Monday, September 08, 2008

Ironies abound

Richard Rorty famously defines an "ironist" as "the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires" (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity p. xv). Rorty has his own story about what this means, and what it is to "face up" to it, a story which most interpreters, myself included, aren't particularly happy with. On that account, it remains unclear how one can regard one's beliefs as "contingent" without thereby simply giving them up. The resulting skepticism, perversely unacknowledged as such, is precisely not what the doctor ordered. Or so I claim.

On p. 96-7 of CIS, Rorty comes very close to spelling out an explicitly Pyrrhonist position: "The goal of ironist theory is to understand the metaphysical urge, the urge to theorize, so well that one becomes entirely free of it. Ironist theory is thus a ladder which is to be thrown away as soon as one has figured out what it was that drove one's predecessors to theorize." Remarkably, given the use of that familiar image, the accompanying footnote cites neither the ancient Skeptics nor even the early Wittgenstein (TLP 6.54), but instead the later Heidegger's "motto of ironist theorizing": "A regard to metaphysics still prevails even in the intention to overcome metaphysics. Therefore our task is to cease all overcoming, and leave metaphysics to itself" (Time and Being, 1962).

I don't know about Heidegger, but in Rorty the thought seems to be this. Traditional metaphysics is a mug's game; but if philosophers proceed in the usual fashion to try to show this once and for all, all we'll get is a philosophical theory, or doctrine, to that effect. But philosophical theorizing just is "metaphysics" in the controversial sense – that is, it succumbs to the same questionable urge (to escape finitude, or whatever). Instead of the traditional doctrines, then, we must target the urge which made them, or even their negations, seem necessary. If "overcoming" requires refutation, and refutation indulges the suspect urge, then we must abandon "overcoming" as well. We might not be happy about having to "leave metaphysics to itself," where anyone can still trip over it if they're not careful, but it can't be helped. We'll just have to develop other ways to help each other avoid that pitfall. Rorty's conception of pragmatism as "anti-authoritarianism," for example, exhorts us to spurn the siren song of metaphysical transcendence, with its chimerical promise of ideal grounding for our beliefs and values, in favor of more homespun methods of coping with our problems.

In chapter 5 ("Self-creation and affiliation: Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger"), Rorty explains why literature of a certain kind is better than philosophy for doing what needs to be done:
So the lesson I draw from Proust's example is that novels are a safer medium than theory for expressing one's recognition of the relativity and contingency of authority figures. For novels are usually about people – things which are, unlike general ideas and final vocabularies, quite evidently time-bound, embedded in a web of contingencies. [...] By contrast, books which are about ideas, even when written by historicists like Hegel and Nietzsche, look like descriptions of eternal relations between eternal objects, rather than genealogical accounts of the filiation of final vocabularies, showing how these vocabularites were engendered by haphazard matings, by who happened to bump into whom. [107-8]
I'll get back to raking Rorty over the coals some other time, but let me get to my point here. To that last quotation is appended its own footnote, which reads: "There are, of course, novels like Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus in which the characters are simply dressed-up generalities. The novel form cannot by itself insure a perception of contingency. It only makes it a bit harder to avoid this perception."

I like Mann a lot, but that's definitely a fair criticism (q.v. The Magic Mountain, or anything else for that matter). However, the impetus for this post is that I'm just now (very slowly) reading Doctor Faustus, and on p. 45 our narrator Dr. Zeitblom is telling us about the early years of his friend Leverkühn, the subject of the book:
In those years school life is life itself, it stands for all that life is, school interests bound the horizon that every life needs in order to develop values, through which, however relative they are, the character and the capacities are sustained. They can, however, do that, humanly speaking, only if the relativeness remains unrecognized. Belief in absolute values, illusory as it always is, seems to me a condition of life. But my friend's gifts [i.e., Leverkühn's] measured themselves against values the relative character of which seemed to lie open to him, without any visible possibility of any other relation which would have detracted from them as values. Bad pupils there are in plenty. But Adrian presented the singular phenomenon of a bad pupil as the head of the class. I say that it distressed me, but how impressive, how fascinating, I found it too! How it strengthened my devotion to him, mingling with it – can one understand why? – something like pain, like hopelessness! [Lowe-Porter translation, altered slightly]
So described, the young composer sounds quite a bit like Rorty's "ironist," and indeed, the next paragraph discusses "one exception [i.e., mathematics] to [Leverkühn's] uniform ironic contempt." Here, though, the skepticism is explicit. Belief in absolute values, however necessary "as a condition of life," is always illusory. The only alternative to "absolute" is "relative," and regarding some value as (merely) "relative" is equivalent to rejecting any claims it may have to validity. Where Leverkühn differs from Zeitblom is that the former did not let the recognized illusoriness of absolute value stop him from acting as if he accepted it. He even excelled at what others took seriously, while he himself saw it as merely a game – one he was good at, but a game nonetheless.

No doubt Rorty takes his own position to differ, not simply from Zeitblom's, but also from that of Leverkühn. (He might, for example, have mentioned this passage as anticipating his own views, rather than simply knocking the book for not being sufficiently Proustian.) As I read him, I think Rorty would say that in allowing a norm or value to structure one's actions – to be seen as "playing the game" at all – is, in that context, to accept it as fully as it makes sense to do so. To demand a further "metaphysical" commitment to its truth (pardon me, Truth) is to fall into unintelligibility, or at least disutility. That's why recognizing "contingency" isn't the same as skepticism or nihilism.

Now, this is indeed a more attractive thing to say. It's just that I don't think Rorty can do so consistently. For example, Rorty tells us repeatedly that his pragmatism points us past the "stale dichotomy of realism and anti-realism"; but he just as consistently endorses anti-realist doctrine when it suits him, as in the continuation of the very definition of "ironism" with which I began. Ironists, he says, are that way because they are "sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance." Naturally going "beyond realism" will involve rejecting realist doctrines like this one. Still, when overt appeals to anti-realism are qualified, in the definition of the central concept of one's view, only by words like "sufficiently," it's hard to see how that itself is sufficient for us to avoid the one as well as the other.


Brandon said...

This was very interesting; I've never really looked closely at Rorty's conception of irony, for some reason assuming it was a (modified) version of Romantic irony, and apparently wrongly. The definition with which you begin sounds much like what the Romantics had in mind (cf. Schlegel's famous description, "Irony is the clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos"), as is the place of the novel. But cashed out it turns out to be very different; Romantic irony motivates theorizing (among other things) -- in fact, one of its characteristics is that it motivates infinite and endless theorizing, the inexhaustible striving to grasp hold of an inexhaustible world.

Clark Goble said...

I agree especially regarding your last paragraph. Rorty liked to portray himself as a pragmatism sailing between the twin rocks of realism and anti-realism. However most of the time he's actually sitting on the rock of anti-realism sunning himself.

There's a great book that studies this in the context of Dewey (with a little Peirce thrown in). It's Hildebrand's Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism and its second half is largely an attack on Rorty as falling into the same traps that Dewey's foes earlier in the 20th century did.

Clark Goble said...

Brandon, I've not studied Romanticism much but that's an interesting comment. I think I could handle that kind of irony.

kvond said...

DuckRabbit: "As I read him, I think Rorty would say that in allowing a norm or value to structure one's actions – to be seen as "playing the game" at all – is, in that context, to accept it as fully as it makes sense to do so. To demand a further "metaphysical" commitment to its truth (pardon me, Truth) is to fall into unintelligibility, or at least disutility. That's why recognizing "contingency" isn't the same as skepticism or nihilism.

Now, this is indeed a more attractive thing to say. It's just that I don't think Rorty can do so consistently."

Hmmm. I still don't get a sense of what you object to in Rorty. Your positive summation is pretty how I read him, without your proviso of a lack of consistency. It seems to me that people like to demonize Rorty (partly because he has enjoyed being demonized), but if I reduce the "rant-factor" (tone) of your post to its points, it seems that you are far more in agreement with Rorty than you would like to be.

Rorty, like Davidson, is not just concerned with what people say (argue), but what they are "after" in saying it (this is a primary Nietzschean focus). His Anti-Realist polemics really I believe should be viewed in much the same way as Wittgenstein's own appeals to health over illness and sickness. They are meant to set out the limits of kind of discourse. For Rorty, rather than in the case of Wittgenstein, this "health" is of a political concern, a directive toward communitarian actions. His Anti-Realism, Anti-Essentialism by an large is a protest and warning against history's repeated attempt to justify claims by virtue of solely "That is just they way things are".

This really is what lead Rorty to finally agree with Davidson that a theory of truth was a significant theory. Far from casting us out to a nihilism of ideas, it is towards the normatives of community, in action, that questions of what is should direct us. A direction without guarantees.

J said...

Pragmatism, or the "Cash value of Truth", in Wm James' words. And taking a look at the bestseller lists, it's fairly obvious that fiction has a lot more Truth than the latest philosophical

There are novels--written by Conrad or Pynchon or something---which might suffice as "philosophy" of a sort, though the very ambiguity of narrative, and of understanding the writer's intent (if it can be done at all) generally prevents one "correct" reading. FOr that matter, in Heart of Darkness Conrad's not really interested in "fact claims", about either existing economic conditions, or human psychology, or Osiris forbid, metaphysics, and the skilled reader responds to the connotations, and to the "syntax-musick" of Conradian prose, rather to the specific message or theme, though the theme may be important.

Rorty may be partially correct (as pragmatism would seem to allow), but fiction is a poor substitute for the "real history", and often a distraction, if not deliberate deception.

Russell's remarks on James and Dewey, however quaint, seem as applicable to the Rortian school. What's to keep pragmatists--say do-gooder pragmatists of the Deweyan sort--from shaping curriculum and pedagogy to particular ends (harmoniousness, or PCness of various sorts) and "tailoring" historical/economic facts to fit that pragmatist pedagogy??? Holy Ministry of Truth, batman.

Duck said...

Thanks to everybody for their comments. I want to give a fuller answer sometime, but until then I think you'll all find interesting the recent article on Rorty ("An Arc of Thought") at Brandom's site (HT: Dan and Gabe).

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

The authentic filosophe--and historian-- opposes the belle-lettrists, whether Proust or Pynchon. As did Plato (and Bertrand Russell, at least on occasion). For that matter, so did Karlo Marx hisself