Observations on PMN Chapter 1

At the end of Chapter 1, Rorty is kind enough to admit being “painfully aware of the lacunae in the story [he has] told” (69). Such an admission will of course be necessary anytime one attempts to sweep 2500 years of philosophical and social history in a spare fifty pages, but in this case several such gaps are worth particular consideration. He identifies four distinct methods of framing dualist theories of human nature, distinguishing “a person and his ghost” (67), which was the prevailing “religious” explanation of “the peasant’s belief in life among the shades” (41) common to primitive societies; “a person and his Aristotelian passive intellect” (67); “res cogitans and res extensa” in a Cartesian sense; and the contemporary, modified Cartesian dualism which posits the immateriality of such “phenomenal” events as pains or other “raw feels” (67).

The common thread unifying these various formulations of the “mind-body” problem, argues Rorty, is the trope of an “Eye of the Mind,” a faculty of personhood which apprehends the immaterial, the abstract, the eternal in a manner analogous to the physical eye’s apprehension of sensate particulars. This trope emerged as the most compelling frame for Western philosophy’s account of man’s distinctive faculty of reason (and, to Rorty’s credit, it is a trope that is certainly still alive and well in everyday discourse, as in the commonplace, “rational insight”). That is, a foundational intuition of Western thought is that when a man thinks of “goodness” or “parallelism” as such, he is doing something qualitatively different than what he does when undertaking such “animal” enterprises as eating or sleeping or feeling pain.

Though he does not directly defend this position until the next chapter, Rorty argues that this distinction depends on a grammatical confusion (reinforced by the contingent selection of ocular imagery for the relevant mental machinery): “The only way to associate the intentional with the immaterial is to identify it with the phenomenal, and the only way to identify the phenomenal with the immaterial is to hypostatize universals and think of them as particulars rather than as abstractions from particulars” (31).

Thus, even once Western thought had jettisoned the metaphysical baggage of Platonic forms or Aristotelian sensing and intellectual souls, the problematic defined at the birth of philosophy continued to elicit arbitrary metaphysical—and so, the reader can sense already, rationally indefensible—distinctions, whether between the immaterial “mind-stuff” (res cogitans) and matter (res extensa) of Descartes, or between phenomenal mental processes and physical states. Rorty’s task in this chapter is purely deconstructive: he compares it to a psychologist’s helping a patient “relive his past” in order to overcome it (33). Modern man must realize his bondage to intellectual categories imposed by purely-contingent metaphors that have secured the boundaries of philosophical discourse; that being done, perhaps new possibilities will await.

However, Rorty does not consider with any rigor the possibility that one of these traditional modes of thought might have superior explanatory power or intelligibility, and this is particularly evident from the indifference with which he regards the dramatic differences between (for instance) a Thomist and Cartesian epistemology. A full elaboration of this curious lacuna in Rorty’s arguments would require another book (or at least a lengthy—and forthcoming—post on Milbank and Pickstock’s Truth in Aquinas), but a few points can be hinted at initially.

The “Aristotelian” (ancient?) conception of “mind-as-reason” was transformed by Descartes into “mind-as-consciousness” (54), and this shifted the focus of philosophy from “God and morality” to “epistemology,” which amount to shift in interest from “practical wisdom” to “certainty” (60-61). The Cartesian self is an isolated atom of purest interiority, known to himself as certain, and casting about for firm foundations upon which to rest his claims about the world. Curiously, Rorty almost immediately asserts, “The Cartesian change from mind-as-reason to mind-as-inner-arena was not the triumph of the prideful individual subject freed from scholastic shackles so much as the triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom” (61). This is curious because the quest for certainty is very likely a secondary task required to sustain the individual once he is unmoored from the straitening ties of tradition and transcendence: the priority of epistemology presupposes the primacy of the individual, who requires “rational” foundations for his actions, whether individual or social/political. This historical narration is convincingly set forth in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing, while Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue explains (to quote the title of chapter five) “why the Enlightenment project had to fail” (39).

If MacIntyre is right to argue that post-Cartesian epistemology was a doomed enterprise, that opens up the possibility that earlier strands of the philosophical tradition sketched by Rorty might be more resilient. First, Rorty’s assertion that the very notion of rational insight implies a mind-body dualism is open to almost endless supplementation: for instance, the Plato of the Phaedrus links knowledge of abstract universals with an erotic encounter with particular beauty (this interpretation is also Pickstock’s from AW; whether and how Phaedrus is compatible with other Platonic dialogues (the Phaedo and the Meno strike me as particularly troubling) is a different matter). Further, when the Church Fathers inscribed Platonic categories into Christian theology, they upset the unquestionably real dualist tendencies therein to such a degree that any such remaining tendencies must be characterized as residual, rather than essential.

It is on this point that Rorty seems least thoughtful (or perhaps its nearness to this reader’s heart simply enlarges the offense). He calls the Christianity of St. Paul a “determinedly other-worldly religious cult” (44), presumably to emphasize the Church’s role in exacerbating the arbitrary distinction between the immaterial and the material (though this admittedly is not explicit). Nevertheless, the “difference” that Christianity made in Western thought was overwhelmingly its determined devotion to the particular as the site of universal (this is the metaphysical significance—a term I used reservedly, for fear of transgression—of the Incarnation): thus, the salvation of men is not, as it seems to have been for Plato and Aristotle, the intellectual soul’s contemplation of the good, but rather the restoration of a unified spiritual body to fellowship with God in the “new heavens and new earth,” upon the resurrection of the dead. Thus, though Rorty seems to think that medieval Christian writers took for granted Aristotle’s priority of the “intellectual essence” (44), such a category could only survive in Christian thought as a modified explanatory device of the more fundamental ontological goodness of embodied life, which was essential for true salvation.

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2 Responses to “Observations on PMN Chapter 1”

  1. I think it’s worth remembering that Rorty’s primary audience is American philosophers, and when he says “the problem of reason cannot be stated without a return to epistemological views that no one really wishes to resurrect” (37) and “there are few believers in Platonic ideals today” (43), I’m pretty sure he’s leaning on a post-Kant consensus position about epistemology and Idealism within Anglosphere philosophy. Your argument might not be with Rorty so much as an entire tradition — but that’s what we get for reading this book without first reading Kant and Quine.

    With regard to Christianity and dualism: I’ll need to check the section of Whose Justice? where MacIntyre talks about Augustine and the self, but I think that even if you’re drawing on MacIntyre, you’re overstating the degree to which Christianity made dualism “residual.” Was Augustine a monist? Or is he a bad guy here? Looking forward to your further thoughts on this subject.

  2. William–

    You’re probably right about Rorty’s intended audience, and that’s fair enough in itself, but if he can speak from within a tradition, I think it’s only fair that I have the liberty of doing so as well. That is, Rorty speaks from and to a consensus that he regards as viable; I find it less so, and speak from and to a tradition whose concerns are somewhat antithetical to Rorty’s. I’m sure that makes me less than an ideal reader, but I can be plain about my intentions: I want to know what he has to say, and whether it is a) helpful in advancing the problems and concerns of my own tradition, or b) dangerous or destructive of those concerns.

    I think you’re right to quarrel with my use of “residual”: I did not mean that a fully Christian theory of the person could somehow do away with any distinction between material and immaterial, or temporal and eternal, etc. No, Aquinas, and Gregory, and (I’m sure, though I can’t quite put my finger on how) Augustine depend on the “intellectual soul” as that rational capacity that allows us access (mediated always by grace) to the very face of God, which we now behold in shards of glory. I will quote Milbank on the “difference” that Christianity made for philosophy: “For Aquinas, following Augustine, culpable ‘excess’ and ‘deficiency’ are therefore pure negations, whereas for Plato and Aristotle they are real, permanent places lurking in the soul, just as the city is surrounded by barbaric wastes” (361). For Plato, to become fully human is to sever oneself from the passions of embodied life; for Augustine, and later, Aquinas, to become fully human is to be transfigured in one’s entire person by a new overall orientation to the good of charity, which is (for Aquinas) “the form of all the virtues.” Ontological goodness is the bequest of Christianity to philosophy, and it is such a radical shift that, once it has been employed to filter such a notion as “intellectual soul,” only the faintest resemblance remains between the Christian and Aristotelian usage. Thus, we can coherently speak of a rational apprehension of God, but only in a way that complements and commends the embrace of embodied life, and not in a way that effects a rift between the two.

    I don’t have the strength to unpack it right now, but you should read this excellent essay by Paul Griffiths on an antinomy peculiar to Christian reflection on the soul, and some possible outside resources that could help in solving it: http://docs.google.com/View?id=dfmqzh9g_104c7646mfm

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