Friday, March 04, 2005

Rorty on Soames

The other day Brian Weatherson linked to this review by Richard Rorty of Scott Soames's new 900-page history of analytic philosophy (Frege to the present). Soames is a big name in analytic logic/semantics/metaphysics, and a big fan of Kripke, and apparently the story he tells here is just what you'd expect: we are all in Kripke's debt for bringing realism, essentialism, and serious attention to modal metaphysics and semantics back on the table after the dark days of Quine and his rejection of necessity as outdated (i.e. unscientific) metaphysics. Naturally, Rorty disagrees with this story and tells us that in 2105 things may look very different (as other narratives compete with this one in utility, etc: imagine typical such Rorty-talk here).

True to form, Rorty presents the issue as being one between realism/essentialism (bad) and nominalism/pragmatism (good), with non-analytic philosophers looking on and rooting for the good side: "Heideggerians treat talk of real essences as part of the discredited onto-theological tradition, and Derrideans [treat it] as a distressing symptom of phallogocentrism." That's the choice: Kripkeans believe in real essences and metaphysical necessity; nominalists reject such delusions. In this conception of the range of our options, Rorty agrees with realists like Timothy Williamson, whom he quotes as arguing (in Vagueness) "against the ‘nominalist’ suggestion that ‘properties, relations and states of affairs are mere projections onto the world of our forms of speech,’ and conclud[ing] that ‘our contact with the world is as direct in vague thought as it is in any thought.’ " Both are agreed: our linguistic categories are either "mere projection" (nominalism) or reflect actual "contact with the [metaphysically real] world."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it's this disjunction, this forced choice between the two opposed positions so construed, which must be rejected. For my money, it is only when presented in its negative aspect that either position has any appeal. Metaphysically real essences vs. rejection of same as metaphysical fantasy? I'll take the latter, even if it does put me on the same side of the fence as Derrida – there's plenty of room (actually, there's some disagreement about Derrida's view in this context – see Christopher Norris for example, who paints him as more or less a fellow "critical realist"); but when it's "mere projections" vs. "actual contact," again the latter is the more appealing choice. Now of course to make it so I had to leave out the part about the "metaphysically real world" being what it is that we contact, but on the other hand I had had to put it into the quote in the first place to bring out the decidedly realistic tone of the view in question (Williamson's), which would indeed be okay if it were merely the virtuous rejection of nominalism as insufficient – but it isn't (when realists say "the world" they just mean "the metaphysically real world"). And it's particularly galling that Rorty appropriates the term "pragmatism" for his version of nominalism – I was going to use that word for the correct position, and because he got there first, each time I use it I have to explain it ("not the anti-realist kind, the non-realist/nonanti-realist kind"). Hmph!

It's ironic that Soames presents the moral of Kripke's lesson as being that we should respect pre-philosophical intuition (here, the realistic essentialism that Quineans reject), given that Williamson's application of that lesson results in his insistence that, no matter what we may ordinarily believe (Rorty quoting Soames here, about Williamson's view), "vague predicates are in fact perfectly precise – in the sense that there are sharp and precise lines dividing objects to which they truly apply from objects to which they truly do not – but it is impossible for us ever to know where these lines are." In other words, philosophy has discovered that what looked to the uneducated eye to be a paradox is explained by the following fact: there really is a particular point at which a collection of grains of sand becomes a heap by the addition of a single grain, but that we cannot know what that point is (and the same goes for "bald" and "rich" and all the other vague terms). Paradox solved; realist intuitions vindicated. Naturally, this looks ridiculous to the non-philosopher – how could a heap and a non-heap be separated by a single grain, or a bald and a non-bald man by a single hair? – but apparently pre-philosophical intuitions are only worth anything when they are realistic.

It's also ironic that Soames's example of a philosopher who fails to see the weighty metaphysical significance of the sorites paradox, responding to it instead (in Rorty's words – not clear if these words are also Soames's) "in the spirit of Wittgenstein" is ... Crispin Wright, who certainly discusses Wittgenstein more than most people believe to be healthy (viz. his book Rails to Infinity) but who, as far as people like me are concerned – if I may be blunt (or what's a blog for) – well, seems not to have understood the basic point of Philosophical Investigations. Here's Rorty quoting Soames on Wright, who says that "the rules governing ordinary vague predicates simply do not allow for sharp and precise lines dividing objects to which the predicates apply from objects of any other sort." Now if this is being used to replace Williamson's ontological fantasy with a properly deflationary view of the sorites, then that's fine, and even Wittgensteinian as far as it goes, but as we know from elsewhere, Wright's actual views depend on a particular post-Dummettian anti-realist (not-particularly-Wittgensteinian-as-far-as-I'm-concerned) conception of the concept of "rule," which is what's actually doing the work here for him. Maybe in polite philosophical discourse Wright passes for "Wittgensteinian" – after all he goes so far as to discuss him, which is more than a lot of people do – but poke him a little bit and he shows his real nature (!) soon enough. (See his exchanges with McDowell, or his stuff on skepticism, where he sounds more like Stroud than anyone else.) As far as his conception of philosophy is concerned – Wittgenstein's main obsession – Wright and Williamson are peas in an entirely unWittgensteinian pod.

And to compound the irony, Williamson also defends his view (if I remember correctly – I had a course on vagueness at about the time Vagueness came out), by appealing (although I think without invoking the name) to a "Wittgensteinian" "doctrine": that "meaning is [determined by] use". As in Wright, all the appeal does here is to defend realism by denying the sort of pure Platonism which makes realism look bad (and which of course Wittgenstein does indeed oppose). It's still realism though.

I guess that's all for now, but I do have a few more things to say about this.

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