Archive for the Evaluations Category

On difficult books.

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 7 March 2010 by William Brafford

We’ve let things get quiet around here, haven’t we? Ah, that burst of good intentions last December, when we decided to start this blog. Here’s the good news: I finished Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature early this morning, and that means that I’ll be able to move on to some things that are easier to write about. As I read PMN, I found that even summarizing the bulk of the book would be too hard; it was tough enough just to navigate it. But the last eighty or so pages of the book — there’s a lot there to discuss. In the last two sections, Rorty sets forth his vision for what philosophy can be after we do away with the idea of epistemology. I think it’s here that Rorty really hits the stuff that we’re interested in on this blog, and it’s definitely these sections that account for the book’s renown among non-philosophers. I’m going to try to write about some of it this week.

For today, I just want to note that it feels really good to finish a tough book and get something out of it. I may not have any idea how to judge whether Rorty gets the best of Putnam or Habermas, but I’ve got a better map of contemporary philosophy than I had before, and I’ve gotten some time looking at the world of ideas from a new perspective. For me, there’s an aesthetic pleasure in both of these things. Getting to that closing summary is like seeing the parking lot again after climbing a big mountain. Really: I can associate every stage of reading this book with part of my hike up Mount Harvard last summer. Now I’m lounging in the parking lot, waiting for you guys to catch up so we can talk about the trip.

Question for discussion: Rorty wants us to give up dualism, but wouldn’t the world be a boring place without dualists?

I’m going to finish Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the next day or so. A professor once told me that SSR was a book that everyone talked about for thirty years or so, but now no one reads it anymore. Is that because Kuhn won the argument, or is it because people just got tired of talking about him? (Or was my professor wrong?)

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Observations on PMN Chapter 1

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , , on 20 December 2009 by Brendan

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.

Richard Rorty loves sauerkraut pudding

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , , , , , on 16 December 2009 by Brendan

If that sounds like a strange dish, well, Richard Rorty is a strange fellow, an Anglophone analytic philosopher of mind turned Deweyan pragmatist turned Heideggerian historicist. Now, if that sounds to you like a ridiculous combination—this is your fun fact for the post—consider that Rorty matriculated at the University of Chicago at age 14. Trained in the analytic school of Brandom, Quine, and Davidson, Rorty gradually became disillusioned with Western philosophy’s metaphysical and epistemological hubris; the first fruit borne by that frustration was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a meandering critique of the Lockean-Cartesian-Kantian tradition, which posits philosophy as a discipline “foundational in respect to the rest of culture because culture is the assemblage of claims to knowledge, and philosophy adjudicates such claims” (3, all citations from the 1979 edition).

At the headwaters of this project, Locke sought to provide “a ‘theory of knowledge’ based on an understanding of ‘mental processes’” (3), Descartes postulated an interior mind  “in which ‘processes’ occur,” (4) and Kant cast philosophy “as a tribunal of pure reason, upholding or denying the claims of the rest of culture” (4). Rorty positions analytic writers within this tradition “as an attempt to escape from history—an attempt to find nonhistorical conditions of any possible historical development” (9).

However, in the twentieth century, three philosophers—“Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey” (4)—questioned this quest for certainty in fundamental ways, though only, observes Rorty, after painful experiences in trying to refashion and recuperate its illusory certainties. Against philosophy’s flight from history, these three thinkers offered an “historicist” message, one which grounds philosophical pursuits and truth claims in the social and cultural developments of human societies: Heidegger’s historicism is most sweeping, relying on a vast revision of the “history of philosophy,” which “lets us see the beginning of the Cartesian imagery in the Greeks and the metamorphoses of this imagery during the last three centuries” (12). Wittgenstein showed how language could be conceived of as a “game” constructed for the achievement of social pursuits—in Philosophical Explorations, he wrote, “To imagine a language is to imagine a way of life” (§19). Each of these three, argues Rorty, “set aside metaphysics and epistemology as possible disciplines”: they do not so much debunk these realms, he suggests, as simply lose interest in them (4). For them, and for Rorty himself, “The notion of ‘accurate representation’ is simply an automatic and empty compliment which we pay to those beliefs which are successful in helping us do what we want to do” (10): “true statements” are socially functional statements.

This brings us to Rorty’s thesis, which bears a rather longer quotation:

The aim of this book is to undermine the reader’s confidence in ‘the mind’ as something about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view, in ‘knowledge’ as something about which there ought to be a ‘theory’ and which has ‘foundations,’ and in ‘philosophy’ as it has been conceived since Kant (4).

Rorty understands himself as continuing the historicist project of his three heroes, though rather in the manner of a double agent, still operating within the stifled confines of analytic philosophy, and even stealing his “particular criticisms” of that tradition “from such systematic philosophers as Sellars, Quine, Davidson, Ryle, Malcolm, Kuhn, and Putnam” (7). 

I know enough about where this book is headed to be interested in the trip, though I expect to have many a disagreement with our brilliant guide along the way. On one hand (as my title suggests), his deployment of sources is idiosyncratic: each of these three is historicist in his own way, but (perhaps, nudges my instinct) not necessarily in compatible ways. At a superficial level, consider that Heidegger considered Christianity the (quite literally) apotheosis of the mechanization at the heart of Western metaphysics, while Wittgenstein experienced a profound conversion during World War I that left him with a deep-rooted Christian faith (though how orthodox or catholic that faith was is admittedly fuzzy for me). Further, it is far from self-evident that historicism is incompatible with a certain kind of discourse about being: I am thinking here of MacIntyre (who, interestingly, was himself an analytic philosopher “converted” to a sort of Wittgensteinian historicism, though in an Aristotelian and Thomist, rather than Heideggerian, key), and more emphatically, John Milbank. In fact (contra Heidegger, whose reading of Christian history I find unimaginative at best), the very logic of the Incarnation seems to imply that a fully Christian metaphysics must in some sense be historicist, for there is no other “image of the invisible God” except this Jewish man, born of a Virgin and crucified under Pontius Pilate—of course, here I go sounding all Barthian, when a sensible person would let the analogia entis question rest for another day. 

We will surely have occasion later to discuss whether—as Rorty seems to suggest here—viewing truth as socially-constructed need commit one to abandoning the possibility of the “Truth,” of reality as such. MacIntyre argued that it did not, envisioning the possibility of one discourse’s instigating an “epistemological crisis” within a rival; Milbank argues that it does not, because of the possibility of an ecclesial community whose aesthetic splendor would overwhelm all rivals.