Friday, June 27, 2014

Literature as Equipment for Living and as Spiritual Exercise

1. What is a literary scholar, critic?; 2. Kenneth Burke, literary critic — And his idiosyncratic vocabulary; 3. Sociological criticism — Naming a situation strategizes it — Literature as alembicated naming; 4. Acts of distillation — Warehouses of equipment; 5. Life as adventure — Beliefs as habits of action; 6. Spiritual exercises — You only know what you can remember — Cycling through pathways of belief — Reflection as detour from action; 7. Literature as self-help? — You don't only believe what you can remember — The self as equipment; 8. Complex literature and simple assertions; 9. Exercise with the narrative form — A longing for shapeliness; 10. The experience of reading — Acting through literature; 11. Literature is difficult — Not everything should be difficult — Democratic humanism

1.      In my English department, the graduate students have formed a small colloquium that regularly meets to discuss someone’s work in progress. What has increasingly become pressing to me as a scholar-in-training is the question of what a scholar is, of my self-image as a literary critic. And this partly because it’s obvious that we grads all individually seem to have different ones, have an increasing variety available to us as critical tradition extends itself, and don’t have a space in which we can reflect together on this kind of self-reflection. There are literary theory courses, but rarely an opportunity to talk together about what it is we do. So I delivered the following as a talk to provoke a discussion about our own, individual self-images as literary critics. I framed the discussion around the two slogans in my title, in part because what I find helpful is to talk about alternative images or metaphors or distinctions for self-definition.

2.      “Literature as equipment for living” is a slogan of Kenneth Burke’s. A friend of mine in the department had asked me what I had been reading this past winter break, and I said excitedly, “Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History,” and my friend scrunched up her nose and mouth like she’d eaten a stink bug and replied, “ugh, the rhet-com guy?” Rhetoric and Communications is a growing subdiscipline in English Departments around the country, and rhetoric as a disciplinary study has taken Burke to be the father of contemporary rhetorical theory. There’s often an amusing, though sometimes churlish, rivalry between these two halves of English Departments, but let me say, once and for all, that Burke’s main vocation was literary criticism, and not as a founder of rhetorical theory. In fact, reading his work, it’s hard to imagine a school formed out of it at all. (Side note: Richard Rorty once said to an interviewer asking about Rorty’s criticisms of Paul de Man, “I can imagine being grateful for de Man’s obsessiveness, that is, his habit of reducing to nothingness any given text he reads. When de Man does it it’s interesting, but when you get … thousands of de Man clones, it’s merely formulaic. I don’t think anyone would have objected to de Man if he had been a kind of Kenneth Burke figure, not training up generations of students.” [1] Rorty, apparently, wasn’t acquainted with the other side of some English Departments.)

The idea of literature as equipment for living has its seed in Attitudes Toward History (1937), a book that is part Emersonian-pragmatist in affirming the Optimistic, part speech-act/genre theory (the kind of thing you get out of an Ortega or Lukács or Bakhtin), part quasi-Marxist history, and part idiosyncratic dictionary of a critical vocabulary (things like “alienation,” “transcendence,” “efficiency,” “casuistic stretching,” “character-building by secular prayer,” “being driven into a corner” and—my favorite—“heads I win, tails you lose”). “Equipment for living” is a metaphor that Burke regularly employs, like the pragmatist habit of asking for the “cash-value” of an assertion or how one would “cash out” a metaphor. What follows is an attempt to spell out how I cash out his metaphor, but I begin by taking it to be his master-trope for the relationship between language and action. Here is a characteristic way Burke talks with it—in his discussion of William James, he begins by saying:
For his philosophic trinity [James] proposed ‘rationality, activity, faith.’ Faith invigorates the power of action; rationality provides method for the act. And since by rationality is meant a willingness to consider all available evidence, it should shape the act by tests of completeness and consistency. All of his fundamental assertions were designed to equip him and others for living. He ‘accepted’ the universe by admitting any faith (in progressive evolution, in God, in the benefits of prayer) that enabled him to have the sense of moving towards something better. … And so strongly did he need the concept of Better rather than the concept of Best, as a way of equipping himself for action, that he rejected absolutism always, preferring even the asymmetry of ‘pluralism,’ a doctrine that outraged his form-loving colleagues. (5-6)
One will notice that this is fundamentally a pragmatist stance because it treats language—in this case, assertoric prose—as having an ethical function that swings free of truth. Indeed, by foregrounding assertion as having a function that is not truth-affirming, he risks outraging the same pieties the classical pragmatists did in their own instrumentalism about truth, potted in the misleading formula “truth is what works.” [2]

3.      But literature is not assertoric prose—it does not make assertions, at least not explicitly. Or rather, not explicitly by the author. So we have at least two different pragmatic contexts with which to judge the metaphor. Before I get to talking about what that might mean for us, I want to just keep plunging ahead with literature. In 1938, a year after Attitudes Toward History was published, Burke published an essay entitled “Literature as Equipment for Living,” codifying his thoughts about this metaphor and the orientation it implies for the literary critic. (You can find it in his Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), a book whose first few pages has a line poets love, “the symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude” (9). To understand that line’s formal dimension, you have to read it against Yeats [3], but its embodiment of pragmatism I’ll return to momentarily.)

In the essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Burke suggests that what he is up to in his work, and his selection for key critical terms “purpose” and “motivation,” is a “sociological criticism of literature” (293). To unpack this, he takes up the notion of proverbs and says that what they do is name “typical, recurrent situations” in the life of a culture. We then “find” ourselves, as it were, in the proverb and are directed in our thinking by it about our own situation. So, as examples, Burke lists off proverbs for consolation (“The worst luck now, the better for another time”), for vengeance (“fools tie knots and wise men loose them”), for foretelling (“keep your weather eye open”), and for wise living (“first thrive, than wive”). “Proverbs are,” Burke says, “strategies for dealing with situations” (296). And playing off the war metaphor of “strategy,” Burke says as against a baffled interlocutor, that “surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images…. One seeks to ‘direct the larger movements and operations’ in one’s campaign of living” (298). [4]

And so, Burke says, “each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary” for one can think of novels as “the strategic naming of a situation.” They “single out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude towards it” (300).

4.      This might be a good place to stop and collect our thoughts and codify some of the issues in play. I like the idea of taking books to name situations and provide the resources for thinking through them. It first of all requires an act of distillation on our part—these acts can be exceedingly useful, even outside the exam structure. What they provide is the framework of a perspective on how the book is to be read, the pattern in it to be called to the fore. For example, I could say that Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady displays the difficulties a woman faces in searching for autonomy in the face of both a culture of monogamy that infantilizes female choice and an aestheticist culture that flattens the moral parameters of autonomy. And what this distillation does is coordinate the ratios between paradigmatic moments in the text that provide the lens with which to read the other moments—for example, Mr. Touchett telling Isabel that “fortunately ladies are not obliged to give reasons,” Isabel telling Mr. Goodwood that she wishes to be free even to commit some atrocity, and Ralph hoping with delight to see what Isabel will do with her money. From this perspective (spoiler!), Isabel going back to Osmond is the inevitable tragedy precisely because it is the attainment of a robust moral autonomy wherein one takes on the burden of one’s choices.

What we don’t need to say is that a novel names only one situation—I think we can wipe away that possible implication from Burke’s formulation and say that novels, like life, are made up of an indefinite number of patterns of experience. And this, in fact, is what makes them such treasure troves for our equipment for living. For while I say “indefinite,” and really do mean it, novels really don’t present something so unmanageable as all that for the precise reason Burke says: they are concerted mobilizations of a finite range of textual phenomena. No matter what future interpretive lens comes down the pike, Isabel Archer will be a woman. Maybe someone will argue someday (or probably already has) that Isabel Archer is not the “lady” of the novel’s “portrait,” but it had better be the case that Goodwood’s got the penis and Isabel the vajj.

5.      Now, after Burke’s suggestion about naming there’s the actual image of “equipment for living.” “Equipment” suggests to me a wider metaphorical value than the more narrow war metaphor of “strategy.” I think Burke should absolutely be read against Nietzsche in “Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense,” but both should be drained of their violence to establish the underlying adventure of life—and no adventurer ever leaves home without his or her equipment, as every D&D player knows. Without your equipment, you are naked and vulnerable. And this equipment, in this case, is language. This, again, dovetails with a certain philosophical pragmatism about language. The central strain of pragmatism from Peirce, James, and Dewey to Rorty and his student Robert Brandom—they all follow Alexander Bain, the American psychologist and, as it happens, rhetorician, in defining beliefs as habits of action. Our beliefs are not just indicators of but also shapers of our actions in the world. Our linguistic formulations are as much a technological development as anything wrought of iron or wood.

6.      This leads me to a partial segue to the second term of my title: “spiritual exercises.” This is a term established by Ignatius of Loyola’s 17th century book of that name, but it has been resurrected by Pierre Hadot to talk about a mode of philosophy. Hadot was a colleague of Michel Foucault’s at the Collège de France and was one of the major scholars of ancient philosophy at the end of the last century. (I cannot more highly recommend the English translation of his 1995 book, What Is Ancient Philosophy? as an introduction to Greek philosophy, both for its readability, scope, and erudition.) In an essay entitled “Spiritual Exercises,” and reprinted in his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot suggests that Ignatius’s Jesuit practices were built out of the resources of the earlier Stoic tradition, which had its own traditions of spiritual exercises (if perhaps avant la lettre). Hadot says that “attention (prosoche) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit. … Thanks to his spiritual vigilance, the Stoic always has ‘at hand’ (procheiron) the fundamental rule of life: that is, the distinction between what depends on us and what does not.” And this for the Stoic, he says, “frees us from the passions, which are always caused by the past or the future—two areas which do not depend on us” (84-85).

If you’re like me, you might say, “well, that sounds wonderful—even bypassing the suspicious idea that the future doesn’t depend on me—but how does this spiritual vigilance work? How do I make sure that my self-consciousness is always awake? You can’t just want something or think you are a certain way for it to be the case.” And this is where I find Stoics to be pragmatists avant la lettre, for one important practical measure is the repetition and memorization of linguistic formula:
The exercise of meditation allows us to be reading at the moment when an unexpected – and perhaps dramatic – circumstance occurs. … We must confront life’s difficulties face to face, remembering that they are not evils, since they do not depend on us. This is why we must engrave striking maxims in our memory, so that, when the time comes, they can help us accept such events, which are, after all, part of the course of nature; we will thus have these maxims and sentences ‘at hand.’ What we need are persuasive formulae or arguments (epilogismoi), which we can repeat to ourselves in difficult circumstances, so as to check movements of fear, anger, or sadness. (85)
In the oral noetic economy—which is a fancy way of saying how the activity of knowing works in pre-literacy cultures—you only know what you can remember (a formula codified by Walter J. Ong somewhere). I think this goes for us, too, when we are away from our books, trying to figure out what to do at any given moment. If beliefs are habits of action, then reflection is a matter of cycling through your pathways of belief.

The idea of beliefs being but nodes on a spatial graph of interrelating lines is in part a metaphor given substance by Hans Blumenberg, a friend of Hadot’s and one of the great German intellectual historians of the last century, rivaling Heidegger and Habermas for both philosophical depth and acuity. [5] Blumenberg, in a little known but incredibly insightful essay on rhetoric, suggests that rhetoric be in part understood as a form of detour. It is a detour from action. This produces the old trope of the “man of action” and the “man of thought,” Achilles vs. Odysseus, or worse Socrates, who would stop Euthyphro from acting against his father for impiety with all his pesky little questions like, “do you even know what impiety is?” But consider how reasoning works—by inference. We infer one proposition from another, which means you transition from one sentence to another. In justifying your action, you take the time of multiplying sentences, which is time taken away from acting. Clearly for the Stoic this isn’t a bad thing—they want to mute action entirely in some cases, relieving us of our passions that form the fundamental motivations (hello Burke) for acting.

7.      Turning back to Burke and “literature as equipment for living,” I pull out one way of thinking about it in terms of using remembered pieces of literature to think through life’s situations. [6] And one way of doing this is by formula—either your own distillation of memorable narrative moments or catchy aphorisms of the text itself. Literature, in this way, becomes part of your armament as you meet the demands of life on the field of battle.

You’ll notice, however, that this has made literature into an assertion-generating enterprise, at least as it relates to one’s life, in the form of these maxims or formulas. But, as I noted in section 3, literature isn’t assertoric prose—aren’t there other ways we might relate to literature that might also be important to living? And also: this is kind of making literature sound like self-help. Before turning this last screw, I want to take up a deficiency in the “equipment for living” metaphor that punches up, I think, one of the most important ethical issues of our time. On its surface, “equipment” suggests—like my description of the body naked and vulnerable without it—that there is an inner or essential or at any rate some self beneath the language that articulates it. This is an image from Romanticism, in part codified by M. H. Abrams’ “lamp,” and it is one pragmatists, at least, have to reject. [7] There is no hidden, ineffable self deep down—it is language all the way down, rhetoric all the way down, equipment all the way down.

And while this might spark a metaphysical argument, I want to first note that a shift from “equipment” to “spiritual exercises” helps articulate the pragmatist perspective. Our linguistified self is better thought of as a muscle, and though you only know what you can remember, you don’t only believe what you can remember in the same way that while you may not know that you have a particular muscle, you use it just the same—however, of course, wanting to throw the baseball harder and knowing what operates the humerus may lead you to pounding those pecks a little harder. (Recall Burke’s “dancing of an attitude” formula.)

But secondly, “equipment all the way down” suggests a new handle on the old fears of relativism and the infinite regress. If it’s equipment all the way down, and the point of equipment is to protect your “self,” then it’s just equipment protecting other equipment. While relativism’s fear is that there’s no non-relative basis upon which to judge one’s values, equipment protecting equipment might produce the more radical fear that one was born into the wrong tribe, given the wrong education. Relativism goes fishing for the bottom of the inferential detours, but this perspective sees that we stop all the time to use the equipment we have, whether or not we know there’s a foundation for it. And in a less radical case, equipment protecting equipment produces the problem of knowing which is the means and which is the end—what is a tool that could be discarded for a better one and what is an essential part of what it is to be me.

8.      So, now, back to assertions and literature—as my reintroduction of “spiritual exercises” indicates, one of the reasons why I like books like Portrait of a Lady, Howards End, and Middlemarch, is that they are obviously produced by an extraordinary intelligence working through a complex situation. Solutions are, unlike in philosophy typically, not to the fore here, and one thing I like is thinking through the situations with the author, either via their intermediaries in the form of characters or their tropes via the complex functions of their narrators. This does not, let me hasten to add, work for every book (as my lengthening train of books I have trouble reading attests) as not all books are best named by this meta-perspective.

9.      However, there is another more recent use of the term “spiritual exercises” that goes some way to opening a window on another use of literature. My way to it is to first go back to Hadot and ask for his reason for choosing the word spiritual:
In the first place, it is no longer quite fashionable these days to use the word ‘spiritual.’ It is nevertheless necessary to use this term, I believe, because none of the other adjectives we could use – ‘psychic,’ ‘moral,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘intellectual,’ ‘of thought,’ ‘of the soul’ – covers all the aspects of the reality we want to describe. Since, in these exercises, it is thought which, as it were, takes itself as its own subject-matter, and seeks to modify itself, it would be possible for us to speak in terms of ‘thought exercises.’ Yet the word ‘thought’ does not indicate clearly enough that imagination and sensibility play a very important role in these exercises. For the same reason, we cannot be satisfied with ‘intellectual exercises,’ although such intellectual factors as definition, division, ratiocination, reading, investigation, and rhetorical amplification play a large role in them. ‘Ethical exercises’ is a rather tempting expression, since … the exercises in question contribute in a powerful way to the therapeutics of the passions, and have to do with the conduct of life. Yet, here again, this would be too limited a view of things. …[T]hese exercises in fact correspond to a transformation of our vision of the world, and to metamorphosis of our personality. The word ‘spiritual’ is quite apt to make us understand that these exercises are the result, not merely of thought, but of the individual’s entire psychism. (Philosophy 81-82)
This, I think, moves us a long way, especially with its emphasis on metamorphosis, self-transformation, transcendence. However, in the Stoic exercises themselves, the emphasis on maxims moves us back to putting thought first in priority, as does Hadot’s own formula that the exercises are “thought which takes itself as its own subject-matter and seeks to modify itself.” Is there another kind of exercise, one which the narrative form is peculiarly adapted to supplying?

In Rorty’s late essay, “Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises,” [8] Rorty says that
the term ‘spiritual development’ is usually used only in reference to the attempt to get in touch with the divine. But it is occasionally used in a broader sense, one in which it covers any attempt to transform oneself into a better sort of person by changing one’s sense of what matters most. In this broader sense of the term, I would urge that the novels of Proust and James help us achieve spiritual growth, and thereby help many of us do what devotional reading helped our ancestors do. (404)
Rorty says that “aesthetic” and “moral” won’t do in this context because “beauty” and “moral” importance seem too narrow of categories to describe the sense of exaltation that James and Proust cultists feel when reading them. “This sense of exaltation is not the same thing as being bowled over by the sheer rhetorical or poetic power of one’s favorite passages. Such passages play the role that their favorite passages in sacred scripture play for the religious. They become mantras, and reciting them brings very present help in time of trouble.”
The sense of exaltation I am trying to describe is, instead, a result of reading books as wholes, of following plots through to the end, rather than with being rendered momentarily delirious by a startling poetic figure, a perfectly crafted couplet, or a splendidly balanced antithesis. … Following such careers [as Isabel Archer’s or Christian’s in The Pilgrim’s Progress] lifts up the heart by letting the reader hope that she herself might eventually overcome the immaturity, the confusion, and the incoherence of her days. … For the intellectual who finds James and Proust exalting, it is the hope that she will be able someday to see her life in this world as a work of art – that she will someday be able to look back and bring everything together into some sort of pattern … into a coherent story of maturation. It is the hope for rounded completion and self-recognition, and is more like a longing for shapeliness than like the ambition of transcendence. (405)

10.      The experience of reading these books is an analogue to a religious experience—you don’t exactly come away with any new beliefs or formulae. “It is the experience of reading the novel,” Rorty says, “that makes one into a different sort of person, not the utility of a belief one might have acquired by various other means.” And the reason novels are good at this seems clear: they can show maturation. As a form, prose narrative seems better suited for showing it and thus producing that affective conduit that floods our motivational channels with that vague, life-giving substance we call “hope.”

Seeing various forms of literature as spiritual exercises is seeing them as acting on you and as you acting through them. Novels, especially those like Henry James’s or Conrad’s or Faulkner’s, are difficult forests that seem to have to have paths hewn through every time. I find poetry like Dickinson’s and Stevens’s to be spiritual exercises that I respond to, even if I find myself tripping and stumbling, my muscles distorted at angles they normally don’t find themselves in. What do they equip me for? I don’t know always. But I do like making the effort at spelling it out.

11.      But not always. Burke, in his essay on equipment, alludes to his era’s “inspirational literature” and how “it is a strategy for easy consolation” (298). Burke does not shy from this aspect of the sociological approach to rhetorical and literary forms. When I had the chance to teach a course on American Romanticism, on the first day I read them a famous bit by William James in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” whose punchline, after James shows how ignorant he was of the lifeways of po’ Appalachian folk—“losing,” as he says, “the whole inward significance of the situation”—the punchline is: “I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.” [9] I then posed to my students what I took to be the real problem before us: “how do you, the student, who is likely not going to become an English major let alone become a professional literary critic—how do you negotiate a class like this, what with ‘my strange indoor academic ways of life’?”

It seems natural to me to see this as implicitly a question about literary value, or “what is literature?” I confessed that I had no idea how to define literature or the literary, and instead suggested a distinction between works that challenge and those that don’t. To be properly democratic about “taste,” we can be snobs in our private lives, but not in our theories of the public good—you are not a “better person” for enjoying Moby-Dick over Harry Potter; different books have different purposes, and it isn’t clear that non-challenging works aren’t serving a good purpose (relaxation, for example, or derisively, “escapism”). An example is my inability to watch challenging movies, including most dramas—I rationalize it by saying it’s probably because I read challenging books all day, but either way, I’d much rather laugh to Will Ferrell or watch The Bourne Identity for the eighth time than try and watch Cronenberg or Twelve Years a Slave. [10]

The idea behind the occasional elitist stance toward books, and the idea that every democratic humanist believes intimately, is that it is good to be challenged; it is a primary social good to be challenged; it is an intrinsic good to be challenged occasionally. Notice I say “occasionally,” because it cannot be good to be constantly challenged because then you wouldn’t get anything done—this is the intimate relationship between thought and action that I was early talking about under the heading of beliefs as habits of action and detours. But it is good to be challenged sometimes—that’s the problem of sycophants, “yes men”—but where, when, by whom? Who do you trust to challenge you? I take it to be a mark of freedom that every person gets to decide for themselves when they want to be challenged—though in public matters I take it to be much less up to individual choice about when one can be challenged. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to sample a broad array of areas, avenues, ways of challenging oneself. And that’s pretty much it as far as the root of the humanities goes, and so the idea behind a literature class is to put some books under a student’s nose that I enjoy being challenged by and that maybe they will, too. The title of department under which a course is being offered merely tells you what kind of book you’ll most likely encounter in the course, though all bets are off in the actual course.


[1] “Worlds or Words Apart?” in TCF 137

[2] On classical pragmatism’s occasional instrumentalism about truth, see “What Pragmatism Is” or the later “Rhetorical Universalism”. An earlier discussion of truth in the history of philosophy that I still like is “Absolute Truth.”

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
     - Yeats, “Among School Children”

[4] Compare this passage to Nietzsche’s most famous passage on truth: “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically…” (“On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense,” trans. Kaufmann).

[5] I’ve also deployed it to discuss Brandom’s philosophy of language in “A Spatial Model of Belief Change.”

[6] For more on this line of thought about using literature, see my forthcoming “Touchstones.”

[7] Abrams’s book The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) is a still standard study of the intellectual tradition of Romanticism’s revolution in understanding how the mind relates to the world via those two metaphors. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature does for philosophy what Abrams did for the intellectual traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries. (It’s important, in relating those two books and their purview, to remember that people didn’t distinguish the activities of philosophers and poets the way we do now. Abrams’ study is more wide-ranging in its historical depth than Rorty’s, but Rorty’s has more depth in the philosophical significance of the major philosophical figures from Plato to ‘70’s professional philosophy.) Central to the second chapter of Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is this point that Romanticism, despite making the important shift away from mirror metaphors (which create representationalist epistemological models like Plato’s and Descartes’), still retains a metaphysically pernicious model of an ineffable self.

[8] Collected finally in The Rorty Reader (2010), eds. Volparil and Bernstein, though it had been available as a manuscript-file for many years at Rorty’s website.

[9] From Talks to Teachers and to Students, in Writings: 1878-1899, 843.

[10] I did try once to rationalize my love of the form of comedy found in Ferrell-Apatow-Stiller by analogizing it to Romanticism. See “Just Bitching.”

Friday, June 20, 2014

Rorty's Early Work

1. 1979 — What was actually radical about eliminative materialism; 2. “The Limits of Reductionism” — The rhetoric of moves — The metaphor of conversation; 3. Why republish the early work? — The technical conversation of philosophy; 4. So much missing — In this age of access — Where are the lectures?

1.      At the end of his career, Richard Rorty was known as a stylish, philosophical crossdresser and stout reformist liberal who was the prime reason for the renaissance in pragmatism that occurred at the end of the 20th century. In 1979, though, Rorty wasn’t known for any of this. Rorty’s reputation at that time was as an innovator in the philosophy of mind, and for being widely identified with the phrase “the linguistic turn.” The combined effect of the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his delivering the APA Eastern Division Presidential Address, “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism,” in 1979 was to wipe out memory of that early work. From then on, for those inside the analytic philosophy establishment he was known as the betrayer, and for those outside...well, they didn’t need to know anything about it precisely because he’d betrayed it. In particular, philosophy of mind could get on without him because his innovation—dubbed “eliminative materialism”—was being carried on by people more radical than he anyways, namely the Churchlands.

This neglect has seemed a pity, particularly as the Churchlands’ “eliminative materialism,” as Robert Brandom notes, has nothing much to do with what Rorty pioneered. [1] However, it makes a certain kind of sense since it is also true, as Stephen Leach and James Tartaglia note in their introduction to the new posthumous collection of Rorty’s early analytic work, Mind, Language, and Metaphilosophy (2014), that Rorty’s philosophical stance changed remarkably little when viewed from the right angle. Indeed, Brandom shows quite well how Rorty’s eliminative materialism quite naturally leads to his mature position on the contingency of social practices, and thus the optionalness of vocabularies. Rorty’s eliminative materialism was the idea that the mind/body distinction is based on the fact that we use two different vocabularies to describe what goes on between our ears, and that we could plausibly phase out the one that refers to it as “the mind” given certain changes in our technical ability to manipulate the brain, the centerpiece of the other vocabulary we use.

The Churchlands took that point—based on Rorty’s view of our practices of observation and reflection—and made it a reductionist claim, that we should eliminate the Mentalese vocabulary and the folk psychology that goes with it as quickly as possible in order to better talk about the world and ourselves, since, after all, all that’s between our ears is really just a brain. As Rorty’s point was simply that it was possible, going the next step and arguing we should make it actual does have the ring of a more radical step. But from the vantage of his later work, one can see how this is regressive—the Churchlands’ claim is just one more metaphysical claim about Xs really being Ys, and that knowing the Truth will help us say more true things. But thinking of Materialism as the Truth just reifies that particular vocabulary, freezing it into the place where we had before thought only Mentalese could exist. Rorty’s thought flowed from the Nietzschean thawing, the realization that all vocabularies are mortal, and thus all should be judged on their own merits for getting a particular job done, not on the false enthronements of a divine right of philosopher-kings.

2.      That Rorty was working his way toward this Nietzschean stance can be seen much more clearly now that Leach and Tartaglia have made Rorty’s early work more widely available. The absolute gem, “The Limits of Reductionism,” (1961) is a wonderful piece of metaphilosophical reflection on philosophical argument, one of a trio of his earliest full essays. He begins with the brazen move of implicitly suggesting that wielders of the epithet “Reductionist!” know not what they wield, for the “general procedure” of inferring from “X has the property of Y” to “X is nothing but Y” is constitutive of abstract thought itself: “all abstract thought takes selected aspects of a subject matter as paradigmatic and ignores other aspects. Thought is reductionistic or nothing, and the criticism only makes sense if it is narrowed down” (39). The idea here is that thinking necessarily uses the “is” to predicate properties, and that rational inquiry can only function if it is legitimate to narrow your inquiry to a single kind of object, with kinds being delimited by the predicate you use to pick it out. [2]

What Rorty is concerned with in the essay is philosophical conversation, how philosophical arguments are traded and for what purpose. Thus the rhetoric of “moves” I’ve already deployed, as in “moves made in a game,” is central to Rorty’s stance and discussions in this early period. What it yields is not only a useful bird’s-eye view of a number of different sites of contention (realists vs. idealists, logical positivists or Marxists or Freudians on the attack, etc.), but an interesting, contextual definition of philosophy. Rorty identifies the three great patterns of argument in the history of Western philosophy as the appeal to simplicity, the appeal to fact, and the appeal to self-referential inconsistency—the latter of which is what the antireductionist is really wielding. What the antireductionist is concerned about is that “the result of the reduction does not permit an account of the reduction itself,” and is thus self-referentially inconsistent.
This treatment of philosophizing as itself a fact in need of explanation is the metaphilosophical attitude par excellence. It is the rhetorical device which moves discussion up to the level on which the questions “Necessary for what?” and “When is a fact not really a fact?” must be raised explicitly. The acceptance of this gambit might indeed be taken as the defining characteristic of that species of discourse which we call “philosophy.” For it is precisely when the gambit is refused, and the reductionist replies that his concern is with a certain delimited subject matter which does not include his own activity of inquiry, that a given type of inquiry is liable to separate itself from philosophy and to set up shop as science. (41)
This, I think, is a tremendous insight with significant ramifications for our understanding of inquiry and its relationship to social institutions. [3] From the beginning, Rorty was concerned with metaphilosophy—thinking about why and how we do philosophy—an attitude impressed upon him most by his teacher at Chicago, Richard McKeon. This collection makes available another gem, “Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?” (1967) This is usefully read as a follow up to “Limits,” focusing now on the specific conversational state of analytic philosophers who took the “linguistic turn” and their older colleagues who resisted the turn by continuing to speak of “essences” and “experience.” Rorty again displays his technique of ad hoc botanization, splitting philosophers into the categories of “critical,” “speculative,” and “empirical,” and though this tempest is largely missing from the teapot these days, it is still instructive to watch Rorty go through his motions. [4]

And it is interesting to see how the man identified with the linguistic turn never really felt comfortable with what it denoted, denying in the essay the usual ways of cashing out the differences between the two putative sides. There are many biographical nuggets like this in these essays, and it’s a little disappointing to see Leach and Tartaglia’s editorial criteria cut Rorty’s “Recent Metaphilosophy” (1961) from being collected. That essay begins with more interesting botanization, the analogy of philosophy to a game, and the first major instance (in, again, one of his first essays) of his deployment of the concept of conversation that he became so identified with in his post-PMN phase, though avant la lettre. Declaring that “philosophy is the greatest game of all precisely because it is the game of ‘changing the rules,’” Rorty goes on to draw the conclusion that the goal of philosophy must be communication, then. ”Since communication is the goal, rather than truth (or even agreement), the prospective infinite series is a progress rather than a regress: it becomes a moral duty to keep the series going, lest communication cease.” [5] But as the essay moves on to minute discussion of two philosophers lost to time, it’s understandable that it wasn’t reproduced.

3.      But biographical nuggets and removing the tarnish from Rorty’s reputation isn’t reason enough to publish the collection. The only people who would care about those two things are people already motivated enough to find the originals (as I have). After all, we already have several complete bibliographies of Rorty available, so the difficulty of finding far-flung essays is reduced. And digital archives make getting essays from the Review of Metaphysics or the Journal of Philosophy easier than getting a copy of the book—so long as you have access to a major research library. [6] But who else is going to be interested than those already with such access?

Leach and Tartaglia’s reasoning, and their view of why Rorty’s early work should be more widely available, is that it has something to say to the current conversations of philosophy. (Daniel Dennett—a contemporary of Rorty’s and a continuously major figure in late 20th century philosophy of mind—says so as well, in his short preface to the volume.) The editors have two basic categories: Rorty’s metaphilosophy and his stuff on language and mind. His reviews have already been cut (this isn’t a “collected works” project), as well as two (excellent) articles in the 1967 Encyclopedia of Philosophy and one essay on Whitehead. [7] But what are his essays on mind and language going to add? A lot of it—in particular “Incorrigibility as the Mark of the Mental” and “Indeterminacy of Translation and of Truth”—was superseded by Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (And some of them, like “Realism, Categories, and the ‘Linguistic Turn’” (1962) and “In Defense of Eliminative Materialism” (1970), just aren’t that interesting.) And again: people working on the technical problems of anglophone philosophy are going to have access to research libraries with databases to throw pdfs right onto your iPad from home.

Essays collected in a book work differently on our psyche, though, that I cannot deny. But the principles the editors used, I think, should’ve been modified. They say they stopped at 1972 because Rorty began his Consequences of Pragmatism collection in 1972 with “The World Well Lost” and that he could’ve, presumably, selected later essays like “Criteria and Necessity” (1973) if he had wanted to. But this is specious as against the designs of their project because this is about the technical conversation of philosophy—and the reason Rorty says in CP that he doesn’t collect them is because they were technical. So instead of “Realism and Reference” (1976), which is referred to (and thus implicitly “up to date”) in “Is There a Problem about Fictional Discourse?” (in CP), we get the utterly dispensable “In Defense of Eliminative Materialism.” [8] But more importantly, we’re missing “Transcendental Argument, Self-Reference, and Pragmatism” (1979), a great piece of metaphilosophy that bookends nicely “The Limits of Reductionism.”

4.      I don’t know what I would’ve done. The criteria Leach and Tartaglia use are kind of arbitrary, but you have to end a book somewhere. When you look out over Rorty’s corpus, though, there are gems everywhere that should be more widely read. The trouble is that there’s no net to capture his career-making (and still fascinating) “Mind-Body Identity, Categories, and Privacy” (1965), the encyclopedia article “Intuition” (1967), “Searle and the Special Powers of the Brain” (1980) in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, “Contemporary Philosophy of Mind” (1982), “Hermeneutics, General Studies, and Teaching” (1982), and “Against Belatedness” (1983)—and this is just a variegated group up through 1983. ”Mind-Body” has historical interest, “Intuition” is interesting, “Searle” is polemical, “Contemporary” is technical, “Hermeneutics” is about education, and “Against” is a book review of Hans Blumenberg. The four basic editorial choices of criteria for inclusion of Influence, Subject, Audience, or Form cannot get all those pieces in the same book, but they all should be somebody.

I assume somebody’s working on a chronological Collected Works edition of his stuff, ala Dewey’s, or at least it’s an obvious enough idea that somebody at the right moment will put it into motion. In this Age of Access, though, I wonder how needed it is after you get a complete bibliography. I already own copies of all of Rorty’s published material. Granted, some of it I was lucky (finding a copy used of some obscure Catholic Association conference proceedings for the one year Rorty was there—can you imagine the odds?) and then not, in one case; I still have not been able to locate The American Peoples’ Encyclopedia with all the high-powered databases at my library. But what do we really need a Collected Works edition for? If the scholarly apparatus doesn’t add a whole bunch of use-value to it (for example, tracking some of Rorty’s sometimes obscure allusions), then I don’t see why we would. [9] What I would like, however, are his lectures. That would be new, and that would be interesting. I see all these collections of lectures by like John Rawls and Stanley Cavell—Rorty taught for years; was it all extemporaneous? They must be hiding in a file folder somewhere at UC-Irvine. Maybe I’ll be the one to have to drag them out.


[1] See the beginning of Brandom’s essay “Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesizing Naturalism and Historicism” in his Perspectives on Pragmatism.

[2] This move is the first instance of a move that Rorty would later use in discussing the antiessentialism common to, e.g., Jacques Derrida and Donald Davidson. Derrida’s attack on “logocentrism,” which foregrounded the presupposed center/margin distinction implicit in the project of metaphysics, produced in certain crowds (mainly harboring English departments) the repetitious parroting of “binary thinking!” every time a distinction was made. Rorty claims that Derrida and Davidson are “antidualists,” but “this does not mean that they are against binary oppositions; it is not clear that thought is possible without using such oppositions” (PSH 47).

[3] For if the Kuhnian perspective is right, that disciplines arise around common sets of problems, but those problems are not “natural” in the sense that the metaphysical tradition has used the term to describe what Reality impresses on us whether we like it or not, then what’s to stop every person from being entitled to set up shop for themselves and work on whatever problem they’ve delimited for themselves? The implicit object-Meinongianism here breeds inquiry-Meinongianism, whereby all it takes for a new one-person discipline to arise is a refusal to answer another person’s question. One might take this to be a reductio ad absurdum, and people have, but I think it forces the right kind of metaphilosophical reflections on the two sides of pragmatism, the Emersonian and the social practice traditions.

[4] I’ve discussed this essay previously in my own “Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?” (I consider it juvenilia, but it mainly presents the content of the essay, so could prove a useful summary.)

[5] “Recent Metaphilosophy,” Review of Metaphysics, Dec. 1961, 301-302. Compare that to “the point of edifying philosophy is to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth” (PMN 377). Also, read it against note 2, above. David L. Hall’s excellent critical introduction to Rorty’s thought, Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism (1994), first dug out this early essay and made much of this line for the continuity of Rorty’s philosophy (see 77).

[6] *NOTE ADDED MAY 2015* In fact, if you know what you're looking for, it's not that hard to discover that the bibliographies aren't quite complete. Rorty wrote a couple short reviews for the Review of Metaphysics in grad school, run as it was out of Yale and partly by his friend Richard Bernstein. (His first was in 1955 on Nelson Goodman's instantly famous Fact, Fiction, and Forecast.) Also, it is unfortunate that Leach and Tartaglia didn't discover the errata for "In Defense of Eliminative Materialism" in the Review of Metaphysics, June 1971. One is a partial misquote of James Cornman on 203, but the other is an entire missing line on 203. It kind of made sense, so it's not too surprising that the original editors of the Review and then Leach and Tartaglia missed it. Here's the sentence reprinted:
Now my answer to (T) is that what appears to us, or what we experience, or what we are aware of, is a function of the language "We customarily use 'F' in making non-inferential reports about X's."
Here's what it should read:
Now my answer to (T) is that what appears to us, or what we experience, or what we are aware of, is a function of the language we use. To say that "X's appear to us as F" is merely to say that "We customarily use 'F' in making non-inferential reports about X's."
As you can see, it doesn't really change anything interpretationally. And besides, of the essays reproduced, "In Defense of Eliminative Materialism" is the most negligible. If I could fault the editors for anything, it would be reprinting it in the first place.

[7] Though another essay on Whitehead is included, presumably because the latter, “The Subjectivist Principle and the Linguistic Turn,” isn’t just exegetical. Whitehead is just not part of the current conversation (“we judged that one paper about Whitehead would probably suffice,” say the editors in a footnote on 7), though those still talking about him did reprint “Matter and Event” (1963), the dropped essay, in 1983.

[8] To be fair, I have no idea what’s happening in the technical conversation of contemporary philosophy professors. (I hope this isn’t too much of a frightening reveal.) My suspicion is that Dennett is being generous when he says that the papers he earmarks should be “required reading” for up-and-comers. But despite my lack of definite knowledge about what current philosophy professors are taking seriously, based on the trajectory of it from the 60s to 90s, which I might claim some know-how with, I doubt that these professors are going to find useful, for example, Rorty’s essay on Kant, “Strawson’s Objectivity Argument.” There’s much to be said about the importance of that essay on a number of different fronts, but none of them seem relevant to what I imagine an aggregate of philosophy professors spend their time on. But maybe analytic philosophy has taken a good turn, back to the concerns that Rorty was speaking to. (Though, come to think of it, that would mean philosophy hasn’t gotten any further than they were 50 years ago. Great for my hero; so much wasted time for philosophy. Or not—if this is all a kind of inquiry, then wasted time is never wasted time because you won’t know which tunnel is a dead-end until you reach it, turn around, and say, “Gee, that was a waste of time.”)

[9] I’ll just add here my general unhappiness with Leach and Tartaglia’s introduction. They largely limit themselves to biographical context for each of the essays as they are chronologically published, and this is sometimes useful for somebody who hasn’t read all the interviews or Neil Gross’ book. (See my review “Waiting for More: Gross and Rorty.”) And they make a few good connections between some early parts and Rorty’s later work, and add some useful bits of historical context. But their critical patter is too often genuinely misleading for an amateur acolyte like myself not to be annoyed. One example: during a discussion of his first paper, a compare-and-contrast of Peirce and Wittgenstein, Leach and Tartaglia say that “Peirce was the classical pragmatist for whom the mature Rorty had least sympathy owing to the former’s lack of concern for moral and social issues, a worry foreshadowed here in an ambivalent footnote” (5). I don’t think there’s anything ambivalent about the footnote. After noting that “renewed interest in pragmatism has led to a new interest in Peirce, who somehow seems the most ‘up-to-date’ of the pragmatists” (16), Rorty footnotes, “perhaps because he was neither as concerned with religion and morality as James, nor as interested in social and political issues as Dewey.” This strikes me as ironic, but not ambivalent. The irony is that analytic philosophy can’t countenance James or Dewey because of those commitments, and so they focus on Peirce. It’s an arrow at the analytic establishment’s aridness, not Peirce’s. The reason Leach and Tartaglia’s comment is misleading about the later Rorty’s reason for lacking sympathy in Peirce is because 1) he stated in Consequences of Pragmatism that it was because Peirce was too Kantian and, more importantly, 2) he’s not entitled to have lack of political utility as a reason for lack of sympathy (at least, consciously—but Leach and Tartaglia’s “owing” is ironically ambivalent in articulating which is their claim). The thrust of Rorty’s understanding of the relationship between those sides of a philosopher’s work is that of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: some people are useful for politics, some aren’t. And indeed, Leach and Tartaglia even use Rorty’s use of that idea on Heidegger (i.e. that Heidegger’s politics is irrelevant to our reception of his philosophy) in their introduction just two pages before. It would be strange for Rorty, who was a huge fan of Sellars’ and Brandom’s very unpolitical work, to hold that against Peirce.