Getting it right

Bernard Williams

  • Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by Richard Rorty
    Cambridge, 201 pp, £25.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 521 35381 5

An energetic thinker with some original ideas may understandably rebel against the oppressive demand to get it right, especially when the demand comes, as it often does, from cautious and conventional colleagues. In responsible subjects such as the natural sciences, such people rebel against the demand only at their peril – or rather, their ideas will succeed only if the demand is, in the end, obeyed, and the colleagues turn out merely to have been too cautious. In philosophy, however, the bets are less clearly drawn: the very idea of getting it right is more problematic. The innovator may see the demand as not just cautious, but in itself restrictive and conventional, asking for correctness, in terms which the new ideas are designed to overthrow. He may be tempted to reject the demand altogether. This reaction is naturally self-fuelling; the further one goes, the more irrelevant the demand may seem.

However, the demand to get it right has great survival value. All the philosophers who have been found interesting for more than a very brief period of fashion have been driven by a need to get it right in some terms or other. Even Nietzsche, the thinker who most self-consciously constructed himself in a new style, and most radically mistreated received standards of relevance and correctness, frequently reminded himself and any readers he might have that he was originally a philologist and had derived from that a respect for the decencies of exactness. Nietzsche’s very extreme case shows something true more generally: that there is no one style in philosophy that displays the need to get it right. If one believes that careful treatises in a semi-scientific style are appropriate to philosophy, then some plain virtues of that sort may meet the need. More Nietzschean pretensions make more Nietzschean demands. But some acknowledgment of the need is required, some concern for truthfulness that goes beyond the disposition to put next what occurs next. Otherwise, what is conceived of as a radical philosophy will unsurprisingly turn out to be just like conventional work which equally lacks intensity. It will be predictably edifying, or perhaps predictably unedifying: in any case, predictable.

Richard Rorty is a philosopher for whom the standards and the point of getting it right have become very problematic, not only in philosophy but quite generally. In his influential and interesting book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979, he claimed that we should give up the idea of language and thought mirroring or representing an external reality, and think in terms of ‘metaphors’ or ‘vocabularies’ striving with each other. We invent descriptions (‘of the world’, as we misleadingly put it), and some of them catch on, while others do not. This general line of thought does not exclude the notion of getting things right, but it does raise doubts about what it may be to do so. It also gives a hard time to some standard ways of construing that idea (those familiar to structural engineers and archival historians, for instance). In that book, the doubts about getting it right had only to a limited extent affected the book itself; a good deal of it sounded like a philosopher arguing carefully for one position and against another, distinguishing views, scrupulously expounding the work of others. In his new book, however, there are distressing signs that Rorty has slackened his grip on conventional notions of getting it right without yet forcing us to accept any others.

In part, this may be because the book is rather untidily derived from two sets of lectures (one set, the Northcliffe Lectures at University College London, appeared in an earlier version in these pages). The themes announced in the title are not very firmly related to one another, and there is the phenomenon, familiar in lectures, that important matters are repeatedly introduced as asides. But that is not the most basic problem. Nor is it a problem, in itself, that Rorty moves freely between philosophical exposition and history of ideas and mild forays into literary criticism (particularly on Proust, Nabokov and Orwell): a lack of concern for frontiers is one of the most engaging things about the book. The reason the book is unsatisfying is that Rorty has seemingly lost the sense of a difficulty, of anything that needs to be got right.

This loss is illustrated by Rorty’s account of his basic metaphysical view. Rorty would in fact prefer his outlook to be called ‘post-metaphysical’, since, like Wittgenstein and (I am told) Heidegger, he hopes to have moved away from the old claims and counter-claims of philosophy into a territory where his utterances do not claim to tell you how it is with these matters, but rather get you to see them differently. But Wittgenstein and (doubtless) Heidegger, and before them Nietzsche, went to great lengths to establish ways in which they could be understood like this, to find a space in which what they said would not simply count as another move in an old metaphysical game. One cannot simply say that one possesses this space – one has to change by intellectual and imaginative force the terms in which one is heard. Rorty himself insists on this, but he has not done it. He just tells us that things are thus and so with language and the world: for instance, that ‘truths are made rather than found,’ or that there are ‘no truths independent of language’. These can be taken as innocuous platitudes; that is what they are if they say no more than, as Rorty also puts it, that language is a human invention. Indeed, nothing can be said without a means of saying it.

But Rorty wants more than these platitudes, and says things that go far beyond them. It does not follow from those platitudes, for instance, that there is no such thing as a scientific discovery of how things are (of how they would have been anyway, even if we had not discovered them), but this is what Rorty seems to say. He thinks that scientific theories are simply clusters of metaphors which ‘happen to’ have caught on. He writes: ‘We need to see the constellations of causal forces which produced talk of DNA or of the Big Bang as of a piece with the causal forces which produced talk of “secularisation” or of “late capitalism”. These various constellations are the random factors which have made some things subjects of conversation for us and others not, have made some projects and not others possible and important.’

But he has not done enough to make us take this as a serious statement of anything. What is excluded, if anything, by that boneless phrase ‘of a piece’? What are the causal forces, and how mobilised, that indeed make DNA for the first time ‘a subject of conversation’? (Might Crick and Watson have economised on all that trouble with the X-ray photographs – there’s a causal story for you – and just spread some gossip about the helix, as they did occasionally about their rivals?) What, above all, makes a project ‘possible’ for us? Should the unhappy discoverers of cold fusion, as they still may take themselves to be, strengthen their position by a course in persuasion? Rorty has not brought it about, as on his own account he has to do, that those questions and many others equally banal simply lapse. He will not bring it about by sentences such as those. Faced with the great power, technical and intellectual, of modern science, Richard Rorty, on his own view of things, must Try Harder.

Rorty himself, I think, does not recognise what he does face. In a revealing passage, he says: ‘ ... the sciences are no longer the most interesting or promising or exciting area of culture.’ What he means by this comes out in a contrast a few lines later with ‘the areas which are [his emphasis] at the forefront of culture, those which excite the imagination of the young ... ’; and they are identified as art and utopian politics. This identification itself seems at this present moment rather strange, but even apart from that, it is clear that whether or not the sciences do or do not excite the young has very little to do with how things stand with them – for instance, with whether they are indeed ‘promising’ (or, come to that, threatening), whether they will continue to advance in what they take to be knowledge and to affect our world. The definition of a cultural agenda which is as careless as this is not going to reveal how that agenda stands in relation to the sciences and the sciences’ own conceptions of discovery.

At the heart of his enterprise Rorty has a very important question – about the ways in which liberalism should now understand itself. He mentions the claims made by some of the Frankfurt School (and taken up with enthusiasm in May 1968), to the effect that the Enlightenment and its child liberalism have turned into instruments of technological and scientistic oppression, and must now be rejected. He rightly replies that no set of ideas should be identified with the first ways they find of describing themselves. If the Enlightenment tended to see the paradigm of understanding as scientific knowledge, and society as a machine – in fact, it did not uniformly do either – we do not have to follow it in that. There may be other and more serviceable ways of describing liberalism and helping to save it.

Rorty’s own way of approaching this very real problem takes the cavalier form of trying to do without the peculiar concerns of truth at all, scientific or any other. He also expresses his aim in terms of exchanging for the ‘rationalisation’ of society its ‘poeticisation’: a form of self-consciousness about the contingency of its guiding metaphors. To help us understand these ideas, Rorty turns to some works of literature. His engagements with them are a mixed success. His brief treatment of Proust, in particular, who turns up in a chapter in the surely uncongenial company of Nietzsche and Heidegger, fails, not because (as Rorty hints in the preface) it is too bold or unsupported, but because it does not take the first step of questioning the relations between the author and the narrator. He thinks that he has said something about the novel by saying that the collection of people Proust ‘redescribed’ in it is ‘just a collection, just the people Proust happened to bump into’ (and the confusions of fiction and reality are not helped when Comte Robert de Montesquiou, a source for the figure of Charlus, turns up as ‘Montesquieu’). Nabokov is more interestingly considered, on the subject of cruelty: more interestingly, because there is here, more than in other parts of the book, a sense of felt resistance, of Rorty’s having to find his way into an understanding of this notably sly writer. I am not sure whether he has found the right way, but his care in trying to do so is both noticeable and agreeable.

Granted that the physical world is for Rorty just a matter of our vocabularies, it is not surprising that everything else is as well. Human beings are entirely the products of culture: ‘there is nothing to people except what has been socialised into them,’ as he puts it, and what this may be is a matter of contingency. This might seem to be an extremely bold claim in the human sciences, solving at a stroke a large number of scientific questions about the genetic and the environmental. But I do not think it is meant in that way. It is rather a large (and uninviting) metaphysical conclusion, that since everything is a matter of vocabulary, vocabularies must certainly be a matter of vocabularies. We, like everything else, are our words – or something like that.

However, this account of the matter, which is about all that Rorty gives us, is rather ruffled by the fact that there seems to be an exception to the principle. The capacity to feel pain and to be humiliated is said to be universal: human beings will be open to pain and humiliation however they are acculturated, and pain and humiliation are the only things of which this is true. However, the badness of pain and humiliation are by no means independent of culture. Indeed the liberal ironist who is Rorty’s hero is one who is against pain and humiliation (and against them more than he is against anything else), but recognises at the same time that he cannot demonstrate their badness, that it is as culturally grounded as anything else. The liberal ironist commits himself to things while knowing that that is all he is doing; he believes in things while knowing, in a sense, that there is nothing to believe in.

Rorty suggests in passing that he may be able to do this because he has been incompletely socialised: but I suspect that this is an unconscious recurrence of Mannheim’s self-congratulatory conception of the intellectual as a ‘free-swimming intelligence’ who can move between ideologies. Why should the liberal ironist not be, rather, someone who has been thoroughly socialised in a certain kind of liberal culture?

Ironists realise, most basically, that ‘anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed.’ This is a point at which it becomes very clear that a more urgent commitment to getting it right is, as it always is, an ethical matter. Of course, there is a boring sense in which what the ironist is said to believe is true: we can find some way of telling you about a terrible thing which is marginal or vague enough to conceal its terribleness. The recent Bay Area earthquake was, without doubt, an event that brought neighbourhoods together and gave employment to the plywood industry. But the ironist must have recognised something more challenging than this, surely? Does he think that a terrible thing can be redescribed so as to look good, even though the redescription reveals just those things that made it look terrible? Can the redescription make it look good to those very people who thought that it was terrible – us, for example? Why should we believe this? Why should Rorty believe it, since, on his own view, we are who we are and not someone else? Then the redescription will make it look good to someone else – someone who will rejoice at, say, accurate descriptions of Auschwitz? But then Rorty must say what, on his view, makes them descriptions, and accurate descriptions, of the same thing: of Auschwitz.

Rorty cannot get rid of the truth as lightly as he pretends. In his discussion of Orwell, Rorty very properly confronts the saying of Winston in 1984: ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.’ Rorty says ‘it does not matter whether “two plus two is four” is true ... all that matters is that if you believe it, you can say it without getting hurt ... If we take care of freedom, truth can look after itself.’ Earlier he says a similar thing, that it is not that truth will win in a free and open encounter, but that freedom is to be fostered for its own sake. ‘A liberal society is one which is content to call “true” whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be.’ But there is an important reservation: ‘It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes.’ The reservation is not only important but conventional. But why should Rorty believe that these liberal distinctions can be defended or even understood if we do not take seriously the idea of telling the truth? Is the idea of persuasion itself, as opposed to mere force, independent of notions of the truth?

It is not merely because they ban singing or telling stories, and not merely because they beat people up, that authoritarian regimes are hated, but because they conceal the truth, tell lies, try to prevent people from knowing how things are. Nothing that Rorty says in this book, in his confrontation with Orwell or elsewhere, helps us to rethink in new terms the relation of a liberal society to truthfulness, or to our commitments (of science, but by no means only of science) to respecting how things actually are. Rorty has an immensely important project, to give liberalism a better understanding of itself than it has been left by previous philosophy. This book offers not much more than a benign celebration of the task. A closer focus, more patience, more strength, are needed in order to get on with it.