The Contingency of Language
About two hundred years ago, the idea that A truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe. The French Revolution had shown that the whole vocabulary of social relations, and the whole spectrum of social institutions, could be replaced almost overnight. This inspired a new sort of politics – revolutionary, utopian politics, the sort of political thought which sets aside questions about both the will of God and the nature of man and dreams of creating a new kind of human being. Simultaneously, the Romantic poets were showing what can happen when art is no longer thought of as imitation, but rather as self-creation. These poets made it plausible for art to claim the place in culture traditionally held by religion and philosophy, the place which the Enlightenment had claimed for science.
In the course of the last two centuries, these two tendencies have joined forces and have achieved cultural hegemony. For the contemporary intellectual, questions of ends as opposed to means – questions about how to give a sense to one’s own life or that of one’s community – are questions for art, politics, or both, rather than for religion, philosophy, or science. This development has led to a split within philosophy. Some philosophers have remained faithful to the Enlightenment, and have continued to identify themselves with the cause of science. They see the old struggle between religion and science as continuing, having now taken the form of a struggle between reason and all those forces within culture which take truth to be made rather than found. These philosophers take science as the paradigmatic human activity, and think of science as discovering truth rather than making it. They regard ‘making truth’ as a merely metaphorical, and thoroughly misleading, phrase. They think of politics and art as spheres in which the notion of ‘truth’ is out of place. Other philosophers, realising that the world as it is described by the physical sciences teaches no moral lesson, offers no spiritual comfort, have concluded that science is no more than the handmaiden of technology. These philosophers have ranged themselves alongside the political utopian and the innovative artist. Whereas the first kind of philosopher (a kind common in Britain and America, and exemplified by even such relatively liberated analytic philosophers as Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams) contrasts ‘hard scientific fact’ with ‘the subjective’ or with ‘metaphor’, the second kind – common elsewhere in the world – sees science as one more human activity, not as the place at which human beings encounter a ‘hard’, non-human reality. On this view, great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens, just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of it for other purposes. But there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself. These philosophers regard the very idea of such a representation as pointless.
Had the first sort of philosopher, the sort whose hero is the natural scientist, always been the only sort, we should probably never have had an autonomous discipline called ‘philosophy’ – a discipline as distinct from the sciences as it is from theology or from the arts. As such a discipline, philosophy is no more than two hundred years old. It owes its existence to attempts by the German idealists to put the sciences in their place, and to give a clear sense to the vague idea that human beings make truth rather than finding it. Kant wanted to consign science to the realm of second-rate truth – truth about a phenomenal world. Hegel wanted to think of natural science as a description of spirit not yet fully conscious of its own spiritual nature, and thus to elevate the sort of truth offered by the poet and the political revolutionary to first-rate status.
German idealism, however, was a short-lived and unsatisfactory compromise. For Kant and Hegel went only half-way in their repudiation of the idea that truth is ‘out there’. They were willing to view the world of empirical science as a made world – to see matter as constructed by mind, or as consisting in mind insufficiently conscious of its own mental character. But they persisted in seeing mind, spirit, the depths of the human self, as having an intrinsic nature – one which could be known by a kind of non-empirical super-science called philosophy. This meant that only half of truth – the bottom, scientific half – was made. Higher truth, the truth about mind, the province of philosophy, was still a matter of discovery rather than creation. What was needed, and what the idealists were unable to envisage, was a repudiation of the very idea of anything – mind or matter, self or world – having an intrinsic nature to be expressed or represented. For the idealists confused the idea that nothing has such a nature with the idea that the idea that space and time are unreal – with the idea that human beings cause the spatio-temporal world to exist.
If we are ever again to live in that dawn in which the young Wordsworth exulted, to recapture Schiller’s conviction that art and politics together may jointly shape a new humanity, we need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.
The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is the legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of His own. This suggestion runs together the truth that the world sometimes causes sentences to be true or false with the falsehood that what causes a sentence to be true is, somehow, itself true – that the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called ‘facts’. If one runs these together, it is easy to start capitalising the word ‘truth’ and treating it as something identical either with God or with the world as God’s project. Then one will say, for example, that Truth is great, and will prevail.
This conflation is facilitated by confining attention to single sentences as opposed to vocabularies. For we often let the world decide the competition between alternative sentences (for example, between ‘red wins’ and ‘black wins’ or between ‘the butler did it’ and ‘the doctor did it’). In such cases, it is easy to run together the fact that the world contains the cause of the sentence being true with the idea that that cause, that state of the world, is itself an example of truth. But it is not so easy once we turn from individual sentences to vocabularies as wholes. When we turn to examples of alternative language-games – the vocabulary of ancient Athenian politics as against that of Jefferson, the moral vocabulary of St Paul as against that of Freud, the jargon of Newton versus that of Aristotle, the idiom of Blake rather than that of Dryden – it is difficult to think of the world as making one of these better than another, of the world as deciding between them. When the notion of ‘description of the world’ is moved from the level of criterion-governed sentences within language-games to language-games as wholes, games which we do not choose between by reference to criteria, the idea that the world decides which descriptions are true can no longer be given a clear sense. It becomes hard to think that a vocabulary is somehow already out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it. Attention (of the sort fostered by intellectual historians like Thomas Kuhn and Quentin Skinner) to the vocabularies in which sentences are formulated, rather than to individual sentences, makes us realise, for example, that the fact that Newton’s vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle’s does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian. The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings do that.
The realisation that the world does not tell us what language-games to play should not, however, lead us to say that a decision about which to play is arbitrary, nor to say that it is the expression of something deep within us. The moral is not that objective criteria for choice of vocabulary are to be replaced with subjective criteria, reason with will or feeling. It is rather that there are no criteria – that the notions of criteria and choice (including that of ‘arbitrary’ choice) are no longer in point when it comes to changes from one language-game to another. The mind of Europe did not decide to accept the idiom of Romantic poetry, or of socialist politics, or of Galilean mechanics. That sort of shift was no more an act of will than a result of argument. Rather, Europe gradually lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using others. As Kuhn has argued in his book The Copernican Revolution, we did not decide on the basis of some telescopic observations, or on the basis of anything else, that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, that macroscopic behaviour could be explained on the basis of micro-structural motion, or that prediction and control should be the principal aim of scientific theorising. Rather, after a hundred years of inconclusive muddle, the Europeans found themselves speaking in a way which took these interlocked theses for granted. Cultural change of this magnitude does not result from applying criteria (nor from ‘arbitrary decision’) any more than individuals become theists or atheists, or shift from one spouse or circle of friends to another, as a result either of applying criteria or of actes gratuits. We should not look within ourselves for criteria of decision in such matters any more than we should look to the world.
The temptation to look for criteria is a species of the more general temptation to think of the world, or the human self, as possessing an intrinsic nature, an essence. That is, it is the result of the temptation to privilege some one among the many actual and possible languages in which we habitually describe the world or ourselves. As long as we think that there is some relation called ‘fitting the world’ or ‘expressing the real nature of the human self’ which can be possessed or lacked by vocabularies-as-wholes, we shall continue the traditional philosophical search for a criterion which will tell us which vocabularies have this desirable feature. But if we could ever become reconciled to the idea that reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it, and that the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary, then we should at last have assimilated what was true in the romantic idea that truth is made rather than found. What is true about this claim is just that languages are made rather than found, and that truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences.
Vol. 8 No. 8 · 8 May 1986
SIR: In successive sentences of his fascinating contribution to your issue of 17 April, Professor Rorty endorses the view that ‘great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens,’ and asserts that ‘there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself.’ If the second of these sentences is true, how can one description serve the purpose of prediction more usefully than another? In what, indeed, does Professor Rorty take prediction to consist?
SIR: I like Richard Rorty’s voice and think I would try to protect him if he were to need my protection; but would not entirely trust him to protect me well were I in danger. I have found that, having Yeats’s poems available to me, I am not less interested in reading some of Rossetti’s. Poetry helps to admit me to kinship with strange fellow-speakers. I fancy that, like song, it re-opens the infantile state of preparedness to understand speech not yet understood. Something that leads on, and something that is still elusive: metaphors, phrases like actes gratuits, constructions like ‘For the idealists confused the idea that nothing has such a nature with the idea that space and time are unreal – with the idea that human beings cause the spatio-temporal world to exist.’ Thus I am tempted on ‘from utterance to utterance’, convergingly. Much of our world remains in a constant relationship to our needs. Theories that better help us survive are the profits of our experiences of nature. The ‘native of an exotic culture’ who indicated that I should avoid mangoes and pluck boa constrictors would be a poor scientist in that respect. But such a one does not exist. Boa constrictors may not be indifferent to our descriptions of them.
Vol. 8 No. 10 · 5 June 1986
SIR: I was dazzled by Richard Rorty (LRB, 17 April) with his genial style and apparent profundity, but I realised soon enough that he’s retailing the fashionable arithmetic of despair. Does anybody else ‘out there’ hate this stuff about ‘languages’ and ‘vocabularies’, so heartless, so ignorant in its erudition? It may not be particularly meaningful to pursue objective truth, but why is it somehow more relevant to espouse sheer contingency? To treat everything as products of time and chance is fine if you’re made of wood or tin or some kind of vacuum-packed academic extrusion. If you’re flesh and blood with eyes that see and ears that hear, you just can’t bend your mind that way without an intensive seminar in de-sensitising in the manner of the Marquis de Sade. And you won’t elude worship either. The religion of chance – which is what Rorty and his busy warren of workers in the new dawn are all adding up to – worships living death. Personally, I’ll die screaming before I commit to that kind of survival. If this is what the future holds in store, God – any old god – help us all. I’m reassured, however, by the real contemporary culture going on all around me that Rorty doesn’t seem to be aware of in the least. I wonder if he’s ever even listened to the Beatles. Maybe he could try a bit of Fiona Pitt-Kethley or Wendy Cope, to be more au courant. But he probably has smart, genial things to say about these ‘phenomena’ too.
SIR: Rorty’s theories on contingency (LRB, 17 April) have spawned – if one may be allowed the metaphor – from Darwin’s private statement that all life may have originated in ‘some warm little pond’. Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Davidson are like tadpoles – beyond good and evil. Fred Hoyle has given the lie to such theories of random processes: he lays the odds in The Intelligent Universe. The chance, for example, of finding, through random selection, the 2,000 enzymes upon which all life’s chemical reactions depend (life’s ‘mobile army of matchmakers’, if you like) is the digit 1 followed by 40,000 zeros to 1 against. If this indicates an ordering intelligence (as Hoyle believes, though balking at proper names), so, too, he argues, does Darwin’s theory – in spite of itself: ‘Talk of a primitive aggregate collecting up potential enzymes really implies the operation of an intelligence which by distinguishing potential enzymes possesses powers of judgment. Since this conclusion is exactly what those who put forward this argument are anxious to avoid, their position is absurd.’ With language as membrane (‘a tissue of contingencies’) we are back to Maxwell’s Demon; with ‘the contingency of conscience’, human beings as ‘simply networks of beliefs and desires’ (my italics), we are back to fascism. With ‘life-as-poem’ (God help us) we are back to the Poet as Legislator. Shelley said: ‘I don’t know why I bother, nobody reads me!’ But then he also said: ‘The great secret of morals is love.’ That truth, though his, can also be mine. Are there any other takers?
On another matter, it would appear that Robert Burns had a greater capacity for enduring ‘interminable’ texts than does Professor Fox (LRB, 22 May). The recitativos of ‘The Jolly Beggars’ are wholly emulative of the stanza form employed by Montgomerie in ‘The Cherrie and the Slae’. Burns was obviously impressed by Montgomerie’s ability to make a narrative ‘sing’. Likewise, Montgomerie’s very fine poem, ‘Hay! now the day dawis,’ is probably emulative of the popular song mentioned by Dunbar. Good tunes with good words die hard.
Poets work by translating, copying, editing. On what are Wyatt’s, indeed Shakespeare’s songs based, for example, but upon literary and popular tradition? And as for Montgomerie’s ‘kickshaws’, they’re no worse, no better, than those, say, of Skelton. As King James said, in his Reulis and Cautelis, there are ‘all kyndis of cuttit and brokin verse’. Montgomerie’s ‘Scottis Meeter’ is not one of them. He is far from being a chimlay-nuik ‘urchin’.
SIR: What Richard Rorty had to say about metaphor (LRB, 17 April) was a welcome change from the usual, purely instrumental views of it, particularly when he threw out the idea that ‘it is a tool for doing something which could not have been envisaged prior to the development of a particular set of descriptions, those which it itself helps to provide.’ However, by setting up either-ors which are too exclusive (e.g. that language is either representational or expressive) he builds the horns of a dilemma from which he does not seem able to escape: for if we have ‘no pre-linguistic consciousness to which language needs to be adequate, no deep sense of how things are which it is the duty of philosophers to spell out in language’, then how is it possible to ‘say that one is now, having learned a new language, able to handle that segment [of the world] more easily’?
If a metaphor is not just a device which can, however laboriously, be dismantled, then the alternative must surely be that it is more than something simply to be ‘savoured’: otherwise metaphor is cut loose and floats in a surrealistic irresponsibility. The fact is, metaphors matter: as Lichtenberg wryly observed, ‘methinks a good metaphor is something the police should keep an eye on.’ Many issues, such as those about the self, are deeply implicated with metaphor, and the question of their truth lies in between the alternatives Rorty seems to be proposing: thus, the self is neither simply constituted by a new vocabulary, nor is it something pre-existent waiting for the appropriate linguistic match.
SIR: How pleasantly enlightening to read Professor Rorty’s article on the pragmatic-phenomenological matter of ‘the contingency of selfhood’, with clues from poetry and psychoanalysis. His close reading of other endeavours, and, more especially, his philosophical openness, remind one of his older American contemporary, Edward Ballard, who observed: ‘Evidently the primary obligation of the philosopher is to respect his subject-matter. It is not to take sides in contemporary controversy and defeat his opponent, nor to construct an elenchus-proof system within which he may take refuge. Rather he expresses respect for his subject-matter and enters effectively into the philosophic agon by keeping open the ways of interpretation and philosophic conversation and by this means continually exploring and illuminating the sources of conflict and resolution, of blindness and insight.’
Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Edinburgh
Vol. 8 No. 12 · 3 July 1986
SIR: Richard Rorty (LRB, 17 April) suggests, quoting Heidegger, that the force of Nietzsche’s arguments is greatest when his ‘metaphysics of power’ are discarded. May I suggest that Rorty himself has swallowed a ‘metaphysics of contingency’ which could be discarded equally happily, leaving many of his insights intact. An organising principle is needed for any work of scope. ‘Contingency’ plays this role in Rorty’s pieces and he has used it to devastating effect on language, the self and, in a promised third article, community. But it is not clear that he sees ‘contingency’ as merely this. In fact, one fears that he could, at any moment, ‘cap up’ the initial letter and provide the manifesto for a voguish new school of ‘Contingentism’.
Rorty has previously drawn a distinction between systematic philosophers and those, such as the later Wittgenstein, whom he dubbed ‘edifying’. The latter stand at the sidelines of any particular contemporary philosophical debate – gadflies challenging the very notion of philosophy as a cooperative and progressive discipline. By temperament, Rorty himself would seem to lie somewhere between these two types: perhaps this is his strength in subtly understanding what makes both sides really tick. But, for my money, he is at his best when he wants, as ‘edifying’ philosophers do, to keep space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes cause. His elevation of ‘contingency’ into an overarching concept simply smacks of a bit of bad systematic thinking. With its apparently pessimistic overtones, no wonder it provokes criticism that Rorty is ‘retailing the same fashionable arithmetic of despair’.
Observer, London EC4
Vol. 8 No. 17 · 9 October 1986
SIR: Professor Rorty, in his admirable formulation of the philosophical foundations of democratic societies, seldom mentions things that intellectuals such as himself do not usually know about. One such omission is the subject of management. The post-war literature of management has actually anticipated, but incoherently, some of Professor Rorty’s findings. Some of us who were trying to articulate this experience were very greatly helped by Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Management is routinely and in the most down-to-earth way about descriptions and constantly changing re-descriptions (‘the ways people see things’): not about hard facts ‘out there’. It is about how to be able to justify one’s decisions as rational when there are multiple, competing, inconsistent, grossly under-determined criteria of choice. It is about literalising new metaphors (‘turning constraints into resources’), keeping discourse going by observing and, when necessary, changing the conditions of discourse (if people can’t keep talking nothing gets done), controlling the power/knowledge relationship, and much more that can be illuminatingly described by means of the new vocabularies of Rorty and of others whom he has interpreted.
A liberal society is one that has to be run (not just governed) acceptably and successfully, deriving meaning from human beings and other contingencies, from countless power-centres scattered all over the society. ‘Management’ is a convenient name for this. Since the war there has been a massive attempt to ‘rationalise’ management both intellectually and practically, starting from the same vocabulary and attitudes of the Enlightenment that Professor Rorty has so brilliantly exposed, and discovering fairly quickly and often quite painfully that they don’t perform. Professor Rorty gives the impression that he only knows about intellectuals and poets: but he need not let this disturb him. The managers who are trying to run the kind of society that he admires are with him all the way.
Vol. 8 No. 18 · 23 October 1986
SIR: Although I grant much of Rorty’s critique of philosophy in ‘The Contingency of Language’ (LRB, 17 April), I also think that more illuminating tasks can be assigned to philosophy in its ‘postmodern’ phase than simply spinning out new language games. In particular, Rorty seems to want to avoid saying anything systematic about how one language game supersedes another: hence the rhetorical function of ‘contingency’ in his title.
He is certainly correct to say that Hegel’s picture of reason unfolding in history remains gripping if we still think of the ‘European mind’ as having decided to accept Galileo and reject Aristotle. But Rorty’s diagnosis of this paradigm shift as really being ‘no more an act of will than a result of argument’ reveals his belief that none of the consequences of introducing a new language game can be controlled, and that, as a result, there is no reason to think that either activism or argument on behalf of a new language game will have the desired efficacy. This position gives rise to at least three serious problems.
1. Cultural revolutions are so difficult to explain, in part, because their boundaries are so poorly defined. If Rorty simply believed that the meaning of ‘Galilean Revolution’ were exhausted by the phenomenon of European scientists coming to talk like Galileo, then this process of cultural transmission could be fairly well documented and explained. Ian Hacking, a post-modern philosopher who models his work on Foucault’s, proceeds exactly in this way, with very interesting results (see The Emergence of Probability, 1975). However, people who talk of revolutions usually mean both more and less than the circulation of certain words. Much turns on which concepts are identified as distinctly ‘Galilean’ and ‘revolutionary’, as well as how instances of those concepts are identified in the discourse of the historical agents. At this point, when the phenomenon itself becomes elusive, the explanation, not surprisingly, also becomes elusive.
2. Even granting that cultural revolutions are complex to the point of being little more than a cluster of historical accidents, it does not follow that we have no control over which language games we find ourselves speaking. Indeed, we might be able to improve our control over these phenomena, say, by learning more about the micro-structure of cultural transmission. Sociologists have made great strides towards demystifying the ‘invisibility’ of scientific revolutions by showing exactly which arguments persuade whom, when clout and capital make a difference, how to identify the stage of the revolution at which one finds oneself.
3. I suspect that, like Popper, Rorty believes that interaction effects between knower and known make the planning of any major social change impossible. However, the lesson here may simply be that if one wants to introduce a new language game or institute some other complex cultural transformation, then perhaps one should not proceed by saying what one intends to do or how one intends to do it. In less Machiavellian terms, cultural revolution may be the sort of thing that can be caused only as a by-product of something else that one is explicitly trying to do (see Jon Elster, Sour Grapes, 1983). In that case, even if decisive arguments could not be made to persuade enough people to change their paradigm, decisive arguments could still be made for those people pursuing a course of action of more immediate interest which would also have a paradigm change as an indirect yet anticipated long-term consequence.
Admittedly, we are far from having the sort of knowledge that my position requires, but not as far as Rorty’s contingency thesis would suggest. And in the course of gathering that knowledge, a new role for the philosopher would emerge – that of a Platonic philosopher-king in the guise of a research grant administrator who decides between language games.
Editor, Social Epistemology, Boulder, Colorado
Vol. 8 No. 21 · 4 December 1986
SIR: The intellectual life of civilised people in dynamic societies is a whirl of disconnected general notions and attitudes. Philosophers are specialists who find the words that bring together and reconcile all the other words and help us to feel that our lives make some sense. Richard Rorty is a philosopher. He presents a unified account of the real world, of our place in it, and of what we ought to think and feel about it (LRB, 17 April, LRB, 8 May and LRB, 24 July). He thus continues an ancient philosophic tradition.
Within that tradition, Rorty identifies himself first with the romantic 19th-century idealists: the world is ideas. He goes beyond them to the position that ideas are but words and that words are human attempts to express and control. He denies any foundation on which we might come to agree on fact or value. He sees what agreement we do have as the product of the myth-making power of ‘poets’. He agrees with Protagoras that ‘each man is the measure of all things,’ and with Thrasymachus and Nietzsche that the end of life is the imposition of one’s own measure on others. He thinks the broad outlines of his view have already achieved ‘cultural hegemony’. Another way of putting this claim is that he has attempted to make a synthesis of a number of popular ideas. Both the merit and the compatibility of those ideas are questionable.
Rorty begins with the individual. I discover myself in a world of words. My education was the assimilation of a cultural heritage, of the mass of metaphors by which my society has created its common reality. I come to sense in myself a vital unexpressed uniqueness, a self, which has been overwhelmed and negated by that great ‘coral reef’ of ossified or dying metaphors which dominate all members of a society. I see, with ‘horror’, that I am a passive transmitter of alien forces, a thing. If I could somehow find the words, the metaphors, to express my unique self, I could begin to exist as a real person. But even if I find the words, I cannot know I have succeeded until I persuade others to accept my metaphors and make them their own. I have an ‘anxiety of influence’. If I persuade many others, I am a ‘strong poet’. Strong poets are the ‘paradigm of humanity’: they create the metaphors which constitute all the reality we can have or know.
Questions of truth or falsity can arise only within the unique language of each paradigm, poetic structure or metaphor. There is no neutral ground for comparing or preferring one of these to another. Rorty’s own poetic metaphoric philosophy is presented as complete and as one of many possible such complete, irrefutable and mutually exclusive philosophies. He thinks it is more persuasive than its competitors. I think it is internally incoherent, crudely ideological, and ill-suited to help us make sense of our lives.
Human nature: In every place where Rorty denies that our nature as humans might form a foundation for thought or value, he exhibits his ignorance of human nature theory. But is it not evident that the existence of any organism implies values which are, relative to the species being of the organism, objectively true? An oak tree can be harmed, a rock cannot. Those animals which have evolved a species pattern of emotions functional for their ordinary life are sensible of goods and evils. Human animals can both experience and talk about what, for humans, is the better and the worse. Human nature is thus a foundation for a human ethic. Rorty denies this, sometimes as an individualist who would make a unique species of each person (but it is not clear whether we are born unique or whether we are rendered unique by our special experiences), sometimes as a culturalist who says that neither human nature nor unique individuals exist, for we are totally plastic to our culture (but he wavers between culturalism and historicism). He is right in seeing individualism or culturalism as alternatives to the human nature view: he compounds our current confusions in not seeing that each is incompatible with the other. Worse, he seems quite unaware of his own continual resort to whatever assertion about human nature suits his purposes. For instance, he begins with an account of our entrapment in alien metaphors. Why do we allow this to happen to us? If we do it out of fear, of what are humans so typically afraid and why? Is it simply our nature to accept socialisation, to be imprintable, to live by habit? How can Rorty account for our ‘horror’ at seeing ourselves as ‘things’? Why is it necessary for poets to persuade others in order to create themselves? What are we to make of ‘paradigms of humanity’, and of a philosophy which, while patching together a complex and improbable theory of human nature, rejects all such theories?
Strong poets: What is this thing, this uniqueness, which the poet expresses? Is it the ‘it’s you!’ of our consumer society, the romantic ache of adolescent would-be swans, the crankiness of those who live snugly in little personal worlds, the sum of our psychic traumas? Larkin finds this uniqueness ‘hardly satisfying’: those who have sat long enduring accounts of the blind impresses of others will think this an understatement. Rorty wants somehow to connect our tedious uniqueness with the profound re-creations of reality which as a romantic he thinks constitute the greatness of a strong poet. The connection cannot be made. Biographical incidents predispose a poet to his work but that work is not an expression of those incidents. The theory of gravitation does not express Newton’s experiences with a falling apple. Milton’s eccentricities and ambitions colour and motivate his poetry but constitute no part of its excellence.
Rorty’s ‘anxiety of influence’ is identical with the human, indeed primate, passion for honour or social status. We find it more plausibly explained by Machiavelli, who also spoke of able and ambitious fame-seekers who produce foundational myths for new universal religions or new political orders. Machiavelli and Rorty agree that the question of truth does not arise in the assessment of such formative myths; and they further agree that except where poets or hero-founders exercise their excellence, Fortuna/contingency rules the world and accounts for the actions of men. Machiavelli’s founders fail unless they produce actual benefit for their people. The benefit must be a real benefit, known to be such on the basis of a knowledge of human nature which tells us what for humans is a benefit. Rorty implies a human nature position in saying that the ultimate human good is to be a strong poet, but the goods his poets offer us are only novel fantasies. He wants to imply that they are more than that, that they are ‘useful’, but the attempt is incongruous with his anti-foundational value nihilism.
The relation of the poets to others is troublesome. If we are horrified by the realisation of our entrapment in the dead metaphors of dead poets, we must aspire to replace them. As poets we are grateful to them for furnishing us with the building blocks of our poetic structures, but if we do not negate and destroy them we are merely ‘shoving about already coined pieces’. The newness and liveliness of our poems show up the old poems and poets as boring and oppressive. Our relation to our contemporaries and to rising young poets is less ambivalent. They are our deadly enemies. Our agenda is patricide, fratricide and infanticide. Such a universalisation of the contemporary art scene is hardly credible.
Strong poets in the sciences are said to produce myths which are ‘useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens’. Now either such myths actually predict and control or they do not. If they do, then scientific myths are not myths at all but something quite different – say, interim hypotheses about a constant reality. If they do not, then we can choose between astronomy and astrology only on the basis of striking novelty or number of adherents. I don’t suppose Rorty intends either conclusion. I think he is trying to elevate poetry by denigrating science and so resorts to what he himself says is the use of poetry (rhetoric) to change reality (appearances) by redescribing it. The word we have for this is ‘sophistry’.
Literary poets do not pretend to usefulness. Rorty is suspended between two incompatible accounts of their influence over us. One is that we are simply attracted to their novelty, as to a fireworks display. The other starts with the romantic ideal of the daring avant-gardist who sweeps away the stale metaphors of the past and expresses a present social reality. He tells it like it is. What attracts us, then, is not the precious uniqueness of the poet but his talent for finding the words to express our common social reality. New poems describe – do not create – an existent social reality. So persistent is this theme of the reality of social life and history in Rorty that we may say that the dominant paradigm of which he speaks is not a dark anti-foundationalism illuminated by creative poets, but culturalism, and sometimes historicism, within which poets discover rather than create. If so, then the mysterious uniqueness of poets evaporates and they are seen as capable people with an anxiety of influence.
Rorty wants to establish a dichotomy of old philosophy and new poetry, the one foundationalist, the other not. The categories blur. It is hardly shocking to suggest that the foundationalists Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Hume, are, even today, stronger poets than Niezsche or Dewey, and if they are, ought we not prefer them? If we prefer them, do we not become foundationalists? I think Rorty can only respond that the older writers are ‘outmoded’. “Outmoded” must mean, from an anti-foundationalist position, “unfashionable” or “on the ash heap of history”. On the first definition, Yeats was outmoded until he became popular. On the second, anti-foundationalism is itself outmoded in favour of historicism.
Value: Rorty says that ‘questions about how to give a sense to one’s own life or that of one’s community … are questions for art, politics, or both.’ Value, he says, is created, is metaphor, poetry, has no foundation, is essentially undiscussable. I think Hume (Enquiry, paragraph 173) and others have disposed of the notion that values can be created from nothing. If we were not an animal for which certain elemental situational evaluations are normal, the poets could no more teach us values than they could teach them to a stone.
Foundationalist moral philosophers are those who reason with us about the overall sense of our lives and the life of our community. When such reasoning and sense is outlawed, we are left to the rhetoric of poetic moralisers. Christ (‘it is written, but I say …’) is their exemplar. The inspired moralists, Buddha, Blake, de Sade, Pascal, Nietzsche, Hitler, Tolstoy and others, speak, not to our total condition as humans, but from some powerful but partial vision. In the absence of a foundation for thinking about our condition, we have no means of choosing among these poets: we must buy the line of the cleverest one present. We see about us now, stranded on the beaches of time, the vulgar Marxists of the Thirties, the hippies of the Sixties, the student radicals of the early Seventies – all victims of the transient moral metaphors which ruled their formative youth. Poetic morality is for groupies, for minds unencumbered by the ballast of a sense of proportion and of humour, minds impressionable and eager but unfitted for coping with the perspective of a whole human life.
When value is understood to be entirely the creation of poets or of cultures it loses its function of making sense of our lives. When we know that all values are mythical we lose all sense of how to conduct our lives and all hope of ever regaining that sense. The heroic moral iconoclasts of the past two hundred years who so proudly dissolved foundational moralities were so secure in their own moral prejudices that they give no thought to where they would themselves stand when their wrecking was completed. It is completed now, and we must ask on what basis Rorty can object to the new plan of Consolidated Foods to grind up the unemployed for Low Fat Peepulburgers, or to child abuse, racism, political oppression, sadism. Poets have ‘redescribed’ and praised these and other such practices and will again. It is a testimonial to the present impotence of philosophy and to the feather-headedness of the ‘ruling paradigm’ that so many of us can embrace a theory about value from whose obvious consequences we would and should recoil in horror. We can live comfortably with tentative cosmologies, logics and sciences, for these are instrumental or merely interesting, but without a foundational morality we are left initially to the gratification of immediate itches and then to the state of nature which rendered Hobbe’s absolute sovereign both necessary and desirable. As Luther put it, ‘frogs need storks.’
The ambiguities of Rorty’s political argument allow him to use value terms in the sense of their foundational integrity even as he argues for their contingency. He says: we should ‘see how we get on’ (but how will we know?); that something ‘promises great things’ (what is a great thing?). He speaks of ‘appropriate new forms’, ‘getting in the way of’, ‘inefficient’ (by what standard?), ‘trial and error’, ‘marvellous’, ‘work better’, ‘vanguard of the species’, ‘making something worthwhile of ourselves, selves whom we respect’, ‘progress’ – all borrowed from the philosophic culture he opposes and in their rhetorical misuse contributing to the further confusion of our language and thought.
The alternative to Rorty and to the value despair of many intelligent people today is the traditional human nature foundationalism. The major secular-moral philosophers, from Plato to Hume at least, despite differences in emphasis, agree that we have a determinate-species feeling profile and that morality – human value – is discoverable through an understanding of what it is to be human and to have human sentiments and priorities. We do in fact have or can have some idea of how we should live. This is not to assert the possibility of authoritative answers to all specific value questions, or to deny that in different cultures, different problems arise as well as different vocabularies for dealing with them. It is to assert that our shared nature is a foundation for a general human ethic.
Conclusions: Rorty’s ‘strong poet’ thesis is but the ‘great man theory of history’ thinly disguised. When not actively arguing for this radical individualism, he steadily assumes the truth of its negation, culturalism and historicism, those dominant dogmatisms of our day, according to which men are totally plastic to their time and place.
Rorty’s philosophy is truly expressive of our time. Even the public is aware that public opinion is not discovered but created. Our resonating language of feeling and thought has been sucked dry by advertisers, ideologues and other poetical redescribers. The poets celebrated by Rorty have, in all the arts, pretty much ceased to sing. If all that is to be real is the world furnished us by ‘poets’ anxious of influence and if that influence is not to be limited by any foundationalist considerations of truth or humanity, then we must learn to like the idea that two and two are five and, as Orwell explained to us, a great deal more of that sort.
Department of Political Science, Boston University
Richard Rorty writes: Robert McShea and I disagree about whether the questions ‘By what standard?’ or ‘Upon what foundation?’ always have a useful answer, and so we differ on the value of a philosophical view which offers no answer to such questions. I regret that McShea did not explicitly discuss my attempt, in ‘The Contingency of Community’ (LRB, 24 July), to explain how my view can be fitted together with political liberalism. I agree with him that the issue between us is ultimately about political utility. So I tried, in that piece, to show how the line of thought sketched in ‘The Contingency of Language’ and ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’ might be more useful to liberalism than what he calls ‘human nature foundationalism’.
I have no answer to his question ‘useful by what standard’, except ‘useful for furthering the goals which political liberals have always tried to further’. But I remain unpersuaded that this is not a sufficient answer. McShea would like a justification of those goals themselves, and thinks that one can get one by invoking a theory of human nature. This seems to me an attempt to justify a reasonably persuasive view by making it rest on considerably more controversial premises – premises which, though they might once have strengthened the faith of those who accept the desired conclusions, no longer do so, and which are certainly of little use in convincing people who doubt those conclusions. I do not think that Orwell took the moral of 1984 to be that we need to believe general philosophical claims if we are to keep our chins up. On the contrary, Orwell seems to me one of the people who helped us understand the rather limited power general ideas have to fortify liberal emotions, as compared with the considerable power they have to fortify non-liberal ones.
Vol. 9 No. 7 · 2 April 1987
SIR: More fully than any other writer generally regarded as a ‘philosopher’, Richard Rorty has achieved full practical (and, possibly, theoretical) mastery of that Great Truth previously exploited mostly by successful political demagogues: if one commits an enormous number of egregious intellectual sins within a relatively short space, one thereby creates an effectively irrefutable verbal edifice. The proper response to Professor Rorty’s recent ‘poems’ (or whatever they may be) would be a sentence-by-sentence critique, identifying and analysing the mechanism of each of his successive rhetorical manoeuvres, and exhaustively noting and adequately responding to his individual questionable interpretations, fallacious arguments, untenable contents, inconsistencies, and miscellaneous verbal tricks. Such a response would be very long, perhaps five or more times longer than the texts it concerned itself with, somewhat tedious, perhaps ‘unpublishable’, and ultimately question-begging (as any use of reason against conscious irrationalism is).
I thought Robert McShea’s generally admirable letter (LRB, 4 December 1986) a quite effective brief response to Rorty (though one need not accept McShea’s ‘human nature foundationalism’ to deplore Rorty’s literary procedure or reject the radically irrationalist doctrines which constitute the distinctive core of his ‘thought’). My hope is that readers of LRB noted the inadequacy of Rorty’s reply. Had I needed convincing, McShea’s letter would have been sufficient to persuade me that Rorty’s ‘view’ cannot ‘be fitted together with political liberalism’, but is indeed destructive not only of ‘liberalism’ (in any sense of that equivocal word) but of goods of greater value. Rorty says: ‘I have no answer to this question “useful by what standard” except “useful for furthering the goals which political liberals have always tried to further”.’ I suppose one or two such unchanging goals might be identified, but it is surely clear that ‘later 19th-century liberalism’ (a political attitude shared by men such as J.S. Mill, Bertrand Russell and Sir Karl Popper) had somewhat different goals from the 1980s ‘liberalism’ of men such as Rorty: it would, for example, seem impossible to be both a ‘Popperian liberal’ and a ‘Dworkinian liberal’. In any case, Rorty identifies his particular political goals (which include not only ‘liberalism’ but the ‘aestheticising of society’, whatever the latter may amount to) with The Good and makes it clear, not only by his practice but in scattered explicit statements, that any verbal means are justified in protecting and furthering this Good. From ‘The Contingency of Community’, (LRB, 24 July 1986): ‘It is central to the idea of a liberal society’ – whatever this Platonic entity may be – ‘that, in respect of words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes.’ Rorty’s practice fully reflects the implications of this sentence: few have been more unscrupulous in their use of language, though his misdemeanours are mitigated by occasional admissions that he is not really engaged in ‘arguing’ or ‘asserting’ – words denoting activities considered either impossible or undesirable in the bizarre intellectual universe of his creation – but merely ‘persuading’, using any rhetorical tactic he supposes he can get away with.
Is Rorty, as The Grand Prophet of Irrationalism, more persuasive than anti-persuasive? I would think ultimately the latter, in that the form in which he has presented his synthesis of various currently fashionable ideas has served to make more clear how fantastic, incoherent and dangerous those notions are. But, while recent constructive philosophers (Peirce, Popper, many others) within the two-thousand-five-hundred-year-old tradition of rational critical inquiry which continues to be the engine of Western intellectual progress are now virtually unread and unknown, Professor Rorty has attained an extraordinary celebrity and, I suppose, respect. Why and how has this occurred? First, because he is, to quote McShea, ‘truly expressive of our time’: it is unsurprising that the decade of Ronald Reagan should also be that of Richard Rorty. Second, because he writes well and relatively clearly: though an anti-philosopher given to inconsistency and the expression of vague doctrines (about ‘strong poets’ or ‘self-creating selves’) normally abhorrent to Anglo-Saxon thinkers, he writes much in the manner of the usual 20th-century analytic philosopher – except that he writes better, his disdain for consistency and precision helping him to do so. The relative sobriety of his prose disguises the inebriety of his opinions. Third, because in a neo-scholastic era which distrusts independent thought, he endeavours to make it appear that his views are interpretations, or quasi-inevitable syntheses, of the content of various texts treated as quasi-sacred in our decade (primarily the writings of Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Berlin, Davidson, Kuhn and Derrida, with occasional appeals to Hegel, James, Dewey and Bloom). To make his awesome erudition fully evident, he has also occasionally misinstructed his readers in the philosophies of Kant, Peirce, Horkheimer and others who would regard his writings with distaste. He also sometimes quotes and interprets poets: for this purpose, a just-dead man such as Philip Larkin, fresh in everyone’s mind but not in a position to say ‘that is not what I meant at all,’ is ideal. Fourth, because he is avant-garde, and ‘we’ want to be too. (In the avant-garde is precisely where the timid and conformist and conventional souls of our time wish to be thought of as being.) Fifth, because he is an extraordinarily skilled and clever rhetorician, writing with a freedom and elegance more difficult for those bound by the antiquated standards he rejects.
As noted above, Rorty is (in a sense) ‘invulnerable’ to attack. This is not because he is employing language radically different from ‘ours’: it differs little from recent philosophical ‘ordinary language’. It is partly because he is playing a new ‘language-game’, one differing from ours in that it permits various basic rules or standards to be either insisted upon or ignored, depending on which best serves one’s immediate persuasive purpose. It is primarily because he lives in or imagines he lives in an intellectual universe altogether different from that inhabited by Western thinkers from the time of Parmenides to that of Popper. I do not think we should, or can, leave the old universe: it has served us quite well, and our recent forays away from it into crannies of neo-irrationalism have had some unfortunate effects (thirty or so million persons killed in World War Two, to mention one). Beyond this, I am convinced that Rorty’s universe cannot be inhabited, that thought and action would become impossible – or utterly arbitrary – were we to completely move into it.
Rorty is a ‘nihilist’ with regard both to truth and value – and many other things, of course. His universe is one containing neither objective truths nor objective values. If we move into it, we no longer have any reason to be consistent (or inconsistent), can state neither truths nor falsehoods, cannot be guilty of sound or unsound argumentation. In it, if we wished to justify something, I suppose we might somehow ‘point to it’ at the same time as we pointed to our local statues of the Goals of Liberalism. (I wish Rorty would provide us with a list of these deities.)
From what I will call ‘the normal position’, the still-living rational tradition dating from at least the sixth century BC, we can argue against ‘the Rortian position’ (supposing there to be such a thing: his writings are so full of inconsistencies that his collected works could be printed, with little loss and some illumination, in the abridged form, ‘P and not-P’). Rorty notes (LRB, 24 July 1986): ‘there are many objections to what I have been saying.’ I should think the number of such objections has no limit, since every truth, every falsehood, every valid or invalid argument, and every thing which is actually better than some other thing, can be counted as a reason against his nihilistic irrationalism.
From ‘the Rortian position’, no argument or assertion can be made, logic and truth having been flushed down his philosophical toilet as waste matter potentially poisonous to his gods. He can thus neither argue for his position nor against any other. Nor can he claim his position to be true or any other false. Nor can he have reason to choose one thing rather than another. (He claims he can be caused to behave in various ways, but the advancement of this – or anything else – as a factual claim is inconsistent with his basic position.) In his universe, no thing ‘is the case’ and, if some thing were the case, it could not be said to be better or worse than any other possible thing. And within it, all opinions are equally vacuous; and even if they were not, they would all be equally devoid of merit or demerit.
Similar considerations count against any form of logical or axiological nihilism; and many present intellectual tendencies – ‘relativism’, ‘emotivism’, ‘deconstructionism’ – are, at least in some interpretations, species of nihilism. The spectacle of intellectual nihilists advancing arguments, containing premises taken to be true, in support of their positions, is quite amusing and incredible enough to be beyond satire. The basic forms of arguments for their views are either ‘inasmuch as such-and-such is true, nothing can be true’ or ‘for the following good reasons, nothing is either good or bad.’ The various manoeuvres they may perform in the attempt to show that their reasoning is less obviously absurd are all ultimately ineffectual.
We cannot live as human beings (nor, I think, even as animals) without the minimal presuppositions that at least one proposition is true and at least one possible state of affairs is inherently better than some other possible state of affairs. Thought, speech and action are otherwise rendered impossible. I wish to make no stronger claims – here – than those. I strongly suspect, however, that something is indeed the case, and that it is better (for example) to believe that ‘at least one thing is the case’ than to do any of a great many other things – such as endeavouring to sacrifice all the intellectual norms of our society for the professed sake of a few vague and temporarily fashionable political or aesthetic prejudices.
University of Utah, Salt Lake City
Vol. 9 No. 9 · 7 May 1987
SIR: Is it not time to stop the Rorty-bashing in your columns? The latest example, by Shirrell Larsen (LRB, 17 April 1986), is especially silly and offensive. A single example of its silliness will suffice. Larsen believes that Rorty’s point of view requires giving up the notion of truth altogether: that he has ‘flushed [truth] down his philosophical toilet’, in Larsen’s typically elegant phrase. This is misunderstanding of the grossest sort. In no way does Rorty deny the importance of distinguishing truth from falsity. Rather, he has tried to show that the standard philosophical images in terms of which that crucial distinction has heretofore been represented (the metaphor of ‘correspondence with reality’, for example) have increasingly lost their power to convince; and that new images for the operation of intelligence must therefore be called into play. Truth remains the goal of inquiry: metaphysical accounts of truth must go. This would bring on ‘relativism’ or ‘nihilism’ only if an appeal to metaphysical considerations were the only way to make sense of our general agreement about what is so: and Rorty denies that it is. He may be wrong in this, of course, but that is a matter for careful, patient reflection, not diatribe.
So much for the critical interest of Larsen’s letter. The offence it gives arises from its apparently unashamed name-calling and innuendo. Rorty is called ‘The Grand Prophet of Irrationalism’; is gratuitously paired with Ronald Reagan; is accused – without support from example – of misrepresenting other philosophers and poets; is charged generally with ‘questionable interpretations, fallacious arguments, untenable contents, inconsistencies and miscellaneous verbal tricks’; is obliquely linked – through his alleged ‘irrationalism’ – to the thirty million deaths of World War Two; and so on ad nauseam. This is not merely ridiculous: it is ugly, and certainly does no good for the ‘rationalist’ tradition for which Larsen piously claims to speak. Professor Rorty is perfectly capable of defending his views against intelligent objection, and has shown himself willing to do so. He does not deserve to be subjected to this sort of thoughtless abuse, however, and certainly not in the pages of the LRB.
Vol. 9 No. 12 · 25 June 1987
SIR: James Edwards (Letters, 7 May), as an evident admirer, friend or would-be disciple of Richard Rorty, is understandably upset with my letter (2 April), with me for writing it, and with the editors of the London Review for printing it. I cannot fairly blame him much, since the two best and brightest of my philosophical friends had already hinted that – though they had no disagreements with the content of my letter – they thought it may have laid ‘negative rhetoric’ on a bit too thickly and uniformly. Without withdrawing any propositional claim made in the letter, I will concede the fairness of this criticism, and hereby promise to behave better in future.
Quite unlike my letter, Edwards’s response is little more than a tissue of pejorative expressions having little or no clear descriptive meaning, an expression of emotion rather than of thought. I submit that it is silly and thoughtless to call my 2 April letter ‘silly’ or ‘thoughtless’. Beyond this, I deny blaming Professor Rorty, however ‘obliquely’, for our last world war.
Edwards’s letter contains one substantial criticism: that I misunderstand Rorty’s views on truth. This is possible, since Rorty’s writings seem to express inconsistent views on the matter. On the one hand, in ‘The Contingency of Language’ (and elsewhere) he appears to express an extreme logical nihilism. If, as he there claims (LRB, 17 April 1986), language is incapable of ‘representation of expression’ – has, in fact, no ‘purpose’, while ‘truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences,’ the world itself having no ‘intrinsic nature’, and ‘truths’ themselves passing in and out of existence like dress fashions – if this, and much more, it would seem that truth (at least of the ‘old-fashioned kind’ to which the axioms of propositional logic are applicable) has been pretty well done in and done away with. On the other hand, Rorty wishes to retain the word ‘truth’ and is personally very fond of the confident and unqualified advancement of truth-claims, clearly thinking non-teleological materialism and atheism, for example, to be at least as doubt-free as are arithmetical theorems. My letter as originally submitted included a long postscript primarily endeavouring to give an account of Rorty’s interesting notion of ‘truth’ and to suggest the deep inconsistency of his philosophy considered as a whole. Had this postscript been published, I do not think Edwards’s ‘one substantial criticism’ would have been available to him.
I am now working on a very long criticism of Professor Rorty’s writings, complete with quite minute textual analyses of the more important of them. Periodical letters are necessarily too short for detailed critique of this sort and my 2 April letter was thus little more than an invitation to those interested to read or reread Rorty’s writings and judge the justice or injustice of various comments and complaints for themselves.
Two concluding remarks. 1. The tradition I regard myself as defending is the ‘rational’ – not the ‘rationalistic’ – one. This tradition has room for a diversity of opinions and intellectual approaches and has included – at least until very recently – almost all serious European or American thinkers, Hume (who was ‘rational’ but no ‘rationalist’) among them. 2. The submitted manuscript of my 2 April letter ‘charged’ Rorty with frequently advancing ‘untenable contentions’, not ‘untenable contents’. The printing of ‘contents’ was a typographical error.
University of Utah
SIR: One must be amused at the laboured flailing of Professor Rorty by critics such as Shirrell Larsen (LRB, 2 April). Isn’t there a much simpler way? If Rorty is, by chance, correct, he cannot offer those who, by chance, disagree with him any reasons for taking him seriously. On the other hand, if he is wrong, it seems a waste to expend perfectly good reasons on someone who could not, in principle, recognise them as such.
Professor of Philosophy, California State University, San Bernardino
SIR: David Gentleman’s drawing on the cover of the LRB for 7 May suggests that I’m not the only one to be deeply disturbed by the recent Rorty revelations and all the talk of flushing truth down the lavatory. Indeed, it appears that this cloacal obsession is a world-wide thing, reaching from Shirrell Larsen in Utah to James Edwards in Vienna. Professor Rorty – who follows Archimedes in Big Thinking in the bathroom – must come out of the water-closet and tell us where, and for how much, he purchased his philosophical toilet. Only thus will the controversy and enviousness be dispelled. And I must apologise for lowering the tone of your excellent journal.