Being that can be understood is language
Richard Rorty on H.-G. Gadamer
In a book called Reason in the Age of Modern Science, Hans-Georg Gadamer asked the question: Can ‘philosophy’ refer to anything nowadays except the theory of science? His own answer to this question is affirmative. It may seem that the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition in philosophy – the tradition that goes back to Frege and Russell and whose most prominent living representatives are Quine, Davidson, Dummett and Putnam – must return a negative answer. For that tradition is often thought of as a sort of public relations agency for the natural sciences.
Those who think of analytic philosophy in this way often describe Gadamer’s own work as a sort of apologia for the humanities. On this view of the matter, each of what C.P. Snow called ‘the two cultures’ has its own philosophical claque. Those who accept Snow’s picture of the intellectual scene think of the quarrel over science v. religion that divided the intellectuals of the 19th century as having evolved into the contemporary quarrel between the kinds of people whom we Californians call the ‘techies’ and the ‘fuzzies’.
This crude and over-simplified picture of the tensions within contemporary philosophy is not altogether wrong. But a more detailed account of the history of philosophy in the 20th century would distinguish between a first, scientistic, phase of analytic philosophy and a second, anti-scientistic, phase. Between 1900 and 1960 most admirers of Frege would have agreed with Quine’s dictum that ‘philosophy of science is philosophy enough.’ But a change came over analytic philosophy around the time that philosophers began reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations side by side with Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Since then, more and more analytic philosophers have come to agree with Putnam that ‘part of the problem with present-day philosophy is a scientism inherited from the 19th century.’
Putnam urges us to give up the idea that natural science has a distinctive ‘method’, one which makes physics a better paradigm of rationality than, for example, historiography or jurisprudence. He is joined in this appeal by philosophers of physics like Arthur Fine, who asks us to abandon the assumption that natural science ‘is special, and that scientific thinking is unlike any other’. Putnam and Fine both ridicule the idea that the discourse of physics is somehow more in touch with reality than any other portion of culture. Post-Wittgensteinian Anglophone philosophy of language, of the sort found in Putnam, Davidson and Brandom, has collaborated with post-Kuhnian Anglophone philosophy of science, of the sort found in Latour, Hacking and Fine. The result of this collaboration has been a blurring of the lines between the sciences and the humanities, and an attempt to make Snow’s techie-fuzzie controversy seem as quaint as the 19th-century debate over the age of the earth.
This is not to say that scientism is dead. There are many distinguished analytic philosophers, particularly admirers of Kripke like David Lewis and Frank Jackson, who are unabashed physicalist metaphysicians. They think of themselves as continuing the struggle against mystificatory nonsense that Thomas Huxley waged against Bishop Wilberforce, Russell against Bergson, and Carnap against Heidegger. These philosophers still award a special ontological status (‘fundamental reality’) to the elementary particles discovered by the physicists. They believe that natural science gives us essences and necessities which are, as they put it, de re rather than de dicto. They think that Wittgensteinian philosophers of language are dangerously irrationalist in saying that all distinctions between essences and accidents, or between necessities and contingencies, are artefacts that change as our choice of description changes. They think that Kuhnian philosophers of science are equally misguided in refusing to grant natural science any metaphysical or epistemological privileges.
This quarrel over whether natural science is special presently dominates analytic philosophy. I want to suggest that a much-quoted and much-debated sentence from Gadamer might serve as a slogan for those philosophers of language and science who follow Putnam and Fine rather than Kripke and Lewis. The sentence is: ‘Being that can be understood is language’ (‘Sein, das verstanden werden kann, ist Sprache’). That claim encapsulates, I shall argue, both what was true in nominalism and what was true in idealism.
Let me define ‘nominalism’ as the claim that all essences are nominal and all necessities de dicto. This amounts to saying that no description of an object is more true to the nature of that object than any other. Nominalists think that Plato’s metaphor of cutting nature at the joints should be abandoned once and for all. Proponents of nominalism are often described as ‘linguistic idealists’ by the materialist metaphysicans. For the latter believe that Dalton and Mendeleev did indeed cut nature at the joints. From this Kripkean perspective, Wittgensteinians are so infatuated with words that they have lost touch with the real world, the world modern science has opened up to us. Philosophers of this sort accept the account of the history of philosophy that Gadamer summed up when he wrote that ‘the rapid downfall of the Hegelian empire of the Absolute Spirit brought us to the end of metaphysics, and thereby to the promotion of the empirical sciences to the topmost position in the kingdom of the thinking mind.’
Nominalism, however, is a protest against any sort of metaphysics. To be sure, it was misleadingly associated with materialism by Hobbes and other early modern philosophers, and is still so associated by Quine. But these thinkers are inconsistent in holding that words denoting the smallest bits of matter cut nature at the joints in a way that other words did not. A consistent nominalist will insist that the predictive and explanatory success of a corpuscularian vocabulary has no bearing on its ontological status, and that the very idea of ‘ontological status’ should be dropped.
Vol. 22 No. 7 · 30 March 2000
From Galen Strawson
When Richard Rorty says that only a sentence can be relevant to the truth of another sentence (LRB, 16 March), one wants to reply, on behalf of the millions of human beings murdered in the 20th century, say, that what makes the sentence ‘millions of human beings were murdered in the 20th century’ true, and is therefore relevant to its truth, is not a sentence, but the (non-linguistic) fact that millions of human beings were murdered in the 20th century. One wonders if he means what he says, or knows what he is saying, especially when one remembers the remark, in his 1993 Amnesty Lecture, about the contempt we always feel for losers – Jews in the 1930s, Muslims in Bosnia.
Jesus College, Oxford
Vol. 22 No. 8 · 13 April 2000
From Jerry Fodor
As far as I can tell, Richard Rorty (LRB, 16 March) is seriously confused. it’s a leitmotif of his piece that 'understanding is always of objects under a description,' a principle from which he apparently thinks it follows that there’s never a way of getting 'behind' the description to the object that you're trying to understand. I doubt that does follow, but bother the inference – the premise isn’t true. Not, at least, if you parse it the way Rorty apparently wants to: viz, it’s always objects under descriptions that understanding is of.
'Why is Fodor in such a snit?' 'Because he’s late for work again.' What’s explained here is Fodor being in a snit, which is a property of Fodor tout court, not of 'Fodor under a description' (whatever, exactly, a Fodor under a description might be). The point is this: if 'because he’s late for work again' explains Fodor being in a snit, then it does so however Fodor may be described. Suppose (what’s arguable) that Fodor is the world’s most ill-tempered philosopher. Then if Fodor being late again explains his being in a snit, it likewise explains the world’s most ill-tempered philosopher being in a snit; and, mutatis mutandis, the husband of Mrs Fodor being in a snit; and the friend and patron of Mr James the cat being in a snit … and so forth, world without end, for whatever descriptions Fodor satisfies.
What is true is not that understanding is of things under descriptions, but only that we understand things by invoking descriptions that they satisfy. It explains my being in a snit that the description 'is late for work' is true of me. This is a not frightfully illuminating way of saying that it explains my being in a snit that I’m late for work; which is where we started. And from which, I imagine, nothing of any great epistemological interest follows.
From Jerry Fodor
As far as I can tell, Richard Rorty (LRB, 16 March) is seriously confused. it’s a leitmotif of his piece that ‘understanding is always of objects under a description,’ a principle from which he apparently thinks it follows that there’s never a way of getting ‘behind’ the description to the object that you’re trying to understand. I doubt that does follow, but bother the inference – the premise isn’t true. Not, at least, if you parse it the way Rorty apparently wants to: viz, it’s always objects under descriptions that understanding is of.
‘Why is Fodor in such a snit?’ ‘Because he’s late for work again.’ What’s explained here is Fodor being in a snit, which is a property of Fodor tout court, not of ‘Fodor under a description’ (whatever, exactly, a Fodor under a description might be). The point is this: if ‘because he’s late for work again’ explains Fodor being in a snit, then it does so however Fodor may be described. Suppose (what’s arguable) that Fodor is the world’s most ill-tempered philosopher. Then if Fodor being late again explains his being in a snit, it likewise explains the world’s most ill-tempered philosopher being in a snit; and, mutatis mutandis, the husband of Mrs Fodor being in a snit; and the friend and patron of Mr James the cat being in a snit … and so forth, world without end, for whatever descriptions Fodor satisfies.
What is true is not that understanding is of things under descriptions, but only that we understand things by invoking descriptions that they satisfy. It explains my being in a snit that the description ‘is late for work’ is true of me. This is a not frightfully illuminating way of saying that it explains my being in a snit that I’m late for work; which is where we started. And from which, I imagine, nothing of any great epistemological interest follows.
From Alex Fox
Richard Rorty’s critique of Gadamer became a little ‘fuzzie’ during his discussion of descriptions of objects, and of what makes one ‘better’ than another. His gloss on the process of one descriptive paradigm replacing another stated that ‘new predicates are attributed to the things previously identified by old predicates … making these new attributions cohere with the older ones in ways that save the phenomena.’ But often the phenomena are not saved: the universe as described by Newton is fundamentally different from the universe as described by quantum mechanics. If we accept that we have no understanding of objects, only of sentences about objects, we are faced with a paradox (our ability to see that descriptions can be contradictory and still refer to the same phenomenon) which Rorty attempts to sidestep by rejecting metaphors of depth and penetration in epistemology while himself using a weaker version, comparing objects to onions: we peel back layers of descriptions to reveal new ones, ‘but without a non-linguistic core that will be revealed once those layers have been stripped off’. I would like to know what we do when we run out of onion.
Vol. 22 No. 9 · 27 April 2000
From Michael Haslam
Re: Rorty, Fodor, Fox et al. As much as any plant on earth, an onion has a core: a cone that buds into a bulb of fleshy leaves. There may well be philosophies composed of layers around an absent centre: they don't, however, describe the onion but an old and worn symbolic platitude. The good philosophers had better know their onions.
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire
Vol. 22 No. 10 · 18 May 2000
From Michael Steger
Maybe Jerry Fodor is in such a snit (Letters, 13 April) because he believes that Rorty’s insistence that ‘understanding is always of objects under a description’ means that Rorty must think that sentences have no referents. Rorty’s point, as I see it, is that the ways by which we make references – and thus the way we construct referents – always take place within already existing contexts and conventions (or ‘under descriptions’, as G.E. Anscombe first put it, I believe). We will always know ‘Jerry Fodor’ as something (a mammal, a person, a citizen, a philosopher, the result of a genetic code etc), seen from a certain angle, as it were. The ‘real’ Jerry Fodor, seen from the view from nowhere, we will never know, however: there is no real, true Jerry Fodor to know.
From Melvyn Firth
Jerry Fodor’s refutation of Richard Rorty was weakened by his self-chosen descriptions. As a practising counsellor I can imagine meeting him, maybe to understand his ‘being in a snit’. In the process we might experience an in situ snit, perhaps occasioned by his lateness for an appointment. By observing this without reaction or response I might be doing something extremely valuable for him, although I would need to use language to describe his behaviour and my thoughts and feelings. Through this process, by making connections with other observations, his history, some reports of other people’s histories and perhaps some theory, Fodor, myself and my supervisor would come to a greater understanding of him, his snits or why the phrase ‘the world’s most ill-tempered philosopher’ could occur in any text produced by or about him even for the sake of argument. Perhaps, following Rorty and Gadamer, I would argue that we would never understand him partially or ‘tout court’ without description, nor could we justify our understanding without explaining the point of view behind our descriptions which would privilege one set of observations over another.
Finally, some time after our work together was finished, Fodor and I might bump into each other in Central Park and become friends; he might, by virtue of the photographs I took, the presents I bought, the guests I invited to dinner with him, and in countless other small ways, come to feel understood. Could we be sure this was understanding without bringing him under description again? isn’t this epistemology?