Ahem. Michael Bérubé devotes chapter 6 of his recent book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? to a discussion of an undergraduate honors seminar he teaches called "Postmodernism and American Fiction." He's a literature professor, not a philosopher, but the course naturally includes a discussion of some properly philosophical topics. At a couple of spots in What's Liberal, Bérubé (hereinafter MB, so I don't have to keep making those accent marks) tells us what "many philosophy professors" do, to wit: "They complain that we literary types like to 'reduce' everything to texts and discourses, and we don't understand that they are searching for the immutable, nondiscursive truths of the universe." That is, most philosophy professors are what we call "metaphysical realists," who think that "literary types" are relativists and skeptics. It is true that philosophy harbors many such; but there are actual relativists and skeptics in English departments too, so, so there. I'm no realist, but that doesn't mean I agree 100% with MB's account of the matter, which MB rightly associates with that of Richard Rorty. Let me elaborate; first his views, then mine.
As an example of a realist, MB could have cited any number of people, from Roger Kimball to Jerry Fodor, but he actually turns to "philosopher Sam Harris" (he of the anti-religion polemic The End of Faith). Harris is actually a grad student in neuroscience, not a philosopher, but he apparently took a few courses with Rorty at Stanford, and feels he knows enough to set Rorty straight in his book, from which (specifically, a section entitled The Demon of Relativism) MB quotes (pp. 180-81): "In philosophical terms, [MB's text has "then," here] pragmatism can be directly opposed to realism," which Harris then goes on to defend in a predictably obtuse and table-thumping manner. We may put all that, such as it is, to one side for now, and turn to MB's response. Actually, I need Harris's punch line to set it up: "To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them."
So now MB responds.
The reason I disagree with Harris, the reason I am not what he calls an "ethical realist," is that I believe that gravity and slavery are different kinds of things, and that objective, observer-independent knowledge about gravity is possible but should not be taken as a model for knowledge about human affairs. I believe that there are mind-independent entities, and that you can check this for yourself by kicking a stone; but I do not understand how people like Harris, who are so stringently skeptical about religious belief [this – the supposed incongruity of Harris's objection given his other views – is MB's reason for citing Harris rather than, as he does immediately below, a realist philosopher like Thomas Nagel], can insist on the existence of mind-independent concepts. And this, as my students gradually come to understand, is an incommensurability. It is not an incommensurability about slavery itself; both the ethical realists and I are against it. It is an incommensurability with regard to how one justifies one's being against it (pp. 263-4).Far be it from me to dispute the difference in kind between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften. And that difference may even be enough to license MB's actual practices re: liberalism. So I don't want to hit him too hard here, lest I be rightly accused of academic pedantry and/or turf-warring. On the other hand it did indeed seem as if the properly philosophical issues MB and Harris both
In fact, MB has already received some heat on this point. At his blog he elaborates (comment #10):
Seriously, when I object to the idea of mind-independent concepts, I’m objecting to the notion that “in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered” (as Harris puts it): concepts that exist independently of any mind [as opposed to: ind. of my mind]. I think it’s a kinda quasireligious belief, which is why I find it so strange that Harris professes so strong a faith in it.This helps, a bit. As it was, the notion of "mind-independence" was hopelessly ambiguous, and now it is somewhat less so (but only somewhat). And the idea of "truths waiting to be discovered" does indeed go down more smoothly w/r/t inquiry into facts (i.e. not just science) than to value determination, which it seems we hammer out among ourselves in a way unlike that of physics (that is, the hammering-out seems more constitutive of the content of the result, where in physics it concerns the epistemic justification for believing what we take to have been "already true"); and again, maybe that will be enough to licence MB's actual practice (or theoretical practice). But once the philosophical idea of metaphysical realism has been brought up, we absolutely cannot leave it at that. This is especially true in MB's explicitly Rortyan context. To his credit, he realizes this (and I support 100% his pedagogical decision to turn to literature at this point in the course, given its aims):
I wrapped up this part of the course by telling my students that if they wanted to pursue this further, with real philosophers, they should consult Richard Rorty for (most of) my end of the discussion, and Thomas Nagel—in The View From Nowhere, for a start—for one of the most salient responses to Rorty (p. 264)As it happens I am very much like MB in one respect: my most profound philosophical influence has been Rorty, a fact which my many serious and fundamental differences with him sometimes make me forget. But it's true. Before Rorty, no-one was talking about bringing together Quine, Sellars, and Davidson, on the one hand, with Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and phenomenological hermeneutics on the other, let alone in the context of a revival of Deweyan pragmatism. Unfortunately, Rorty messes up the execution of this project; however, it is in an instructive and helpful way that he does so. So I totally get where MB is coming from w/r/t anti-foundationalism and all that. These remarks are this "real philosopher's" suggestions about where to go from here. If they are phrased in terms of criticism of what MB has actually written, let that not be taken to imply that he has misled his students unnecessarily, or that his postmodernism course, as described in the book, is anything less than terrific.
Enough! Here, then, are my worries:
My first gripe concerns the cutting of philosophical corners. It's understandable that people, especially non-philosophers, try to deal with the issue of realism and relativism in the moral/political context without first deciding what to say about scientific or commonsense facts. After all, that's what MB is interested in, ultimately: moral disagreement (e.g. about the rights of the disabled). This, plus, again, the acknowledged difference in kind between the Natur- and Geisteswissenschaften, makes it tempting to split the difference, defending anti-realism about morality by conceding realism about commonsense facts (e.g. Searle's version). But on my view resistance to realism must be global. If we don't see how a proper account of belief and meaning and truth and whatnot requires the rejection of realism in the *latter* case, then we can't see how it does so in the former case either, once the pernicious metaphysics has gotten a foothold. It takes more work (*much* more work) to do it the long way, but it's worth it. Maybe this will come out as I continue. But that's my most general worry – cutting corners in this sense.
Let's turn to Rorty, who does not cut corners in this way, but is admirably consistent in his rejection of realism. Unfortunately, this single-mindedness can result in some carelessness on his part. Rorty rightly pegs realism as a Cartesian position, committed to a metaphysical dualism of subject and object. And he is right again to reject the (rather silly, but remarkably persistent) idea that one avoids this dualism simply by rejecting its substance-dualistic manifestation and embracing materialism instead (a mistake Rorty himself seemed to be making even as late as chapter 2 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature). And he does some other things right, which we'll get to. But he fails to understand how a conceptual dualism works -- and thus how easy it is to throw it out the window only to let it in through the back door (as materialists do). So in a sense he cuts corners as well, but in a different way.
In particular, Rorty has trouble keeping in mind that our primary target is not realism, but dualism, of which realism is but a symptom. The way he sees it, the problem with realism is its obsession with a "non-human authority" (i.e. a transcendent "real world"), which he sees (in Nietzschean fashion, or so he thinks) as a secular substitute for a transcendent deity. And now of course the pragmatist solution is to turn from metaphysical fantasy to practical reality. So while Rorty sometimes insists that he wants to reject the traditional philosophical oppositions (the "made" vs. the "found," etc.), what he actually ends up doing, a lot of the time, is rejecting them not by overcoming the dualism (which is hard), but instead by leaving it in place and simply erasing the transcendent disjunct (here, the "found"). Just as materialism does: in each case, the move is not from two distinct types of thing to one, as promised, but from two full boxes to ... two boxes, one full and one empty. This does not help.
Here's an example. Rorty has always insisted that the traditional problem of skepticism is of no interest once we see its roots in a pernicious conception of knowledge. And this is partly right: if we believe there is no transcendental gap between our internal states and what they "represent," then we are indeed not in the market for any philosophical bridges to cross that gap. However, that's only the beginning of that conversation, not the end. But I don't want to talk about the epistemological problem here. My point is this: since Rorty sees "skepticism" as essentially a problem for dogmatists (i.e., realists who hold we can bridge a transcendental gap between knower and known), we can avoid skepticism, on his view, by renouncing any desire to cross the gap in the first place. But this just is skepticism, of the Pyrrhonian variety. Again Rorty leaves the dualism in place.
It does not help here to push the skeptical attitude to the metalevel. MB applauds Rorty for not claiming that what he says (about truth and knowledge) is true, but saying instead merely that it's useful to act as if it were true. MB says this on his own behalf in other places, seeing this as a virtuous consistency, necessary to foil the traditional realist accusation of self-refutation. (Is Rorty's pragmatism "really true"? If we answer "yes," the familiar thought goes, then we affirm and renounce its truth in the same breath, a contradiction; but if we answer "no," then, Rorty feels, there's no problem.) Again, this is skepticism; and the problem with skepticism is that it makes hash of the notion of belief (and with it of meaning; of this more below). It is true that in particular cases we may intelligibly advocate acting, for instrumental reasons, as if something were true that we do not in fact believe to be the case. But this cannot be our general attitude. It makes no sense to argue passionately for a particular view, and then, when familiar muddles cause the conversation to grind to a halt, or spin its wheels uselessly, to cut the Gordian knot by saying, "oh well, I wasn't saying my view is true." Of course you were. If you weren't, then I was wrong to take you as believing it, and now I am more confused than ever. After all, if at the beginning I had said the things you say, wouldn't you have agreed? You wouldn't have said, no, I don't believe that -- but I do think we should act as if that were the case. That qualification only shows up when disagreement threatens. But then it means -- once belief is off the table -- that "disagreement" can't be the proper description of our problem. Again, this leads not only into the epistemological issues I have postponed, but also into my own highly unpopular take on them. I'll just claim here, as below, that I may consistently speak of truth without committing myself to the dreaded transcendental gap, nor reducing truth to consensus. Let's move on.
Wait, one more thing about this. MB mentions that Sartre quote about how if the fascists take over then fascism will be "the truth of man," and then so much the worse for us, and admires the "humility" he sees in Rorty's version of/attitude toward it. Here again, one person's "humility" is another's craven (and pointless!) skepticism. How can you refer to fascism being the "truth" -- even in that counterfactual situation -- if you don't believe it yourself? Feh. Belief is belief true, and vice versa; and abjuring belief is skepticism; and skepticism -- even the pre-Cartesian kind, in our context anyway -- is a dualistic position.
Now. Here's why that little dance -- pushing skepticism to the metalevel in order to justify (i.e. pragmatically) "belief" at the object level -- looks attractive to Rorty. He hasn't forgotten his rejection of dualism; it's just (on my account) that his anti-dualist strategy is fubar. Rorty believes (or whatever) that we can overcome the realism-antirealism dualism by seeing both positions as committed to an unacceptable "representationalism." Instead of trying to represent the "real world" outside us (an irretrievably Cartesian notion, in his view), we should abandon such fantasies and turn toward each other ("other inquirers huddled together against the dark," or something; you know, "solidarity" in his sense). If we allowed any normative connection to the world (i.e. "getting it right," as beliefs attempt to do), then that would screw up his anti-dualist strategy and force a choice between realism and anti-realism, which is what he is trying to avoid. Again, this is partly right, and indeed inspiring. Realism and anti-realism (including, ironically, Rorty's own) are indeed dualistically opposed, and can indeed be disposed of together once we see what they share; but what that is is not "representationalism" -- like "correspondence," a perfectly innocuous idea, properly construed -- but a conception of objectivity as dualistically opposed to subjectivity, metaphysically speaking. (Yet even that promising slogan is empty without a lot of unpacking.)
This leads to another of Rorty's favorite shibboleths, one which MB picks up as well. Following Dewey (and his similar rejection of the Cartesian "spectator theory of knowledge"), Rorty puts great stock in rejecting the "correspondence theory of truth" in favor of a "coherence" view. Again, the reason "coherence" looks to Rorty like an improvement over "correspondence" is that it allows him to say that our justificatory obligations are not to the world but instead, on the one hand, to the rest of our beliefs (with which the new belief must fit), and on the other, to our fellow inquirers (our relations with the world being "merely causal"). But this cannot eliminate the (normative) relation to the world. For something to be a belief at all -- and, not coincidentally, for the concepts that make it up to mean what they do in expressing the belief in question -- it must be held to be true of the world.
In his fight against "correspondence," Rorty has appealed to Davidson, who at first seems to agree -- though Davidson's commitment to "coherence" is half-hearted in spots (see "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge," anthologized here) -- but it is Davidsonian considerations that thwart him (and eventually Davidson himself; but that's another story). For a belief to have the content it does -- for it to be a belief that P -- it must be appropriately sensitive to evidence that P is actually the case. That is, in order for you to convince me that X is indeed saying what you say X is saying -- that your interpretation of his words is correct -- you must show that the beliefs you ascribe to him in so doing are (that is, that he is) appropriately sensitive (whatever that may mean in the context) to evidence that the world is not that way. Which way? The way he believes it to be, on your account of what "P" means in his mouth when he asserts it. Naturally you will use your own terms, and refer to the world as you believe it to be, when telling me this. But that's okay; I'm in the same position w/r/t your utterances as you are to his, so that's been taken into account. And so on. All this is thoroughly Davidsonian (see "Three Varieties of Knowledge, in that same collection); which is one reason why we critics accuse Rorty's pragmatism -- here, in accepting "coherence" as a substitute for "correspondence" -- of being not pragmatist enough by his own lights (let alone ours).
I have similar gripes about Rorty's (and MB's) appeal to "anti-foundationalism," and their retreat to epistemological fallibilism. Fallibilism, qua skepticism, is fool's gold; and "anti-foundationalism," like "solidarity," moves the focus toward epistemology and away from the more general problem of how to overcome dualism(s), where it needs to be for several consecutive moves if we are to get anywhere. Onward.
Another brief aside. One of my least favorite terms (along with "mind-(in)dependent") is "incommensurability." The massive ambiguity of this term is another reason why you risk disaster by going directly to the moral case, before the semantic (and epistemological, and metaphysical, and metaphilosophical) cases are aligned properly. [I started to go into it here, but it got unwieldy, so let's come back to that one in another post. Let's just say you need to be really careful with this term.]
Almost done. Here's a criticism which is no doubt unfair, but that, as I like to say, is how the bowling ball bounces. For a sixty-seven-page description of a course on postmodernism, one in the English department no less, there is surprisingly little in MB's chapter -- or the book as a whole -- about hermeneutics. In fact there's none at all: the index contains zero references to hermeneutics, zero to Gadamer, zero to Ricoeur, and one to Heidegger (an interesting point on p. 200, the chapter preceding that on postmodernism, about Gatsby's "new world" being uncanny in the Heideggerian sense, i.e. one in which he was "not at home" (unheimlich)). I suppose that's okay, given that it's not a philosophy course; but in my view, given what he ends up saying about it, the time MB spends on the Habermas-Lyotard debate might have been better spent on the Habermas-Gadamer debate.
Of course this may be because I suspect that Lyotard really is a relativist where Gadamer is not; but it's also because MB's final word on the subject in What's Liberal is, again, that maybe objects are "mind-independent" while concepts are not. But what are concepts, and what is it to say what their content is -- that is, what makes them the concepts they are? Answering this question, especially in an explicitly Rortyan context, puts us squarely in the territory Davidson (also zero refs in WL) shares with Gadamer. On the other hand, Habermas never really seems to get what Gadamer is doing, so as a debate maybe it's not as good as the one with Lyotard (with whom I am not that familiar). In any case, the best counter to Habermas's obsession with "universality" and the critical function of reason is to hold his feet to the Davidsonian (and Wittgensteinian) fire concerning the nature and practice of linguistic communication and interpretation; this, perhaps, could shake loose some of his more unacceptable realist/dogmatist commitments. More specifically, it is the Davidsonian focus on rejecting the scheme-content dualism that allows the right sort of connection to the world (which I would describe as "linguistically mediated" if the word "mediated" were not itself so fraught with theoretical peril). We might also note that at one point, in the context of trying to appropriate Davidson's work, MB's hero Rorty actually defines pragmatism as "something Davidson approves of: getting rid of the scheme-content distinction." (This allowed some hostile critic – possibly Susan Haack, I don't remember – to cite this quote, but just up to the colon, making Rorty look like a frivolous sycophant. Naughty, naughty!)
Also, the Gadamerian context provides a safe place to appropriate the healthy aspects of Heideggerian phenomenology -- the ones that insist that inquiry and reference and rationality are practices of engaged, embodied, situated individual agents -- without getting sucked, or geworfen, into the whole Heideggerian morass. Better yet is to emphasize the Davidson/Gadamer connection, which puts us onto drier land still. The downside of this, I must admit, is that most Davidson scholars (exceptions being Jeff Malpas and Bjorn Ramberg) take an incorrigibly analytic line, preferring to speak mostly of Tarskian truth-theories and anomalous monism (see this recent anthology, with articles by the usual analytic suspects such as Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim; Gadamer doesn't make that index either, although there is an article by Samuel Wheeler which compares him to Derrida). Another downside is that phenomenologists tend to see Davidson as do most analytics, i.e., as just another analytic, committed, and I am not making this up, to metaphysical realism (see Charles Taylor, who explicitly contrasts Davidson with the "three H's", i.e. Hamann, Humboldt, and Herder -- although I must admit Taylor developed this attitude in the 70's, back when it was much more justified than it is 25 years later). Related to this, there is a continuing brouhaha, with much noise coming from that direction, over the issue of "non-conceptual content" and whatnot. So we'd have to deal with that (but we would eventually anyway).
One last thing. MB points his realist student "Stan" (or wishes he had so pointed him, in a pang of l'esprit de l'escalier) to Wittgenstein's "private language argument." But while (the later) Wittgenstein seems to be the very opposite of a systematic thinker, it is very difficult to pull specific arguments out of the context of his thought. Not to say that MB is wrong here -- a turn in that direction is what I also would recommend -- but we would need to say much more here, as I don't think the PLA can do that much on its own in this context. In my unpublished and still being worked out view, Wittgenstein provides the key piece to the puzzle; but we can't see this unless the other pieces are ready to go -- the catch being that this precondition can itself require that the Wittgensteinian vision has been already grasped. This catch (not catch-22, that's something else) is part of what accounts for Wittgenstein's unusual writing style -- why he feels he must "travel criss-cross" over the same territory over and over in different directions. But that is yet another story for yet another day.