About philosophymasters

I started a Masters by Research (MRes) in Modern Philosophy this September, tutored by Prof. Andrew Bowie at Royal Holloway, University of London. I've never blogged before, but I'm hoping to post parts of what I'm working on, partly to make sure I'm writing as much as possible, and partly to elicit comment and debate.

Liberalism: Some Key Definitions

All liberals start off from the principle that liberty is the primary political value. After this, liberalism fractures along a spectrum of views: positive, negative and republican liberty. These are fundamentally to do with differing conceptions of liberty.

i) Humans are in a perfect state of freedom to order their actions (Locke); the burden of proof is on those who are against liberty, the a priori assumption is in favour of freedom (Mill); contemporary liberal thinkers (Feinberg, Benn and Rawls) agree.

Basic normative assumption = those who would limit freedom are under the onus of justification, particularly if they would limit freedom through coercive means

§ Political authority, its laws and policies, must be justified because they limit human freedom

–       Social contract theory (Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and Locke) is usually viewed as liberal even though the political prescriptions of each thinker have distinctly illiberal features. Nevertheless, all take as their starting point a state of nature in which humans are free and equal and so argue that the limitations imposed must be justified in terms of the social contract theory § expresses the fundamental liberal principle

ii) In addition to the fundamental liberal principle, paradigmatic liberals such as Locke argue that justified limitations on liberty are fairly modest i.e. only a limited amount of government can be justified because the basic task of the government is to protect the equal liberty of the citizens.

Negative Liberty

Disagreement about the concept of liberty has led to different conceptions of the task of government. Isaiah Berlin, for example, advocated for a negative conception of liberty:

‘If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability…Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by other human beings’.

§ Liberty = the absence of coercion by other human beings. The government’s role is to ensure that citizens do not coerce each other without justification in order to protect liberty. Negative liberty is an opportunity concept: being free is a matter of what we can do, regardless of whether or not we actually do it.

Positive Liberty

British neo-Hegelians such as Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet developed a positive conception of liberty that acknowledges freedom as the exemption from compulsion by another. However, the other might not be human; someone can be unfree if he is subject to an impulse that cannot be controlled. Thus a person is only free if he is autonomous. In the sense that a free person’s actions are said to be his own, positive liberty is an exercise concept.

§ Freedom consists in the degree to which a subject has effectively determined and shaped his own life, apart from compulsions and unreflectively following customs, to the overall benefit of his short and long term interests.

As well as this concept of freedom as autonomy being present in Rousseau, Kant and Mill, contemporary theorists such as Benn, Dworkin and Raz also enshrine this liberal principle in their political theories.

Another concept of positive freedom is freedom understood as the ability to act on or pursue one’s own ends; freedom is ‘the ability act’ (Tawney). Positive freedom as effective power to act closely ties freedom to access to material resources: I cannot become a member of a Country Club because I am too poor to afford the membership though in principle I could become a member if this resource was available to me.

Republican Liberty

In the Roman, republican usage (Cicero and Machiavelli), the opposite of the liber was the servus and so the dominant connotation of freedom was not having to live in servitude to another § freedom is the opposite of domination. The ideal government ensures that no agent, including itself, has arbitrary power over any citizen, in order to ensure that every citizen’s liberty is protected. The method by which this principle is enacted is equal disbursement of power; by according each citizen power, this offsets the power of another citizen to arbitrarily interfere with his or her activities.

Unlike positive liberty, republican liberty is not primarily concerned with rational autonomy, realising one’s true nature or becoming one’s higher self.

Unlike negative liberty, republican liberty traces the mere possibility of arbitrary interference to a limitation of liberty, rather than the actual occurrence of interference.

Classical Liberalism

As well as fracturing over the conception of liberty, a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order.

Classical liberals insist upon the close relation between liberty and private property for it is through the ownership of private property that a citizen is able to live her life as she sees fit. Thus, private property is consistent with individual liberty. Some people (Gaus, Steiner, Robbins) argue that liberty and property are the same thing thus a market order based on private property is the embodiment of freedom. A secondary argument from classical liberals claims that ownership of private property is the only effective means of protecting liberty, because the individual is protected from encroachments by the state.

Even within classical liberalism there is a spectrum of views on the relationship of private property to a free society, ranging from near anarchists to left leaning views that allow for a modest social minimum. Although today classical liberalism is portrayed as extreme libertarianism, the tradition’s central concern was bettering the lot of the working class. As Bentham put it, the aim was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer. As such, liberals reject redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

New Liberalism

New liberalism challenges the link between private property and individual freedom. New liberalism emerged out of a period in which the sustainability of a prosperous equilibrium was being questioned (c. late 19th/early 20th century). At the same time as losing faith in the old market order, faith was increasing in the government as a means of supervising economic life partly due to the First World War and partly due to more sophisticated democratisation in Western countries. For the first time, elected officials could truly be representatives of the community, or so it was thought. Thirdly, the growing conviction that property rights generated an unequal society to the detriment of the working class’ liberty. The first suggestion of this is found in Mill, later developed by Rawls, both of whom believed that it is an open question whether personal liberty can flourish without private property.

New liberalism is deeply concerned with developing a theory of social justice, a consequence of the impact of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Rawls’s ‘difference principle’ claims that a just basic structure of society arranges social and economic inequalities so that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off group in a particular society. For Rawls, only inequalities that enhance the long term prospects for the least well off are just. The difference principle constitutes the principle of reciprocity, whereby no group of people is allowed to advance at the cost of another. In contemporary political thought, followers of Rawls are committed to cashing out the difference principle in terms of equality (Dworkin) hence the development from ‘welfare state’ liberalism to ‘egalitarian’ liberalism.


Discourse and the Development of the Individual

People who participate in democratic processes become more attuned to difference, more sensitive to reciprocity, better able to engage in moral discourse, more able to examine their own preference critically. This is the self-transformation thesis, in which the self is constituted buy interactions with its social context.

Calls for more democracy are often not taken seriously because of the threat of the
majority to minorities, privacy, rights etc; but, this line is based on an asocial (Hobbesian)
conception of the self. It reveals arguments such as: What is greater participation enabled
participants to pursue narrower, self-motivated or sectarian interests, instead of interests
in the social good? One cannot just assume that participation will make us better people.

Indeed, which is why Habermas’s discursive conception of democracy might go some
way to justifying our faith in the positive aspects of democracy, in terms of its impact
upon individual selves and society writ large.

Habermas does not equate democracy with any particular set of institutional
mechanisms, such as voting; rather, he understands democracy as an institutional order
that depends for its legitimacy on a process of discursive will formation. Habermas’s
democracy is the kind of politics that favours non-violent, non-coercive consensus, as
opposed to other ways of making collective decisions, through the authority of tradition,
for example, or the economic markets. Discourse, incidentally, is the forceless force
of the better argument; hence not all communication is discursive. It follows its own
immanent logic of validity claims.

The public sphere is the institutional embodiment of discourse in that it is separate from
the political realm and legitimates itself through the communicative action and rationality
that binds its judgements. This is a separation of judgement and power, analogous in
liberal constitutions to the legislative and executive branches of government. Habermas
is not saying that all institutions should conduct all their business via discourse, but that
they should be structured in such a way that discourse can flourish when conflicts arise
and understanding must be reached. The normative imperative is that it is efficacious
to resolve conflict in this way, rather than via coercion, markets, traditional authority or
blind consensus.

Discourse requires near perfect conditions, in that it won’t work if there is a strong
imbalance of power relations; even if the power imbalance is minimal, the burden on
communicative action to neutralise this is too great. Hence Habermas argues that it
requires an institutionalised public sphere, nominally free from power relations and
differentiated from the organisational requirements of collective action. This ideal,
embedded in the public sphere, is arrved at collectively and individually, thus discourse is
the medium in which collective and individual reason converges. As individuals express
their needs and interests publically, they are challenged, and the process of justification
both produces consensus whilst increasing the individual’s autonomy as she understands
her own needs better.

What is an autonomous self?

Autonomy for Habermas is not the Hobbesian and rational choice view that selves are
presocial monads. Rather, it refers to certain socially developed capacities of judgement.
Autonomy for Habermas is not a natural attribute of humans, but a fragile and relational
social achievement. Autonomy means self-identity, insofar as the continuous identity of

one’s life history is maintained by projecting goals into the future around which one’s
present identity is organised. Autonomy implies capacities for agency and a certain
amount of control over one’s life history. Autonomy is a kind of freedom in that it
involves the capacity to distance oneself from circumstances at the same time as locating
oneself in those circumstances. This includes, in the social world, distancing oneself
from traditions, prevailing opinion, and pressure to conform. Autonomy involves
critical judgement, and is developed though imagination insofar as we are all part of
the intersubjective framework of projecting ourselves and stepping into the position
of others i.e. thinking of alternatives. But it is also to do with giving reasons, as we are
forced to order our arguments logically in the process of public argumentation. As
such, autonomy implies communicative competencies. And in the process of engaging
in dialogue, autonomy also implies reciprocity in recognition of the other linguistic I.
Finally, autonomy implies a measure of responsibility insofar as discourse is a process of
justification: I must commit to my words and actions in giving reasons for them.

Moral Development of Autonomy

Habermas contends that social relations generally tend towards the development of
moral capacities; as such the ability to deal with political conflict is already latent in
social life. Habermas appropriates Kohlberg’s six-stage theory of moral development
as a developmental theory already present in social relations. In particular, Habermas
is interested in the idea that we progress towards autonomy in moral judgement as our
social and communicative competencies develop; thus, the capacities of autonomy
required by participatory democracy are always already present in the structures of
interaction i.e. in social life. Further, the definition of my identity – my autonomy –
arises out of recognition of the other. The dual movement of attaining higher moral
development and distancing myself in recognition of reciprocity is part of interactive
competence: in this, the moral and social converge.

Habermas argues that such development can only occur in a discursive context, so where
Kohlberg’s stages end at six with the formal (Kantian) ethics of universal principle,
Habermas adds a seventh – discourse ethics. In doing so he counters the line of critics
of formal ethics, which states that general principles of judgement abstracted from social
relations cannot be sufficiently attuned to the particulars that are always part of our
conceptions of right and wrong. For Habermas, it is discourse that is both aligned with
reason and attentive to the particularity of conflicts, thereby proposing a strong link
between democracy and the moral dimension of autonomy. On this model, individuals
are able to challenge their own interpretations, and the interpretations of others. In the
process, some interpretations will be discarded in favour of other, more appropriate
ones, as well as allowing for the most useful parts of a tradition to continue to be in play
as long as they too remain appropriate.

Reconciliation Through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on Rawls’s Political Liberalism

Rawls is a proponent of practical philosophy and someone to whom moral questions are ‘serious objects of philosophical investigation’ (109). Against value scepticism and utilitarianism, Rawls follows Kant’s maxim that we ought to do what is good for all people and he extends this to formulate his vision of a just society. A just society is one in which every citizen is treated equally and freely. Kant’s principle of autonomy is made intersubjective, for ‘we act autonomously when we obey those laws which could be accepted by all concerned on the basis of a public use of their reason’ (109). Thus Rawls also refutes contextualist positions, which question the presupposition that reason is a common characteristic shared by all humans.

Rawls’s position aims at the justification of the principles upon which modern society should be constituted ‘if it is to ensure the fair co-operation of its citizens as free and equal persons’ (110). The position has three steps. The first is to identify a standpoint from which representatives of the people could answer questions impartially. Parties in the ‘original’ position agree on two principles: 1) the liberal principle that everyone is entitled to an equal system of basic liberties; 2) the principle of equal access to public offices; social inequalities are only acceptable if it is to the benefit of the underprivileged. The second step is to claim that this conception of justice will meet with agreement under the conditions of a pluralistic society which it itself promotes. The key assumption here is that political liberalism is generally neutral with regards to conflicting world-views. And thirdly, the outline of the basic rights and principles of the constitutional state are derived from these two principles of justice.

Habermas takes issue with ‘certain aspects of [the project’s] execution’, as he ‘fear[s] that Rawls makes concessions to opposed philosophical positions which impair the cogency of his own project’ (110). He does not object to the project per se but instead proceeds via an immanent and constructive critique. The key aspects of this critique are i) doubts about aspects of the original position in securing the ‘standpoint of impartial judgement about deontological principles of justice’ (110); the claim that Rawls should make a sharper distinction between principles of justification and of acceptance, for ‘he seems to want to purchase the neutrality of his conception of justice at the cost of forsaking its cognitive validity claim’ (110); and the criticism that Rawls fails in his goal of bringing the liberties of the moderns into harmony with the ancients, because the two theoretical decisions ‘result in a construction of the constitutional state that accords liberal basic rights primacy over the democratic principle of legitimation’ (110).

Design of the Original Position

The parties in the original position have a morally neutral character on the one hand, and are bound to choose principles of fair co-operation via morally substantive situational constraints on the other. Such normative constraints thereby permit the parties with a minimum of properties, in particular, “the capacity for a conception of the good (and thus to be rational)” (Rawls quoted on p. 111), or in other words, they are constrained by their own self-interest to reflect on what is equally good for all citizens. As Habermas notes, however, Rawls ‘soon realised that the reason of autonomous citizens cannot be reduced to rational choice conditioned by subjective preferences’ (112), though he maintains that the meaning of the moral point of view can be operationalised in this way. Habermas addressees three consequences of this approach:

(1) Can the parties in the original position comprehend the highest-order interests of their clients solely on the basis of rational egoism? (2) Can basic rights be assimilated to primary goods? (3) Does the veil of ignorance guarantee the impartiality of judgement? (112)

(1) Comprehension via rational egoism

Rawls cannot consistently hold this position when the parties representing citizens are denied the autonomy that the citizens fully have, because of ‘rational design’: ‘the parties are supposed both to understand and to take seriously the implications and consequences of an autonomy that they themselves are denied’ (112). They cannot take into account, for instance, the sense of loyalty and obligation citizens may feel towards each other. Rawls qualifies the rationality of the contracting partners: on the one hand, they take no interest in one another; on the other hand, they have a “purely formal” sense of justice, for they are supposed to know that they are bound to conform with the principles agreed upon in their future role as citizens in a well ordered society. Habermas questions whether this strays too far from the original position: ‘For as soon as the parties step outside the boundaries of their rational egoism and assume even a distant likeness to moral persons, the division of labour between the rationality of choice of subjects and appropriate objective constraints is destroyed, a division through which self-interested agents are nonetheless supposed to achieve morally sound decisions’ (113).

(2) Rights and Goods

Primary goods are defined as the means we need to realise our plans for life. For the parties in the original position, primary goods can be rights, but these are only recognised as one category of goods amongst others, thus ‘the issue of principles of justice can only arise in the guise of the question of the just distribution of primary goods’ (114). As such, Rawls would seem to adopt an approach that is more consistent with Aristotelian ethics or utilitarianism that his own theory of rights which is supposed to proceed via the concept of autonomy. In interpreting rights as primary goods, Rawls ‘assimilate[s] the deontological meaning of obligatory norms to the teleological meaning of preferred values’ (114).[1]

Rawls has to compensate for the levelling of the deontological dimension; he does so by according the first principle priority over the second, and adding a further qualification that secures primary goods a relation to basic liberties as basic rights, i.e. primary goods are ‘only those which are expedient for the life plans and the development of the moral faculties of citizens as free and equal persons’ (114), but, as Habermas argues, this step distinguishes between rights and goods in contradiction to the first classification of rights as goods.

(3) Veil of Ignorance & Impartiality

There is a problem of how to go from individual isolated perspectives to a universal, transcendental consciousness. Rawls tries to neutralise different viewpoints by withholding information, thereby keeping representative parties under a veil of ignorance. Habermas argues that there is an alternative: discourse ethics,[2] which ‘views the moral point of view as embodied in an intersubjective practice of argumentation which enjoins those involved to an idealising enlargement of their interpretive perspectives’ (117). Discourse ethics would lighten the burden of proof generated by Rawls’s position, namely a) ‘the veil of ignorance must extend to all particular viewpoints and interests that could impair an impartial judgement’ (118); and b) gradual removal of the veil might lead to discrepancies arising, so if we are to ensure that this does not happen, ‘we must construct the original position already with knowledge, and even foresight, of all the normative contents that could potentially nourish the shared self-understanding of free and equal citizens in the future. In other words, the theoretician himself would have to shoulder the burden of anticipating at least parts of the information of which he previously relieved the parties in the original position!’ (118). Instead, Habermas has in mind ‘the more open procedure of an argumentative practice that proceeds under the demanding presuppositions of the “public use of reason” and does not bracket the pluralism of convictions and worldviews from the outset’ (118-9).

[1] Norms inform decisions as to what one ought to do, values inform decisions as to what conduct is most desirable. Recognised norms impose equal and exceptionless obligations on their addressees, while values express the preferability of goods that are striven for by particular groups. Whereas norms are observed in the sense of a fulfillment of generalized behavioural expectations, values or goods can be realized or acquired only by purposive action. Furthermore, norms raise a binary validity claim in virtue of which they are said to be either valid or invalid: to ought statements, as to assertoric statements, we can respond only with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – or refrain from judgement. Values, by contrast, fix relations of preference that signify that certain goods are more attractive than others: hence, we can assent to evaluative statements to a greater or lesser degree. The obligatory force of norms has the absolute meaning of an unconditional and universal duty: what one ought to do it what is equally good for all (that is, for all addressees). The attractiveness of values reflects an evaluation and a transitive ordering of goods that has become established in particular cultures or has been adopted by particular groups: important evaluative decisions or higher-order preferences express what is good for us (or for me), all things considered. Finally, different norms must not contradict each other when they claim validity for the same domain of addressees; they must stand in coherent relations to one another – in other words, they must constitute a system. Different values, by contrast, compete for priority; insofar as they meet with intersubjective recognition within a culture or group, they constitute shifting configurations fraught with tension. To sum up, norms differ from values, first, in their relation to rule-governed as opposed to purposive action; second, in a binary as opposed to a gradual coding of the respective validity claims; third, in their absolute as opposed to relative bindingness; and, last, in the criteria that systems of norms as opposed to systems of values must satisfy. [114-5]

[2] Discourse ethics rests on the intuition that the application of the principle of universalisation, properly understood, calls for a joint process of “ideal role taking”. It interprets this idea of G. H. Mead in terms of a pragmatic theory of argumentation. Under the pragmatic presuppositions of an inclusive and noncoercive rational discourse among free and equal participants, everyone is required to take the perspective of everyone else, and thus project herself into the understandings of self and world of all others; from this interlocking of perspectives there emerges an ideally extended we-perspective from which all can test in common whether they wish to make a controversial norm the basis of their shared practice; and this should include mutual criticism of the appropriateness of the languages in terms of which situations and needs are interpreted. In the course of successively undertaken abstractions, the core of generalisable interests can then emerge step by step. [117-8]

Defining Democracy

Defining Democracy

Method of group decision making characterised by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of the collective decision making.

Key points: ‘collective’ therefore concerns a particular group; there can be lots of different groups both political and familial; normative weight is not entailed or implied; could be more or less deep i.e. formal definition ‘one person one vote’, or more robust including a definition of equality in the process of decision making; participation can be either direct on the part of the agent or indirectly through selected representatives.

Schumpeter is an example of a thinker that argues for a formal kind of democracy in which elites are representative of the people rather than the dangerous ambition of equality across membership of the group.

Rousseau is an example of a thinker who connects the formal kind of democracy with slavery, whereas robustly egalitarian democracies are the only forms that have political legitimacy.

Is democracy desirable at all?

Justification of Democracy

Evaluation of democracy can be along at least two different lines:

Consequentially – by reference to the outcomes of using it over other methods of political decision making; also can be termed instrumentalism

Intrinsically – by reference to qualities that are inherent in the method

Instrumental Arguments in Favour of Democracy

Two instrumental benefits are commonly attributed to democracy: relatively good law and policies, and improvements in the characters of the participants.

J.S. Mill argued that the democratic method of legislation is better than a non-democratic method in three ways: strategically, epistemically, and morally.

Strategically: democracy forces decision makers to take into account the interests, rights and opinions of most people in society. Each person in society has a little bit of political power, so more people have to be taken into account than in an aristocracy or monarchy.

Epistemically: democracy is more reliable in helping participants to come to the right decision. This is because there are more people in the process of decision making thus more sources of information and critique of the status quo. Thus, democratic decision making tends to be better informed than other forms about the interests of its citizens and the best ways in which to advance those interests.

Morally: because more people are encouraged to enter into the decision making process and are accorded political power, democracy encourages individuals to become more autonomous. In addition, people have to listen to the interests of others, to justify their opinions to others, and to take on other people’s perspectives to see their point of view.

Instrumental Arguments against Democracy

Plato believed that democracy devalued the importance of expertise in well governed societies. Democracy favours those who are expert at winning elections, and gradually this will dominate democratic politics at the expense of other expertise. As such, people in power may not have a clear handle on the different issues politics entails, they will just be good at appealing to the people’s sense of what is wrong or right, and so the state will be guided by poorly thought through ideas and leaders who are expert in manipulation.

Hobbes believed that democracy is inferior to monarchy because democracy fosters a destabilising dissension amongst members of the group. Because it feels that no individual makes a significant impact on the decisions being made, people are apt to not have any sense of responsibility for the quality of legislation in the state. Neither citizens nor politicians are directed toward the common good because they are too busy being manipulated by the process of representation.

Contemporary economic thought expands the Hobbesian criticisms, arguing that the majority of citizens are ill informed about politics and are often apathetic, leaving room for special interests on the part of the representatives to enter into the process of decision making thus furthering themselves rather than the majority. Contemporary economics theorists have also argued for the market to have near complete control over society on the grounds that more democracy has often resulted in serious economic inefficiencies.

Non-Instrumental Values (Intrinsic Arguments)

As well as being evaluated in terms of the outcomes or consequences of having/not having democracy, some people argue that it can be evaluated purely on its own terms i.e. morally desirable independently of it consequences.


Basic principles of democracy are founded on individual liberty; democracy is an extension of individual liberty into the arena of collective decision making.

1. An individual’s life is deeply affected by the larger social, cultural, or legal environment in which she lives.

2. It is only when she has an equal voice and vote that the individual will have some form of control over this larger environment.

§ Democracy is the only method of collective decision making that enables the individual to have a shot at self-government. A right to self-government entails a right to democratic participation. Moreover, the individual also has the right to get things wrong and by extension a group of individuals also have a right to make bad decisions for themselves too.

Whereas the instrumentalist argument would appear to diminish a person’s power in the process of making decisions and not find this morally problematic, the liberty argument points against this and says that our right to control our lives has been violated.

A major difficulty with the liberty argument is that it appears to require complete unanimity or consensus amongst the group with regard to the decision being made for to settle for anything less would be an imposition on an individuals environment that is not compatible with our right to self-government. The rouble is that there is rarely agreement of this strength on the major issues in politics. Decision making processes are supposed to settle matters of disagreement, but it is hard to see how they can do this whilst respecting every single individual’s liberty.

Democracy as Public Justification

The core principle of this approach is that laws and policies are legitimate to the extent that they are publicly justified to the citizens of a community where public justification is the result of free, rational debate amongst equal participants. Democracy is the context within which people give reasons for their decisions.

A major problem with this approach comes when we ask what happens when disagreement remains. A possible response to this is to say that weaker forms of consensus are appropriate for most instances of public justification i.e. there is consensus on general abstract reasons but disagreement about their particular interpretation; or there may be consensus on the list of legitimate reasons available but disagreement about the weight given to each reason.

Another problem presents itself when we ask about the need for consensus for though reasonable consensus among reasonable persons might be achievable, this does not entail actual consensus and there may well be unreasonable members of the community who can reject the terms in which consensus has been legitimated. The notion of reasonable is supposed to be fairly weak on this account and to work on the principle of reciprocity, whereby one only offers principles that others, who restrain themselves in the same way, can accept. Thus individuals are constrained from proposing laws or policies on the basis of controversial principles. One aims at the part of the whole truth that others can accept, and, as such, regulation is in a weaker sense based on overlapping consensus, thus obviating the need for complete consensus on every issue. However, it is still not clear why we should aim at consensus.


Proponents of equality argue that democracy is a good way of treating people as equals when there is a good reason to impose some form of organisation on their lives but they disagree about how best to do it. Democracy is thus a peaceable and fair compromise amongst those with conflicting claims to rule. This argument still falls prey to the argument against liberty, however, for how are we to agree in the first place on the particular form that democracy is to take? If it is by reference to a higher order, does that need to be democratically decided as well? Thus there is potential in this approach for an infinite regress.

Another argument is from the idea that public equality has a great value because all interests are taken into account equally when there is disagreement. Each individual has interests in living in a world that makes some sense to them that accords with their sense of how the social world ought to be structured. The principle of equality entails an equal say in determining common laws and policies under which the individual’s life is structured; if she does not have an equal voice, then she has grounds to claim that she is publicly being treated as inferior. However, there are a number of problems with this view.

1. Majority rule would seem necessary because it is neutral with regard to alternatives in decision-making. Unanimity tends to favour the status quo to the exclusion of persistent minority groups and ultimately the threat of majority tyranny.

2. Is the ideal of equality coherent, in particular in the modern state anyway?


Glossing Heidegger on the Essence of Truth

The Questionworthiness of Our ‘Self-Evident’ Preconceptions Concerning ‘Essence’ and ‘Truth’

When we ask the question ‘what is that?’ we are asking after the essence of the thing. But do we not already know the ‘that’? ‘Indeed, must we not know them in order afterward to ask, and even to give an answer, about what they are?’ Must we not be able to use the word ‘table’ in order to even point to the object, and in so using the word be able to call to mind functional characteristics of the object at the very least? Questions so phrased seem to push us toward an a priori understanding of essence. But what is it about essence itself that makes a thing what it is? The essence is the universal, the common feature, the something in general. And yet, it is precisely in our grasp of the particular that we are able to formulate generalisations. By observing what all particular objects hold in common, we are able to extrapolate and pronounce the class of objects as universals. ‘Thus too,’ Heidegger says, ‘in the case of our question “what is truth?”’

So we unpack our question ‘what is truth’ by asking ‘what is the essence of truth?’ We are already familiar with particular truths – from the mathematical to the observational – but what is the essence of these particular truths? They contain ‘something true’. And wherein is that truth contained? It is in the propositions themselves, such as ‘2+2=4’ or ‘it is cold outside’. Thus, truth consists in the content of propositions corresponding with the facts about which they are saying something. We can verify that 2+2 does equal 4 through a simple calculation, and that it is cold outside by opening a window. And we can generalise these particulars through the maxim: being-true consists in correspondence. ‘So truth is correspondence, grounding in correctness, between proposition and thing’.

This is a quite peculiar situation. For not only do we know particular truths, but it would seem that the question we asked previously on the essence of truth is also answered! Not only do we know the essence of truth, we must necessarily know it for how could we otherwise name truths? ‘We could not otherwise bring forward what is stated and claim it as truth’. Not only do we know the essence of truth (correspondence), we also know the meaning of essence itself (universal) and in what essence consists (essence-hood). So why do we still inquire into the essence of truth? What is intelligible is what is understood by us, through our ability to measure, survey and comprehend a thing’s basic structure. What is intelligible is thus self-evident. But is the maxim ‘truth as correspondence’ really intelligible?

Correspondence is a being-toward the thing; the measure for the proposition consists in the correspondence between it and the thing. So do we not know what and how the thing is about which we speak? ‘Such knowing can only arise from knowledge, and knowledge grasps the true, for false knowledge is no knowledge at all’. What is the true? True is what is known, that which corresponds with the facts. The proposition corresponds with what is known and thus with what is true. So are we then left with the definition: true is correspondence with something corresponding?! And so to leave ourselves open to correspondence ad infinitum? What was the first correspondence? Is it not itself a ‘resemblance’, correspondence under another name? ‘Since everything is discussed in a groundless and formal way, we obtain nothing at all intelligible with the concept of truth as correspondence. What presents itself as self-evident is utterly obscure’.

We began by defining true in terms of propositions. But we also call things and beings true. ‘What does true gold correspond with, if being-true means correspondence?’ True is – in truth! – more ambiguous than we first thought. Are we to conclude that truth means something different in different cases? What then is its proper meaning? Does one usage have priority over another? If neither has priority, must we conclude instead that the common derivation consists in something expressed other than correspondence? ‘Truth as correspondence (characteristic of the proposition) is thus ambiguous, insufficiently delimited in itself or determined in its origins. It is therefore not intelligible, its self-evidence is illusory’.

Before, we defined essence as that which determines particularities in general, ‘in respect of what they are’. Essence is the universal, the what-being. And we applied this definition through the example of things – tables, chairs – quite different indeed from truth. Does it follow that the essence-hood of essence is also quite different in both cases? More pertinently, were we justified in ‘transposing’ our conception of essence-hood in things to truth? Even if we grant that essence-hood is the same in both cases, do we really understand the what-being – the definition of being that is at stake in the case of things and truth? The answer is we don’t understand it, we cannot clarify it, and yet we speak of it in such assured self-evident terms. ‘At bottom, what we are asking about remains unintelligible’.

We have said that we have knowledge of particulars, and that through our knowledge of these particulars as such, we already know the particulars in their essence. Indeed, we held that it is necessary to know the essence of the particulars otherwise we would not be able to recognise particulars at all from within their universal class. But why is it necessary? ‘Is it an accident, simply a fact that we register and submit to? Do we understand the essence-hood of essence if we stand helplessly before this peculiarity? Not at all. Essence and essence-hood are also in this respect unintelligible’.

Even assuming that the essence of truth is as we originally claimed, correspondence between proposition as fact and concerning universals governing particulars, are we really able to take this self-evidence as the ‘foundation for our investigation, as vouching for itself and as something secure and true?’ On what have we secured this understanding, how is self-evidence a guarantee for truth in and of itself? ‘How much has been self-evident and obvious to us humans and yet later turned out to be illusory, the opposite of truth and sound knowledge! Thus our appeal to self-evidence as the guarantee of truth is ungrounded and unintelligible’.

That which is self-evident enters into us without us having to do anything, without us having to actively perceive or take anything on. We find it so. But, and this is the devastating question in the whole piece, who are we then? And why is it that we are the ‘court of appeal’? Is what is self-evident to us really to be taken as the ‘ultimate and primary criterion? We don’t even properly understand what is at stake, let alone why it must be us to arbitrate the debate. ‘Do we know whether in general, within which limits, and with which deficiencies, the self-evident can and may be a standard for human beings? Who tells us who the human being is? Is this not all completely unintelligible?’

And so Heidegger has unraveled what at first seemed unshakeable. I will quote his concluding paragraph in full:

‘We began by defining the essence of truth as correspondence and correctness. This seemed self-evident, and therefore binding. Now, already after a few crude steps, this self-evidence has emerged as thoroughly incomprehensible; the concept of the essence of truth in two respects, the concept of the essence-hood of essence in two respects, the appeal to self-evidence as the measure and guarantee of secure knowledge again in two respects. The seemingly self-evident has become incomprehensible. But this means, in so far as we want to linger over and further examine this incomprehensibility, that is has become worthy of questioning. We must first of all ask how it comes about that we quite naturally move and feel comfortable within such self-evidences. How is it that the apparently self-evident turns out, upon closer examination, to be understood least? Answer: because it is too close to us and because we proceed in this way with everything close. We take care, for example, that this and that is in order, that we come here with pen and exercise book, and that our propositions, if possible, correspond with what we intend and talk about. We know that truth belongs in a certain way to our daily affairs, and we know quite naturally what this means. It lies so close to us that we have no distance from it, and therefore no possibility of having an overall view of it and comprehending it’.



Another device which philosophical liberals use to escape the nitty-gritty of politics is neutrality. Once again, the idea is to set up constitutional procedures, or something like them, to discipline day-to-day political activity: the state aims to be neutral or impartial between different conceptions of the good life, such as political ideologies or religious creeds. Where it can’t avoid taking a position (as, for example, with public policy on abortion, even if the state does nothing), neutralists shift their attention from the policy to the procedures which generate it. Neutrality, which has taken hold as a sort of new-variant liberalism, has claimed a number of prominent victims, including John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, Brian Barry and even Jürgen Habermas.

Glen Newey in the London Review of Books

Book Review: Reading Rorty (ed. Malachowski)

I found this review at this website: http://www.pum.umontreal.ca/revues/surfaces/vol2/szeman.html

It is NOT my own work; I am reposting the article in its entirety as it is about a book I recently finished on Rorty and is thus of interest to both myself and others reading this blog.



Imre Szeman

Alan Malachowski, ed. Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond). (Cambridge, Mass: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 384pp+xiv.

In the final essay of the collection Reading Rorty, Charles Guignon and David Hiley suggest that Richard Rorty’s later writings (his post-Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature output) should be understood as “making explicit the moral and social commitments that have motivated his critique of epistemology-centered philosophy from the outset” (349). Viewing Rorty’s work from this perspective, PMN becomes less the key to his thinking than simply the first cathartic moment in his attempt to “change the subject” (CP xiv). Critical focus on Rorty from within philosophy has long rested on the first two sections of PMN, in which Rorty shatters the mirror of nature and establishes his “epistemological behaviorism” as an alternative. But, if Guignon and Hiley are correct — and I believe that they are — those wishing to understand both the impetus and implications of Rorty’s work would do well to begin with the third section of PMN (paradoxically entitled “Philosophy”). It is here that Rorty decisively abandons philosophy and moves to cultivate the more fertile ground of what in Consequences of Pragmatism will come to be known as “cultural” (CP xl) or “literary criticism” (CP 66). It is not that Rorty does not address himself to philosophical issues after PMN: indeed, he is all too willing to engage with philosophic objections to his work, even while attempting to “forego argumentation” (CP 142). However, Rorty’s importance lies not so much in the minutiae of his philosophical views, views expressed better and less cartoonishly by others, as in the “moral” he presents: that “the attempt to gain objective knowledge of the world, and thus of oneself, [is] an attempt to avoid responsibility for choosing one’s project” (PMN 361).

It is unfortunate, however, that most philosophers, at least as exhibited by this collection, seem not to have /pp. 4-5/ understood the point of this “moral.” Subtitled “Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond),” the essays which Alan Malachowski has gathered together in Reading Rorty tend to focus only on the most traditionally philosophic issues addressed by Rorty in PMN. Those that do not explicitly deal with material in PMN concentrate on those aspects of Rorty’s work most amenable to philosophy in Consequences of Pragmatism, and on his series of “contingency” essays (particularly “The Contingency of Language”). The rest of Rorty’s corpus is consigned to the unexplored, and apparently unimportant, periphery. This lack of attention cannot simply be a matter of too little time having passed for an adequate assessment. PMN is the earliest of Rorty’s post-analytic writings, and so it may seem natural that it would be the work which has attracted the most attention. However, many of the essays contained in Consequences of Pragmatism pre-date PMN, and a large number of the essays in both Contingency, Irony and Solidarity and the two recent volumes of collected papers, Objectivism, Relativism and Truth, and Essays on Heidegger and Others, date back to the early 80’s The focus of the essays in Malachowski’s collection thus suggests a discomfort with all but those issues which philosophers could recognize as rightly their own. With a few notable exceptions — the essays by Charles Taylor and Nancy Fraser — none attempt Rorty’s task of seeing “how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term” (CP xiv) with respect to the body of his own work. This is not a matter of mere quibbling. For a thinker who advocates theoria over philosophy, “taking a view of a large stretch of territory from a considerable distance” (CIS 96) over loving wisdom, some attempt should have been made to assess Rorty’s work theoria-tically as well as philosophically. In focusing so narrowly on the strictly and traditionally philosophical, the essays in this collection not only fail to address the scope of Rorty’s position, but also inadvertently reinforce his description of philosophy as a discipline intractably haunted by the spectres it sees reflected in the mirror of nature.

Setting these general misgivings aside, the essays in this collection effectively, if narrowly, offer philosophical /pp. 5-6/ criticisms of Rorty’s various positions. In the opening essay, Tom Sorrel argues that Rorty misrepresents the notion of objectivity when he suggests that it is talk about “what the world is like in itself”(12). Sorrell argues that a claim of objectivity is simply a suggestion of what kind of world — outside and separate from us — is necessary to account for different subjective representations. This is why not every clash — for example, between Aristotle and Newton — is, in Rorty’s sense, a clash of vocabularies, but rather a clash of theories, i.e., a clash between conceptions of a world independent of us in which there is a clear victor — that theorywhich helps us to advance our knowledge of the world. In “Auto-de-Fe: Consequences of Pragmatism,” Bernard Williams suggests that conversational constraints of the sort exemplified by Habermas’ formulation of an “ideal speech situation” are necessary if the “conversation of mankind” is to be saved from mere anarchy and the rule of the powerful. While analytic philosophy’s may be unable to find criteria by which all discourses might be rendered commensurable, it nonetheless offers an “example of certain virtues of civilized thought” (35) — constraints of rational consistency, explicitness, and clarity – — which are important if “mere rhetoric and the power of words”(35) are not to prevail. In William’s view (a position reiterated by Jo Burrows and Martin Hollis), Rorty cannot then so simply abandon philosophy if he hopes to keep a liberal, post-philosophical culture intact. It is, for Williams, “excessively optimistic” to suppose that without the constraints exemplified by philosophy, liberal “traditions of open-mindedness and receptiveness to new considerations” will necessarily be sustained (35).

Jennifer Hornsby’s “Descartes, Rorty, and the Mind-Body Mind” argues that Rorty overstates his objection to the “mind” by focusing only on the phenomenal items of the mind (“raw feels,” pain, etc.), thereby failing to account for intentional items. This leaves room for at least a limited concept of the mind, since “resistance to a Cartesian view of the mind need not be resistance to the whole phenomenon of the mind, but only to a conception of the mental informed by a particular view of what the natural world can contain” (56). John Yolton, while not disagreeing with Rorty’s depiction of philosophy’s fascination with the mirror of /pp. 6-7/ nature, wishes to defend Descartes and Locke against those stereotypes which suggest that they originated the view of the mind as a mirror. What has been forgotten, Yolton asserts, is that talk of mirrors, blank tablets, camera obscura, etc, were for Descartes and Locke metaphors used “in lieu of an existing psychology vocabulary” (69). Gerald Vision, David Houghton and Michael Clark offer challenges to Rorty’s views on correspondence and reference, and Donald Davidson and W.V. Quine provide essays intended as correctives to Rorty’s idiosyncratic appropriation of their views. As Malachowski writes in his introduction, the “general worry” that all these authors share is that “the issues raised by the sort of philosophy Rorty attacks are not the sort of issues which can simply be dropped from the intellectual menu” (6).They thus unsurprisingly end with the common suggestion that their particular criticisms of Rorty reinforce the need for philosophy. Yet, by capturing too small a slice of what he says, and by failing to clarify how the particular points they make frustrate Rorty’s anti-philosophical message, none of these essays offer either an adequate defense of philosophy or a serious criticism of Rorty’s position as a whole.

A powerful critique of Rorty’s stance toward philosophy is, however, offered by Charles Taylor. In “Rorty in the Epistemological Tradition,” Taylor suggests that Rorty’s efforts to reject the epistemological tradition remain ineluctably trapped within this tradition. Taylor argues that Rorty has developed a “global ex ante” theory of knowledge which decides- -without appeal to particular cases – — that alterative vocabularies are necessarily “mutually immune to refutation” (268). For Taylor, such a theory arises from the fact that Rorty, as much as he would wish to deny it, is still commanded by a (roughly) Kantian epistemological framework. Rorty’s challenge to philosophy, and his consequent suggestion that a number of incommensurable vocabularies can exist side-by-side, rests on the supposition that since we can no longer assume that there are things-in-themselves to arbitrate different views, then it is possible that all views may be fundamentally incompatible. Taylor also offers a perceptive diagnosis of a problem which troubles a number of the contributors to this /pp. 7-8/ collection. Michael Clark identifies this problem as the “fundamental paradox of pragmatism”: “if it is right, then how can we know, how can Rorty be so sure it is right” (181)? Taylor describes this paradox as a case in which the “meta-issue” — for Rorty, the fact that alternative vocabularies are incommensurable — is made to be an instance of its own undecidability. As with Descartes’ establishment of a method of certainty whose certainty can itself only be guaranteed by the method, so, too, for Rorty, the pragmatic celebration of contingency renders this celebration contingent itself. Taylor argues that in any theory, the meta- issue should be decided upon before it is turned back upon itself. Otherwise, as Clark points out, “applied to itself, his [Rorty’s] pragmatism is self-defeating. And by what divine right does it escape self-application?” (181)

It is the essays by Jacek Holöwka and Martin Hollis which begin to reveal the essential tensions at the core of Rorty’s project. Both suggest that Rorty’s “epistemological behaviorism” and his concern with self-creation are positions that are fundamentally at odds. In “Philosophy and the Mirage of Hermeneutics,” Holöwka points out that because a strong behaviorist theory threatens the idea of “choice” in the sense in which this is normally understood, Rorty “cannot have the atoms-and-the-void theory which explains everything and also say that you have reality-under-a-certain-description” (191), a suggestion echoed by Jane Heal in “Pragmatism and Choosing to Believe.” Hollis makes much the same point in “The Poetics of Personhood,” suggesting that “active spinners” are required for the spinning of a web-of-belief. Epistemological behaviorism, however, allows spinning only in the “passive voice” (247). This passivity means as well that Rorty’s behaviorism negates the import he appears to place on moral choice with regards to such matters as distinguishing between better and worse communities, one’s solidarity to one’s community, and the proclivity to limit cruelty. Holöwka raises the further point that since any predictive model based on epistemological behaviorism would be both impossibly complex and open in any particular instance to easy falsification, that such a theory, rather than eliminating cruder, more clumsy models of the mind, in fact reinforces their necessity (192-3). Such a model of the mind need not be of the /pp. 8-9/ “glassy essence” sort, but could be the models used (for example) in psychoanalysis, clinical psychology or neurology (193). However, it seems to me that the suggestion that there is an essential tension between self-creation and epistemological behaviorism is somewhat misplaced. Why, for example, could choice not be the outcome of an extremely complex set of behavioristic conditions and still retain the quality of a “free” choice? That it could not seems to be a more a matter of philosophy’s historical framing of this question as a choice between an atoms-and-void description of things or the possibility of free will, as opposed to something essential to the character of choice.[1] Holöwka and Hollis are wrong, then, to point out that there is something inherently contradictory in a view which simultaneously suggests the possibility of the scientific prediction and control of human beings, and yet insists on celebrating their autonomy and individuality.

In many ways, the task of reconciling epistemological behaviorism and self-creation nonetheless dominates — if in a modified form — Rorty’s latest work. The concern is no longer to bridge epistemological behaviorism and self-creation (indeed,it may be said that for Rorty this never was a concern), but to reconcile the seemingly disparate realms of public solidarity — epistemological behaviorism reflected into the social- -and private self-creation. Rorty values the romantic ethic of private self-creation as exemplified in the work of poets and revolutionary thinkers. It is these romantic figures who, in an attempt to evade /pp. 9-10/ description by the vocabularies of their communities, struggle to create new vocabularies which capture their particular, idiosyncratic, “lading lists,” thereby ensuring that they are not simply “dying animals.” It is also the romantic who, by creating new vocabularies, acts as the motor of historical change: the vocabularies in which they redescribe themselves, provide the ever evolving terms in which “we” might similarly attempt to redescribe ourselves as more than simply members of a pack. Rorty is wary, however, of the fact that private self- creation, untempered by a sense of social solidarity, is susceptible to political excesses which may become cruel, harmful, or even fascistic. So his task becomes the articulation of a romantic impulse which is also liberal, democratic, and pragmatic, without these social elements dulling the sharpness of the romantic’s “ironism” — her sense that the terms in which she describes herself are always open to change.

Nancy Fraser’s essay, “Solidarity or Singularity? Richard Rorty between Romanticism and Technocracy,” examines the ways in which Rorty has attempted to reconcile these “romantic” and “pragmatic” impulses present in his writing. Fraser identifies three stages in this attempted reconciliation. In the first, “invisible-hand” stage, the romantic impulse fosters liberal values such as kindness and decency (307). By disenchanting the world, romanticism promotes tolerance and social justice. However, since “there is no logical entailment between anti- essentialism and loyalty to one’s society” (308) (the worry expressed earlier by Burrows, Hollis and Williams), Fraser suggests that Rorty, in his “sublimity or decency” stage, comes to wonder whether romanticism can in fact be compatible with decency. Solidarity involves affiliation to a community; romanticism, on the other hand, is a parasitic, selfish disaffiliation which might lead to elitism and cruelty. It would seem, then, that ultimately a choice must be made between the romantic and the pragmatic. Rather than choose between them, however, Rorty assigns these impulses to different spheres: the private and the public. In this third, “partition” stage, self-creation and solidarity need not be inextricable opposites, so long as we remember that “when irony goes public, it gets into trouble” (311).

/pp. 10-11/

As both Fraser and Jo Burrows point out, the division of pragmatism and romanticism into public and private has the unintended effect, pace Rorty, of reducing vocabularies and silencing the “conversation.” This is due to the fact that for Rorty “radical thought” — political theory influenced by Marx, Adorno, Althusser, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, etc. — “has no political implications” (311). Any use of these radical thinkers, and others like Heidegger and Nietzsche, is confined by Rorty to the private realm of self-creation: the romantic goals of self- invention may be appropriate to individuals, but if applied to societies may result in a “political attitude” in which we come to think that “there is some social goal more important than avoiding cruelty” (CIS 65). This limitation of radical thought de- politicizes both culture and theory, for in Rorty’s schema “there can only be apolitical ironist theory and atheoretical reformist practice” (314). It also means that “non-liberal, oppositional discourse” (315) becomes by definition non-political as well, representing either a retreat from solidarity or a political position which is hopelessly metaphysical. For Fraser, Rorty’s strict distinction between public and private rules out many of the features we might want to preserve in our social and political landscape. For example, the public/private division does not permit there to be a political (as opposed to a private) impetus for the creation of new vocabularies, a place for communities (as opposed to individuals) which might have non- liberal vocabularies, and the possibility of political assessments in terms other than Rorty’s own peculiar blend of pragmatism and liberalism. It also fails to note that much of what liberalismhas historically considered to be private (the economic, the domestic, the medical, the educational, etc.) has, as a result of radical thinkers, been shown also to be power-laden and political, and thus public as well (312). There are good grounds, then, for Burrows’ view of Rorty as a liberal-apologist peddling liberal-ideology. As she suggests, “despite gestures toward ‘openness,’ ‘pluralism,’ ‘sensitivity to persuasion,’ and so on, the liberal set-up as apologized for by Rorty does not cater for the political contender” (332). It is thus not at all clear that liberalism of the sort Rorty describes is in fact the best pragmatic option available given current historical circumstances. Rorty’s “partition” solution to problem of bringing together the romantic and pragmatic appears to /pp. 11-12/ endanger the evolution of social solidarity more than it extends “our sense of ‘we’ to people we have previously though of as ‘they”‘ (CIS 192). However, if we view Rorty’s public/private distinction as a concrete, political suggestion as opposed to a theory of the political – — that is, as “policing” rather than depoliticizing culture and theory – — the criticisms offered by Fraser and Burrows seem to be somewhat immaterial.

Fraser and Burrows locate Rorty’s difficulty in reconciling the romantic and the pragmatic on the side of the political. If there is anything which problematizes this rapprochement, however, I think one has to look beyond the ideology of Rorty’s comfortably liberal, frankly ethnocentric politics, to his benign treatment of irony, and thus of the romantic temperment as well. Rorty underestimates the eroding power of the irony he associates with romantic intellectuals. Irony places the intellectual in a position that Rorty, following Sartre, calls “meta-stable” — a position in which intellectuals are “never quite able to take themselves seriouly because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, [they are] always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies and thus of their selves” (CIS 73-4). There are two difficulties with such a view. One is touched upon by Bernard Williams when he suggests that Rorty “neglects the question whether one could accept his account of various intellectual activities, and still continue to practice them” (29).

How, or why, could an ironist — always aware of the impermanence of every vocabulary — ever be beguiled enough by any particular vocabulary to allow it to become her vocabulary, for whatever brief period of time? The second difficulty lies in the fact that the ironist’s doubt concerning the limitations of her own vocabulary is a doubt which quickly becomes all-consuming: irony turns on irony, meta-stability becomes radical instability. This is not to deny Rorty’s historicist point that “a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought to be worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance” (CIS 189). It is to ask, however, whether the ironist belongs among such people. In being /pp. 12-13/ consumed by irony, in becoming completely ironic, the ironist displaces herself from concern with practical beliefs. To be an ironist means to be paralysed when it comes to the pragmatic activity demanded in one’s involvement in the liberal state. This more threatening, less benign sense of irony that I have been discussing here, is described by Paul de Man (who should know) in “The Rhetoric of Temporality”:

Irony divides the flow of temporal existence into a pastthat is pure mystification and a future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the unauthentic. It can know this unauthenticity but can never overcome it. It can only restate and repeat it on an increasingly conscious level, but it remains endlessly caught in the impossibility of making this knowledge applicable to the empirical world. It dissolves in the narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign that becomes more and more remote from its meaning, and it can find no escape from this spiral (de Man, 222).

Rorty’s view of irony shares many features with de Man’s. Like de Man, irony for Rorty occupies a temporally mediate place between mystification (the old vocabulary) and the knowledge that no new vocabulary will ever serve as an authentic one (though Rorty, unlike de Man, would be uncomfortable in describing this place in terms of “mystification” and “authenticity”). Irony is for Rorty also inapplicable to the “empirical world”: it must remain confined to the private lest it overstep its bounds. For Rorty, the inability to apply irony to the public sphere is a condition of irony; for de Man, however, irony’s empirical impotence arises from the ironist’s obsessive pre-occupation with her inability to take any decisive action which would ever be more than purely and radically contingent. Unlike Rorty, de Man suggests, then, that irony cannot simply be “turned off” once one wishes to abandon the role of the romantic and join the world of pragmatic activity. For,

at the very moment that irony is thought of as knowledge able to order and cure the world, the source of its invention immediately runs dry. The instant it construes /pp. 13-14/ the fall of the self as an event that could somehow benefit the self, it discovers that it has substituted death for madness (de Man, 218).

If we accept this more threatening, less benign reading of irony, then it does not seem as if one could be a pragmatist by day and a romantic ironist by night. This is not to say that we cannot express scepticism about our vocabularies, or worry that we might have been born into the wrong tribe. What distinguishes “the urbane, sceptical person in a liberal society, who simply asserts things like: ‘Everything is relative”‘ (327) from the ironist is not this healthy scepticism, but the fact that when we discuss the ironist — those brilliant, neurotic individuals who go about redescribing themselves — we usually do so with the added caveat that while they might be nice to visit, we would not want to be them — individuals trapped and confined by contingency, as opposed to gaining freedom through and by means of it.

Rorty’s work is, if anything, a call to free ourselves through an understanding of the contingency of our beliefs, histories, and communities — the contingency of the web of beliefs which makes us the kind of selves we are. This includes, most importantly for Rorty, freeing ourselves of philosophy, an activity which opposes and fears contingency. It is only by accepting contingency, after all, that we can take up the romanticist task of re-fashioning ourselves for ourselves, and not in reference to some ideal standing outside and above us. As I have tried to suggest above, this ironic reshaping may be, as genius is, to “madness near allied,” and is thus perhaps a difficult task to imagine as the aim of intellectual activity. And yet, if there is anything which is lacking in Reading Rorty, it is precisely a lack of such madness, a refusal to be drawn — however slightly, however briefly – — out of philosophy and into the difficult terrain of self-description. It is this failure to reflect on the activity of philosophy, and the unproblematic insistence on doing “business as usual,” which marks in these essays the failure of philosophy to engage, however Iimitedly, with the main impetus behind Rorty’s thought.

/pp. 14-15/

Imre Szeman

Department of Comparative Literature

SUNY at Buffalo

/pp. 15-16/

Surface Page d’Acceuil/Home Page

Works Cited

de Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” Blindness and Insight. Second, revised ed. Theory and History of Literature 7. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1983), 187-228.

Dennett, Daniel C. “Self-Made Selves.” Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Ch. 4. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1984), 74- 100.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1979), (PMN).

. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: (U of Minnesota Press, 1982), (CP).

. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989), (CIS).

/p.16 /

[1]See, for example, Dennett 1984. Dennett contests the view that “if we are mere conduits of causation…we cannot also be agents” (76). That we are such conduits seems to suggest that we are “mere dominoes” rather than “moral agents.” As Dennett points out, however, unlike dominoes, we are conduits of causation that are capable of significant self-improvement, have an “open-ended capacity for ‘radical self-evaluation’,” and have the “property of being caused to have reliable expectations about what will happen next, and hence to have the capacity to control things” (100). For Dennett, the view that causation and moral agency are fundamentally at odds stems from “our taking a good idea, the idea of the self as a unitary and cohering point of view on the world, and pushing it too far under the pressure.

Truth as One: A Reading of Michael Lynch

Truth as One

The Correspondence Theory of Truth is held as the realist position because it takes seriously the claim that there is one objective world about which we can have objective knowledge. The Objectivity Truism is at its heart, whether it be Plato, Aristotle or contemporary theorists who are writing from that perspective and it is commonly objected to on the grounds that the theory is vacuous, merely restating a platitude and consequently adding nothing to truth as such. Today, Correspondence has grown or developed into Representationalism. It is manifest in disciplines beyond the boundaries of philosophy, such as cognitive neuroscience, which holds that the mind represents the world and that beliefs are the vehicles of representation.

Representationalism can be traced back to early Wittgenstein and Russell in the early twentieth century; for these philosophers, correctly represented beliefs are ‘true’ beliefs, a la correspondence theory. True beliefs represent facts, which are in turn constituted by objects and/or properties, thus facts, importantly, are not metaphysically distinct from objects or properties. What is the element of the belief which represents the object or property? Concepts: these are the ‘components’ of belief. And thus we have contemporary naturalistic representationalism.

Representationalism is essentially a two-part theory of truth. In the first element, the truth of a belief is defined in terms of the representational features of its component concepts. Hence the representationalist’s basic intuition that beliefs are true because their components stand in certain representational relations to reality, and that reality is a certain way. This basic intuition can then be applied to more complex propositions. The second element is a theory of how concept denote objects or properties. For some, such a theory is explanatorily trivial in that all a theory of denotation amounts to saying is:

<c> denotes x iff c = x

Contemporary philosophers, however, regard a theory of denotation as a substantive issue, claiming that denotation can be explained naturalistically, in the same way as psychology provides an explanation of perception. There are, briefly, two theories of denotation: causal and teleological. The former prioritises appropriate conditions whilst the latter prioritises the biological/evolutionary function. In essence, both can be thought of as a framing hypothesis for naturalistically investigating mental representation.

Both the causal and teleological theories can be combined with a model of representation to give a representational theory of truth that not only incorporates truisms as part of the theory, but also offers an explanation of those truisms:

(CC) Causal-correspondence: The belief that a is F is true iff the object causally mapped by <a> has the property causally mapped by <F>

(TC) Teleological correspondence: The belief that a is F is true iff the object functionally mapped by <a> has the property functionally mapped by <F>

Another criticism of the representationalist’s position is about the possibility of unbelieved truths; for example, is it possible that a proposition is true or false if there is no possibility of discovering warrant for the proposition? In answer to this objection, one could go the way of Donald Davidson and dismiss the significance of them altogether, for nothing would be true or false if there were no thinking creatures. On the other hand, if you want to take the objection seriously, representationalists can argue for a subjunctive bi-conditional (norm of belief), such as:

(UB): The proposition that p is true iff were the proposition that p to be believed, the belief would be true

Representationalism also helps us to answer other interesting questions such as: why is truth an aim of inquiry? Answer: a truth making property is regulative of any practice aimed at belief; inquiry aims at truth because true beliefs are those that correctly represent the way the world is. The representationalist’s theory of truth is also a component part of a relatively simple way to explain interesting phenomena like intentionality. On this theory, truth is reductively explained in terms of an internal connection with representation. As such, platitudes have to be combined with concepts like represent/causal in order to give an informative an explanatorily interesting account of the nature of truth. Overall, we can conclude that representationalism is a successor theory of truth to older correspondence theories of truth and, far from being a decrepit topic in metaphysics, representationalism is taken seriously beyond the boundaries of philosophical discourse including in the scientific realm.

There are, nonetheless, particular problems with representationalism. The first of these is the problem of scope. TC and CC are only plausible in the case of ‘middle sized dry goods’ [Lynch, p.32], that is where we can make a statement that is responsive to the action of <F>. Responsiveness is plausible if mental states with a certain content <G> are causally responsive to an external environment that contains this content <G>, hence the conclusion that truth or falsity rests on the correct assertion of the proposition and the content matching that proposition. Responsiveness is not so plausible if the states or content are not causally responsive, that is, if there isn’t enough <G> to make the content of the proposition correct. Thus, some other account of what makes these statements true comes into play.

As it turns out, Lynch argues, the representationalist is committed to two further conditions. First, that true beliefs map objects that exist and have mind-independent properties (realist position). Second, that objects and properties that are so mapped are capable of entering into at least indirect causal interaction with our minds (causation position). Thus, because of these additional commitments, the scope problem arises because it seems highly implausible that all of our true propositions can fulfil the conditions demanded. For example, in the case of mathematical or moral truths such as ‘2+2=4’ or ‘torture is wrong’, how do our minds interact with numbers? How is wrongness a natural property? Even if we reject (2), non-naturalist correspondence theorists are still committed to the concept of mind independence, but how is that legal facts, for example, are mind-independent when they are the paradigmatic mental construction?

Various ‘isms’ have been constructed in order to deal with the scope problem, such as expressivism, fictionalism and error theory (not an ism, fair enough, but you get the point). But for Lynch, the sheer fact that these are even necessary points to the seriousness of the criticism and, moreover, it isn’t clear that any of the modifications have sufficiently overcome it. Thus, ‘the more substantive the correspondence theory becomes – as when it is seen as part of a larger theory of representation – the more it is vulnerable to the scope problem, and the less plausible it is as a universal theory of truth’ [Lynch, p.35-6].

On the opposite side of the ring, we have antirepresentationalism and superwarrant. For early twentieth century thinkers such as C.S. Peirce, truth is defined as the End of Inquiry, that is: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to be all who investigate is what we mean by truth”. For the representationalists, what is true is so because something makes it true. For Peirce and the pragmatists, what is true is so because we agree upon it. In contemporary philosophy, Putnam has expanded upon the early antirepresentationalist intuitions through a theory of internal realism that claims that a proposition that p is true if the proposition that p could be warranted to believe in ideal epistemic circumstances for assessing the proposition that p. Positive aspects of Putnam’s account include his use of the subjunctive to get around having to claim the actuality of ideal epistemic circumstances, and that circumstances are not global but tailormade for each particular beliefs.

There are, however, some negatives, in particular the ‘conditional fallacy’. Crispin Wright has posited ‘superassertability’ to overcome this problem, or the ‘superwarrant’:

(SW) Superwarrant: A belief is true iff it is superwarranted

The benefits of SW are that it negates entirely the concept of ‘ideal’ epistemic conditions, since a belief is warranted by the information available at that present time to ordinary inquirers. Thus to be superwarranted is to be continually warranted at each stage of inquiry without defeat. Disagreements still arise amongst defenders of superwarrant, for example: is inquiry strongly incomplete? What is the nature of warrant? In answer to the latter question, defenders might align themselves with a coherence theory of truth, thus SW becomes SC: A belief that p is true iff that belief is supercoherent.

Other positive aspects include being able to incorporate the objectivity truism into the theory, if one is accepting of two further platitudes: 1) when I believe that p, things are as I believe them to be iff p; 2) the metaphysical view of idealism: p iff the belief that p is superwarranted. Moreover, it entails an attractively simple theory of content, which both explains how we grasp content and how we manifest that grasp in our behaviour.

Antirepresentationalism falls prey to the scope problem, though obviously for different reasons than did representationalism, for (SW) both requires that all content is non-representational and implies that truth is globally epistemically constrained. Now, in the case of some normative truths such as what is deemed to be ‘funny’, or legal truths, epistemic constraint seems plausible, for why would there be a truth for something if no one could ever be warranted in believing it? On the other hand, epistemic constraint becomes implausible when we try to apply it across the board: there must be some truths for which no evidence will be available on principle. Lynch refers to this as ‘humility in the face of the size of the universe [which] seems to demand that’ [Lynch, p.43]. But SW would force us to deny this, therefore resulting in the ‘absurd consequence’ that one must argue that all truths are justifiably believed by someone, or face admitting that the theory is limited in scope.

A second criticism results in a similarly absurd consequence; the ‘many systems objection’, which was pre-empted by Russell, argues that there could be more than one supercoherent system but SW has no way of showing us why two instance of P could not be members of rival systems. Even if one were to argue that supercoherence is predicated on propositions that are undefeasible – even from challenges from rival systems – defenders are still only able to say of one system of belief that it is primary ‘just because it says of itself that is so’: an absurd consequence. The antirepresentationalist faces two options: she can either restate the claim that what make <F> true is that it is a member of S (which leads to absurdity through not answering the many systems criticism) OR she can accept that propositions are not true in virtue of being members of S (which means abandoning coherence as a theory of truth altogether). Thus, there is no way to give an account of warrant apart from one that goes ‘all the way down’ and results in these problems.

The net result is that Lynch can now cite the scope problem as ‘entirely general’: ‘for any sufficiently characterised truth property <F>, there appears to be some kind of propositions <K> which lack <F> but which are intuitively true (or capable of being true)’ [Lynch, p.49]. The scope problem paves the way for Lynch to bring in his third alternative to dealing with the problem. Whilst the traditionalists ‘go for broke’ and damn the counterexamples, and the deflationists dismiss the whole project of a metaphysical account of truth altogether, functionalists argues that there can be more than one property that makes beliefs true. This is the third way that Lynch argues for throughout the rest of his book.



Philosophy as Literature?


I just came across this conclusion from Michael Fisher in a collection of essays about Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. As a former literature student, I found it to be quite interesting. How do other people feel about Rorty’s attempt to align philosophy with literature?

Despite Rorty’s considerable interest in literature, he still allows philosophy to decide its fate. Even when literature succeeds in Rorty’s argument – when it presides in triumph over the rest of our culture – literature does not win; philosophy defaults. Literature is less a force in Rorty’s argument than an inert category, represented by a list of titles and names that Rorty’s theory gives him no reason to analyse. Instead of doing constructive work in Rorty’s writings, literature, like a junk yard, just sits there, waiting to claim philosophical texts that cannot achieve what they set out accomplish. Rorty’s point, in short, is not that literature is cognitive, serious, powerful and responsible, but that philosophy (without admitting it) is like literature: imprecise, capricious and methodologically dishevelled. Instead of strengthening literature, Rorty leaves it impotent, which is why, among the consequences of Rorty’s pragmatism, I do not find a convincing rationale for literary study.