” (Horkheimer and Adorno 31). What Horkheimer and Adorno fear is the instrumentalization of thought, the turning of thought into merely a tool: “blindly pragmatized thought loses its transcending quality and, its relation to truth.”[fn.1] The disturbing thing in Horkheimer and Adorno’s picture is that once the dialectical path is stepped upon, there is no getting off until the bottom. Like Marx’s sense that once the division of labor is made, the rest of history is but an extension of that first moment, it is difficult to find in Horkheimer and Adorno where the wrong but civilization-creating turn was. What they term “enlightenment” is out to destory myth, but it is a hopeless battle: “Just as myths already entail enlightenment, with every step enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology” (8). So the question is: can we turn back the clock? Can we break the dialectic of enlightenment?

Mark S. Lussier has suggested that Blake has, indeed, formulated a way through. By driving straight at Blake’s dualism between humanity and nature, and suggesting that they are deeply symbiotic, Lussier hopes to capitalize on Blake’s formulation of the fall from innocence that marks the birth of modernity Blake stands astride. And much like Horkheimer and Adorno, Lussier highlights Blake’s fingering of Bacon for complicity in the act. Horkheimer and Adorno say that “Nature, before and after quantum theory, is what can be registered mathematically…” (18). Mathematics bring the “self-satisfaction of knowing in advance” (18) which is ironically coupled with the “apotheosis of advancing thought” (18). Galileo is associated with the former and is the treatment of “nature as self-repetition” (12). But in its repetitious nature, there is the endless scribbling to reinstate math’s preplanned plan—experimentation, of which Bacon is the father. Scientific thought advances in empirical experimentation, just as math makes the experiments less and less interesting.

Lussier references one of Blake’s handy lists of mathematizing, empirical culprits, “Bacon, Locke & Newton” in Milton, but I’d like to refocus on that same list in Jerusalem: “I am your Rational Power!/Am I not Bacon & Newton & Locke who teach Humility to Man!” (Jerusalem, Ch. 3, v. 16-17) This line tells us something important about the spirit of Bacon and enlightenment—they teach humility before nature. Rather than treating nature as a god to be fought with, as the myths show us, we must acknowledge nature’s power. We must bow respectfully before it and simply trace its contours. But through humility, we gain power. Horkheimer and Adorno’s reading of Odysseus help unlock this process: “The formula for Odysseus’s cunning is that the detached, instrumental mind, by submissively embracing nature, renders to nature what is hers and thereby cheats her” (Horkheimer and Adorno 45). By reducing ourselves, we reduce nature—much along the lines of Lussier’s reversal of Blake’s formula: “just as ‘nature is barren’ in the absence of man, so too, by necessity of the proverb’s own symmetries, man is barren in the absence of nature” (Lussier 5). This reduction of nature’s power by draining ourselves of our own functions along the lines of Harold Bloom’s figure of kenosis, and Bloom assigns the trope of metonymy to this poetic maneuver—the trope Blake is constantly using, as in his use of “Bacon.” By this logic, the enlightenment stands humbled before nature, promising to experiment and test nature slowly, in order to circumscribe nature with mathematics. And Blake humbles himself before “Bacon & Newton & Locke” in order to circumscribe them with his poetry.

The difficulty in breaking the dialectic Horkheimer and Adorno map out still lies before us, though: “Any attempt to break the compulsion of nature by breaking nature only succumbs more deeply to that compulsion” (Horkheimer and Adorno 9). Even a humbling is a succumbing to the dialectic. It isn’t clear how Blake’s Platonism can save him, for it still posits a dichotomy between humanity and nature, and even if they are symbiotic, the trouble is that humanity would rather debase themselves by instrumentalizing their thought than suffer nature’s tyranny. “Human beings have always had to choose between their subjugation to nature or its subjugation to the self” (25). In such a dark formulation of the problem of enlightenment, it’s difficult to see how a regression to Platonism, the earlier metaphysics which was the first step past myths (which inexorably produced it), is the way through. And as Lussier, quoting a deep ecology mission statement, agrees, “nothing short of a total revolution in consciousness will be of lasting use” (Lussier 5). The trouble that even stunted Horkheimer and Adorno was in how to conceive of it.

To ferret out this problem in Blake’s Platonism, I would reread a selection of the Book of Thel that Lussier glosses:
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.
Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water.
Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face.
Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air; (I, v. 8-11)
Lussier says that, “in an interesting reversal,” “it is consciousness, and not nature, that ‘mirrors’” (4). This strikes me as just wrong, and it signficantly elides the dialectical danger of Platonic dualism. Lussier wants the reversal so he can say, “See—nature and man need each other so that neither is barren.” But the reversal is not strongly tuned in Lussier’s direction. Noting Bloom’s comment that “Thel” is Greek for “will,” Lussier, I think correctly, identifies Thel with consciousness. But whereas Lussier is focused on Thel’s transformations through the repeated and varied simile, I think one needs to slow down and look at what exactly Thel is like, particularly “a reflection in a glass” and “shadows in the water.” Thel, consciousness, is “like a reflection in a glass”—consciousness is paired with “reflection,” which means nature, as earlier in the Vision of the Last Judgment, is the mirroring glass. “Shadows in the water” is even more Platonically disturbing for consciousness—the water, nature, again reflects back consciousness, and what it reflects are transitory shadows, like those in the Plato’s Cave.

It isn’t clear to me that Blake proposes a total revolution, nor is it clear that he even wants to escape Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialectic. In the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he says “Without Contraries is no progression.” (Plate 3) An other-worldly, Platonic-like answer would be to shunt progression, then, to avoid the dialectical devolution portrayed by Horkheimer and Adorno entirely. But Blake says these contraries are “necessary to Human existence.” (Plate 3) The escape of an Edenic Heaven is always paired with the energy and vitality of Hell and Milton’s Satan. For Blake says, “this history has been adopted by both parties” (Plate 5).


[1]This is the old translation by John Cumming, which I greatly prefer to Edmund Jephcott’s translation: “thought in its headlong rush into pragmatism is forfeiting its sublating character, and therefore its relation to truth” (xvi).