Wednesday, September 26, 2007

McDowell, Davidson and truth

James at spontaneity&receptivity, that new McDowell-centered blog I mentioned the other day, wonders about McDowell's possible adherence to something called "the identity theory of truth." Here are a few (okay, more than a few) thoughts on the matter.

Truth is obviously a central notion for philosophers. It has seemed natural, nay obligatory, to try to provide a theory or at least a definition of truth. That's what philosophers do, isn't it? Unless you think that truth doesn't exist – and how could anyone think that? – then the word refers to something, and the task of metaphysics (ontology) is to say what there is, and that includes truth. That's the thought, anyway.

So we have the "correspondence theory of truth," the "coherence theory," etc. The problem with these accounts, generally speaking, is that they take us one step forward and two steps back. So truth is "correspondence" between true statement and fact. What does that mean? What sort of mysterious metaphysical relation could this "correspondence" be? And how is it supposed to explain the concept of truth?

On Davidson's view, the concept of truth is "admirably clear" compared with anything we might use to explain it (or, as I like to say, perhaps to show off my Latin, theories or definitions of truth are necessarily per oscurius). Consequently, he is sometimes described as having "taken truth as primitive." I don't think this is quite right. It's true that one of the key moves in his early work on semantics is the switch from a) providing a Tarski-style theory of truth for a language in terms of T-sentences, to b) "holding truth constant and solving for meaning," giving the meaning of each of the quoted sentences on the left-hand side of those T-sentences in terms of their truth-conditions ("grass is green" is true iff grass is green). The result, then, is a theory of meaning, one which has the virtue (for Quineans such as the early Davidson) of being extensional (and thus in principle empirically verifiable).

But "holding truth constant and solving for meaning" isn't the same as "taking truth as primitive," even given Davidson's reluctance to provide a theory of truth. It's not that we can't say anything about this ineffable concept; it's that whatever we do say would not be intelligible to anyone who did not already understand the concept of truth (enough, that is, to know what a "definition" or "theory" or even "statement" is). It is in this sense that truth is "central."

Supposedly following Davidson (but not exactly claiming agreement – see "Pragmatism, Davidson, and Truth"), Rorty sometimes talks as if he endorses a "deflationary theory" of truth, which consists simply in what we like to call the "disquotational platitude": "p" is true iff p. (I really should use Quinean square brackets here, but you know what I mean.) This is supposed to put all that tendentious metaphysics behind us; but while it's certainly true that (say) the English sentence "grass is green" is true just because grass is indeed green, that doesn't mean the "deflationary theory of truth" is of any use to us. Rather than spurning the very idea of providing a "theory" for a concept that cannot support one, the "deflationary theory" makes it look as if we have indeed provided one, without in fact telling us anything. (See also, but without taking what he says there to be that important, Crispin Wright's argument, in Truth and Objectivity, that "deflationism reinflates.")

So what about the "identity theory" of truth? James points us to Stewart Candish's article at SEP, which he quotes as saying at one point that “One such pressure [i.e. in favor of this theory] is the wish that there should be no gap between mind and world: that when we think truly, we think what is the case.” And of course McDowell says things very much like this all the time (James has a typical quote from M & W), and for that very reason: that we not be misled into thinking that there is a metaphysical gap between mind and world, such that (say) we should attempt to construct over it a philosophical bridge. In McDowell's thinking (though he does not put it this way), that would be to try to build a bridge between the two peaks of Kilimanjaro, a (philosophically) suicidal undertaking.

As commenter Tom rightly points out, though, while McDowell is indeed willing to accept the "identity theory" in these terms (Tom points us to McDowell's replies in Willaschek, ed., Reason and Nature, even giving a link to a pdf), his position (as Tom puts it) "seems to be another 'quietistic' one, that the identity theory is a truism and not really a theory in the philosophical sense at all." Why bother affirming it then? McDowell now (p. 94): "Just that keeping it in view helps to prevent unprofitable philosophical anxieties from arising."

So far, so good – the "quietist" refusal even to take on the theoretical requirements seemingly foisted on us simply by employing the Cartesian picture is an important part of McDowell's conception of his Wittgensteinian heritage. But still, when such a "truism" is something of which we must be reminded, it seems that we might indeed take a close look (closer, paradoxically, than one at that of "truisms" usually rewards) at its content (or, better, its (overlooked or misunderstood) consequences) in our context. That is, we might look at it, for the moment, as if it were a "doctrine" or "theory" after all. (It is McDowell himself who reminds Rorty that, and I forget the exact quote, traditional philosophy has resources Rorty overlooks – that is, for combating the confusions of traditional philosophy itself.)

But it is not as the "identity theory of truth" that I think we should look at it. Here's what the SEP article says, in an introductory section, about this theory:
The simplest and most general statement of the identity theory of truth is that when a truth-bearer (e.g., a proposition) is true, there is a truth-maker (e.g., a fact) with which it is identical and the truth of the former consists in its identity with the latter. The theory is best understood as a reaction to the correspondence theory, according to which the relation of truth-bearer to truth-maker is correspondence. A correspondence theory is vulnerable to the nagging suspicion that if the best we can do is make statements that merely correspond to the truth, then we inevitably fail to capture the reality they are about and thus fall short of the truth we aim at. An identity theory is designed to overcome this suspicion.
This doesn't sound right at all to me. I'm not denying that people do indeed talk this way, as Candish claims they do. But it won't work for our purposes. For one thing, that's not the problem with the "correspondence" theory, or at least that's not the best way to put it. In fact I'm surprised that this slipped past the editors. What's that "nagging suspicion" again? The correspondence theory is an account of what it is in which the truth of true statements consists (assuming, of course, that it is indeed of statements that truth is to be predicated). When we speak truly, then, what we say "corresponds" to how things are; and historically it has been this account which has (e.g. as laid out in Aristotle: "to say of what is not, that it is not, or of what is, that it is, is true"), been regarded as virtually truistic. So when we do "the best we can," what happens is not that we "make statements that merely correspond to the truth"; what happens is that we speak the truth, which "corresponds" not to the truth, which we have, but to how things are.

So what's the problem? I presented it above, as Davidson does, as being that the idea of "correspondence" is impossible to cash out intelligibly (i.e., as an informative theory of truth). Candish presents it here as being an essentially skeptical worry (so that he should say that the worry is that even when we speak the truth, all we do is make statements that "merely correspond" to how things are). That's not exactly wrong, but it deflects attention from the real problem (i.e. with giving a "theory of truth" in the first place) to what is at least a slightly different one. Rorty does this too: he equates the idea of "correspondence" with the dualistic conception it is (usually) meant to illuminate (or at least manifest). That is, he essentially allows the correspondence theorist intelligibly to advocate a theory Rorty believes false or problematic: that when we speak truly, we make statements that describe a reality which is ontologically detached from, or transcends, anything to which it seems that we can be sure of having epistemic access. In other words, he equates it with metaphysical realism.

This makes it look like the skeptical difficulties into which that position "inevitably falls," as Kant puts it, are problems concerning the notion of truth, and that we need therefore to deny or redefine that notion, or downplay its importance. But it is important, and (as Davidson protests) even central – and it certainly should not be redefined as "that which our contemporaries let us get away with"! (How can someone who claims such inspiration from Davidson – even to the point of defining pragmatism in Davidsonian terms, as trying to do away with the scheme-content dualism – say such a thing??) [Actually I have an answer to this one...]

They are instead, these skeptical difficulties, due of course not to the very idea of "correspondence" – which in its truistic form says pretty much what we said before: that when we think truly, we think what is the case – but to its characteristically Cartesian metaphysical perversion. (So to rescue it, all we need do is, as Wittgenstein would say, to retrieve it "from its metaphysical to its everyday use.") At root, then, the problem here is the Cartesian picture itself, with its metaphysical dualism of subject and object. One aspect of our attack will then be, if perhaps not straightforwardly described as a metaphysical theory of our own, at least something which takes place on a characteristically metaphysical battlefield (as in Kant and Hegel; which partly explains McDowell's interest in these thinkers).

It is with this in mind – that our concern is with multiple manifestations of the same fundamental Cartesian confusion – that we should handle the concept of truth. That is, while it is true that one manifestation of that disease is a metaphilosophical compulsion to lay down specific requirements [see PI § 107 and environs, discussed below] or constructive tasks for our philosophical theories to fulfill, another head of that same hydra is the realistic/skeptical metaphysics/epistemology that complements that compulsion at the ground-philosophical level. In other words, I think we can kill two birds with one stone; or, better, show, by killing them with simply the one stone differently construed, that there was just the one Übervogel after all. Going back to our above context, this means seeing what does the work of what might otherwise seem to be (just another) metaphysical theory – a non-dualistic one – as at the same time the straightforward consequences of a mere truism, newly recognized as such. If the "identity theory" of truth isn't even seen as a truistic non-theory, as it seems Candish would have it, then we aren't left with either one of the two things I want us to bring together. It asks us to put just the wrong spin on the dictum "when we think truly, we think what is the case" – however true that dictum may be.

Okay, so let's get back to it. What, then, are the supposedly overlooked, momentous-but-not-necessarily-theoretical consequences of the "truism" that when we think truly, what we think is the case?

While he does resist the call for a "theory of truth," Davidson, unlike McDowell, does not put the point in the Wittgensteinian terms of the salutary effect of reminding ourselves of forgotten truisms. Instead, as I began to discuss above, he trades that purported obligation for his preferred project, a theory of meaning. For Davidson, as we shall see, truth is the transparent conceptual link between what we mean and how things are. We might say, then, that for Davidson truth is a semantic notion, not a metaphysical one. Indeed, a key article of Tarski's to which Davidson refers is called "The Semantic Conception of Truth." But (again) what Davidson says is best considered not w/r/t the form of its treatment of truth, but instead the content of that of meaning. It is when we understand the latter that we will be able to see the former in its properly truistic light (as in McDowell).

Davidson can naturally be read as a semantic externalist. But his externalism is not the metaphysically realistic kind, like that of Kripke et al. As early as "The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme," Davidson says (let me quote the stirring conclusion):
In giving up dependence on the concept of an uninterpreted reality, something outside all schemes and science, we do not relinquish the notion of objective truth—quite the contrary. Given the dogma of a dualism of scheme and reality, we get conceptual relativity, and truth relative to a scheme. Without the dogma, this kind of relativity goes by the board. Of course truth of sentences remains relative to language, but that is as objective as can be. In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but re-establish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true or false. [Inquiries, p. 198]
Compare his criticism of Quine in "Meaning, Truth, and Evidence," in which Davidson makes a corresponding move. Here he rejects Quine's explanation of meaning and content in terms of the "firings of sensory nerves" (Truth, Language, and History, p. 47.) Instead of this "proximal" theory, Davidson substitutes a "distal" theory, where the relevant content-bestowing cause of our belief and/or utterance is (say) not the sensations which are (in fact, when they are) caused by a rabbit, but instead the rabbit itself. Just as the content of our thought is not so far removed from us as a potentially, or indeed inevitably, inaccessible world-in-itself, it is also not so near as the excitations of our sensory surfaces. As Davidson points out, "proximal theories, no matter how decked out, are Cartesian in spirit and consequence" (p. 58). The problem with seeing the senses as "epistemic intermediaries," he says, um, somewhere else, is that "we cannot swear them to truthfulness," and skepticism is again the unexpected result.

We must pass over the best part of Davidson's (later) account, which he explains in the often misunderstood terms of a semantic/epistemic "triangulation" among inquirer, interpreter, and world. Let's cut directly to the bottom line in this context. Once the idea of explaining meaning in terms of truth-conditions, and semantic externalism generally, is rescued from the imputation of a perverse Kripkean realism, it becomes clear how the semantic content of what we say can indeed be provided by the "external" world. At the same time, the world to which we answer (semantically and epistemically) is, in McDowell's terms now, nothing more independent of us, in the relevant sense, than "the world as it figures in our world view," a locution meant to fit with its Kantian/Hegelian counterpart in Mind and World, i.e. the "unboundedness of the conceptual realm," which can now (if not before) be seen as having no more idealistic consequences than the former did skeptical ones.

In other words, again, the thought is perfectly symmetrical. Let us not be distracted by the qualifications I have added; they merely reflect the holistic and contextual constraints on interpretation and inquiry revealed by the triangulatory account.

What X means (in my mouth at a certain time) is how things are when X (so construed in that context) is true.

By the same token, again, turning the thought around: just as what I mean cannot be conceptually detached from how things are, how things are cannot "transcend" my meanings. How things are can, of course, "transcend," in a perfectly ordinary sense, my knowledge; but that's different. All that means is that sometimes I speak or believe falsely, and sometimes I don't know how things are; and sometimes I simply don't know what to say. But even when I speak falsely, what I mean is how things would be if I had instead spoken truly. There's no reason to think that what I don't know must be thought of in this metaphysically transcendent way – even if there are things I can never know. That impossible sense of "transcendence" is a gratuitous Cartesian addition.

So while there is a certain sort of unobjectionable realism here, it cannot lead to the sort of skepticism we feared, due to the lack of the necessary metaphysical "gap." (Ignorance, even necessary ignorance, is not a metaphysically loaded state of affairs.) McDowell himself calls his view "naturalized platonism" rather than "domesticated realism," perhaps because of the plethora of similarly modified "realisms" of the past – "empirical" realism, "internal" realism, "external" realism, "scientific" realism, "pragmatic" realism, "common sense" realism – none of which have panned out, and some of which simply repeat the errors of metaphysical realism in a new register. And in fact this lines up with my own usage, as I tend to use the term "realism" only for the bad kind, and for the same reason. (Still, "platonism," ugh; and "naturalized," no less: double ugh.)

And if there is no gap, then there is no need for philosophy to construct theoretical bridges over them. Let me conclude by once again recommending the attempt to bring about in oneself a "Magic Eye" sort of shift in perception here. When Davidson is criticizing Quine, there is no question of (what would in that context seem to be) a limply quietistic retreat to the mere reaffirmation of non-theoretical platitudes. Davidson thinks Quine is wrong and he is right, about, well, meaning, truth, and evidence. He refers, after all, to the combating positions as proximal and distal "theories," and gives arguments (convincing ones, even) for the truth of the latter. But just as in "Very Idea," Davidson's ultimate opponent is the metaphysically dualistic Cartesian picture – the very one which, in the metaphilosophical context, it can be effective to combat by resisting the characteristically Cartesian temptations to "constructive" philosophy against which (McDowell's) Wittgenstein warns.

So seeing (a properly "theoretical" reason) why there is no metaphysical gap can be the same thing, in the end, as seeing a reason to reject the seeming requirement to cross a metaphilosophical gap: i.e., that between naïve pre-philosophical ("truistic") intuition over here and solidly grounded philosophical results over there. Even better: it is the very rejection of scheme and content which Davidson's theory of meaning and interpretation demands which allows us to see it, qua theoretical, as not inconsistent with (as if we had to choose a single "scheme"), but simply another way of grasping, the anti-dualistic confluence of mind and world which licenses rejection of Cartesian philosophical requirements. It is no accident that a favorite quotation of McDowell's from Philosophical Investigations (§95, excerpted: "When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we—and our meaning—do not stop anywhere short of the fact, but we mean: this—is—so") comes a mere page before Wittgenstein indicts those – including his former self (§114) – who would read the forms of our language back into philosophy as supplying an ideal which must be found in our philosophical accounts of reality as well; see e.g. §101: "We want to say that there can't be any vagueness in logic. The idea now absorbs us, that the ideal 'must' be found in reality. Meanwhile we do not as yet see how it occurs there, nor do we understand the nature of this "must". We think it must be in reality; for we think we see it there." §107 contrasts the actual use of language with the picture implied by the requirement (and vice versa); and soon we are into the heart of the Investigations' call for a rethinking of the entire idea of thinking philosophically.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Back to school, again

The Philosophers' Carnival has moved back indoors. Go and learn.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Grated Romano

A recent post by Brian Leiter eviscerates Carlin Romano for his recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education noting Richard Rorty's passing. (The whole chunk of Romano is behind a sub wall, but in addition to Leiter's quotes, it's excerpted here and (differently) here.) Romano is mainly known as a book reviewer (for the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, and other periodicals), but I'm pretty sure he has a Ph. D. in philosophy, and has definitely taught in philosophy departments (he had an adjunct position, and even his own office, at Penn when I was there). I wouldn't be surprised if Leiter knew this, but rhetorically at least, the post slams "Mr. Romano" as an empty-headed journalistic dilettant; the post's actual subtitle is "Total Ignorance of Philosophy is No Obstacle to Opining about Richard Rorty." Yikes!

Leiter's points against the poor man are generally correct, as Professor Romano has indeed tended (needlessly carelessly, in my view) to sacrifice accuracy (and often cogency) to his florid narrative agenda. But let's take a look. The issue about the usual practices concerning Festschrifte we may put to one side, as no one cares (for the record, I think of Rorty and his Critics as, well, a "... and his critics" volume more than as a Festschrift); but the next bone of contention is more serious. Here's the contested sentence:
The big chill began with [Rorty's] 1970s apostasy from positivistic analytic philosophy.
Leiter jumps on this slip like the wolf on the fold:
What in the world is "positivistic analyic philosophy"? Logical positivism was moribund by the 1970s, and Princeton in the 1970s was the fertile ground for new metaphysical theorizing, launched by Kripke and Lewis, which would have been anathema to positivists. The make-believe label "positivistic analytic philosophy" is the first clear giveaway that Mr. Romano has no idea what he is talking about.
At the very least, this is a giveaway that our author is writing for non-philosophers. Now of course this is no sin in itself; and a couple of posts ago I allowed as how non-philosophers might indeed, in a quick-and-dirty way, see many or even most philosophers as having failed to grasp something that, when stated as a philosophical thesis, looks trivial or false or both, or in any case not that helpful even if true (in that case, it was that the answers to Is there a world out there? and If so, do the differences and similarities we see in it come from it, from us, or both? are "yes" and "both" respectively). Here too, non-philosophers often do refer very generally to a certain philosophical tendency typical of those analytic philosophers who were Rorty's targets, even when we within philosophy see them (i.e. as well) as differing significantly from and indeed as opposed to each other. The confusion is compounded – again, unnecessarily, as Romano might very well have taken the opportunity to clear it up – when the term used to denote this tendency is "positivist." For Leiter is right that no analytic philosopher called his own view "positivist" for 50 years; the term functions within philosophy as labeling a tendency which everyone takes to have been overcome. Accusing fellow Princetonians Kripke and Lewis of being "positivist" is precisely what Rorty did not do, and rightly so.

Yet I have suggested that the terminological muddle conceals a similar point. For we should indeed see metaphysicians like Kripke and Lewis as targeted by Rorty in much the same way he (with Davidson) targets the residual positivism in Quinean empiricism (but see below for his ambivalence on this matter). How so? What, if not "positivism," do these philosophers have in common, which we would fail to see if we accepted Leiter's point at face value? Here Romano has a chance to save himself; but he boots it. For what he accuses analytic philosophers of (as an implicit explanation of the "positivist" jab) is a lack of interest in history:
Princeton philosophy professors and grad students at that time liked to act as if any work not mimeographed within the past three years, and circulated exclusively in the department, was probably too passé to be worth studying.
But of course this leaves Leiter with the obvious comeback:
Really? This would certainly come as news to [a whole list of historians of philosophy at Princeton in the 70's].
and allows him to make a valid, if delimited, version of Romano's (and Rorty's) point himself:
What is unfortunate about Mr. Romano's mindless polemic is that there is a real point that could be made here, namely, that some Anglophone philosophers really were (and are) indifferent to the history of philosophy, and that includes some of those at Princeton: but it is just a falsfication of the history to saddle the Princeton Department in toto with that attitude.
Maybe a look at Rorty's key break with the tradition, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, will help. Here's Romano:
In the shrinking Fach of academic philosophy — its territory truncated by psychology, invaded by literature, long ago reduced by natural science — Rorty challenged the theory of knowledge, the last remaining crop philosophy professors could sell to overlord deans and presidents, and declared it practically carcinogenic.
As Leiter points out in rhetorical puzzlement ("did Mr. Romano actually read the book, one wonders?"), this can't be right. Philosophy in 1980 was much more than epistemology. So what was Rorty's project in PMN? Leiter fills us in, turning to one of his two favorite contemporary reviews of the book, this by Jaegwon Kim (the other, equally dismissive, is Ernest Sosa's). According to Kim,
the argument of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is directed [not against epistemology specifically, but instead] against three very general doctrines, none of which are peculiar to (or even distinctive of) English-speaking philosophy in the 20th-century. Kim identified them (again, correctly) as [quoting Kim now]:

(1) The Platonic doctrine concerning truth and knowledge, according to which truth is correspondence with nature, and knowledge is a matter of possessing accurate representations.

(2) The Cartesian doctrine of the mind as the private inner stage, "the Inner Mirror," in which cognitive action takes place. The Platonic doctrine of knowledge as representation was transformed into the idea of knowledge as inner representation of outer reality. The Cartesian contribution was to mentalize the Platonic doctrine.

(3) The conception of Philosophy according to which it is the business of philosophy to investigate the "foundations" of the sciences, the arts, culture and morality, and adjudicate the cognitive claims of these areas. Philosophy, as epistemology, must set universal standards of rationality and objectivity for all actual and possible claims of knowledge.
Rorty does indeed attack these very general doctrines in PMN, and again Leiter's riposte is a natural one: that these doctrines (as the terms "Platonic" and "Cartesian" suggest, as does Rorty's explicit blaming of Kant for (3)) are not particularly "analytic":
Romano's polemic gives the wholly false impression that Rorty was simply overcoming a "recent" blip in the history of philosophy ("analytic" philosophy) in order to return the discipline to its "traditional" concerns. In fact, the opposite is the case: Rorty, like Marx (though for different reasons), would have us give up two thousand years of philosophical inquiry in order to do something else. He pitched part of that case as being against "analytic" philosophy, though the latter was far more continuous with the philosophical tradition than Rorty's (hard to pin down) alternative.
Leiter segues into his next point with another dismissive swipe at Romano ("Romano, however, has no actual interest in or knowledge of philosophy, even of Rorty's critique of it, so he moves right along"), but in fact his disagreement with Romano's Rorty is getting tangled up with his rejection of Rorty himself, which tends to dilute the former somewhat. If Rorty did "[pitch] that part of the case as being against 'analytic' philosophy," which he certainly did, then it is hardly "wholly false" to speak in terms of "overcoming a 'recent' blip in the history of philosophy ("analytic" philosophy)", even if the ultimate destination is not after all the status quo ante. If there is a mistake here, it is just as much Rorty's (as accurately portrayed by Romano) as Romano's own. (I smiled here at Leiter's characteristic tic, a substitution for argument, on points to win which it would require more than a vitriolic wielding of proof-texts or obvious counterexamples, of attribution of obscurity, a tactic which Leiter often deploys against McDowell, an "unclear" writer. Still, he's not exactly wrong here, that Rorty's positive views are "hard to pin down." Indeed, on certain important points he flat-out equivocates.)

The next quotation features another gratuitous use of "positivistic," as well as a reference to Rorty as "a red-white-and-blue Nietzsche," the latter of which Leiter surprisingly lets pass without comment. Later, though, Leiter objects when Romano suggests that analytic philosophers were threatened by Rorty's endorsement of such controversial thinkers as Wittgenstein and Heidegger. He sidesteps the point about Heidegger, pointing to other, less radical appropriators of his thought (Dreyfus et al.); but even if we hadn't seen it before we could surely predict Leiter's riposte w/r/t the other guy:
Wittgenstein is, of course, part of the philosophical canon throughout the Anglophone world, even if opinion is divided about the import and sometimes the meaning of his ideas.
Here again is the familiar "heads I win, tails you lose" attitude towards Wittgenstein's reception in contemporary philosophy. Do analytic philosophers ignore Wittgenstein? Heavens no, he's one of us! Russell's student, patron saint of the Vienna Circle, influence on Kripke and Dennett and Searle and Stroud! Don't you know anything?? Oh, it's your version of Wittgenstein you mean – well, opinions differ, you know – hard to say what he really meant, what with that obscure style of his.... But you "literary" types like that sort of thing, don't you....

We'll get back to this, as well as another look at the idea that "epistemology" is the target of PMN. Let's continue with Leiter's post first. What happens next is that both Romano and Leiter, in turn, take both opposing positions on whether Rorty was "marginalized." Romano: he was marginalized by the profession ... but he was discussed and honored the world over. Leiter: he marginalized himself by not responding to criticism ... and other philosophers besides Rorty were also discussed and honored the world over, so he's not that special. [Huh?] Leiter just falls down here; the idea that Rorty didn't respond to criticism is absurd. He didn't respond to the stupid criticism (duh, realism is so true, you, you relativist you), but not only are there detailed replies to essays in at least two books of criticism (the Brandom book and Saatkamp, ed., Rorty & Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to His Critics), many essays are entirely dedicated to responding to criticism (okay, some implicitly, but still, he engages the issues, or at least tries to): see Truth and Progress, which replies to Taylor, Dennett, Putnam, Brandom, McDowell, Davidson, and Michael Williams, among others. Plus there are a number of interviews and other things. Would that other people had done as well with him as he did with others (modulo, that is, the limitations in his view inherent in, well [heh heh], not saying about these matters what I would ...). Naturally the main issue here is that Romano writes as if Rorty had in fact won the day and rightly so (referring, in a phrase which Leiter naturally mocks, to "Rorty's devastating exposure [my emphasis – DM] of positivistic [there's that word again] philosophy's ahistorical, pocket-full-of-examples approach to knowledge"), while Leiter seems at one point to imply that Rorty as well as Romano falls into the category of non-philosopher (that is, non-actual philosopher). If Romano had characterized Rorty's views in exactly the same way, yet taken (mutatis mutandis) a negative view of them, I don't think Leiter would even have bothered to correct what are after all mostly minor and typically journalistic infelicities.

Let's get back to Mirror of Nature. It's certainly true that the three theses Kim mentions (above) are all targets in that book. But why does Romano say that Rorty thought that 1) all that was left of philosophy (analytic or otherwise) was epistemology, and 2) that he was set to deliver the death blow to it and thus to philosophy (or analytic philosophy) as a whole? Without going into great detail, we can look at Rorty's project in PMN like this (so this is my paraphrase, not Rorty's). At the time, the philosophy associated with the scientific revolution of the 17th century looked like (in the words of 1066 And All That) a Good Thing. The cure for metaphysics was a healthy empiricism. Descartes, however, bought the independence of the material world from (the need for) metaphysics at the unacceptably high price of substance dualism. This allowed the immaterial mind itself to remain a subject (no pun intended) for metaphysical speculation. Viewed from the empiricist angle, though, the salient thing about the mind is not its metaphysical constitution but the nature of its epistemic access to the external world. We are presented in experience with sensory data: how do we get from there – i.e., all we are entitled to, epistemically speaking – to knowledge? This is not metaphysics but epistemology.

Indeed, even today most people identify the Cartesian picture of the mind with substance dualism, and take empiricism (say in its Humean form) as the proper antidote, justifying a form of materialism to replace dualism. (This is why people like Searle can present themselves as "anti-Cartesian," i.e. materialists about the mind.) But Rorty sees the empiricist picture, which he naturally traces to Lockean foundationalism, and the epistemological problem of how to justify our knowledge (i.e., as an accurate representation of an external world our only connection to which passes through the senses, from which we must build said representation) as no improvement on Descartes. (Indeed, in the form of the skeptical problem it is Descartes.) So the supposedly "anti-Cartesian" movement from metaphysics to epistemology merely moves the bump in the rug from one place to another. A natural way of continuing the thought might then be that if (as Kim says) Cartesianism "mentalizes" Platonism, and empiricism "epistemologizes" Cartesianism, then if we can dissolve the empiricist problematic we may be able to achieve a final victory against Platonic metaphysics – the novelty in this thought being, again, that it was empiricist materialism which billed itself as the natural opponent, indeed the undertaker, of metaphysics. In this context, one in which it is qua metaphysics that epistemology is to be criticized, it makes sense to see contemporary metaphysicians like Kripke and Lewis as subject as well to Rorty's critique of what we might call the metaphysical realism-epistemological skepticism axis (especially given what he then goes on to say about "capital-P Philosophy" as what we must leave behind in order to usher in the pragmatist utopia). Again, though, calling this "positivism," as Romano does, is just odd.

I myself sing a version of this song (except for the part about the "pragmatist utopia," for which I substitute a Wittgensteinian acknowledgment of the ineradicable stain of original philosophical sin), although I have come to hear Rorty's own rendition as being importantly off-key in several ways. Ironically, given Romano's bizarre application of the "positivist" label to Rorty's target, one of the things holding Rorty back is his own ambivalence about his positivist heritage. The problem is not, I hasten to add, that he was ambivalent: we see an analogous ambivalence in Quine (Carnap's student and critic), and pragmatists cannot deny the positivist elements in their (our) own doctrine (Carnap, for example, sounds very pragmatist in spots – though not enough, for most people, to count as one himself). As an example of his own positivist sympathies, consider Rorty's near-pathological resistance to talk of (say) "believing the truth about how things are" in favor of consensus or "coping" or whatever – as well as, of course, the rank eliminativism on display in chapter 2 of PMN ("People Without Minds").

The other main problem (not counting his use of Davidson, about which I am myself ambivalent) was Rorty's attitude toward Kant. Kant figures in PMN, and Rorty's philosophy generally, as the poster child for a pernicious unpragmatic foundationalism. In bringing out the point about epistemology above, I elided Rorty's connection of the epistemic foundationalism of Lockean empiricism with the methodological foundationalism Rorty finds in Kant (philosophy as the "queen of the sciences" and all that). Leiter pounces on this as well, pointing out that for naturalists like Quine (i.e. an "analytic" philosopher if anyone is) philosophy is no queen but instead merely a "handmaiden" to natural science. (While true, this seems more like a point against Romano's sloppy summary than against Rorty himself; but let's not get into it here.) This use of Kant gives a superficially attractive symmetry to Kim's three theses above: Plato founds the discipline looking into Eternal Questions; Descartes mentalizes the Platonic picture, throwing the ball to epistemology; Kant rescues the tradition by cementing philosophy as the ground of intellectual culture generally (i.e., as the universal arbiter of intelligibility). I agree, although I guess not everyone does, that everyone telling this sort of world-historical story has to make narrative sense of the Plato-Descartes-Kant sequence. But if you do not bring out how Kant was just as much an anti-Cartesian as he was Cartesian, in the relevant senses, you make hash of the subsequent reaction to and development of that powerful anti-dualist force ("anti-dualist" in the most general sense). As only one example: why would Dewey want to "naturalize Hegel" if Hegel thought of his own task as that of finishing the Kantian project?

Plus you get Kant wrong. Leiter ends his post with a compound slam at Romano and Rorty, attacking Rorty for his, and I quote, "'bad' or 'fraudulent' scholarship" and Romano for his defense of it. This is an important issue (to tip my hand, I do think Rorty was too careless, and Romano says far too little to explain Rorty's practices), but let me provide the traditional ending for my post by promising to get back to that some other time.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Even more philblogs

At Methods of Projection, N. N. points us to SOH-Dan, whose proprietor Daniel has commented here occasionally, and to Brain Scam, a properly philosophical complement to that blogger's arts & culture blog The Parrot's Lamppost. Daniel has already blogged on Brandom, the "resolute" reading of Wittgenstein, and (at positively Holbonian length) on Hegel. Anton A., on the other hand, describes Brain Scam as "a rampart against naive materialist views of consciousness," and has some truly pungent things to say about the reductionism and eliminativism he sees in contemporary cognitive science. I'm not convinced (okay, I really doubt) that cognitive science is so uniformly reductionist as Anton claims it is, but in his opening rants (and I mean that in the best sense) he does say some gratifyingly Wittgensteinian things. He promises an upcoming post about
the idea that there is "something it is like" to have a particular form of consciousness, that this is perspectival or subjective, and that it therefore cannot be stated in the objective language of materialism, or at least we have no idea how that would be done.... Unfortunately, this response is itself fundamentally flawed, for much the same reason that materialism itself is flawed.
Quite right! I can tell I'll be spending too much time in these places. (Better stop reading The Valve ...).

Addendum: I see N. N. has another Wittgenstein blog, Language Games, in the blogroll. I haven't checked this one out yet, but don't let that stop you.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

New philblogs

Avery from The Space of Reasons recommends spontaneity&receptivity, a blog dedicated, as the name suggests, to John McDowell; Brian Leiter points us to Tim Crane and Colin McGinn, while John Protevi likes 4EA Cognition and Outside Philosophy (not surprisingly given their addresses). The first and last sound most interesting to me, but time will tell.

At Outside Philosophy, John McCumber is posting a talk he gave at the International Association for Philosophy and Literature a few years ago. It's not entilrely clear what his point is yet, but in the second installment he writes, with respect to the question of "realism":
Is there a world out there? If so, do the differences and similarities we see in it come from it, from us, or both? These are not exactly burning issues for the rest of the intellectual world by now; the answers, since Kant, have been “yes” and “both” respectively. Various versions of this "soft realist" view, if we may call it that, long ago become endemic in literary studies. Among the sciences, quantum mechanics has generally reinforced it. So do such diverse forces as empirical psychology, Karl Popper, and contemporary work in virtual reality.
If I were to grant these questions sense (which I might), I would indeed find the given answers ("yes," "both") the least unobjectionable ones, and the resulting "soft realism" a decent enough quick-and-dirty attitude for non-philosophers to take. But quick-and-dirty is all it is; and even so, I don't see what quantum mechanics, empirical psychology, and virtual reality have to do with the metaphysical issue. (Plus, Popper is a ... well, let's just say his fallibilism is unattractive to my sort of pragmatist.) If McCumber's point is that this issue has actually been long since settled and some people still haven't gotten the memo, then I must protest. If we feel obliged to enshrine commonsense anti-sophism as a philosophical doctrine called "realism," it won't achieve a stable degree of "softness" without a proper philosophical understanding of why exactly that degree is indeed "just right" (as Goldilocks would say). Haven't we seen what happens, inside philosophy and out, when we leave this job undone?

This, of course, is part of my frustration with Rorty and others like him. "Quietism," whether or not "Wittgensteinian," is the proper move (or principled refraining from same) only in particular circumstances, ones where the Cartesian thing to do is to demand an answer to a supposedly pressing question. Wittgenstein himself sets up the dialectic in the Investigations very carefully in order to bring this out. It's all ruined if we just boil it all down to "Metaphysik? Nein danke!" or the equivalent. That's what naturalists do; and I wouldn't want to accuse Professor McCumber of that.