Friday, May 31, 2013

On Literature's Accidents

1. Eben Cooke and two Jack Sparrows — “A clever man is never lost for long”; 2. Barth's shit jokes — Philosophy and literature; 3. Essence and accident — Nihilism and innocence; 4. Don Quixote and the chivalric romance — Birth of the novel — Irony and the Cervantean tradition; 5. What is the point of literature? — Doing without certainty

1.     Ebenezer Cooke was in trouble.

Newly named Poet Laureate of Maryland by the deposed and powerless Lord Baltimore, Ebenezer doesn’t let such a quibble as whether Lord Baltimore can make him Poet Laureate, rather than simply name him so, stop him from launching out for the New World. But Fie! ’fore he can go ten paces, he’s mired in political intrigue far above his pure heart and, sadly, head. Left to his own poetic devices at a bar by his worldly compatriot, teacher, and protector, Henry Burlingame—who’s gone off to squib a wench—Ebenezer is confronted by two Pirate Captains, Slye and Scurry, who in burlesque fashion are about to come to blows over who is the guest of whom, and so who shall chivalrously pay the tab (think: two Jack Sparrows, avant la lettre). Ebenezer, rational gentleman he is, can’t believe the argument, and in attempting to intercede, the two Pirate Captains train their guns at him and begin arguing who is the guest of whom, and so who shall chivalrously pump poor Eben with lead. Ebenezer responds by shitting himself and swooning like a gothic heroine.

Burlingame thankfully saves Ebenezer any more embarrassment by taking him out to the stables, relieving him of his clothes (to be washed), and leaving him with this bit of wisdom to deal with his befouled fanny: “A clever man is never lost for long.” [1]

2.     John Barth has created this scene to…well, it’s difficult to say, as shall become clear in a moment, that Barth does anything for any particular purpose. Or rather, we shouldn’t limit his scenes to such formulas as I began with. For example, I was going to say, “to make a point about literature and the sources of wisdom,” but it’s quite clear that Barth also wrote the scene in order to make a bunch of shit jokes. Barth is just too funny to not also have had that as a primary purpose. But now we’re in the game of looking for primary purposes, and his scene clearly shoves that to the side.

Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is an elaborate parody of the 18th-century novel (though, again, saying that kind of misses the point), and as such it is about the late 17th-century. So when Ebenezer looks to his education, he distinguishes between the set Sir Philip Sidney did in his Defense of Poesy: history, philosophy, and poetry. Or nearly so, for Barth has helpfully updated the parlance to be literature—where shall wisdom be found? Ebenezer turns to history, but finds that “the eyes of Clio are like the eyes of snakes, that can see naught but motion” (172) and so naught of the timeless problems of humanity (e.g., shitting oneself for fear). And the philosophers must have “all shat syllogisms, that have nor stench nor stain,” all completely pure of “personal problems [except] insofar as they illustrated general ones” (173). So finally, with hopeful countenance, Eben turns to literature, whose “province [is] the entire range of man’s experience and behavior” (173). But, after recalling Gargantua’s wiping of his ass with a goose—and not seeing any geese around—Ebenezer concludes with heavy heart that literature “did not, except accidentally, afford solutions to practical problems” (173).

However, after tumbling down the well of despair, Eben says to himself offhandedly (if portentously), “What hope hath he for other aid, whom wit and the world have both betrayed?” (174) With surprise, he recognizes it as a couplet—and a good one—and so casts about for his notebook to scribble it down. And then—bright as dawn, the answer to his problem: “two fresh and virgin sheets—and then two more—for the work, which, completed with no small labor, owing to the drying effect of the breeze, he turned into an allegory thus: the unused sheets were songs unborn, which yet had power, as it were in utero, to cleanse and ennoble him who would in time deliver them” (174-75).

And so, literature did aid, if accidentally, with Ebenezer’s accident.

3.     Is there a point here, aside from the multilayered fun being had in creating the situation? I take it we can move to one by applying the Aristotelian distinction between essence and accident to Ebenezer’s conception of philosophy and literature. The Aristotelian conceives of objects as being what they are by distinguishing between essential relations and accidental. Water is accidentally blue, for example, but essentially made of two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. But in dealing with “generalities, categories, and abstractions alone,” the fact that I used water in the example is accidental to the illustration of the general principle that objects have essences. And as the case then illustrates, philosophy’s essence is that it is always about itself, pushing you always to realize the same thing: the distinction between essence and accident.

Having such a distinction in hand would make us ask what the essence of literature is—and since philosophy is about the essence of objects, that would make literature about the accidents of life, the inessential (yet the treatment of which seems, at the time, of the essence—ask Eben). Yet, just as philosophy is essentially centripetal and literature centrifugal, on this conception, it is just that which makes both essentially useless as guides to life if you are looking for the essential solution of a completely rendered problem. Life will ever be a series of unique situations, the record of which will never keep up in order to show you precisely what to do. Thus, if literature does help you, it is completely by accident.

And yet, it is also literature that is going to be the only thing to turn to—a shot in the dark is still better than standing under the lamppost seeing, in perfect clarity, that nothing at hand within the lit area is going to help you. This cynical attitude toward philosophy-as-after-essence might be called “nihilism.” Nietzsche called it that, and so did Barth. Barth called The Sot-Weed Factor the third of his “nihilist trilogy” with his first two novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. In its essence, nihilism is the denial that Platonism’s search for purity by its aggressive use of invidious distinctions—such as between essence and accident—is a good thing. The Sot-Weed Factor carries this out as a plot by casting Ebenezer as defining himself in essence as a poet and as a virgin—and a poet because a virgin (i.e. he drew his poetic power from his virginity)…and a virgin because a poet. (Letting “poet” here stand as a pun for “nerd,” which seems to me closer the case nowadays, is funnier to me than explaining why this is the case in the novel, though ironically one of the things Ebenezer learns on his journey is that “poet” in his day and age is synonymous with “manwhore.”) And by the end of the very, very (very) long journey, Ebenezer is chagrined to find that “the mere technical fact of his virginity” (628) has made quite a mockery of the Platonic-Christian veneration of Innocence.

4.     But, of course, this couldn’t possibly be the point of the story—it doesn’t take 750+ pages to unravel the fact that the Christian sense of “innocence” ran on several different conflicting levels that seem somewhat absurd in our late age. We, by and large, already know such things. Even the philosophical point of nihilism wasn’t terribly new, and we are much more easily prepared for it than 200 years ago (though, written in the ‘50s, one could plausibly argue that we really hadn’t yet assimilated Nietzscheanism yet—or maybe even now). So what’s the point? Well, as one lover of stories puts it in the book, “’Tis a great mistake for a tale-teller to philosophize and tell us what his story means” (591). In fact, apropos unraveling any particular point, that same lover says delightfully that it is because life is knotted and bewildering “that a good tale tangles the better to unsnarl” (589).

It is particularly the nihilistic strike against pulling a moral from your story that situates Barth in a literary tradition that stretches back at least to Cervantes. Don Quixote is centrally an inversion of the chivalric romance, a parody that ironizes the entire idea of the quest-romance—thus giving birth to the novel (so goes one of the stories critics like to tell themselves about the origins of things). One of the most important ironies is that in a quest, the knight-errant is supposed to encounter obstacles to be overcome, so that at the end of the journey the poet writing his epic can record the drama and heroism of his quest by showing what had to be overcome—how would we know heroism if there were nothing difficult to surmount? (This conceit—that the knight-errant plays to History—is nicely punched up by the minstrel following around Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Well, one of the main obstacles Don Quixote seems to have to overcome is other people interrupting his quest with stories of their own.

This digressive quality is embedded in two canonical 18th-century novels, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. George Eliot’s narrator digressively remarks in Middlemarch that Fielding’s “copious remarks and digressions,” particularly in the first chapters of the many books to his “history” of Tom Jones, are not for us “belated historians,” for “Fielding lived when the days were longer.” [2] This is funny, and funnier now considering how long Middlemarch is and how short we now like our books. Barth has said that when he set out to write The Sot-Weed Factor his two goals were to write a plot as complicated as Tom Jones and a book fat enough for the title to be across the spine, and not down it. The sense of belatedness in modern novelists, though, has only become exacerbated since Eliot, and that was Barth’s response. Effectively, it was to double-down, and in the style of Cervantes, turn all on its head. The call of Romanticism was to make it new, but how many forms do we have to experiment with? That’s, centrally, the burden of the past Walter Jackson Bate traced. At a time when everyone was talking about “the death of the novel,” Barth pointed out that the novelists might respond by making it a virtue, and thus write “novels which imitate the form of the Novel, by an author who imitates the role of the Author.” [3]

This imitation takes the form of ironizing past tropes, thus repeating but for “not it” purposes. As Alexander Nehamas has importantly argued, “irony” shouldn’t be reduced to meaning “the opposite of what is stated.” [4] Uses of irony have to begin—and occasionally end—with “well, not what he seemed to say.” And this opens up a lot of possibilities. One of those is, indeed, nihilism—the apotheosis of irony centrally turns over paradigmatic theses of the Platonic tradition. But Cervantes started this practice at the beginning—indeed, this is why Milan Kundera says that the Cervantean tradition runs precisely at odds against the European philosophical tradition. [5] And the novel, of course, has had a mighty fine time thinking of things to write about since.

Why did that fine time start to fall apart, then? Barth thought it was because storytellers had forgotten what their central occupation was: telling stories. Barth’s favorite figure for the novelist was Scheherazade, who had to tell stories to save her life. Fielding’s digressions were self-consciously maddening, but he did it for fun. Sterne, however, turned narrative digression into a principle of narration—he couldn’t tell a particular bit until he had set the stage juuuuuuuust right. (Tristram sets out to tell the story of his life by beginning with his birth, but can’t get around to being born for a couple hundred pages.) Barth harmonizes the Cervantean and Sternean into the plot of his Fieldingian Sot-Weed Factor. As irreverent as Fielding, the multiplicity of stories told end up knotting together in just the right way to afford both suspense and explanation—like Sterne, they had to be told in just the right order, and like Cervantes, the point of the stories was at the same time the stories themselves, only seeming digressions from the adventure at hand (though at the same time, turning the stories into the necessary obstacles to be overcome in the quest-romance—by poet-errant and reader alike).

5.     What is the point of literature? After all, Barth can’t be writing about innocence and nihilism just for kicks, can he? Well—he can. But Barth also vies with Plato. If philosophy is centripetal and literature centrifugal, then Barth does have it as a central point that philosophy without literature is empty and literature without philosophy is blind. But to say this is just to say that the essence/accident distinction is best left to the side. It’s only binding ourselves to that distinction that produces the hard and fast rule that the only help in life is accidental. Literature does help you live life, and so does philosophy, but neither can do it if one has in mind to learn general principles that can be applied with perfect certainty of rightness, with a perfect, perspicuous correspondence between situation and appropriate action. And if learning to do without certainty is one of literature’s accidents, then it’s the only shit that matters.


[1] John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor, 1987 Anchor Books edition, 172

[2] In Chapter 15, or Book 2, Ch. 3

[3] “The Literature of Exhaustion” in The Friday Book, 72.

[4] See Part 1 of Nehamas’s The Art of Living, but especially Ch. 2.

[5] See Part 1 of Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pragmatism as Enlightened Romanticism

1. Phil 101 — Romanticism and religion; 2. Romantic roots, not scientific — Brandom and the second Enlightenment; 3. Rationalism as reasons-for — Irrationalism — Emerson, polychromatic mother of us all; 4. James on religion, meet Rorty's romanticism — Dewey on religion, meet Hawthorne on romance — America's most powerful indigenous thinkers of the 19th century are not taught in American philosophy departments

1.     Philosophy 101, and undergraduate programs in philosophy generally, still largely teach the history of philosophy as being about Platonism vs. Aristotelianism and then, for some reason a thousand years later, Rationalism vs. Empiricism, before being transcended by Kant who then bequeaths 20th century philosophy its central problems about the relationship between language and world, fact and value, analytic and synthetic.  For students who take such classes, reading James’s distinction, in the first chapter of Pragmatism, between “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” onto the history of philosophy doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Despite James explicitly aligning Rationalism with the tender and Empiricism with the tough, it’s hard for us on the other side of theoretical physics to understand what the relationship is between “abstract principle” and being a “man of feeling.”

This is because Philosophy Departments still, by and large, do not know how to handle religion.  Almost all Philosophy Departments feel it is their duty to teach the arguments, but regard religion, by and large, as a fallen foe.  And this makes it difficult to breathe life into the animating commitments that made 19th-century philosophy the intellectual inheritor of the much-vaunted war between Religion and Science.  And until Philosophy Departments learn how to write Romanticism into their pedagogical histories, they won’t be able to tell a very good story at all about how we get from Kant to Frege and Russell (the leapfrog they’d rather like to make).

2.     The weird wedding of James’s sensible distinction in temperament to the venerable distinction of pre-Kantian tradition is a function of the weird place pragmatism has in the history of philosophy, one the classical pragmatists did not wholly understand.  For on the whole, it has been the wont of pragmatism’s receivers through most of the 20th-century to think of pragmatism as primarily leaning toward science and the tough-minded.  This changed somewhat as generations of intellectuals at the end of the 20th-century became familiar with pragmatism from its most well-known, and infamous, espouser: Richard Rorty.  Rorty, for better or worse, is known as the primary force behind the resurgence in attention to pragmatism.  And beginning in essays like “Nineteenth-Century Idealism and Twentieth-Century Textualism” (in Consequences of Pragmatism) through Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity to late essays like the handily titled “Pragmatism and Romanticism” (in Philosophy as Cultural Politics), Rorty has tried his best to emphasize the romantic roots of pragmatism while minimizing its roots in reflection on science (best defined in pieces like “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope” (in CP) and “Pragmatism without Method” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth).

It is against this backdrop that Robert Brandom provides an invaluable service to our understanding of pragmatism by reframing pragmatism as a “second Enlightenment” in his “Classical American Pragmatism: The Pragmatist Enlightenment—and Its Problematic Semantics” (in his Perspectives on Pragmatism).  Brandom sees the pragmatists as inheriting empiricism via a Darwinian understanding of the holistic relationship between organism and environment and a statistical understanding of modal necessity.  This primes them for throwing off the remnants of Platonism that Rorty so admires, but makes them susceptible to attack because of the unacceptable “instrumentalist” interpretations of, specifically, their theory of truth.  This instrumentalism is the identification of truth with success.  This Thrasymachean interpretation of truth—making it a mere power play—is heinous to any self-respecting philosopher, and it was anathema to the pragmatists as well.  As Brandom puts it, the trouble with pragmatism’s articulation of a semantics is that they rarely moved beyond, in isolating the meaning of a belief, looking downstream to the consequences of that belief.  Doing so, however, is one of pragmatism’s principle contributions in overturning the equally lopsided semantics of empiricism, which only looks upstream to the circumstances of belief.

3.     What makes pragmatism part of a second Enlightenment is in part its congeniality to a re-injection of—of all things—rationalism.  This is Brandom’s unique contribution to pragmatism.  Brandom has not only worked to undue Rorty’s emphasis on romanticism, but also his sense of Kant as a bête noire.  Nobody talks about the rationalism of pre-Kantian philosophy as worth a hoot, whereas empiricism is still seriously touted as a respectable ancestor.  Brandom, however, identifies a specific angle of thought begun in rationalism (specifically Leibniz and Spinoza) that is exploited and transformed in Kant and Hegel’s idealism—this he calls “inferentialism.” [1] The great modifier to empiricism that must occur is not simply in taking seriously consequences of belief, but also taking seriously two species of circumstances for belief.  Empiricism identifies one: the origin of belief in a perceptual state.  However, rationalism identifies a different one: the reason for belief in an inferential chain.  For Brandom, a successful theory of how language works must combine the insights of empiricism, rationalism, and pragmatism, and it is to the merit of pragmatism that it is able to do so with very little tinkering to its core platforms.

Pragmatism is a second Enlightenment because it extends two central tenets of Enlightenment thought: the naturalism birthed by the flowering of science and a distinctive apotheosis of reason.  It is for this reason that Brandom denies Romanticism any significant role in the composition of pragmatism as a philosophical movement.  He concedes that Romanticism performs many of the anti-Platonistic gestures that pragmatism wields as well against the pre-Kantian Enlightenment, but that its irrationalism is beyond the pale: “though the two movements of thought share an antipathy to Enlightenment intellectualism, pragmatism does not recoil into the rejection of reason, into the privileging of feeling over thought, intuition over experience, or of art over science” (PP 41).

My principal suggestion is that Brandom is just wrong.  Or rather, Brandom is here expressing one of his primary disagreements with his Doctorvater, Dick Rorty. [2]  This disagreement is about how to understand Derrida and Foucault: Brandom, unlike Rorty and like pretty much every other analytic philosopher, views fashionable French nonsense as a species of irrationalism.  Unlike pretty much every other analytic philosopher, Brandom identifies irrationalism in a very precise way that makes an extraordinary amount of sense given his work on language. [3]  Being all that as it may, the best of Romantic thought is about as naïve as pragmatism when it comes to the antitheses Brandom marshals—i.e., if we are being charitable to the instrumental excesses of pragmatism, there’s no reason to be uncharitable to irrational excesses of Romantic thought—and, additionally and more specifically, one will get nowhere with Emerson—the great, polychromatic mother of us all—by thinking he rejects reason. [4]

4.     If the culmination of the Enlightenment was Kant, as Ernst Cassirer has it, and Romanticism is specifically a counter-Enlightenment, as Isaiah Berlin has it, then pragmatism ties together in a coherent philosophy the best of the three worlds hiding inside: rationalism, empiricism, and romanticism.  The best way to see this is to emphasize, as M. H. Abrams does in Natural Supernaturalism, that the historical movement of Romanticism was a replacement for religion.  At the outset I suggested that we weren’t going to understand 19th-century philosophy very well until we wrote Romanticism into our philosophy textbooks, and its convenient that the ease in rebutting Brandom is by recurring to James and Dewey on religion.

Brandom says that pragmatism doesn’t privilege feeling over thought, but this surely flies in the face of the central thesis of James’s “The Will to Believe”: 

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, Do not decide, but leave the question open, is itself a passional decision,—just like deciding yes or no,—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.
I would certainly concede that what “passional nature” means here is obscure at best, and that what Rorty says in criticism of it in “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance” (in Philosophy and Social Hope) is largely sound.  But what James is pointing at here is what Rorty is pointing at with the notion of a “final vocabulary,” and while it may help to understand how language works to bracket questions of how the trick is done in favor of what the trick is, [5] it will not help our understanding of what it is we do, and what are legitimate doings, to abdicate an understanding of the role of attitudes other than the propositional—i.e., the role of emotions is woefully underdeveloped in pragmatist philosophies.  They play an important but vague role in Rorty’s philosophy, and it’s clear that Brandom does not wish to discount them, but it seems clear to me that pragmatism’s stake in “the passions” is not simple enough to fit with Brandom’s warding off of romanticism.

What is particularly disappointing in Brandom’s dismissal of romanticism is that he says nary of imagination, the most important piece of it to many, if not most, and particularly to Rorty.  And in order to solidify my ground against Brandom with Dewey, I want to point to a passage in A Common Faith that parallels the thought of many American Romantics, and so open up a vista in a larger conversation than that of which just professional philosophers were having.  In the second chapter, Dewey gives this odd definition of “God,” one which Emerson would have recognized:
We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are mere rootless ideals, fantasies, utopias.  For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals.  They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity.  It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name “God.”
My parallel text is not Emerson, however, but Hawthorne.  In “The Custom-House” preface to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne defines romance as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.”  There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between American Romanticism and pragmatism, and indeed, a lot more to be added to the conversation—already at work in tracing the Emersonian roots of pragmatism—about the relationship between the optimistic Emersonian strain of American Romanticism and the pessimistic Hawthornean-Melvillean strain.  American philosophy, and intellectual life generally, is in a strange position regarding its 19th-century traditions.  Unlike on the Continent, it is clear that until quite near the end of that century, there were no powerful American thinkers who were professional philosophers.  And this poses a problem for understanding American philosophy, when that century’s most powerful indigenous thinkers are taught in English departments.


[1]  Brandom tells a potted version of this historical story in the long introduction to his Tales of the Mighty Dead.

[2]  I have to believe this willful writing out of romanticism is quite self-conscious, for Brandom even goes so far as to suggest that Rorty “thought that the biggest contribution philosophers had ever made to the culture more generally was the Enlightenment” (PP 108). This is quite a strong misreading, very much in the honorific Bloomian sense. For even if one emphasizes that Brandom said philosophers, you can’t miss the fact that Rorty thought Hegel one of the principal contributors to the flowering of romanticism. The philosophical anti-authoritarianism that Rorty articulated in his late writings, and Brandom traces to the Enlightenment, may be the first step, but Rorty would’ve demanded the second step toward the romantic apotheosis of imagination. It is not a mistake that in the same last volume of essays that includes “Pragmatism and Romanticism” there is no corresponding essay entitled “Pragmatism and the Enlightenment.” For better or worse, Rorty could not be convinced that there was enough to be redeemed in Kant (unlike Brandom), and felt that the Enlightenment philosophers were mainly, rather, responsible for our continued entrancement with Platonism, the original philosophical authoritarianism.

Brandom’s best piece of evidence for Rorty’s sympathy with his misreading is Rorty’s 1996 Ferrater Mora Lectures, “Anti-Authoritarianism in Epistemology and Ethics,” which Brandom attended—and Rorty never published together. One of those lectures was surely “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism,” which Rorty published in a French journal in 1999 and failed twice to publish in the two volumes of collected essays that came out from its time of composition until his death. And even in that piece, he calls the relationship between pragmatism and the Enlightenment a “useful analogy” and can’t help but mention the R-word in the same breath as Brandom’s E-word: “Dewey was convinced that the romance of democracy, a romance built on the idea that the point of a human life is free cooperation with fellow humans, required a more thorough-going version of secularism than either Enlightenment rationalism or nineteenth-century positivism had achieved” (7). The rhetoric here is important, I think, in seeing the relative emphases between Rorty and Brandom, and the lines of misreading Brandom is involved in in displacing Romanticism for the Enlightenment. Not only can Rorty not but help inject “romance” into his qualified appreciation of the Enlightenment, but “required a more thorough-going version of secularism” doesn’t quite intimate the continuity of tradition that Brandom would like to establish between Kant and pragmatism. And further, what Rorty means by “the romance of democracy” is actually meant, I think, to establish a distinction between what Rorty referred to in his 1997 Spinoza lectures as the two projects of Enlightenment, one political and the other philosophical: “one was to create heaven on earth: a world without caste, class, or cruelty. The other was to find a new, comprehensive worldview which would replace God with Nature and Reason” (Truth, Politics, and “Post-Modernism,” 35). The first project—the Millian project of founding a democratic ethos—Rorty wants to defend, but the second to criticize, for he is one of those “who think that the Enlightenment philosophers were on the right track but did not go far enough. We hope to do to Nature, Reason, and Truth what the eighteenth century did to God.” There’s the idea Brandom is talking about, but in Rorty’s hands, I think, it was in the service of the first project that the 18th-century “did it to God.” The political project is the project of antiauthoritarianism, extended into philosophy as anti-Platonism.

So the qualification that Rorty would make to Brandom’s formulation is that the Enlightenment philosophers did make a huge contribution to the larger culture, but it wasn’t as philosophers—more like as pamphleteers, as cultural propagandists. Voltaire is more important here than Kant, and though Voltaire was a philosophe, who is it who isn’t read in Philosophy Departments, again? Rorty’s conception of philosophy as cultural politics does make Voltaire a philosopher—and so validate Brandom’s assertion (sans “biggest,” again in deference to Romanticism)—but Brandom, I think, meant philosophy more narrowly. For while Rorty thought that there wasn’t anything that was distinctively philosophy, Brandom does think this, and what it does is precisely the form in which Kant’s contribution was made. Philosophy is concerned “to understand, articulate, and explain the notion of reason” (Reason in Philosophy 1), and what Kant did for us in the name of the Enlightenment political project is begin to show us that reason is a social-normative enterprise and not an authoritarian faculty. Rorty was never convinced by Brandom, whose “reinterpretation of Kant’s doctrine of the primacy of the practical is as charitable as it is ingenious,” that we shouldn’t rather emphasize the gaps between Kant and Hegel, instead of the continuities (“Some American Uses of Hegel,” 41). However that may be, I find Brandom’s strong misreading of Rorty and pragmatism very persuasive, so persuasive in fact that the only real response to it is to re-romanticize it.

[3] For example, Brandom says that the strand of irrationalism he identifies with Derrida “has its roots in the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century.  It claims that giving and asking for reasons is just one game one can play with words, and that only a self-serving conspiracy of philosophers and scientists has convinced people that it deserves any privilege at all over all the other playful and artistically creative things one can do with language” (RP 144).  Brandom has, to my mind, shown convincingly that Rorty’s rhetoric gets away from him when it seems he’s saying this—to get pragmatism to work in the philosophy of language, we have to repudiate, as Brandom likes to put it, Wittgenstein’s thesis that “language has no downtown”: it does, and it is the game of giving and asking for reasons (cf. RP 120).  Rorty ran this direction because of his appreciation of the power of metaphor.  In the end, I think, Brandom’s rationalism has to be augmented by Rorty’s romanticism, for though Brandom carefully circumscribes the area of his project in order for others to fill in gaps he self-consciously avoids glancing in, there’s no reason to pigeon-hole Romanticism as a kind of dandyism. 

[4]  One might begin here by meditating on the parallels in themes, lines of thought, and verbiage between “Intellect” in the First Series and “The Poet” in the Second.

[5]  This is another favored way for Brandom to circumscribe his project.  In describing the philosopher’s relationship to cognitive science, he says cognitive science is “concerned with the broadly empirical question of how the trick of cognition is or might be done.  Philosophers are concerned with the normative question of what counts as doing it” (RP 198).

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Friday Experiment

1. Making public — Amateur; 2. Three signposts: Mill, Rorty, Barth — Friday as liminal; 3. Amateur as Sayer — Friday experiment

1.     When I started this blog some years ago, I didn’t really know what I wanted from it.  I think I wanted to feel like someone was listening to my thoughts, which is an important feeling for an intellectual to have sometimes.  Perhaps not all the time, but without publication, thoughts idly ebb away without deposit.  Central to the life of the intellectual is publication—making public, in quite any form, from newspaper editorial to book to diary to conversation.  At least, the process of creating that external self we call “writing” has come to seem central to a form of life that I recognize in a number of people I admire (most of them dead writers).  These are the people for whom the art of living is centrally in the mode Emerson spoke of as the province of the Sayer. 

I came of intellectual age, I think, while pretending to a professionalism about Robert Pirsig for an amateur audience.  Since beginning the course of writing that produced essays for, a time period in which I had dropped out of college and was setting my own agenda entirely, I’ve thought more and more about what it is to be an amateur philosopher.  Since entering on the path toward becoming a professional literary critic, the thought has become permanent: I will never be a professional philosopher—so what is my relationship to philosophy?  And more—what should my relationship be to the many kinds of amateur audience?  “Amateur,” in my vocabulary, is not a term of denigration, for we are all amateurs about something—indeed, most things—and it would seem paramount that we speak intelligently about things on occasion in which we aren’t professionals.  So how do we pull that off?

2.     I don’t have an answer to that, nor of course is there a general one to it, so in lieu of one—or rather, because in lieu is the only route to pursue—I want to re-invigorate the use of my blog, which has fallen by the wayside as I attempt to grind my professional axe.  I’m guided by the combination of three signposts.  One is Mill’s notion of democracy being for the purpose of “experiments of living”—insofar as these experiments do not get in the way of each other, we should be allowed to pursue them.  Another is Rorty’s slogan for Mill’s public/private distinction, that irony and self-creation are for the weekends.  The last is the novelist John Barth’s reason for naming his book of criticism The Friday Book: “on Friday mornings (unless the story in progress asserts the priority reserved to it) I refresh my head with some other sort of sentence-making.”

Barth’s reservation of Friday for this kind of work helpfully punches up a problem Rorty never handled that well in his paeans to self-creative freedom—Friday as a kind of liminal space between public and private, something three-day weekends and differing placements of the Sabbath help call out.  Friday—partway between the freedom of self-creation and the constraint of public objection.  What happens when our experiments of living get in the way of each other?  It can’t be that it is simply the point of contention that must be relinquished by both sides, is it?  And certainly Mill’s injunction does nothing to help decide between the two experiments.  And when you follow through Rorty’s Nietzschean notion that these experiments are in some ways wars between mobile armies of metaphors, it becomes particularly obscure as to just how, in fact, these wars are won.  And knowing that would be helpful in knowing just how we should fight them.

3.     Rorty, I think, was just a little too sanguine about the rule of reason and rationality, a rule he would’ve explicitly denied, but you can’t read people reasoning well without thinking that they hope others do so as well.  So how should we balance between creative freedom and justificatory responsibilities?  That’s another question, I take it, with no route through but in lieu—no way to circumscribe possibilities theoretically, but only to spell out concrete examples practically.  The Friday experiment is halfway between professional persnicketiness and creative daring and riskiness.  But unprofessional conduct faces two directions: one is that genius that Rorty apotheosized in the strong poet; but the other is that facility for public relations between professional and interested amateur.  I think, however, there might be a third form hidden between those two—the amateur itself, become its own Sayer.  The amateur can’t fight the professional on the professional’s ground, but if the professional is relating to the amateur at all, it can’t solely be on grounds that the professional owns professionally—it must be on some neutral territory, halfway between professional territory and territories unrelated.  And there professional and amateur come into contact, and there the amateur must know how to stake their ground legitimately and not be cowed illegitimately—and likewise for the professional, for knowing when you are overreaching is not professional wisdom.

The Friday experiment: halfway between professional knowledge and lay audience; between professional sentence-making and experimental forms; between self-creation and public edification; between what I tell my colleagues or my students and what I reserve solely for myself or am silent of entirely and let ebb quietly away.