The Contingency of Selfhood
As I was starting to write this I came across a poem by Philip Larkin, the last part of which reads:
And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is as clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
And what’s the profit? Only that, in time
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.
This poem is about the fear of dying, of extinction, to which Larkin confessed in interviews. But ‘fear of extinction’ is an unhelpful phrase, and needs unpacking. There is no such thing as fear of inexistence as such, but only fear of some concrete loss. It is not enough to say that poets, like everybody else, fear death, or that they fear nothingness. ‘Death’ and ‘nothingness’ are equally resounding, equally empty terms. To say one fears either is as unhelpful as Epicurus’s attempt to say why one should not fear them. Epicurus said, ‘When I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not,’ thus exchanging one vacuity for another. For the word ‘I’ is quite as hollow as the word ‘death’. To unpack such words one has to fill in the details about the ‘I’ in question, specify precisely what it is that will not be.
Larkin’s poem suggests a way of unpacking what Larkin feared. What he fears will be extinguished is his idiosyncratic lading-list, his individual sense of what was possible and important. That is what made his ‘I’ different from all the other ‘I’s’. To lose that difference is, I take it, what any poet – any maker, anyone who hoped to create something – fears. Anyone who spends his life trying to formulate an answer to the question of what is possible and important fears the extinction of that answer. But this does not mean simply that one fears that one’s poems may not be read. For that fear blends into the fear that, even if they are read, nobody will find anything distinctive in them. The words that were marshalled to one’s command may seem merely stock items, rearranged in routine ways. One will not have impressed one’s mark on the language, but rather have spent one’s life shoving about already-coined pieces. So one will not really have had an ‘I’ at all. One’s poems, and one’s self, will just be better or worse instances of familiar types. This is what Harold Bloom calls ‘the strong poet’s anxiety of influence’, his or her ‘horror of finding oneself to be only a copy or a replica’.
On this reading of Larkin’s poem, what would it be to have succeeded in tracing home the ‘blind impress’ which all one’s ‘behavings bear’? Presumably it would be to have figured out what was distinctive about oneself – the difference between one’s own lading-list and other people’s. If one could get this recognition down on paper – if one could find distinctive words for one’s own distinctiveness – then one would have demonstrated that one was not a copy or a replica. One would have been as strong as any poet has ever been, which means having been as strong as any human being could possibly be. For one would know exactly what it is that will die, and thus know what one has succeeded in becoming.
But the end of Larkin’s poem seems to reject this Bloomian reading. There we are told that it is ‘hardly satisfying’ to trace home one’s own distinctiveness. This seems to mean that it is hardly satisfying to have become an individual – in the strong sense in which the strong poet is the paradigm of individuality. Larkin is affecting to despise his own vocation, on the ground that to succeed in it would merely be to have put down on paper something which ‘applied only to one man once,/And that one dying’.
I call this ‘affectation’ because I doubt that any poet could seriously think trivial his own success in tracing home the blind impress borne by all his behavings – all his previous poems. Since the example of the Romantics, since the time when, with Hegel, we began to think of self-consciousness as self-creation, no poet has seriously thought of idiosyncrasy as an objection to his work. But in this poem Larkin is pretending that blind impresses, those particular contingencies which make each of us ‘I’ rather than a copy or replica of somebody else, do not really matter. He is suggesting that unless one finds something common to all men at all times, not just to one man once, one cannot die satisfied. He is pretending that to be a strong poet is not enough: that he would have attained satisfaction only from being, of all things, a philosopher.
I think Larkin’s poem owes its interest and its strength to this reminder of the quarrel between poetry and philosophy, the tension between an effort to achieve self-creation by the recognition of contingency and an effort to achieve universality by the transcendence of contingency. The same tension has haunted philosophy since Hegel’s time, and particularly since Nietzsche. The important philosophers of our own century are those who have tried to follow through on the Romantic poets by breaking with Plato and seeing freedom as the recognition of contingency. These are the philosophers who try to detach Hegel’s insistence on historicity from his pantheistic idealism. They try to retain Nietzsche’s identification of the strong poet, rather than the scientist, as the paradigm of humanity, while discarding what Heidegger called Nietzsche’s ‘metaphysics of the will to power’. More generally, they have tried to avoid anything that smacks of philosophy as contemplation, as the attempt to see life steady and see it whole, in order to insist on the sheer contingency of individual existence.
They thus find themselves in the same sort of awkward, but interesting position as Larkin. Larkin writes a poem about the unsatisfactoriness, compared with what philosophers hoped to do, of doing the only thing that poets can do. Post-Nietzschean philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger write philosophy in order to exhibit the universality and necessity of the individual and contingent. Both of these philosophers became caught up in the quarrel between philosophy and poetry which Plato began, and both ended by trying to work out honourable terms on which philosophy might surrender to poetry. Both gave us ways of thinking of the creator of metaphor, rather than the contemplator of literal truth, as the paradigm of humanity.
Consider Larkin’s suggestion that one might get more satisfaction out of finding a ‘blind impress’ which did not apply only to ‘one man once’ but to all human beings. Think of finding such an impress as being the discovery of the universal conditions of human existence, the permanent, ahistorical context of human life. This is what the priests once claimed to have done. Later the Greek philosophers, still later the empirical scientists, and later still the German idealists, made the same claim. They were going to explain to us the ultimate locus of power, the nature of reality. They would thereby inform us what we really are, what we are compelled to be by powers not ourselves. They would exhibit the stamp which had been impressed on all of us. This impress would not be blind, because it would not be a matter of chance, a mere contingency. It would be necessary, essential, telic, constitutive of what it is to be a human. It would give us a goal, the only possible goal – namely, the full recognition of that very necessity, the self-consciousness of our essence.
By comparison to this universal impress, so the pre-Nietzschean philosopher’s story goes, the particular contingencies of individual lives are unimportant. The mistake of the poets is to waste words on idiosyncrasies, on contingencies – to tell us about accidental appearance rather than essential reality. To admit that mere spatio-temporal location, mere contingent circumstance, mattered would be to reduce us to the level of a dying animal. To understand the context in which we necessarily live, by contrast, would be to give us a mind exactly as long as the universe itself, a lading-list which was a copy of the universe’s own list. What counted as existing, as possible, or as important, for us, would be what really is possible or important. Having copied this list, one could die with satisfaction, having accomplished the only task laid upon humanity: to know the truth, to be in touch with what is ‘out there’. There would be nothing more to do, and thus no possible loss to be feared. Extinction would not matter, for one would have become identical with the truth, and truth, on this traditional view, is imperishable. What was extinguished would be merely idiosyncratic animality. The poets, who are not interested in truth, merely distract us from this paradigmatically human task, and thereby degrade us.
It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth’. His definition of truth as a ‘mobile army of metaphors’ amounted to saying that the whole idea of ‘representing reality’ by means of language, and thus the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned. His perspectivism amounted to the claim that the universe had no lading-list to be known, no determinate length. He hoped that, once we realised that Plato’s ‘true world’ was just a fable, we would seek consolation, at the moment of death, not in having transcended the animal condition but in being that peculiar sort of dying animal who, by describing himself in his own terms, had created himself. More exactly, he would have created the only part of himself that mattered by constructing his own mind. To create one’s mind is to create one’s own language, rather than letting the length of one’s mind be set by the language other human beings have left behind.[*]
But in abandoning the traditional notion of truth, Nietzsche did not abandon the idea of discovering the causes of our being what we are. He did not give up the idea that an individual might track home the blind impress all his behavings bore. He only rejected the idea that this tracking was a process of discovery. On his view, in achieving this sort of self-knowledge we are not coming to know a truth which was out there (or in here) all the time. Rather, he saw self-knowledge as self-creation. The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language – that is, of thinking up some new metaphors. For any literal description of one’s individuality, which is to say any use of an inherited language-game for this purpose, will necessarily fail. One will not have traced that idiosyncrasy home, but merely have managed to see it as not idiosyncratic after all, as a specimen reiterating a type, a copy or replica of something which has already been identified. To fail as a poet – and thus, for Nietzsche, to fail as a human being – is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously-prepared programme, to write, at best, elegant variations on previously-written poems. So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language.
This may sound paradoxical, because we think of causes as discovered rather than invented. We think of telling a causal story as a paradigm of the literal use of language. Metaphor, linguistic novelty, seems out of place when one turns from simply relishing such novelty to explaining why these novelties, and not others, occurred. But even in the natural sciences we occasionally get genuinely new causal stories, the sort of story produced by what Kuhn calls ‘revolutionary science’. Even in the sciences, metaphoric redescriptions are the mark of genius and of progress. If we follow up this Kuhnian point by thinking, with Davidson, of the literal-metaphorical distinction as the distinction between old language and new language rather than in terms of a distinction between words which latch onto the world and those which do not, the paradox vanishes. If, with Davidson, we drop the notion of language as fitting the world, we can see the point of Bloom’s and Nietzsche’s claim that only the strong poet, only the person who uses words as they have never before been used, is able to appreciate her own contingency. For only she sees her language as contingent in the way that her parents or her historical epoch are contingent. She is the only one who can appreciate the force of the claim that ‘truth is a mobile army of metaphors’ because she is the only one who has, by her own sheer strength, broken out of one perspective, one metaphoric, into another.
Only poets, Nietzsche thought, can grasp contingency. The rest of us are doomed to remain philosophers, to insist that there is really only one true lading-list, one true description of the human situation, one universal context to our lives. We are doomed to spend our conscious lives trying to escape from contingency rather than, like the strong poet, acknowledging and appropriating contingency. For Nietzsche, therefore, the line between the strong poet and the rest of the human race has the moral significance which Plato and Christianity attached to the distinction between the human and the animal. For though strong poets are, like all other animals, causal products of natural forces, they are products capable of telling the story of their own production in words never used before. The line between weakness and strength is thus the line between using language which is familiar and universal and producing language which, though initially unfamiliar and idiosyncratic, somehow makes tangible the blind impress all one’s behavings bear. With luck – the sort of luck which makes the difference between genius and eccentricity – that language will also strike the next generation as inevitable. Their behavings will bear that impress.
To put the same point in another way, the Western philosophical tradition thinks of a human life as a triumph just insofar as it breaks out of the world of time, appearance and idiosyncratic opinion into another world – into the world of enduring truth. Nietzsche, in contrast, thinks the important boundary to cross is not the one separating time from atemporal truth but rather the one which divides the old from the new. He thinks a human life triumphant just insofar as it escapes from inherited descriptions of the contingencies of its existence and finds new descriptions. This is the difference between the will to truth and the will to self-overcoming. It is the difference between thinking of redemption as making contact with something larger and more enduring than oneself and redemption as Nietzsche describes it: ‘re-creating all “it was” into a “thus I willed it” ’. The drama of an individual human life, or of the history of humanity as a whole, is not one in which a pre-existent goal is triumphantly reached or tragically not reached. Neither a constant external reality nor an unfailing interior source of inspiration forms a background for such dramas. Instead, to see one’s life, or the life of one’s community, as a dramatic narrative is to see it as a process of Nietzschean self-overcoming. The paradigm of such a narrative is the life of the genius who can say of the relevant portion of the past ‘thus I willed it’ because she has found a way to describe that past which the past never knew, and thereby found a self to be which her precursors never knew was possible.
On this Nietzschean view, the impulse to think, to inquire, to reweave oneself ever more thoroughly, is not wonder but terror. It is, once again, Bloom’s ‘horror of finding oneself to be only a copy or replica’. The wonder in which Aristotle believed philosophy to begin was wonder at finding oneself in a world larger, stronger, nobler than oneself. The fear in which Bloom’s poets begin is the fear that one might end one’s days in such a world, a world one never made, an inherited world. The hope of such a poet is that what the past tried to do to her she will succeed in doing to the past: to make the past itself, including those very causal processes which blindly impressed all her own behavings, bear her impress. Success in that enterprise – the enterprise of saying ‘Thus I willed it’ to the past – is success in what Bloom calls ‘giving birth to oneself’.
I turn to the way in which Freud helps us accept, and put to work, this Nietzschean and Bloomian sense of what it is to be a fully-fledged human being. ‘Freud is inescapable,’ Bloom says in Agon, ‘since more even than Proust he is the mythopoeic mind of our age, as much our theologian and our moral philosopher as he was our psychologist and our prime maker of fictions.’ I think that Bloom is right about this, and that one can get a start on grasping Freud’s importance by seeing him as the moralist who helped de-divinise the self by tracking home conscience to its origin in the contingencies of our upbringings.
To see Freud this way is to see him against the background of Kant. The Kantian notion of conscience divinises the self. Once we give up, as Kant did, on the idea that scientific knowledge of hard facts is our point of contact with a power not ourselves, it is natural to do what Kant did: to turn inward, to find that point of contact in our moral consciousness – in our search for righteousness rather than our search for truth. Righteousness ‘deep within us’ takes the place, for Kant, of empirical truth ‘out there’. Kant was willing to let the starry heavens above be merely a symbol of the moral law within: an optional metaphor, cast in merely phenomenal terms, for the illimitableness, the sublimity, the unconditioned character of the moral self, of that part of us which was not phenomenal, not a product of time and chance, not an effect of natural, spatio-temporal causes.
This Kantian turn helped set the stage for the Romantic appropriation of the inwardness of the divine, but Kant himself was appalled at Romantic attempts to make idiosyncratic poetic imagination, rather than what he called ‘the common moral consciousness’, the centre of the self. Ever since Kant’s day, however, romanticism and moralism, the insistence on individual spontaneity and private perfection and the insistence on universally-shared social responsibility have warred with one another. Freud helps us to end this war. He de-universalises the moral sense, making it as idiosyncratic as the poet’s inventions. He thus lets us see the moral consciousness as historically-conditioned – as much a product of time and chance as political or aesthetic consciousness.
Freud ends his essay on da Vinci with a passage from which I quoted a fragment at the end of my first article.
If one considers chance to be unworthy of determining our fate, that is simply a relapse into the pious view of the universe which Leonardo himself was on the way to overcoming when he wrote that the sun does not move ... We are all too ready to forget that in fact everything to do with our lives is chance, from our origin out of the meeting of spermatozoon and ovum onwards ... We all still show too little respect for Nature, which (in the obscure words of Leonardo which recall Hamlet’s lines) ‘is full of countless causes [ragioni] that never enter experience’.
Every one of us human beings corresponds to one of the countless experiments in which these ragioni of nature force their way into experience.
The common-sense Freudianism of contemporary culture makes it easy to see our conscience as such an experiment, to identify conscience with guilt over repressed infantile sexual impluses – repressions which are the products of countless contingencies that never enter experience. It is hard nowadays to recapture how startling it must have been when Freud first began to describe conscience as an ego ideal set up by those who, as he put it in the essay ‘On Narcissism’, are ‘not willing to forgo the narcissistic perfection of childhood’. To illustrate this novelty, I shall contrast a passage from Freud in which it is absent from one in which it is present. In the first passage Freud says: ‘What prompted the individual to form an ego ideal, on whose behalf his conscience acts as watchman, arose from the critical influence of his parents ... to whom were added, as time went on, those who trained and taught him and the innumerable and indefinable host of all the other people in his environment – his fellow-men – and public opinion.’ If Freud had made only this sort of large, abstract, quasi-philosophical claim, he would have had said little that was particularly new or useful. The idea that the voice of conscience is the internalised voice of parents and society is suggested by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, and developed by reductionist writers like Hobbes. What is new in Freud are the details which he gives us about the sort of thing which goes into the formation of conscience, his explanations of why certain very concrete situations and persons excite unbearable guilt, intense anxiety or smouldering rage. Contrast the passage I just quoted with the following description of the latency period: ‘In addition to the destruction of the Oedipus complex a regressive degradation of the libido takes place, the super-ego becomes exceptionally severe and unkind, and the ego, in obedience to the super-ego, produces strong reaction-formations in the shape of conscientiousness, pity and cleanliness ... But here too obsessional neurosis is only overdoing the normal method of getting rid of the Oedipus complex.’
This passage, and others which discuss what Freud calls ‘the narcissistic origin of compassion’, give us a way of thinking of the sense of pity, not as an identification with the common human core which we share with all other members of our species, but as channelled in very specific ways towards very specific sorts of people and very particular vicissitudes. He thus helps us understand how we can take endless pains to help one friend and be entirely oblivious to the greater pain of another, one whom we think we love quite as dearly. He helps explain how someone can be both a tender mother and a merciless concentration-camp guard, or be a just and temperate magistrate and also a chilly, rejecting father. By associating conscientiousness with cleanliness, and by associating both not only with obsessional neurosis but also (as he does elsewhere) with the religious impulse and with the urge to construct philosophical systems, he breaks down all the traditional distinctions between the higher and the lower, the essential and the accidental, the central and the peripheral. He leaves us with a self which is a tissue of contingencies, rather than an (at least potentially) well-ordered system of faculties.
Freud shows us why we deplore cruelty in some cases and relish it in others. He shows us why our ability to love is restricted to some very particular shapes and sizes and colours of people, things or ideas. He shows us why our sense of guilt is aroused by certain very specific, and in theory quite minor, events, and not by others which, on any familiar moral theory, would loom much larger. Further, he gives each of us the equipment to construct our own private vocabulary of moral deliberation. For terms like ‘infantile’ or ‘sadistic’ or ‘obsessional’ or ‘paranoid’, unlike the names of vices and virtues which we inherit from the Greeks and the Christians, have very specific and very different resonances for each individual who uses them: they bring to our minds resemblances and differences between ourselves and very particular people (our parents, for example) and between the present situation and very particular situations of our past. They enable us to sketch a narrative of our own development, our idiosyncratic moral struggle, which is far more finely-textured, far more custom-tailored to our individual case, than the moral vocabulary which the philosophical tradition offered us.
One can sum up this point by saying that Freud makes moral deliberation just as finely-grained, just as detailed and as multiform, as prudential calculation has always been. He thereby helps break down the distinction between moral guilt and practical inadvisability, blurring the prudence-morality distinction into invisibility. The latter distinction is the one on which Plato’s and Kant’s moral philosophy centres. Kant splits us into two parts, one called ‘reason’ which is identical in all of us, and another – empirical sensation and desire – which is a matter of blind, contingent, idiosyncratic impressions. In contrast, Freud treats rationality as a mechanism which adjusts contingencies to other contingencies. But his mechanisation of reason is not just more abstract philosophical reductionism, not just more ‘inverted Platonism’. Rather than discussing rationality in the abstract, simplistic and reductionist way in which Hobbes and Hume discuss it (a way which retains Plato’s original dualisms for the sake of inverting them), Freud spends his time exhibiting the extraordinary sophistication, subtlety and wit of our unconscious strategies. He thereby makes it possible for us to see science and poetry, genius and psychosis – and, most important, morality and prudence – not as products of distinct faculties but as alternative modes of adaptation.
He thus helps us take seriously the possibility that there is no central faculty, no central self, called ‘reason’ – and thus to take Nietzschean pragmatism and perspectivism seriously. Freudian moral psychology gives us a vocabulary for self-description which is radically different from Plato’s, and also radically different from that side of Nietzsche which Heidegger rightly condemned as one more example of inverted Platonism: the romantic attempt to exalt the flesh over the spirit, the heart over the head, a mythical faculty called ‘will’ over an equally mythical one called ‘reason’. The Platonic and Kantian idea of rationality centres on the idea that we need to bring particular actions under general principles if we are to be moral. Freud, by contrast, suggests that we need to return to the particular: to see particular present situations and options as similar to or different from particular past actions or events. He thinks that only by catching hold of crucial idiosyncratic contingencies in our past are we going to be able to make something worthwhile out of ourselves, to create present selves whom we can respect. He taught us to interpret what we are doing, or thinking of doing, in terms of, for example, our past reaction to particular authority-figures, or in terms of constellations of behaviour which were forced upon us in infancy. He suggested that we praise ourselves by weaving idiosyncratic narratives – case-histories, as it were – of our success in self-creation, our ability to break free from an idiosyncratic past. He suggests we condemn ourselves for failure to break free of that past rather than for failure to live up to universal standards.
Another way of putting this point is that Freud gave up Plato’s attempt to bring together the public and the private, the parts of the state and the parts of the soul, the search for social justice and the search for individual perfection. Freud gave equal respect to the appeals of moralism and romanticism, but refused either to grant one of these priority over the other or to attempt a synthesis of them. He distinguished sharply between a private ethic of self-creation and a public ethic of mutual accommodation, and persuades us that there is no bridge between them provided by universally shared beliefs or desires – beliefs or desires which belong to us qua human and which unite us to our fellow humans simply as human. On Freud’s account, our conscious private goals are as idiosyncratic as the unconscious obsessions and phobias from which they have branched off. Despite the efforts of such writers as Fromm and Marcuse, Freudian moral psychology cannot be used to define social goals, goals for humanity as opposed to goals for individuals. There is no way to force Freud into a Platonic mould by treating him as a moral philosopher who supplies universal criteria for goodness or rightness or true happiness. His only utility lies in his ability to turn us away from the universal to the concrete, from the attempt to find necessary truths, ineliminable beliefs, to the idiosyncratic contingencies of our individual pasts, to the blind impress all our behavings bear. He has provided us with a moral psychology which coheres with Nietzsche’s and Bloom’s attempt to see the strong poet as the archetypal human being.
For those who share this sense of the poet as paradigmatic, Freud will seem liberating and inspiring. But suppose that, like Kant, one instead sees the unselfish, unself-conscious, unimaginative, decent, honest, dutiful person as paradigmatic. These are the people in praise of whom Kant wrote: people who, unlike Plato’s philosopher, have no special acuity of mind nor intellectual curiosity, and who, unlike the Christian saint, are not aflame to sacrifice themselves for love of the crucified Jesus. It is for the sake of such persons that Kant distinguished practical from pure reason, and rational religion from enthusiasm. It was for their sake that he invented the idea of a single imperative under which morality could be subsumed. For, he thought, the glory of such people is that they recognise themselves as under an unconditional obligation: an obligation which can be carried out without recourse to prudential calculation, imaginative projection, or metaphoric re-description. So Kant developed not only a novel and imaginative moral psychology but a sweeping metaphoric redescription of every facet of life and culture, precisely in order to make the intellectual world safe for such people. In his words, he denied knowledge in order to make room for faith, the faith of such people that in doing their duty they are doing all they need do, that they are paradigmatic human beings.
It has often seemed necessary to choose between Kant and Nietzsche, to make up one’s mind – at least to that extent – about the point of being human. But Freud gives us a way of looking at human beings which helps us evade the choice. After reading Freud we shall see neither Bloom’s strong poet nor Kant’s dutiful fulfiller of universal obligations as paradigmatic. For Freud eschews the very idea of a paradigm human being. He drops the idea of humanity as a natural kind with an intrinsic nature, an intrinsic set of powers to be developed or left undeveloped. By breaking with both Kant’s residual Platonism and Nietzsche’s inverted Platonism, he lets us see both Nietzsche’s superman and Kant’s common moral consciousness as exemplifying two out of many forms of adaptation, two out of many strategies for coping with the contingencies of one’s upbringing, of coming to terms with a blind impress. There is much to be said for both. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Decent people are, notoriously, dull. Great minds are sure to madness near allied. Freud stands in awe before the poet, but describes him as infantile. He is bored by the merely moral man, but describes him as mature. He does not enthuse over either, nor does he ask us to choose between them. He does not think we have a faculty which can make such choices. He does not see a need to erect a theory of human nature which will safeguard the interests of the one or the other. He sees both sorts of person as doing the best they can with the materials at their disposal, and neither as ‘more truly human’ than the other.
To abjure the notion of ‘the truly human’ is to abjure the Kantian attempt to divinise the self as a replacement for a divinised world. It is to get rid of the last citadel of necessity, the last attempt to see us as all confronting the same imperatives, the same unconditional claims. What ties Nietzsche and Freud together is this attempt; the attempt to see a blind impress as not unworthy of programming our lives or our poems. But there is a difference between Nietzsche and Freud which my description of Freud’s view of the moral man as decent but dull does not capture. Freud shows us that, if we look inside the bien-pensant conformist, if we get him on the couch, we will find that he was only dull on the surface. There are, for Freud, no dull people, because there is no such thing as a dull unconscious. What makes Freud more useful and more plausible than Nietzsche is that he does not relegate the vast majority of humanity to the status of dying animals. For Freud’s account of unconscious fantasy shows us how to see every human life as a poem – or, more exactly, every human life not so racked by pain as to be unable to learn a language, nor so immersed in toil as to have no leisure in which to generate a self-description.[†] He sees every such life as an attempt to clothe itself in its own metaphors. As Philip Rieff puts it, ‘Freud democratised genius by giving everyone a creative unconscious.’ The same point is made by Lionel Trilling, who said that Freud ‘showed us that poetry is indigenous to the very constitution of the mind; he saw the mind as being, in the greater part of its tendency, exactly a poetry-making faculty.’ Leo Bersani broadens Rieff’s and Trilling’s point when he says: ‘Psychoanalytic theory has made the notion of fantasy so richly programmatic that we should no longer be able to take for granted the distinction between art and life.’
To say with Trilling that the mind is a poetry-making faculty may seem to return us to philosophy, and to the idea of an intrinsic human nature. Specifically, it may seem to return us to a Romantic theory of human nature in which Imagination plays the role which the Greeks assigned to Reason. But it does not. For the Romantics, Imagination was a link with something not ourselves, a proof that we were here as from another world. It was a faculty of expression. But what Freud takes to be shared by all relatively leisured language-users – all of us who have the equipment and the time for fantasy – is a faculty for creating metaphors. On the Davidsonian account, when a metaphor is created it does not express something which previously existed, though of course it is caused by something that previously existed. On Freud’s account, this cause is not the recollection of another world but rather some particular obsession-generating cathexis of some particular person or object or word early in life. By seeing every human being as consciously or unconsciously acting out an idiosyncratic fantasy, we can see the distinctively human, as opposed to animal, portion of each human life as the use of every particular person, o ject, situation, event and word encountered in later life for symbolic purposes. This process amounts to redescribing them, thereby saying of them all: ‘thus I willed it.’
Seen from this angle, the poet, the person who uses words for this purpose, is just a special case – just somebody who does with noises and inscriptions what other people do with their spouses and children, their fellow-workers, the tools of their trade, the cash accounts of their businesses, the possessions they accumulate in their homes, the music they listen to, the sports they play or watch, or the trees they pass on their way to work. Anything from the sound of a word to the colour of a leaf to the feel of a piece of skin can, as Freud showed us, serve to dramatise and crystallise a human being’s sense of self-identity. For any such thing can play the role in an individual life which philosophers have thought could, or at least should, be played only by things which were universal, common to us all. It can symbolise the blind impress all our behavings bear. Any seemingly random constellation of such things can set the tone of a life. Any such constellation can set up an unconditional commandment to whose service a life may be devoted – a commandment no less unconditional because it may be intelligible to, at best, only one person.
Another way of making this point is to say that the social process of literalising a metaphor is duplicated in the fantasy life of an individual. We call something ‘fantasy’ rather than ‘poetry’ or ‘philosophy’ when it revolves around metaphors which do not catch on with other people – that is, around ways of speaking or acting which the rest of us cannot find a use for. But Freud shows us how something which seems pointless or ridiculous or vile to society can become the crucial element in the individual’s sense of who she is, her own way of tracing home the blind impress all her behavings bear. Conversely, when some private obsession produces a metaphor which we can find a use for, we speak of genius rather than of eccentricity or perversity. The difference between fantasy and genius is not the difference between fantasies which do not lock onto something universal, some antecedent reality out there in the world or deep within the self, and those which do. Rather, it is the difference between fantasies which just happen to catch on with other people – happen because of the contingencies of some historical situation, some particular need which a given community happens to have at a given time.
To sum up, poetic, philosophical, scientific or political progress results from the accidental coincidence of a private obsession with a public need. Strong poetry, common-sense morality, revolutionary morality, normal science, revolutionary science, and the sort of idiosyncratic fantasy which is intelligible to only one person, are all, from a Freudian point of view, different ways of dealing with blind impresses: or, more precisely, ways of dealing with different blind impresses – impresses which may be unique to an individual or common to the members of some historically-conditioned community. None of these strategies is privileged over others in the sense of expressing human nature better. No such strategy is more or less human than any other, any more than the pen is more truly a tool than the butcher’s knife, or the hybridised orchid less a flower than the wild rose.
To appreciate Freud’s point would be to overcome what William James called ‘a certain blindness in human beings’. James’s example of this blindness was his own reaction, during a trip through the Appalachian Mountains, to a clearing in which the forest had been hacked down and replaced with a muddy garden, a log cabin and some pigpens. ‘The forest had been destroyed; and what had “improved” it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty.’ But, James continues, when a farmer comes out of the cabin and tells him that ‘we ain’t happy here unless we’re getting one of those coves under cultivation,’ he realises that
I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation. Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory ... In short, the clearing which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle and success.
I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.
I have been interpreting Freud as having spelled out James’s point in more detail, helping us overcome particularly intractable cases of blindness by letting us see the ‘peculiar ideality’ of events which exemplify, for example, sexual perversion, extreme cruelty, ludicrous obsession and manic delusion. He lets us see each of these as the private poem of the pervert, the sadist or the lunatic: as richly-textured and ‘redolent of moral memories’ as our own life. He lets us see as continuous with our own activity what moral philosophy describes as the extreme, inhuman and unnatural. But, and this is the crucial point, he does not do so in the traditional philosophical, reductionist way. He does not tell us that art is really sublimation, or philosophical system-building merely paranoia, or religion merely a confused memory of the fierce father. He is not saying that human life is merely a continuous re-channelling of libidinal energy. He is not interested in invoking a reality-appearance distinction, in saying that anything is ‘merely’ or ‘really’ something quite different. He just wants to give us one more redescription of things to be filed alongside all the others, one more vocabulary, one more set of metaphors which he thinks have a chance of being used and thereby literalised.
Insofar as one can attribute philosophical views to Freud, one can say that he is as much a pragmatist as James and as much a perspectivist as Nietzsche – or, one might also say, as much a modernist as Proust. For it somehow became possible, towards the end of the 19th century, to take the activity of redescription more lightly than it had ever been taken before in the history of Europe. It became possible to see a new vocabulary, not as something which was supposed to replace all other vocabularies, something which claimed to represent reality, but simply as one more vocabulary, one more human project, one person’s chosen metaphoric. It is unlikely that Freud’s metaphors could have been picked up, used and literalised at any earlier period. But, conversely, it is unlikely that without Freud’s metaphors we should have been able to assimilate Nietzsche’s, James’s, Wittgenstein’s or Heidegger’s as easily as we have, or to have read Proust with the relish we did. All the figures of this period play into each other’s hands. They feed each other lines. Their metaphors rejoice in one another’s company. This is the sort of phenomenon which it is tempting to describe in terms of the march of the World-Spirit towards clearer self-consciousness, or as the length of man’s mind gradually coming to match that of the universe. But any such description would betray the spirit of playfulness and irony which links the figures I have been describing.
This playfulness is the product of their shared ability to appreciate the power of redescribing, the power of language to make new and different things possible and important – an appreciation which becomes possible only when one’s aim becomes an expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions rather than the One Right Description. Such a shift in aim is possible only to the extent that both the world and the self have been de-divinised. To say that both are de-divinised is to say that one no longer thinks of either as speaking to us, as having a language of its own, as a rival poet. Neither are quasi-persons, neither wants to be expressed or represented in a certain way.
Both, however, have power over us – for example, the power to kill us. The world can blindly and inarticulately crush us; mute despair, intense mental pain, can cause us to blot ourselves out. But that sort of power is not the sort we can appropriate by adopting and then transforming its language, thereby becoming identical with the threatening power and subsuming it under our own more powerful selves. This latter strategy is appropriate only for coping with other persons – for example, with parents, gods and poetic precursors. But our relation to the world, to brute power and to naked pain, is not of the sort we have to persons. Faced with the non-human, the non-linguistic, we no longer have the ability to overcome contingency and pain by appropriation and transformation, but only the ability to recognise contingency and pain. The final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy – the final victory of metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery – would consist in our becoming reconciled to the thought that this is the only sort of power over the world which we can hope to have. For that would be the final abjuration of the notion that truth, and not just power and pain, is to be found ‘out there’.
It is tempting to suggest that in a culture in which poetry had publicly and explicitly triumphed over philosophy, a culture in which recognition of contingency rather than of necessity was the accepted definition of freedom, Larkin’s poem would fall flat. There would be no pathos in finitude. But there probably cannot be such a culture. This pathos is probably ineliminable. It is as hard to imagine a culture dominated by exuberant Nietzschean playfulness as to imagine the reign of the philosopher-kings, or the withering away of the state. It is equally hard to imagine a human life which felt itself complete, a human being who dies happy because all that he or she ever wanted has been attained. This is true even for Bloom’s strong poet. Even if we drop the philosophical ideal of seeing ourselves steady and whole against a permanent backdrop of ‘literal’ unchangeable fact, and substitute the ideal of seeing ourselves in our own terms, of redemption through saying to the past, ‘thus I willed it,’ it will remain true that this willing will always be a project rather than a result, a project which life does not last long enough to complete.
The strong poet’s fear of death as the fear of incompletion is a function of the fact that no project of redescribing the world and the past, no project of self-creation through imposition of one’s own idiosyncratic metaphoric, can avoid being marginal and parasitic. Metaphors are unfamiliar uses of old words, but such uses are possible only against the back-drop of other old words being used in old familiar ways. A language which was ‘all metaphor’ would be a language which had no use, hence not a language but just babble. For even if we agree that languages are not media of representation or expression they will remain media of communication, tools for social interaction, ways of tying oneself up with other human beings.
This needed corrective to Nietzsche’s attempt to divinise the poet, this dependence of even the strongest poet on others, is summed up by Bloom in Kabbalah and Criticism:
The sad truth is that poems don‘t have presence, unity, form or meaning ... What then does a poem possess or create? Alas, a poem has nothing and creates nothing. Its presence is a promise, part of the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Its unity is in the good will of the reader ... Its meaning is just that there is, or rather was, another poem.
In this passage Bloom de-divinises the poem, and thereby the poet, in the same way in which Nietzsche de-divinised truth and in which Freud de-divinised conscience. He does for romanticism what Freud did for moralism. The strategy is the same in all these cases: it is to substitute a tissue of contingent relations, a web which stretches backward and forward through past and future time, for a formed, unified, present, self-contained substance, something capable of being seen steady and whole. Bloom reminds us that just as even the strongest poet is parasitic on her precursors, just as even she can give birth only to a small part of herself, so she is dependent on the kindness of all those strangers out there in the future.
This amounts to a reminder of Wittgenstein’s point that there are no private languages: his argument that you cannot give meaning to a word or a poem by confronting it with a non-linguistic meaning, with something other than a bunch of other words or a bunch of other poems. Every poem, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, presupposes a lot of stage-setting in the culture, for the same reason that every sparkling metaphor requires a lot of stodgy literal talk to serve as its foil. Shifting from the written poem to the life-as-poem, one may say that there can be no fully Nietzschean lives, lives which are pure action rather than reaction: no lives which are not largely parasitical on an un-redescribed past and dependent on the charity of as yet unborn generations. There is no stronger claim even the strongest poet can make than the one Keats made: that he ‘would be among the English poets’, construing ‘among them’ in a Bloomian way as ‘in the midst of them’, future poets living out of Keats’s pocket as he lived out of those of his precursors. Analogously, there is no stronger claim which even the superman can make than that his differences from the past, inevitably minor and marginal as they are, will nevertheless be carried over into the future: that his metaphoric redescriptions of small parts of the past will be among the future’s stock of literal truths.
The best way to understand the pathos of finitude which Larkin invokes is to interpret it, not as the failure to achieve what philosophy hoped to achieve – something non-idiosyncratic, atemporal and universal – but as the realisation that at a certain point one has to trust to the good will of those who will live other lives and write other poems. Nabokov built his best book, Pale Fire, around the phrase: ‘Man’s life as commentary to abstruse unfinished poem’. That phrase serves both as a summary of Freud’s claim that every human life is the working-out of a sophisticated idiosyncratic fantasy, and as a reminder that no such working-out gets completed before death interrupts. It cannot get completed because there is nothing to complete: there is only a web of relations to be rewoven, a web which time lengthens every day.
But if we avoid Nietzsche’s inverted Platonism – his suggestion that a life of self-creation can be as complete and as autonomous as Plato thought a life of contemplation might be – then we shall be content to think of any human life as the always incomplete, yet sometimes heroic reweaving of such a web. We shall see the conscious need of the strong poet to demonstrate, to make public, the fact that he is not a copy or replica as merely a special, optional form of the unconscious need which everyone has to come to terms with the blind impress which chance has given him, to make a self for himself by redescribing that impress in terms which are, if only marginally, his own.
[*] My account of Nietzsche in what follows owes a great deal to Alexander Nehamas’s original and penetrating Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Harvard University Press, 1985).
[†] This qualification is inserted as a response to Ellen Scarry’s remarkable The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford, 1985). In this book Scarry contrasts mute pain, the sort of pain which the torturer hopes to create in his victim by depriving him of language and thereby of a connection with human institutions, with the ability to share in such institutions which is given by the possession of language and leisure.
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.