Friday, August 22, 2014

Lit Crits Reading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

0.      The main bits of what follows (along with some other bits I’ll post about Rorty soon [1]) were written during my last re-reading of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity with a reading group I’d convinced some colleagues to participate in a couple summers ago. I produced the below as a general introduction to Rorty and to analytic philosophy generally for an educated audience with no background in it—specifically, however, for graduate students in English departments. I’ve decided not to mess with the intended audience, so some of it isn’t generally applicable. So what you’ll find below is this: Part 1 is a little background and a general pitch to read Rorty (largely, my imagined audience is lit crits for this section). Part 2 is a summary of its (table of) contents. Parts 3 through 6 are a motley crew of diverse topics based on my sense of what objections to reading Rorty without knowing him come up, along with different potted summaries of important philosophical elements: “On Rorty’s Interpretations,” “On Pragmatism,” “On Antirepresentationalism,” and “On Argumentation.” In large part, these sections are extended summaries of both historical and conceptual background to Rorty’s positions so that a reader of Rorty can be in a better position to accept or reject what he’s talking about. Since I think criticism of Rorty has been lacking in acute understanding of what he means and of the implications of what he says, this has seemed to me important. (And in the case of my defensive background to antirepresentationalism, it’s somewhat on the other side of what Rorty says.) I’ve also included two appendices. One is a select bibliography for post-linguistic turn pragmatism. The other is an itemizing of the main riffs of the book—like a more detailed table of contents. This might be the most useful thing in the post, ultimately.

1.      During the 1970s, Rorty came to prominence as an “analytic philosopher,” a designation used loosely to identify Anglo-American philosophers who read Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and symbolic logic with more avidity than Nietzsche, Heidegger, and intellectual history. During the 1980s, Rorty—rightly or wrongly—became known as a traitor to his faith because of his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), which was read with far more avidity by those outside American philosophy departments than those in it. It purported to hoist analytic philosophy by its own petard, an insider’s account using the most insidery of authorities and lines of argument to call into question the mission and purpose of those on the inside—and those on the outside, having been annoyed by the closed club, tended to agree that it succeeded in doing so. Rorty’s betrayal coincided with his rise in popularity with literary critics, as he wrote more and more often about literary theory and the topics and people literary theorists talk about.

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) is the central text of Rorty’s career—all of his work before moves towards it and all of his work after extends out from it. It sketches a philosophy of language, an epistemology, a political and moral philosophy, a literary theory (-ish, of sorts), and a story about the history of Western metaphysics and moral progress. And maybe a few other things as well.

There are two general reasons for a budding literary scholar to dabble in Rorty’s book today: 1) to better know from the inside a prominent conversation partner from the heyday of literary theory (which I take to be the ‘80s and ‘90s) and 2) to strengthen one’s own theoretical scruples against a comprehensive viewpoint (though just what “comprehensive” would mean for Rorty is one of those things widely misunderstood). Rorty is a stringent antifoundationalist, and his monomaniacal attempt to think through what philosophy and theory should look like after one swallows that pill—taken from any number of the heroes that cast their shadow over English departments: Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, post-structuralism, New Historicism, post-colonialism, cultural studies—can be a useful test to exercise one’s own philosophical instincts. [2] Or to help you find some.

There are two further reasons to read Rorty, depending on your specialty. If you are a romanticist (British, German, American, French, whatever), Rorty sees philosophical pragmatism as a submovement to the larger Romantic movement. His picture of language, the self, and community can be seen as an interpretation of what’s living in Shelley’s “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (If you are a modernist, Rorty once said that postmodernism in philosophy and theory was just philosophy catching up to literary modernism.) If you are an Americanist, pragmatism as America’s indigenous philosophical movement has been gaining more attention lately as literary scholars try to identify the larger intellectual currents at work, which one can find in not just philosophers, but other cultural performers (since, as I implied earlier, the philosophers themselves aren’t about to do it). This has had a lot to do with Stanley Cavell, but if Cornel West is right, and I think he is in The American Evasion of Philosophy, then the philosophical movement that begins with Peirce, James, and Dewey and continues to Rorty, Putnam, and others has its roots in Emerson. [3] Rorty didn’t talk much of Emerson until the very end of his career, but it isn’t difficult to see the genealogy.

2.      This is the outline of the book
Part I: Contingency
1) The Contingency of Language
2) The Contingency of Selfhood
3) The Contingency of a Liberal Community

Part II: Ironism and Theory
4) Private Irony and Liberal Hope
5) Self-Creation and Affiliation: Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger
6) From Ironist Theory to Private Allusions: Derrida

Part III: Cruelty and Solidarity
7) The Barber of Kasbeam: Nabokov on Cruelty
8) The Last Intellectual in Europe: Orwell on Cruelty
9) Solidarity
Part I sketches the basics of Rorty’s pragmatist philosophy, as both epistemology and political philosophy. Its highlights are his account of metaphor as the basic unit of language, his attempt to efface the final remains of Platonic essentialism from Romanticism, and his account of left-liberalism in the face of Marxism (a particular highlight here being his deft schematization of Habermas and Foucault—the former is “a liberal unwilling to be an ironist” and the latter “an ironist unwilling to be a liberal”).

Part I culminates in the fourth chapter, the first of Part II. It is here that Rorty outlines his infamous figure of the “liberal ironist.” He also begins to say nice things about literary critics and outlines the utility of the classic liberal distinction between private and public spheres as a means of dividing up lists of books—the first are books good for self-enlargement and the second are books good for holding a community together. This then divides the second movement of the book, which includes the last two chapters of Part II and the first two of Part III.

Chapters 5 and 6 give an account of the “end of metaphysics” sequence of Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida by suggesting that their importance is to those who were already caught up by the power-dreams of Plato—Plato’s dream of ruling the world with his mind. [3] The account is particularly intended to suggest that this sequence does not have any particular consequences for how we think about life together with each other—that any moral or political consequences of their work (their anti-metaphysical work) can be brushed off. [4]

Chapters 7 and 8 concentrate on books good for public morality. Since Rorty follows Judith Shklar in defining the liberal as one for whom “cruelty is the worst thing one can do,” the books he suggests bring out that thematic. His chapter on Nabokov focuses on Lolita and Pale Fire as about heightening our awareness of how we are privately cruel to each other (through obsession), and attempts to balance against that Nabokov’s own aestheticism (his hatred of “topical trash” that helped public morality). Rorty’s chapter on Orwell focuses on 1984 as a scenario about what intellectuals would do in a world given an antifoundationalist picture of culture—conceptual humiliation. O’Brien is a picture of what is latent in all of us who are smarter than others. (And balanced against this picture of Orwell is Orwell’s own sense that “truth” is an effective weapon in the nightmare of 1984, which Rorty argues is not an available position for thorough-going antifoundationalists.)

And Chapter 9 just kinda’ sums things up.

In the rest of this space, I will talk about some of the special issues that can come up in reading Contingency, and try to fill in some special gaps in philosophical background one might have in approaching the book. One might first, though, peruse my “Introduction to Rorty.”

3. On Rorty’s Interpretations      When Rorty says at the beginning that “parts of this book skate on pretty thin ice – the passages in which I offer controversial interpretations of authors whom I discuss only briefly. This is particularly true of my treatment of Proust and of Hegel – authors about whom I hope someday to write more fully. But in other parts of the book the ice is a bit thicker” (xi)—take him seriously, but ask yourself what this means in terms of our responsibility as readers and writers. For the professionalization of the humanities has meant increasing specialization, as big problems are broken into smaller and smaller problems, which begin accumulating their own histories, as the scholarly literature on a subsubsubject stretches further and further into the past. Being a scholar in part means knowing your way around the major players and arguments of your field, but the difficulty of this in an age of specialization was already being felt in 1938, when A. O. Lovejoy—often marked as a progenitor of the history of ideas as a subdiscipline—said, “…it is now plain that the scholar who wishes to understand sufficiently the material within almost any one these divisions [of subfields in intellectual history, e.g. history of science or literary history] must take account of material lying, according to the conventional boundary-lines, in other—often in several other—divisions. But no man, obviously, can be a competent original investigator in many provinces even of history.” [5]

I point this out first because one important criticism of Rorty has been not only on the accuracy of his interpretations—a category he quite nearly (and misleadingly) abjures—but on his moral irresponsibility in promulgating them. One of the implicit lessons of Contingency is the importance of having a large view—a large synoptic account of the history of, well, everything. Or if not that, a large view that engulfs your own activities—a view in which you can situate yourself. Rorty was fond of Wilfrid Sellars’ definition of philosophy: “an attempt to see how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term.” But this clearly borders on professional irresponsibility, for who could specialize in that? [6]

4.      But do it we must, and a good way of thinking about taking the long, large view of history and thought is as inherently philosophical—taking a big view automatically means you are taking a stance on today’s conceptual issues by which you narrate the path to those views. Taking a big view means waging philosophical war—and that means you have to gird yourself with the right equipment. Whether it’s the history of literary criticism (a history of the tools the critic uses), the history of literary conventions (a history of the author’s tools), or the history of other stuff, like the history of philosophy, or politics, or class warfare—you can’t be a specialist in all of these things, but you might need to have a view of them. And doing so means picking out one thread among many—and argument about that choice will be philosophical, insofar as it is inconclusive because about guiding assumptions, rather than about how to work out the implications of agreed upon premises.

Rorty’s “other stuff” would be primarily filled in by the history of philosophy. Though Rorty doesn’t officially make a distinction between the genres of poetry, philosophy, and the novel, he is yet specifically concerned with generating philosophical views from his readings, which is different than other concerns one might have doing literary criticism, or other things more generally. However, I think it is important to see that for Rorty, there is nothing inimical to Rorty’s procedure in the impact of other concerns on the meaning of a text (e.g. economic or political history). People often criticize Rorty for, essentially, not talking about what they want to talk about, but that’s a social faux pas, not an argument. But—say you understand Rorty well enough to reply, “wait, but doesn’t Rorty think that the only real thing to do against assumptions and premises you don’t want to use is to change the subject, not argue against them?” (See CIS 8-9) He does think that, but if one has come round to it, then one should also see that the real faux pas wasn’t Rorty’s, but the critic for tactlessly formulating their objections as direct arguments—for whining that he isn’t talking about you. The only way out of this circle of offense is an easygoing ecumenicism—there is room for many concerns. That doesn’t mean we abjure entirely the activity of being critical of each other’s concerns, but it does mean we carry that activity on in a different manner.

As for what even Rorty thought of as his particular, slanted interpretations of individual thinkers, I leave the last word to Daniel Dennett, a reply to the paper Rorty cites in CIS 13n4:
I find Professor Rorty’s bird’s-eye view of the history of philosophy of mind both fascinating and extremely useful, full of insights and provocation, and, of course, flattering [it was a progressive history that ended in Dennett’s lap]. Rorty proceeds by deliberate and knowing oversimplification – often a useful tactic – and since it is useful on this occasion, it would be particularly counter-productive for me to succumb to the powerful temptation to plow seriatim through his account restoring all the complications he has so deftly ignored. My first reaction, though, is that the momentum he builds up in the course of his interpretations leads to a certain overshooting of the mark. Also, like many other revolutionaries before him, Rorty has trouble deciding whether to declare victory, declare that victory is inevitable, or implore you to join in a difficult and uncertain struggle against the powers of darkness. I ask myself: Am I a nominalist? Do I declare the death of theories of the mind? Am I – or should I be – a Village Verificationist after all? [All imputed notions by Rorty.] I always seem to want to answer: not quite. Since I, as an irremediably narrow-minded and unhistorical analytic philosopher, am always looking for a good excuse not to have to read Hegel or Heidegger or Derrida or those other chaps who don’t have the decency to think in English, I am tempted by Rorty’s performance on this occasion to enunciate a useful hermeneutical principle, the Rorty Factor: Take whatever Rorty says about anyone’s views and multiply it by .742. After all, if Rorty can find so much more in my own writing than I put there, he’s probably done the same or better for Heidegger – which means I can save myself the trouble of reading Heidegger; I can just read Rorty’s PMN and come out about 40% ahead – while enjoying the reading at the same time. … Balancing the prima facie presumption in favor of authorial authority is the well-known fact that people battling it out in the trenches seldom have a clear perspective on what they’ve accomplished, or even what the deeper point of their skirmishes might be. [7] (bold is mine)

5. On Pragmatism      One of the most important formulas for coming to grips with what Rorty takes pragmatism’s core to be is belief is a habit of action. For Rorty, the fundamental identity of pragmatism is the reversal of Plato’s attitude that theorists should dictate to the world—it instead amounts to saying that praxis has priority over theoria. This fundamental orientation emits into the social-practice theories we associate with Dewey in particular, and then Sellars, Rorty, and Robert Brandom, though it goes back to Hegel (and thence to Marx in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” in a different genealogy). Every theory is grounded in practice; every saying is a doing, such that not only can you give an account of what you are doing by what you say (such as Austinian speech-act theory), you should (must) be able to give an account of what it is for a doing to count as a saying—that would be a pragmatic, Wittgensteinian account of language such that “meaning is use,” emitting in an inferential semantics grounded in a normative pragmatics (à la Brandom).

Four good precursor moments are these:

The idea itself about beliefs being treated as habits of action should be traced to Alexander Bain: a belief is “of that which a man is prepared to act” (The Senses and the Intellect, 1855). Peirce and James encountered Bain through Nicholas St. John Green in the Metaphysical Club, the famous group of mid-19th century intellectuals.

Peirce said in his pragmatist tract, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (1878), that belief is “the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit.” This is the central articulation of pragmatism about belief. (He also said in the same paragraph that belief “is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life,” which makes me think of Kenneth Burke: “the symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude.” [8])

James uses this idea in “The Will to Believe” (1896): “The maximum of liveness [from James’s criteria of a genuine option for thought as forced, living, and momentous] in an hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.” And then see, more famously, James’s articulation of what he calls “Peirce’s principle”: “To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all” (“What Pragmatism Means,” 1906).

But if the formula about belief comes most directly from Bain, one must still compare Emerson: “The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action” (“The American Scholar,” 1837).

6.      One important element in Rorty’s understanding of pragmatism that is connected to the priority of practice to theory is his construal of language as a tool rather than as a medium of representation. Here are three nice precursor passages to Rorty’s argument:

Wittgenstein: “Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.” [9]

James: “Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest. You know how men have always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part in magic words have always played. If you have his name, or the formula of incantation that binds him, you can control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. … That word names the universe’s principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself. … But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.” [10]

Dewey: “Speaking from the standpoint of anthropology Franz Boas says: ‘The two outer traits in which the distinction between the minds of animals and man finds expression are the existence of organized articulate speech in man and the use of utensils of varied application.’ It is antecedently probable that sole external marks of difference are more than external; that they have intimate connection with such intrinsic differences as religion, art and science, industry and politics. ‘Utensils’ were discussed in the last chapter, in connection with the useful arts and knowledge, and their indispensable relation with science pointed out. But at every point appliances and application, utensils and uses, are bound up with directions, suggestions and records made possible by speech; what has been said about the role of tools is subject to a condition supplied by language, the tool of tools.” [11] (bold is mine)

7. On Antirepresentationalism      If fundamental pragmatism is in some manner the priority of practice to theory, then how does one apply that to theory, to philosophy? Rorty thought that pragmatism’s role in the history of thought was the codification of a certain set of philosophical views that had accrued to the attempts to do philosophy in the Platonic manner. Central to this orientation is the idea that life is an inquiry and refinement of our attitudes and beliefs. If that has priority—like in the Socratic mode of living an examined life—then one will find it easy to swallow Peirce’s maxim that “one must not block the way of inquiry” (“The First Rule of Logic,” 1898). Rorty followed Dewey in often deploying Locke’s conception of the philosopher as an underlaborer, moving out the conceptual debris that accumulates after special disciplines blow the rock out for new pathways of thought. The main concern here is that old modes of thought can make new ones difficult to hew. So Rorty’s main targets in philosophy are Platonic artifacts, since Rorty takes the moral of the last 2500 years of inquiry to be that Platonic philosophy has become outmoded. [12]

This being the case, the priority of this orientation to philosophy assures that the specific theses that a philosopher might hold as a pragmatist are up for grabs. Eventually, many of the positions that the classical pragmatists held and promulgated might be found wanting on specific kinds of ground. This irony is embodied in the joke so often made by critics of pragmatism about the so-called “pragmatist theory of truth”—that its definition, “truth is what works,” must be false because it doesn’t work. [13] For some time during the 20th century, pragmatism was thought to stand or fall on its theory of truth, as if that was centrally what it was or had to contribute. Rorty’s suggestion that pragmatism doesn’t, popular conception to the contrary, even have a theory of truth was one way that Rorty tried to make this point about pragmatism. [14] Pragmatism is, in this sense, first a metaphilosophy. What the priority of praxis to theoria means for philosophy is that specific theses must be picked up one at a time and tested on their ability to pass the pragmatist test—what’s the difference that makes a difference?

8.      Since in philosophy it can often be hard to see what practical difference follows from a theoretical position, and even just what would count as a practical difference, pragmatism often functions as a set of negative dialectical devices—a set of “anti-”s employed against currently identified Platonic ghosts, still haunting our attempts to make our way about the world. Pragmatism as a tradition, in this sense, is the accumulated wisdom of anti-Platonism. One of these is antirepresentationalism. However, before talking directly about it—since Rorty does most of the elaboration of it in Contingency—I think it’s useful to begin with C. G. Prado’s remark:
“Teaching Rorty is difficult. Students respond favourably, but superficially, to his critique. They consider it iconoclastic and exciting, but few of them have had the time to feel the grip of what he rejects. They may appreciate in an abstract way that it is unproductive to do epistemology but few can feel liberated by Rorty’s critique because they have not been captives of [Richard] Bernstein’s ‘Cartesian Anxiety’.” [15]
Prado’s point is that one won’t understand the point of pragmatism unless one feels the force of Platonism, just as one won’t see the point of a Road Clearing Service unless one sees the debris blocking the highway.

“Cartesian Anxiety” was Bernstein’s helpful name for the peculiar epistemological trouble that Descartes imprinted upon modern philosophy. You won’t feel Cartesian Anxiety just because you’ve been burned a few times about what is the case in the world— doubt of some current beliefs is not enough to induce the specific kind of doubt that Descartes represents. You need additional collateral commitments to fall into a global skepticism about all of your beliefs, or what Peirce lampooned as “fake doubt.” As Bernstein says of Descartes’ Meditations, “the specter that hovers in the background of this journey [of the soul] is not just radical epistemological skepticism but the dread of madness and chaos where nothing is fixed, where we can neither touch bottom nor support ourselves on the surface.” [16]

Ultimately, what induces Cartesian Anxiety is commitment to a theoretical project aimed at accounting for the relationships between persons, words, and the world. This general theoretical project—philosophy—can be broken down into a lot of smaller projects trying to do smaller things. The image here is of philosophy as the origin-inquiry, a tree growing out of the ground of life, and when a branch of philosophy falls off, it sometimes grows its own roots in the ground, becoming a special science of some kind. When these special disciplines, like physics, break off from philosophy, they typically take the problems they work on with them—this narrows what philosophers do as other people successfully specialize. As more and more special disciplines arose, the fewer things philosophers thought of as their purview.

9.      Cartesian Anxiety is a modern manifestation of a broader current: commitment to explaining how knowledge works plus respectful fear of an infinite regress. Pressing the claim “How do you know?” eventually pushes a conversation toward attention on the verbs doing the work of articulating the activity involved in framing the claim—this inevitably makes the conversation about how knowing works. Respect for the problem of the infinite regress is a commitment to the idea that one should justify each claim—but since each justification is itself a claim, this could go on indefinitely, thus committing you to a life of nothing but self-justification. Special disciplines don’t care about the infinite regress—when pressed about how they know a certain claim of theirs is true, they eventually stop and say, “because I’m a physicist—that’s how I know there’s gravity.” Physicists aren’t required to have a general account of how knowledge works; they only need an account of how particles and waves work, just declaring at the end that they’ve added to our knowledge. Fear of an infinite regress, however, makes one edgy about just how that knowledge composes itself. The primary response mechanism in European philosophy has been foundationalism—the attempt to stop the regress upon something hard, stable, and unjustifiable, er, self-justifying.

Foundationalism begins with Plato’s notion of the “land beyond hypotheses.” [17] Plato understood that claims are moved forward by supposing a P and working out its inferential consequences in Q and thence to R. You have to hypothesize the truth of P to get an inferential chain off the ground, though, because else you’ll spend the rest of your life moving backwards, justifying P with O, O with N, on and on. Aristotle’s notion of the “Prime Mover” picks up the same idea, dealing not with the conceptual-epistemological realm of reason but the material-metaphysical realm of cause—what was the finger that flicked the first domino? Modern foundationalism begins when Descartes turns the infinite regress into a weapon—follow the rabbit down the hole until you reach the bottom: What can I not doubt? This made answering the skeptic—who doubts ever claim you throw out, always asking, “How do you know?”—the problem that took priority in doing epistemology, and thus structuring the inquiry.

So—modern epistemological foundationalism is a function of the theoretical project of accounting for how knowledge functions and of the fear of an infinite regress posed by the skeptic: this is tantamount to making certainty central to one’s epistemological problematic rather than any other concept (authority, belief, truth, justification, etc.).

But—doesn’t that make foundationalism and not representationalism the Platonic ghost?

Yes.

10.      Philosophical theses are bound up with one another, and themselves bound up with metaphors and images we use to articulate the structure of those theses—for example, a foundation, like under a house. However, the metaphors themselves don’t intrinsically carry with them philosophical theses. For example, if I were asked for the grounds of my claim (“on what grounds do you believe that?”), despite the fact “ground” belongs in the same family as “foundation,” the question is perfectly non-foundationalist—I’m simply being asked for my justification.

It’s important to remember this point every time Rorty talks about rejecting metaphors or images—it’s the cloying attachment of philosophical theses born out in traditions of thought that makes Rorty nauseous. Representationalism is a philosophical family of theses that treats language’s primary purpose to be the accurate representation or mirroring of or correspondence to the world. This is largely an epistemological issue, and since it has most recently been fought out on the turf of philosophy of language, this accounts for Rorty’s particular modes of elaborating the pragmatist position. Different Platonic enemies would have called for different modes of being anti-Platonist.

But as philosophy became increasingly focused on how language functions, it has opened up new vistas upon which to think about the idea of representation. For example, on the semantic score, representationalism—because it focuses on the relation between person and world via media (ideas, words, etc.)—has centered on “aboutness”: how something is about something else (e.g., a word about the world). Rorty has been accused of relishing a spirit of free play by authorizing a relinquishing of concern about the world in his abjuration of representationalism (mainly because of his early paper “The World Well Lost”). The argument is that by getting rid of representation one is getting rid of constraint imposed on one’s practices by the world—there’s nothing on the other end of the “about,” no object to check against what you want to say about it. But Rorty will often say that there’s nothing in antirepresentationalism that speaks against using the word “about.”

11.      And then there are all the other kinds of representation—literary representation, political representation, geographical. Typically so-called “symbolic” modes, as in the first two cases, seem more obviously unaffected by Rorty’s polemics: the strike against representationalism is a strike against realisms that say the world tells us how things should be described. But maps seem to bring us around to the problem again by forcing us to seriously consider how exactly we redescribe relevant modes of discourse—we draw the lines on the map, but we didn’t put the mountain on the earth. So—not only how do we describe modes that seem to have obvious forms of isomorphism with “the world” (maps, “the cat is on the mat”), but how do we precisely describe differences in modes?

Any and every theoretical collapsing move you encounter (“Xs are really nothing but Ys”) is in the service of some purpose. Since there is more than one purpose with which to service speech acts (and therefore descriptions, distinctions, and entire modes of discourse), having a fine grained sense of when to give a shit about antirepresentationalism can be as important as trying live by its consequences.

12. On Argumentation      One of Rorty’s most provocative positions is on the utility of arguments, and certainly his most provocative moment (for philosophers) is when he says at the beginning of Contingency that he isn’t going to offer any. One of the reasons Rorty thinks of arguments as subsidiary to interesting philosophical work is because he thinks of interesting philosophy as world-disclosure—this is like hanging things together, but throwing out some new stuff to hang together during the process. In this mode, his early dictum that “any philosophical position can be made impervious and self-coherent with enough time and ingenuity” suggests that a clever enough visionary can always add the necessary epicycles to refine his account and make counter-arguments fall flat. [18]

So the question to ask about argumentative holes is not “can the position be saved?” but “how seriously should I take this objection?” This latter question is the more difficult one of assessing the motivations of the objection and the history of cultural production that has produced them. This is the problem of vocabulary choice, which occupies most of Rorty’s attention. It is not that arguments are unimportant, it is that they are abbreviations for visions—internal arguments with members of your own party affiliation are disputes about how best to get the vision in working order. External arguments, while pointing out holes that need addressing, are also dismissive in the sense that they are meant to induce you to drop the vocabulary entirely. So assessing an (external) argument is partly an assessment of whether you the philosopher take it seriously for a reason you haven’t made explicit to yourself and that just might override your current vocabulary choice—but it wasn’t the argument that overrides, it was the vision that you in the end decide is better or more important.

13.      An important notion to understand here is what Rorty means when he says arguments are parasitic. What he means is that logical inference functions on this model of the syllogism:
Premise 1          P
Premise 2          If P, then Q
Conclusion 1     Q (because of modus ponens, which is Latin for “how a conditional locution works, dumbass”)
On this model, you have to assume two things as your premises before you can draw the conclusion, or prove it or justify it. “Why ‘Q?” “Oh, because ‘P’ and ‘If P, then Q’.” “Oh, I see, you’re assuming P. But I don’t think P is actually a good claim at all.” Ah, but for the purposes of the inference, it is assumed. But now you are being asked to defend P, which makes you move backward in the constellation of your claims.
Premise 1          R
Premise 2          If R, then P
Conclusion 2     P
But what if your interlocutor questions R? This could go on ad infinitum, and indeed this problem is what motivated Plato and Aristotle to be concerned about infinite regress and suggest foundationalism for how argument works: all good arguments actually rest their back on the foundation whether we as of yet know it or not, and if we could find this foundation, then we’d be able to sort out which arguments are good or bad. So Rorty sees that the attack against foundationalism is an attack on how arguments (are thought to) work.

14.      Starting with John Stuart Mill, the idea that the premises in arguments are actually self-reinforcing became a rising star in logic. (Notice the “actually”: is this a metaphysical noise?) Mill said in his System of Logic that “if logic did not contain real inferences, all deductive reasoning would be petitio principii, a begging of the question.”

Rorty is essentially denying that there are these things called “real inferences” because it is Platonic: a “real inference” would work from a “fact,” and not from the definition of words, and that fact is what would make the inference real and not question-begging. (If you are familiar with the idiom, a real inference would be synthetic and its opposite analytic, and Mill is saying that some of our inferences have to be synthetic. [19]) Thus Rorty’s polemic against facts, which all have to be stated in a vocabulary: words that reinforce each other. (Look in a dictionary for an example of how words reinforce each other.) So if you abjure the vocabulary a fact is stated in, then you are abjuring all those things the people who use the vocabulary call “facts.” But: are you denying the facts or the ability to state those facts?

When Rorty calls arguments parasitic, he’s saying that an inferential argument against the facts—to deny those facts—has to be stated in the vocabulary that created those facts. But to deny the vocabulary denies the ability to even state the facts, and thus begs the question because you’ve denied the person the ability to say what he wants to say because you’ve assumed that starting that way is the wrong way. I say “assumed” because if a vocabulary is self-reinforcing—in the manner that if you had above asked for justification of R, I would have given you a proof that assumes Q, thus running around in a nice circle—then there’s nothing to break reinforcement except for not entering the whirlpool.

15.      What Rorty does with this point is to say that what we need, then, is a new constellation of self-reinforcing commitments—i.e., a new vocabulary. He’s abjuring argument now because he has to put in place the new commitments that will argumentatively reinforce each other later.

Another way to put this is to make a distinction between two types of claims: there are entitlement-claims that justify a commitment and there are commitment-claims that express a commitment. [20] One reason why we need to make a distinction between the two is to avoid a practical infinite regress: if we in practice did not make a distinction between the two, then a person’s mouth would open and then never close (“I believe P because Q because R because S because...”). So, because this is obviously not the case, we in practice make a distinction between entitlement-justifying-claims and commitment-expressing-claims. What Rorty’s announcing in his abjuration of arguments is that he will be making claims (and so stating “how things are”), but they will be commitment-claims and without (largely) their attending entitlement-claims. The reason why he thinks he needs to do this is because “vocabulary,” in his vision, equates to “commitment-claims,” and so he needs to lay out a bunch of commitment-claims and show how they hang together before he can start plausibly using those commitment-claims to justify the other one’s in the constellation (see Ch. 4 on “final vocabularies”). In other words, he thinks you need a bunch of the commitment-claims out there before you can start plausibly converting them into entitlement-claims. And this would be what “holism” demarcates, or the “hermeneutical circle.”

16. Conclusion?      This has been an odd exercise in writing, and I’m not terribly sure it was a good one. It wasn’t really a summary of Rorty’s book, so I’m not really sure if any of the last sections are useful to someone who hasn’t read any Rorty before. One reason I’m confused, as a writer, is that I was finished with everything I was going to say at the end of the last section—but it clearly didn’t feel like an ending.

So, let me just close by saying: some people don’t like Rorty because of the way he sounds. Some people don’t like Rorty because of the philosophical positions they think he takes. Some people don’t like Rorty because they think he’s an irresponsible scholar.

I like Rorty. I have a personal relationship with the voice embedded in his writing. [21] A friend of mine read a little of Rorty and thought he was arrogant. I have nothing to say to that. It’s like when someone recommends a band to listen to—if you hate the band, you might wonder why the friend ever suggested you’d like it. Sometimes it’s because the friend is piously trying to get everyone to like what they love. I don’t have that interest. I have an interest in defending Rorty’s philosophy, because it’s pretty much the place where I begin mine, but I don’t care if everyone has the same experience reading him as I do. One can have a philosophy that corresponds to all the tenets I think important to hold without having read Rorty, or any pragmatist for that matter.

17.      But if one thinks one disagrees with Rorty’s philosophy, it’s important to bear in mind just how trashed an image he has—trashed by, basically, gossip. I don’t mean something risqué, like de Man’s anti-Semitic writings or a cuckolding. I mean how people make claims about Rorty’s philosophy when they are easily refutable by citing Rorty’s work. I take as an example somebody who could not possibly be taken for a virulent critic of Rorty (though there are many I would count as those): Ian Hacking. Hacking is a wonderful, clear, powerful philosopher in Rorty’s generation. I don’t know Hacking’s corpus the way I do Rorty’s, but I can’t think of anything important they might disagree about. In fact, this must be widely perceived, because Cheryl Misak, one this generation’s more important analytic pragmatists, hounded Hacking to write a contribution to her collection of articles from powerful contemporary pragmatist(ish) voices, New Pragmatists. So he wrote one, with due apology, called “On Not Being a Pragmatist.”

In that paper, he says
I have recently been deeply influenced by Bernard Williams’s last book, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. This has received a pretty lukewarm reception, like Colin McGinn’s. If we may take Richard Rorty’s review as expressing the neo-pragmatist reaction, then this book shares almost nothing with pragmatism. … Williams takes truth to be timeless, to have no history, to be part of the structure necessary for human linguistic communication. … In contrast, Williams takes truthfulness about a subject matter to have a history and to have a beginning. … I had the good luck to express the idea correctly in 1982: “although whichever propositions are true depends on date, the fact that they are candidates for being true is a consequence of historical fact.” … These ideas of truth, truthfulness, and objectivity are foreign to neo-pragmatism.
I have the deepest admiration for Hacking’s work as a philosopher, but this made me sad. Williams comes close to being a virulent critic of Rorty’s, but I’ve come to think of him as more of a friend than an enemy. Williams has some detailed things to say about Rorty in that book, but I think they are ultimately negligible. (And answerable, though I’ve yet had the opportunity to work it out.) For if Hacking’s right in his broad-brush characterization of the upshot of Williams’s book, then Rorty’s totally on board. “Williams takes truth to be timeless”—Rorty says, “Truth is, to be sure, an absolute notion.” [22] “I had the good luck to express the idea correctly”—Rorty uses Hacking’s notion of a “truth-value candidate” in Contingency to express the historical quality of vocabularies (or in Hacking’s vocabulary, styles of reasoning). [23] Hacking says that from Rorty’s review, Williams’s book must having nothing in common with neopragmatism: then why does Rorty praise the historical, last half of Truth and Truthfulness?

What bugs me when this kind of thing happens between two powerful philosophers (like whenever Hilary Putnam opens his mouth about Rorty) is that really interesting differences are avoided—worse, the real issues that should be talked about aren’t allowed to be brought up. From reading Rorty’s polemical use of Williams as a realist in the essays on the philosophy of science in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, I had initially thought of Williams as a “bad guy”—a realist, a Platonist, a representationalist, a metaphysician in the vocabulary of Contingency. After reading more Rorty on Williams and Williams himself, I’ve come to think of Williams as very odd—a perfectly compatible moral philosophy (i.e. historicist, anti-Kantian, and Nietzschean) with a realist epistemology/philosophy of science. Whether or not Rorty’s philosophy of science is compatible with the moral philosophies staked out in Williams’s books is a good question, and it would clarify just what the major philosophical commitments are in play. But that’s not what we usually get.

18.      One of these real issues in the background is about Rorty’s scholarship. I raised the issue in my comments about Rorty’s interpretations. Williams denounced Rorty’s scholarly abilities in his scorching review of Contingency. But I think Rorty’s writing fulfills an important function for the scholar, even if I would concede they don’t take a scholarly form. For example, I have for years been unable to trace Hacking’s notion of a “truth-value candidate” that Rorty from time to time refers to—all uncited. Sometimes Rorty is being allusive, but sometimes you don’t remember—the scholar (and it has to resound in your head with a deep, slow lilt) would never write something that wasn’t properly researched and cited. But the mode of writing Rorty is involved in has somewhat different standards. It’s hard to specify what they are, but it is certainly more relaxed. I think the idea is “though I can’t remember where he says this, you should trust me that he does, because the important thing is to keep the conversation going.” It’s a style we sometimes see referred to as “unforced erudition.” It’s something we don’t get to see much these days from many of our academics, but you can still find it in venues like the London Review of Books. These are venues where scholars can say fresh things, sometimes timely things, without needing a dense forest of books in a bibliography that appear in long, pointless endnotes that are just lists of books the author half-read. Maybe it makes sense, then, that the first three chapters appeared in 1986 in the LRB.

(See—doesn’t that feel just a little bit more like an ending?)

Appendix 1
Select Annotated Bibliography of American Pragmatism for Lit Crits

This is just a short list of books that might be useful for tracking down features of American pragmatism. There are three categories that I use to talk about pragmatism, the first two being traditional designations. One is classical pragmatism—the late 19th, early 20th century originators (Peirce, James, Dewey, but also F. C. S. Schiller, George Herbert Mead, and perhaps others). The other major label is neopragmatism—this is almost always used primarily to designate mid- to late 20th century practitioners that took the “linguistic turn.” However, throughout the period of neopragmatism there have been what we might call “originalists” who disdained analytic philosophy and the linguistic turn, and who mainly contented themselves with being scholars of their classical heroes (e.g., John McDermott). Recently, though, there has been a resurgence of mainstream philosophers who wish to “turn back the linguistic turn.” This has bolstered the confidence of pragmatists who disdain analytic philosophy and allowed them back into the main centers of discussion. I call these retropragmatists. I mainly ignore the retropragmatists. [25]

The best introduction to the core philosophy of classical and neopragmatism:
John P. Murphy, Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson – terribly difficult to find, but well worth it. It is the pithiest and most effective pedagogical tool to bootstrap yourself into the core philosophical issues that stretch through this particular, selected canon (Peirce, James, Dewey, Quine, Davidson, Rorty). Since Murphy died before it could be published, it includes a short introduction by Rorty (since he was asked to complete the task of getting it ready).

The best introductory philosophical history of pragmatism:
Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism – What makes West’s story most interesting is that he spends the first three chapters hammering out pragmatism’s roots in Emerson, before taking us through Peirce, James, and Dewey. And second, after finishing Dewey he takes us through W. E. B. DuBois and Lionel Trilling before getting to Quine and Rorty. It’s an illuminating tour that requires no previous knowledge of the subjects—West’s style is less critical-analytical than one might hope for, but he supplies large, sweeping quotations of passages, which makes it a good introductory read. Another good book along these lines is Russell B. Goodman’s American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition.

Self-identified neopragmatists would have to include: Morton White, C. I. Lewis, W. v. O. Quine (first gen); Richard Bernstein, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty (second gen); and Robert Brandom and Huw Price (third gen). Because of the story that some of these pragmatists tell about pragmatism and what counts as pragmatism, the honorary list has been extended to include: Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars (ancestor and first gen), and Donald Davidson (second gen). There are also two important hangers-on: Stanley Fish and Jeffery Stout.

The first generation is probably negligible, except for the honorary Wittgenstein. He’s interesting for all kinds of reasons for literary critics (e.g., his highly idiosyncratic style of doing philosophy). However, if you really want to read some Quine, Sellars, and Davidson, here are the important bits for seeing their pragmatism:

Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” in From a Logical Point of View

Sellars, Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind – originally collected as a long essay in Science, Perception, and Reality, the edition that stands alone is a must for a non-philosopher because it includes an introduction by Rorty and, most importantly, a Study Guide by Brandom. Sellars was notoriously dense and difficult to read for even insiders. [26]

Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation [27]
---, “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge” in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective
---, “The Myth of the Subjective” in same
---, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” in Truth, Language, and History [28]

A very good, though hard to find, systematic introduction to Davidson is Bjørn T. Ramberg’s Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language.

For Wittgenstein, indispensable is the Philosophical Investigations. Much good scholarship, however, has gone into discovering just what’s going on in there (against, for example, some early interpretations). So, equally indispensable is as a first step, I think, Stanley Cavell’s “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” in his Must We Mean What We Say?

Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History – Putnam was at the center of many of the most interesting philosophical conversations of hardcore analytic philosophy. This book is something like his turning point (much like, and in which he is most like, Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature), and so dives into the middle of technical analytic controversies and comes out with Hegelian, pragmatist positions. His books before it are technical and difficult. His books after are in large part collections of essays, and I’ve found many of them too light. However, one might also try Pragmatism and Beyond the Fact/Value Dichotomy. (I might, however, just have a personal grudge against Putnam given the way he treated Rorty in writing.)

Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism – this might be the best introduction to the philosophical concerns and figures that surround Rorty’s move from just analytic philosophy to include continental philosophy. It mints the idea of “Cartesian Anxiety,” which I find indispensable in describing foundationalism, and considers the very idea of anthropology (through Peter Winch, who applied Wittgenstein to social science), the philosophy of science (by rehearsing the storm of controversy that erupted after Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), and then turns to a critical engagement with and synthesis of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, and Rorty. (I should add that Bernstein is one of the few writers on Rorty that is any good. Among that number is also Stout, Ramberg, and Brandom. He and Rorty were born just one year apart and had nearly identical educations (same BA, MA, and PhD)—the only difference, as Bernstein likes to put it, is that Dick B. discovered the importance of Dewey at the beginning of his career, rather than the middle of it as Dick R. did.)

Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? – if you want a social-practice version of interpretation (which is to say, a pragmatist one), then this is it. (Rorty’s two pithiest essays on this specific subject are “Texts and Lumps” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth and “The Pragmatist’s Progress: Umberto Eco on Interpretation” in Philosophy and Social Hope). Two other good essays for approaching Fish as a pragmatist are:
“Rhetoric” in Doing What Comes Naturally
“Truth and Toilets” in The Trouble with Principle

Jeffery Stout, Democracy and Tradition – this book picks up, and substantially thickens, the kind of political philosophy Rorty articulates in Contingency and in Achieving Our Country. Stout is a philosopher of religion, and through partly criticizing Rorty’s extant engagement with religion, Stout has elaborated a sophisticated philosophy of democracy for the here and now: meaning the United States as we find it now, with terrorism and evangelical conservatism. What I love most about this book is its first two chapters: “Character and Piety from Emerson to Dewey” and “Race and Nation in Baldwin and Ellison.”

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club – this is the now standard book to historically situate Peirce, James, and Dewey.

David Hollinger, “William James and the Culture of Inquiry” in his In the American Province – works excellently with James in his historical context. Hollinger is an American intellectual historian, and the other essays in this volume are also useful for our literary concerns (e.g., one on modernism and another on Perry Miller). Another important essay, when it comes to the history of pragmatism, is James T. Kloppenberg’s “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?” (collected in several places, including The Revival of Pragmatism, mentioned below).

Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy
Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism
– both excellent books on Dewey and American political-intellectual history generally.

Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism – this book anchors an important beginning for a research paradigm into the nature of pragmatism. Poirier identifies pragmatism as “linguistic skepticism”—a notion that I think makes Poirier’s pragmatist nearly identical to Rorty’s ironist. Poirier then discusses Emerson and Emerson’s influence on William James, before using the fact that James taught Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein to broaden our understanding of the genealogy of pragmatism. Rather than a genealogy focused on theoretical theses, Poirier articulates a tradition of practice—a peculiar practice of writing that should be identified as pragmatist (so goes his argument).

Joan Richardson, A Natural History of Pragmatism – published in 2007, this book is at the forefront of the current conversation, begun in earnest by Poirier, about expanding our histories of pragmatism to include more than just parochial American philosophy professors. Other literary critics involved in this expansion might include Jonathan Levin, Andrea Knutson, James M. Albrecht, and Paul Grimstad.

The last book makes clear that, especially for literary critics, we will want to pay attention to our own people and their influence on something called “pragmatism.” I think the most important person in making the pre-history of pragmatism relevant to philosophy is Cavell—who does not consider himself a pragmatist. But in thinking about “philosophical literariness”—or whatever you want to call thinking philosophically with a text while not caring what genre the text is—his books The Senses of Walden and In Quest of the Ordinary are indispensable (he has a book of essays on just Shakespeare, too). (His The Claim of Reason is his opus, and one might think of it as a very Wittgensteinian version, in both form and content, of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.)

The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture, ed. Morris Dickstein – this must have been an amazing conference. It’s from 1998, so its essays are fairly up-to-date (as scholarly things go). Almost every contributor is a heavy-hitter: Rorty, Putnam, Cavell, Kloppenberg, Westbrook, Bernstein, Nancy Fraser, John Patrick Diggins, Richard Posner, Poirier, Menand, David Bromwich. And more.

Appendix 2
Analytical Table of Contents of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

Part I
          Ch. 1
3-5 – scientist vs. poet as hero
5-7 – sentences vs. vocabularies
7-9 – redescription vs. argumentation
9-11 – Davidson against “medium”
11-13 – vocabularies as tools
13-16 – passing theories, intentional stances, and there’s no such thing as language
*Act Break*
16-17 – nonteleological view of intellectual history
17-19 – Davidson on metaphor
19-20 – Nietzschean/Darwinian history of culture
*Act Break*
20-22 – against the priestly function
          Ch. 2
23-25 – tracing home the blind impress
25-29 – poetry vs. philosophy; confronting contingency
29-30 – the will to self-overcoming
30-32 – de-divinizing the self
32-34 – against reason-as-faculty and return to the concrete
*Act Break*
34-35 – dull vs. interesting, Kant vs. Nietzsche
35-37 – every life as a poem
37-39 – “genius” is what catches on
39-40 – the power of redescription and “the world”
*Act Break*
40-43 – strong poet as parasitic
          Ch. 3
44-45 – foundation vs. redescription
*Act Break*
45-47 – against relativism
47-51 – rationality as internal to a vocabulary
51-52 – truth is the upshot of free and open encounters
53-54 – poeticized culture
54-56 – philosophy is not neutral
56-57 – post-Marxist suspicion vs. pragmatic muddling
58-60 – principles as abbreviations for practices
60-61 – reform vs. revolution
*Act Break*
61-63 – Foucault vs. Habermas vs. Rorty
63-64 – against Foucault: the benefits outweigh the costs
64-65 – against the longing for total revolution
65-66 – against Habermas: don’t fear world-disclosure
66-68 – against “communicative reason” as foundation
68-69 – from epistemology to politics
Part II
          Ch. 4
73-74 – final vocabularies, irony
74-78 – common sense/metaphysics vs. ironism/nominalist-historicism
*Act Break*
78-79 – Hegel and philosophy as a literary genre
80-82 – literary critics as moral advisors
*Act Break*
82-83 – irony as irresponsible
84-85 – take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself
85-88 – objection: irony will dissolve social glue
88-90 – objection: irony is illiberal, humiliates
90-91 – irony doesn’t empower
92-93 – morality as skill at imaginative identification
94-95 – theory as private perfection/literature as social hope
          Ch. 5
96-98 – ironist theory
*Act Break*
98-100 – rearranging little mortal things
100-101 – theory and dialectical progression
101-102 – exhausting possibilities, apocalyptic novelty, prophecy
102-103 – debunking authority
103-105 – the Problem of Self-Conscious Theory: How do I end my book?
105-108 – beauty vs. sublimity
*Act Break*
108-109 – demands of theory and of self-creation
109-110 – Being and Time as transcendental project
110-112 – “history of Being” and exhaustion, a vocabulary both serious and ironic
112-114 – elementary words
114-116 – letting sound matter
116-117 – necessity of bildungsromans, house vs. tools
117-119 – litany vs. narrative, public resonance
119-121 – duty to self and duty to others
          Ch. 6
122-123 – Derrida against Heidegger
123-125 – Rorty against American deconstructionists
125-126 – fantasy as endpoint of ironist theory
126-127 – The Post Card and idiosyncratic obsessions (especially metaphysics)
127-130 – Plato, Socrates, and sex
130-131 – Freud and Heidegger
131-133 – “Fido”-Fido, Searle
133-134 – poetry as “off the hook from bad questions,” against method
134-137 – why is Derrida different? What is he good for? Is it philosophy?
Part III
          Ch. 7
141-144 – four categories of books across two distinctions: private/public, familiar/unfamiliar
*Act Break*
144-146 – aesthetic bliss and topical trash
*Act Break*
146-149 – Nabokov saving Dickens from “participative emotion”
149-152 – running together literary and personal immortality
152-154 – Platonic atemporalism and anti-Platonic sensualism
154-156 – an oversized sense of pity and hope for future generations rather than immortality
*Act Break*
156-158 – Nabokov as cruel aesthete (between Kinbote and Shade)
158-160 – the vice of incuriosity and the fear that ecstasy and kindness swing free of each other
161-164 – the monster of incuriosity in Lolita
164-167 – the monster of incuriosity in Pale Fire
*Act Break*
167-168 – summary: a private mythology of a special elite
          Ch. 8
169-171 – topical trash: sensitizing to a set of excuses for cruelty
171-172 – redescribing communism and inventing O’Brien
172-173 – Orwell as a metaphysical realist
173-175 – in search of some new political scenarios
175-176 – O’Brien: not Thrasymachus, but a rogue elephant
176-177 – if we take care of freedom, truth can take care of itself
177-179 – psychological torture as breaking one’s final vocabulary
179-180 – the object of torture is torture
180-183 – the fantasy of endless torture—the really scary part
183-185 – on the psychological implausibility of characters
*Act Break*
185-187 – ironists need to talk
187-188 – O’Brien as last ironist in Europe
          Ch. 9
189-190 – fundamental premise: a belief can still regulate action even if caused by nothing deep
190-192 – taking the sting off of “we vs. they”
192-195 – against the Kantian moral obligation tradition
195-196 – fuzzy but inspiring foci imaginarii
196-198 – philosophy in the service of democratic politics




Endnotes

[1] Next week, as “Some Other Bits I’m Posting about Rorty.”

[2] A newer -ism on the scene is posthumanism. See my discussion “Posthumanism, Antiessentialism, and Depersonalization” for an application of a Rortyan antifoundationalism.

[3] If you’ve read some Derrida, you’ll probably have no problem seeing Plato as power-mad, but perhaps the best expression of this same dream as it lives today was given by Robert Nozick in his Philosophical Explanations: “The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premisses you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief. … Wouldn’t it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddha-like. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. How’s that for a powerful argument?” (4)

[4] This had a certain urgency at the time because of the controversies/scandals surrounding Heidegger and Paul de Man. Heidegger, of course, was a member of the Nazi party, and when Heidegger started to become popular in English departments, a more general push against his philosophy on political grounds arose (or at least got more press). The intellectual historian Richard Wolin is an important figure in this regard. When de Man died, it came out that he had published some anti-Semitic articles in his youth in occupied Belgium. Because de Man’s work was seen as almost a direct extension of Derrida, this was thought to have a bearing on that American product, deconstructionism. The de Man scandal included some other things as well, and still has not died—cf. Peter Brooks’ review of Evelyn Barish’s recent biography of de Man in the New York Review of Books, “The Strange Case of Paul de Man” (April 3) and his exchange with David Lehman in the May 8 issue.

[5] This was from Lovejoy’s “The Historiography of Ideas,” collected in his Essays in the History of Ideas (quote on page 7). One might note his use of “original” and wonder whether originality matters in a professional, specialized inquiry. It’s always struck me that there’s an underlying tension, in the idea of “original scholarship,” between the Good and the New. It scares up your intuitions on the problem if you ask, “Would you rather be right or say something never before said?”

[6] I’ve talked about some of these problems with regards to literary criticism in “Do We Need a Center, or Generalities?”

[7] From Dennett’s “Comments on Rorty,” 349-50 in Synthese, November 1982

[8] See my discussion of this line and its pragmatism in “Literature as Equipment for Living and as Spiritual Exercise,” esp. section 3.

[9] Philosophical Investigations, §11

[10] “What Pragmatism Means”

[11] Experience and Nature, Ch. 5

[12] A good summary of Rorty’s stance, combined with his stance about argument, is from his introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism: “Pragmatists follow Hegel in saying that ‘philosophy is its time grasped in thought.’ Anti-pragmatists follow Plato in striving for an escape from conversation to something atemporal which lies in the background of all possible conversations. … I do not know what would count as a noncircular metaphysical or epistemological or semantical argument for seeing them in either way. So I think that the decision has to be made simply by reading the history of philosophy and drawing a moral” (174).

[13] This orientation of pragmatism’s is the focal point of my pithy introduction to pragmatism, “What Pragmatism Is.” The joke about pragmatism’s theory of truth comes up a lot when I talk about pragmatism and truth, but it is essentially the background of my somewhat eccentric “Rhetorical Universalism.”

[14] This was the way Rorty put it in the opening of his intro to Consequences. A good example of reticence by analytic philosophers to think of pragmatism any other way is Donald Davidson, whom Rorty greatly admired. Rorty continually tried recruiting Davidson into the pragmatist canon because he thought Davidson’s writing about language and truth were the right way to think about them, but Davidson always resisted because he couldn’t be convinced that pragmatism should be treated as having a disquotational theory of truth as opposed to a reductionistic assertional one (e.g. Dewey’s treatment of truth as warranted assertibility). I should also add here that Rorty’s attempt to scrape off the damning criticism of pragmatism’s theory of truth isn’t the only mode of trying to recontextualize the understanding of it by emphasizing other elements of the classical pragmatists. One way that has been steadily gaining steam over the last 30 years has been to give priority to their metaphysical construal of experience, e.g. making James’s radical empiricism the proper context in which to understand James’s pragmatism. I’ve discussed this mode under the moniker of “retropragmatism” in “Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism.”

[15] Alan Malachowski quotes Prado’s remark, from the latter’s The Limits of Pragmatism, in a helpful appendix to his collection Reading Rorty entitled “On Teaching Rorty.”

[16]Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 18. This book, which came out in 1983, is Bernstein’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Those two books should be read side-by-side to get a clear picture of what advanced post-positivist pragmatism should look like.

[17] The Republic, 510b

[18] This dictum is from the beginning of “Recent Metaphilosophy” (Review of Metaphysics, 1961), one of the fascinating early essays not included in Leach and Tartaglia’s recent anthology of Rorty’s early work (see my discussion). That being the case, I reproduce a large part of Rorty’s sweeping definition of metaphilosophy:
Metaphilosophy maybe defined as the result of reflection upon the following inconsistent triad:
(1)       A game in which each player is at liberty to change the rules whenever he wishes can neither be won nor lost.
(2)       In philosophical controversy, the terms used to state criteria for the resolution of arguments mean different things to different philosophers; thus each side can take the rules of the game of controversy in a sense which will guarantee its own success (thus, in effect, changing the rules).
(3)       Philosophical arguments are, in fact, won and lost, for some philosophical positions do, in fact, prove weaker than others.
The most obvious resolutions of this inconsistency are perhaps the following three:
(a)       One may say that (3) is false, and that it has an appearance of truth only because some philosophers are too dumb to make use of the device of changing the rules. If one takes this view, one will emphasize (2), and insist that any position which states itself in sufficiently general terms will be able to make itself impregnable. For any philosopher who is charged with, e.g., generating an infinite regress or arguing in a circle should, with a bit of ingenuity, either be able to invent suitable distinctions which will cut the regress or break the circle, or else be able to distinguish between good from bad regresses and vicious from fruitful circles. With the examples of Aquinas and Hegel before him, any philosopher who can neither distinguish away, nor aufheben, his opponent’s heuristic terms may fairly be judged to be incompetent. The existence of such incompetence, which is the only conceivable reason for ever losing a philosophical argument, is no more relevant to a discussion of the nature of philosophy than the existence of mistakes in calculation is relevant to a discussion of the nature of mathematics. I shall call this position metaphilosophical scepticism. …
(b)       [this position denies (2) and erects itself as basically representationalism—facts about terms determine how terms must be taken]
(c)       finally, one may deny the truth of (1), and say that, on the contrary, philosophy is the greatest game of all precisely because it is the game of “changing the rules.”
Rorty goes on to say some things about studying the patterns by which rules are changed—this is also where he first formulates his famous notion of “conversation” that played an important role at the end of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: “Metaphilosophers of this [(c)] stripe see the function of philosophy as making communication possible…. 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. To keep communication going is to win the game….”

[19] To be more precise, Rorty wants to reject the premise that suggests that there are only two options: either there’s a fact in the area or the truth is definitional (like “All bachelors are single” seems to be). Not being more precise, however, is why pragmatism has always seemed to court idealism.

[20] This is Brandom’s vocabulary. For an introduction to it, see “On the Asymmetry between Practical and Doxastic Commitments,” section 2 and 3.

[21] See my “Touchstones” for some reflection on this kind of orientation in reading.

[22] Truth and Progress, 2

[23] CIS 18

[24] I have to confess, though, that it drives me bananas in Harold Bloom—who, as far as I can tell, has never cited a single thing in his life (except, perhaps, under duress). Even David Bromwich, who is a master of easy erudition, sometimes drives me crazy.

[25]For a discussion of Rorty’s relationship to their main ideas, see “Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism.”

[26] For a philosophical background to Quine and Sellars, see “Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn.”

[27] For a philosophical introduction to this essay, see my “Davidson’s ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.’”

[28] Minus “Myth,“ these can be found in The Essential Davidson.

18 comments:

  1. Having recently added CIS to my experiences with "postmodernism" and having found your many outstanding essays I just wanted to throw out a thought I've been having about Rorty's work. Like you I really connect with Rorty's work and found his description of the liberal ironist to be eerily close to how I sometimes think of myself. However, I'm not sure I can see how his two main ideas/goals (liberalism and nonrepresentationalism) actually fit together to achieve the ends he was hoping for.

    Rorty repeatedly states that he believes a shift away from representationalism, essentialism, foundationalism will result in a more democratic liberal society. I can't see how that would be the case, due to several of his own statements and positions.

    Here are what I see as his main ideas connected to this issue (forgive my interchangeable use of foundationalism and representationalism):

    1. His belief that by achieving nonrepresentationalism we can avoid arguing and searching for ultimate foundations to not be cruel and simply decide and agree not to be cruel (liberalism) because that's what we contingently believe is best.

    2. He doesn't believe in relativism (his classic statement that only overeager freshman are relativists) because people actually do hold their own contingent beliefs strongly and can't stand outside of them even if they know they are contingent and changeable (the ironist).

    3. In CIS he states that there is nothing about nonrepresentationalism that would require or lead a person to change their beliefs or political positions (only that they may now view their beliefs as contingent).

    These lines of thought seem to lead us to the SAME BASIC PROBLEM as representationalism in regards to how we actually achieve a more liberal democratic society. Here is my thinking:

    -If someone came up with an ultimate foundation to unite humanity against cruelty, then they must still convince (reason/argument) everyone to believe it (representationalism)
    -If we decide there is no such thing as an ultimate foundation against cruelty and instead just agree not to be cruel, we still must convince others to agree (representationalism/realism/etc for society but nonrepresentationalism for Rorty and us)
    -If EVERYONE gives up the idea of an ultimate foundation, you still have to convince them that your own view (don't be cruel because that's what I happen to contingently believe) is worth following. (nonrepresentationalism)


    The point is that no matter what, you have to convince someone to come over to your side, whether they or you believe in foundations/representationalism/essences or not. Nothing Rorty says about theories of knowledge, language, etc makes any difference. It still comes down to the same point of trying to convince other people so that they agree with you (in Rorty's case liberalism). It's the real-life nitty-gritty of daily life and interactions that must be dealt with, not metatheoretical philosophy if he wants this change. His whole project appears to have gone down the wrong path for achieving his ultimate goal. He only briefly mentions the real issue of changing other's minds and how he might suggest doing it (the use of literature, cinema, etc which would obviously have an uncertain or no effect on others beliefs). In light of your other posts about changing minds, his brief mention of the actual problem and his half-hearted solution seem hopelessly weak and misdirected.

    (continued below)

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  2. For so long I had seen the ideas of Rorty and others of his persuasion as being some means to achieving greater peace and harmony in the world (in line with Rorty's liberalism), but now I see that's not the case. I had seen these ideas as almost their own foundationalism and had believed that if I could just understand them, I would be able to use that understanding to direct my life in a way that would be more liberal and accepting and I believed that spreading these ideas themselves was somehow a means to achieving that greater liberalism. I thought it was revolutionary and Rorty seems to have felt the same way. I now see the confusion. I think you described it well with the following lines:

    "holism simply describes how we are (and were) always situated, not a new situation. The only new thing in antifoundationalist holism is the fact that we are rejecting Plato’s way describing our reality, not introducing a massively new and differently behaving and organizing reality."

    This makes it all seem like theories and discussion for the great halls of academic philosophy and not for the common person's daily existence (most of who would have no idea what we are even talking about).

    Thanks for your great essays.

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    1. I take it that you are the same “Anonymous” that posted the thoughtful reply to “The Legacy of Group Thinking.” In my response to your Comment (1) there, I said that I detected a hidden premise that Rorty wants us to reject. I find this premise at work again, particularly in your 3-point summary of Rorty’s position on representationalism and liberalism. What it does, I think, is color your articulation of his position in a way that leads you astray in assessing the consequences of Rorty’s position. Or at least, what Rorty would’ve thought about the assessment from his position. The earlier hidden premise was about the inference from “there’s no ultimate justification” to “then there’s no way to justify” (or beliefs are, as you put it there, “unjustifiable”). I find the coloring in point (1) when you say “simply decide”—this sounds like decisionism, which Rorty has no wish to articulate. We don’t “just decide,” as if we had no reason other than our contingent beliefs. We have no other reasons than our contingent beliefs, but what other reasons were we supposed to have? That’s the way the riposte has to go, because the implicit “other” that the “simply” and “just” seem to conjure is a Platonic foundation. If one accepts Rorty’s sense of the contingency of belief, then our contingent beliefs are, and always were, our reasons, and they make us as rational and reasonable as before. You make “simply decide and agree” sound easy, which Rorty does not mean to suggest. It’s as hard as it was before to convince people to not be cruel, but what we won’t do now, because we’ve become nonrepresentationalists, is waste effort on trying to justify our avoidance of cruelty by going on the wild goose chase of searching for Plato’s “land beyond hypotheses,” like some El Dorado that will make the job of convincing easy.

      You do get the bit about wasting effort basically right in (1), and draw the right conclusions (as I will get to shortly), but this is why I’m trying to locate the coloring—because your handle on those conclusions is different than Rorty or I. In (2), for example, the coloring is in “do actually hold their beliefs strongly”—it’s true, but your use of “strength” rather than “do actually hold their beliefs for good reasons” implies, again, that this strength is not rational, that it is an illegitimate strength, like dogmatism without explanation. Knowing about the contingency of our reasons does not change the strength of those reasons as they grip our mind. People used to think so, but that was because they were gripped by the belief in PlatoLand. And in fact (and this is where Rorty misleads a bit in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and CIS), being aware of the contingency of our belief in PlatoLand does itself (or should itself do) nothing to loosen the grip. It’s this latter suggestion, which I think we can find in Rorty, that I think gives entitlement to your assessment about nonrepresentationalism leading to the “same basic problem” as representationalism, and this being a blindspot in Rorty. (Because, ultimately, it is the same basic problem, as you cogently show: convincing people not to be cruel.)

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      It should be clear, now, what I think about the blindspot: he’s usually aware of it. Or, to put it another way, Rorty didn’t mean to suggest that the problem changed, so much as that one of the ways in which we tried to solve the problem is hopeless (i.e. finding an indubitable foundation to base our beliefs upon). The only sense in which Rorty thought nonrepresentationalism would help liberalism was in the sense of wasted effort—we would stop wasting time going down Platonic cul-de-sacs. And this is why he described philosophy as long-term cultural politics (as I discussed it in “Legacy, Part III”). In the short-term, he didn’t think it would have an effect on political debate—but maybe (maybe, he often hedged) it might have a good effect down the road. (Consider: Rorty once said that Achieving Our Country, on the other hand, wasn’t philosophy.) If it’s hard to see what effect that is, as your “Nothing Rorty says about theories of knowledge, language, etc makes any difference” suggests, then that’s because you forget that people have tried to convince others not to be cruel by invoking foundations and essences and stuff. (Take those “self-evident truths” Americans love.) It’s not that Rorty’s philosophical work makes no difference, it’s just that it makes little difference—in the short-term. But why shouldn’t that be difference enough? James asked, “What’s the difference that makes a difference?” not “What’s the difference that makes a huge difference?”

      As you say, it’s all in “the real-life nitty-gritty of daily life and interactions”—what you forget, maybe though, is that philosophers are real people, too, and people say things in the nitty-gritty that sound philosophical. The sound of philosophy is abstract. I think I am far better prepared, because of my reading life, to handle abstract discussion of the appeal to God’s authority, for example. That does happen in real life, from real people, trying to articulate as honestly and sincerely as they can why they believe and do the things they say and do. Such an appeal, for a typical secular person, might be just a conversation-stopper. What does one say to that, if one doesn’t believe in God, and so can’t permit an appeal to a divine authority? I know how to direct the conversation to ground where we can talk about what that appeal entails (e.g., an undistorted knowledge of having correctly heard His authoritative voice).

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      And I bet you are better at this than most people, too. It feels like your balloon of philosophy has been deflated, but all I think that means is that you need to have a different sense of what that balloon can do for you. And has done, I might add, since even if you were looking for direction from philosophy, and didn’t find it, what you clearly found was a skill and vocabulary for talking about these kinds of hopes—and that’s all that philosophy (or anything else) really ever offered, even if “it” (read: Plato) promised so much more. I think you are right that my description of holism, and even more the reasons I would articulate as to why one should accept holism, “makes it all seem like theories and discussion for the great halls of academic philosophy and not for the common person’s daily existence (most of who would have no idea what we are even talking about).” But that’s, you might say, why I keep this blog, what the “Friday experiment” is all about in some ways. Amateur philosophy, which I think a lot about, like what it is or for, might be that liminal space between the Great Halls and daily existence. And what does being in that space mean? Well, for one it’s about messaging, so that if you’re trying to communicate to “the common person,” you’d say “halfway point” not la-dee-da “liminal space,” which hardly anyone would understand. My egotistical “I” in the previous paragraph isn’t meant to denigrate typical real people, because one of the lessons I learned from Rorty is to be rightfully suspicious of claims of authority derived from philosophical acuity. To understand, as he put it once, that “democracy has priority over philosophy” is to understand the radical nature of democracy on our understanding of knowledge and truth. And that partly came out in his own estimation of his worth in the conversation. When you say his project seems like a “wrong path” and that his “half-hearted solution seem[s] hopelessly weak and misdirected,” I think you’re displaying what Stanley Fish described as “anti-foundationalist theory hope”—the hope that anti-Platonism of the kind Rorty purveyed would be more powerful than it is. In the latter part of his career, Rorty would say that he talks about philosophy a lot, still, pretty much only because it’s the thing he knows. He said once, somewhere, that if he had to do it all over again, he would’ve majored in history, because he wouldn’t really have written his books any differently. At the same time, he says somewhere else that if he hadn’t gone into philosophy, he wouldn’t have understood Wilfrid Sellars and Donald Davidson, and that would’ve sucked (obviously a paraphrase of the mandarin Rorty).

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      My sense of it is that he was doing what he could with the skills and abilities he had, and that’s all we can really ask of anyone. He talked about philosophical holism because that was, and is, an important point to make and persuade people of in the small area of the world he worked in. And one reason he thought it was important to make is to dispel “theory hope.” He said in an interview, “There are no rules for which beliefs you sacrifice in order to accommodate other beliefs, or which desires you change to accommodate changed beliefs. Because there aren’t any rules, there aren’t any methods you can study in order to improve the way you achieve equilibrium. The whole idea of studying how belief is changed is pretty hopeless. It’s just too holistic a process to be an appropriate topic of study” (TCF 121). This strikes me as a little different than how Fish swears off the project in his chapter “Beliefs about Belief” in The Trouble with Principle, where he says something very close to “none of it makes any difference,” but I would put it this way: while holism swears off a grand epistemological project of studying globally how belief is changed, it does not swear off the local projects of studying how we change beliefs, of the hows we actually employ to persuade people. For this, I think, there is still much to be said, but for Rorty’s part, my suspicion is that he felt he was just too old to break into what are already up-and-running fields of study.

      I want to thank you again for the thought and generosity you’ve put into my writing. I’ll admit that I had no idea where you pulled that definition of holism of mine, and had to google my own site for it. The fact that it was from an essay, “Narrative and Making Sense,” quite remote in time and space from these most recent essays you’ve commented on shows that you have the curiosity and sense of depth of a true scholar, whatever your occupation. I gave my students this semester the option of writing their research paper on Robert Pirsig because his corpus is so small, and that the experience of reading all of a person, and then writing about them, is a unique intellectual experience. I now feel, in some way, the pleasant experience of being on the receiving end of that attention. Thank you for that.

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  3. I take it that you are the same “Anonymous” that posted the thoughtful reply to “The Legacy of Group Thinking.” In my response to your Comment (1) there, I said that I detected a hidden premise that Rorty wants us to reject. I find this premise at work again, particularly in your 3-point summary of Rorty’s position on representationalism and liberalism. What it does, I think, is color your articulation of his position in a way that leads you astray in assessing the consequences of Rorty’s position. Or at least, what Rorty would’ve thought about the assessment from his position. The earlier hidden premise was about the inference from “there’s no ultimate justification” to “then there’s no way to justify” (or beliefs are, as you put it there, “unjustifiable”). I find the coloring in point (1) when you say “simply decide”—this sounds like decisionism, which Rorty has no wish to articulate. We don’t “just decide,” as if we had no reason other than our contingent beliefs. We have no other reasons than our contingent beliefs, but what other reasons were we supposed to have? That’s the way the riposte has to go, because the implicit “other” that the “simply” and “just” seem to conjure is a Platonic foundation. If one accepts Rorty’s sense of the contingency of belief, then our contingent beliefs are, and always were, our reasons, and they make us as rational and reasonable as before.

    ***Most of your other comments in these two threads quickly allowed me to understand and see where my loose strings were and where I had gone astray and where we were in agreement, but this paragraph has been almost impossible for me to take in and reply to. I’ve gone round and round in about 5-6 different angles to try to parse it and I just can’t seem to do it. Here are some of my thoughts so far:

    ***”“there’s no ultimate justification” to “then there’s no way to justify”” This isn’t what I actually think and what you have said above is what I actually believe, but I think you have accurately pointed out that I failed to correctly apply those beliefs to the situation in the other thread? I think I maintained the larger viewpoint of no foundations for cultural beliefs when describing the local arguments as propaganda and that is where I messed up? Your comments on argument vs propaganda in the other reply describe this error well.

    ***““simply” and “just” seem to conjure a Platonic foundation” That wasn’t my intent. I think I just misunderstood Rorty as suggesting that without representationalism it would somehow be easier to get people to agree because they wouldn’t hold their beliefs so firmly? That maybe people would see their beliefs more like preferences than absolutes. That if they saw their beliefs as contingent that they would somehow be more willing to agree to his liberalism? (You have clarified that this is not his point several times in your further comments and that in fact agreement is still just as difficult to achieve) But I’m not sure what seeing nonrepresentaionalism as making agreement easier (my error) has to do with “simply” and “just” conjuring Platonic foundations?

    You make “simply decide and agree” sound easy, which Rorty does not mean to suggest. It’s as hard as it was before to convince people to not be cruel, but what we won’t do now, because we’ve become nonrepresentationalists, is waste effort on trying to justify our avoidance of cruelty by going on the wild goose chase of searching for Plato’s “land beyond hypotheses,” like some El Dorado that will make the job of convincing easy.

    ***Ah, that helps to clarify his goal, I had clearly mistaken his point here.

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    You do get the bit about wasting effort basically right in (1), and draw the right conclusions (as I will get to shortly), but this is why I’m trying to locate the coloring—because your handle on those conclusions is different than Rorty or I. In (2), for example, the coloring is in “do actually hold their beliefs strongly”—it’s true, but your use of “strength” rather than “do actually hold their beliefs for good reasons” implies, again, that this strength is not rational, that it is an illegitimate strength, like dogmatism without explanation. Knowing about the contingency of our reasons does not change the strength of those reasons as they grip our mind. People used to think so, but that was because they were gripped by the belief in PlatoLand. And in fact (and this is where Rorty misleads a bit in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and CIS), being aware of the contingency of our belief in PlatoLand does itself (or should itself do) nothing to loosen the grip. It’s this latter suggestion, which I think we can find in Rorty, that I think gives entitlement to your assessment about nonrepresentationalism leading to the “same basic problem” as representationalism, and this being a blindspot in Rorty. (Because, ultimately, it is the same basic problem, as you cogently show: convincing people not to be cruel.)

    ***“your use of “strength” rather than “do actually hold their beliefs for good reasons” implies, again, that this strength is not rational, that it is an illegitimate strength, like dogmatism without explanation.” But isn’t this the “socialization” that Rorty speaks of? We have all these words that form a final vocabulary that we basically take for granted and which very few people ever even consider as to why they believe them? Do people need to justify these beliefs (or premises as we called them in the other thread)? What about across cultures? Why not just take them at face value? (As we discuss in the other thread, perhaps when there are conflicts about these premises, THEN is would be a good time to give reasons for these premises in the hopes of moving forward?)

    ***Also, why is dogmatism inherently bad (“illegitimate”)? If I say I believe in the bible because it’s the truth and then live my life according to it precepts, is that a “wrong” (illegitimate) way to live my life?

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    It should be clear, now, what I think about the blindspot: he’s usually aware of it. Or, to put it another way, Rorty didn’t mean to suggest that the problem changed, so much as that one of the ways in which we tried to solve the problem is hopeless (i.e. finding an indubitable foundation to base our beliefs upon). The only sense in which Rorty thought nonrepresentationalism would help liberalism was in the sense of wasted effort—we would stop wasting time going down Platonic cul-de-sacs. (**OK?) And this is why he described philosophy as long-term cultural politics (as I discussed it in “Legacy, Part III”). In the short-term, he didn’t think it would have an effect on political debate—but maybe (maybe, he often hedged) it might have a good effect down the road. (Consider: Rorty once said that Achieving Our Country, on the other hand, wasn’t philosophy.) If it’s hard to see what effect that is, as your “Nothing Rorty says about theories of knowledge, language, etc makes any difference” suggests, then that’s because you forget that people have tried to convince others not to be cruel by invoking foundations and essences and stuff. (Take those “self-evident truths” Americans love.) It’s not that Rorty’s philosophical work makes no difference, it’s just that it makes little difference—in the short-term. But why shouldn’t that be difference enough? James asked, “What’s the difference that makes a difference?” not “What’s the difference that makes a huge difference?”

    ***That all sounds reasonable enough. I guess a suggestion and rationale for trying something different IS the best that can be done if you want something different. Obviously doing the same will just continue to lead to the same and he is trying to help us see that.

    As you say, it’s all in “the real-life nitty-gritty of daily life and interactions”—what you forget, maybe though, is that philosophers are real people, too, and people say things in the nitty-gritty that sound philosophical. The sound of philosophy is abstract. I think I am far better prepared, because of my reading life, to handle abstract discussion of the appeal to God’s authority, for example. That does happen in real life, from real people, trying to articulate as honestly and sincerely as they can why they believe and do the things they say and do. Such an appeal, for a typical secular person, might be just a conversation-stopper. What does one say to that, if one doesn’t believe in God, and so can’t permit an appeal to a divine authority? I know how to direct the conversation to ground where we can talk about what that appeal entails (e.g., an undistorted knowledge of having correctly heard His authoritative voice).

    ***OK, that’s also fair enough. I have honestly never had those kinds of conversations in the real world and the few times I’ve even brought that stuff up people seem to freak out about it and just stick to their guns (ie that’s what I believe because that’s what I believe).

    ***“trying to articulate as honestly and sincerely as they can why they believe and do the things they say and do”. As I said above, is this necessary in the normal course of daily life? Why not just accept people’s beliefs at face value? Are you referring to a context in which there is conflict that needs resolution?

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    And I bet you are better at this than most people, too. It feels like your balloon of philosophy has been deflated, but all I think that means is that you need to have a different sense of what that balloon can do for you. And has done, I might add, since even if you were looking for direction from philosophy, and didn’t find it, what you clearly found was a skill and vocabulary for talking about these kinds of hopes—and that’s all that philosophy (or anything else) really ever offered, even if “it” (read: Plato) promised so much more. I think you are right that my description of holism, and even more the reasons I would articulate as to why one should accept holism, “makes it all seem like theories and discussion for the great halls of academic philosophy and not for the common person’s daily existence (most of who would have no idea what we are even talking about).” But that’s, you might say, why I keep this blog, what the “Friday experiment” is all about in some ways. Amateur philosophy, which I think a lot about, like what it is or for, might be that liminal space between the Great Halls and daily existence. And what does being in that space mean? Well, for one it’s about messaging, so that if you’re trying to communicate to “the common person,” you’d say “halfway point” not la-dee-da “liminal space,” which hardly anyone would understand. My egotistical “I” in the previous paragraph isn’t meant to denigrate typical real people, because one of the lessons I learned from Rorty is to be rightfully suspicious of claims of authority derived from philosophical acuity. To understand, as he put it once, that “democracy has priority over philosophy” is to understand the radical nature of democracy on our understanding of knowledge and truth. And that partly came out in his own estimation of his worth in the conversation. When you say his project seems like a “wrong path” and that his “half-hearted solution seem[s] hopelessly weak and misdirected,” I think you’re displaying what Stanley Fish described as “anti-foundationalist theory hope”—the hope that anti-Platonism of the kind Rorty purveyed would be more powerful than it is. In the latter part of his career, Rorty would say that he talks about philosophy a lot, still, pretty much only because it’s the thing he knows. He said once, somewhere, that if he had to do it all over again, he would’ve majored in history, because he wouldn’t really have written his books any differently. At the same time, he says somewhere else that if he hadn’t gone into philosophy, he wouldn’t have understood Wilfrid Sellars and Donald Davidson, and that would’ve sucked (obviously a paraphrase of the mandarin Rorty).

    ***“You need to have a different sense of what that balloon can do for you”; “that’s all that philosophy (or anything else) really ever offered, even if “it” (read: Plato) promised so much more”; “anti-foundationalist theory hope” These statements are all really hitting-the-nail-on-the-head for me. As you say however, I’ve come too far with these new tools to abandon them, they’ve become very deeply intertwined with who I am and how I interact with other people. “That’s, you might say, why I keep this blog,” and just as you had hoped, here we are, a professional connecting with an amateur in the hopes of bringing these things into the “real world.” I would say you have succeed with me.

    ***I think you are also right, here and in the next paragraph, that I shouldn’t be too hard on Rorty, because as you say he was doing the best with what he had. It would be unfair to have expected him to begin working in a whole new field in an area far distant from his expertise and interests.

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    My sense of it is that he was doing what he could with the skills and abilities he had, and that’s all we can really ask of anyone. He talked about philosophical holism because that was, and is, an important point to make and persuade people of in the small area of the world he worked in. And one reason he thought it was important to make is to dispel “theory hope.” He said in an interview, “There are no rules for which beliefs you sacrifice in order to accommodate other beliefs, or which desires you change to accommodate changed beliefs. Because there aren’t any rules, there aren’t any methods you can study in order to improve the way you achieve equilibrium. The whole idea of studying how belief is changed is pretty hopeless. It’s just too holistic a process to be an appropriate topic of study” (TCF 121). This strikes me as a little different than how Fish swears off the project in his chapter “Beliefs about Belief” in The Trouble with Principle, where he says something very close to “none of it makes any difference,” but I would put it this way: while holism swears off a grand epistemological project of studying globally how belief is changed, it does not swear off the local projects of studying how we change beliefs, of the hows we actually employ to persuade people. For this, I think, there is still much to be said, but for Rorty’s part, my suspicion is that he felt he was just too old to break into what are already up-and-running fields of study.

    ***Again, I really like this belief of getting rid of the idea of “theory-hope” and I see how it ties into the radical democracy idea too (“suspicious of claims of authority derived from philosophical acuity” and ““democracy has priority over philosophy” is to understand the radical nature of democracy on our understanding of knowledge and truth.”) Society is built from not from these top down philosophical ideals, but from the bottom-up interactions of people on a daily basis.

    ***“There are no rules for which beliefs you sacrifice in order to accommodate other beliefs, or which desires you change to accommodate changed beliefs. Because there aren’t any rules, there aren’t any methods you can study in order to improve the way you achieve equilibrium. The whole idea of studying how belief is changed is pretty hopeless. It’s just too holistic a process to be an appropriate topic of study” That’s a great quote, thanks for sharing it. It gives me much more insight into his thinking, especially why I found his approach to change wanting.

    I want to thank you again for the thought and generosity you’ve put into my writing. I’ll admit that I had no idea where you pulled that definition of holism of mine, and had to google my own site for it. The fact that it was from an essay, “Narrative and Making Sense,” quite remote in time and space from these most recent essays you’ve commented on shows that you have the curiosity and sense of depth of a true scholar, whatever your occupation. I gave my students this semester the option of writing their research paper on Robert Pirsig because his corpus is so small, and that the experience of reading all of a person, and then writing about them, is a unique intellectual experience. I now feel, in some way, the pleasant experience of being on the receiving end of that attention. Thank you for that.

    *** Haha, you’re welcome?! I wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t be commenting if your essays weren’t so well written and interesting. I certainly am enjoying myself here, but I really feel that it is I who should be thanking you! We amateurs don’t have access to these kinds of discussions and no way to try out our ideas and understandings. Your outstanding writings and replies have provided that opportunity in many ways. I am looking forward to delving more deeply into many of your other essays and any future ones you care to write.

    continued...

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  8. Thanks for the conversation,
    Nathan

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  9. Matt,

    PS

    "But I’m not sure what seeing nonrepresentaionalism as making agreement easier (my error) has to do with “simply” and “just” conjuring Platonic foundations?"

    I have been reading several sections from Fish's works on "theory hope" (what I can find on amazon and google previews) and I now see what you mean here. Saying "simply" or "just" suggests that someone can step outside of their contingent beliefs and make a choice ("hopefully" for the better) about what to believe; this suggestion also includes the hidden assumption that the choice is based on a knowable external or independent premise (ie something beyond our contingencies aka something like a Platonic foundation) defining what is in fact the "better" belief.

    This whole “theory hope” concept might be the most important thing I take away from these discussions. As I mentioned before, I thought I wasn’t able to understand and implement the revolutionary aspects of antifoundationalism/nonrepresentaionalism because I wasn’t understanding antifoundationalism/nonrepresentaionalism itself well enough. Ironically, now (assuming I'm right) that I think I really do understand antifoundationalism/nonrepresentaionalism, I no longer see it as revolutionary in the sense I meant earlier :) Thanks for wading so far into these waters with me!!

    Nathan

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    1. Hi Nathan:

      We’ve spiraled the conversation in various ways, like rivulets spilling out madly and becoming more distant from their easily-forgotten source. I say that because I want to confirm, answer, and comment on specific points and questions you’ve made, but I don’t want to recapitulate the context that reminds us of where the point/question came from. I’ll trust that we’ll remind ourselves by reading back as need be as we go along.

      On the first paragraph, you said you had trouble digesting it, and it might be partly because of what we might call the rhetoric of the hidden premise—it’s a diagnostic instrument that can lead its user (me) to attribute views and positions the diagnosee (you) doesn’t agree with. At its best, the instrument is meant merely to make explicit through hypothesis what might be happening in order to elicit confirmation or re-explanation from the interlocutor (you). At its worst, it can pigeonhole the interlocutor and force upon them consequences and desires and views that they are then held accountable for. With my sometimes poor use of this device in mind, I offer the following responses:

      (1) “I think I maintained the larger viewpoint of no foundations for cultural beliefs when describing the local arguments as propaganda and that is where I messed up?” Yes, I think this is what I meant: that there aren’t consequences from the larger, global antifoundationalism point for the local arguments we use in specific debates/contexts.

      (2) “I think I just misunderstood Rorty as suggesting that without representationalism it would somehow be easier to get people to agree because they wouldn’t hold their beliefs so firmly?” I do want to make clear that I think Rorty helped in misleading you here. Sometimes, I think, he got close to such suggestions. It’s this firm/light distinction in how we “hold our beliefs” that I think liberals like Rorty needed to be more explicit about rejecting. You can certainly find it in others, and it’s what Fish diagnosed as antifoundationalist theory hope.

      (3) “But I’m not sure what seeing nonrepresentaionalism as making agreement easier (my error) has to do with ‘simply’ and ‘just’ conjuring Platonic foundations?” This is a function of that diagnostic rhetoric I mentioned, and I should’ve been more careful in speaking, about what those words might or could imply, rather than there being anything necessary about it. This is what I meant: “simply” or “just” as rhetorical qualifications—as in “just decide” as opposed to just “decide”—are used to imply alternatives that are being pushed aside or ignored. (Look at the way I used “just” between the dashes to offset decide from just decide.) In our discussion, then, you seemed to be implying an alternative to deciding—“don’t worry about foundations, simply decide.” In the latter formulation, notice, we are being told that a search for foundations is an option, but we should just push that aside and simply decide. (And this makes perfect sense of the idea of foundationalism, because foundations don’t “help” decisions, they compel you.) But Rorty is suggesting that if we are nonrepresentationalists, then it was never an option, so the sound of defeatism in the “simply” needs to be taken away. And it needs to be because philosophers often latch onto it to suggest that Rorty is leaving a necessary cultural task from lack of determination, because (like a whiner) it’s too difficult. That’s why I jumped on that word—because in the background is the rhetorical battle antirepresentationalists are still fighting over the soul of philosophy, and what it’s for. (It’s for the same rhetorical reasons that I would jump on “preferences” in your “maybe people would see their beliefs more like preferences than absolutes”—talking about ethical stances as “preferences” is part of the (losing) rhetoric of emotivism, an ethical theory Rorty wants no truck with.)

      Continued…

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    2. …continued

      (4) “But isn’t [my ‘dogmatism without explanation’] the ‘socialization’ that Rorty speaks of? . . . Also, why is dogmatism inherently bad?” This was a good series of rhetorical questions, and so we need to distinguish between (A) the childhood socialization of a final vocabulary, wherein we are sometimes given no explanations (or maybe, they evaporate through poor memory but leave the residue of belief) and (B) the adult conversation of humankind, wherein we are not always required to have a reason handy but that upon reflection we should be able to construct one (even if it is circular). I think these two stages cover everything you were suggesting should be present (and that Rorty and I would agree). If we take dogmatism to be “beliefs taken for granted”—yes, all of us take many beliefs for granted (though some more than others), and there’s nothing wrong with that in a general way. If we take dogmatism to be “beliefs taken at face value”—yes, beliefs should be allowed to be taken at face value until they are challenged, as when conflicts happen, and that would be a good time to be forced to give reasons. If we take dogmatism to be “a basic choice about how to live one’s life”—yes, this makes “dogmatism” synonymous with what Rorty meant by “final” in “final vocabulary.” All I guess I meant by “dogmatism without explanation” is the image of a person who refuses to explain themselves in what Milton called a “free and open encounter,” even after a legitimate challenge has been posed by an interlocutor. This is someone who has left the “conversation,” and it’s just about the only spin on “dogmatism” Rortyans can countenance, as well, I think, as a necessary norm to endorse. Saying that, though, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t notice all the criteria that are still fraught in the real world: not all encounters are free or open (power dynamics are the most obvious infringement), and not all challenges are legitimate, and worst of all, who “decides” when any of those criteria are fulfilled? In other words, even with the norm in place, applying it is as fraught with challenge and debate as any other thing. Because there are, after all, legitimate withholdings—like withholding the names of whistleblowers—and other forms of leaving the conversation. Are you dogmatic, or just tired of debating with this person? I take it we agree on all these things, and it's a good thing to be precise about. If you want a technical discussion of Brandom’s philosophy of language that eventuates in some considerations that bear on the preceding, as well as a description of his “default and challenge structure of entitlement” that undergirds at an abstract level these norms, you might check out my (not always clear) “On the Asymmetry between Practical and Doxastic Discursive Commitments.”

      continued…

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    3. …continued

      (5) “ As I said above, is [‘trying to articulate as honestly and sincerely as they can why they believe’] necessary in the normal course of daily life? Why not just accept people’s beliefs at face value? Are you referring to a context in which there is conflict that needs resolution?” Yes, I am thinking of special contexts, though not all of them have conflict-resolution at its heart. For example, if you’re getting to know someone (for whatever reason), you might not be aiming for resolution, but you do want to know what they really think. Sometimes, it’s from curiosity. Sometimes, maybe we should call it a need to respect, as when we want to respect a person’s views even if we disagree. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s part of a larger persuasive aim—if you hear yourself out loud, you might change your own mind. Or, a pedagogical aim—if I hear more about other people, I might learn things about different kinds of patterns of existence that I can put to use. We could probably go on in this vein, specifying the myriad reasons we might request honest and sincere self-accounting. (I can think of many moments as an undergrad when such requests, usually late at night, had no doubt, at least vaguely, a-hem, more ulterior motives.) And the more we do go on specifying these “special contexts,” I think the more we might wonder just how special they are from the “normal course of daily life.” We don’t, nor should have to, do it all the time, but . . .

      (6) “a professional connecting with an amateur”—I assume you meant me as the professional? I am no professional philosopher, nor, really, a professional literary critic. I don’t just protest for the sake of my own self-image, or because of a technicality (like not being paid for doing philosophy), or because I’m being modest, or because I’m protesting too much (as in like, “Oh, do go on”). I protest because I think there’s something about philosophy, in particular, or maybe all humanities, where the profession gets in the way of itself by isolating itself from people outside academia—but what are the humanities for except for humanity? I think it’s important, not just for my image, but that as a fact I am an autodidact when it comes to professional philosophy. Because that means anyone interested can do it; it means the profession needn’t be so isolationist; it means I couldn’t possibly be alone, since I find nothing special about myself. I am one amateur connecting with another, neither of us having any special authority over the other, each articulating as honestly and sincerely as they can why they think the things they do.

      (7) “Society is built from not from these top down philosophical ideals, but from the bottom-up interactions of people on a daily basis.” Well put. That is the ultimate injustice that Plato did—philosophers are not kings, and they (like all people who are too smart for their own good) need to stop behaving like it. We can’t shunt the important operation of “ideals” in our lives, but we need to stop being pretentious about it. (“Pretention” was an important piece of Rorty’s antiprofessional rhetoric.)

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  10. Matt,

    Thank you for such a wonderful discussion! Your comments have cleared up many years of confusion I've had about these topics and added a lot more depth to my understanding, not to mention bringing a greater sense of peace to my mind.

    Thanks again,
    Nathan

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