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?

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