Raiders of the Lost Distinction: Richard Rorty and the Search for the Last Dichotomy
[FROM: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 53, No. 1, 1993, pp. 195-214.]
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put
darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and shrewd in their own sight! (Isaiah, 5:20-1)
Here are three new books by Richard Rorty, each graced with his full-color portrait -- quizzical smile, distinguished white hair, open-collared blue shirt and casual white sport jacket against a background of lush green leaves and vermilion blossoms. Mountain laurel, I think. Springtime in Virginia. A lovely day for a stroll and a chat. There's a picture of Rorty on the back of Malachowski's anthology, too, but it's the old, serious, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (PMN) Rorty, in black-and-white -- earnest expression, dark-rimmed spectacles, necktie, and tweed, of all things. A professor's outfit. The sort of thing you might put on if you were planning to give arguments. How passé!
To fend off ... suspicions [of relativism, irrationalism, and immorality], I need to argue that
the distinctions between absolutism and relativism, between
rationality and irrationality, and between morality and expediency are obsolete and clumsy tools -- remnants of a vocabulary we should try to replace. But
"argument" is not the right word. For on my account of intellectual progress as the literalization of selected metaphors, rebutting objections to one's
redescriptions of some things will be largely a matter of redescribing other things, trying to outflank the objections by enlarging the scope of one's favorite
metaphors. So my strategy will be to try to make the vocabulary in which these objections are phrased look bad, thereby changing the subject, rather than
granting the objector his choice of weapons and terrain by meeting his criticisms head on. (CIS, 44)
Rorty thus presents himself as making "terminological suggestions" (CIS, 54-5) -- to his talk of the "literalization of selected metaphors" we shall return later -- but what's being suggested turns out to be nothing less than the abandonment of all traditional normative critical vocabularies (concepts, distinctions), whether semantic, epistemological, or moral. When such a torrent of bathwater hits the pavement, it's easy enough to overlook the occasional discarded baby that goes floating by, but one can't help but think that such suggestions are, inter alia , fortuitously self-serving. For what's a poor would-be critic to do? He can hardly accept Rorty's friendly "suggestion" that he abandon all his critical intellectual tools -- provisionally?, "for the sake of argument"? -- and then proceed to criticize that suggestion. His only honest choice is to refuse to play Rorty's game from the beginning. But then, of course, he will face charges of using "obsolete and clumsy tools", of being stodgy, old-fashioned, "Whiggish", priest-ridden, or "merely quaint" (CIS, 45). That's a lose-lose scenario, if I ever saw one. So perhaps a would-be critic is better off playing Rorty's game from the beginning. Perhaps he should stop being such a metaphysician and become an ironist !
The metaphysician thinks that there is an overriding intellectual duty to present arguments for
one's controversial views -- arguments which will start from
relatively uncontroversial premises. The ironist thinks that such arguments -- logical arguments -- are all very well in their way, and useful as expository
devices, but in the end not much more than ways of getting people to change their practices without admitting they have done so. The ironist's preferred
form of argument is dialectical in the sense that she takes the unit of persuasion to be a vocabulary rather than a proposition. Her method is redescription
rather than inference. ... So the ironist thinks of logic as ancillary to dialectic, whereas the metaphysician thinks of dialectic as a species of rhetoric, which in
turn is a shoddy substitute for logic. (CIS, 78)
"The metaphysician" here is one of Rorty's several new caricatures. As everyone who's read PMN will recall, Rorty is a marvelous philosophical caricaturist. He can draw a picture of Kant that makes him look just like Descartes. Now that's talent! But then, in PMN, philosophy was epistemology and epistemology was foundationalism. Now, in CIS, philosophy is metaphysics and metaphysics is essentialism ... and worse. No matter. Kant still looks just like Descartes .
This "metaphysician" is a "phallogocentric" power freak whom Rorty discovers lurking around every corner in the history of philosophy. His piously professed goal in life is "to get in touch with something like Being, or the Good, or Truth, or Reality -- something large and powerful which we have a duty to apprehend correctly". (EHO, 27) Both "Socratism" and Christianity -- and all their latter day essentialist cousins, in-laws, and step-children -- are "expressions of the need to be overwhelmed by something, to have beliefs forced upon you (by conclusive evidence, rational conviction, ... or by Omnipotence re-creating you ....)". But we sophisticated post-Freudians see through such pious pretence. "[This] desire to be overwhelmed is just a sublimated form of the urge to share in the power of anything strong enough to overwhelm you" (EHO, 31) And we sophisticated post-Nietzscheans can then easily recognize our old macho friend, the Will to Power, at his inexorable unprincipled work behind the scenes. Aha! Unmasked! We kneel to dominate. Good old sublimation -- it gets you coming and going.
Baste the pragmatist goose in the same psychological sauce as the essentialist gander and (surprise!) Rorty, too, wants to ally himself with "something large and powerful". Sure he does. But he's a practical fellow. He knows where the grant money lies and who's got a budget line for invited speakers. "A more up-to-date word for what I have been calling 'dialectic' would be 'literary criticism'". (CIS, 79) Nowadays, of course, literary criticism is "the presiding intellectual discipline". (CIS, 83) When the chips are down, then -- I almost wrote "in the last analysis". Silly me. -- philosophy (= metaphysics = essentialism) is "just one more literary genre", "the attempt to apply and develop a particular antecedently chosen final vocabulary -- one which revolves around the appearance-reality distinction" (CIS, 76), "a genre which had a distinguished career and an important historical function but which now survives largely in the form of self-parody". (EHO, 105)
This explains something that a causal stroller through Rorty's works might just find annoying. Rorty is the great mentioner. He doesn't just drop names; he sprays them, scatters them, hurls them about. The "Index of Names" for CIS, for example, contains 191 entries, from Adorno to Zola. (ORT cites 225 names; EHO, 242!) Discounting blank pages and section divisions, the text of CIS itself encompasses 190 pages. There may be isolated pages on which no-one is mentioned, but the norm is more along the lines of page 59, on which we find G.W.F. Hegel, Annette Baier, Stanley Fish, Jeffrey Stout, Charles Taylor, Bernard Williams, Michael Oakeshott, Wilfrid Sellars, and, in a footnote, a book by Raymond Geuss. Rorty has read an inordinate number of books. (Oh, the joys of a MacArthur Fellowship!) He mentions a nicely-assorted twenty or so in a footnote on page 143. But, then, reading an inordinate number of books, "placing books in the context of other books, figures in the context of other figures", is what an ironist does. (CIS, 80) It's a method.
This explains, too, Rorty's preferred metaphor for the leading relationship among selected texts. None of this macho-bonding logico-epistemic "support" business. Not "gives further reasons" or "supplies additional evidence" or "adduces substantiating considerations". Texts chime with one another. Portrait of the ironist as a glockenspiel player.
What does it mean for one text to "chime with" another? Come to think of it, what does it mean to make the traditional vocabularies look bad? "[Anything] can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed ....", Rorty tells us. (CIS, 73) One can't help wondering what sort of goodness and badness is at stake. Inquiring minds want to know. Mr. Logos is at least fairly up front about such matters. His "badness" is internal inconsistency or incoherence. (Not: Her "badness". The logos, Rorty assures us, is a macho type.) But this isn't Mr. Logos speaking. The voice of Ms Zeitgeist is heard in the land. And what is she up to? If "the distinctions between absolutism and relativism, between rationality and irrationality, and between morality and expediency" all fall within the scope of what's getting aufgehoben this week, then why should a little inconsistency bother us? What's a little incoherence among friends? Her "badness" is going to have to be matter of style not of substance, e.g., making traditional vocabularies look "clumsy" or "quaint" or (let's be up front about it; we're all aesthetes here) ugly or just plain dull. (What's this? A distinction between style and substance? How clumsy. How quaint.)
Yeah, let's face it. Mr. Logos is a lousy rhetorician. Mr. Logos is just plain dull. All that plodding, systematic, principled, disciplined, step-by-step (lockstep-by-lockstep) thinking. Mr. Logos simply lacks imagination. Mr. Logos has no fantasy . But look who's playing glockenspiel for Ms Zeitgeist:
The later Derrida ... simply drops theory ... in favor of fantasizing about [his] predecessors,
playing with them, giving free rein to the trains of associations
they produce. There is no moral to these fantasies, nor any public (pedagogic or political) use to be made of them .... (CIS, 125)
"Such fantasizing," Rorty continues, "is the end product of ironist theorizing."
What is the good of writing [Derrida's] way? If one wants arguments which reach conclusions,
it is no good at all. As I have said already, there is nothing
propositional to be taken away from the experience of reading it .... (CIS, 135)
But if there's nothing propositional to take away from it, whence the confidence that there's anything communicable to take away from it? Whence the confidence that one is coming away from it with anything at all ? "It fills my head with all sorts of ideas," said Alice, "only I don't seem to be able to say what any of them are." (###) But Alice was talking about Jabberwocky, and Jabberwocky was, after all, intentionally nonsense. Transcripts of private trains of associations and idiosyncratic (occasionally erotic) fantasies are indeed sometimes of considerable (occasionally prurient) interest, but, traditionally, primarily to those therapeutically concerned with the identification and treatment of various pathologies.
Literature which does not connect with anything, which has no subject and no theme, which does
not have a moral tucked up its sleeve, which lacks a
dialectical context, is just babble. (EHO, 94)
Rorty's own suggestion is that we "avoid dissecting [Derrida's] writing along lines laid down by somebody else" and instead just "sit back and enjoy it -- wait to see what comfort or example it might offer us, whether it turns out to be relevant to our own attempts at autonomy". (CIS, 133) But if I'm looking for comfort or example or, especially, for writings to enjoy, then I'll continue to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon and Tom Robbins (although both are becoming rather disappointingly formulaic), and, for respite from the self-consciously postmodern, Toni Morrison and Graham Swift, Anne Tyler and John Irving, David Brin and William Gibson, and even David Lodge. It'll be a long time indeed before I get around to Derrida.
Derrida is one of the heroes of Rorty's recent work. Dewey and Davidson are the others. What Davidson and Dewey are about is antiessentialism, antirepresentationalism, and antirealism. Dewey is also about liberal democracy, social engineering, and the American experiment, but we'll get back to that later. (Hey, what happened to the question of method? Did it somehow get settled while everyone was looking the other way? Am I playing Rorty's game or am I not? Well, you tell me. It's not like it's the sort of game one plays according to rules, after all.)
Davidson comes on stage as the apostle of linguistic contingency. An essentialist representationalist realist, Rorty explains -- at chips-down time, they're all the same guy -- is someone who thinks that what natural science has been doing (and still is) is busily getting our schemes into increasingly better touch with the world's contents. He thinks, for example, that physicists have come to use 'atom' as they do because "there really are atoms out there which have caused themselves to be represented more or less accurately" and that microstructural physical explanation is more successful than, e.g., astrological explanation because "there are no planetary influences out there, whereas there really are atoms out there." (ORT, 5)
(What's this? "More successful"? Who are you kidding? You can hardly open a newspaper or magazine without running into a horoscope, but just try to find any "microstructural physical explanations" in Family Circle or USA Today. No way.)
Hey, chill out; let's talk about it. Mr. Logos indeed wants to say that it always makes sense to ask first how and then why one such story is more successful than the other. To the extent that Rorty parses 'successful' at all, it often comes out "useful for coping with the environment", but leaving aside what we're to understand under the rubric 'coping' -- e.g., whether an ability to construct nuclear weapons counts more or less than being able to answer the question "What's your sign?" asked in a singles bar (Mine is "yield") -- Mr. Logos wants to know what's meant here by 'the environment'. On any parsing that he can understand, "the environment" includes atoms and nuclear weapons and singles bars but does not include planetary influences. That's why, he says, something counts as "finding out more about atoms", while nothing counts as "finding out more about planetary influences".
Rorty meanwhile manages a transition from the pair 'atoms'-'planetary influences' to the pair 'quark'-'foundation grant', with the surprising announcement that a realist account of the differential success of microphysical and astrological theories requires something amounting to
... the notion that the reality referred to by "quark" was "determinate"
before the word "quark" came along (whereas that referred to by, for example,
"foundation grant" only jelled once the relevant social practices emerged). (ORT, 5)
Mr. Logos has no idea what to make of this. What he says is that, if it's correct to say that our environment includes both quarks and foundation grants, it is surely also correct to say that there were quarks, but no foundation grants, even before there were any social animals, much less social practices. And, he continues, that it is correct to say that our environment includes both quarks and foundation grants marks a difference between Rorty's two contrasts, for it is not similarly correct to say that our environment includes both atoms and planetary influences.
Antirepresentationalists, Rorty tells us, see no way to explain what "determinate" means in such remarks "except by chanting one of a number of equally baffling words", and thus regard a realist's use of the term as "merely incantatory". Nowadays even Mr. Logos agrees that there's no way to explain what any words mean without using other words; he agrees, that is, that "explaining what words mean" is an activity that takes place only within language. Reciting poems, telling stories, and chanting ritual incantations also take place only within language, but it does not follow that "explaining what words mean" is more appropriately assimilated to chanting incantations than to such other intra-linguistic activities as describing how a carburetor works, reporting the damage done by an earthquake, or recounting a recipe for hasty pudding.
In all of these cases, including the incantatory and the poetic, there's something that counts as getting it right and something that counts as getting it wrong. There is no God but Allah; Muhammad is His prophet; and it's the toves that were slithy and the borogroves that were mimsy, and not the other way around. But finding out these things doesn't take one outside of language; it takes one to texts. Finding out whether one has gotten a pudding recipe right does. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. (Wouldn't Jerry Fodor's Granny be proud!) If it's got lumps in it, then something non-linguistic has gone wrong. Or perhaps Rorty actually subscribes to the curious view that puddings, too, are texts. True, there seems to be a difference between the hard objects ("lumps") dealt with by cooks and chemists and the soft objects ("texts") dealt with by literary critics, but "the only interesting difference between texts and lumps is that we know how to form and defend hypotheses about the author's intentions in the one case but not in the other." (ORT, 87) On this reading, scientific realism is a misguided attempt to transfer "the kind of sympathetic knowledge we occasionally have of another person's state of mind" to our knowledge of lumps, that is, a misguided attempt to empathize with a pudding. Now there's a redescription guaranteed to make a traditional vocabulary look bad!
Rorty thinks of his rejection of the "whole cluster" of concepts "used to make us think we understand what 'the determinacy of reality' means" as akin to Quine's rejection of a family of interrelated concepts -- meaning, synonymy, necessity, rule, proposition -- which were "invoked to make us think that we understand what 'analytic' meant". (ORT, 6), but Rorty's reasons (if Rorty has reasons) can't be Quine's. Quine's claim was, at base, epistemological: There's nothing that counts as finding out whether two expressions are (cognitively) synonymous. There is "no fact of the matter". But he makes this claim within a context which acknowledges that other things can be found out, i.e., that there are cases in which there is a "fact of the matter". When push comes to shove (i.e., shortly after the chips go down), that is, Quine is playing normative epistemologist. His complaint is that claims of cognitive synonymy cannot satisfy the (epistemic) standards of objectivity characteristically satisfied by, e.g., the claims of a mature natural science. Be that as it may, it is clear enough that Quine's rejection of traditional "intentional" concepts draws on just the sorts of realist considerations which Rorty's antirepresentationalists propose to abandon.
What Rorty tells us is that antirepresentationalists dispense with the "realist" cluster of concepts,
... because they see no way of formulating an independent test of accuracy of representation -- of reference or correspondence to an "antecedently
determinate" reality -- no test distinct from the success which is supposedly explained by this accuracy. Representationalists offer us no way of deciding
whether a certain linguistic item is usefully deployed because it stands in these relations, or whether its utility is due to some factors which have nothing
to do with them .... (ORT, 6)
What Mr. Logos says here is that whether anything useful can be said about accounts of the "utility" of certain "linguistic items" in the terminology of 'representation', 'reference', 'correspondence', 'truth', and the like depends upon how we understand utility. Such philosophical tales characteristically have a telos in view, although they tend to differ mightily in the extent to which they're explicit about it. Rorty likes to keep his own conceptions of such a telos nicely vague and open textured. 'Coping' remains his favorite expression, although, as we've noted, it's never made terribly clear either what's being coped with or what (beyond mere survival) counts as successfully coping with it.
What Rorty thinks a realist needs for an "independent test" is (per impossible) a "God's-eye standpoint" (Putnam) or "view from nowhere" (Nagel), outside of all actual theories, languages, or conceptual schemes. (Theories, languages, vocabularies, conceptual schemes -- too many tedious distinctions. Lump them all together. For Rorty, philosophy is as homogeneous as creamy pudding.) And -- 'fess up, Mr. Logos -- it's certainly true that some or many or even most traditional realisms have been drawn up in ways that sure look like they presuppose the availability of some such "neutral" or "privileged" ("metaphysical") epistemic standpoint. But must any realism be committed to the accessibility of such an epistemic vantage point? Heck, it's not even obvious that a realist needs to think of his (ostensible) "word-world biconditionals" -- "A representing is correct if and only if it corresponds to the way things are" -- as explanatory hypotheses at all.
Rorty cites Davidson's claim that "there is no chance that someone can take up a vantage point for comparing conceptual schemes [e.g., the astrologer's and the astrophysicist's] by temporarily shedding his own." (The interpolation is Rorty's.) The remark is, of course, correct. One doesn't and can't comparatively evaluate theories from some illusory vantage point entirely outside all theories. But it doesn't follow that one can't comparatively evaluate theories at all, nor that the telos and correlative epistemic norms to which such evaluations will inevitably appeal must themselves somehow be contaminated by one or more of the very theories being evaluated.
Rorty has no patience with such distinctions. All he hears is the chanting of hierophants and acolytes:
[Once] upon a time we felt a need to worship something which lay beyond the visible world. Beginning
in the seventeenth century we tried to substitute
a love of truth for a love of God, treating the world described by science as a quasi divinity. (CIS, 22)
What Mr. Logos finds especially disturbing is the distressing narrowness of the space of interpretive options within which Rorty moves. The choice seems always to come down to gods or happenstance. Science is either sublimated theology or dumb luck. ("Of course I don't for a moment believe that nailing a horseshoe over my office door will bring me good luck," acknowledged Niels Bohr, explaining the horseshoe nailed over his office door, "but I've been told that it will bring me good luck whether or not I believe it.") The one possibility Rorty seems never to consider is that science is simply science, and that one of philosophy's legitimate enterprises is to attempt to achieve a certain sort of clarity about its constitutive norms and the practices correlative to them, norms and practices which (not so surprisingly, surely) turn out to have "realism", "representationalism", and "essentialism" already built in .
When it comes down to pushing and shoving chips, it's hard to think of anything that's done as much to "de-divinize" the world (CIS, 40) as lightning rods. What it took to get lightning rods off the ground (so to speak) was a story about what lightning is that disengaged it from notions like "God's wrath", that showed why it was only to be expected that the church steeple (of all places!) kept getting struck by lightning -- and so the church cellar wasn't the best place for a God-fearing militia to store its black powder after all -- and that made it reasonable to fit out one's barn roof with silly-looking iron spikes and grounding cables. And, hey, the things worked! Now there's a theoretical story with a couple of solid practical payoffs! Mr. Logos is mightily impressed. Having found out, much to the benefit of everyone's barns, that lightning is electricity, Mr. Logos straightaway wonders what else he can find out about the world, since it, too, might prove useful.
Curiously, however, Rorty seems to be convinced that a concern for theoretical finding out and a yen for practical utility are some sort of adversaries. Thinking of science as "finding out" is just our old macho friend Mr. Logos again, of course, although this time his visiting card reads "Platonism". In the opposite corner, we now find Baconians who
call a cultural achievement "science" only if they can trace some technological advance,
some increase in our ability to predict and control, back to that
development. (ORT, 47)
In this connection, Rorty endorses what he takes to be Heidegger's conclusion that
if you begin with Plato's motives and assumptions ["to get in touch with something large
and powerful which we have a duty to apprehend correctly"]
you will end up with some form of pragmatism ["that the function of inquiry is, in Bacon's words, 'to relieve and benefit the condition of man'"], (EHO, 27)
the chief point of disagreement being that, unlike Heidegger, Rorty thinks that "pragmatism is a good place to end up". But what Mr. Logos doesn't understand is why we have to leave Plato's goals behind in order to become good Baconian pragmatists.
Mr. Logos grants, of course, that science has a telos, i.e., that there are indeed human needs to which the activities and products of scientific inquiry answer. Nor are Rorty's passing suggestions -- a need for predictions of what will happen, a desire to "save the phenomena" -- especially misguided. What troubles Mr. Logos is that Rorty stops there, without inquiring into the import of such formulations. As Mr. Logos sees it, what we need "to relieve and benefit the condition of man" are not just any old predictions of what will happen, but accurate and dependable predictions -- and how better to achieve such reliable predictive facility than by acquiring increasingly better accounts of how things really are and of what causal factors actually eventuate in what effects? And how else can one "save the appearances" except by coming to be able to explain them as appearances, that is, by being able to give an account of the reality of which "the appearances" are appearances, an account of how things actually are, which enables us to understand why things appear as they do?
What Mr. Logos concludes, in other words, is that, if you start with Bacon's admirable motives, then the sooner you manage to get a proper epistemic handle on what and how things really are, the sooner you're going to be able to actually do something "to relieve and benefit the condition of man". Otherwise, we'd be reduced to saying peculiar things like this:
Faced with the nonhuman, the nonlinguistic, we no longer have an ability to overcome contingency
and pain by appropriation and transformation, but
only the ability to recognize contingency and pain. The final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy -- the final victory of metaphors of
self-creation over metaphors of discovery -- would consist in our becoming reconciled to the thought that this is the only sort of power over the world
which we can hope to have. (CIS, 40)
"Has the poor man never heard of analgesics?", Mr. Logos wants to know.
It's one thing to concede the unintelligibility of the idea that we are imprisoned within our minds or our languages in a way that denies us the possibility of legitimate confidence in our (changing, evolving) world-stories, he continues, and quite another to deny the intelligibility of the claim that our continued fidelity to the methods and norms of inquiry which have brought us to our present conception of the world might in time (as they have in fact already often enough done) warrantedly bring us to reject that conception in favor of one radically and fundamentally different, and thereby to relegate our present world-picture to the category of (understandable, explicable, and perhaps even predictably unavoidable) appearance. Rorty, however, will have none of this "warrantedly" business. Where theory-change sets in, he thinks, reasons leave off.
Within a language game, within a set of agreements about what is possible and important, we can
usefully distinguish reasons for belief from causes for
belief which are not reasons. ... There is, to be sure, no neat way to draw a line between a cause of changed belief which was also a reason and one which
was a "mere" cause. But the distinction is no fuzzier than most.
However, once we raise the question of how we get from one vocabulary to another, from one dominant metaphoric to another, the distinction between
reasons and causes begins to lose its utility. (CIS, 48)
What we have finally come around to is Rorty's "account of intellectual progress as the literalization of selected metaphors" (CIS, 44). In the way that the "idea idea" was central to classical representationalism, the metaphor metaphor is central to Rorty's repudiation of it. In particular, Rorty buys into Davidson's account of metaphor as non-semantic:
... like suddenly breaking off the conversation long enough to make a face, or pulling a photograph
out of your pocket and displaying it, or pointing at a
feature of the surroundings, or slapping your interlocutor's face, or kissing him. ... using italics, or illustrations, or odd punctuation or formats. (CIS, 18)
Such things, he says, are not "truth-value candidates", which seems to be right. But he also suggests that metaphors can in time become truth-value candidates, which would seem to imply that they're semantic after all -- for surely neither making faces nor slapping them can undergo a similar transformation. What Mr. Logos reasonably concludes is that, unlike photographs, kisses, or odd punctuation marks, a metaphor is already a transformation of semantic materials, and its effectiveness, aptness, resonance, susceptibility to being relished, or what have you turns on both what semantic materials have been turned to metaphorical use and what use they've been turned to.
And Mr. Logos does love his distinctions. On his view, for example, one significant difference between poetry and science lies in the difference between metaphor and analogy. Not all tropes are created equal, and science's analogical uses of language are subject to constraints to which poetry's metaphorical uses are immune.
That Rorty's own use of the notion of metaphor is largely metaphorical emerges more clearly in his claim that what Freud attributes to all "relatively leisured language-users" is "a faculty for creating metaphors". (CIS, 36) "The social process of literalizing a metaphor is duplicated in the fantasy life of an individual." (CIS, 37)
The difference between genius and fantasy is not the difference between impresses which lock
on to something universal, some antecedent reality ... and
those which do not. Rather, it is the difference between idiosyncracies which just happen to catch on with other people -- happen because of the
contingencies of some historical situation, some particular need which a given community happens to have at a given time. ... [Poetic], artistic, philosophical,
scientific, or political progress results from the accidential coincidence of a private obsession with a public need. (CIS, 37)
(Hmmmm. The old narrative ear detects an opportunity for a segué. Very well:) With what particular needs of what communities do Rorty's own idiosyncracies resonate? "Need" is one of those mixed-bag concepts that carry much of Rorty's load for him, and while 'need' may indeed be the notion that Rorty needs, it's not clear that it should be one he wants. It has such essentialist overtones. Mr. Logos, of course, proposes to distinguish what a person or a community needs from what it thinks it needs or, for that matter, merely wants, but can Rorty? In any event, needing an explanation of some family of natural phenomena is one thing; needing fresh new tropes is another; and needing to be emancipated from repressive political or economic structures, surely yet another. The last of these is a focal concern of social theory -- social philosophy, Mr. Logos would like to say -- and from this perspective the criticism lies close at hand that Rorty's collocations of contingencies leave no room for the sort of unitary and universalistic conception of persons that social theory arguably requires.
Rorty's defense of ironism against serious social critics, (as opposed to those "know-nothings" who "have not read the books against which they warn others, and are just instinctively defending their own traditional views"), "turns on making a firm distinction between the private and the public". (CIS, 82-3) "The attempt to break down the distinction between the private and the public sphere is characteristic of a long-standing tradition in social philosophy," he writes, (EHO, 197) but Rorty suggests that we should abandon the Platonic assumption, shared, for example, by Habermas and Foucault, that what's needed to ground or legitimize an individual's public moral obligations is some interesting connection between what they are and what he is.
Habermas would like to ground moral obligation, and thus social institutions, on something universally
human. Conversely, Foucault's radical, Nietzschean
anti-Platonism leads him to infer from the absence of anything which might serve as such a ground the absence of the need for social institutions. I should
prefer to split the difference between Foucault and his liberal critics by saying that Nietzsche and Foucault are right against Plato, but that this anti-
Platonism does nothing to show that there is something wrong with liberal societies. (EHO, 197)
Rorty, in contrast, suggests that a liberal culture whose public rhetoric is nominalist and historicist is both possible and desirable. (CIS, 85-7) "A liberal", Rorty is inordinately fond of repeating, "is somebody who believes that cruelty is the worst thing we do" (e.g., CIS, 74, 146; the formulation is Judith Shklar's), and, bang! down go the chips, liberals is what we are -- but, ideally, postmodernist bourgeois liberals.
"Postmodernist bourgeois liberalism" is the Hegelian attempt to defend the institutions
and practices of "rich North Atlantic democracies" on the basis of
solidarity alone, without appeals to transcultural and ahistorical accounts of "rationality" or "morality". This contrasts with a "philosophical liberalism" that
makes justificatory appeal to various Kantian principles. (ORT, 198)
Here's where Dewey comes in again. For a Deweyan pragmatist, Rorty tells us, social freedom is conceived in terms of a kind of openness, of giving every human potentiality ("every new metaphor", says Rorty) a chance. Everything, including philosophy, is an instrument for social progress, for the achievement of democratic liberal ideals, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. (EHO, 18-20) The point of protecting the (public) "bourgeois freedoms" turns out to be to "let everybody have a chance at [private] self-creation to the best of his or her abilities". (CIS, 84) A liberal society does not itself aim to invent or create anything, but simply to make it as easy as possible for people to achieve their wildly different private ends without hurting each other. (ORT, 196)
Mr. Logos thinks he detects a certain uneasiness in the rhetoric here, as if a meeting of the Rotary Club were being convened for the specific purpose of discussing how best to make the world safe for hippie communes. (Although Rorty is inclined to substitute "self-creation" for the more traditional Romantic, but unsatisfactorily essentialist, notion of "self-realization", and he would doubtless disapprove of psychoactive drugs as the instrument of choice. (On this piquant theme, more later. Tune in and turn on (if you wish), but don't drop out.)) Rorty is not insensitive to these strains.
The traditional philosophical way of spelling out what we mean by "human solidarity"
is to say that there is something within each of us -- our essential
humanity -- which resonates to the presence of this same thing in other human beings. (CIS, 189)
His ironist antiessentialist alternative is to recur to a via negativa.
The liberal ironist ... thinks that recognition of a common susceptibility to humiliation is
the only social bond that is needed. Whereas the metaphysician
takes the morally relevant feature of ... other human beings to be their relation to a larger shared power -- rationality, God, truth, or history, for example --
the ironist takes the morally relevant definition of a person, a moral subject, to be "something that can be humiliated." Her sense of human solidarity is
based on a sense of a common danger, not on a common possession or a shared power. (CIS, 91)
A liberal, we recall, is someone who believes that cruelty is the worst thing we do. (A good catch phrase is worth repeating.) But sometimes the worst thing we do is nothing, and sometimes 'cruelty' doesn't even begin to describe the worst things we do, as anyone who's visited Auschwitz or read the annual reports of Amnesty International can readily confirm. To put a point on it, cruelty will be the worst thing we do only if 'cruelty' is very broadly drawn indeed, only if 'cruelty' expands to subsume all the ways we have of behaving immorally or indecently toward one other. As one would expect, then, Rorty puts 'cruelty', too, through his patented distinction-obliterating sense-expander.
For Rorty, in fact, human beings qua moral subjects turn out to be just animals that we can be cruel to in novel linguistic ways, animals whose self-descriptions we can refuse to take seriously and whose projects of self-creation we can thereby frustrate or impede. A useful way to learn about, and learn to avoid, these (and other) forms of cruelty is (you guessed it) by reading books.
"Books which help us become less cruel," Rorty proposes, can be "roughly divided into (1) books which help us see the effects of social practices and institutions on others and (2) those which help us see the effects of our private idiosyncracies on others." The most useful books of the last sort are "works of fiction which exhibit the blindness of a certain kind of person to the pain of another kind of person" (CIS, 141), for example, Nabakov's Lolita and Pale Fire, which Rorty interprets as being about
the special sort of cruelty of which those
capable of bliss are also capable. These books are reflections of the possibility that there can be sensitive killers,
cruel aesthetes, pitiless poets -- masters of imagery who are content to turn the lives of other human beings into images on a screen, while simply not
noticing that these other people are suffering. (CIS, 157)
It goes without saying that Mr. Logos doesn't approve of Rorty's expository idioms. He thinks they blur useful and even important distinctions. I suppose that there are people who respond to televised reports of enduring famine in Ethiopia by admiring the delicate bone structure of the starving children, but 'cruel' seems somehow off the mark. 'Callous' comes closer, or 'heartless', 'cold', 'unfeeling'. It's not that they don't notice the suffering. They simply don't care.
There's a point to being fussy about such distinctions. Rorty is so busy protecting his right flank against jackboots and barbed wire that he tends to neglect a variety of real, insidious, and serious threats to individual freedom and self-creation that are ill-accommodated under the rubric 'cruelty'. In CIS, Orwell gets a chapter; Huxley and Brave New World never make the cut. But surely the Alphas weren't cruel to the Deltas. For weren't the Deltas happy? Of course they were. And yet, for all that, hadn't something horrible been done to them?
Mr. Logos certainly thinks so. As he sees it, the Deltas have been mutilated. They are mental amputees. Their natural rational competences have been lopped off. The normal connections between thought and action and between perception and feeling have been deliberately severed. Their behavior has been artificially automatized, and their affect comes out of a test tube. But it's not clear that Rorty's views let him say such things. On the ironist view,
there is no such thing as a "natural" order of justification for beliefs or desires.
Nor is there much occasion to use the distinctions between logic and
rhetoric, or between philosophy and literature, or between rational and nonrational methods of changing other people's minds. ... The only important
political distinction in the area is that between the use of force and the use of persuasion. (CIS, 83-4)
The problem that Mr. Logos sees here is that if political discussion is restricted to the contrast "force vs persuasion", then soma seems to fall into the category "none of the above". Unless there's a way people ought to be, something that human beings ought to be able to become , that is, he sees no way to object to making a happy pig out of every potentially unhappy Socrates. Why not simply freely distribute crack in the ghettos or, hey, isn't there something we could slip into their drinking water ?
Breaking down the sort of opposition between "we" and "they" that such remarks presuppose is just what Rorty sees liberal democracy as being about. Human solidarity, he tells us, is simply the ability to see ever more traditional (tribal, religious, racial, political) differences as "unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation". (CIS, 192) But the present point is that this particular via negativa also chimes with social moralities quite different from the one that Rorty wants. For having recognized and acknowledged a common capacity for pain and humiliation does not yet tell us what one should do about the suffering of others -- assuming one is interested in doing anything about it -- and, even if one is interested in minimizing the suffering of others, there are quite different ways of going about it.
The nice way (so to speak) is by enhancing solidarity, that is, by respecting the diverse strivings and self-descriptions of others and by cooperating in creating political forms and institutional structures which relieve suffering, inter alia , by minimizing impediments to their realization. Another way is the Alphas' way -- keep the privileged community small and create institutional structures and practices which de facto reduce overall suffering by minimizing outsiders' capacity for feeling pain or humiliation or, indeed, for feeling anything meaningful at all. (Mr. Logos finds that idiom especially suggestive.) If the only politically relevant similarity between "us" and "them" lies in the via negativa of pain and humiliation, then, even if we endorse the end of ameliorating suffering, there will be nothing to choose between the expansive means recommended by Rorty's democratic liberalism and the exclusionary strategies of the Alphas' soft oligarchy (as we might call it).
Soft oligarchy has a long and distinguished history, dating back at least to the Romans' "bread and circuses" (although, as Huxley recognized, contemporary technologies open fascinating new possibilities for implementing it). Another way of putting its central theme is that there's no danger that free speech will lead to emancipation if all that people are interested and capable of speaking freely about are television personalities, sports scores, and horoscopes. Rorty (properly) understands "free discussion" as needing, inter alia, universal literacy and widespread higher education, but literate, educated people just find more things to be unhappy about. ("So you're the little lady who started this great war," said Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe. ###) A desire to diminish the suffering of marginalized groups, that is, cannot by itself motivate social initiatives toward increased literacy and enhanced access to higher educational resources, which tend, by raising levels of expectation and, correlatively, of frustration, to in fact increase if not exactly suffering then at least discontent. Such constructive social democratic initiatives need more impetus than acknowledging the similarities marked by Rorty's liberal ironist via negativa alone can provide. They need, Mr. Logos again suggests, the normative, "metaphysical" conviction that there is something that any human being ought to be able to become in virtue of which we all have positive obligations to human beings, simply as such, to help them become it.
Such remarks, too, however, Rorty reinterprets in terms of a merely contingent commitment to expansive solidarity:
The right way to take the slogan "We have obligations to human beings simply as such"
is as a means of reminding ourselves to keep trying to expand
our sense of "us" as far as we can. ... We should stay on the lookout for marginalized people -- people whom we still instinctively think of as "they" rather
than "us." We should try to notice our similarities with them. The right way to construe the slogan is as urging us to create [as opposed to recognize] a
more expansive sense of solidarity than we presently have. (CIS, 196)
By his own lights, Rorty's 'should's here fail to connect with any principled justificatory stories. Purged of its traditional implicit "because", the claim that we have obligations to human beings as such becomes a form of cheerleading. Hooray for our side! And, as far as Rorty's concerned, that's the end of the story. You're either on the liberal democratic bus or you're not. Traditional moral imperatives are at best reminders of what (we) bourgeois liberal democrats are already committed to trying to do, but not reasons for anyone climb aboard.
Unless my "we" is already expansive enough to take in the marginalized people Rorty wants me to look out for, that is, it's not clear what would incline me even to root for his team, much less to join it. As always, Mr. Logos remains interested in hearing some reasons for being nice (so to speak), not because he's otherwise disinclined to be nice -- although with a macho power-freak like Mr. Logos one never knows, does one? -- but, inter alia , because he believes that doing things for reasons (and, hence, a substantial concept of rationality) is already built into the constitutive ideology of a liberal democratic polity and the practices correlative to it in much the way that realism, representationalism, and essentialism are built into the constitutive norms and correlative practices of natural science.
What strikes Mr. Logos more forcefully than it evidently does Rorty is the considerable extent to which a liberal democratic community is committed to doing more than simply keeping individuals (and the state) out of each other's way. A bourgeois liberal democracy is positively interested in educating and informing its citizens, and a bourgeois liberal democracy is positively interested in being reasonable. That is, it wants its stories about what it's okay to do to people to hang together with its stories about what it's responsible to believe about people, about what people are.
Rorty's position, he tells us, is
incompatible with the idea that there is a "natural" cut in the spectrum of similarities
and differences which spans the difference between you and a dog, or
you and one of Asimov's robots -- a cut which marks the end of the rational beings and the beginning of the nonrational ones, the end of moral obligation
and beginning of benevolence. ... On the other hand, my position is not incompatible with urging that we try to extend our sense of "we" to people whom we
have previously thought of as "they." (CIS 191-2)
Indeed, to people. Just so. Mr. Logos will pass on the question of Asimov's robots until they actually turn up, but he's pretty confident that any attempt to educate and inform dogs would be a waste of time. Dogs just aren't the kind of beings who can aspire to literacy, profit from higher education, or, for that matter, learn to do things for reasons . Human beings are and can -- and (whatever we call it) that's a difference that makes a difference within bourgeois liberal democracy. Not that Mr. Logos approves of being cruel to dogs or other non-conversational animals. Quite the contrary. But he's also convinced that liberal democracy needs to be able to (and can) tell a principled story about why it's okay to buy and sell (and spay and neuter) dogs but not human beings.
Like "the liberal metaphysician", then, Mr. Logos
wants a final vocabulary with an internal and organic structure, one which is not split down
the middle by a public-private distinction,
not just a patchwork. (CIS, 92)
More significantly, however, Mr. Logos thinks that liberal democracies need and want one, too, and he doesn't believe that we can make coherent sense of Rorty's proposed alternative. "My private purposes, and the part of my final vocabulary which is not relevant to my public actions, are none of your business," writes Rorty (CIS, 91), but Mr. Logos does not know how to partition either himself or his normative and justificatory idioms into hermetically isolated private and public parts. He cannot see that any parts of his "final vocabulary" are completely irrelevant to his public actions, and he is consequently mightily surprised to hear that this dichotomy (of all things!) has survived the "solvent rationality" that Rorty postmodernly takes to have disposed of all those others. Having been reminded by Quine that "language is a social art", by Wittgenstein that one cannot pry rules and norms loose from consilient communal practices, and by yet another of his henchmen that even "Cartesian" apperceptive self-ascriptions already presuppose a capacity to position oneself among other selves in a "social space" of epistemic justificatory responsibilities, Mr. Logos finds "private final vocabularies" as problematic as private languages in general.
Mr. Logos, of course, has lots more to say about Rorty, but this time at bat The Kindly Editor has allocated his team only eight thousand words, and he is consequently in grave danger of overstaying his welcome. No doubt we will hear from him again -- and again and again; he is a macho power-freak, remember -- but until then one could do worse than have a look at the essays in RR, especially in Parts IV and V, where even a couple of impressive articulate spokespersons for Ms Zeitgeist join in the entertaining game of Rorty-Kritik. Mr. Logos, meanwhile, will withdraw from the bright chatter of the salon and repair to the solitude of his study (his den?) and to what, for all Rorty's seductive alternatives, he still can't help thinking of as his proper business. Now let's see. How did that go again? "... the grand project of bringing our rational practices under rational survey, of seeing ourselves not only as we are and as we have been but also as we might become, and of coming in the end to command an articulate overview of what it would mean to realize the arete of personhood and of what stands in the way of such a realization." How quaint!