Friday, July 26, 2013

Foucault's Rhetoric and Posthumanism

1. Can't we say “we”? — Philosophical presuppositions; 2. Foucault’s rhetorical questioning — We are only a recent invention; 3. Philosophical presumption — Attitudes, Words, Theses

“I am afraid that we have not got rid of God because we still have faith in grammar . . .”
          —Nietzsche [1]

1.      At the beginning of his introduction to the anthology Posthumanism, Neil Badmington makes a rhetorical maneuver that is more common than it should be. While saying “‘We’ cannot live with [-isms] (why else would ‘we’ need to keep inventing new ones?), but neither can ‘we’ live without them (why else would ‘we’ need to keep inventing new ones?),” [2] he adds a footnote to the first “we” that reads, “I place this term in quotation marks because, as William V. Spanos has pointed out, the ‘naturalised “we”’ is one of the hallmarks of humanism.” The implication of this footnote, I want to suggest, is that our language comes not only with philosophical presuppositions, but distasteful ones. For we (“we”?) should distinguish this case from the case of the philosopher of language who wishes to offer an account of how particular linguistic phenomena work. For example, Robert Brandom, in his large treatise Making It Explicit, attempts to give a reasonably comprehensive account of how language has to function for it to function the way it does. Given the problem of rhetorical presentation, Brandom’s book is filled with IOUs for lumber he hasn’t paid for yet, but will in some other section. This kind of theorist’s project is to only build out of conceptual resources one has justified warrant for. Badmington, however, appears to think there is not ever warrant for this kind of “we,” yet feels helpless to use it. So what is going on here?

Structurally, there is a similarity between the conceptual demands implied by Badmington’s footnote and Brandom’s IOUs which goes something like this: “my use of X presupposes Y.” In Badmington’s case, it is that “we” presupposes humanism. If Brandom had written that footnote, on the other hand, it would have been, “my use of ‘we’ requires an account of how the first-person plural works.” What is strange about Badmington’s footnote is that it suggests that humanism is the only account that validates that use of “we,” but that account is bunk. Someone like Brandom would be moved to offer an account that works, but Badmington isn’t so moved. Why not?

The short answer is that he feels licensed for the idea that some philosophical presuppositions are both inescapable and bad, in this case humanism (and thus the bad “we” he must use). [3] However, one of the specifically philosophical theses Brandom would wish to advance is that not all linguistic phenomena have philosophical presuppositions. [4] To display more easily the dialectical ground, we might take an extreme rendering of what Badmington might mean: he is suggesting that the first-person plural becomes suspicious once one finds humanism suspicious. For many, this is just plain absurd. Why on earth should “We are driving down the street towards the mall” become suspicious once I’ve begun thinking that the seemingly natural ethical priority of humans to non-human phenomena (animals, plants, ecosystems, etc.) should perhaps be rethought? This rebuke by a commonsensical attitude, however, is sometimes just taken to be evidence of the depth at which the presupposed phenomena in question is embedded. And so it is, but any careful interlocutor will be quick to point out that while incredulity tells you about depth, it still doesn’t tell you what kind of deeply embedded phenomena you’re facing—in this case, grammatical or philosophical.

2.      Since, as Thomas Kuhn taught us, part of what it is to work in a discipline is to use precursors as models of how to do your work, [5] I think Foucault licenses, in a manner, this rhetorical pattern in post-Foucauldian theorists. Foucault, of course, is far more circumspect than his less careful followers. His forward to the English language edition is a model of rhetorical deflation and intellectual modesty. A good example for my purposes is:
Can a valid history of science be attempted that would retrace from beginning to end the whole spontaneous movement of an anonymous body of knowledge? Is it legitimate, is it even useful, to replace the traditional ‘X thought that . . .’ by a ‘it was known that . . .’? But this is not exactly what I set out to do. I do not wish to deny the validity of intellectual biographies, or the possibility of a history of theories, concepts, or themes. It is simply that I wonder whether such descriptions are themselves enough, whether they do justice to the immense density of scientific discourse, whether there do not exist, outside their customary boundaries, systems of regularities that have a decisive role in the history of the sciences. (The Order of Things xiii-xiv)
For my purposes, it does not matter whether Foucault had something very precise and exact in mind by “systems of regularities” and how that role hooks into all the other roles (played by people, theories, concepts, and themes). His rhetorical presentation is one of open-minded questioning—he is simply wondering whether there might not be another character being played in the background that our current researches are leaving untouched in their account of the drama of life (or perhaps more specifically, the history of the sciences). This gesture, made by the rhetorical questions, the wondering, the not-exactly, and the not-wishing-to-deny, creates the appearance of simply opening up a grayspace in which many may come and experiment in. And in this, I think Foucault was very sincere and very successful. Foucault’s boldness of imagination combined with his hope for, if not a joint inquiry, then a space in which many can all inquire and help each other with their varied inquiries—this made Foucault the towering intellectual father he has become for many. And one thing intellectual fathers do, as we all are quite aware after Derrida, is disseminate their intellectual DNA via their progeny. To make this quasi-metaphor more concrete, we might think of the kind of intellectual dissemination that figures like Foucault perform as casting off dimly understood hypotheses that require more work with to process and confirm. That Foucault must be a godfather for whatever is meant by “posthumanism” must be obvious for the person whose book became synonymous with “man is only a recent invention” (xxiii), “and perhaps nearing its end” (387).

The question must be for us progeny: how are we to understand that? The drive of this reflection is that Foucault’s work opens up a number of possibilities, and I do believe it is pointless to look back to Foucault for definitive guidance (that would be a form of intellectual biography). One of these possibilities is that Foucault is describing the birth and (hopeful) death of a certain self-image that humanity has of itself, a self-image that expresses itself in many different activities, only one of which is the activity of articulating a self-image (call that activity “philosophy”). One activity just might be the use of the first-person plural, for it is difficult for fans of Foucault to forget Nietzsche’s remark that we’ll believe in God as long as we believe in grammar. One can find nourishment from Foucault for this experiment by triangulating the spaciously ambiguous “man is a recent invention” with “an anonymous body of knowledge” and his transition from the first-person variable “X” to the pronominal third-person in “it was known that.”

3.      Would Foucault have thought that “we” should get rid of the first-person plural, “we”? I doubt it, but he was, on the other hand, the philosopher “who writes in order to have no face.” [6] More especially, however, I’m not sure Badmington even thinks we should get rid of the “we.” I suspect that the problem with “the naturalized we” is the presumptive homogenization that occurs by saying that such-and-such is our problem, when the drift of leftist theorizing in the last 50 years has been to try to not be so presumptive about what community, what “we,” people come from and therefore would have the same problems. But is this presumption really tied to the self-image of humanism, which is at the very least a cultural complex that includes philosophical theses? [7] But more importantly, is every use of “we” presumptive? For if this were true, that would make the very idea of community presumptive, or at least the attempt to communicate what you think “we” in your community think. It is the slide between an attitude (“presumption”), a linguistic usage (“we”), and a set of quasi-philosophical theses (“humanism”) that, I think, produces loose talk about a humanism that “forever rewrites itself as posthumanism,” [8] which suggests that the ostensible problem doesn’t in fact have a solution. And this should just suggest we rethink what the problem is.


[1] Twilight of the Idols, “‘Reason’ in Philosophy,” sec. 5

[2] Posthumanism, ed. Badmington, 1

[3] I suspect this idea has been disseminated most by Derrida in our literary theorists, but cannot develop the point here. Badmington evinces this idea when, after introducing Derrida, posthumanism ceases to be a historical phenomenon and instead becomes the necessary conceptual counterpart of humanism, which is forever rewriting itself.

[4] This is not the space to provide evidence for this claim about what Brandom thinks, for it only needs to be the case for my purposes that this is a coherent thing to think.

[5] This is part of what Kuhn meant by “paradigm” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. See Ian Hacking’s introduction to the 4th edition for an excellent historical review of the reception of that very important book, including the incredibly misunderstood notion of a “paradigm.”

[6] The Archaeology of Knowledge, 17

[7] Richard Rorty has developed this point about philosophical presuppositions in regards to political liberalism in “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” (in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth), which I’m coasting behind in all of this. The harder problem for Rorty was, after disentangling the philosophical presuppositions of “we,” if you will, dealing with other attendant problems in using “we,” especially the presumption. See my “Two Uses of ‘We.’”

[8] Posthumanism, ed. Badmington, 9

Friday, July 19, 2013

Posthumanism, Antiessentialism, and Depersonalization

1. Belatedism — Reductionism — Ceasing to treat “human” as an invidious term of distinction; 2. General problem of antiessentialism — From ethics to epistemology and ontology — Living in the flux — Essences as stabilities — Making distinctions; 3. Taking humans for granted — Taking humanism for granted — Special problem of demarcation — How to make a human less special; 4. Bennett on actants and assemblage — Giving out intentionality — Doing an action, causing an effect; 5. What intentions are for — Global problem of anthropomorphism — Properties vs. attributions; 6. Instrumentals rationality — Tools of our tools — Ancient science as spiritual exercise — Knowledge as depersonalization — Theoretical practices

1.      “Posthumanism,” in the last 20 years, has become the latest popular entry into our post-’60s craze for being after something, usually some “ism.” Also in the last 20 years, nearly all promulgations of isms come attached with increasingly anxious qualifiers about the promulgator not wanting to reduce the perceived proponents of the ism to his or her formulation, or not wanting to suggest the essence of what the ism is. [1] I find such hand-waving pointless—partly because I take any good reader or listener to have the good sense to feel free to disagree at any point without the author’s encouragement—but this anxiety plays a special role in my topic because of the way reductionism and essentialism have been tied by theorists into a story about the degradation and oppression of humanity—and, of course, now more than just humanity.

In what follows, I’d like to perform two services: 1) I hope to clarify three problems that any posthumanist theorist will encounter in articulating their view: the general problem of antiessentialism, the special problem of demarcation, and the global problem anthropomorphism. What all three of these problems revolve around is the practical aspect of living the theories we propound. Since many posthumanist perspectives articulate themselves in terms that are inherently paradoxical, I hope by clarifying these three problems to point in the direction of a nonparadoxical mode of articulating the central motive of posthumanism—ceasing to treat “human” as an invidious term of distinction. 2) I will re-tell a familiar story of the last 300 years as a means of bring into focus the problem of our practices as the primary object of our ethical inquiries. Posthumanism is nothing if not ethically motivated, so when posthumanist theory finds itself moving away from ethics to epistemology or ontology, it behooves us to reexamine our priorities and their interrelationships. The basic problem central to the “scientific revolution” of the European 17th century—which typically stands in as the moment the dam broke, flooding our landscape with instrumental rationality—is the assertion of purely egocentric interests. Working through this conceptual and historical exercise, seeing posthumanism’s broader concern with purely human interests, will put us in a position of seeing a larger project of thinking through ethical authority in a world structured only by material, as opposed to supernatural, agencies.

2.      If the central motive of posthumanism is to cease treating “human” as a term of ethical distinction, then one of its central moves has been to cease treating “human” as a term of distinction at all. This shifts the central theoretical terrain from ethics to epistemology and ontology, from how we treat X to how we know what X is. The primary theoretical current that this move draws power from is the antiessentialism common to Heidegger, Sartre, the American pragmatists, and the Continental poststructuralists. We might embody it in Sartre’s slogan that “existence precedes essence.” [2] By overturning the ultimately Platonic relationship that envisions the flux of lived appearances as conceptually beholden to an order of stable essences, antiessentialism emits a panrelationalism—things are not what they are in themselves, but only as they relate to other things. [3] This dissolves any particular thing into a web of relations, and can ultimately cause a fear for stability—how does the antiessentialistic reversal not just flip us into a nasty flux of relations with no footholds for understanding? I think it is fairly clear that no person actually lives their life as if there were no foothold for understanding, as if they did live a flux like a tempest (as opposed to a flux like an oscillating fan). Sartre’s word for this was “metastable.” [4]

If this seems to dissolve the problem surrounding antiessentialism, why am I calling this a general problem for posthumanism? The reason is that though practically we have no problem living in the flux, our theoretical descriptions still tend to contort themselves when describing this practical situation. At root, I think, is the suspicion that existence only precedes essence, that essentialism will always reconstitute itself in the process of understanding. This comes out as a sense that definition, i.e. giving conceptual shape to any particular X, is essentializing. (Need I add “is essentially” or “by definition” to complete the contortion?) This suspicion can largely be traced to origins in poststructuralism, and is best embodied by Gayatri Spivak’s resignation about the state of affairs we must find ourselves in that demands her notion of “strategic essentialism.” [5] Because of the history of oppression through conceptual means that an entire host of cultural critics in the last century have been busily excavating, what was once Plato’s fear for stability has turned into a fear of stability—that any stable entity is covering over the oppression required to achieve that stability. If at one very real extreme is the actual use of linguistic categories to justify the continued oppression of cultural groups and persons, then at the other extreme is the absurdity of thinking that my body’s stable existence at a particular set of spatiotemporal coordinates is papering over my body’s right to exist at every over set of coordinates. There are stabilities, and then there are stabilities. What we need—but what theorists like Spivak are conceptually unable to provide resources for—is the ability to distinguish between the range of stabilities on that ethical scale. So the general problem of antiessentialism is: how do you de-privilege one distinction without harming your ability to make any distinctions? The way to do this, I think, is to replace Sartre’s existentialist formula with a pragmatist formula like, “practice precedes theory.” This turns all theoretical conundrums back to their origins in practice. This makes one’s fear of stability negotiable by turning the suspicion of a particular stability back to the practice being enabled by it—still suspicious given any kind of oppression, but hardly suspicious at all given a body’s continued existence at a set of spatiotemporal coordinates qua continued existence (though the why for, e.g., the prisoner’s continued existence in the jail cell might be up for grabs).

3.      I suspect, as I somewhat suggested before, that theorists have no problem resolving these theoretical problems of definition and essence in practice as persons or citizens (rather than as theorists). But working through the general problem of de-privileging can give us a handle on a second, special problem that emits from the first: how do we demarcate humans from other things? The problem of antiessentialism and the fear of stability are marks of a desire to not privilege anything—but now how do we tell the difference between us and other animals? The amused self-consciousness that accompanies most articles about posthumanism is, I think, not nearly nervous enough about this as a problem. Most theorists of the posthuman seem to take it for granted that we can just tell the difference, but what their work needs to do is provide some handle for how to tell the difference between a human res and a nonhuman res so as to keep the critical edge of their polemic while not resting on either an unarticulated practical grasp or a paradoxical run around wherein we find, ultimately, that we have to ask some portentous “question of the human” every time we want to articulate the difference between a human and a beaver. The former is antithetical to the project of theorizing and the latter I suspect has become popular because 1) people like imitating Derrida, but more importantly 2) they are beholden to the fear of stability that produces the problem of antiessentialism.

Posthumanists do much better when they state their opposition as “humanism,” or “liberal humanism,” or “liberal subjectivity.” What they want to pick out and contest are particular ways in which the human subject is picked out of a crowd. As my use of “res” indicates, we are going to be led back to Descartes—since he distinguished between res cogitans and res extensa, “the mind” has too often been used as the repository for our dreams of difference. But as Rorty retails in his opening chapter of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, there are as many ways to pick out what demarcates the mind—and thus the human—as there are fingers on your hands. [6] The typical approach of posthumanism has been to select one of these marks and reappropriate it for res extensa, thus making the human a little less special. So the special problem of demarcation (which is really just a species of the more general problem of antiessentialism) is: how do you make the human less special while retaining the conceptual ability to tell a human from a nonhuman? Darwin’s naturalism made it possible for Nietzsche to think of us as a diseased animal precisely because of our desire to be special, [7] but the flipside of Nietzsche’s cynicism is John Dewey’s suggestion that Darwin made it possible for us to really get to the bottom of our human cultural practices: “the influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition….” Dewey saw Darwin as making possible antiessentialism, as overturning “the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final” and finally alleviating our desire to “lay hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency.” [8]

4.      In order to see better how the blurring motions of antiessentialisms can make it hard to see what makes humans, if not special, at least their own peculiar selves above and beyond physiology, we might turn to Jane Bennett’s recent book, Vibrant Matter (2010). Bennett wouldn’t call herself a posthumanist, but her book works in the same vein, and its utility lies in how thoroughly Bennett wishes to rethink our ontological assumptions—Bennett pushes to the limit certain strategies commonly used by posthumanist theorists, in particular an effort to rethink ontology with ethical implications. Bennett’s ontology centers on the attempt to reinscribe “things” with a “power” she says they’ve been denied by Kantian accounts of agency, thus giving “the force of things its due.” [9] She does so by using Latour’s notion of “actants” as a way of inscribing intentionality in the nonhuman-thing so as to gain a better picture of the “human-nonhuman assemblage” (her term taken from Deleuze and Guattari). [10]

What this power amounts to, however, doesn’t seem much more than being an active force in the material world. Bennett feels this as a point of resistance that deserves the edge of her polemic because of the old notion of the “passivity of matter.” [11] But what extra power is gained by intentionality, alongside causal power, is unclear—and nobody has denied the material world’s causal ability to blot us from existence. Bennett says that “the question is whether other forces in the world approximate some of the characteristics of intentional or purposive behavior on the part of humans” (29), but this makes the mistake of thinking we know what intentionality is. By assuming she already has a conceptual grasp of intentionality, Bennett is able to show how other things have it, too. But this doesn’t seem very hard. Giving out intentionality is easy—just do it, and you’ve done it. Thinking the rock intended to fall to the floor is enough for the rock to have intentionally fallen to the floor. Who, after all, is going to contradict you (except for theorists not assuming we already know what intentionality is)?

Intentionality is simply things behaving as if other things are behaving intentionally. [12] The problem is that the rock behaves the same way whether we attribute intentionality to it or not—or whether the rock attributes intentionality to us or not. So the only question is whether it is useful to attribute intentions to any particular X. To answer this question about a rock falling, we might compare it to a hand going up in a classroom. If the person whose hand goes up gets “called on,” it is because of a practice the caller-on (and all those who expected the person to get called on) is embedded in. If the person was “lifting their hand” rather than “raising their hand,” we can say that the person “unintentionally raised their hand”—we need this locution to distinguish between doing an action (intentionally lifting a hand to get called on) and causing an effect (lifting a hand and unintentionally getting called on). The movements are the same, but only when embedded in a practice can the movement have a certain effect. So, returning to the rock, what is the added bonus of saying the falling rock intentionally crushed my foot if the effect is the same whether I ascribe an intention to the rock or not?

5.      The moral of this story is that one reason we attribute intentions is because by making actors aware of the effects of their actions, we can get the actor to not perform the effect-causing action. This, at least, is not the case with the rock, though it might be with the person who dropped it on my foot. It is clear that Bennett wishes her new ontology to have an effect on our moral discourse. She gives a series of imperatives toward the end of her book that punches up this problem of intentionality: “Give up the futile attempt to disentangle the human from the nonhuman. Seek instead to engage more civilly, strategically, and subtly with the nonhumans in the assemblages in which you, too, participate” (116). But what could it mean to engage civilly with rocks? Do rocks respond differently if you are rude to them? While behaving more strategically and subtly with rocks might make sense, civility would seem to only be in play if you could change the rock’s behavior by doing so. But what the analogy is for politely dropping a rock and it not crushing my foot because I treated the rock civilly rather than rudely isn’t clear.

This brings us to the final, global problem of anthropomorphism. Bennett sees clearly that she must face the problem of whether she’s anthropomorphizing non-anthropo-stuff by, for example, attributing intentions to stuff we might normally withhold it from. The global problem of anthropomorphism is: how do you use categories of understanding that are not human categories? Bennett sees that what she calls her “vital materialism” seems to “entail a performative contradiction”: “‘Is it not, after all, a self-conscious, language-wielding human who is articulating this philosophy of vibrant matter?’ It is not so easy to resist, deflect, or redirect this criticism” (120). However, there would only seem to be a performative contradiction if you haven’t been able to provide an account for what separates humans from nonhumans. More particularly, it is by treating intentionality as a property instead of an attribution that heaves Bennett’s project into paradox when she admits she has no separate method for ascertaining the properties of rocks except for the regular human one’s we’ve always employed.

6.      Bennett’s confrontation with anthropomorphism, like Spivak’s confrontation with essentialism, emits a general helplessness—for, almost all admit, we can only use human categories. But why should we feel helpless? The reason I think we find ourselves to be helpless or stuck in the position of humanity, rather than, say, thankful or unashamed, is because of the way scientific innovation, technological development, economic consumption, and liberal democracy have all dovetailed into a story about instrumental rationality. This is the story, familiar to us from Germany—be it the Frankfurt School of Horkheimer, Adorno, et al or Heidegger—that the history of the West is the history of Reason increasing our ability to control stuff, including ourselves. In its initial form, the concern seemed to be primarily with us, with succumbing to a “blindly pragmatized thought [that] loses its transcending quality.” [13] Horkheimer and Adorno’s concern was that, not only was our thought simply a means to carry out preexisting and unreflectively held ends, but that the end or purpose of thought had simply become the increased efficiency of means. Unreflectively held purposes dovetails with Heidegger’s discussion of the rhetoric of mathematics and method that took over the natural sciences in the 17th century and was encroaching on the social sciences at the end of the 19th. [14] But what’s worse is that, in Thoreau’s phrase, “men have become the tools of their tools.” [15] The central idea is that we are caught up in the practices we’ve created and have become beholden to them, and that these practices are working out a destructive teleology. And since the increasing obviousness of the consequences of global industrialization, this sensed destruction has become both to ourselves and nonhuman nature. As should be clear, this is a pessimistic narrative that implies that we no longer have the hope of changing (Horkheimer, Adorno, and Heidegger’s conclusion) or that we no longer have the desire to (Thoreau’s fear).

I think it is something like this story that stands behind most posthumanisms. [16] Without it, it's hard to make sense of why we should go in for all the arid metaphysical talk. And while I think there is sufficient plausibility for Thoreau’s fear, I want to quickly sketch an alternative narrative about our theoretical practices that takes the edge off the conclusion that we are now hopeless. This story is drawn from Hans Blumenberg’s account of the transition from ancient and medieval cosmology to modern. Central to this account is the notion that for the ancients, theoretical descriptions of the nonhuman were spiritual exercises meant to relieve the pressures of theory itself. [17] For example, as Blumenburg writes, Epicurus’s “atomistic physics was not meant to satisfy a theoretical interest in reality but rather to argue for the irrelevance of the physical answers to the shaping of life in the world.” [18] “Only insofar as physics could be thought of as producing real human power over nature could natural science potentially serve as the instrument by which to overcome the new radical insecurity of man’s relation to reality” (155). Only when science could demonstrate its practical mastery over life, its “real human power,” could science serve as a mode of overcoming. But overcome what turns out to be the real question. It behooves us to make a distinction between our increased mastery over nonhuman forces indiscriminately killing us off and other forms of overcoming—overcoming our parents, parts of ourselves we dislike, our political enemies, precursor poets, etc.

The upshot of Blumenberg’s story is that we should make finer distinctions among the different projects and practices we’ve put into play over the course of cultural history in order to better grasp why we originally created them so as to better understand why we might continue them. One of the central distinctions Blumenberg makes about the outcome of the 17th century scientific revolution is that philosophers took two divergent paths, that of Cartesian “self-foundation” and Baconian “self-assertion” (see 181-203). [19] As Blumenberg understands it, the mode of self-assertion preceded self-foundation because the central cultural concern they both had eschew was the authority of the ancients (as read by the Scholastics). Thus we find Bacon bashing idols and Descartes retreating to his fireplace. However, as Steven Shapin notes, there was an intense suspicion that accompanied this “intellectual individualism and the rejection of trust and authority.” [20] At this point, it is helpful to make a distinction between the personal and the individual. The individualism common to Bacon and Descartes states that knowledge begins with an individual’s personal experience. The concern, then, is how to make this knowledge portable, intersubjective. This produces different practices intended to depersonalize the knowledge gained firsthand. As Shapin suggests, this amounts to the elaboration of different “practical procedures” (93) such as Boyle’s recommendation “that experimental reports be written in a way that allowed distant readers—not present as firsthand witnesses—to replicate the relevant effects” (107). But another method of depersonalization lies in Descartes’s search for a foundation to knowledge in indubitable certainty. If one could once establish the foundation upon which all knowledge must repose, then one can gain the assent of all inferences from it as common to all because of the necessity created by the demonstration.

It is now generally agreed that Descartes’s foundationalism is an off-shoot of Platonic essentialism, what Dewey called “the quest for certainty” grounded in a “search for the immutable.” [21] What I articulated as the problem of antiessentialism is the problem of searching for replacement practices for the specific theoretical practice of hunting down immutability. Thus this problem becomes paradoxical only if one thinks that a certain set of theoretical practices inevitably ties us into a certain set of self-descriptions and problems—e.g., thinking linguistic practices are necessarily essentializing or thinking intentionality necessary for ethical consideration. Seeing these practices in the light of history, however, can give us a sense of their continuity with other practices motivated for similar purposes and their contingency as practices that can be altered given new situations that require new purposes.


[1] Two examples—N. Katherine Hayles, a major figure (displaying only slight anxiety): “What is the posthuman? Think of it as a point of view characterized by the following assumptions. (I do not mean this list to be exclusive or definitive. Rather, it names elements found at a variety of sites. It is meant to be suggestive rather than prescriptive)” (How We Became Posthuman (1999), 2); Neil Badmington, writing an introduction (displaying acute anxiety): “What would it mean to view this as an example of posthumanism? The use of such a term is, of course, far from straightforward. Writing in 1947, Martin Heidegger drew attention to the paradoxical status of an ‘-ism,’ observing that…[etc., etc.]. Was I in danger of giving currency to yet another ‘-ism’ devoid of clarity, coherence and credibility” (Posthumanism (2000), ed. Badmington, 1)?

[2]L’existence précède l’essence” is from Sartre’s essay, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (translated in Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre—see 348). I pass over the irony of using this essay in this context, though the kernel of my reply is embodied in my discussion of anthropomorphism below.

[3] This is the lesson Richard Rorty draws from “philosophers as diverse as William James and Friedrich Nietzsche, Donald Davidson and Jacques Derrida, Hilary Putnam and Bruno Latour, John Dewey and Michel Foucault” (“A World without Substances or Essences,” in Philosophy and Social Hope, 47). Rorty immediately goes on to say that being an “antidualist,” which is how they articulated their antiessentialism, does not mean “that they are against binary oppositions; it is not clear that thought is possible without using such oppositions. It means rather that they are trying to shake off the influences of the peculiarly metaphysical dualisms which the Western philosophical tradition inherited from the Greeks: those between essence and accident, substance and property, and appearance and reality.”

[4] Being and Nothingness, 90. In the context of Sartre’s discussion, metastable seems to connote something closer to instability. But see Rorty’s use of Sartre in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: “Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old. I call people of this sort ‘ironists’ because their realization that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed, and their renunciation of the attempt to formulate criteria of choice between final vocabularies, puts them in the position which Sartre called ‘meta-stable’: never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change…” (73-74). Something being subject to change is much different than something ceaselessly changing. I think the lesson is that Sartre’s term is a good description of the terrain of antiessentialism, though it originally had to be deployed with more of the polemical edge of flux.

[5] Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is a virtuoso performance showing how ethical and epistemological issues are bound together. Spivak’s term, however, comes from the fact that she does not believe there is any alternative to essentialism, or rather that language is in its nature essentializing. For philosophers like Rorty, as I articulated in note 3, this would be like saying that Platonic dualisms were at the heart of language and unavoidable.

[6] See PMN 32-37. Rorty distinguishes nine different marks of the mental and groups them into three different problem-piles: the problem of consciousness, the problem of reason, and the problem of personhood. I take such refinement of distinction to be the first step toward wisdom in this area.

[7] See On the Genealogy of Morality, 3.28: “If one disregards the ascetic ideal: man, the animal man, has until now had no meaning. This existence on earth contained no goal…. Precisely this is what the ascetic ideal means: that something was lacking, that an enormous void surrounded man—he did not know how to justify, to explain, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his meaning. He suffered otherwise as well, he was for the most part a diseased animal…” (117).

[8] From "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy" (1909).

[9] VM, 29

[10] See ibid., 9 for Bennett’s introduction of Latour’s “actant”; her second chapter discusses the “assemblage.”

[11] See ibid., vii.

[12] I am blithely taking on board Daniel Dennett’s mode of discussing intentionality, principally from The Intentional Stance, as if it is obvious, but clearly this is contentious for philosophers of mind. The general idea is that intentionality is a holistic game that a community weasels its way into by members attributing intentionality to each other. This is how functionalists avoid the Cartesian problem of Other Minds—intentional minds are created when all the members attribute them to each other, and there is no deeper problem than that. What is interesting is that, on Dennett and Rorty’s understanding, Dennett is the heir of Darwin and it is only theorists who wish to retain the mind as a mark of humanity’s specialness that resist Dennett’s functionalism.

[13] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), xiii. I’m quoting from the John Cummings translation, though Edmund Jephcott’s recent translation is likely to become canonical. This line in particular just rings better in Cummings’ translation, though I have no other reason for choosing it.

[14] See Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture” (in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays) especially of the notion of a “procedure” being a “fixed ground plan” (118). This kind of rhetoric about math and method is charted succinctly by Steven Shapin in The Scientific Revolution—see especially 57-64 on the problematic notion of the “mathematization of the universe” (63) and 89-96 on the notion that “method was meant to be all” (90). Shapin’s comment that “there is much to commend a revisionist view that formal methodology is to be understood as a set of rhetorical tools for positioning practices in the culture” (95) might be expanded to include the use of mathematics. See also the opening section of Rorty’s “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope” (in Consequences of Pragmatism) for a pithy polemic about what the philosophical upshot of the scientific revolution should have been.

[15] Walden, Ch. 1

[16] My use of Thoreau is partly intended to lend plausibility to this narrative standing behind Bennett. Bennett has a previous book on Thoreau as a political philosopher.

[17] “Spiritual exercises” is a term taken from Pierre Hadot. See, for example, his Philosophy as a Way of Life.

[18] Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 181

[19] My understanding of self-assertion owes much to Rorty’s use of Blumenberg. See, e.g., his “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity” (in Essays on Heidegger and Others), especially where he calls Bacon “the prophet of self-assertion as opposed to self-grounding” (172).

[20] The Scientific Revolution, 72

[21] “Philosophy’s Search for the Immutable” is the second chapter in Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty, which attempts to locate a tradition of philosophical inquiry—specifically metaphysical and epistemological—in our historical and existential condition as beings in the world.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Two Uses of "We"

1. We who agree with me – We as community; 2. Like herding cats – Foucault’s oui – Initiating vs. justifying; 3. Deliberating as a group – Whose heritage? Which communitas? – You are a function of we – You cannot reason your way to hope; 4. The we-initiator is prophetic – And arrogant – Emerson’s Sayer: too confident? – Ellison’s Emersonianism – Carlin’s Millian liberalism

1.      One of the things Richard Rorty was taken to task for most often—from teasing to anger—was his rhetorical use of “we.” It was also one of the earliest things his late-coming to moral and political philosophy was criticized for, particularly by those on the left, and here as in most relevant criticism of Rorty, it was his old friend Richard Bernstein: “Rorty frequently speaks of ‘we’ – ‘we liberals,’ ‘we pragmatists,’ ‘we inheritors of European civilization.’ But who precisely constitutes this ‘we’? Sometimes it seems as if what Rorty means by ‘we’ are ‘all those who agree with me.’” [1] This would, indeed, be disastrous if that is all Rorty meant by “we.” However, it is important to recognize that sometimes you do want to talk to just those “who agree with me,” though it couldn’t be “about all things” because you wouldn’t need to talk then (unless it were simply to remind everyone of the things y’all agree on, which isn’t as silly a task as you may think, but one I shan’t talk about for now). This “relevant we” is a community—all questions, assertions, positions are made and taken in front of some particular group.

In Rorty’s original response to Bernstein, he concedes that he has to spell out better who he means by “we,” and so begins his reply with a “political credo” in order to specify “the audience I am addressing.” [2] This wasn’t, however, exactly Bernstein’s problem with those “we’s,” and I want to slowly bring out the back and forth because both angles the two are standing at are important. Rorty is concerned with the ability of political philosophers—or, really, people generally—to identify with a community in solidarity in order to propose reforms. Perhaps this is an ability to stand shoulder to shoulder, if only metaphorically, with an established political party in order to get things done—this kind of solidarity is exclusionary insofar as the solidarity you have is not with the opposing party(s). However, to get reforms for the whole nation, the kind of solidarity we are talking about is larger—identification as an American in order to convince everyone that the reforms of your party are what’s best for everyone. So you are addressing Americans while also acknowledging that they, obviously, do not agree with you about everything.

2.      Rorty, here, was doing something even more narrow—addressing a subset (“the people whom I think of as social democrats”) of a national-political set (the American left) part of the larger array of America. [3] But Rorty thought that thinking in terms of solidarity was necessary for thinking in terms of getting stuff done. The reason one talks to subsets of various kinds is to get people pointed in the same direction, to add force to force to counteract opposing forces. The old cliché of getting leftists to agree on anything is like herding cats is apropos. And so Rorty criticized Foucault through the ‘80s for never being able to quite countenance himself inside of some solidarity group. “[Foucault] forbids himself the tone of the liberal sort of thinker who says to his fellow-citizens: ‘We know that there must be a better way to do things than this; let us look for it together.’ There is no ‘we’ to be found in Foucault’s writings, nor in those of many of his French contemporaries.” [5] Foucault, in I believe his last interview, replied to this particular point during his conversation with Paul Rabinow:
Rorty points out that in these analyses I do not appeal to any “we”—to any of those “we’s” whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions constitute the framework for a thought and define the conditions in which it can be validated. But the problem is, precisely, to decide if it is actually suitable to place oneself within a “we” in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts; or if it is not, rather, necessary to make the future formation of a “we” possible, by elaborating the question. Because it seems to me that the “we” must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result—and the necessarily temporary result—of the question as it is posed in the new terms in which one formulates it. [6]
Rorty thought it was very important to respond to this point. [7] Bernstein quotes this passage, and Rorty responds to it in a footnote after his concession, earlier discussed, that he needs to be more specific about “we”:
I agree with Bernstein that I need to spell out the reference of “we” more fully. I think that this is best done by reference to a view of current political dangers and options—for one’s sense of such dangers and options determines what sort of social theory one is able to take seriously. However, I cannot figure out what Foucault meant when he said (in the passage Bernstein quotes) that “the ‘we’ must not be previous to the question.” With Wittgenstein and Dewey, I should have thought that you can only elaborate a question within some language-game currently under way—which means within some community, some group whose members share a good many relevant beliefs (about, e.g., what is wrong, and what would be better). Foucault seems to be envisaging some sort of simultaneous creatio ex nihilio of vocabulary and community. I cannot envisage this. As far as I can see, you can only describe or propose radical social change if you keep a background fixed—if you take some shared descriptions, assumptions, and hopes for granted. Otherwise, as Kant pointed out, it won’t count as change, but only as sheer, ineffable difference. [8]
Rorty picks out precisely the bit in Foucault’s passage that is most problematical because of the two roles “we” can play: “we” as initiating a community and “we” as justifying an act. The latter is what Foucault finds so offensive about “we,” and this is what he means when he says he doesn’t want to appeal to the “we’s” “whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions constitute the framework for a thought.” If it had just said “consensus,” Rorty may have not bucked the point in the way he did because the idea that some shit’s gotta’ change is based on the idea that the current consensus needs reconfiguration. But including “values” and “traditions” in his formulation of what he wishes not to appeal to is why Rorty suggests that Foucault envisages some “simultaneous creatio ex nihilio of vocabulary and community.” The whole point of the first half of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is that you can’t just make stuff up—you have to use the tools you were acculturated with. Why? Because there is no you until you’ve been acculturated. This is a Hegelian point. And Foucault’s response is just a little too decisionistic, the meta-ethical stance that suggests that you are an empty toolbox that should look around and put the good stuff in. Meta-ethical decisionism is the heart of right-wing individualism and accounts for the left-wing communitarian backlash in the ’70s and ’80s. [9] “The problem is, precisely, to decide if it is in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts.” Who is this one? What are you made of, that can recognize and make decisions, if you’ve emptied out all the values and traditions?

3.      So, first there’s the conceptual Hegelian point that Rorty wants to press back, and then the rhetorical-political point that I made earlier—that to effect change in this world you’re going to need to form a solidarity group. Foucault finds insidious the consensus because when you use a consensus to justify, you necessarily exclude the dissenters from counting in the justification. Republicans still have a Democratic president even though they may not have voted for the person. But that’s the way democratic politics has to work, right? Well, what if you’ve been excluded from the deliberation? That’s what’s really the problem. And Americans, especially, should be sensitive to the problem of somethingsomething without representation. A “we” that gets too close to the justifying sense can seem like an act of exclusion if you use it in the middle of a debate. And this was Bernstein’s problem when he quoted Foucault:
At times … Rorty seems to be insensitive to the dark side of appealing to ‘we’ when it is used as an exclusionary tactic…. Rorty criticizes those versions of ‘realism’ that appeal to a ‘fact of the matter’ that is presumably independent of my (or our) interpretations. Yet he fails to realize that when he appeals to our shared beliefs and our common historical heritage, he is speaking as if there is at least a historical fact of the matter. [10]
Bernstein is summoning the outrage the oppressed who have been excluded from the process of creating those “shared beliefs” and “common heritage” have when they are told that “this what ’Merca ’sabout.” It’s not their heritage.

But whose heritage should we have? Yours? Who are you? If you aren’t American, why should Americans have your heritage? That’s the conundrum if you don’t form that large kind of solidarity group—the intellectual sword wielded in pointing out the exclusion doesn’t simultaneously let you back in. So what does? Rorty thought the only thing that lets you, any you, into the democratic societas is a liberal communitas—liberalism is an ethics of inclusion. In his second run at Foucault’s point, in Contingency, Rorty says to Foucault’s formulation of the problem, as deciding whether or not to take part in the old community or form a new one, that “this is, indeed, the problem. But I disagree with Foucault about whether in fact it is necessary to form a new ‘we.’ My principal disagreement with him is precisely over whether ‘we liberals’ is or is not good enough.” [11] This is because his “hunch is that Western social and political thought may have had the last conceptual revolution it needs,” [12] and this because “expanding the range of our present ‘we’” [13] is central to the liberal communitas.

So—after the Hegelian point that you are a function of a we, while taking on board the point that you are not thus reducible to that we, and the rhetorical-political point that you have to justify yourself in front of some community and form solidarity groups to affect change, there is still the problem of historical exclusion (or, continued exclusion). How do you decide whether or not to be part of the actual American community when it continues to fail regularly at the inclusionary image it prides itself on? Rorty didn’t think there was anything to say to this. You either hope, with James Baldwin, that the American common project of inclusion might be made, if not new, at the very, very least much better than it is currently behaving, though its dreams are more or less the same, or you cast off America as hopeless as Elijah Muhammad and many others have, both alienated intellectuals and working class folks who actually feel the brunt of the exclusions still left in America’s leaky ship so much more often than the leisured intellectuals. There will never be a deciding factor when it comes to deciding whether or not one should hope, at least no factor that will ever be portable. We, each of us, should have reasons for our belief or disbelief in a community, but reason will never decide the issue. [14]

4.      But how should we use “we” then? Sometimes I think people like Bernstein we’re being too hard on Rorty because how else do you decide what a group should do then a bunch of people saying things like “We should no X” “No! We should do Y!” “No, Z!”? Rorty followed Wilfrid Sellars in thinking of these as “we-intentions,” and since communities don’t speak, only individuals do, somebody has got to speak up and suggest things the community should do and think. I think Bernard Williams may have given all the answer Rorty ever needed in his response to this problem in his Shame and Necessity:
More than one friend, reading this book in an earlier version, has asked who this ubiquitous “we” represents. It refers to people in a certain cultural situation, but who is in that situation? Obviously it cannot mean everybody in the world, or everybody in the West. I hope it does not mean only people who already think as I do. The best I can say is that “we” operates not through a previous fixed designation, but through invitation. (The same is true, I believe, of “we” in much philosophy, and particularly in ethics.) It is not a matter of “I” telling “you” what I and others thinks, but of my asking you to consider to what extent you and I think some things and perhaps need to think others. [15]
As I said before, there are two uses of “we”—the we-initiator and the we-justification. The we-justification counts and uses that count as a reason for a belief. “We, in Wisconsin, counted up our votes, and give our electoral votes to Candidate X.” “Indeed, and there’s reason to believe that we in Wisconsin are beginning to go liberal because exit polls show that the margin X lost by in rural districts diminished, showing a rising left tide.” “Well, then we in Wisconsin should have liberal policies. Let’s furnish some.” You cannot, however, add individuals to get a we-community. You need to initiate it somehow. Declare a border or give yourselves a name—“Cubs fans” or “pragmatists” or “humans.” Like Foucault’s question, the we-initiator is prophetic—it proposes a community we could all belong to though we might not yet. It prophesizes an ideal community we should live in by thinking we do and beginning to behave like it (and criticizing each other when one of us doesn’t). It is a request, an invitation, and as Williams points out, it is an invitation to help think through what we are all about.

The reason people still get miffed about “we” is because it is arrogantyou propose to speak for me? Well, no, not exactly, but kind of. Somebody has got to speak for we. This risk of arrogance is at the heart of Emersonianism, for self-expression is the most important general trait of humanity, but not everyone was given equally to it. Emerson was right to imply that the Sayer, above the Doer and Knower, was king in a democracy, but Emerson’s sense of Providence was far too strong. He saw the agon that was a necessary consequence of self-reliance, but he said, “Don’t sweat it. Just ‘speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.’” [16] It shall? How? Emerson has no answer for that except his confidence, his optimism, which is to say his faith that Providence will make sure that everyone’s latent conviction (not those false, external ones) is in harmony (and never mind how we tell the difference between the truly latent and the falsely societal). So I take it that Ralph Ellison’s modulation of Emersonianism at the very end of Invisible Man speaks volumes about what we’ve learned is right and wrong about liberalism’s ethics of inclusion and its Emersonian need for everyone to act their own part:
Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
Who knows?—we will all only know when each of us looks inside and speaks what we find there. There’s a lot on the surface that divides us, but maybe there’s some kind of agreement lower down that needs articulation for us all to realize how much we do hold in common, and how we will need to hold it. And if not—well, there’s always George Carlin’s articulation of Millian liberalism: “Live and let live, that’s my motto. Anyone who can’t live with that, take’em outside and shoot the motherfucker.” [17]


[1] Bernstein, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward: Rorty on Liberal Democracy and Philosophy,” in his The New Constellation, 246-7. This paper was original published in Political Theory, Nov. 1987, where Rorty’s reply, “Thugs and Theorists: A Reply to Bernstein,” was simultaneously published (which I shall be quoting from shortly).

[2] Rorty, “Thugs and Theorists,” 565

[3] In fact, it’s more complicated than that, for the subset he is addressing in “Thugs and Theorists” and, say, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is international—he’s addressing not just Bernstein and Irving Howe, but Charles Taylor of Canada and Jürgen Habermas of Germany. However, in Achieving Our Country he is specifically addressing the American left.

[4] This isn’t, in fact, much of a criticism for Rorty, who attempts to have a much more nuanced set of terms with which to praise and criticize. The burden of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is, after all, the attempt to convince people to treat those with different tasks differently, and not test them all with one thermometer. So, Nietzsche and Heidegger, while getting F’s for political views, get A’s for attempting to achieve autonomy from Plato. Likewise, Orwell and Habermas get A’s for politics, but maybe B’s for philosophy. Rorty’s criticism of Foucault basically amounts to unfortunately running together his attempt for private perfection with a dominating concern for the welfare of others. What makes Foucault curious in this regard is that unlike, say, Plato whose running together of those two things emitted a totalitarian-like fantasy, Foucault’s attempt to do both at once had very few adverse effects on the public utility of his best works. This comes out best in Rorty’s essay “Moral Identity and Private Autonomy: The Case of Foucault” in Essays on Heidegger and Others. The lesson he drew from it was, roughly: “[My] critics on the left … think of themselves as standing outside of the sociopolitical culture of liberalism with which Dewey identified, a culture with which I continue to identify. So when I say ethnocentric things like ‘our culture’ or ‘we liberals,’ their reaction is ‘who, we?” I, however, find it hard to see them as outsiders to this culture; they look to me like people playing a role – an important role – within it” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth 15).

[5] “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity,” EHO, 174

[6] “Polemics, Politics, and Problemizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Rabinow, 385

[7] I say this because of the timing of the essays. Rorty published “Habermas and Lyotard” in 1984, to which Foucault responded in 1984 (just before his death). Bernstein quotes the passage at Rorty in 1987, to which Rorty responds in 1987 in “Thugs and Theorists” (as I will presently elaborate). However, the exchange with Bernstein is after Rorty’s Northcliffe lectures of 1986, which were published that year in the London Review of Books (and Bernstein had already read when he wrote his essay). Those lectures were to become the first three chapters of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, but not before Rorty could add the last section of “The Contingency of Community,” which juxtaposes Habermas and Foucault, and begins with a reconsideration of how to respond to Foucault’s point.

[8] “Thugs and Theorists,” 575n4. Rorty continues: “Attempts at ineffability can produce private ecstasy (witness Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) but they have no social utility. A lot of Foucault’s admirers seem to think that he (or he taken together with Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, and so on) showed us how to combine ecstasy and utility. I cannot envisage this either.” This last points in the direction of Rorty’s concerns in CIS.

[9] A backlash that happened amongst intellectuals, and only some of them, mind you (roughly, those that considered themselves “political theorists” or read Dissent). My right and left contrast here should have obvious resonance in our current American political climate, as it did then, and has in fact throughout the 20th century. However, one should never forget that many of the debates that ebb and flow in academic journals only rarely spill out into the wider political area. It’s often and usually the other way around.

[10] Bernstein, “One Step, Two Steps,” 247

[11] CIS, 64

[12] CIS, 63

[13] CIS, 64n24. This footnote is Rorty’s reconsideration of the passage from Foucault, in which he emphasizes that he agrees with him “that the constitution of a new ‘we’ can, indeed, result from asking the right question. … But forming new communities is no more an end in itself than is political revolution.”

[14] For a reapplication of this line of thought to the "culture wars" of the 1980s and ‘90s, see “The Legacy of Group Thinking,” esp. sections 3 and 4.

[15] Shame and Necessity, 171n7

[16] The (second) quoted bit is from the beginning of “Self-Reliance.”

[17] One of the early jokes from Carlin on Campus (1984).

Friday, July 05, 2013

Better and the Best

1. Practical stance against the Best – Platonic prophecy as theory – Romantic prophecy as poetry; 2. Theoretical stance against the Best – Evaluative platonism and robustness – Possible betters vs. actual best; 3. The Village Champion argument – Truth and justification; 4. Sloughing off the relativist with self-referential arguments – Contradiction is a practical infelicity; 5. Practical attitudes should be allowed to trump theory – Absolutes are parasitic, not autonomous – Sellars’ parasitism argument about ‘looks’-talk on ‘is’-talk; 6. Is ‘best’-talk parasitic on ‘better’-talk? 7. You can’t say what’s best without saying what’s worse – Self-justifiers as platonism – Closing aperçu

1.      In an interview toward the end of his life, Richard Rorty was asked if he thought that advocates of black reparations had valid and serious arguments. Rorty responded that:
There are valid and serious arguments, but there are also valid and serious arguments for taxing the citizens of the First World down to the standard of living of the average inhabitant of the Third World, and distributing the proceeds of this taxation to the latter. But since neither set of arguments will lead to any such action being taken, I am not sure how much time we should spend thinking about them, as opposed to thinking about measures that have some chance of actually being carried out. It would be better to think about what might actually be done than to think about what an absolutely perfect world would be like. The best can be an enemy of the better. [1]
The stance Rorty is here taking is a practical stance against the Best. Rorty is not against thinking about what the world should be like, as utopic and prophetic thinking is central to how Rorty conceives of the intellectual’s role in democratic culture. But what he is suggesting here is that we cannot spend the day in imagination. Rorty’s conception of prophecy is romantic, not platonic. A platonic conception of prophecy got off the ground when Plato began using metaphors of sight to articulate his sense of philosophy—“theory” derives from theoros, or “onlooker,” “spectator.” Plato’s transformation of the common Greek word for an audience member of a festival is what produced Dewey’s attack on the “spectatorial account of knowledge,” and when theoria was Latinized by contemplatio, it became invested with our derived word “speculation” from speculum, or mirror. Hence Rorty’s devastating attack on platonism in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

The romantic conception of prophecy, however, is different—it gains its sense, not from theoria, but from poiēsis, “making,” which we get “poetry” from. Rather than seeing something already there, the romantic conception of prophecy rests more on the Renaissance trope of building “castles in the air.” While the platonic conception gains a sense of urgency from its positing of a Best behind a veil that, if only we could just see it, we’d have our blueprint from how to order the world—the romantic conception loses that urgency, but in compensation we get a picture of how toying with castles too far off in the sky can distract us from the reality around us.

2.      What undergirds Rorty’s practical stance toward the Best is his theoretical stance against the Best, which is to say against platonism. For Rorty’s stance at the level of theory is that the Best is a mirage because it is circumscribed by our fallibility and our lack of method—for any X said to be the Best, we have to admit something better might come along. Such an admission of fallibility is what then produces the search for a method with which one could know certainly that one has in fact found the Best. Dewey and Rorty thought that this Quest for Certainty showed a lack of maturity, and that we should rather face up to the contingency of our assertions of what is the best.

The problem for this line of thought is that a new form of platonist has come along that suggests that you can’t have a notion of what’s better if you don’t have a robust notion of the Best. Rorty wants to deny needing one. This new version is a particular species of the more general form of what I will call evaluative platonism. There are many species, but the basic form is that if you don’t have the Best in mind as a sort of ideal to shoot for, you won’t progress toward anything. The industrial strength version is a full-blooded Platonism, which posits an Absolute Good that can be reached (at least in theory—you can see the Sun outside the Cave, even if you can’t reach it). There are, however, important knock-off brands, the most important of which for my purposes are Peircian end-of-inquiry notions which suggest that one needs a robust focus imaginarius to make sense of inquiry—these are important precisely because of the range of agreement Rorty shares with these other pragmatists. Rorty’s romantic notion isn’t robust enough because it simply expands our repertoire of possible betters without narrowing one of them as the actual best. Since the traditional enemy of the platonist is the relativist, it should be no surprise that that is the epithet pragmatists like Hilary Putnam wield at Rorty for continuing to resist attempts at robustness. [2]

3.      To get a sense of how Rorty responds, we might turn to his Village Champion Argument against Jürgen Habermas, another pragmatist admirer of Peirce. Rorty sets the stage by contrasting the Peircian strategy with what I’ve called “full-blooded Platonism”:
Instead of arguing that because reality is One, and truth correspondence to that One Reality, Peircians argue that the idea of convergence is built into the presuppositions of discourse. They all agree that the principal reason why reason cannot be naturalized is that reason is normative and norms cannot be naturalized. But, they say, we can make room for the normative without going back to the traditional idea of a duty to correspond to the intrinsic nature of One Reality. We do this by attending to the universalistic character of the idealizing presuppositions of discourse. [3]
To “naturalize reason” in this context is to reject the utility of the concept of truth when attempting to figure out what is and is not knowledge—instead, naturalizers argue, justification is all that does any real work. Rorty does not want to collapse the distinction between the two, however, only argue that the T in the JTB conception of knowledge, exactly like the B, does not play an operative role in the determination of what people know. [4] Peircians think that the T does play an operative role, a transcending moment in which more than justification is had. Without the ability to transcend the moment of justification, they think, everything would be relative to a particular audience. Rorty continues:
Habermas’ doctrine of a “transcendent moment” seems to me to run together a commendable willingness to try something new with an empty boast. To say “I’ll try to defend this against all comers” is often, depending upon the circumstances, a commendable attitude. But to say “I can successfully defend this against all comers” is silly. Maybe you can, but you are no more in a position to claim that you can than the village champion is to claim that he can beat the world champion. [5]
Rorty later glosses this argument:
When we have finished justifying our belief to the audience we think relevant (perhaps our own intellectual conscience, or our fellow-citizens, or the relevant experts) we need not, and typically do not, make any further claims, much less universal ones. After rehearsing justification, we may say either “That is why I think my assertion true” or “That is why my assertion is true,” or both. Going from the former assertion to the latter is not a philosophically pregnant transition from particularity to universality, or from context-dependence to context-independence. It is merely a stylistic difference. [6]
I hope it is apparent how the Village Champion Argument, and therefore the relationship between justification and truth, bears on the relationship between the better and the Best. To claim that X is “the best,” you are asserting the truth of the claim “X is the best.” Rorty’s point is that these assertions are necessarily always in front of some particular audience, and therefore the pragmatic power of any particular claim is relative to an audience.

4.      I think we can be a little more precise than Rorty’s usual mode of sloughing off the relativist as something he needs not be concerned with. The Village Champion Argument carries a lot of force, but there is more in the area than just a stylistic difference. The pattern of Rorty’s mode is set in his infamous APA presidential address, “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism.” There he says, succinctly and some might say too perfunctorily, “‘Relativism’ is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinion on an important topic are equally good.” [7] The reason he wishes to dispose of the relativist quickly is because he thinks, rightly, that it hides the real issues at work behind the conflict between pragmatists and platonists. So he says that “if there were any relativists, they would, of course, be easy to refute. One would merely use some variant of the self-referential arguments Socrates used against Protagoras.” [8] The argument is like this:
Protagoras: Every view is as good as any other!
Socrates: Does that include yours?
Protagoras [sensing already the end]: Er, well, yes, it must, then hunh?
Socrates: Okay, so if your view that “every view is as good as any other” is as good as the view that “not every view is as good as any other,” why should we adopt your view over the ones that say yours is shit?
Protagoras: Because…it’s true?
Socrates: Yah, okay, but what grip do you have on truth that is independent of your relativism about goodness? Isn’t goodness in the way of views just truth? How can you have a view that is itself true where others are false, but the false views are just as good? Doesn’t that just make truth an idle curiosity, and therefore your own view idle as well? Can you give me no reason for adopting your view?
Protagoras: I…will…get back to you on that one…
Socrates: Yes, Miss Palin, please do.
Since pragmatism is heir to a discernible Protagorean tradition, we are, in fact, better positioned to get back to Plato on this issue. The first step is recognizing what underpins self-referential contradiction arguments. The invalidity of contradiction is the foul incurred when you say both “X” and “not X.” But this is just to say that in the practice of saying thou shalt not incur such violations of the rules of that practice. Following Wittgenstein, one has to think, here, of practices on the analogy of games. You don’t get to count as playing the game of football, as practicing football, if—as many turd to third football comedies have underscored—you jumpkick the quarterback. In some definable Practice of Saying, it is against the rules to hold contradictory claims. (This isn’t to say that there are other practices that involve words in which it is okay to do this. Poetry and lying are the most obvious examples, which is why Plato thought poetry was a form of lying.)

This first step gets us onto pragmatist ground: there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying X and not-X. There are many contexts in which it is fine, like when you say the latter with your fingers crossed or in the context of saying the sentence before this one. Contradiction is, then, a practical infelicity of a special kind. And once this has been identified, we can see the point in Habermas’ notion of a “performative contradiction.” This is part of the idea that you can’t say one thing and do another. And this displays the larger genus that the species of self-refutation falls under with regards to relativism, for it has often been accepted as a refutation of relativism (and nihilism, for that matter) that when someone says “peeing standing up is as good as sitting down” and they then pee sitting down, to say, “if they are both just as good, then on what grounds did you make the choice?” For giving any grounds at all is grounds enough for identifying criteria being used to adjudicate truth from falsity, good from bad. And having done something is ipso facto having made a choice. So the doing contradicts the saying.

5.      So what underlies Rorty’s blithe rejection of relativism as a real concern is the pragmatic understanding that to behave at all is to refute the very idea that grounds of choice are all made equal. And while this is true, that our everyday practice refutes every day the theoretical thesis of relativism, it does not refute it at the level of theory. Rorty’s attitude tells us that we shouldn’t care about that, that we cannot, as Emerson says, “spend the day in explanation.” [9] And I think this is true as well, that our practical attitude toward the world should be allowed to trump pressures at the level of theory. [10] However, at the level of theory, it should be possible to show how relativism and platonism go the wrong way at things.

Robert Brandom, I believe, has shown how we might go at this. The charge of relativism leveled by platonists is motivated by the idea that you cannot talk about “betterness” without the Best, whereas heirs to Protagoras think all claims are of the form “X is better than …” with the ellipsis being filled in by specific claims. Brandom, in his notion of the pragmatically mediated semantic relation, has shown us how charges of relativism leveled at the pragmatist can be refuted by showing how Absolutes, like the Best, are parasitic, and not autonomous.

To understand this argument we need to understand the basic form of Wilfrid Sellars’ master argument in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” against the Myth of the Given and elsewhere. [11] For one example, one project in what Brandom calls the “empiricist core program of the classical analytic project” is to establish phenomenalism. Think of phenomenalism on the model of Berkelyan idealism, whose commitment to empiricism was so powerful that unlike Locke who thought our knowledge starts with our individual experience, he thought all we could know was our individual experience. This gets transposed into the analytic idiom as a reductionist program—the attempt to reduce talk about how things are to talk about how things seem or look. If that reduction can be shown to be successful without remainder, then we’ve shown how we don’t need to talk about how things are, but only about how things seem. (Consider the analogous materialisms about supernatural entities—we can do without talk about witchcraft because we can get along fine in explaining what happens by talking about bad mushrooms. [12]) Reductionism in the analytic idiom is a semantic relation—when you explain what you mean, you are relating your first misunderstood statement with a second, hopefully better understood statement. So when you suggest that when you talk about tables what you are really talking about are clouds of electrons at particular spatialtemporal vectors, you are suggesting a special form of paraphrase. “When you say ‘table,’ you really mean ‘cloud of electrons.’” [13]

So this is what “autonomy” means in this context—if you attempt to explain away a particular vocabulary (e.g., the vocabulary for saying “how things are”), you are suggesting that all the work can be done by a different vocabulary (e.g., the vocabulary for saying “how things seem”). For this reduction to work, the alternative vocabulary must be independent of the target vocabulary you are reducing into nothingness. If it isn’t, if you need the target vocabulary to use the alternative, then the reduction was misguided because you have a remainder (that being something you need but now can’t explain the existence of or how you do it, etc.). So if you can show that a marked for demolition vocabulary is needed to use the alternative, then you can combat the reductionism. Brandom says that Sellars’ argument “turns on the assertion of the pragmatic dependence of one set of vocabulary-deploying practices-or-abilities on another” [14]:
Because he thinks part of what one is doing in saying how things merely appear is withholding a commitment to their actually being that way, and because one cannot be understood as withholding a commitment that one cannot undertake, Sellars concludes that one cannot have the ability to say or think how things seem or appear unless one also has the ability to make claims about how things actually are. [15]
Sellars argues that ‘is’-talk is pragmatically dependent on ‘looks’-talk because you wouldn’t be able to do (i.e. deploy) the latter without being able to deploy the former. So while you might not be actually deploying ‘is’-talk when you say, “There seems to be water over there,” you are implicitly relying on your grasp of the difference between “there is water over there” and “oh, there only seemed to be water over there—it’s actually a mirage…too bad we’re gonna’ die now.” If you didn’t have a grip on this implicit distinction, and all you had was ‘seems’-talk, then you’d have to say that “there seems to be water over there” was false when it turned out to be a mirage. This would impoverish our ability to say true things, though, for with the distinction in hand I can say two potentially true statements (“there is…” and “there seems…”) while without I can only say one. Now, what that one statement is is a good question, for the way ‘seems’ is being used appears to be the way ‘is’ is normally used—after all, the cases of falsification are exactly the same between “there is…” in our current modes of speech and “there seems…” within the reduced language-game (where “there is…” isn’t used).

To review: a reductive semantic relation can be refuted if it can be shown that the target vocabulary to be reduced is needed to use correctly the alternative vocabulary. If so shown, we will see that the alternative vocabulary is parasitic upon the target vocabulary and so the latter not a suitable candidate for reduction. And what we will have shown is that the semantic relation between the two vocabularies is pragmatically mediated. The relationship between saying “seems” and saying “is” is that saying “seems” is mediated by your ability to say “is.”

6.      It is beyond my powers to show that what I called evaluative platonism can be so refuted, so the best I can do is suggest the path to be taken. The problem here is that it is beyond my ability to show that the reconstructed versions of platonists that follow Peirce are suggesting a reduction of ‘better’-talk to ‘Best’-talk. That is, roughly, what Plato was after when he set up his divided line between the parasitic world of shadows and the autonomous Realm of Forms, with the Good (i.e., the Best) being most autonomousest of them all (being the sun that produced all the shadows). But we need to acknowledge that Habermas and Putnam need not be suggesting this when they level their criticisms at Rorty for not having a robust enough notion of betterness to make inquiry function right. All they need to say is that ‘better’-talk is intertwined with ‘best’-talk, and Rorty seems to be suggesting that ‘best’-talk can be reduced away without remainder to ‘better’-talk. In other words, the arguments I’ve just elaborated could be the ones used against Rorty to hit back against the Village Champion Argument.

I don’t think this will end up being the case. My suspicion is that the only way to get the robustness criticism to stick is to reconfigure in such a way that one would ipso facto fall within the bounds of the reductive form of platonism. (That was the form of Rorty’s criticism of Putnam’s labeling of him as a relativist: if I am, so are you!) Further, it is also my suspicion that ‘best’-talk is in fact parasitic upon ‘better’-talk, though I cannot see how to refute the idea that ‘better’-talk is also parasitic upon ‘best’-talk. If they are both parasitic, then they are intertwined, neither being autonomous of the other. So the best I can do is suggest that you can’t get rid of ‘better’-talk.

7.      For saying something is “the best” is pragmatically mediated by your ability to say what is better. The Best is parasitic on the better because you can’t specify what is best without specifying what is worse. This is the effect of having to answer “how do you know?” by justifying yourself. And since everyone agrees that the ability to justify is parasitic on the selection of a community, ‘best’-talk is as relative as ‘better’-talk, as much as you may wish that your claim about what is the Best transcends the community it is directed at. For it is simply not the case that your claim “X is the best!” is ipso facto better than “X is better than Y.” Perhaps you mean it more, but then by the same token you’re being less cautious and perhaps more dogmatic. But either way, when did caution or dogmatism tell us anything about the truth of the statements? People can have a terrible attitude and still be right.

Say we back up, though, and say that you won’t specify worse things in justifying the Best. We will concede that justification happens in front of communities, but we’ll avoid the implication of relativism by confining ourselves to an interlocking set of self-justifying things (principles, forms, whatever)—in other words, the community the justification is happening in front of is itself (and we just happen to be onlookers). This is the form of those fuller platonisms. If your justification for the Best, however, is another Best, then you generate a regress, for given the form of the Best, I will want to know what it is better than. “You say ‘the best’—the best of what?” What set does the Best reign supreme over? (Itself? Now it seems like a useless phrase.) So an interlocking set of Bests will generate an infinite regress, and so hence the easy, unanswerable skepticism we can apply to any claim about what is the Best. “How do you know that’s the best? Are you able to survey all possible counterclaims and pronounce upon them beforehand?” To say you can is to pronounce yourself Village Champion, and we all know how quickly such hubris can make you look like the Village Idiot.

The only way to stop the regress is to accept the relative justification as sufficient, and this amounts to rejecting platonism and taking “the best” as expressive of “that I know of”—we might call that a transcendental fallibilism. The warrant for this redescription of what “the best” expresses is the pragmatically mediated semantic relation between the best and the better. You can’t do the best without doing better, but you might be able to do better without doing the best.


[1] Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself, 105

[2] See, e.g., Putnam’s “Realism with a Human Face” in his collection of that name and Rorty’s response, “Putnam and the Relativist Menace,” in Truth and Progress. Rorty’s reaction in that essay boils down to: “We seem, both to me and to philosophers who find the view of both of us absurd, to be in much the same line of business. But Putnam sees us as doing something quite different, and I do not know why” (59). I suspect Putnam’s long-standing use of Rorty as a punching bag has more to do with Rorty standing too close to Derrida and the events of the 1979 Eastern Division APA meeting than any thesis he’s ever promulgated. That’s my suspicion, at least, though I have no particular evidence for judging Putnam’s attitude in the latter case. (His remarks about the French littering his corpus I consider enough for the former.) The best description I’ve come across of what actually happened at the infamous APA meeting is Neil Gross’s description in Richard Rorty, 216-227.

[3] “Universality and Truth,” Rorty and His Critics, 5

[4] The JTB—“justified true belief”—conception of knowledge derives from Plato’s Theaetetus, and most epistemologists have accepted it as the beginning, though not the end, of wisdom in regards to knowledge. For a somewhat embroidered discussion of the relationship of pragmatism to the distinction between truth and justification, see my "Rhetorical Universalism." I say that belief doesn’t play a role in the determination of knowledge because all the belief concept tells you is that it is a claim being held by some person. And if you test that claim by wondering whether a claim being held doesn’t tell you something about its plausibility—like a show of hands, one being better than none—then you need to consider the fact that authority is a structure built into the nature of justification, and so a claim being actually held lending it therefore credence already has the conceptual shape of justification.

[5] Ibid., 6. Rorty is discussing Habermas’ Between Facts and Norms. Though Robert Brandom, who I will be discussing shortly, tells us the title of Between Saying and Doing comes from an old Italian proverb ("between saying and doing, many a pair of shoes is worn out"), I think there’s a felicitous ratio with Habermas recorded there—for though Habermas considers himself an heir to American pragmatism, the difference between Habermas’ objects and Brandom’s gerunds suggests a greater commitment to the priority of pragmatics over semantics.

[6] Ibid., 56

[7] Consequences of Pragmatism, 166

[8] Ibid., 167

[9] Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

[10] Every person tired of an interminable conversation with a deaf and dogged interlocutor knows this to be true, but again, only at the level of practice. By this I mean that when the deaf dog retorts that you’re being dogmatic because you haven’t answered their objections, the rules of open inquiry we’ve venerated (explicitly) at least since the Enlightenment demand that we grant their point. However, only recently might we be able to work out the theoretical entitlement for allowing attitude to trump reason-giving, and the overarching reason is why Brandom says that in pragmatist philosophy of language, semantics must answer to pragmatics. Something of this orientation is elaborated in what follows, but on this particular point, at the beginning of Making It Explicit, Brandom justifies it via Wittgenstein’s regress argument about rules, which is roughly that if every statement needs rules to regulate correct interpretation, and those rules need to be stated, then the rules need to have rules—and then those rules need rules, etc. (see 20-23). What stops this regress from being infinite? Nothing, not at least if you haven’t fixed things so that normative attitude precedes normative rule/reason-giving. The trick here is seeing that we do, obviously, have the power to stop regressing. Platonism, in this area, is a form of intellectualism that says that rules precede attitudes, and thus nothing should stop the regress (except for something rule-like, which is where the idea of self-evident principles comes from). So one way to think about pragmatism is as the orientation that accepts our power to stop the regress as not in itself illegitimate, but rather seeks to investigate when it should and should not be. For example, notice how much leeway is in Rorty’s notion of “justifying our belief to the audience we think relevant”—who determines relevancy? That’s a question that would keep platonists up at night, though pragmatists understand that such relevancy is hashed out in the course of inquiry as people determine their attitudes to various communities. Is every attitude that determines our relationship to a community kosher? No, as every angry parent knows. But what about the black separatist, or black radical demanding reparations? That’s justifiably more complex in America. On that particular complexity, of being African-American in America, still the best negotiations are Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. For Rorty’s interesting discussion of Baldwin and Elijah Muhammad, see 11-13 of Achieving Our Country (whose title comes from Baldwin’s book).

[11] Brandom elaborates this master argument in “A Kantian Rationalist Pragmatism” in Perspectives on Pragmatism. This particular argument about phenomenalism is the one Sellars forwards in his essay “Phenomenalism,” written around the same time as the more famous attack on the Myth of the Given.

[12] This was, of course, Rorty’s first famous argument in the philosophy of mind, striking an analogy between talk about the mind and talk about demons. Brandom suggests in “Vocabularies of Pragmatism” (in PP) that that argument hinged on the social pragmatism that he would later become famous for, there isolated on a social practice account of minds.

[13] If you noticed a wobble in my vocabulary in this last passage, you’re probably smarter than I am. And hopefully the wobble isn’t pernicious. Given the precision with which analytic reductions have been deployed, I technically slid between the semantic relation between what two things mean and an ontological relation between what two things are. Sloppy, I know, but when you work in the analytic idiom—where “how things are” is, because of the linguistic turn, always paraphrased as “talk about how things are”—it’s easy to do. However, the larger philosophical commitment pragmatists like Rorty and Brandom (if not Peirce, James, and Dewey) are in favor of keeping might be thought of as specifying that the category of “ontological relations” be reduced to another idiom, which is in part semantic. (This would take me too far afoot, but they are not committed to reducing everything to language, the linguistic idealism critics keep foisting on Rorty and Brandom. Brandom thinks they are only committed to what he calls “the entanglement thesis,” which in this context I understand to be the entanglement of pragmatic relations of nonlinguistic bodies with semantic relations of linguistic bodies.) For a recent discussion of Rorty's relationship to anti-analytic pragmatists, see "Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism." For a discussion of the relationship of language to experience after Quine and Sellars, see "Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn."

[14] In Between Saying and Doing, Brandom develops a very sophisticated apparatus for talking about talking. One area of underdeveloped territory he takes on is beginning to talk about the practices necessary or sufficient for deploying a vocabulary and, conversely, the vocabularies necessary or sufficient for deploying a practice. However, while Brandom favors talk of social practices, his aim in the book is to abstract away from that particular commitment, and so he speaks of (social) practices or (individual) abilities.

[15] BSD 12; this first chapter of his Locke Lectures also appears by itself in Perspectives on Pragmatism, this passage at 169.