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Vol. 9 No. 7 · 2 April 1987

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Making Truth

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.

Shirrell Larsen
University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Seconds Away

SIR: Lord Kennet was incorrect in his statement that CND was not a unilateralist movement when it was first founded (LRB, 8 January). At its inaugural meeting in February 1958 at Central Hall, all the main speakers – Lord Russell, J.B. Priestley, A.J.P. Taylor, Michael Foot and Stephen King-Hall – called for unilateral nuclear disarmament. This policy was endorsed by the Executive Committee of CND on 27 February 1958 in a statement which called on the British people to ‘renounce unconditionally the use or production of nuclear weapons’.

Sheila Jones
CND Archivist, London Nl

Mrs Shakespeare

SIR: A.N. Wilson (Letters, 19 March) doesn’t understand the meaning of words. A more frequent use of the dictionary might temper his states of resentment. ‘Partial’ means ‘prejudiced, not impartial’; it doesn’t mean (as he imagines) ‘amorous’.

He similarly misunderstands most of my other words, which don’t matter, and many of Shakespeare’s, which do. The ‘indisputable’ maleness of the subject of the Sonnets can be disputed by anyone who can read. Of the 154 Sonnets, around 123 are unspecific as to the gender of the person(s) they address or concern. All are fairly inward, and some plainly ‘address’ nobody; one or two are scarcely even about love. Of the remainder, around seventeen suggest a male, and around fourteen suggest a female. These figures are approximate, but the predominance of the ‘ungendered’ must strike a reader. And even the more ‘male-suggesting’ of the Sonnets include difficulties such as Wilson, who can’t abide a metaphor, wants us not to know about. Two such sonnets, 20 (‘the Master Mistris’) and 144 (‘Two loves I have’), I dealt with in my last letter, and I note Wilson’s telling silence on the subject. I will give one further case here. One ‘ungendered’ sonnet, 82, in the middle of what we like to call the Fair Young Man group, has for its first line: ‘I grant thou wert not married to my Muse.’ A reader will straightforwardly place the stress where it belongs, on the rhyme-word ‘Muse’. But a subject not married to my Muse has to be married to my something else. It seems unsafe to assume that Shakespeare wanted to assume that we are all rather relaxed about homosexual marriage. And the Sonnets, though intensely original, nowhere initiate the kind of convention-breaking advertisement required to announce that wives can be men, too, in Wilson’s ‘factual’ sense (homosexual sonnets were written, and they aren’t like Shakespeare’s). The common-sense conclusion is that the sonnet is addressed to somebody rather like a wife.

It would take up too much of your space to accumulate all the evidence of ways in which these poems make their ‘subject’ or ‘subjects’ peculiarly ambiguous, even as to gender and status. What interests me is that the poet himself wills that ambiguity – that Wilson’s voulu simplicities work against the very poems themselves. A ‘fact’ hardly to be derived from Wilson’s letters is that these sonnets have long been acknowledged as among the most difficult poems ever written in English. Readers of the LRB might find the entertainment this correspondence so far fails to provide in looking up Sonnet 112, ‘Your love and pittie’ – a poem so difficult as to be quietly despaired of by most editors, almost all of whom variously emend its last line:

You are so strongly in my purpose bred,
That all the world besides me thinkes y’are dead.

I think the emenders are wrong, and the difficult sense Shakespeare makes is what he means: though Wilson, of course, would call the poet’s mocking self-awareness here sheer ‘modishness’. This is why his presuppositions can’t be accepted. They degrade the Sonnets. He allows himself to assume, for the purposes of argument, a bright and shallow appearance of common sense, a talk of ‘facts’, that denies the very nature of these poems. I agree with all despairing, or undespairing, editors that the reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a more difficult undertaking than Wilson is trying to make us believe.

Barbara Everett
Somerville College, Oxford

SIR: Albert Chatterley, commenting on Barbara Everett’s Shakespeare article and the ensuing correspondence (Letters, 5 March), makes ‘a small point of detail’ about ‘an American lady’ who asks Fats Waller: ‘Mr Waller, what is swing?’ According to Chatterley, Waller replied: ‘Lady, if you got to ask, you ain’t got it.’ This I’m afraid is still not strictly accurate. What Waller said was: ‘Look, lady, if you gotta ask, you ain’t got it.’ Moreover the woman in question was a Mrs Crutchley, who came, oddly enough, from Middlesbrough, and was visiting cousins in Leonia, NJ, one of whom had the entrée to the late-night jam-sessions at Minton’s. Fats Waller is said to have remarked later that night to an (unidentified) companion: ‘I got big eyes for that limey cat.’ So she wasn’t an American lady at all. But this probably doesn’t affect the story one way or the other.

Bernard McCabe
London NW3

SIR: Barbara Everett is wrong to say (Letters, 5 March) that my condensation of the so-called dedication to Shakespeare’s Sonnets produces the Mr W.H. enigma. The enigma arises from Mr W.H.’s being the only begetter, and this is a result of the original syntax of the dedication, not of the condensation, which does not alter the syntax. The syntax of the traditional reading is perfectly possible, while that of Barbara Everett’s reading, which requires Mr W.H. to be somehow the subject of ‘wisheth’ is not possible. This is what Housman, whose name shines in an adjoining column to my first letter, calls a ‘stony fact’.

G.F.C. Plowden
London SW1

Old Scholar

SIR: On the occasion of a Cambridge lecture in 1925 Sir Stuart Milner-Barry (Letters, 5 March) heard A.E. Housman not only read his translation of Horace’s Diffugere nives (published as More Poems V) but also add the famous and highly uncharacteristic comment about ‘the most beautiful poem in ancient literature’. What, apparently, Housman did not do on that occasion was to leave the room hurriedly, as reported in the review of my book, English Classical Scholarship (LRB, 5 February). Sir Stuart thinks this unlikely, and wonders whether there is independent evidence of it.

In fact, there is independent evidence. The description in my book (page 163) was taken from the account of another eyewitness, Mrs T.W. Pym, published originally in the Times of 5 May 1936 and cited fully by Grant Richards in his Housman (page 239). The occasion was the Easter Term 1914, when, it appears, Housman, for the first time, at any rate in Cambridge, lectured on the text of Horace Odes Book IV, where the poem occurs. According to A.S.F. Gow’s sketch, Housman repeated the course another four times, including 1925, when Sir Stuart attended. It is not perhaps surprising that what seems to have been a strong emotional reaction was not repeated on later occasions, because the reading of the translation and the comment on the poem had become a feature of that lecture. Perhaps again one might guess that, when he gave the lecture for the first time, in 1914, he so arranged it as to conclude with the translation and the comment. Certainly Mrs Pym’s evidence shows that the lecture was all but finished (‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry’). It was after that reading and the comment – the lecture now being finished – that ‘he walked quickly out of the room’: so my book and Mrs Pym’s evidence. I did not say, ‘he rushed out of the room,’ and indeed, as Sir Stuart remarks, ‘it is difficult to imagine Housman rushing anywhere.’

C.O. Brink
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Gosse’s ‘Omphalos’

SIR: Someone has no doubt by now pointed out that Tom Shippey has misnamed Philip Henry Gosse George. But I am curious about his assertion that Gosse’s Omphalos is a ‘totally discredited reconciliation of Darwin and the Book of Genesis’. I shall not try to understand what total discredit means in this case, but I am curious about the ‘reconciliation’. Such a motive was not on Gosse’s mind at all, even if it were possible to know in 1857 (the year Omphalos was published) what Darwin would publish in 1859.

G.G. Harper
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Contra Galton

SIR: Michael Neve (LRB, 5 March) calls the eminent Victorian scientist Francis Galton a ‘keeper of proto-fascist eugenical fantasies’, such as a ‘hygienic social order, free of mental defectives, criminals, subnormals, not to mention the rest of us’. The last category is self-exposing and of course self-evidently ridiculous. Galton nowhere expressed a ‘violent’ commitment to social reform (through influencing family-planning – in the light of genetics as then understood in terms statistically applicable to human families). Does Neve prefer to live in a society with increasing numbers of criminals and mental defectives, or does he just deny that heredity has anything to do with mental, temperamental or physical disabilities? As the English Association abandons its original nativist commitment in favour of multi-culturalism, and the Royal Anthropological Society becomes another agit-prop organ of ‘anti-sexism’ and ‘anti-racism’, Neve may be pleased to note that the old Eugenics Society has lost all interest in upliftment through careful contraception and has become virtually just another arm of the abortion-free-for-all lobby: but he is not yet part of the well-entrenched radical establishment in the literary and social science ‘academe’ of Anglo-Saxonia, or he would not have included that little final tribute to something distinctively ‘English’. But put Daniel Kelves, Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin, Leon Kamin, Nancy Stepan, Joseph Alper, Paul Rich, Stephan Chorover, Michael Biddis, Raphael Samuel, Gerald Dworkin, Old Silly Billig et al in the scales of scientific achievement against Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, Ruggles Gates, Cyril Darlington, William Shockley or Carleton Coon, and I have no doubt who will eventually emerge the ‘superior’, if indeed one dare use an adjective that derives from Anglo imperialism in an élitist culture.

Jean Bone
London SE9

Michael Neve writes: A group of mainly Jewish historians of genetics is counterpoised here with ancient, presumably Anglo-Saxon, scientists. Perhaps this is what Jean Bone means by ‘nativism’.


SIR: As a resident of Miami, I read with interest David Rieff’s Diary in your 5 February issue in which he alleges that ‘the mayors of Miami and Dade County are now Cubans.’ Perhaps the ‘bruised, aggrieved air about Miami today’ obscured for Mr Rieff the national origin of Steve Clark, the long-time and current Mayor of Dade County. Cuba does not appear on his birth certificate. Nor does anything resembling an accurate portrayal of the atmosphere as enjoyed by what I, at least, perceive to be the majority of residents of the area appear in Mr Rieff’’s article. What emerges is something more akin to Paris as observed by Georges Abdallah.

David Flinn
Miami Beach, Florida

Southern California

SIR: Ric Burns’s ‘At the Beverly Wilshire’ (LRB, 8 January) gives the impression that English immigrants to America are particularly drawn to Southern California. I know of no statistical study on the subject, but I have met far more English people in Northern California than I ever did in Southern California, where I also lived for a number of years. Perhaps the explanation for the difference in visibility is that they don’t write books about it, and if they did, they would not be published, and even if they were published, they would not be reviewed. My evidence is Mr Burns’s review, he is writing from the East Coast, where, for the publishing industry at least, California exists in as much of a mythical form as it does for the English immigrants Mr Burns employs his irony upon.

James Drake
Grand View, California


SIR: I was very shocked to discover that my piece on Foucault had been printed under the title ‘Je m’en Foucault’ (LRB, 5 March). Such a title may sound funny in English (I am not qualified to say). In French, it is extremely offensive, not to say, distasteful, for obvious reasons. I had entitled my review ‘Foucault, the Masked Philosopher’. I was glad to accept the title that was substituted for it in the proofs – namely, ‘Inhuman Thoughts’. I was not consulted about the title that prevailed, and would like to ask you to make clear to your readers that I had no part in it.

Vincent Descombes
Department of French, Johns Hopkins University

I am sorry that Professor Descombes was offended by this title. Let it be said that it was not gratuitous. It referred to the ‘French’ or ‘anarchist’ Foucault identified in the review – the Foucault who did not ‘respect venerable traditions’. It would appear that Professor Descombes does.

Editor, ‘London Review’


SIR: The photograph you reproduce on page six of your 19 March issue is not of William Coldstream, but of his companion on the roof of the Mere Hall Art Gallery, Bolton, in April 1938, Graham Bell – in very characteristic attitude. Other illustrations, and Lawrence Gowing’s tribute, very nice.

Anne Olivier Bell

We did wonder whether William Coldstream – as distinct from the activities in which he took part during the Thirties – was pictured in this photograph, and we did check, but then decided to go with the caption we were given. We are grateful for the correction.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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