Friday, June 07, 2013

Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism

1. Neo and retro — Rorty’s branding; 2. Pragmatism, radical empiricism, and the experience of life — Rorty’s 1st argument: why are we forced to use “experience”? — Myth of the Given and being forced — No force, no argument; 3. Rorty’s 2nd (non-)argument: “experience” is so passé — The linguistic turn did some good; 4. Varieties and the metaphysics of feeling — Getting turned on by religious experience — Metaphysics and asceticism; 5. Making nonlinguistic bliss accessible — Bliss from reading — Ecumenicism and ineffability

1.     I define “retropragmatism” as a recent species of pragmatism that hopes to help, in Barry Allen’s phrase, turn back the linguistic turn. [1] I think such a term is helpful to differentiate it from “classical pragmatism,” which we should reserve for the historical moment now well past. For what usually marks retropragmatists is a disciplish veneration for the classical Peirce, James, and Dewey in contradistinction to their vehement dislike for the neopragmatists, particularly Richard Rorty. “Neopragmatism” was the term Morton White coined in Toward Reunion in Philosophy to house Quine in the pragmatist pantheon, and it has since come to be used to mark the rise of pragmatist theses in philosophers working in the analytic tradition, i.e. those taking the linguistic turn. The most famous, by far, of neopragmatists is Rorty, and the retropragmatists’ ire is markedly reserved for him, I think, principally because those outside of philosophy identify Rorty with the renascence of pragmatism and enthusiasm for James and Dewey—which those on the outside often identify with Rorty’s peculiar brand of James and Dewey. This pisses off those that had been toiling in the gardens of pragmatism these many years, particularly because Rorty’s version is certainly not the original.

I think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding by retropragmatists, more or less rightly resentful of Rorty’s undue influence on the branding of PragmatismTM, of both Rorty and his position with respect to James and Dewey. On the side of the man, the emotions churned up by personal allegiance are, in the end I think, a necessary component of intellectual thinking. One might have expected someone in my position to say that such attitudes are “regrettable,” and they are in this case, but pragmatists have to think a little differently about the general role of such solidarity and eros. As Rorty glosses James, “there is no source of obligation save the claims of individual sentient beings” (PSH 148). I don’t think we’ve yet gotten to the bottom of what this claim entails, about only being obligated to each other, and particularly about the role of what James called “our passional nature,” but this isn’t the philosophical problem I want to address here. [2] The reason I do, however all that, think resentment of Rorty on this score is regrettable is that Rorty was too humble a person for such attitudes to find a home. Rorty was happy that he could play a role in pragmatism’s rise at the end of the 20th century, but he was always deferential about what the gross effect was of his work. I don’t think he wanted people to think his brew of pragmatism was the one marketed by James and Dewey. I think, from beginning to end, he always felt awkward about accepting accolades for having done something people admired, and particularly for being pinpointed as an originator or powerful force of some idea or in some movement. Getting this sense about the man, however, requires rutting around in his writings for quite a while, and in the end—though as I shall be saying towards the end, this is actually not the case—our response to Rorty personally matters less than the position Rorty dug out in the pragmatist trenches. [3]

2.     The best way of isolating the difference between retropragmatists and neopragmatists is wondering about the relationship between, as James distinguished them, pragmatism and radical empiricism. Retropragmatists generally see an indelible link between the two, whereas neos not so much. So while neos would rather dump the radical empiricism as an unnecessary (or even pernicious) adjunct, retros think that without radical empiricism, pragmatism has its kneecaps shot. This is the common way retros express their distaste for analytic philosophy, generally—where did the experience of life go? There’s a lot of that old-timey “love of wisdom” nostalgia built into many of these appeals to experience, or rather the demand that our philosophical vocabularies give pride of place to “experience.” Some of the differences between retros and neos are hard to repair because it seems somewhat attitudinal, or perhaps methodological. For example, retros would really rather insist on saying “appeal to experience.” However, the neos don’t know how to talk philosophy without narrowing in on the actual terms we use to erect our philosophies, and so insist that, rather than deciding the issue by how much one talks about “one’s experience” (whose experience? Yours? Mine? Do we need to do surveys? How do we make sure the all-important “experience of life” is injected in our philosophy?), we talk about the kind of vocabulary we use to do philosophy. So that’s why I say attitudinal and methodological—neopragmatists insist we not conflate the experience of life with something as expensive sounding as “radical empiricism,” and so debate the merits of the ism separately from other issues surrounding our philosophical performance, but retropragmatists are suspicious of conceding the point (probably because of the vague whiff of irony surrounding my earlier handling of philosophia), while yet eager to lock horns over that ism.

Rorty’s only ever had two basic arguments to wield against radical empiricism, and so against retaining the term “experience” in one’s philosophical vocabulary (the modifier “philosophical” is important here, and often neglected in considering Rorty’s position). The first is implicit in “Dewey’s Metaphysics” (in CP), which begins with the citation of evidence that the master agreed with his rebellious disciple—Dewey’s late-stage hope, expressed in a letter to Arthur Bentley, to rewrite Experience and Nature as Nature and Culture and his regret about the earlier book: “I was dumb not have seen the need for such a shift when the old text was written. I was still hopeful that the philosophic word ‘Experience’ could be redeemed by being returned to its idiomatic usages—which was a piece of historic folly, the hope I mean.” Most of “Dewey’s Metaphysics” revolves around Rorty’s argument against method, and hence metaphysics-as-foundational. However, the piece of historic folly, I think, is created by Dewey’s hope to produce “a statement of the generic traits manifested by existences of all kinds without regard to their differentiation into mental and physical.” [5] So the first argument runs like this: if Dewey hadn’t been looking for a set of “generic traits,” he wouldn’t have convinced himself that he had to include any particular this or that, let alone “experience.” This is not an attack on the attainment of a synoptic vision, though—Rorty’s favorite definition of philosophy, that vague activity, was Wilfrid Sellars’ “seeing how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term” and right down to the end of his career he was bemoaning its absence on the American philosophical scene. [6] What Rorty rejects is the force of “had”—as a methodological point, we are never forced to use one term or vocabulary over another by anything except other people. So what neopragmatists need is a different argument for the use of “experience” than “you just have to because it’s just there, at the bottom of everything.” As David Lewis put it, incredulous stares are not arguments.

The root of this point is the Sellarsian rejection of the Myth of the Given. “Experiences,” or any other term of art for an unconceptualized bit, cannot force you to think of them in any particular way without being plugged into a network of concepts (i.e. a vocabulary). Meaningful content being just given in an experience is a resurrection of foundationalist empiricism, which the classical pragmatists all rejected (more or less). So against the demand that we use “experience” in our philosophical vocabularies, Rorty flips one coin with two sides: 1) you can’t force me to use it without relying on a foundational epistemology and 2) why would you want a metaphysics of generic terms if you aren’t going to hook it up to a foundationalist epistemology? [7]

Why, indeed—there’s a good answer to that question, but I won’t trail around to it until the end. For now, it’s enough to see that since retropragmatists want to avoid the Myth of the Given as much as the neos, they shouldn’t be able to force the term on us by way of epistemology or metaphysics, about how we know or what we know. But we should notice here, then, that Rorty’s argument against radical empiricism isn’t that it violates pragmatism’s antifoundationalism—it’s that one needs a different kind of reason for taking it up so as to avoid that possibility. One needs an answer for (2). And at the same time, Rorty hasn’t forwarded an argument against radical empiricism at all—if anything, it’s an argument against one particular way of being against the linguistic turn.

3.     The only other argument Rorty’s forwarded against radical empiricism is quite like the first—not really an argument against it at all. This is the argument in “Dewey Between Hegel and Darwin” (in TP). It’s roughly this—“experience” is so passé. Some argument, right? For just as stares are not arguments, neither are yawns. Rorty notes in the opening pages of the essay, in a sociological manner, that “if one looks at the end of the twentieth century rather than at its beginning, one finds something of a renaissance of pragmatism, but no similar renaissance of panpsychism. The philosophers of today who speak well of James and Dewey tend to speak ill of Bergson. They tend to talk about sentences a lot, but to say very little about ideas or experiences…” (291). This is precisely what’s changing, but we still have here neither an argument for or against taking part in or resisting the shift. The reason Rorty thinks that “experience” is passé is because he thinks that the linguistic turn, on the whole, did some good for philosophy—that the linguistic turn played an important role in helping philosophers kick the incubus of representationalism. However, and this is key, Rorty does not perceive any necessary connection between talking about language and being an antirepresentationalist. He simply notes that Wittgenstein, Quine, and Davidson seem to have had an easier time turning the tide against an entire host what Dewey called “the whole brood and nest of dualisms” bequeathed us by the Greeks. [8]

So what’s the deal? Where’s the juice? As we should be able to see, both of these arguments boil down to thrusting the burden of proof onto retropragmatists and urging them to answer, “what’s the difference that makes a difference?” I think the trick is to turn from Dewey to James. If one focuses on Dewey, I think it’s hard to see what all the hoopla is about. This is because a metaphysics of generic terms sounds so boring—how or why would we get fired up about that? Only if you thought you had to do it, but we’ve chucked that consideration. However, if we turn to James, we can get a better idea of what’s exciting. For Dewey, using “experience” feels like a purely intellectual measure; for James, it feels experiential.

4.     This is what we get out of a book like The Varieties of Religious Experience. In his late paper, “Some Inconsistencies in James’s Varieties,” [9] Rorty spends some time contrasting the James of “The Will to Believe” and Dewey of A Common Faith to the earlier James of Varieties, and particularly in retailing James’s ambiguities in how he uses “experience.” The main thing that comes out of the discussion, I think, is that what Rorty calls the “metaphysics of feeling” is the only good reason for thinking we need to risk the Myth of the Given (94). This is, essentially, Romanticism’s fire back across the bow of Enlightenment intellectualism. Rorty poses it as the corrective “to the metaphysics of cognition common to Hegel, [T. H.] Green, and Royce,” but rejects the idea that we need a metaphysics at all, a view about “what is real ‘in the completest sense of the term.’” The last phrase is from James’s conclusion: “so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term” (italics James’s). This is a fairly typical formulation of a notion of direct experience that people like Rorty find it hard to understand in a non-Myth of the Given sense. But perhaps even more dangerous is the notion of “completeness” in this context: what could our leverage be for knowing when we have it? One would need a substantive epistemological criterion with an attendant method for telling the difference, and that’s what Rorty spent most of his career debunking.

Rorty concludes by saying that if James doesn’t violate his own pragmatism by wielding “experience” as a weapon in metaphysical combat—something that would, because it is more “complete,” keep the slavering wolves of Freud and other external analyses of religious experience at bay—then this is tantamount to being “left wondering why we need bother with all those virtuosi” of religious experience that James elaborates in great detail, “whether the twenty Gifford lectures add anything to the twenty pages of ‘The Will to Believe’” (96). Why would we? Answering this question, I think, would be to move towards answering (2) above—why would we want a metaphysics of generic terms? Rorty, ironically enough, implicitly answers the question when he nevertheless “happily concedes” that Varieties “will continue to be read with profit for centuries to come.” Why would we read either The Varieties of Religious Experience or Experience and Nature? Because they turn us on. Rorty has repeatedly, throughout his career, articulated this ecumenical approach to life as a function of Mill’s formulation of “experiments in life” being the purpose of democracy in On Liberty. This is essentially an aesthetic attitude. However, it is an aesthetic attitude that is an ethical attitude, the same one Rorty urges toward James, that “exceptionally magnanimous man” whose Varieties, if read, “can help us become more like James, and thus help us become better people.” Why would we bother with all those virtuosi? Because “we take an immediate delight in them; or else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential fruits for life.” That is from the first chapter of Varieties, which Rorty quotes approvingly as the line of thought that would not have violated James’s pragmatism (91).

Rorty can’t quite get to the point of suggesting Experience and Nature because it not only doesn’t turn him on, but he also thinks it feeds our ascetic impulses, the kind of masochism that leads to Platonism and that Nietzsche diagnosed as just another will to power. A metaphysics of generic terms would be a list you try and pare away to get as small as possible. But why? Who cares if it is small? To so care in this context would be to associate Occam’s Razor with a method to get at Reality as It Really Is. That’s why Rorty thinks of systematic metaphysics as a suspicious activity. But that’s a cultural argument about a certain type of lebensform and how much, on balance, good it has done and might continue to do. And that’s still not an argument against “experience.” [10]

5.     What I find most interesting about Rorty’s conclusion is that blind eye to James’s accomplishment in Varieties, which does not rest solely on the subtlety and generosity of the man’s mind and spirit. It is, as will become clear, an integral part of the achievement, but Rorty seems to suggest it’s the only thing interesting about it. However, what James does for a peculiar, modern lebensform—what Rorty variously calls “the ironist,” “the litterateur,” or “the intellectual”—is make an alternative, older though not quite incompatible lebensform accessible to it: James makes the nonlinguistic experience of bliss (what James, following the Romantics, calls “religious experience”) accessible to those who experience bliss primarily by reading. And what James, an extraordinary writer with an intense admiration for the ineffable, did for the capacious, aesthetic appreciator of mystic experience, someone in the future might do for the capacious, aesthetic appreciator of the multifarious forms of effing—call it, The Varieties of Reading Experience.

Until that day, one might think we could console ourselves with reading someone like Harold Bloom, a voluminous reader who in the last half of his career turned to the “common reader” as the last bastion of secular spiritual autonomy. But this actually won’t help completely because Bloom decidedly and self-consciously is deaf to some forms of writing—if it isn’t written with one’s spiritual autonomy as a primary foci imaginarius, then Bloom doesn’t care much in talking about it. [11] A true Varieties of Reading Experience would take us on a grand tour of literary history, and all the forms of writing and the experiences of reading adjunct to them, without apotheosizing any one particular form. It would be ecumenical to Homer, Euripides, Malory, Cervantes, Milton, Pope, Richardson, Radcliffe, Byron, Cooper, Melville, Stowe, Whitman, Dreiser, Hemingway, Stevens—and if the point weren’t already too fine, I’d point out that we’d need to include Plato, Aquinas, Montaigne, Newton, Burckhardt, Pater, Freud, Weber, Bloom, and Richard Posner as well.

One interesting point we can make about this fantasy, though, is that the ecumenicism demonstrated by James toward the various religious traditions he treats and that of my fantasized book are the exact inverse of each other, and possibly properly so. To be ecumenical to ineffable experience is to make all the experiences, in some sense, the same—but to be properly ecumenical to effable experience, one needs to attend to the boundless differences. This might, as well, point to a connection between attraction to the ineffable and asceticism (or reduction) and attraction to the effable and romanticism (or proliferation). And this might be the reason Rorty prefers Dewey’s slim A Common Faith to James’s fat The Varieties of Religious Experience. While Dewey merely says religion is romance, James enacts it. And Rorty doesn’t think we should tempt ourselves to the ascetic anymore by making it look so romantic and enticing. Whatever asceticism we should have should be in our relationship to talking about it—just enjoy the bliss and stop effing telling us to stop effing.


[1] I say “help” because I get the sense that there is a much wider-spread movement to turn back the clock on analytic philosophy than just the species found in pragmatists. Since this is a broadly speaking “empiricist” reaction to analytic formalism, I cannot help but think that running parallel to a return to empiricist (foundational) metaphysics should make a pragmatist suspicious of the move, but then, an enduring tendency for pragmatists has always been to strike a more-empiricist-than-thou pose. I should also add that Allen, though formulating a number of powerful criticisms of linguistic-turn philosophy in his Knowledge and Civilization, wants little truck with a turn back to “experience.” Allen strikes a pose so reactionary that he’d turn us all the way back to before Plato formulated the quarrel between poets and philosophers—choosing instead the artisan as metaphorical unit for knowledge-production. This is a very interesting redescription of the philosophical landscape with powerful links to Dewey.

[2] Principally because I have only inchoate ideas about what to say about it as of yet. For an earlier discussion of Rorty’s “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance,” from which that line is drawn, see my "Rorty, Religion, and Romance."

[3] I would point to two things, however, to give some evidence, at least, of the claims I’ve just made. First, on the side of his deferential attitude, I don’t think Rorty was just blowing smoke in his “Comments on Sleeper and Edel” (1985) when, at a conference organized by the Peirce Society, he said, “I am grateful for the opportunity…, but I should begin by confessing that I am out of my depth in addressing this audience. Not only the people here with me on the platform, but practically everyone in this room has read more James and Dewey than I have, and read them more recently.” And secondly, on the side of his shyness about originality in particular, there’s the comment he makes shortly after in “Comments”—“I can only say that my references to pragmatism were an effort to acknowledge my own lack of originality rather than an attempt to make new bottles look good by claiming that they held old wine”—and his more interesting, personal reflection in the introduction to Truth and Progress: “Back in the sixties, when I was a thrusting young analytic philosopher, I heard an admired senior colleague, Stuart Hampshire, describe a star-studded international conference on some vast and pretentious topic – a conference from which he had just returned and the results of which he had been asked to sum up at the final session. ‘No trick at all,’ Hampshire explained, ‘for an old syncretist hack like me.’ At that moment I realized what I wanted to be when I grew up” (TP 10n5).

[4] I should add that the relative merits of “experience” in our philosophical vocabulary is not the only general point of divergence Rorty, in particular, has with the classical pragmatists. The other basic one is about the relative merits of “method” in our philosophical vocabulary. However, since obsession over method never really went out of style in American philosophical life, it isn’t really all that retro to disagree with Rorty on that point as well. See Rorty’s “Pragmatism without Method” in ORT. (The irony of this footnote should be clear by the end of the piece.)

[5] Dewey, Later Works, Vol. 1: Experience and Nature, 308; qtd in Rorty, CP, 73

[6] Cf. “How Many Grains Make a Heap?” in the London Review of Books, Jan. 20, 2005.

[7] For another, earlier take on Sellars and Quine in relationship to the pressures of the retropragmatists, see my "Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn."

[8] Dewey, Middle Works, Vol. 12: Reconstruction in Philosophy, 271. For this Rortyan argument, see for example his “Twenty-Five Years Later” retrospective to his 1992 edition of The Linguistic Turn.

[9] In William James and a Science of Religions, edited by Wayne Proudfoot, 2004.

[10] The attitude I have about the relationship between experience and language is essentially the same as Richard Bernstein’s, but the direction with which I’ve pursued the problem (of the relationship) is the exact opposite as his. Both of us are concerned to see this as not a problem at all, but Bernstein’s route in The Pragmatic Turn is to criticize Rorty (on behalf, you might say, of the retropragmatists) and mine has been to defend Rorty (against the retropragmatists). The basic defense amounts to saying that Bernstein overstates things when he says that “it is a slander to suggest that the pragmatic thinkers, who did so much to undermine all forms of foundationalism, were guilty of appealing to experience as some sort of foundation” (152). I don’t think Rorty ever prosecuted that case, though he did collect some evidence for it. I think Bernstein is not chary enough about the various uses the pragmatists put to that term, and that it’s only by understanding constructive philosophical efforts in the context of argumentative moves against opponents (though not only in this context) that we can see fully the relative merits of those efforts (as against other constructive efforts). (Rorty specialized in this kind of context-plumbing, almost to exclusion.) Neither one of us wants to be reductive about experience or language, and Bernstein, I think, would agree with me that the retros shouldn’t be attacking the linguistic turn as such—that language is exceptionally important in understanding our relationship to the world, and that analytic philosophers like Sellars, Quine, Davidson, and Robert Brandom have increased that understanding because of their narrow focus.

Perhaps, though, I’m being kind in not thinking Bernstein a retropragmatist himself, because his final paragraph of “Experience after the Linguistic Turn” dreadfully repeats the two basic sillinesses of the retropragmatist position against the linguistic turn as I understand it: that there’s any risk of “sliding into linguistic idealism” and that focusing on, say, “vocabularies” as your central philosophical term of art “severely limits the range of human experience (historical, religious, moral, political, and aesthetic experience) that should be central to philosophical reflection” (152). On the first, “linguistic idealism” is just the up-dated scarecrow the classical pragmatists were constantly fighting. All you have to do to avoid it is make sure to have thought through the consequences of what Davidson called triangulation, “the triangle that, by relating speaker, interpreter, and the world, determines the contents of thought and speech” (Truth and Predication 75). And Bernstein doesn’t recognize the extent to which Brandom, for example, does recognize the naturalized pragmatist notion of triangulation Hegel called Erfahrung. Bernstein, in setting up Rorty as a target at the beginning of his paper, mentions as an extension in a footnote that Brandom doesn’t even have “experience” listed in the index of his massive Making It Explicit—a fact Rorty had noted with some pride when talking about his former student (see TP 122). What makes this more complex than Bernstein acknowledges is that Rorty’s pride stems from the fact that he sees Brandom as “carrying through on the ‘linguistic turn” by talking about social practices—not “language.” (Bernstein otherwise does appreciate this—see Pragmatic Turn 213.) Bernstein, in the footnote, goes on to say, “Even though Brandom closely identifies his pragmatic project with Hegel, he fails to see the philosophical importance of the concept of experience (Erfahrung), which plays such a prominent philosophical role in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit” (232n4). As far as I can tell, this was written/published in 2010, and by 1999 Brandom had in fact written an essay that amplifies Hegel’s notion of Erfahrung (published later as Ch. 7 of Tales of the Mighty Dead), which he refers to when discussing that notion in the classical pragmatists in his introduction to Perspectives on Pragmatism (2011). (And further, to say that Brandom didn’t recognize this in Hegel by the time he finished writing Making It Explicit might be wrong as well. He suggests in the preface to his Between Saying and Doing that he’d begun working on his “Hegel project”—the book that is to be, finally though still yet unpublished, A Spirit of Trust—by the end of the ‘80s.)

However that may be, the more important silliness is the notion that talk of “vocabularies” might “limit the range of human experience” available for philosophical reflection. I have no idea how to limit the kinds of things we reflect about philosophically, and so have no real handle on how people who say this kind of thing wield it. I hear it all the time and am somewhat baffled. I can’t quite see how Rorty was limited, nor—more importantly—how his discussions of history and politics in Achieving Our Country or religion in Philosophy and Social Hope or aesthetic bliss in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity were in conflict with his “linguistic idealism.” For that’s what you have to say if you wield this argument—that if the person does talk about a particular range of experience, they aren’t entitled to be able to do so. But nobody I’ve seen does argue this—they just say the target isn’t doing it, whatever “it” is. That’s the trouble—what does it mean to limit the range of experience? What does it mean to exclude, say, “historical experience” from one’s discussion of history? Then we might be able to get a handle on what it means to include it, and what it might be to construct a philosophy that perhaps allows for a division of labor between injecting the political experience of an age into a piece of writing and perhaps not but still having interesting things to say about the politics of that age. Because my hunch is that not even retropragmatists want or solely value one kind of writing on their favorite topics. After all, once you understand reading to be an experience—as one should given the logical amplification of the Hegel-pragmatist argument—then it would seem an impoverishment to the cultural experience of humankind if we said that we now only wanted writing on religion like James’s Varieties, Laozi’s Daodejing, and perhaps Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, but not Sydney Ahlstrom’s magisterial A Religious History of the American People or Stephen Carter’s A Culture of Disbelief (because they are historical and socio-political, respectively).

[11] Bloom is not a popular critic in the academy right now, and I often find myself cheerfully admitting my admiration in the face of frowns, but if one wants a taste for how self-conscious Bloom is about his blinders, and for his priorities as an intellectual, take a look at his introduction to Richard Wright’s Native Son in the Chelsea House Modern Critical series (collected in his Novelists and Novels).

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