Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Is Rorty a "textualist"? And if so, is that bad?

Happy New Year to all. I'd like to begin this year's blogging (which may be sparser this year, as I have resolved to waste spend less time online) with one more post on Rorty, who as you know passed away in 2007.

As I have often complained, most of Rorty's early critics just weren't getting him at all. (This made it hard to see where he really does go wrong, and what to do instead.) Ernest Sosa's 1987 Journal of Philosophy article "Serious Philosophy and Freedom of Spirit" is a case in point. It's not directed against Rorty in particular, but against relativistic "free spirits" as a group and their attacks on realistic "serious" philosophy. Here's Sosa on Rorty's "textualism":
In the book of some free spirits [in Sosa's sense of "subjectivists" et al], the Word was not only in the beginning, but is even—incredibly—said to be everything.

[footnote:] According to Derrida, "there is nothing outside the text," and "there has never been anything but writing" [Of Grammatology, p. 158-9]. Derrida's pronouncements find an echo in Rorty's introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism [p. xxxvii]: "The intuitive realist thinks that there is such a thing as Philosophical truth because he thinks that, deep down beneath all the texts, there is something which is not just one more text but that to which various texts are trying to be 'adequate.' The pragmatist does not think that there is anything like that."

[continuing in the text:] Free spirits are often textualists, readers and authors who live for the conversation, the only point of which, insofar as it has any extrinsic point at all, is to go on and on without end. [p. 710]
So: what Rorty's work shows is that some wackos—incredibly!—think there's no real world out there. Yet of course there's a real world! (Sosa points us later to William Alston's "lucid defense" of "strong realism" in the appropriately titled "Yes, Virginia, There is a Real World." I should point out that those capital letters are in the title only. I think.) No wonder "textualists" don't want to find anything out about the world – they don't think it exists. Instead of such "serious" (and boring) literalism, "playful" free spirits, like the childish and imprudent grasshopper as opposed to the mature and industrious ant, want the meaningless "language game" to go on forever. Sosa makes the customary qualifications (that "seriousness" and "freedom" are on a continuum, and that most people are in the middle rather than one extreme, where only the most hardcore Platonism seems to count as "extreme seriousness"), but he makes no bones about where his sympathies lie. Resisting realism in any significant way is equivalent to failing to realize that "dog" refers to dogs, rendering one a candidate for the lunatic asylum.

Speaking of "language games," Wittgenstein doesn't come in for especial abuse here, but at one point Sosa refers us to Kripke for further reflection on the dangers of relativism in Wittgenstein's "familiar theme" that "reasons inevitably give out." Putting Kripkenstein well to one side, together with his relativist demons, let's look again at that Rorty quote, this time without the distracting parallel to Derrida:
The intuitive realist thinks that there is such a thing as Philosophical truth because he thinks that, deep down beneath all the ______, there is something which is not just one more _______ but that to which various _______ are trying to be "adequate." The pragmatist does not think that there is anything like that.
Rorty's point about "texts" might just as well be put in terms of "interpretations" (and indeed, he sometimes brings in Nietzsche's famous but cryptic remark (about there being no "facts" but only interpretations, itself often interpreted as a skeptical point) here for this very purpose). This suggests a construal in terms of the Wittgensteinian image: reasons, like interpretations, give out (i.e. without ever reaching a transcendentally sanctioned stopping point). Now of course, as this formulation suggests, Wittgenstein's own suggestion is not that "everything is an interpretation" (let alone a "text") but that there is a way of following a rule which is not an interpretation. This wording seems to put Rorty and Wittgenstein at odds. (Not to mention Wittgenstein and Derrida: see Martin Stone's take on this matter in "Wittgenstein and Deconstruction" in Crary and Read, The New Wittgenstein and "On the old saw, 'every reading of a text is an interpretation': some remarks" in Gibson and Huemer, The Literary Wittgenstein, where the target is not so much Derrida as Fish; see also Sonia Sedivy's contribution to the latter volume.)

But forget the wording for a minute and look at the image. Following a chain of reasons or interpretations is likened to digging down for foundations. Some of us think that at some point we must strike upon a final, self-justifying reason, or a final interpretation which, unlike the others, represents the real independently of our interpretive conventions, simply in virtue of how things are. At the end of the chain of similar things, there is a final thing which is different in kind from the others ("not just one more ________"), such that we can bring the process to a definitive conclusion. Others believe that such a thing is impossible, yet the demand is still coherent (indeed, constitutive of inquiry in its essential orientation toward truth).

Here Rorty and Wittgenstein are in agreement. There is nothing like what Wittgenstein calls "rigid rails," which determine the ultimate correctness of our procedures from "outside" them. Nor, however, is there any need for any such thing. That is, we need not, as in Kripke or Crispin Wright, see ourselves as depending on such frail reeds as community agreement to substitute for what we thought we needed "rigid rails" to do. (So it is more toward these two than to Rorty, let alone Wittgenstein, that Sosa's realist bile should be directed.) Instead of this qualitatively distinct regress-stopper (or, again, a lame stand-in for same), we have only more of the same.

But that's only half the story. Even if there is no qualitatively different thing at the end of the chain of reasons (and thus no metaphysical gap to be bridged), there may be what we might as well call a quantitative difference in the successive iterations. In particular, the shared assumption of both skeptic and dogmatist that we cannot stop (i.e., until we reach the "end" so construed), is making me more and more frustrated with this pointless demand. Finally I've had enough. I can't think of anything more to say to you. I can't make it any more obvious than it already is. I'm going home. No, there isn't any shining transcendental justification here – it's just another reason. But if I had known that (the former) was the only thing that would satisfy you, I wouldn't have bothered talking to you in the first place. Yet your early demands for justification were innocent enough.

When, as Wittgenstein puts it, we "hit bedrock" ("when my spade is turned"), it is not, as on some interpretations, that, although I wanted to keep digging in search of ultimate validation, I must throw my hands up in despair that I cannot get it, and that I am forced to accept a substitute. There never was any such thing to be had, and the demand for it is incoherent. Again, contrary to Sosa's assumptions, this is not a (characteristically) skeptical or relativist point, but in fact is aimed in both directions. Just as the skeptic rejects each successive reason as not definitive (because not self-justifying), as part of his argument that maybe things aren't as we think they are after all, the dogmatist takes that bet and digs farther down in search of something that he hopes will really clinch the case. He agrees that without such a thing, we won't have shown that things really are as we think they are. In other words, the skeptic is just a frustrated dogmatist – and a dogmatist is a self-deluded skeptic (as other skeptics will be happy to point out). A pox on both!

"Hitting bedrock," then, on this construal, is not after all an absolute prohibition on continuing to dig. After all, different people have different levels of patience in dealing with increasing obviously poorly (i.e. theoretically, rather than practically) motivated demands for even firmer (say, ideally firm) foundations. Some would have stopped as soon as they see the skeptical/dogmatist pattern; some go on until they really can't think of anything else to say. What Wittgenstein wants us to do is not so much to keep going until "bedrock" is reached – which is after all what happens only when things go wrong in this way – but not to keep going, or try to, even after it's reached – which makes no sense. [Note: last sentence updated (1/6) to restore missing "not"]

But now what about that verbal difference between Rorty (or the textualist) and Wittgenstein? After all, what Wittgenstein says in making what I have suggested may be the same point is not that "interpretation goes all the way down" but that "there is a way of following a rule which is not an interpretation." When we juxtapose these two slogans, it does seem (as it does to Stone) that the two are irrevocably opposed. But Wittgenstein is using the term in a significantly different way. The former slogan, as I explained it, emphasizes the qualitative continuity of the series of reasons, such that no endpoint of the demanded form can be reached. That none is needed is a separate claim, which is what makes this locution look skeptical (and which may be why Wittgenstein tells us not to make it look like "there's something we can't do").

Wittgenstein's locution, on the other hand, emphasizes a discontinuity in the series, one which is meant to explain why I (may) now leave off digging. But he needs the relevant continuity as well in order for the point to go through. This is what is supplied in his case by the fact that everything in the series is an instance of rule-following, of being directed by reasons. That the final one is "not an interpretation" does not invalidate Rorty's (or even Derrida's) "textualist" way of making the point (that is, the point about continuity, i.e. the lack of the particular sort of transcendent or metaphysical discontinuity demanded by both dogmatist and skeptic). For Rorty, the "ubiquity of interpretation" is the Davidsonian point that each context of inquiry (fixation of belief) is one of interpretation as well (attribution of meaning), such that we can never come to the end of interpretation and read a bare fact off of the world, to serve in our ideally objective representation of same. (Indeed, in the Davidsonian context, that "interpretation is ubiquitous" is virtually trivial; yet there is no reason to deny that I may consider my translation manual to be essentially finished, if not, per impossibile, guaranteed to be error-free.)

For Wittgenstein, on the other hand, the non-ubiquity of "interpretation" means instead that a series of reasons, or instances of rule-following, should not be thought of as one of successive "substitution[s] of one expression of the rule for another", such that "each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it" (§201) – and this because "any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support" (§198). That sort of series really would go on forever; and the remark about rule-following without "interpretation" (in this sense) is meant to show how we can break it off.

Even if Rorty's "textualist" point can be squared with Wittgenstein's in this way, though, it does perhaps suffer from an insufficiently compelling characterization (compared with Wittgenstein's) of how the series of "interpretations" is actually broken off. I described it above as the point where one simply loses patience with the skeptic's perverse demands (and the dogmatist's equally perverse submission to them). There's not a whole lot to say about such an occurrence – except to argue that the demands really are perverse, which removes us from the scenario of the unending series of reasons, without seeming to resolve it at any particular point. This makes it sound like the point about the "ubiquity of interpretations" really is a skeptical one, and that its consequence is that we must indeed continue the process without hope of resolution.

This of course fits in with Sosa's characterization of the textualist (and with many other critiques of Rorty) as more concerned with "continuing the conversation" – now removed, qua (supposedly) skeptical concern, from determining the truth about anything (Sosa: "the only point ... is to go on and on, without end"). I've already suggested how we can see this as the opposite of Rorty's point. Let me finish by saying how I think this misinterpretation leads to another, concerning Rorty's insistence that "the only constraints on inquiry are conversational ones" – that is, as opposed to ones coming from the alleged intrinsic nature of reality, demanding to be mirrored in an ideally objective manner. This is of course closely related to Rorty's endorsement of Davidson's "coherentism," where "only a belief [i.e. and not the world] can be a reason for another belief." (I won't go into why Davidson himself need not be held to the idealistic consequences of this doctrine, but I do think even he may have to give something up.)

Here again it looks as if we're not trying to get reality right (whereupon we can stop conversing, having reached agreement both with each other and with the world), but simply to have a good time at the dinner party (which we hope will never end). After all, do we ever decide anything during such conversations? And do we mind that we do not? But here again Rorty is making what is at bottom a potentially useful point in a characteristically lopsided way (threatening its utility, ironically enough). For what are "conversational constraints on inquiry"? There are several, but the relevant one here might be one according to which we are not perversely to ignore the obvious in order to press a purely theoretical point about the nature of knowledge – or, in Peirce's words, to "pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts" ("Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," in The Essential Peirce, p. 29; right before this, he claims that "a person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim [i.e to begin with universal doubt and build only on ideally secure foundations]"). This perverse dissembling is exactly what the skeptic does in demanding to "dig below bedrock"; and that is exactly what keeps the conversation stuck in a rut rather than continuing in a natural way (e.g. deciding the consequences of what we have just agreed on).

Thus, following "conversational" constraints rather than illusory metaphysical ones coming from the world (in) itself can be perfectly compatible with agreeing that something is the case and considering that question settled for now. And I think Rorty really did see this, and at least sometimes meant it that way; but of course I also believe he sometimes let his aversion to realism overcome his better judgment, and, yes, lead him to recoil into relativism and/or skepticism. Still, Sosa's snark rubs me the wrong way, and I hope we never see any more blanket dismissals of a philosopher whom history may yet judge to have been not significantly more wrong than any other great philosopher.


N. N. said...

Sometimes I wonder whether there may not be a round-about way to justify our conventions, and thereby give a final justifaction of sorts. I think an interesting question is: Why do we play the language games we do and not others? It seems to me that a good part of the answer might be: Because these uses of words work better than those (I'm thinking, for example, of Wittgenstein's discussion in RFM of people who add differently than we do). And its likely that some uses of language work better because they 'fit' the world better (of course, this is just the sort of thing one can't say). Take the language of physics. I think physical language games must 'fit' the world because my computer works. Right?

Duck said...

That is an interesting question to consider (as in: what does it mean?). My answer got too long so (as always in these situations) I'll address it in a new post. Soon, I hope.

Virtualprimate said...

n.n. makes a good point. In regards to the language games we play, and the interpretations we make, not just any language game will do.

Some language games, in particular contexts, are clearly more useful then others perhaps indicating that they 'fit' better in some way.
Yet, it is still true that 'the map is not the territory.'
No matter the fit we are still left with an interpretation/perspective?

The point I'd like to make is that even when the claim is made that there is no absolute point when the interpretation equals the world this does not mean that interpretations do not have truth content. In fact, perhaps interpretations fit by merit of the context they create in relation to the world? (thus the term relativism seems appropriate?)

Interpretations/language games/perspectives are not objective, they are instead contextual and the truth or value of a particular game depends on how they interact with an existing world even when they do not and cannot describe reality.

For me I see a distinction between the idea that a world exists independently of our interpretations and the idea that there is a 'true' reality that can correspond to a true interpretation.

The consequence of this is that it isn't pointless to pursue language games without end; instead it seems that the point might not be to get to an absolute point verifying absolute truth, rather the point might be to attain different ways of understanding?
Different means of understanding is possible by virtue of the fact that we can create different language games and interpretations that interact with and within the world we live in.

To me, and in this I think I agree with the original article(?), it does not follow that the inability to create interpretations that lay foundations for (absolute) Truth, in the sense that reality is reflected in out language game, means that pursuing different language games is pointless and without any truth or meaning.

Duck said...

virtualprimate: thanks for your comment! I certainly agree that, as you say, "in regards to the language games we play, and the interpretations we make, not just any language game will do." We may even speak, as you both do, in terms of "fit" (or, as I urged against Rorty, in terms of "accuracy" or even "correspondence").

I try not to use the term "relativism" in stressing the importance (nay, the constitutive nature) of context to interpretation (and inquiry), as we need a word for the danger which, well, most people use the term "relativism" to denote. So when making this point I tend to use terms like "interpretivism" or "perspectivism" -- or even, in the proper sense, as I point out in the post, "textualism." But the name's not important. Joseph Margolis is one philosopher who uses the term "relativism" positively -- he endorses a "relativism which is compatible with realism" (so he's using both terms somewhat differently).

I also agree that "it isn't [that is, *may* not be] pointless to pursue language games without end." My point was instead that we are capable of stopping when we *do* suspect that to continue would be pointless -- as it would be if the urge to continue were due to an illegitimate or incoherent theoretical demand.

As I said earlier, I do want to elaborate on this, but I'm a bit busier than I expected to be right now. Soon though!

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

“And its likely that some uses of language work better because they 'fit' the world better”

We can certainly talk in terms of “fit,” but I think the Rortyan point is: don’t get fooled by the language game that uses the metaphor of “fit.” Not getting fooled by it for Rorty is not starting a conversation about what we really mean by fit; what’s the nature of the key and what’s the nature of the lock it fits into; how do the words or thoughts or beliefs fit the world or nature or reality. This would be going down the traditional metaphysical road and not useful. But Rorty could certainly say that using the metaphors of fit or accuracy or matching or mirror images could be very useful in solving practical problems.

Rorty would certainly want us to create new language games, but being a pragmatist he’d say let’s create useful ones that solve problems we have. Of course, what problems we need to solve may require more discussion. But to the person who says: “I think it’s important to solve the problem of what really exists,” Rorty would say: Look at the history of philosophy (as I’ve told it) and see how unsuccessful the great thinkers have been and here is a way that you can think of what really exists as an illusory problem. The searcher for reality might object, as Rorty’s critics have, and he and others like him would continue their (in their eyes) therapeutic work of persuading people that these traditional philosophical problems can go the way of medieval scholasticism.

“Some language games, in particular contexts, are clearly more useful then others perhaps indicating that they 'fit' better in some way.”

But a language game is only “clearly more useful” if there is little debate at the moment it’s being used. If no one objects to it, it’s clearly more useful. It’s clearly more usefulness says nothing about its ultimate fitness, it only says something about the needs of the current participants.

We can talk of a world existing independently of our interpretations when the participants in the given conversation are agreeing on aspects of the world. The parts of the world that the participants agree on can be thought of as independent aspects of the world. But when even that world is thought of differently we may want to talk about different worlds. Although we may also find it useful to resolve our disagreement about the nature of the world through more discussion.

Duck said...

Thanks Jeff! I think I agree with you, so when I say "what does it mean to say s.t. 'fits'?" I don't take that question to require "going down the metaphysical road" in your sense, because even "well, I just mean _____ (as a useful metaphor, in such and such a way)" counts as an answer to that question. But even better, I think, may be not to concede the "literal" meaning of "fit" in the first place (such that non-"metaphysical" uses *have* to be qualified as "metaphorical"). An image is an image - that's all.

Rorty certainly does make the move you suggest - look at the history of philosophy and see how far you get knocking your head against the same old problems - but then when he unpacks that answer he ends up saying things that strike me as not as helpful as he thinks. I think we can do better, even by his proper lights, by - dare I say it - taking those problems somewhat more seriously than he does. Seriously enough, that is, to take advantage of the good part of what we might see as "near misses" (or not even) in that history. If Aristotle or Hegel or whoever was simply confused, then how can we use (or adapt) their writings for our own ends? (McDowell is good on this.)

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Duck,

“If Aristotle or Hegel or whoever was simply confused, then how can we use (or adapt) their writings for our own ends? (McDowell is good on this.)”

I may be too narrow in my Rorty admiration so maybe you can correct that; what “ends” do you have in mind here? I guess they would be ends which can be called philosophical but which are not about absolutes and essences, but which also aren’t the questions we’d use some other field to study, like anthropology or some such. For example, bioethics would be a useful way of using philosophy to help people clarify life and death choices. Could you give an example, elaborate on McDowell maybe? I read over your piece on Rorty but couldn’t quite get it. My Rortyan blinders perhaps.

Duck said...

Jeff -

Yes, ends like that. Rorty himself has some sense that philosophical ends (like his own) can be directed against absolutes and essences, rather than being about them (or depending on them); but in general, even while seeing himself as within philosophy, he only feels comfortable standing near the door, ready to make a quick escape if things seem like they're about to get metaphysical. But not only is that not necessary, it gets in the way of carrying out Rorty's own anti-metaphysical project. McDowell has a good line about Rorty not appreciating the resources of traditional philosophy for his own "anti-philosophical" purposes (which is related to Rorty's insistence on seeing Kant as a metaphilosophical villain rather than (in one important respect) a philosophical good guy).

So I'm not talking about things like bioethics; I'm talking about important aspects of anti-metaphysical (or, as I would rather think of it, anti-dualist in the most general sense) philosophy. Take Davidsonian semantics, which Rorty himself relies on. There's no need to festoon Davidson's arguments with warning signs saying "Not Capital-P Philosophy"; our pragmatist scruples can be satisfied simply by their taking us where we want to go (once we understand where that is). Hmm, maybe that's obscure. Anyway, I have a number of posts on Rorty; try this one, on Brandom's Rorty and his Critics; and the book itself is essential.