The Contingency of Community
If one says, as I did in ‘The Contingency of Language’, that truth is not ‘out there’, one will be suspected of relativism and irrationalism. If one suggests, as I then did in ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’, that we no longer need a distinction between morality and prudence, one may seem to be encouraging immorality.[*] By way of defence, I shall argue here that these distinctions between absolutism and relativism, rationality and irrationality, morality and expediency, are obsolete and clumsy tools – remnants of a vocabulary which we should try to replace. But, as I suggested earlier, ‘argument’ is not the right word. For on my account of intellectual progress as the literalisation of selected metaphors, rebutting objections to one’s redescriptions of some things will be largely a matter of redescribing other things, trying to outflank the objections by enlarging the scope of one’s favourite metaphors. So my strategy will be to try to make the vocabulary in which these objections are phrased look bad, thereby changing the subject, rather than granting the objector his choice of weapons and terrain by meeting his criticisms head-on.
I should like to propose that the institutions and culture of liberal society would be better served by a vocabulary of moral and political reflection which avoids the distinctions I have mentioned than by one which preserves them. I shall try to show that the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism, although it was essential to the beginnings of liberal democracy, has become an impediment to the progress of democratic societies. The vocabulary which I adumbrated in the two previous articles, one which revolves around notions of metaphor and self-creation rather than around notions of truth, rationality and moral obligation, is better suited to such societies.
I am not, however, saying that the Davidsonian-Wittgensteinian account of language, and the Nietzschean-Freudian-Bloomian account of conscience and selfhood which I have sketched, provide ‘philosophical foundations of democracy’. For the notion of a ‘philosophical foundation’ goes when the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism goes. But the utility of an apologetic remains. By an ‘apologetic’ I mean a way of describing old institutions and practices in a new, more useful way. To offer an apologetic for our current institutions and practices is not to offer a justification of them, nor is it to defend them against their enemies. Rather, it is to suggest ways of speaking which are better suited to them than the ways which are left over from older institutions and practices. To engage in apologetics is more like refurnishing a house than like propping it up or placing barricades around it.
The difference between a search for foundations and an attempt at apologetics is emblematic of the difference between the culture of liberalism and previous forms of cultural life. For, in its ideal form, the culture of liberalism is enlightened, secular, through and through. It is one in which no trace of divinity remains, in the form either of a divinised world or a divinised self. Such a culture, if it became actual, would have no room for the notion that there are non-human forces to which human beings should be responsible. It would drop, or drastically reinterpret, not only the idea of holiness but that of ‘devotion to truth’ and that of ‘fulfilment of the deepest needs of the spirit’. The process of de-divinisation which I described in the previous articles would, ideally, culminate in our no longer being able to make sense of the idea that finite, mortal, contingently-existing human beings might derive the meanings of their lives from anything except other finite, mortal, contingently-existing human beings.
Most of what I said in the first two articles can be seen as footnotes to Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty. Berlin says there, as I did in ‘The Contingency of Language’, that we need to give up the jigsaw puzzle approach to vocabularies, practices and values: to give up, in Berlin’s words, ‘the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail each other.’ My citation of Freud’s remark that we should think of ourselves as each just one more among nature’s experiments, not as the culmination of nature’s design, echoes Berlin’s use of John Stuart Mill’s phrase ‘experiments in living’. (It also, of course, echoes Jefferson’s and Dewey’s use of the term ‘experiment’ to describe American democracy.) Like Berlin, I have been criticising the Platonic-Kantian attempt to do what Berlin called ‘splitting [our] personality into two: the transcendent, dominant controller and the empirical bundle of desires and passions to be disciplined and brought to heel’.
Berlin ended his essay by quoting Joseph Schumpeter: ‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ In the jargon I have been developing, this translates into the claim that the liberal societies of our century have fostered people who recognised the contingency of the vocabulary in which they stated their highest hopes – the contingency of their own consciences – and yet remained faithful to those consciences. I have been claiming that figures like Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Proust and Wittgenstein illustrate what I called ‘freedom as the recognition of contingency’. Such freedom, I would now claim, is integral to the idea of a liberal society.
In order to show how the charge of relativism looks against this background, I want to take up some comments on Berlin’s essay by an acute critic of the liberal tradition, Michael Sandel. Berlin ‘comes perilously close to foundering on the relativist predicament’:
If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? In a tragically configured moral universe, such as Berlin assumes, is the ideal of freedom any less subject than competing ideals to the ultimate incommensurability of values? If so, in what can its privileged status consist? And if freedom has no morally privileged status, if it is just one value among many, then what can be said for liberalism?
In posing these questions, Sandel is taking the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism for granted. Or, more exactly, he is taking advantage of the fact that Schumpeter and Berlin themselves make use of this vocabulary, and attempting to show that their view is incoherent. Examining the presuppositions of Sandel’s questions may help make clear what sort of view lies behind the terms ‘relativism’ and ‘morally privileged’. It may thus help show why the term ‘only relatively valid’ is a bad, rationalistic way to characterise the state of mind of the figures whom Schumpeter, Berlin and I wish to praise.
To say that convictions are only ‘relatively valid’ might seem to mean that they can only be justified to people who hold certain other beliefs – not to anyone and everyone. But if this were what was meant, the term would have no contrastive force, for there would be no interesting statements which were absolutely valid. Absolute validity would be confined to platitudes, logical or mathematical truths, and the like: the sort of beliefs nobody wants to argue about because they are neither controversial nor central to anyone’s sense of who she is or what she lives for. All beliefs which are central to a person’s self-image are so because their presence or absence serves as a criterion for dividing good people from bad people, the sort of person one wants to be from the sort one does not want to be. A conviction which can be justified to anyone, which even bad people can be argued into accepting, is of little interest. Unflinching courage will not be required to sustain it.
We must, therefore, construe the term ‘only relatively valid beliefs’ to contrast with statements capable of being justified to all those who are uncorrupted – that is, to all those in whom reason, viewed as a built-in truth-seeking faculty, or conscience, viewed as a built-in righteousness-detector, is strong enough to overcome vulgar superstitions, base prejudices and evil passions. The notion of ‘absolute validity’ only makes sense if we presuppose a self which divides fairly neatly into the part that it shares with the divine and the part that it shares with the animals. But if we allow Sandel such an opposition between reason and passion, or reason and will, we liberals will be begging the question against ourselves. It is incumbent on those of us who agree with Freud and Berlin not to split persons up in this way to drop or restrict the use of the traditional distinction between ‘rational conviction’ and ‘conviction brought about by (mere) causes rather than by reasons’.
The best way of restricting its use is to limit the opposition between rational and irrational ways of changing belief to the interior of a language-game, rather than trying to apply it to momentous shifts in linguistic behaviour, transitions to new language-games. Such a restricted notion of rationality is all that we can allow ourselves if we accept the claim I made in ‘The Contingency of Language’ that what matters in the end are changes of vocabulary rather than changes in belief, changes in candidates for truth-value rather than changes in sentential attitudes. Within a language-game, within a set of agreements about what is possible and important, we can usefully distinguish reasons for belief from causes for belief which are not reasons. We do this by starting with such obvious differences as that between Socratic dialogue and hypnotic suggestion. We then try to firm up the distinction by dealing with messier cases: brain-washing, media hype, and what Marxists call ‘false consciousness’. There is no very neat way to draw the line between persuasion and force, and thus no very neat way to draw a line between a cause of changed belief which was also a reason and one which was a ‘mere’ cause, but the distinction is no fuzzier than most.
However, once we raise the question of how we get from one vocabulary to another, from one dominant metaphoric to another, the distinction between reasons and causes begins to lose its utility. Those who speak the old language and have no wish to change, those who regard it as a hallmark of rationality or morality to speak just that language, will regard as altogether irrational the appeal of the new metaphors, of the new language-game which the avant-garde is playing. The popularity of the new ways of speaking will be viewed as a matter of ‘fashion’ or ‘the need to rebel’ or ‘decadence’. The question of why people speak this way will be treated as beneath the level of conversation – a matter to be turned over to psychologists or, if necessary, the police. Conversely, from the point of view of those who are trying to use the new language, to literalise the new metaphors, those who cling to the old language will be viewed as irrational – as victims of passion, prejudice, superstition, the dead hand of the past, and so on. The philosophers on either side can be counted on to support these opposing invocations of the reason-cause distinction by developing a moral psychology, or an epistemology, or a philosophy of language, which will put the other side in a bad light.
To accept the claim that there is no standpoint outside our own particular historically-conditioned and temporary vocabulary by which to judge this vocabulary in respect of rationality or morality is to give up on the idea that we can reach agreement on good reasons for using new languages, as opposed to good reasons, within old languages, for believing statements within those languages. This amounts to giving up the idea that intellectual or political progress is rational, in the sense of ‘rational’ which entails the satisfaction of criteria which are neutral between the competing parties. But since it seems pointless to say that all the great moral and intellectual advances of European history – Christianity, Galilean science, the Enlightenment, Romanticism etc – were fortunate falls into temporary irrationality, the moral to be drawn is that the rational-irrational distinction is less useful than it once appeared. Once we realise that progress, for the community as for the individual, is a matter of using new words as well as of arguing from premises phrased in old words, we realise that a critical vocabulary which revolves around notions like ‘rational’, ‘criteria’, ‘argument’, ‘foundation’ and ‘absolute’ is badly suited to describe the relation between the old and the new.
Donald Davidson has pointed out that once we give up on the notion of ‘absolute criteria of rationality’, and begin using ‘rational’ to mean something like ‘internal coherence’, then, if we do not limit the range of this term’s application, we shall be forced to call ‘irrational’ many things which we wish to praise. In particular, we shall have to describe as ‘irrational’ what Davidson calls ‘a form of self-criticism and reform which we hold in high esteem, and that has even been thought to be the very essence of rationality and the source of freedom’. He makes the point as follows:
What I have in mind is a special kind of second-order desire or value, and the actions it can touch off. This happens when a person forms a positive or negative judgment of his own desires, and he acts to change these desires. From the point of view of the changed desire, there is no reason for the change – the reason comes from an independent source, and is based on further, and partly contrary, considerations. The agent has reasons for changing his own habits and character, but those reasons come from a domain of values necessarily extrinsic to the contents of the views or values to undergo change. The cause of the change, if it comes, can therefore not be a reason for what it causes. A theory that could not explain irrationality would be one that also could not explain our salutary efforts, and occasional successes, at self-criticism and self-improvement.
Davidson would, of course, be wrong if there were a framework of non-trivial highest-possible-order desires within which self-criticism and self-improvement take place. For then these highest-level desires would mediate and rationalise the contest between first and second-level desires. But Davidson is assuming, rightly in my opinion, that the only candidates for such highest-level desires are so abstract and empty as to have no mediating powers: for example, ‘I wish to be good,’ ‘I wish to be rational,’ ‘I wish to know the truth.’ What will count as good or rational or true will be determined by the contest between the first and second-level desires. Wistful top-level protestations of good will are impotent to intervene in that contest.
If Davidson is right, then Sandel is wrong. For Sandel is assuming that there is a largest-possible framework within which one can ask, for example: ‘If freedom has no morally privileged status, if it is just one value among many, then what can be said for liberalism?’ He is assuming that we liberals ought to be able to rise above the contingencies of history and see the kind of individual freedom which the modern liberal state offers its citizens as just one more value. He is suggesting that the rational thing to do is to place such freedom alongside, for example, the sense of national purpose which the Nazis briefly offered the Germans, or the sense of conformity to the will of God which inspired the Wars of Religion. Then one can scrutinise these various candidates and see whether any of them is ‘morally privileged’. Only the assumption that there is some such standpoint to which we might rise gives sense to his question: ‘If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly?’
Conversely, neither Schumpeter’s phrase ‘relative validity’ nor Sandel’s notion of a ‘relativist predicament’ will seem to the point if one grants that new metaphors are causes, but not reasons, for changes of belief, and that it is new metaphors which make intellectual progress possible. If one grants these claims, there is no such thing as ‘the relativist predicament’, just as for someone who does not believe in God there is no such thing as blasphemy. For there is no higher standpoint to which we are responsible and against whose precepts we might offend. There will be no such activity as scrutinising competing values in order to see which are morally privileged. For there will be no way to rise above the language, culture, institutions and practices one has adopted and view all these as on a par with all the others. As Davidson puts it, ‘speaking a language ... is not a trait a man can lose while retaining the power of thought. So there is no chance that somebody can take up a vantage-point for comparing conceptual schemes by temporarily shedding his own.’ Or, to put the point in Heidegger’s way, ‘language speaks man,’ languages change in the course of history, and so human beings cannot escape their historicity. The most they can do is to manipulate the tensions within their own epoch in order to produce the beginnings of the next epoch.
But, of course, if Sandel is right, then Davidson and Heidegger are wrong. Davidsonian and Wittgensteinian philosophy of language – the account of language as a historical contingency, rather than as a medium which is taking on (or might, with luck, take on) the true shape of the true world or the true self – will beg the question against Sandel. If we think that Sandel is right to pose the questions he does, then we shall ask instead for a philosophy of language, an epistemology and a moral psychology which will safeguard the interests of reason, preserve a morality-prudence distinction, and thus guarantee that Sandel’s questions are to the point. We shall want a different way of seeing language, one which treats it as a medium in which to express truths which lurk within the self, truths which formulate the permanent, ahistorical, highest-level desires which adjudicate lower-level conflicts. We shall want to refurbish the subject-object and scheme-content models which Davidson, like Heidegger, thinks are obsolete.
Is there a way to break this stand-off between Sandel and Davidson? More generally, is there a way to break the stand-off between the traditional view, here represented by Sandel, which says that it is always sensible to ask ‘How do you know?’ and the view represented by Davidson, which says that, when the chips are down, we can only ask: ‘Why do you talk that way?’ It is tempting to say that it is philosophy’s job to rise above such stand-offs and adjudicate the matter, but the assumption that there is a highest-level discipline which can do that begs all the questions in Sandel’s favour.
Most philosophers nowadays would not attempt this adjucative, magisterial role. They would admit that there is no one, privileged way to resolve such stand-offs, no single place to which it is appropriate to step back. There are, instead, as many ways of breaking the stand-off as there are topics of conversation. One can come at the issue by way of different paradigms of humanity: the contemplator as opposed to the poet, or the pious man as opposed to the man who accepts chance as worthy of determining his fate. Or one can come at it from the point of view of an ethics of kindness, and ask whether cruelty and injustice will be diminished if we all stopped worrying about ‘absolute validity’ or whether, on the contrary, only such worries keep our characters firm enough to defend unflinchingly the weak against the strong. Or one can come at it by way of anthropology, and the question of whether there are ‘cultural universals’, or by way of psychology and the question of whether there are psychological universals. Because of this indefinite plurality of standpoints, this vast number of ways of coming at the issue sideways and trying to outflank one’s opponent, there are never, in practice, any stand-offs.
You would only get a real and practical stand-off, as opposed to an artificial and theoretical one, if certain topics and certain language-games were taboo: if there were general agreement within a society that certain questions were always to the point, that certain questions were prior to certain others, that there was a fixed order of discussion and that flanking movements were not permitted. That would be just the sort of society which liberals are trying to avoid – one in which ‘logic’ (and, perhaps, philosopher-kings) ruled and ‘rhetoric’ was outlawed. It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect of words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. Liberals should not recommend this openmindedness on the scriptural ground that truth is great and will prevail, nor on the Miltonic ground that truth will always win in a free and open encounter – for the latter suggests that we have independent criteria for the presence of truth and the freedom of encounters. We do not. Rather, a liberal society is one which is content to call ‘true’ whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be. That is why a liberal society is badly served by an attempt to supply it with ‘philosophical foundations’. For the attempt to supply such foundations presupposes a natural order of topics and arguments which is prior to, and overrides the results of, encounters between old and new vocabularies.
This last point leads me back to my earlier claim that, in order for liberal culture to realise itself by shaping its own vocabulary, it needs an apologetics rather than a set of foundations. The idea that it ought to have foundations was a result of Enlightenment scientism, which was in turn a survival of the religious need to have human projects underwritten by a non-human authority. It was natural for liberal political thought in the 18th century to try to associate itself with the most promising cultural development of the time, the natural sciences. But unfortunately the Enlightenment wove its political rhetoric around a picture of the scientist as a sort of priest, someone who achieved contact with non-human truth by being ‘logical’, ‘methodical’ and ‘objective’. This was a useful tactic in its day, but it is less useful nowadays. For historians of science have made clear how little this picture of the scientist has to do with actual scientific achievement, how pointless it is to try to isolate something called ‘the scientific method’. The Kuhnian rhetoric of praise for great scientists is the same rhetoric which we use to praise Marx or Wordsworth or Freud: we speak of their powerful creative imagination, not of their dogged and methodical devotion to truth.
I said at the beginning of ‘The Contingency of Language’ that the French Revolution and the Romantic movement inaugurated an era in which we gradually came to appreciate the historical role of linguistic innovation – an era whose emblem is the vague but inspiring thought that truth is made rather than found. I also said that nowadays literature and utopian politics are the spheres to which we look when we worry about ends rather than about means. I can now add the corollary that these, rather than science, are the areas to which we should look for an apologetics for liberal society. We need an apologetics for liberalism which revolves around the hope that culture as a whole can be ‘aestheticised’ rather than around the Enlightenment hope that it might be ‘scientised’. Liberal politics is best suited to a culture whose hero is the strong poet rather than the truth-seeking, ‘logical’, ‘objective’ scientist. Such a culture would slough off the Enlightenment vocabulary which Sandel presupposes, and would thus slough off the questions which he puts to Berlin. It would be no longer haunted by spectres called ‘relativism’ and ‘irrationalism’. Such a culture would not assume that a form of cultural life is no stronger than its philosophical foundations. It would drop the idea of such foundations and would regard the justification of liberal society as a matter of invidious comparison with other attempts at social organisation – those of the past and those envisaged by utopians.
To think such an apologetics sufficient would be to draw the consequences of Wittgenstein’s insistence that vocabularies – all vocabularies, even those which contain the words which we take most seriously, the ones most essential to our self-descriptions – are human creations, tools for the creation of other human artefacts such as poems, utopian societies, scientific theories and future generations. To build the rhetoric of liberalism around this Wittgensteinian thought would mean giving up the idea that liberalism could be justified, and Nazi or Marxist enemies of liberalism refuted, by driving the latter up against an argumentative wall – forcing them to admit that liberal freedom has a ‘moral privilege’ which their own values lacked. From the point of view I have been commending, any attempt to drive one’s opponent up against a wall in this way is, in the long run, futile. For sooner or later the wall against which he is driven will come to be seen as just one more vocabulary, one more way of describing things. The wall then turns out to be a painted backdrop, one more work of man, one more bit of cultural stage-setting. An aestheticised culture would be one which would not insist we find the real wall behind the painted ones, the real touchstones of truth as opposed to touchstones which are merely cultural artefacts. It would be a culture which, precisely by appreciating that all touchstones are such artefacts, would take as its goal the creation of ever more various and multi-coloured artifacts.
To sum up, the moral I want to draw from my discussion of Sandel’s claim that Berlin’s position is ‘relativitic’ is that we should learn to brush aside questions like ‘How do you know that freedom is the chief goal of social organisation?’ in the same way as we brush aside questions like ‘How do you know that Jones is worthy of your friendship?’ or ‘How do you know that Yeats is an important poet, Hegel an important philosopher, or Galileo an important scientist?’ We must see allegiance to social institutions as no more matters of knowledge, but also as no more arbitrary, than choices of friends or heroes. Such choices are not made by reference to criteria. They cannot be preceded by presuppositionless critical reflection, conducted in no particular language and outside any particular historical context.
When I say ‘we must’ do this or ‘we cannot’ do that, I am not, of course, speaking from a neutral standpoint. I am speaking from Berlin’s side of the argument, trying to serve as an under-labourer to Berlin by clearing away some of the remaining philosophical underbrush. I am no more neutral, and philosophy can no more be neutral, on political matters of this magnitude than Locke, who originated the ‘under-labourer’ metaphor, could be neutral between Aristotelianism and corpuscularianism. But, here again, when I say that neutrality is not a desideratum, I am not saying this from a neutral philosophical perspective. I am not laying foundations for liberalism by claiming that recent Davidsonian philosophy of language and Kuhnian philosophy of science have demonstrated that the philosophers of the past were mistaken in asking for neutrality. I am saying that Kuhn, Davidson, Wittgenstein and Derrida provide us with redescriptions of familiar phenomena which, taken together, buttress Berlin’s way of describing alternative political institutions and theories. These philosophers help provide an apologetics for political liberalism.
But, of course, political liberalism also helps provide an apologetics for them. There is no natural order of inquiry which prescribes that we must first sort out our ideas about language, then about belief and knowledge, then about personhood and finally about society. One can just as well start from social theory and work back to philosophy of language (as some Marxists, for example, have done). There is no such thing as ‘first philosophy’: that metaphilosophical claim is itself just one more terminological suggestion made on behalf of the same cause, the cause of providing contemporary liberal culture with a vocabulary which is all its own, cleansing it of the residue of a vocabulary better suited to the needs of an earlier day.
I shall try to make this abjuration of philosophical neutrality in the interest of political liberalism more palatable by returning yet again to the Wittgensteinian analogy between vocabularies and tools. I said in ‘The Contingency of Language’ that one problem with this comparison is that the craftsman who designs a new tool can explain in advance why he wants it. By contrast, a new form of cultural life, a new vocabulary, can only explain its own utility post festum. We cannot see Christianity or Newtonianism or the Romantic movement or political liberalism as a tool while we are still in the course of figuring out how to use it. For there are as yet no clearly formulatable ends to which it is a means. But once we figure out how to use the vocabularies of these movements, we can tell a story of progress, showing how the literalisation of certain metaphors served the purpose of making possible all the good things that have recent’y happened. Further, we can now view all the e good things as particular instances of some more general good, the over-all end which the movement served. The attempt at such a view was one of Hegel’s definitions of philosophy: ‘grasping your time in thought’. I construe this to mean ‘finding a new description of all the things characteristic of your time of which you most approve, the things with which you unflinchingly identify, and then using that descriptive vocabulary to redescribe the past events which made these good things possible’.
On that meaning of ‘philosophy’, it follows that, as Hegel went on to say, ‘philosophy paints its grey on grey only when a form of life has grown old.’ Christianity did not know that its purpose was the alleviation of cruelty. Newton did not know that his purpose was the leisure and wealth made possible by modern technology. The Romantic poets did not know that their purpose was the development of an ethical consciousness suitable for the culture of political liberalism. But we now know these things, for we late-comers can tell the kind of story of progress which those who are actually making progress usually cannot. We can view these people as tool-makers rather than discoverers because we have a clearer idea of what was shaped by the use of those tools. The product is us – our conscience, our culture, our form of life. Those who made us possible could not clearly describe the ends to which their work was a means. But we can.
Let me now apply this point to the particular case of the relation between political liberalism and Enlightenment rationalism. This relation was the topic of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. They pointed out, correctly, that the forces unleashed by the Enlightenment have undermined the Enlightenment’s own convictions. What they called the ‘dissolvant rationality’ of Enlightenment has, in the course of the triumph of Enlightenment ideas during the last two centuries, undercut the ideas of ‘rationality’ and of ‘human nature’ which the 18th century took for granted. Horkheimer and Adorno, however, drew the conclusion that liberalism was now intellectually bankrupt, bereft of philosophical foundations, and that liberal society was morally bankrupt. This inference was a mistake. Horkheimer and Adorno assumed that the terms in which those who begin a historical development describe their enterprise are the terms which describe it correctly, and then inferred that a repudiation of that terminology deprives the results of that development of a right to exist. This is almost never the case. On the contrary, the terms used by the founders of a new form of cultural life consist largely in borrowings from the vocabulary of the culture which they are hoping to replace. Only when the new form has grown old, and has itself become the target of attacks from the avant-garde, will the proper terminology of that culture begin to take form. The terms in which a mature culture compares other cultures invidiously with itself, in which it couches its apologetics, are not likely to be the terms which were used to bring about its birth.
Horkheimer and Adorno give an admirable account of the way in which philosophical foundations of social practices (which they view as, typically, linguistic instruments of domination by the rulers) are undercut by Enlightenment scepticism. As they say, ‘ultimately the Enlightenment consumed not just the symbols [of social union] but their successors, universal concepts, and spared no remnant of metaphysics ... The situation of concepts in the face of the Enlightenment is like that of men of private means in regard to industrial trusts: none can feel safe.’ Among the distinctions which have been unable to withstand this dissolution are ‘absolute validity v. relative validity’, and ‘morality as opposed to prudence’. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it, the spirit of Enlightenment dictates that ‘every specific theoretic view succumbs to the destructive criticism that it is only a belief – until even the very notions of spirit, of truth and, indeed, enlightenment itself have become animistic magic.’ This point can be put in my jargon by saying that every specific theoretic view comes to be seen as one more vocabulary, one more description.
Horkheimer and Adorno thought it likely that civilisation could not survive this process. They had nothing helpful to suggest except ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’ – constant awareness that any new theoretical proposal is likely to be one more excuse for maintaining the status quo. They said that ‘if consideration of the destructive aspects of progress is left to its enemies, blindly pragmatised thought loses its transcending quality and its relation to truth,’ but they had no suggestions for its friends. They had no utopian vision of a liberal culture which would be able to incorporate and make use of an understanding of the dissolvant character of rationality, of the self-destructive character of Enlightenment. They did not try to show how ‘pragmatised thought’ might cease to be blind.
Various other writers, however, have tried to do just that. They have retained Enlightenment liberalism while (partially or completely) dropping Enlightenment rationalism. Berlin is an example, and so are John Dewey, Michael Oakeshott and John Rawls. These writers have helped undermine the idea of a trans-historical ‘absolutely valid’ set of concepts which would serve as ‘philosophical foundations’ of liberalism. But each has thought of this undermining as a way of strengthening liberal institutions. They have argued that liberal institutions would be better-off when freed from the need to defend themselves by an appeal to such foundations – better-off, too, for not having to answer Sandel’s question: ‘In what does the privileged status of freedom consist?’ All four would grant that a circular justification of our practices, a justification which makes one feature of our culture look good by citing still another, or comparing our culture invidiously with others by reference to our own standards, is the only sort of justification we are going to get. On my view, these writers represent the self-cancelling and self-fulfilling triumph of the Enlightenment. Their pragmatism is antithetical to Enlightenment rationalism, but was itself made possible only by Enlightenment rationalism, and now serves as the vocabulary of a mature Enlightenment liberalism.
Let me cite some passages from these authors to remind you of their positions. Dewey echoes Hegel’s definition of philosophy in saying: ‘When it is acknowledged that under disguise of dealing with ultimate reality, philosophy has been occupied with the precious values embedded in social traditions, that it has sprung from a clash of social ends and from a conflict of inherited institutions with incompatible contemporary tendencies, it will be seen that the task of future philosophy is to clarify men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day.’ In his Dewey Lectures, Rawls echoes both Berlin and Dewey when he says: ‘What justifies a conception of justice is not its being true to an order antecedent to and given to us, but its congruence with our deeper understanding of ourselves and our aspirations, and our realisation that, given our history and the traditions embedded in our public life, it is the most reasonable doctrine for us.’ Finally, Oakeshott writes, in sentences which Dewey might equally well have written:
A morality is neither a system of general principles nor a code of rules, but a vernacular language. General principles and even rules may be elicited from it, but (like other languages) it is not the creation of grammarians; it is made by speakers. What has to be learned in a moral education is not a theorem such as that good conduct is acting fairly or being charitable, nor is it a rule such as ‘always tell the truth,’ but how to speak the language intelligently ... It is not a device for formulating judgments about conduct or for solving so-called moral problems, but a practice in terms of which to think, to choose, to act and to utter.
This quotation from Oakeshott gives me a springboard for explaining why I think that the distinction between morality and prudence, and the term ‘moral’ itself, are no longer very useful. My argument turns on the familiar anti-Kantian claim, which Oakeshott is here taking for granted, that ‘moral principles’ (the categorical imperative, the utilitarian principle etc) only have a point insofar as they incorporate tacit reference to a whole range of institutions, practices, and vocabularies of moral and political deliberation. They are reminders of, abbreviations for, such practices, not justifications for them. At best, they are pedagogical aids to the acquisition of such practices. This point, common to Hegel and to recent critics of academic moral philosophy such as Annette Baier, J.B. Schneewind, Charles Taylor and Bernard Williams, suggests the question: since the classic Kantian opposition between morality and prudence was formulated precisely in terms of the opposition between an appeal to principle and an appeal to expediency, is there any point in keeping the term ‘morality’ once we drop the notion of ‘moral principle’?
Oakeshott, following Hegel, suggests an answer: we can keep the notion of ‘morality’ just in so far as we cease to think of morality as the voice of the divine part of ourselves and instead think of it as the voice of ourselves as members of a community, speakers of a common language. We can keep the morality-prudence distinction if we think of it, not as the difference between an appeal to the unconditioned and an appeal to the conditioned, but as the difference between an appeal to the interests of our community and an appeal to our private, possibly conflicting interests. The importance of this shift is that it makes it impossible to ask the question ‘Is ours a moral society?’ It makes it impossible to think that there is something which stands to my community as my community stands to me, some larger community called ‘humanity’ which has an intrinsic nature. Such a shift is appropriate for what Oakeshott calls a societas as opposed to a universitas, for a society conceived as a band of eccentrics collaborating for purposes of mutual protection rather than as a band of fellow-spirits united by a goal.
Oakeshott’s answer coincides with Wilfred Sellars’s thesis that morality is a matter of what he calls ‘we-intentions’, that the core meaning of ‘immoral action’ is ‘the sort of thing we don’t do’. An immoral action is, on this account, the sort of thing which, if done at all, is done only by animals, or by people of other families, tribes, cultures or historical epochs. If done by one of us, or if done repeatedly by one of us, that person ceases to be one of us. She becomes an outcast, someone who does not really speak our language, though she at first appeared to do so. On Sellars’s account, as on Hegel’s, moral philosophy takes the form of an answer to the question ‘Who are “we”, how did we come to be what we are, and what might we become?’ rather than an answer to the question ‘What rules should dictate my actions?’ In other words, moral philosophy takes the form of historical narration and utopian speculation rather than of a search for general principles.
This Oakeshott-Sellars way of looking at morality as a set of practices, our practices, makes vivid the difference between morality as the voice of a divinised portion of our soul, and as the voice of a contingent human artefact, a community which has grown up subject to the vicissitudes of time and chance, one more of nature’s experiments. It makes clear why the morality-prudence distinction breaks down when we attempt to transfer it to questions about whether the glue that holds our society together is ‘moral’ or ‘prudential’ in nature. That distinction only makes sense for individuals. It would make sense for societies only if ‘humanity’ had a nature over and above the various forms of human life which history has thrown up so far. But if the demands of a morality are the demands of a language, and if languages are historical contingencies, then to ‘stand unflinchingly for one’s moral convictions’ is a matter of identifying oneself with such a contingency.
Let me now try to connect this point with my earlier claim that the heroes of liberal society are the strong poet and the utopian revolutionary. Such a synthesis will seem paradoxical if one thinks of the poet or the revolutionary as necessarily ‘alienated from society’. But the paradox can be resolved if one thinks of the ideal liberal society as one in which the distinction between the reformer and the (violent) revolutionary is no longer necessary. An ideally liberal society is one in which whatever is both desirable and possible can be achieved by persuasion rather than force, reform rather than revolution, by the free and open encounters of present linguistic and other practices with suggestions for, and examples of, new practices. But this is to say that a liberal society is one which has no ideal except freedom, no goal except a willingness to see how such encounters go and to abide by the outcome. It is a societas rather than an universitas precisely because it has no purpose except to make life easier for poets and revolutionaries while seeing to it that they make life harder for others only by words, and not deeds. It is a society whose hero is the strong poet and the revolutionary because it recognises that it is what it is, has the morality it has, speaks the language it does, not because it approximates the will of God or the nature of man, but because certain poets and revolutionaries of the past spoke as they did.
To see one’s language, one’s conscience, one’s morality and one’s highest hopes as contingent products, as literalisations of what once were accidentally-produced metaphors, is to adopt an identity which suits one for citizenship in such an ideally liberal state. That is why the ideal citizen of such an ideal state would be someone who thinks of the strong poet as the ideal human being. She thinks of the founders and the preservers of her society as such poets, rather than as people who discovered or clearly envisioned the antecedently-existing truth about the world or about humanity. She herself may or may not be a poet, may or may not find her own metaphors for her own idiosyncratic fantasies, may or may not make those fantasies conscious. But she will be commonsensically Freudian enough to see the founders and the transformers of society, the acknowledged legislators of her language and thus of her morality, as people who happened to find metaphors to fit their fantasies, metaphors which happened to answer to the vaguely felt needs of the rest of society. She will be commonsensically Bloomian enough to take for granted that it is the revolutionary artist and the revolutionary scientist, not the academic artist or the normal scientist, who embodies the virtues which she hopes her society will foster.
There are many objections to what I have been saying, but the one which I find most disturbing says that I am treating democratic societies as existing for the sake of intellectuals. I seem to be describing institutions which were constructed in order to prevent cruelty and obtain justice as if they had been constructed to safeguard the freedom of a leisured élite.
My initial reply to this objection is that there are fairly tight connections between the freedom of the intellectuals, on the one hand, and the diminution of cruelty, on the other. We intellectuals of the rich North Atlantic democracies sometimes wonder whether our concern for our fellow intellectuals in places like Cuba, Chile and Poland – our feeling that these dissidents are the exemplary human beings of our time – may not be myopic. These doubts are taken advantage of by apologists for Soviet tyranny, who remind us that the prevention of famine, and the availability of cheap housing and medical care, are more important to most people than the welfare of poets. Apologists for the United States’ support of ‘authoritarian’ governments use similar arguments, suggesting that suppression of the press and of academic freedom is a small price to pay for order and economic stability – a price which all but a few eccentrics are willing to pay. In this situation we are torn between insisting that the welfare of dissident poets ought to be of interest to non-poets, and wondering whether we say this simply because we ourselves find it easier to identify with poets than with peasants.
One way to set aside this sort of self-doubt is to remind ourselves of particular events: of Solidarity, and in particular of the day when they engraved Milosz’s line, ‘A poet remembers,’ on the monument to the strikers murdered by the police in Gdansk. But there is another way. This is to come to terms with the general philosophical claim that what counts as cruelty and injustice is a matter of the language that is spoken. To see a common social practice as cruel and injust is, on the view I have been putting forward, a matter of redescription rather than of discovery. It is a matter of changing vocabularies rather than of stripping away the veil of appearance from an objective reality, of experimentation with new ways of speaking rather than of overcoming ‘false consciousness’. When we ask ourselves how our ancestors, or the inhabitants of an exotic culture, or our past selves could have been so blind to the cruelties they (or we) practised, the right answer is that they (or we) were using a language which was built around this practice, a language different from the one in which we are now condemning it. To protect the poets and the utopian fantasts, the people who do not talk as we do, and who thus necessarily come under suspicion of irrationality and immorality, is the only thing which our society can do to ensure that its language keeps changing. It is, therefore, the only thing that can prevent a society from normalising what will appear, from the point of view of an ideal future, its characteristic patterns of cruelty and injustice.
If the ideal culture of the ideal liberal society ever comes into existence, if Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Freud and Bloom become part of common sense, then the battle between moralism and Romanticism will be over, because the language in which the issue between them was stated will be obsolete. But in the meantime, we should side with the Romantics and do our best to aestheticise society, to keep it safe for the poets in the hope that the poets may eventually make it safe for everybody else. ‘Imagination,’ in Dewey’s words, ‘is the chief instrument of the good ... art is more moral than moralities.’
[*] ‘The Contingency of Language’ was published in the LRB of 17 April, and ‘The Contingency of selfhood’ in the following issue.
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.