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]


Book Review: Reading Rorty (ed. Malachowski)

I found this review at this website:

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.

Review of Pragmatism: A Reader


Vulgar Rortyism

by Susan Haack

Review of Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand

How quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals.
—Saul Bellow

Perhaps you know the old joke about the soldiers passing a message down the line— first man to second, “send reinforcements, we’re going to advance”; next-to-last man to last, “send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance.” Well, the history of pragmatism is like that—only more so.

C. S. Peirce, working scientist, pioneer of modern logic, and founder of pragmatism, envisaged a reformed, scientific philosophy which would use “the most rational methods it can devise, for finding out the little that can as yet be found out about the universe of mind and matter from those observations which every person can make in every hour of his waking life.” His philosophy was informed by the pragmatic maxim, identifying the meaning of a concept with “the conceivable practical consequences,—that is, the consequences for deliberate, self-controlled conduct,—of the affirmation or denial of the concept.” Peircean pragmatism is “prope-positivism,” but, unlike the narrower positivism of Auguste Comte, “instead of merely jeering at metaphysics, … extracts from it a precious essence.”

Richard Rorty, most influential of contemporary self-styled neo-pragmatists, proposes a revolutionary shift in which the metaphysical and epistemological territory at the traditional center of philosophy is abandoned and not re-occupied; the old preoccupation with method and argument is given up as we acknowledge that “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones”; and philosophy disassociates itself from science and remakes itself as a genre of literature.

Peirce urged that philosophy be undertaken with the “scientific attitude,” from the “Will to Learn,” a genuine desire to discover the truth—which “is SO … whether you or I or anybody thinks it is so or not.” But Rorty tells us he does “not have much use for notions like … ‘objective truth’”; to call a statement true “is just to give it a rhetorical pat on the back.” It would take serious inquiry to discover what is conducive to the interests of society, Peirce points out, declaring himself one of “that class of scalawags who purpose … to look the truth in the face, whether doing so be conducive to the interests of society or not.” But Rorty tells us that pragmatists see philosophy as “in the service of democratic politics.” Peirce wanted to “rescue the good ship Philosophy for the service of Science from the hands of the lawless rovers of the sea of literature.” But Rorty tells us that “philosophy is best seen as a kind of writing.”

Does Louis Menand, editor of the new anthology Pragmatism: A Reader, try to help us understand how this extraordinary transmutation of pragmatism came about, or attempt a sober assessment of the old message and the new?[1] Hardly. His purpose is to promote a Rortyesque neo-pragmatism.

Menand’s “pragmatism” is “an effort to unhitch human beings from what pragmatists regard as a useless structure of bad abstractions”; the idea that “what people believe to be true is just what they think it is good to believe to be true”; that “the whole force of a philosophical account of anything … lies in the advertised [sic] consequences of accepting it”; that “if we do what is right, the metaphysics will take care of themselves.” Rortyism is vulgar pragmatism; this is vulgar Rortyism.

Rorty dismisses Peirce as having merely given pragmatism its name. Menand offers his readers, for all the world as if it were the full authoritative story, a slanted history of a Rortyesque “pragmatism” founded by William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, continued by John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, and gloriously revived by Rorty’sPhilosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

But when James introduced pragmatism to the philosophical world in 1898, he described it as “the principle of Peirce,” first enunciated “at Cambridge, in the early 70’s.” So Menand discounts both Peirce’s and James’s direct testimony: “James was, characteristically, doing a favor for a friend”; Peirce, already largely forgotten in the philosophical world, deceived himself about his own role in hopes of jumping on the pragmatist bandwagon James had set rolling. In fact, Menand assures us, the evidence that there even was a Metaphysical Club in Cambridge—where Peirce claimed he introduced the key ideas of pragmatism —“is thin.”

On the contrary, the evidence is that Peirce’s recollection was quite accurate.[2] Pointless nitpicking, Menand would reply; for “James and Holmes (and … Chauncey Wright and Nicholas St. John Green …) had already formulated what is distinctively pragmatic in their views before 1872. Peirce may have given James the name, but he could not have given him the idea.” Menand has, however, conveniently omitted from his list of “classic pragmatist essays” Peirce’s articles in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy for 1868–9, which Richard J. Bernstein rightly describes as the first articulation of the key anti-foundationalist themes of the pragmatist tradition.

And Menand’s grip on “the idea” of pragmatism is feeble at best. Sometimes he runs pragmatism together with James’s doctrine of the Will to Believe. But both Peirce and Dewey repudiated this doctrine, and James himself, in a letter to Horace Kallen, struggled to distinguish it from pragmatism. Nor, apparently, is Menand aware of the differences between Peirce’s logical, realist conception of pragmatism and James’s more psychological, nominalist conception—nor of James’s uncomprehending and disturbingly uncharitable reaction to Peirce’s 1903 Harvard lectures articulating Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking.

After cutting Peirce out of the pragmatist family portrait, Menand cheerfully caricatures James and Dewey as Rorty’s philosophical ancestors—fudging James’s pluralistic metaphysics into a trendy cultural pluralism, for example, and Dewey’s concept of experience into culture. Who would dream, from Menand’s account, of James’s assurance that “pragmatism has no objection … to … abstractions, so long as … they actually carry you somewhere,” and that “when … we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself”? Who would guess that Dewey, noting how deeply social Peirce’s theory of inquiry was, had described Peirce as “more of a pragmatist than James”?

Yes, but is this a good anthology with an infuriating introduction, you will be asking, or what? In brief, “what.” Surprisingly, Menand includes quite a lot of Peirce—two pages, even, from those 1868–9 papers criticizing the Cartesian philosophy. But his selections are too scrappy to give readers much sense of that remarkable mind. Mead is here, and Hilary Putnam, and the paper of Bernstein’s cited earlier. But there is nothing from Ramsey, C. I. Lewis, White, Quine, Goodman, Rescher—too analytic, perhaps; nothing from Sidney Hook; nothing from Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional/ triadic theory of reading, with its themes from Dewey and Peirce.

Even from the perspective of his own skewed history of pragmatism, Menand doesn’t do a good job. He includes more from Peirce than from Holmes, and nothing from Holmes indicative of anything like Peirce’s philosophical horsepower; nothing from Wright or Green; nothing from F. C. S. Schiller—whom Bertrand Russell described as the “literary protagonist of pragmatism,” and who misread James in some of the same ways as Rorty; nothing from Kallen, Alain Locke or Randolph Bourne, to whom Menand credits the shift from metaphysical to cultural pluralism; a long paper of Rorty’s on Jacques Derrida (where the only connection with classical pragmatism is that James’s name is dropped once, amid scores of others), but nothing from Rorty’s Introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism, nor anything from Rorty after 1983. Nor, despite Rorty’s breezy observation that “it suits my purposes to define pragmatism as the attempt to do something Davidson approves of,” is there anything from Donald Davidson. (And a reader wanting to fill such gaps will not find Menand’s bibliography much help.)

The priority is to make room for “pragmatist” writings from other disciplines: e.g., Richard Poirier reminiscing about “Hum. 6” at Amherst College; Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels urging the impossibility of a theory of literary interpretation; Richard Posner on legal “pragmatism”– including this gem: “If there is no objective truth, … this makes it all the more important to maintain the conditions necessary for the unforced inquiry required to challenge and defeat all those false claims to have found the truth”; Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob seeking “a philosophical grounding compatible with” their advocacy of “the democratic practice of history.” Perhaps this bit of revisionary philosophy of history—quite a come-down from Dewey’s long-winded but sometimes subtle and savvy reflections on democracy earlier in the book—is included by way of justification for Menand’s revisionary history of philosophy.

Presumably, Menand’s selections were made in the spirit of his fulsome admiration for Rorty’s self-transformation from professional philosopher to “intellectual,” no longer relying on a paradigm but on his genius. The fuzziness of Rorty’s contrast of “pragmatism” versus “professional philosophy” serves Menand well. Though the range of Peirce’s thought, as well as its depth, was enormously greater than Rorty’s, and Peirce’s brief career at Johns Hopkins ended in disaster, he can be dismissed—his pragmatism became “quite technical.” Like Rorty, Menand can’t, or won’t, distinguish between necessary, useful technicality, and jargon or pseudo-mathematics substituting for genuine rigor; nor between the laudable goal of broadening philosophy professors’ intellectual horizons beyond the narrow confines of the Journal of Philosophy, and the intoxicating illusion that “I don’t see why we need/how we can have a theory of ——” constitutes a real contribution to our understanding of ——.

The “pragmatism” Menand admires is not only anti-philosophical; it is also, though more covertly, profoundly anti-intellectual. Repudiating the idea that beliefs are objectively true or false, evidence objectively better or worse, Rortyism induces a factitious despair of the possibility of real inquiry of any kind, misprizes the truths that literature can teach us, and undermines the hope of knowing what would truly improve the condition of society.

The cover design—a book, largely destroyed, with “PRAGMATISM” printed on the remains—makes this covert anti-intellectualism clearer than Menand is willing to do. He seems pleased that “pragmatism … suggest[s] that the real work of the world is being done somewhere other than in philosophy departments”; but leaves it conveniently unclear where he thinks that real work is being done—in departments of literature, history, etc.? in the pages of the TLSThe New York Review of Books, and such? in the real world?

Rorty, in Menand’s judgment, “is a far more exciting writer than Dewey, and his work has served for many people as a model for the kind of wide-ranging engagement with art, ideas, and public affairs that pragmatism might make possible.” Perhaps unaware of Mussolini’s enthusiasm for a “pragmatism” subordinating intellectual life to politics, Menand seems to take for granted that such engagement would inevitably be benign.

And, while his biographical notes on Dewey mention Dewey’s work with Jane Addams’s settlement house, in the founding of the ACLU, on the commission to investigate Stalin’s charges against Trotsky, his notes on Rorty mention only academic books and honors; as do his notes on Cornel West, who, however, tells us that “prophetic pragmatists” like himself are different from those “traditional intellectuals … comfortably nested in the academy.” The effect—presumably unintended, and for all I know quite unfair—will surely be to put some readers in mind of James’s shrewd words about the “nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.”

But I’m not worried about those readers, the ones with the discernment and determination to winnow out the good stuff from the rest. Though hoping against hope that Peirce was wrong that “in the matter of ideas the public prefer the cheap and nasty,” I worry about the readers, especially the students, who will naïvely suppose that Menand has fairly represented what is worthwhile in the tradition of classical pragmatism—and conclude that that tradition is worthless, or, even worse, that vulgar Rortyism is what we should learn from it. It’s a shame.

Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind

Mike Fuller discusses the liberalism of Richard Rorty.

I have to admit that I find Richard Rorty one of the most interesting contemporary thinkers. I like his easygoing, conversational style (although as Norman Geras observes it can sometimes lead Rorty into being evasive and fudging over some key issues). I admire him for being one of the few contemporary philosophers with the ambition – and also the talent and the scholarship – to force a dialogue between Analytic and Continental philosophy. Perhaps most important of all, I find, provisionally at least, his epistemological conclusions immaculate, although hispragmatic arguments for a thoroughgoing naturalist metaphysic (his so-called ‘non-reductive physicalism’) I can’t help regarding as a temperamental bias (and one very at odds with William James’s pragmatic arguments in the other direction inThe Varieties of Religious Experience).

Rorty’s explorations of the post-Kantian era in both Analytic and Continental philosophy are exceptional, whether he is following Immanuel Kant’s legacy through the Anglo- American philosophers James, Peirce, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Quine and Davidson, or whether he is following it through the Continental route of Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Habermas, Derrida. Rorty’s conclusions, which are summed up in his oftquoted slogan that it is systematically impossible to decide at what point humanly ‘making’ the truth ends and objectively ‘finding’ the truth begins, are compelling.

Geras, correctly it seems, says that all Rorty’s views (for instance, about human nature or about his ‘ungroundable liberalism’) follow logically from this basic scepticism about distinguishing ‘making’ from ‘finding’.

Rorty frequently names Donald Davidson as the inspiration behind this, saying that Davidson’s arguments against the ‘scheme/content distinction’ (and so against the tenability of either realism or relativism) lay to rest a third Dogma of Empiricism – so completing Quine’s earlier attack on the two other Dogmas of Empiricism: the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements (and so between necessary and contingent truth) and the tendency to reduce wholes to their constituent parts as the ultimate buildingblocks of knowledge. Quine argues, against this view, that it is whole, coherent bodies of knowledge, rather than isolated terms or propositions, that ‘face the tribunal of reality.’

It is easy to see that Rorty could – and does – equally use the ideas of Continental thinkers to underpin his ‘making/finding’ scepticism, as he could – and does – utilise their ‘attack on binary oppositions’. This is as old as Hegel’s dialectic, and as new as Derrida’s deconstruction, and culminates in casting doubt on whether there is any clear distinction between nature and culture.

To get down to more specific cases, Geras accuses Rorty of being evasive when he comes out with provocative statements like “there is no such thing as human nature.” Geras argues that Rorty means different things at different times by this assertion, some of which are obviously false and some of which are not false, but are innocuous and quite compatible with grounding universal human rights in a foundation of shared human nature (such as is to be found, for instance, in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Geras says: “That there is no human nature may appear to mean that [1] there are no commonly shared traits among human beings; or [2] it may appear to mean that there are none which are distinctively human; or it may [3] appear to mean that there are none which are of universal moral import. Sustainable in the end is something rather more modest: like [4] that all people do not aspire, and nor should they, to one very narrowly specified kind of goal, activity, or character.” (pp.140-141).

Geras further argues that he is happy to grant Rorty meaning [4], but that this is quite compatible with some minimal notion of human nature in terms of shared traits and needs. Geras argues that meanings [1], [2], and [3] are false – and further points out that Rorty, while maintaining each of these theses at some point in his writings, contradicts them at other points. Rorty says in one place that there are no traits that humans share that they do not also share with animals, only to write elsewhere that all human beings share the ability to be humiliated, an ability which other animals do not appear to possess.

While I agree with Geras that Rorty is evasive about what he means by ‘There is no human nature’ (and that, when he does spell out what he means in the above four senses, he can seem to contradict himself), I still wonder if it is possible to offer a coherent defence of the three theses about human nature which Geras seems to regard as false. Although I have never been entirely happy with Rorty’s apparent airy dismissals of human nature, it seems that the three theses can be made to convincingly chime with each other and with Rorty’s general epistemological position. That position is that there are no neutral facts (about human nature or anything else) that do not come ‘under a description’, and that the vocabulary which offers the description can never be justified as true in a neutral way but can only be justified as true in a circular way from within. THESIS 3 ‘There are no commonly shared traits among human being which are of universal moral import’.

This is not obviously false. Even if one grants that there are common traits and needs based on those traits, it does not follow with any necessity that those needs should be respected. If pushed, Saddam Hussein might grant that Kurds have the same needs as himself, but fail to agree that he should respect them. Similarly, many people would no doubt agree that Rwandans have the same needs as they do, but nevertheless declare that Rwandans’ needs are not their problem. In short, needs based on common human traits only carry ‘universal moral import’ – only become rights – within a particular metaphysical and moral vocabulary. THESIS 2 ‘There are no common traits that are distinctively human’.

One might argue that this is true for those who employ a naturalistic, biological, evolutionary vocabulary, and who would claim that what appear to be distinctively human traits – like language or humour – can be found in germ in many animals. On the other hand, this thesis is false for Christians, Kantians, and Aristotelians, whose vocabulary insists that humans have certain distinctive traits – a soul, a ‘moral personality’, rationality, and so forth.

In short, could it be argued that the truth or falsity of the description will finally depend on the vocabulary adopted? THESIS 1 ‘There are no commonly shared traits among human beings’.

Of all Rorty’s ideas, this is the one with which I have felt most uncomfortable. It seems to me that it is hard to get around Hume’s position that all human creatures, by dint of their biological make-up, must share common traits and needs. Any vocabulary would have to concede that all human beings need food in order to survive and will freeze to death without shelter in extreme cold. Of course these may be traits which do not carry ‘universal moral import’ outside of certain kinds of metaphysical and moral vocabularies and may be traits that humans share with other animals.

It could be that I am being parochial in regarding as obvious common-sense fact that which is really the product of our modern biological vocabulary, and it is this vocabulary which makes the description seem so compelling. By analogy, moderns are amazed that Cartesian-inspired vivisectionists could seriously believe that an animal howling with pain was not really feeling anything because it had no soul and so was no more capable of feeling pain than a machine or a vegetable.

Perhaps the assertion that all human beings share common traits could be claimed to be a function of ‘the vocabulary in which the description is offered’. It is, after all, logically possible to conceive of a vocabulary which produces descriptions solely consistent with there being no commonly shared traits among human beings.

We can push this point even further. History offers us many examples of groups who held views like the following: “The poor (or the lower orders, or the dusky races, or the Jews) are less intelligent and sensitive than us and do not feel pain as much as or in the same way that we do.”

Rorty would consistently hold that there is no neutral way to dissuade Nazis from their beliefs that Jews are irredeemably different and perhaps not fully human. If they resist what liberals regard as rational argument and empirical evidence (or, better put, if they reinterpret the evidence in the light of their own standards of rationality), then the only remaining options are either to ignore them, bribe them, or dissuade them by force.

The fact that there are and have been many such groups who believe that the poor, the lower orders, the blacks, etc., are irredeemably ‘different’ is evidence that there are many who deny common traits. As, on Rorty’s basic premisses, belief and fact (scheme and content) cannot be clearly separated, this provides justification for the claim ‘There are no common traits in human nature’ that we can conclusively prove in a neutral way.

Presumably Rorty’s own liberal beliefsystem (with its emphasis on Freedom, Equality, and Rights) does not allow him to subscribe to the ‘no common traits’ sort of view. He, as a member of the liberal community, while believing that all humans do share common traits and needs fundamentally (i.e., the poor, blacks, and Jews feel as much pain and humiliation as the rich, whites, and Aryans) still has no neutral way to persuade those who do not subscribe to liberal views. All he can do is to offer them the carrot or the stick (i.e., “Try being a liberal and see how much nicer the world is” or “As far as we liberals are concerned, you’ve overstepped the mark and deserve a good slapping”).

Geras proceeds to his most central attack on Rorty’s ‘ungroundable liberalism’ in the last chapter of the book. He holds that, although Rorty may be congenial enough as a personality and may even share some similar values with a Marxist like himself,nevertheless Rorty cannot serve humanity well because by denying any universal dimensions to human nature, truth, and justice, he must systematically be committed to a position where ‘anything goes’

Geras attributes, rightly, I think, to Rorty the view that you cannot justify the vocabulary and values of liberalism (or Marxism, or anything else) in a non-circular way. There is no neutral ground on which to stand.

Geras answers:

“An alternative line of thought is that vocabularies and language-games are commensurable. I hope so … If there is no truth, there is no injustice. Morally and politically, anything goes. There are appaling language-games always in preparation, now as much as ever. They will be ‘played’ by those looking for the chances of it in deadly earnest. It remains to be shown that, amongst our defences against them, we have anything better than the concepts of a common humanity, of universal rights, and of reasoning together to try to discover how things are, in order to minimise avoidable suffering and injustice.” (p.143).

I don’t think this does full justice to Rorty’s position. Rorty believes that while different metaphysical, moral, and political vocabularies are theoretically incommensurable (incapable of non-circular justification), nevertheless it is a contingent possibility that they may be pragmatically commensurable.
He holds something like this:

‘We liberals like our way of doing things and think it is the best way of doing things. We would urge you to try it. But, if we are to be intellectually honest, we have no right to urge you to become liberals because liberalism is God’s way of doing things (the religious justification) or Nature’s way or Reason’s way (the Enlightenment justification) or ‘History’s inevitable lesson’ (the Hegelian/Marxist sort of justification). All such justifications are ideological armlocks, so many ways of trying to bully dissenters and make oneself feel good by unprovable appeals to impartial non-human authorities. They are rhetorical devices.

The only honest justification is this: liberalism is perhaps pragmatically the best way to rub along with others, due to its central belief in tolerance. As such, it may be the best hope for the the human race, especially in a nuclear age. It is capable of learning from other views and so developing itself and them in the ‘ongoing conversation of humankind’.

However, if you infringe on our liberal community, or if you do things that outrageously flout our beliefs, we may have to fight you, if all diplomacy and haggling fail (and even though we cannot justify our cause in any absolute way, since there is no neutral place to stand theoretically). We urge you, for pragmatic reasons, to join our experiment in Liberty, Equality, Democracy, Human Rights, and Tolerance. See for yourself if it is satisfactory.’

To which it has to be added that a number of people, from Islamic fundamentalists to Marxists, looking at some of the actual manifestations of the ‘liberal experiment’, are going to reply: “No. It isn’t satisfactory.”

Nevertheless, Rorty’s achievement remains that of showing how, and to what extent, talk of human rights still makes sense even after the ‘crisis of Enlightenment’ and subsequent hard to get around doubts aboutproving anything as universally true. Geras’s achievement in this book remains that of showing how Rorty could spell out some of his complex arguments rather more clearly for his readers.

The Philosophy of Richard Rorty

This is a review from NDPR

The Philosophy of Richard Rorty is the thirty-second volume in the Library of Living Philosophers series, which commenced with a volume on the philosopher with whom Rorty is most often compared, John Dewey. With this volume, the series title serves as a sad reminder of Rorty’s death at the age of 75 in 2007, while the collection was still in preparation. For many who, like the reviewer, were in the early stages of a university career in philosophy at the time, the publication of Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979 was a very significant event indeed.[1] I imagine that the attitude towards Rorty expressed by James Edwards in his contribution to the volume is far from unusual: “I am one of those who admire the work (and the man) almost without reservation; one of those who would not want to imagine what recent … philosophy would have been if Rorty had not been around to shake things up and to forge some unexpected linkages” (658).[2] Of course not everyone, even from that particular generation, reacted to this work, and the stream of writings following it, with admiration. While many saw in Rorty a Socratic gadfly, to another wing of the profession he was closer to an ancient sophist. And even among those who do admire, admiration rarely means whole-heartedagreement — many admirers still find troubling elements within Rorty’s philosophy, as Edwards himself seems to.

With Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and the series of collections of essays that started with Consequence of Pragmatism in 1982,[3] Rorty’s thought-provoking ideas began to find a wide readership beyond the bounds of professional philosophy and started to attract the combination of applause and condemnation that has continued to this day. In fact, collections of critical essays on Rorty, similar in conception and format to theLibrary of Living Philosophers series, have been appearing on a reasonably regular basis since Alan Malachowski’s Reading Rorty in 1990.[4] Even omitting non-English language volumes and ones with very specific themes, such as one on “Rorty and Confucianism”, there have been, on my count, seven prior to this volume. Of these, a number, like the Malachowski volume, have followed the LLP practice of having paired replies by Rorty to the interpretative and critical pieces. Both Malachowski’s collection and the impressive 2000 volume edited by Robert Brandom, Rorty and His Critics,[5] while large at around 400 pages each, are dwarfed by the LLP volume. With the standard introductory “Intellectual Autobiography”, twenty-nine substantial essays, most with replies by Rorty, and an extensive bibliography of Rorty’s writings, it is roughly the size of the other two combined.

So much has already been written about the philosophy of Richard Rorty that one might wonder whether there will be much new left to say. But while it is true that many of the general themes invoked in the essays in this book have a familiar ring, the majority of contributors manage to find new and illuminating ways of articulating their senses of agreement and disagreement to make it a very worthwhile addition to the literature. And as always, Rorty’s replies are masterly in their ability to articulate economically the conceptual structure of the issues under dispute and, typically, to defuse criticisms by questioning distinctions presupposed by them. That there are still avenues of Rorty’s thought to explore and take issue with might alone be taken as testifying to the breadth as well as the richly inventive nature of his philosophizing.

Clearly then, Rorty has been an eminently discussible as well as criticizable philosopher, and one of the reasons for this seems to lie in the fact that since the eighties he has been regarded as a philosopher who, emerging from the heartland of the fast-professionalizing world of American analytic philosophy — the philosophy department at Princeton — started to write about and engage with what he calls the “line of thought that leads from Hegel through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Derrida” (13) — a line of thought clearly outside the bounds of philosophy to many within the analytic tradition. In the late sixties and early seventies, Rorty might have appeared to the casual observer as a philosopher working centrally within the type of analytic philosophy represented by the Princeton department — a mode of philosophy that was to shape the image of what professionalized Anglophone philosophy would become during the next decades. For example, he was anthologized as the advocate of a radical “eliminative materialist” position within the early philosophy of mind and had edited a volume on analytic method, The Linguistic Turn.[6] But from the autobiographical essay with which the volume commences one gets an interesting overview of his early years. Thus he describes his first years at Princeton, where he started as a junior academic in 1960, as ones in which he felt the need “to speak to some of the issues with which [his colleagues] were concerned and to write in somewhat the same vein as they did” (11). The reception of some of this work “made [him] feel that perhaps [he] had a future in the analytic philosophy business” (11), but in the course of putting together The Linguistic Turn, in particular, and in “figuring out what Carnap and Wittgenstein agreed about, the better to highlight their obvious differences”, he bolstered his “own preference for Wittgensteinian dissolutions of philosophical problems over constructive solutions” (12), preferences that had also been acquired by his earlier immersion in the pragmatists. And in the course of the seventies, as he tells it, he was struck

by the fact that Wittgenstein’s debunking approach to philosophical problems could as easily be applied to what my Princeton colleagues thought of as the ‘principal problems of analytic philosophy’ as to the problems of the metaphysicians at whom Ayer had jeered.

“Both sets of problems”, he had begun to think, “were equally artificial”. This then led him “to construct a historical narrative about the development of modern philosophy designed to support Wittgenstein’s suggestion that philosophical problems were just cul-de-sacs down which philosophers had wandered” (12-3). The result was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

On its appearance, many analytic philosophers responded to this work as a betrayal by one of their own, some seeing it as a cynical courting of the emerging “post-modernism” that seemed to be taking over the humanities. But as Rorty tells it, he had already acquired “a taste for ambitious, swooshy, Geistesgeschichte” (6) in his undergraduate years at the Richard McKeon-dominated department at the University of Chicago, and on going to Yale, where he did his PhD, he had been at home in another analytic-lite department, where versions of absolute idealism were still defended along with attempts to synthesize Whitehead and Hegel. A quick survey of the 1960s section of Rorty’s bibliography reveals how his more standardly “analytic” publications were interspersed with articles and reviews devoted to traditional pragmatism as well as thinkers like Blanshard, Hartshorne and Weiss, his erstwhile teachers. Against this background it is easy to see how the more “professional” analytic concerns that were then developing at Princeton could become fodder for an historicizing approach to philosophy that had predated any serious engagement with developments in analysis. But Rorty’s pre-analytic stance now became importantly modified by his assimilation of “what Carnap and [the latter] Wittgenstein agreed about”, giving his thought its familiar “debunking” stamp.

It was this early attraction to Hegel and “swooshy” grand tellings of the history of philosophy that allowed Rorty in the seventies to massage into his ongoing narrative, in a seemingly effortless way, philosophical voices new to the Anglophone scene such as those of the late Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida, creating the sorts of “unexpected linkages” to which Edwards refers. And yet this is not enough to capture just those features of Rorty’s philosophizing that makes him such a fascinating, discussible and objection-attracting figure. Others were reacting against what they took to be the narrowness of the type of emerging professionalized philosophy, with its focus on technical semantic problems, that Rorty complained about at Princeton. Thus “continental philosophy” was splitting away to accommodate types of philosophy that had always been at best marginal to the analytic movement, while some analytic philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Stanley Cavell were going in purportedly “post-analytic” directions. But neither of these movements shared Rorty’s resolutely debunking attitude to the tradition of philosophy itself. Crudely, it might be said that these movements tended to advocate that there was more to philosophy than what was perceived as the narrow technical issues that were coming to define the discipline, but for Rorty there was little worth saving from the “Plato-Kant tradition” that analytic philosophy had displaced. That is, it must be remembered that Rorty’s objections to professionalized philosophy Princeton-style were themselves an extension of the objections of the early analytic positivists to the “Plato-Kant tradition” itself.

This meant that while Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature could compare his “conversational” historicism with the type of Hegel- and Heidegger-inspired “dialogical” historicism of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Rorty’s debunking attitude to philosophy was not that of Heidegger nor philosophers inspired by him. For Heidegger, as Peter Dews makes clear in his essay, freedom from the sorts of linguistic enchantments expressed in the metaphysics from which Wittgenstein (and following him, Rorty) sought to liberate thought was

not so much the driving force, as itself an expression of a fateful failure to respect the ‘ontological difference’ between ‘Being’ and ‘beings’. For Rorty, by contrast, however innovative and insightful a metaphysician may have been in his own day, his ideas no longer carry any live charge; metaphysical theories have ceased to address the problems with which we are concerned, even obliquely (637).

In short, Rorty’s attitude to traditional philosophy had more in common with the views of Carnap than his bête noir, Heidegger.

In her contribution Susan James rightly attributes Rorty’s vast influence to the “scope and grandeur” of his philosophy, “so rich in thought-provoking asides and quickly sketched connections” (415). But I suggest that the set of features alluded to above has also contributed to Rorty’s peculiar status within intellectual life and has prompted the particular combinations of agreement and disagreement that can be seen to play out within the essays in this and other similar volumes. Thus, many of the authors here start from a reasonably-to-strongly sympathetic position but quickly come to what has been bothering them in Rorty’s particular approach to this or that topic. What one tends to find here are critics intent on getting more truth out of philosophy than Rorty is willing to allow, even if they are in agreement with his critique of a model of philosophical knowledge that aims at some divinely eternal over-view.

The essays here are divided up into four sections: “Pragmatism Old and New”, with essays by Cheryl Misak, James W. Allard, Harvey Cormier, Jacquelyn Ann K. Kegley, Robert Cummings Neville, Jean-Pierre Cometti, Aldo Giorgio Gargani, and María Pía Lara; “The World Well Lost: Language Representation, and Truth” with Jaroslav Peregrin, János Boros, Huw Price, Yasuhiko Tomida, Albrecht Wellmer, Michael P. Lynch, David Detmer and Andrzej Szahaj; “Conversation Stoppers: Politics, Progress, and Hope” with Susan James, Richard A. Posner, Yong Huang, J. B. Schneewind, William L. McBride and Jeffrey Stout; and “A Kind of Writing: Edifying Conversations” with Raymond D. Boisvert, Gianni Vattimo, Jolán Orbán, Pascal Engel, Miguel Tamen, Peter Dews and James C. Edwards. The borders between these groupings are understandably very porous with common themes crossing the boundaries. It is impossible, of course, in even a long review to do justice to individual essays and to Rorty’s replies, or even survey all of them. In the remainder of this review I will focus on two or three representatives from each of the sections, although not necessarily in their particular order, in an attempt to give an impression of the sorts of issues raised and pursued throughout this volume.

Rorty is often cited as the most influential figure in the recent revival of interest in American pragmatist philosophy and, as one might expect, the essays in Section I tend to compare the sort of pragmatism revitalized by him in the wake of figures such as Sellars, Quine and Davidson with classical pragmatism and the idealist philosophy from which it emerged. Of the classical pragmatists it is to the work of James and, especially, Dewey that Rorty mostly appeals. In the course of his essay from Section III, and drawing on the work of Robert Brandom, Stout gives a nice thumb-nail sketch of the particularly Deweyan dimension to Rorty’s pragmatism. At the heart of this position is “the social-practical conception of norms that the classical pragmatists took over from Hegel” (540). Rorty’s way of understanding this is to see the source of such norms as “social agreement among human beings” and it is this that ties his pragmatism into his political advocacy of Deweyan democracy and Millian liberalism. To understand that we are the ultimate sources of the norms according to which we think and act is to see claims by particular sections of the community to unilaterally determine those norms as dangerous attempts to dominate the rest, hidden behind a quasi-clerical pretense of access to some ultimate truth existing independently of humans. And for Rorty, as for Mill, the good community is one which maximizes the chances of individuals creating unique lives, which for Rorty implies fashioning the “vocabularies” with which they shape their outlooks and behaviors. To the extent that traditional philosophy seeks a source for norms in something other than human agreement, it is to be regarded as just an extension of religion. In short, to see our ideas or language as trying to represent something essentially independent from us — seeing philosophical knowledge as ideally a “mirror of nature” — is just another instance of thinking of ourselves as responsible to something other than other human beings.

A number of papers attempt to bring out features and shortcomings of Rorty’s brand of pragmatism by usefully comparing him to earlier figures. In “Idealism, Pragmatism and the World Well Lost”, Allard insightfully compares Rorty to the nineteenth-century Scottish idealist Edward Caird, seeing both as responding to the “broken harmony of spiritual life” in their own times. Caird had been concerned to reconcile science with religion, while for Rorty the analogous task is to somehow reconcile science with literary culture regarded as a provider of new vocabularies within which individuals may articulate their values, aspirations and hopes. But while Caird had appealed to idealist metaphysics to do this, Rorty, of course, rejects anymetaphysical solution. Allard, however, like a number of others in the volume, is skeptical of Rorty’s strategy for defending humanistic culture in the face of the sciences’ perceived monopolization of truth by simply abandoning the idea that it is the function of language in any context to truly represent the world. And while Dewey had similarly protested against such a representationalist conception of language, Dewey’s earlier version of pragmatism, thinks Allard, did not face potential incoherencies that Rorty’s Wittgenstein/Davidson-based version of pragmatism does. In his response to Allard, Rorty clarifies how he sees the relation between his pragmatism — which is more a form of “romanticism” — and nineteenth-century idealism. “Like idealism, romanticism resists the claim that natural science tells us how reality really is. But romanticism does not go on to offer an alternative account” (69). And we just don’t need the sorts of answers that Allard says Rorty’s pragmatism cannot provide: “After we cease asking which entities are available to serve as truth makers, we can forget about metaphysics” (70).

Kegley, in “False Dichotomies and Mixed Metaphors: Genuine Individuals Need Genuine Communities”, also has reservations about the capacity for Rorty to do justice to the aspirations he can be seen as sharing with earlier idealists once the metaphysical project is abandoned in its entirely, and to this end she contrasts Rorty with the American idealist Josiah Royce. Like Rorty, Royce rejected any Cartesian conception of the human subject linked to the “mirroring” conception of knowledge and stressed the idea of the self as coming to be through a type of self-interpretation. Thus she quotes Royce’s claim that “my idea of myself is an interpretation of my past — linked also with an interpretation of my hopes and intentions as to my future” (112). This is an idea that looks similar to Rorty’s idea that freedom is a product of constructing narratives of the self in which one frees oneself from the way others try to pin one down in their accounts. But Royce, she thinks, has a more concrete sense of the type of community in which this type of self-creation via redescription can find a place (115). In comparison to the set of criteria Royce comes up with for the sort of genuine community in which self-creation is possible, Rorty’s invocation of the ironist who merely recognizes the ultimate contingency of her values looks too thin (123-4). But Rorty replies that one’s ability to identifythose “anticommunities” unworthy of one’s loyalty will depend on one’s belonging to some other. “But what criterion should somebody raised in the bosom of the Mafia use when deciding whether to rat out her friends and relatives?” (136)

In her essay from Section III, “Politics and the Progress of Sentiments”, James pursues different but linked concerns in the context of Rorty’s political thought. One of Rorty’s important contributions to contemporary political theory has been to revive Hume’s suggestion that sees “social and political advance as a progress of sentiments” (415) and to focus on the role of “imagination, redescription, and narrative” in this process. Integral to “the capacity of more and less powerful individuals to imagine the sufferings and humiliations of others, and to conceive of better ways of life in which these deprivations are overcome” is “redescription — the capacity to reconfigure and re-evaluate existing practices by challenging the terms in which they are normally discussed and by inventing new normative vocabularies” (416). But James questions the “excessively sharp opposition between reason and passion” which leads Rorty to minimize the role of reason here. “Rorty’s emphasis on narratives”, she states, “sometimes blurs the important difference between narratives about mainly imaginary states of affairs and narratives that are already realized in more or less powerful practices” (423). In his response, Rorty reemphasizes that in the light of the failure to rationally ground hope in progress, all that is available for us is a type of ungrounded “romantic, utopian hope” (430) sustained by the types of narratives to which he appeals.

The essays of section II “The World Well Lost: Language, Representation, and Truth” tend to focus on these issues in ways they have come to be discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy. Peregrin, in “Language, the World, and the Nature of Philosophy”, develops a sympathetic sketch of Rorty’s pragmatism while pointing to its dangers. With the claim that pragmatism is a “good servant” but “bad master”, he is concerned lest pragmatism comes to be taken as an “ultimate philosophical doctrine” (226) that does more harm than good. “The point is that pragmatism is powerful only if it is entertained within the context of philosophy carried out as a cooperative enterprise”. Outside this context “pragmatism merely furnishes the combatants with an extra lethal weapon: that of simply dismissing the opponent’s views on the score of not being helpful or interesting” (241-2). In response Rorty enlarges on the role of theorizing within the pragmatist’s practice. “Though sometimes it works best to say ‘that’s a bad question, one that we pragmatists don’t ask’, with some interlocutors it is more effective to reply, ‘here’s an answer to that question, since you insist on asking it'” (248). It is in such contexts that new philosophical theories, like those of Davidson and Brandom, are useful, despite the fact that they don’t claim to say something about the way the world really is.

In her contribution in Section I, “Richard Rorty’s Place in the Pragmatist Pantheon”, Misak appeals to Peirce as an early pragmatist whose “pragmatic elucidation” of truth offers a way around problems found in William James and, by implication, Rorty, given the Jamesian quality of some of his early statements about truth. Rorty had become aware of the problems of James’s definitions of truth and modified his own position by introducing a “cautionary” dimension to truth to accompany the “endorsing” view according to which we apply the term true “to all the assertions we feel justified in making, or feel others are justified in making” (38). By itself, the endorsing view seems to reduce truth to justification, but the “cautionary” use breaks this by reminding us that what we take to be justifications are likely to change in the future, the distinction between present and future justifications now preventing the collapse of truth into justification. But this, she thinks, leads to a thought that Rorty is “loathe to accept. There is something at which we aim that goes beyond what seems right to us here and now” (38). Peirce’s elucidation of this idea is of truth as a belief that would remainforever justified. In his response, Rorty appeals to the Jamesian requirement that conceptual differences makea difference. He cannot see how the Peircean idea amounts to anything more than the “banal thought that we might be wrong… . The Peircean thought seems to me merely to cloak a commonplace in a metaphor (aiming at a far-off target) [that] provides no practical guidance” (45).

Misak’s concerns intersect with those expressed in Lynch’s contribution to Section II, “Truth and the Pathos of Distance”. Lynch also rejects the type of deflationary approach to truth that Misak calls the “endorsement” view and, in ways similar to Allard, wants to defend humanistic culture by ways other than Rorty’s general deflation of the notion of truth. The humanities construct narratives and offer coherent explanations that we evaluate in terms of the notion of truth, and so we need a way of capturing their capacity for truth. Rather than deflate truth, Lynch recommends that we be pluralists about truth and acknowledge that the features that make humanistic narratives truth-apt are different from those that make the natural sciences so. Rorty in reply writes that while Lynch thinks it appropriate to ask the question “what makes it true?”, he doubts that “talk of truth-makers has any useful function except to instill the comforting feeling that we have, somewhere out there in the distance, an invisible friend called Reality” (364).

In his “One Cheer for Representationalism?”, Price is happy to accept the deflationary approach to truth and neatly traces a path to the evisceration of the notion of representation from within analytic philosophy itself. One can extend the early positivists’ “expressivist” treatments of moral claims globally with the aid of deflationary or “minimalist” treatments of truth to a type of antirepresentationalist stance akin to Rorty’s. Price shares Rorty’s generally Wittgenstein-Carnap approach to language, as well as his strong resistance to “metaphysics”, but, parallel to Brandom, he finds more coherence among the functions of the truth predicate than Rorty or Wittgenstein allow, given the fundamental role of assertion within our language games. Brandom’s position, however, threatens to lapse into a metaphysical account of representation, and so Price contrasts his own one cheer for representationalism with Rorty’s none and Brandom’s two. Rorty in his response doesn’t see much difference between the stances of all three, but among other things Price’s approach draws into question Rorty’s consistent identification throughout the volume of his own position with that of Brandom, an issue to which I will return.

Boisvert, in “Richard Rorty: Philosopher of the Common Man, Almost“, finds Rorty’s contributions to philosophy to reside in the historicist, pluralist and anti-foundationalist ideas he so successfully spread, as well as his powerful reinterpretation of the notion of democracy. But like Peregrin and others, Boisvert is concerned about the potential for Rorty’s position to transform into a non-therapeutic dualistic theorizing, noting, as had Kegley and James, the “pairs of ‘either-ors'” pervading some of Rorty’s texts. Rather than Rorty’s “blanket rejection of ‘essences'”, he recommends an attitude to the idea of essence that recontextualizes “what was best about that term” (559).

Boisvert’s criticism allows Rorty to expand on the significance for him of Hegel, whose historicizing approach he constantly invokes throughout the volume. What Rorty exactly recommends of Hegel’s approach to philosophy is hard to pin down, as it is clearly Hegel stripped of the metaphysics with which he is usually identified. Hegel himself portrayed his philosophy as the culmination of the Plato-Kant tradition that Rorty abjures, but for Rorty he is the first name in the series that passes through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Derrida. And many of course will find Hegel an odd precedent for any approach to philosophy that can be found as common to Wittgenstein and Carnap. In his response to Price, Rorty opposes his Hegelian stance to Price’s Humean one, but one might have difficulty with what this distinction could count for in Rorty. Price appeals to a type of “anthropology” as the self-image for philosophy and one might wonder if this term might not often capture Rorty’s position as well, as he commonly portrays the virtues of “history” as residing primarily in the fact that it allows us to grasp the contingency of the ideas we come up with. Might not anthropology do this too?

To the differences Price finds between Rorty and Brandom, one might add their respective attitudes to Kant. For Brandom, Hegel correctly grasps the spirit of Kant, but for Rorty Hegel is Kant’s antithesis. Rorty’s antipathy to Kant is the focus of Boros’s essay “Representationalism and Antirepresentationalism: Kant, Davidson, and Rorty”, where he points to the oddness of not taking Kant as a type of proto-antirepresentationalist. In his reply, Rorty can only find value in the Critique of Pure Reason in that “by exasperating Hegel, it led him to give up on epistemology and to take the historicist turn” (266). Hegel is often taken to be a critic of “dichotomous” forms of thinking, but, in his reply to Boisvert, Rorty justifies his either-orism once again by invoking Hegel:

I think of Hegel as having shown us that promoting such divisions — insisting on sharp either-ors — is necessary to keep the conversation going. Without the great nay-sayers, and what Bosvert calls ‘dreams of radical fresh starts,’ we will not have what Hegel called the ‘struggle and labor of the negative’ (573).

Dews, in his “‘The Infinite is Losing its Charm’: Richard Rorty’s Philosophy of Religion and the Conflict Between Therapeutic and Pragmatic Critique”, places Rorty accurately, I believe, in relation to Hegel by putting him in the company of the nineteenth-century “Left Hegelians”, in particular Feuerbach and Stirner:

It is hard to overlook the parallels between Feuerbach’s effort to define a radically new mode of philosophizing, and Rorty’s advocacy of a post-philosophical thinking, which has abandoned the quest for timeless truths and immutable structures, in favor of cultural-political intervention (640).

But Feuerbach’s anthropology was in turn open to Stirner’s critique of his appeal to “essences”, in this case, anthropological ones. Stirner’s construal of “the very notion of objective truth as an outdated trammel, a redundant constraint on the agency of the self” (644) sounds very Rortyan, and if Rorty’s appeal to the communal basis of knowledge and morals seems to separate him from Stirner’s “rampaging egoism”, there are core elements of his thinking that makes it difficult for him to “hold the line against the Stirnerian anarchist” (645).

Dews wonders if it had been this concern that had led Rorty in the last decade of his life to “a conception of human emancipation able to house aspirations formerly nurtured by religion” (646). If Rorty’s resistance to religion had come to soften, then one might wonder at the persistence of his antipathy to the Plato-Kant tradition, given his essentially left-Hegelian conception of it as no more than a continuation of religion. Stout, in “Rorty on Religion and Politics”, sees only the “smallest possible adjustment in his original secularism” (534) in Rorty’s later attitudes to religion, however. Stout questions the compatibility of Rorty’s “de-divinizing” form of pragmatism — which he shares with Dewey, but with neither Peirce nor James — with other features of his pragmatism. Thus he sees “Rorty’s generalized anticlericalism” as “in tension with his antiessentialism” (536) and his exclusion of religiously articulated claims from the public sphere as in tension with his advocacy of democracy.

As with a small number of other essays in the volume, Dews’s is not accompanied by Rorty’s response because it had been finished too late. With this essay in particular, I had been looking forward to Rorty’s reply, wondering if and how he was going to slip through the nets Dews had fashioned for him. Unfortunately, we no longer have the benefit of his table-turning rejoinders. From the evidence provided from this volume, however, this is unlikely to stop the man and his ideas from remaining, for many, foci of admiration and provocation and a continuing source of both inspiration and frustration.

[1] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[2] Edwards refers here to “American philosophy”, but in the globalized contemporary philosophical culture this qualification is becoming redundant.

[3] Richard Rorty, Consequence of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

[4] Alan R. Malachowski, Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and beyond)(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

[5] Robert B. Brandom, Rorty and His Critics (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000).

[6] Richard M. Rorty (ed.) The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967).

Review of Habermas’ Truth & Justification – NDPR








Truth and Justification

Habermas, Jurgen, Truth and Justification, edited and with translations by Barbara Fulmer, MIT Press, 2003, 349pp, $40.00 (hbk), ISBN 0262083183.

Reviewed by Richard Rorty , Stanford University

The range of issues discussed in this collection of recent essays by Jürgen Habermas is suggested by the title of its Introduction: “Realism after the linguistic turn”. Habermas says that that turn shifted “the standard of epistemic objectivity from the private certainty of an experiencing subject to the public practice of justification within a communicative community”. It thereby encouraged a “contextualist challenge to the realist intuition”, for it raised the question of “whether any sense of context-independent validity can be salvaged from the concept of truth” (249).

Habermas formulates this challenge in the terms suggested by the title of one of the essays: “From Kant to Hegel and back again: the move toward detranscendentalization”. His expositions and criticisms of the work of Robert Brandom, Hilary Putman, and other contemporary philosophers are written with an eye to the Kant-Hegel contrast—the opposition between the universalism aimed at by transcendental philosophy and the particularism and localism necessitated by Hegelian historicism.

Habermas is one of the few philosophers who is as much at home with Hegel, Hamann and Heidegger as he is with Davidson, Sellars and Dummett. So he is able to move back and forth, smoothly and perspicuously, between small-scale critical analyses and insightful historical comparisons and generalizations. The result is a survey of the contemporary philosophical scene that is far more imaginative, and far more stimulating, than the sort found in books whose authors’ range of reference is limited to the last few decades’ worth of work within analytic philosophy.

This book will be of great interest both to students of Habermas’ universalistic discourse ethics and to philosophers interested in the debate between philosophers sympathetic to Wittgenstein and to pragmatism (such as Davidson, Putnam and Brandom) and their critics—especially those critics who, after conceding a great deal to Wittgenstein’s attack on empiricism, are still concerned to preserve what McDowell calls “answerability to the world”.

Habermas regards Brandom as representing “the state of the art of pragmatic approaches in analytic philosophy of language”, but thinks that Brandom’s “assimilation of the objectivity of experience to the intersubjectivity of communication is reminiscent of an infamous Hegelian move” (7-8). He reads Brandom as an arch-contextualist, whose inferentialist theory of the nature of propositional content “obliterates the distinction between the intersubjectively shared lifeworld and the objective world”. Brandom, he says, “does not rescue the realist intuitions by recourse to the contingent constraints of a world that is supposed to exist independently and for everyone” (155), and so is driven to a linguistified version of Hegel’s objective idealism.

Habermas argues that we need a concept of empirical truth that “connects the result of successful justification with something in the objective world” (42). This means keeping intact the distinction between the availability of a “justification-independent point of reference” for assertions of empirical fact and the absence of such a point of reference when we turn to moral judgments and norms. In morality, he says, we lack “the ontological connotation of reference to things about which we can state facts” (42). So he criticizes Brandom’s refusal to accept any version of the Kantian distinction between theoretical and practical uses of reason.

Habermas treats Putnam more sympathetically. He shares Putnam’s fear of relativism, and thinks that Putnam succeeds in offering a “theory of direct reference” that enables us to “recognize objects under different descriptions, or if, necessary, across paradigms” (219). But, although he thinks Putnam to be sounder than Brandom on the subject of empirical truth, he is dubious about the absence of what he calls “the moment of unconditionality” in Putnam’s account of moral norms. Putnam’s Deweyan and Aristotelian “virtue ethics”, he thinks, does not do justice to the distinction between “a universalist morality of justice and particularist ethics of the good life” (228).

Throughout this book, Habermas is concerned to keep distinctions in place that Hegelians and pragmatists urge us to dissolve. In particular, he sees the historicism common to Hegel, Heidegger and Dewey as endangering Kantian claims to the universal validity of, for example, the prohibition against torture. He is not willing to think of that prohibition as something local and recent—an innovation of the European Enlightenment. He insists that such absolute prohibitions are grounded in the nature of linguistic communication—in the ability of human beings to give and ask for reasons. He sees pragmatism’s assimilation of empirical truth to practical advantage as smoothing the way for moral relativism.

Like Putnam and the late Bernard Williams, Habermas wants to naturalize and de-transcendentalize philosophy, and to disconnect morality from metaphysics. So he is willing to concede a lot of ground to Nietzsche’s polemics against Plato—and in particular to give up on the correspondence theory of truth. But he nevertheless holds on both to claims of unconditionality and to what he calls “the natural Platonism of the lifeworld”—a Platonism that insists on “a justification-transcendent standard for orienting ourselves by context-independent truth-claims” (254).

The philosophers whom Habermas thinks have gone too far in an Hegelian direction agree with him that in the modern world “the moral universe loses the appearance of an ontological given and comes to be seen as aconstruct” (263). But they differ from him on two points: (1) whether to respond to this change by giving up the notion of “an ontological given” across the board–in empirical science as well as in morality; (2) whether, after recognizing the moral universe to be a construct, we need worry about whether it is a local construct or whether it contains elements that are more than merely local.

One’s reaction to Habermas’ new book will depend on whether one believes that retention of something like the “natural Platonism” of common sense is essential to our hopes for a decent society, or instead thinks that a change in common sense might help us realize these hopes. Those who follow Dewey in thinking of context-independence as a Platonist shibboleth will see Habermas as trying to nudge us back from Hegel to Kant at just the wrong moment—the moment when Hegelian ideas are beginning to revitalize analytic philosophy of mind and language. But if one thinks that Plato and Kant were on to something that Hegel was wrong to abandon–that playing the game of giving and asking for reasons requires both the notion of ontological givenness and that of unconditional obligation–then one will find this book very welcome indeed. Both sorts of readers will find the book as broad-gauged as it is incisive, and as forcefully argued as it is fair-minded.


Review of Alan Malachowski’s Richard Rorty – NDPR








Richard Rorty

Malachowski, Alan, Richard Rorty, Princeton University Press, 2002, 202pp, $17.95 (pbk), ISBN 069105708

Reviewed by David Dudrick, Colgate University

Alan Malachowski’s Richard Rorty is an introduction to the work of the philosopher of its title, one on whom the titles bestowed include “most interesting philosopher in the world” (Harold Bloom) and “The Professor of Complacence” (Simon Blackburn). Malachowski is firmly in the Bloom camp; his book is “written on the premise” that Rorty’s work may constitute a “’quantum leap’ in philosophy” (9). As a result, his introduction maintains the heady sense of being in on something that characterizes much of Rorty’s own work. However, his characterization of Rorty’s project is largely a result of an emphasis on views that smack of irrationalism, ones that Rorty has (thankfully) largely come to reject. While acknowledging Rorty’s development would allow for an exposition of his work that addressed the worries of his critics, Malachowski’s reading leads him to dismiss these critics (e.g., as akin to “solid, soulless critics of progressive music” (163)). That said, Malachowski claims to present only a “particular Rorty” (10) and he does so in a book that is both clear exposition and spirited defense.

Malachowski’s account is “’comprehensive’ in that it deals with texts spanning the whole” of Rorty’s career (10). The book’s “narrative” (as opposed to a “topical”) approach allows the central themes of Rorty’s writing to emerge in the context of the works in which they were formulated. Malachowski’s first chapter, “Platonic yearnings,” begins with a discussion of Rorty’s brief intellectual autobiography, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.” Rorty came to philosophy in search of an “intellectual or aesthetic framework” that would exhibit the consistency of his aesthetic values (the “orchids”) and his ethical values. Having become convinced of philosophers’ inability to provide non-circular justification of their views, Rorty considered his search a failure. Without a nongainsayable foundation, Rorty concluded, philosophy is ultimately “a matter of out-describing the last philosopher.” While philosophy as practiced since Plato is a failure, the skills associated with it may be put to good use: they can be used to “weave the conceptual fabric of a freer, better, more just society” (27).

Now, Rorty’s rejection of philosophy since Plato appears more than a little hasty. One would be hard-pressed to find any contemporary philosophers who take themselves to be involved in a search for “nongainsayable foundations.” Even so, Rorty thinks that the search for such foundations is somehow implicit in the tradition of which these philosophers are part. Malachowski’s second chapter, “Conversation,” explains that Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is Rorty’s attempt to show that this is so. Malachowski provides a clear account as to how Rorty, through that book’s Geistesgeschichte of modernity, argues that the representationalism that characterizes the philosophical tradition leads to the search for nongainsayable foundations. In Malachowski’s perspicuous formulation, Rorty shows that traditional philosophical concerns with knowledge and mind are “problematic” – “in the sense that they are pragmatically unfruitful” – and “optional” – in that they are a product of assumptions that, while deeply imbedded, are not rationally “inevitable” (38).

In his third chapter, “Pragmatism,” Malachowski’s discusses Rorty’s views on the realism- antirealism debate and the nature of truth, as well as his appropriation of Dewey and other philosophers, as presented in The Consequences of Pragmatism. Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is the main focus of the following chapters, “Contingency” and “Liberalism.” In his discussion of Rorty’s notion of contingency, Malachowski points out that the fact that a problem is contingent (in that it’s dictated not by the nature of reason or some such) does not imply that the problem ought to be abandoned. His use of the distinction between hypothetical and absolute necessity is helpful here. While Rorty sometimes writes as though philosophers think confrontation of, say, the Problem of Free Will is “absolutely necessary” (dictated by the nature of reason), it is more plausible to suppose that they regard it as a “hypothetical necessity” (given our firmly entrenched – though contingent – concerns, this is a problem we must face). Why then should we turn away from these problems, even if we may do so? Malachowski tells us that “the combination of a lack of historical progress and the internal tensions” that characterize our attempts to solve these problems leads Rorty to suggest that we “take a crack at something else” (115). While Rorty does sometimes talk like this, at other times he offers a potentially more compelling reason: the vocabulary that produced these problems should be superseded by one “better suited for the preservation and progress of democratic societies” (109). Malachowski’s account of Rorty’s discussions of contingency and liberalism would be strengthened were it to explain and evaluate this reason more fully.

I claimed above that Rorty’s critics will find little here to persuade them; there is an important sense in which Malachowski would be unperturbed by this result. He decries what he calls the “hyper-critical approach” characteristic of mainstream Anglo-American philosophy and claims that Rorty’s work should be approached from “an initially sympathetic vantage point” (7). But if this admonition is to amount to anything beyond the obvious, will it not constitute a kind of “special pleading”? It won’t, Malachowski says, because such sympathy is made necessary by the fact that “Rorty is attempting to launch philosophy on a path that takes it into new territory incommensurable with present-day ‘hyper-critical philosophy’” (7). But incommensurability cannot be a reason for sympathy – in fact, it seems to render sympathy by definition impossible. Malachowski is right that a list of philosophers will reject the possibility of such “new territory,” but not, as he says, because they believe their “methods have universal jurisdiction” (whatever that may be), but because they follow Davidson in his rejection of conceptual schemes. But if that’s so, this list should include Rorty himself. It seems, then, that “incommensurability” does not insulate Rorty from criticism in the way Malachowski suggests it does.

Malachowski contends that to take the “hyper-critics” seriously would be to push Rorty’s innovations “back into the dusty bottle of conventional standards” (10). There may be an interesting point lurking here concerning the propriety of norms (one would not, for example, be warranted in rejecting a theorem of theoretical physics because it would make bad poetry), but Malachowski does not pursue it. For it sometimes seems as though he considers any standard by which Rorty might be effectively criticized “conventional.” He calls “small-minded” those critics who think that a “’contradiction’ or anomaly” in Rorty’s work would cause “his whole pragmatist sky [to] fall in” (28). But he later says that his critics are unable “to state their denial in terms that do not beg the question or tacitly assume what Rorty himself denies” (168). But if criticisms that point to an inconsistency among propositions Rorty accepts are inadmissible and criticisms that point to an inconsistency between a proposition Rorty accepts and other propositions which he doesn’t accept (but which the objector thinks are true) are inadmissible, then no criticisms are admissible.

It seems Malachowski ought to admit that if Rorty is, in fact, committed to a contradiction, then the “sky” in question does indeed “fall in.” He should also indicate that there is little reason to think his views are, in fact, inconsistent. Further, the fact that critics often “tacitly assume what Rorty himself denies” is cold comfort: the same might be said of those who criticize radical skeptics, flat-earthers, or convinced Nazis. And Rorty himself has argued (famously, in the case of the Nazi: see the introduction to CP) that the absence of a non-circular argument against such positions provides no reason to doubt one’s warrant in denying them.

This book is generally dismissive of Rorty’s critics – they most often “simply fail to understand what he is trying to do” (163). What they fail to realize, apparently, is that “Rorty’s ‘claims’ … are not designed to instill a fresh set of beliefs derived from the literal content of the statements they encapsulate.” That is, Malachowski thinks Rorty’s ‘claims’ are not claims at all. They are rather attempts “to prod us, by way of ‘edification’ … into exploring fresh ways of describing things.” His statements function simply on a “performative level” (20). Under the heading “Philosophical propaganda,” Malachowski likens Rorty to “Madhyamika philosophy,” saying that

Rorty’s views, and hence his ‘position-free position,’ are ‘edifyingly’ presented ‘to achieve an effect,’ that they should not be ‘tastelessly’ interpreted as further, if oblique and controversial, contributions to philosophy’s age-old quest for the final, truthful picture of reality. (22)

According to Malachowski, then, Rorty makes no claims to truth; he simply offers redescriptions in an effort “to achieve an effect.”

Now, it is undeniable that Rorty has endorsed such views. (Malachowski quotes bizarre passages in PMN to show that this is so.) But it is also undeniable that Rorty comes to reject this understanding of his project. In “Charles Taylor on Truth,”1 Rorty says that PMN was marked by an unhappy tendency to make existentialist noises,” one that resulted from a prior tendency to make

the unhappy distinction between “demonstrating that previous philosophers were mistaken” and “offering redescriptions in an alternative language” instead of briskly saying that to say that one’s predecessors used a bad language is just to say that they made a certain kind of mistake. (TP 92)

But it becomes evident that Malachowski’s endorsement of this “unhappy distinction” on Rorty’s behalf is central to his interpretation of Rorty’s work. To be sure we don’t miss the point, Rorty adds: “I am also happy to say that when I put forward large philosophical views I am making ‘claims to truth’ rather than simply a recommendation to speak differently” (TP 92). Malachowski’s failure to account for the changes in Rorty’s views over the years leaves him defending positions Rorty was right to leave behind.

This failure causes Malachowski to interpret Rorty as being far more suspicious of argument than the above quotes suggest. For instance, he assures us that Rorty “does not believe there is anything wrong with arguments as such” (43); this is, of course, anything but reassuring. Why say this? Because Malachowski takes Rorty to regard as important the fact that “practices, customs, habits, and conventions” play a role in determining a person’s beliefs. Why is this obvious fact significant? Because, he says, many philosophers deny it: though they may not admit it, they believe the following:

When philosophers believe something philosophically significant (say P) they believe it because it is true (and for no other reason). When, over time, they – or their successors – change their minds and come to believe Q instead (where Q now obviously implies that P is false) it is again the truth of Q that does the persuasive work: they come to believe Q because it is true (and for no other reason) (53)

While Malachowski attributes this position to Rorty’s critics, the principle of charity mitigates against attributing this position to anyone, since it’s not simply false, it’s incoherent: one cannot believe P “because it is true” if, in fact, P is not true. At most, one could believe P because one thinks (possibly falsely) that it is true. But this too makes little sense, since to think that P is true just is to believe P, and cannot thereby serve as a reason for (or a cause of) the latter. These concerns aside, the notion that many (most?) philosophers hold that the truth of P can serve as a reason for the belief that P is far-fetched at best. To hold such a position would be to think that when asked “why do you believe P?” a perfectly good answer is “because P is true.”

Malachowski rightly claims that Rorty does not take his rejection of metaphysical realism to imply the rejection of “the vocabulary of critical assessment,” including the distinction between “what is accurate” and “what is inaccurate” (5). However, Malachowski goes on to argue that such distinctions must be made according to “pragmatic criteria.” As an example of what he means, he claims that one account may be judged to be more accurate than another “because it more effectively satisfies certain desires or fulfils such and such a purpose” (5). But something has gone wrong here. Imagine a scenario in which my wife and I are trying to determine how a vase in our house was broken. She suggests that our daughter Emma might have knocked it over this afternoon, and I disagree. If she asks me, “Why is that account inaccurate?” I may respond “Because Emma was with me at the bookstore when the vase was broken.” If, however, I respond, “Because your account isn’t very useful,” then I would deserve her puzzled look. That answer is no more appropriate than “Because it fails to represent the nature of reality as it exists independent of human concerns” or “Because it isinaccurate.”

I take this to show that the language of critical assessment is tied no more to a pragmatic theory of truth than it is to metaphysical realism. To think otherwise is to fail to recognize the significance of the distinction between the first-person and third-person perspectives. To see this, imagine that I relate the above conversation with my wife to a student interested in questions about the nature of truth. If, as we discuss the nature of truth, I am to ask the student, “Why is that account inaccurate?” she might well respond, “Because it isn’t very useful” or “Because it fails to represent the nature reality as it exists independent of human concerns.” When we take up her perspective – not that of an inquirer trying to figure out who broke the vase, but of a third-person reflection on the inquiry – it becomes appropriate to offer theories of truth. As we saw above, however, to do so from the first-person perspective would be nonsensical – to think otherwise would be to regard “because it fails to represent the nature of reality” or “because it is useful” as justifications for a belief. The first-person perspective presupposes only what Gary Gutting calls “humdrum realism” or what Arthur Fine calls “the natural ontological attitude.”2 Metaphysical realism and the pragmatic theory of truth are at home only in the third-person perspective; that is, only when one takes up a standpoint outside that of the engaged inquirer, the perspective of theory or explanation.3 While Malachowski recognizes at one point that pragmatism and metaphysical realism function at the level of “explanation” (81), this recognition is not pervasive. Rorty – by his own best lights – can and should use the language of critical assessment without notions like “usefulness” or talk of “coping.” Such notions are appropriate only when he takes up the third-person perspective. While Fine and Gutting might counsel him to eschew the third-person perspective on truth, Rorty regards it as crucial to the realization of a liberal utopia that

the image of thoughts or words answering to the world … be replaced by images of organisms coping with their environment by using language to develop projects of social cooperation. (RC 263)

Malachowski’s efforts would be better spent were he to explain why Rorty think this is so and whether his position has any merit. His failure to do so leads him to call Simon Blackburn’s suggestion that “the rejectionof questions [is] the distinctive theme of what [Rorty] calls pragmatism” a “silly accusation” (141). In fact, this is neither silly nor an accusation. Insofar as Rorty is committed to maintaining a first-person perspective, he will reject the many philosophical questions – especially those about the nature of truth –that arise only from a third-person perspective.

Lack of attention to these perspectives is one reason that Malachowski’s discussion of Rorty’s critics is unsatisfying. For example, Thomas Nagel says that Rorty seems to be able to modify his beliefs, not due to the force of argument, but “because it might make life more amusing … less cluttered with annoying problems” (164) – that is, because doing so would be useful. If Rorty (or his readers) do sometimes confuse the first and third-person perspectives, Nagel’s attitude is not inexplicable. To Nagel’s request for arguments for Rorty’s views, however, Malachowski states that anyone who understands Rorty will see no reason to offer arguments, since “metaphors, images, and all sorts of historical contingencies” are better explanations of intellectual change (166). But even if this account of intellectual change is accurate, only a confusion of the explanatory with the justificatory would lead one to eschew arguments in favor of “metaphors and images.”

Malachowski’s emphasis on views Rorty came to reject makes the resulting position less plausible than it ought to be. When he decides against what could have been a helpful discussion of Rorty’s views on science, he imputes to Rorty the claim that to say that “science captur[es] the truth about the world” is “no more intellectually justified than the rhetorical pats on the back modern politicians tend to award themselves” (16). He quotes approvingly Rorty’s statement that truth is “a compliment paid to sentences that seem to be paying their way and that fit in with other sentences that do so,” and attributes to Rorty a position he calls “pragmatism without truth” (73). While these statements may reflect views Rorty held at one time, they are among the views we have reason to think Rorty includes among the “dumb things” he “said in the past” (TP 92). Malachowski’s introduction to Rorty’s work – with its fine discussions of contingency, liberalism, and its subject’s “Platonic yearnings” – would have done well to leave them there.


1. In his Truth and Progress, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Henceforth TP.

2. See Gary Gutting, Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp 3ff and Arthur Fine, “The Natural Ontological Attitude” in J. Leplin (ed.) Scientific Realism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Gutting’s account is particularly interesting in this connection, since it comes in the midst of an illuminating critical discussion of Rorty’s work.

3. The importance of the distinction between the first-person and third-person perspectives in Rorty’s work is forcefully argued in Akeel Bilgrami’s “Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry?” which can be found, along with a response by Rorty, in R. Brandom (ed.) Rorty and His Critics, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Henceforth RC. 


Rorty – Consequences of Pragmatism (reproduced)

Chubby sort of fellow

Consequences of Pragmatism

Source: Consequences of Pragmatism, published by the University of Minnesota Press, © 1982.
Introduction only reproduced here, under the “Fair Use” provisions;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden 1998.

——The Marxists Internet Archive regrets the passing of Richard Rorty on June 8 2007.——


1. Platonists, Positivists, and Pragmatists

The essays in this book are attempts to draw consequences from a pragmatist theory about truth. This theory says that truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about. For pragmatists, “truth” is just the name of a property which all true statements share. It is what is common to “Bacon did not write Shakespeare,” “It rained yesterday,” “E = mc2” “Love is better than hate,” “The Allegory of Painting was Vermeer’s best work,” “2 plus 2 is 4,” and “There are nondenumerable infinities.” Pragmatists doubt that there is much to be said about this common feature. They doubt this for the same reason they doubt that there is much to be said about the common feature shared by such morally praiseworthy actions as Susan leaving her husband, America joining the war against the Nazis, America pulling out of Vietnam, Socrates not escaping from jail, Roger picking up litter from the trail, and the suicide of the Jews at Masada. They see certain acts as good ones to perform, under the circumstances, but doubt that there is anything general and useful to say about what makes them all good. The assertion of a given sentence – or the adoption of a disposition to assert the sentence, the conscious acquisition of a belief – is a justifiable, praiseworthy act in certain circumstances. But, a fortiori, it is not likely that there is something general and useful to be said about what makes All such actions good-about the common feature of all the sentences which one should acquire a disposition to assert.

Pragmatists think that the history of attempts to isolate the True or the Good, or to define the word “true” or “good,” supports their suspicion that there is no interesting work to be done in this area. It might, of course, have turned out otherwise. People have, oddly enough, found something interesting to say about the essence of Force and the definition of “number.” They might have found something interesting to say about the essence of Truth. But in fact they haven’t. The history of attempts to do so, and of criticisms of such attempts, is roughly coextensive with the history of that literary genre we call “philosophy” – a genre founded by Plato. So pragmatists see the Platonic tradition as having outlived its usefulness. This does not mean that they have a new, non-Platonic set of answers to Platonic questions to offer, but rather that they do not think we should ask those questions any more. When they suggest that we not ask questions about the nature of Truth and Goodness, they do not invoke a theory about the nature of reality or knowledge or man which says that “there is no such thing” as Truth or Goodness. Nor do they have a “relativistic” or “subjectivist” theory of Truth or Goodness. They would simply like to change the subject. They are in a position analogous to that of secularists who urge that research concerning the Nature, or the Will, of God does not get us anywhere. Such secularists are not saying that God does not exist, exactly; they feel unclear about what it would mean to affirm His existence, and thus about the point of denying it. Nor do they have some special, funny, heretical view about God. They just doubt that the vocabulary of theology is one we ought to be using. Similarly, pragmatists keep trying to find ways of making anti-philosophical points in non-philosophical language. For they face a dilemma if their language is too unphilosophical, too “literary,” they will be accused of changing the subject; if it is too philosophical it will embody Platonic assumptions which will make it impossible for the pragmatist to state the conclusion he wants to reach.

All this is complicated by the fact that “philosophy,” like “truth” and “goodness,” is ambiguous. Uncapitalised, “truth” and “goodness” name properties of sentences, or of actions and situations. Capitalised, they are the proper names of objects – goals or standards which can be loved with all one’s heart and soul and mind, objects of ultimate concern. Similarly, “Philosophy” can mean simply what Sellars calls “an attempt to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Pericles, for example, was using this sense of the term when he praised the Athenians for “philosophising without unmanliness” (philosophein aneu malakias). In this sense, Blake is as much a philosopher as Fichte, Henry Adams more of a philosopher than Frege. No one would be dubious about philosophy, taken in this sense. But the word can also denote something more specialised, and very dubious indeed. In this second sense, it can mean following Plato’s and Kant’s lead, asking questions about the nature of certain normative notions (e.g., “truth,” “rationality,” “goodness”) in the hope of better obeying such norms. The idea is to believe more truths or do more good or be more rational by knowing more about Truth or Goodness or Rationality. I shall capitalise the term “philosophy” when used in this second sense, in order to help make the point that Philosophy, Truth, Goodness, and Rationality are interlocked Platonic notions. Pragmatists are saying that the best hope for philosophy is not to practise Philosophy. They think it will not help to say something true to think about Truth, nor will it help to act well to think about Goodness, nor will it help to be rational to think about Rationality.

So far, however, my description of pragmatism has left an important distinction out of account. Within Philosophy, there has been a traditional difference of opinion about the Nature of Truth, a battle between (as Plato put it) the gods and the giants. On the one hand there have been Philosophers like Plato himself who were otherworldly, possessed of a larger hope. They urged that human beings were entitled to self-respect only because they had one foot beyond space and time. On the other hand – especially since Galileo showed how spatio-temporal events could be brought under the sort of elegant mathematical law which Plato suspected might hold only for another world – there have been philosophers (e.g., Hobbes, Marx) who insisted that space and time make up the only Reality there is, and that Truth is Correspondence to that Reality. In the nineteenth century, this opposition crystallised into one between “the transcendental philosophy” and “the empirical philosophy,” between the “Platonists” and the “positivists.” Such terms were, even then, hopelessly vague, but every intellectual knew roughly where he stood in relation to the two movements. To be on the transcendental side was to think that natural science was not the last word – that there was more Truth to be found. To be on the empirical side was to think that natural science – facts about how spatio-temporal things worked – was all the Truth there was. To side with Hegel or Green was to think that some normative sentences about rationality and goodness corresponded to something real, but invisible to natural science. To side with Comte or Mach was to think that such sentences either “reduced” to sentences about spatio-temporal events or were not subjects for serious reflection.

It is important to realise that the empirical philosophers – the positivists – were still doing Philosophy. The Platonic presupposition which unites the gods and the giants, Plato with Democritus, Kant with Mill, Husserl with Russell, is that what the vulgar call “truth” the assemblage of true statements – should be thought of as divided into a lower and an upper division, the division between (in Plato’s terms) mere opinion and genuine knowledge. It is the work of the Philosopher to establish an invidious distinction between such statements as “It rained yesterday” and “Men should try to be just in their dealings.” For Plato the former sort of statement was second-rate, merepistis or doxa. The latter, if perhaps not yet episteme, was at least a plausible candidate. For the positivist tradition which runs from Hobbes to Carnap, the former sentence was a paradigm of what Truth looked like, but the latter was either a prediction about the causal effects of certain events or an “expression of emotion.” What the transcendental philosophers saw as the spiritual, the empirical philosophers saw as the emotional. What the empirical philosophers saw as the achievements of natural science in discovering the nature of Reality, the transcendental philosophers saw as banausic, as true but irrelevant to Truth.

Pragmatism cuts across this transcendental/empirical distinction by questioning the common presupposition that there is an invidious distinction to be drawn between kinds of truths. For the pragmatist, true sentences are not true because they correspond to reality, and so there is no need to worry what sort of reality, if any, a given sentence corresponds to – no need to worry about what “makes” it true. (Just as there is no need to worry, once one has determined what one should do, whether there is something in Reality which makes that act the Right one to perform.) So the pragmatist sees no need to worry about whether Plato or Kant was right in thinking that something non-spatio-temporal made moral judgments true, nor about whether the absence of such a thing means that such judgments are is merely expressions of emotion” or “merely conventional” or “merely subjective. “

This insouciance brings down the scorn of both kinds of Philosophers upon the pragmatist. The Platonist sees the pragmatist as merely a fuzzy-minded sort of positivist. The positivist sees him as lending aid and comfort to Platonism by leveling down the distinction between Objective Truth – the sort of true sentence attained by “the scientific method” – and sentences which lack the precious “correspondence to reality” which only that method can induce. Both join in thinking the pragmatist is not really a philosopher, on the ground that he is not a Philosopher. The pragmatist tries to defend himself by saying that one can be a philosopher precisely by being anti-Philosophical, that the best way to make things hang together is to step back from the issues between Platonists and positivists, and thereby give up the presuppositions of Philosophy.

One difficulty the pragmatist has in making his position clear, therefore, is that he must struggle with the positivist for the position of radical anti-Platonist. He wants to attack Plato with different weapons from those of the positivist, but at first glance he looks like just another variety of positivist. He shares with the positivist the Baconian and Hobbesian notion that knowledge is power, a tool for coping with reality. But he carries this Baconian point through to its extreme, as the positivist does not. He drops the notion of truth as correspondence with reality altogether, and says that modern science does not enable us to cope because it corresponds, it just plain enables us to cope. His argument for the view is that several hundred years of effort have failed to make interesting sense of the notion of “correspondence” (either of thoughts to things or of words to things). The pragmatist takes the moral of this discouraging history to be that “true sentences work because they correspond to the way things are” is no more illuminating than “it is right because it fulfils the Moral Law.” Both remarks, in the pragmatist’s eyes, are empt y metaphysical compliments – harmless as rhetorical pats on the back to the successful inquirer or agent, but troublesome if taken seriously and “clarified” philosophically.

2. Pragmatism and Contemporary Philosophy

Among contemporary philosophers, pragmatism is usually regarded as an outdated philosophical movement – one which flourished in the early years of this century in a rather provincial atmosphere, and which has now been either refuted or aufgehoben. The great pragmatists – James and Dewey – are occasionally praised for their criticisms of Platonism (e.g., Dewey on traditional conceptions of education, James on metaphysical pseudo-problems). But their anti-Platonism is thought by analytic philosophers to have been insufficiently rigorous and by non-analytic philosophers to have been insufficiently radical. For the tradition which originates in logical positivism the pragmatists’ attacks on “transcendental,” quasi-Platonist philosophy need to be sharpened by more careful and detailed analysis of such notions as “meaning” and truth. For the anti-Philosophical tradition in contemporary French and German thought which takes its point of departure from Nietzsche’s criticism of both strands in nineteenth-century Philosophical thought – positivistic as well as transcendental – the American pragmatists are thinkers who never really broke out of positivism, and thus never really broke with Philosophy.

I do not think that either of these dismissive attitudes is justified. on the account of recent analytic philosophy which I offered in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the history of that movement has been marked by a gradual “pragmaticisation” of the original tenets of logical positivism. On the account of recent “Continental” philosophy which I hope to offer in a book on Heidegger which I am writing, James and Nietzsche make parallel criticisms of nineteenth-century thought. Further, James’s version is preferable, for it avoids the “metaphysical” elements in Nietzsche which Heidegger criticises, and, for that matter, the “metaphysical” elements in Heidegger which Derrida criticises. On my view, James and Dewey were not only waiting at the end of the dialectical road which analytic philosophy travelled, but are waiting at the end of the road which, for example, Foucault and Deleuze are currently travelling.

I think that analytic philosophy culminates in Quine, the later Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Davidson – which is to say that it transcends and cancels itself. These thinkers successfully, and rightly, blur the positivist distinctions between the semantic and the pragmatic, the analytic and the synthetic, the linguistic and the empirical, theory and observation. Davidson’s attack on the scheme/content distinction, in particular, summarises and synthesises Wittgenstein’s mockery of his own Tractatus, Quine’s criticisms of Carnap, and Sellars’s attack on the empiricist “Myth of the Given.” Davidson’s holism and coherentism shows how language looks once we get rid of the central presupposition of Philosophy: that true sentences divide into an upper and a lower division – the sentences which correspond to something and those which are “true” only by courtesy or convention.

This Davidsonian way of looking at language lets us avoid hypostatising Language in the way in which the Cartesian epistemological tradition, and particularly the idealist tradition which built upon Kant, hypostatised Thought. For it lets us see language not as a tertium quid between Subject and Object, nor as a medium in which we try to form pictures of reality, but as part of the behaviour of human beings. On this view, the activity of uttering sentences is one of the things people do in order to cope with their environment. The Deweyan notion of language as tool rather than picture is right as far as it goes. But we must be careful not to phrase this analogy so as to suggest that one can separate the tool, Language, from its users and inquire as to its “adequacy” to achieve our purposes. The latter suggestion presupposes that there is some way of breaking out of language in order to compare it with something else. But there is no way to think about either the world or our purposes except by using our language. One can use language to criticise and enlarge itself, as one can exercise one’s body to develop and strengthen and enlarge it, but one cannot see language-as-a-whole in relation to something else to which it applies, or for which it is a means to an end. The arts and the sciences, and philosophy as their self-reflection and integration, constitute such a process. of enlargement and strengthening. But Philosophy, the attempt to say “how language relates to the world” by saying what makes certain sentences true, or certain actions or attitudes good or rational, is, on this view, impossible.

It is the impossible attempt to step outside our skins – the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism – and compare ourselves with something absolute. This Platonic urge to escape from the finitude of one’s time and place, the “merely conventional” and contingent aspects of one’s life, is responsible for the original Platonic distinction between two kinds of true sentence. By attacking this latter distinction, the holistic “pragmaticising” strain in analytic philosophy has helped us see how the metaphysical urge – common to fuzzy Whiteheadians and razor-sharp “scientific realists” – works. It has helped us be sceptical about the idea that some particular science (say physics) or some particular literary genre (say Romantic poetry, or transcendental philosophy) gives us that species of true sentence which is not just a true sentence, but rather a piece of Truth itself. Such sentences may be very useful indeed, but there is not going to be a Philosophical explanation of this utility. That explanation, like the original justification of the assertion of the sentence, will be a parochial matter – a comparison of the sentence with alternative sentences formulated in the same or in other vocabularies. But such comparisons are the business of, for example, the physicist or the poet, or perhaps of the philosopher – not of the Philosopher, the outside expert on the utility, or function, or metaphysical status of Language or of Thought.

The Wittgenstein-Sellars-Quine-Davidson attack on distinctions between classes of sentences is the special contribution of analytic philosophy to the anti-Platonist insistence on the ubiquity of language. This insistence characterises both pragmatism and recent “Continental” philosophising. Here are some examples:

Man makes the word, and the word means nothing which the man has not made it mean, and that only to some other man. But since man can think only by means of words or other external symbols, these might turn around and say: You mean nothing which we have not taught you, and then only so far as you address some word as the interpretant of your thought… … . the word or sign which man uses is the man himself Thus my language is the sum-total of myself; for the man is the thought. (Peirce)

Peirce goes very far in the direction that I have called the de-construction of the transcendental signified, which, at one time or another, would place a reassuring end to the reference from sign to sign. (Derrida)

… psychological nominalism, according to which all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all awareness of abstract entities – indeed, all awareness even of particulars – is a linguistic affair. (Sellars)

It is only in language that one can mean something by something. (Wittgenstein)

Human experience is essentially linguistic. (Gadamer)

… man is in the process of perishing as the being of language continues to shine ever brighter upon our horizon. (Foucault)

Speaking about language turns language almost inevitably into an object … and then its reality vanishes. (Heidegger)

This chorus should not, however, lead us to think that something new and exciting has recently been discovered about Language – e.g., that it is more prevalent than had previously been thought. The authors cited are making only negative points. They are saying that attempts to get back behind language to something which “grounds” it, or which it “expresses,” or to which it might hope to be “adequate,” have not, worked. The ubiquity of language is a matter of language moving into the vacancies left by the failure of all the various candidates for the position of “natural starting-points” of thought, starting-points which are prior to and independent of the way some culture speaks or spoke. (Candidates for such starting-points include clear and distinct ideas, sense-data, categories of the pure understanding, structures of prelinguistic consciousness, and the like.) Peirce and Sellars and Wittgenstein are saying that the regress – of interpretation cannot be cut off by the sort of “intuition” which Cartesian epistemology took for granted. Gadamer and Derrida are saying that our culture has been dominated by the notion of a “transcendental signified” which, by cutting off this regress, would bring us out from contingency and convention and into the Truth. Foucault is saying that we are gradually losing our grip on the “metaphysical comfort” which that Philosophical tradition provided – its picture of Man as having a “double” (the soul, the Noumenal Self) who uses Reality’s own language rather than merely the vocabulary of a time and a place. Finally, Heidegger is cautioning that if we try to make Language into a new topic of Philosophical inquiry we shall simply recreate the hopeless old Philosophical puzzles which we used to raise about Being or Thought.

This last point amounts to saying that what Gustav Bergmann called “the linguistic turn” should not be seen as the logical positivists saw it – as enabling us to ask Kantian questions without having to trespass on the psychologists’ turf by talking, with Kant, about “experience” or “consciousness.” That was, indeed, the initial motive for the “turn,” but (thanks to the holism and pragmatism of the authors I have cited) analytic philosophy of language was able to transcend this Kantian motive and adopt a naturalistic, behaviouristic attitude toward language. This attitude has led it to the same outcome as the “Continental” reaction against the traditional Kantian problematic, the reaction found in Nietzsche and Heidegger. This convergence shows that the traditional association of analytic philosophy with tough-minded positivism and of “Continental” philosophy with tender-minded Platonism is completely misleading. The pragmaticisation of analytic philosophy gratified the logical positivists’ hopes, but not in the fashion which they had envisaged. it did not find a way for Philosophy to become “scientific,” but rather found a way of setting Philosophy to one side. This post-positivistic kind of analytic philosophy thus comes to resemble the Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida tradition in beginning with criticism of Platonism and ending in criticism of Philosophy as such. Both traditions are now in a period of doubt about their own status. Both are living between a repudiated past and a dimly seen post-Philosophical future.

3. The Realist Reaction (I): Technical Realism

Before going on to speculate about what a post-Philosophical culture might look like, I should make clear that my description of the current Philosophical scene has been deliberately oversimplified. So far I have ignored the anti-pragmatist backlash. The picture I have been sketching shows how things looked about ten years ago – or, at least, how they looked to an optimistic pragmatist. In the subsequent decade there has been, on both sides of the Channel, a reaction in favour of “realism” – a term which has come to be synonymous with “anti-pragmatism.” This reaction has had three distinct motives: (1) the view that recent, technical developments in the philosophy of language have raised doubt about traditional pragmatist criticisms of the “correspondence theory of truth,” or, at least, have made it necessary for the pragmatist to answer some hard, technical questions before proceeding further; (2) the sense that the “depth,” the human significance, of the traditional textbook “problems of philosophy” has been underestimated, that pragmatists have lumped real problems together with pseudo-problems in a feckless orgy of “dissolution”; (3) the sense that something important would be lost if Philosophy as an autonomous discipline, as a Fach, were to fade from the cultural scene (in the way in which theology has faded).

This third motive – the fear of what would happen if there were merely philosophy, but no Philosophy – is not simply the defensive reaction of specialists threatened with unemployment. It is a conviction that a culture without Philosophy would be “irrationalist” – that a precious human capacity would lie unused, or a central human virtue no longer be exemplified. This motive is shared by many philosophy professors in France and Germany and by many analytic philosophers in Britain and America. The former would like something to do that is not merely the endless, repetitive, literary-historical “deconstruction” of the “Western metaphysics of presence” which was Heidegger’s legacy. The latter would like to recapture the spirit of the early logical positivists, the sense that philosophy is the accumulation of “results” by patient, rigorous, preferably cooperative work on precisely stated problems (the spirit characteristic of the younger, rather than of the older, Wittgenstein). So philosophy professors on the Continent are casting longing glances toward analytic philosophy – and particularly toward the “realist” analytic philosophers who take Philosophical problems seriously. Conversely, admirers of “Continental” philosophy (e.g., of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Gadamer, Foucault) are more welcome in American and British departments of, e.g., comparative literature and political science, than in departments of philosophy. On both continents there is fear of Philosophy’s losing its traditional claim to “scientific” status and of its relegation to “the merely literary.”

I shall talk about this fear in some detail later, in connection with the prospects for a culture in which the science/literature distinction would no longer matter. But here I shall concentrate on the first and second motives I just listed. These are associated with two fairly distinct groups of people. The first motive is characteristic of philosophers of language such as Saul Kripke and Michael Dummett, the second with less specialised and more broadly ranging writers like Stanley Cavell and Thomas Nagel. I shall call those who turn Kripke’s views on reference to the purposes of a realistic epistemology (e.g., Hartry Field, Richard Boyd, and, sometimes, Hilary Putnam) “technical realists.” I shall call Cavell, Nagel (and others, such as Thompson Clarke and Barry Stroud). “intuitive realists.” The latter object that the pragmatists’ dissolutions of traditional problems are “verificationist”: that is, pragmatists think our inability to say what would count as confirming or disconfirming a given solution to a problem is a reason for setting the problem aside. To take this view is, Nagel tells us, to fail to recognise that “unsolvable problems are not for that reason unreal.” intuitive realists judge verificationism by its fruits, and argue that the pragmatist belief in the ubiquity of language leads to the inability to recognise that philosophical problems arise precisely where language is inadequate to the facts. “My realism about the subjective domain in all its forms,” Nagel says, “implies a belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts.”

Technical realists, by contrast, judge pragmatism wrong not because it leads to superficial dismissals of deep problems, but because it is based on a false, “verificationist” philosophy of language. They dislike “verificationism” not because of its meta-philosophical fruits, but because they see it as a misunderstanding of the relation between language and the world. on their view, Quine and Wittgenstein wrongly followed Frege in thinking that meaning – something determined by the intentions of the user of a word – determines reference, what the word picks out in the world. On the basis of the “new theory of reference” originated by Saul Kripke, they say, we can now construct a better, non-Fregean picture of word-world relationships. Whereas Frege, like Kant, thought of our concepts as carving up an undifferentiated manifold in accordance with our interests (a view which leads fairly directly to Sellars’s “psychological nominalism” and a Goodman-like insouciance about ontology), Kripke sees the world as already divided not only into particulars, but into natural kinds of particulars and even into essential and accidental features of those particulars and kinds. The question “Is ‘X is f’ true?” is thus to be answered by discovering what – as a matter of physical fact, not of anybody’s intentions – ‘X’ refers to, and then discovering whether that particular or kind is f. only by such a “physicalistic” theory of reference, technical realists say, can the notion of “truth as correspondence to reality” be preserved. By contrast, the pragmatist answers this question by inquiring whether, all things (and especially our purposes in using the terms ‘X’ and ‘f’) considered, ‘X is f’ is a more useful belief to have than its contradictory, or than some belief expressed in different terms altogether. The pragmatist agrees that if one wants to preserve the notion of “correspondence with reality” then a physicalistic theory of reference is necessary – but he sees no point in preserving that notion. The pragmatist has no notion of truth which would enable him to make sense of the claim that if we achieved everything we ever hoped to achieve by making assertions we might still be making false assertions, failing to “correspond” to something. As Putnam says:

The trouble is that for a strong anti-realist [e.g., a pragmatist] truth makes no sense except as an intra-theoretic notion. The anti-realist can use truth intra-theoretically in the sense of a “redundancy theory” [i.e., a theory according to which “S is true” means exactly, only, what “S” means) but he does not have the notion of truth and reference available extra-theoretically. But extension [reference] is tied to the notion of truth. The extension of a term is just what the term is true of. Rather than try to retain the notion of truth via an awkward operationalism, the anti-realist should reject the notion of extension as he does the notion of truth (in any extra-theoretic sense). Like Dewey, he can fall back on a notion of ‘warranted assertibility’ instead of truth . . .

The question which technical realism raises, then, is: are there technical reasons, within the philosophy of language, for retaining or discarding this extra-theoretic notion? Are there non-intuitive ways of deciding whether, as the pragmatist thinks, the question of what ‘X’ refers to is a sociological matter, a question of how best to make sense of a community’s linguistic behaviour, or whether, as Hartry Field says,

one aspect of the sociological role of a term is the role that term has in the psychologies of different members of a linguistic community; another aspect, irreducible to the first [italics added), is what physical objects or physical property the term stands for.

It is not clear, however, what these technical, non-intuitive ways might be. For it is not clear what data the philosophy of language must explain. The most frequently cited datum is that science works, succeeds – enables us to cure diseases, blow up cities, and the like. How, realists ask, would this be possible if some scientific statements did not correspond to the way things are in themselves? How, pragmatists rejoin, does that count as an explanation? What further specification of the “correspondence” relation can be given which will enable this explanation to be better than “dormitive power” (Molière’s doctor’s explanation of why opium puts people to sleep)? What, so to speak, corresponds to the microstructure of opium in this case?

What is the microstructure of “corresponding”? The Tarskian apparatus of truth-conditions and satisfaction-relations does not fill the bill, because that apparatus is equally well adapted to physicalist “building-block” theories of reference like Field’s and to coherentist, holistic, pragmatical theories like Davidson’s. When realists like Field argue that Tarski’s account of truth is merely a place-holder, like Mendel’s account of “gene,” which requires physicalistic “reduction to non-semantical terms,” pragmatists reply (with Stephen Leeds) that “true” (like “good” and unlike “gene”) is not an explanatory notion. (Or that, if it is, the structure of the explanations in which it is used needs to be spelled out.)

The search for technical grounds on which to argue the pragmatist-realist issue is sometimes ended artificially by the realist assuming that the pragmatist not only (as Putnam says) follows Dewey in “falling back on a notion of ‘warranted assertibility’ instead of truth “ but uses the latter notion to analyse the meaning of “true.” Putnam is right that no such analysis will work. But the pragmatist, if he is wise, will not succumb to the temptation to fill the blank in

is true if and only if is assertible …

with “at the end of inquiry” or “by the standards of our culture” or with anything else. He will recognise the strength of Putnam’s naturalistic fallacy” argument: Just as nothing can fill the blank in

A is the best thing to do in circumstances C if and only if …

so, a fortiori, nothing will fill the blank in

Asserting S is the best thing to do in if and only if …

If the pragmatist is advised that he must not confuse the advisability of asserting S with the truth of S, he will respond. that the advice is question-begging. The question is precisely whether “the true” is more than what William James defined it as: “the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.” On James’s view, “true” resembles “good” or “rational” in being a normative notion, a compliment paid to sentences that seem to be paying their way and that fit in with other sentences which are doing so. To think that Truth is “out there” is, on their view, on all fours with the Platonic view that The Good is “out there.” To think that we are “irrationalist” insofar as it does not “gratify our souls to know/That though we perish, truth is so” is like thinking that we are “irrationalist” just insofar as it does not gratify our moral sense to think that The Moral Law shines resplendent over the noumenal world, regardless of the vicissitudes of spatio-temporal lives. For the pragmatist, the notion of “truth” as something “objective “ is just a confusion between

(I) Most of the world is as it is whatever we think about it (that is, our beliefs have very limited causal efficacy)


(II) There is something out there in addition to the world called “the truth about the world” (what James sarcastically called “this tertium quid intermediate between the facts per se, on the one hand, and all knowledge of them, actual or potential, on the other”).

The pragmatist wholeheartedly assents to (I) – not as an article of metaphysical faith but simply as a belief that we have never had any reason to doubt – and cannot make sense of (II). When the realist tries to explain (II) with

(III) The truth about the world consists in a relation of “correspondence” between certain sentences (many of which, no doubt, have yet to be formulated) and the world itself the pragmatist can only fall back on saying, once again, that many centuries of attempts to explain what “correspondence” is have failed, especially when it comes to explaining how the final vocabulary of future physics will somehow be Nature’s Own – the one which, at long last, lets us formulate sentences which lock on to Nature’s own way of thinking of Herself.

For these reasons, the pragmatist does not think that, whatever else philosophy of language may do, it is going to come up with a definition of “true” which gets beyond James. He happily grants that it can do a lot of other things. For example, it can, following Tarski, show what it would be like to define a truth-predicate for a given language. The pragmatist can agree with Davidson that to define such a predicate – to develop a truth-theory for the sentences of English, e.g, – would be a good way, perhaps the only way, to exhibit a natural language as a learnable, recursive structure, and thus to give a systematic theory of meaning for the language. But he agrees with Davidson that such an exhibition is all that Tarski can give us, and all that can be milked out of Philosophical reflection on Truth.

Just as the pragmatist should not succumb to the temptation to capture the intuitive content of our notion of truth” (including whatever it is in that notion which makes realism tempting), so he should not succumb to the temptation held out by Michael Dummett to take sides on the issue of “bivalence.” Dummett (who has his own doubts about realism) has suggested that a lot of traditional issues in the area of the pragmatist-realist debate can be clarified by the technical apparatus of philosophy of language, along the following lines:

In a variety of different areas there arises a philosophical dispute of the same general character: the dispute for or against. realism concerning statements within a given type of subject-matter, or, better, statements of a certain general type. [Dummett elsewhere lists moral statements, mathematical statements, statements about the past, and modal statements as examples of such types.] Such a dispute consists in an opposition between two points of view concerning the kind of meaning possessed by statements of the kind in question, and hence about the application to them of the notions of truth and falsity. For the realist, we have assigned a meaning to these statements in such a way that we know, for each statement, what has to be the case for it to be true… . The condition for the truth of a statement is not, in general, a condition we are capable of recognising as obtaining whenever it obtains, or even one for which we have an effective procedure for determining whether it obtains or not. We have therefore succeeded in ascribing to our statements a meaning of such a kind that their truth or falsity is, in general, independent of whether we know, or have any means of knowing, what truth-value they have. …

Opposed to this realist account of statements in some given class is the anti-realist interpretation. According to this, the meanings of statements of the class in question are given to us, not in terms of the conditions under which these statements are true or false, conceived of as conditions which obtain or do not obtain independently of our knowledge or capacity for knowledge, but in terms of the conditions which we recognise as establishing the truth or falsity of statements of that class.

“Bivalence” is the property of being either true or false, so Dummett thinks of a “realistic” view about a certain area (say, moral values, or possible worlds) as asserting bivalence for statements about such things. His way of formulating the realist-vs.-anti-realist issue thus suggests that the pragmatist denies bivalence for all statements, the “extreme” realist asserts it for all statements, while the level-headed majority sensibly discriminate between the bivalent statements of, e.g., physics and the non-bivalent statements of, e.g., morals. “Bivalence” thus joins “ontological commitment” as a way of expressing old-fashioned metaphysical views in up-to-date semantical language. If the pragmatist is viewed as a quasi-idealist metaphysician who is ontologically committed only to ideas or sentences, and does not believe that there is anything “out there” which makes any sort of statement true, then he will fit neatly into Dummett’s scheme.

But, of course, this is not the pragmatist’s picture of himself. He does not think of himself as any kind of a metaphysician, because he does not understand the notion of “there being… out there” (except in the literal sense of ‘out there’ in which it means “at a position in space”). He does not find it helpful to explicate the Platonist’s conviction about The Good or The Numbers by saying that the Platonist believes that “There is truth-or-falsity about …regardless of the state of our knowledge or the availability of procedures for inquiry.” The “is” in this sentence seems to him just as obscure as the “is” in “Truth is so.” Confronted with the passage from Dummett cited above, the pragmatist wonders how one goes about telling one “kind of meaning” from another, and what it would be like to have “intuitions” about the bivalence or non-bivalence of kinds of statements. He is a pragmatist just because he doesn’t have such intuitions (or wants to get rid of whatever such intuitions he may have). When he asks himself, about a given statement S, whether he “knows what has to be the case for it to be true” or merely knows “the conditions which we recognise as establishing the truth or falsity of statements of that class,” he feels as helpless as when asked, “Are you really in love, or merely inflamed by passion?” He is inclined to suspect that it is not a very useful question, and that at any rate introspection is not the way to answer it. But in the case of bivalence it is not clear that there is another way. Dummett does not help us see what to count as a good argument for asserting bivalence of, e.g., moral or modal statements; he merely says that there are some people who do assert this and some who don’t, presumably having been born with different metaphysical temperaments. If one is born without metaphysical views – or if, having become pessimistic about the utility of Philosophy, one is self-consciously attempting to eschew such views – then one will feel that Dummett’s reconstruction of the traditional issues explicates the obscure with the equally obscure.

What I have said about Field and about Dummett is intended to cast doubt on the “technical realist’s” view that the pragmatist-realist issue should be fought out on some narrow, dearly demarcated ground within the philosophy of language. There is no such ground. This is not, to be sure, the fault of philosophy of language, but of the pragmatist. He refuses to take a stand – to provide an “analysis” of “S is true,” for example, or to either assert or deny bivalence. He refuses to make a move in any of the games in which he is invited to take part. The only point at which “referential semantics” or “bivalence” becomes of interest to him comes when somebody tries to treat these notions as explanatory, as not just expressing intuitions but as doing some work – explaining, for example, “why science is so successful.” At this point the pragmatist hauls out his bag of tried-and-true dialectical gambits.” He proceeds to argue that there is no pragmatic difference, no difference that makes a difference, between “it works because it’s true” and “it’s true because it works” any more than between “it’s pious because the gods love it” and “the gods love it because it’s pious.” Alternatively, he argues that there is no pragmatic difference between the nature of truth and the test of truth, and that the test of truth, of what statements to assert, is (except maybe for a few perceptual statements) not “comparison with reality.” All these gambits will be felt by the realist to be question-begging, since the realist intuits that some differences can be real withoutmaking a difference, that sometimes the ordo essendi is different from ordo cognoscendi, sometimes the nature of X is not our test for the presence of Xness. And so it goes.

What we should conclude, I think, is that technical realism collapses into intuitive realism – that the only debating point which the realist has is his conviction that the raising of the good old metaphysical problems (are there really universals? are there really causally efficacious physical objects, or did we just posit them?) served some good purpose, brought something to light, was important. What the pragmatist wants to debate is just this point. He does not want to discuss necessary and sufficient conditions for a sentence being true, but precisely whether the practice which hopes to find a Philosophical way of isolating the essence of Truth has, in fact, paid off. So the issue between him and the intuitive realist is a matter of what to make of the history of that practice – what to make of the history of Philosophy. The real issue is about the place of Philosophy in Western philosophy, the place within the intellectual history of the West of the particular series of texts which raise the “deep” Philosophical problems which the realist wants to preserve.

4. The Realist Reaction (II): Intuitive Realism

What really needs debate between the pragmatist and the intuitive realist is not whether we have intuitions to the effect that “truth is more than assertibility” or “there is more to pains than brain-states” or “there is a clash between modem physics and our sense of moral responsibility.” Of course we have such intuitions. How could we escape having them? We have been educated within an intellectual tradition built around such claims – just as we used to be educated within an intellectual tradition built around such claims as “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” “Man’s dignity consists in his link with a supernatural order,” and “One must not mock holy things.” But it begs the question between pragmatist and realist to say that we must find a philosophical view which “captures” such intuitions. The pragmatist is urging that we do our best to stop having such intuitions, that we develop a new intellectual tradition.

What strikes intuitive realists as offensive about this suggestion is that it seems as dishonest to suppress intuitions as it is to suppress experimental data. On their conception, philosophy (not merely Philosophy) requires one to do justice to everybody’s intuitions. just as social justice is what would be brought about by institutions whose existence could be justified to every citizen, so intellectual justice would be made possible by finding theses which everyone would, given sufficient time and dialectical ability, accept. This view of intellectual life presupposes either that, contrary to the prophets of the ubiquity of language cited above, language does not go all the way down, or that, contrary to the appearances, all vocabularies are commensurable. The first alternative amounts to saying that some intuitions, at least, are not a function of the way one has been brought up to talk, of the texts and people one has encountered. The second amounts to saying that the intuitions built into the vocabularies of Homeric warriors, Buddhist sages, Enlightenment scientists, and contemporary French literary critics, are not really as different as they seem – that there are common elements in each which Philosophy can isolate and use to formulate theses which it would be rational for all these people to accept, and problems which they all face.

The pragmatist, on the other hand, thinks that the quest for a universal human community will be self-defeating if it tries to preserve the elements of every intellectual tradition, all the “deep” intuitions everybody has ever had. it is not to be achieved by an attempt at commensuration, at a common vocabulary which isolates the common human essence of Achilles and the Buddha, Lavoisier and Derrida. Rather, it is to be reached, if at all, by acts, of making rather than of finding – by poetic rather than Philosophical achievement. The culture which will transcend, and thus unite, East and West, or the Earthlings and the Galactics, is not likely to be one which does equal justice to each, but one which looks back on both with the amused condescension typical of later generations looking back at their ancestors. So the pragmatist’s quarrel with the intuitive realist should be about the status of intuitions – about their right to be respected as opposed to how particular intuitions might be “synthesised” or explained away.” To treat his opponent properly, the pragmatist must begin by admitting that the realistic intuitions in question are as deep and compelling as the realist says they are. But he should then try to change the subject by asking, “And what should we do about such intuitions – extirpate them, or find a vocabulary which does justice to them?”

From the pragmatist point of view the claim that the issues which the nineteenth century enshrined in its textbooks as “the central problems of philosophy” are “deep” is simply the claim that you will not understand a certain period in the history of Europe unless you can get some idea of what it was like to be preoccupied by such questions. (Consider parallel claims about the “depth” of the problems about Patripassianism, Arianism, etc., discussed by certain Fathers of the Church.) The pragmatist is even willing to expand his range and say, with Heidegger, that you won’t understand the West unless you understand what it was like to be bothered by the kinds of issues which bothered Plato. Intuitive realists, rather than “stepping back” in the historicist manner of Heidegger and Dewey, or the quasi-anthropological manner of Foucault, devote themselves to safeguarding the tradition, to making us even more deeply Western. The way in which they do this is illustrated by Clarke’s and Cavell’s attempt to see “the legacy of scepticism” not as a question about whether we can be sure we’re not dreaming but as a question about what sort of being could ask itself such a question.” They use the existence of figures like Descartes as indications of something important about human beings, not just about the modem West.

The best illustration of this strategy is Nagel’s way of updating Kant by bringing a whole series of apparently disparate problems under the rubric “ Subjective-Objective, “ just as Kant brought a partially overlapping set of problems under the rubric “Conditioned-Unconditioned.” Nagel echoes Kant in saying:

It may be true that some philosophical problems have no solution. I suspect that this is true of the deepest and oldest of them. They show us the limits of our understanding. In that case such insight as we can achieve depends on maintaining a strong grasp of the problem instead of abandoning it, and coming to understand the failure of each new attempt at a solution, and of earlier attempts. (That is why we study the works of philosophers like Plato and Berkeley, whose views are accepted by no one.) Unsolvable problems are not for that reason unreal .

As an illustration of what Nagel has in mind, consider his example of the problem of “moral luck” – the fact that one can be morally praised or blamed only for what is under one’s control, yet practically nothing is. As Nagel says:

The area of genuine agency, and therefore of legitimate moral judgment, seems to shrink under this scrutiny to an extensionless point. Everything seems to result from the combined influence of factors, antecedent and posterior to action, that are not within the agent’s control.

Nagel thinks that a typically shallow, verificationist “solution” to this problem is available. We can get such a solution (Hume’s) by going into detail about what sorts of external factors we do and don’t count as diminishing the moral worth of an action:

This compatibilist account of our moral judgments would leave room for the ordinary conditions of responsibility – the absence of coercion, ignorance, or involuntary movement – as part of the determination of what someone has done – but it is understood not to exclude the influence of a great deal that he has not done.

But this relaxed, pragmatical, Humean attitude-the attitude which says that there is no deep truth about Freedom of the Will, and that people are morally responsible for whatever their peers tend to hold them morally responsible for – fails to explain why there has been thought to be a problem here:

The only thing wrong with this solution is its failure to explain how sceptical problems arise. For they arise not from the imposition of an arbitrary external requirement, but from the nature of moral judgment itself. Something in the ordinary idea of what someone does must explain how it can seem necessary to subtract from it anything that merely happens – even though the ultimate consequence of such subtraction is that nothing remains.

But this is not to say that we need a metaphysical account of the Nature of Freedom of the sort which Kant (at least in some passages) seems to give us. Rather,

… in a sense the problem has no solution, because something in the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events or people being things.

Since there is, so to speak, nothing else for people to be but things, we are left with an intuition – one which shows us “the limits of our understanding,” and thus of our language.

Contrast, now, Nagel’s attitude toward “the nature of moral judgment” with iris Murdoch’s. The Kantian attempt to isolate an agent who is not a spatio-temporal thing is seen by Murdoch as an unfortunate and perverse turn which Western thought has taken. Within a certain post-Kantian tradition, she says:

immense care is taken to picture the will as isolated. it is isolated from belief, from reason, from feeling, and is yet the essential center of the self… .

This existentialist conception of the agent as isolated will goes along, Murdoch says, with “a very powerful image” of man which she finds “alien and implausible” – one which is “a happy and fruitful marriage of Kantian liberalism with Wittgensteinian logic solemnised by Freud.” On Murdoch’s view,

Existentialism, in both its Continental and its Anglo-Saxon versions, is an attempt to solve the problem without really facing it: to solve it by attributing to the individual an empty lonely freedom. … What it pictures is indeed the fearful solitude of the individual marooned upon a tiny island in the middle of a sea of scientific facts, and morality escaping from science only by a wild leap of will.

Instead of reinforcing this picture (as Nagel and Sartre do), Murdoch wants to get behind Kantian notions of will, behind the Kantian formulation of an antithesis between determinism and responsibility, behind the Kantian distinction between the moral self and the empirical self. She wants to recapture the vocabulary of moral reflection which a sixteenth-century Christian believer inclined toward Platonism would have used: one in which “perfection” is a central element, in which assignment of moral responsibility is a rather incidental element, and in which the discovery of a self (one’s own or another’s) is the endless task of love.

In contrasting Nagel and Murdoch, I am not trying (misleadingly) to enlist Murdoch as a fellow-pragmatist, nor (falsely) to accuse Nagel of blindness to the variety of moral consciousness which Murdoch represents. Rather, I want to illustrate the difference between taking a standard philosophical problem (or cluster of interrelated problems such as free will, selfhood, agency, and responsibility) and asking, on the one hand, “What is its essence? To what ineffable depths, what limit of language, does it lead us? What does it show us about being human? ” and asking, on the other hand, “What sort of people would see these problems? What vocabulary, what image of man, would produce such problems? Why, insofar as we are gripped by these problems, do we see them as deep rather than as reductiones ad absurdum of a vocabulary? What does the persistence of such problems show us about being twentieth-century Europeans?” Nagel is certainly right, and splendidly lucid, about the way in which a set of ideas, illustrated best by Kant, shoves us toward the notion of something called “the subjective” – the personal point of view, what science doesn’t catch, what no “stepping back” could catch, what forms a limit to the understanding. But how do we know whether to say, “So much the worse for the solubility of philosophical problems, for the reach of language, for our ‘verificationist’ impulses,” or whether to say, “So much the worse for the Philosophical ideas which have led us to such an impasse”?

The same question arises about the other philosophical problems which Nagel brings under his “Subjective-Objective” rubric. The clash between “verificationist” and “realist” intuitions is perhaps best illustrated by Nagel’s celebrated paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel here appeals to our intuition that “there is something which it is like” to be a bat or a dog but nothing which it is like to be an atom or a brick, and says that this intuition is what contemporary Wittgensteinian, Rylean, anti-Cartesian philosophy of mind “fails to capture.” The culmination of the latter philosophical movement is the cavalier attitude toward “raw feels” – e.g., the sheer phenomenological qualitative ipseity of pain – suggested by Daniel Dennett:

I recommend giving up incorrigibility with regard to pain altogether, in fact giving up all “essential” features of pain, and letting pain states be whatever “natural kind” states the brain scientists find (if they ever do find any) that normally produce all the normal effects… . One of our intuitions about pain is that whether or not one is in pain is a brute fact, not a matter of decision to serve the convenience of the theorist. I recommend against trying to preserve that intuition, but if you disagree, whatever theory I produce, however predictive and elegant, will not be in your lights a theory of pain, but only a theory of what I illicitly choose to call pain. But if, as I have claimed, the intuitions we would have to honour were we to honour them all do not form a consistent set, there can be no true theory of pain, and so no computer or robot could instantiate the true theory of pain, which it would have to do to feel real pain… . The inability of a robot model to satisfy all our intuitive demands may be due not to any irredeemable mysteriousness about the phenomenon of pain, but to irredeemable incoherence in our ordinary concept of pain.

Nagel is one of those who disagrees with Dennett’s recommendation. His anti-verificationism comes out most strongly in the following passage:

… if things emerged from a spaceship which we could not be sure were machines or conscious beings, what we were wondering would have an answer even if the things were so different from anything we were familiar with that we could never discover it. It would depend on whether there was something it was like to be them, not on whether behavioural similarities warranted our saying so… .

I therefore seem to be drawn to a position more ‘realistic’ than Wittgenstein’s. This may be because I am drawn to positions more realistic than Wittgenstein’s about everything, not just the mental. I believe that the question about whether the things coming out of the spaceship are conscious must have an answer. Wittgenstein would presumably say that this assumption reflects a groundless confidence that a certain picture unambiguously determines its own application. That is the picture of something going on in their heads (or whatever they have in place of heads) that cannot be observed by dissection.

Whatever picture may use to represent the idea, it does seem to me that I know what it means to ask whether there is something it is like to be them, and that the answer to that question is what determines whether they are conscious – not the possibility of extending mental ascriptions on evidence analogous to the human case. Conscious mental states are real states of something, whether they are mine or those of an alien creature. Perhaps Wittgenstein’s view can accommodate this intuition, but I do not at the moment see how.

Wittgenstein certainly cannot accommodate this intuition. The question is whether he should be asked to: whether we should abandon the pragmatical “verificationist” intuition that “every difference must make a difference” (expressed by Wittgenstein in the remark “A wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism”) or instead abandon Nagel’s intuition about consciousness. We certainly have both intuitions. For Nagel, their compresence shows that the limit of Understanding has been reached, that an ultimate depth has been plumbed – just as the discovery of an antinomy indicated to Kant that something transcendental had been encountered. For Wittgenstein, it merely shows that the Cartesian tradition has sketched a compelling picture a picture which “held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”

I said at the beginning of this section that there were two alternative ways in which the intuitive realist might respond to the pragmatist’s suggestion that some intuitions should be deliberately repressed. He might say either that language does not go all the way down – that there is a kind of awareness of facts which is not expressible in language and which no argument could render dubious – or, more mildly, that there is a core language which is common to all traditions and which needs to be isolated. In a confrontation with Murdoch one can imagine Nagel making the second claim – arguing that even the kind of moral discourse which Murdoch recommends must wind up with the same conception of “the isolated will” as Kantian moral discourse. But in a confrontation with Dennett’s attempt to weed out our intuitions Nagel must make the first claim. He has to o all the way, and deny that our knowledge is limited by the language we speak. He says as much in the following passage:

If anyone is inclined to deny that we can believe in the existence of facts like this whose exact nature we cannot possibly conceive, he should reflect that in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us… . we know they would be wrong to draw such a sceptical conclusion because we know what it is like to be us. And we know that while it includes an enormous amount of variation and complexity, and while we do not possess the vocabulary to describe it adequately, its subjective character is highly specific, and in some respects describable in terms that can be understood only by creatures like us [italics added].

Here we hit a bedrock meta-philosophical issue: can one ever appeal to nonlinguistic knowledge in philosophical argument? This is the question of whether a dialectical impasse is the mark of philosophical depth or of a bad language, one which needs to be replaced with one which will not lead to such impasses. That is just the issue about the status of intuitions, which I said above was the real issue between the pragmatist and the realist. The hunch that, e.g., reflection upon anything worthy of the name “moral judgment” will eventually lead us to the problems Nagel describes is a discussable question – one upon which the history of ethics can shed light. But the intuition that there is something ineffable which it is like to be us – something which one cannot learn about by believing true propositions but only by being like that – is not something on which anything could throw further light. The claim is either deep or empty.

The pragmatist sees it as empty – indeed, he sees many of Nagel’s discussions of “the subjective” as drawing a line around a vacant place in the middle of the web of words, and then claiming that there is something there rather than nothing. But this is not because he has independent arguments for a Philosophical theory to the effect that (in Sellars’s words) “All awareness is a linguistic affair,” or that “The meaning of a proposition is its method of verification.” Such slogans as these are not the result of Philosophical inquiry into Awareness or Meaning, but merely ways of cautioning the public against the Philosophical tradition. (As “No taxation without representation” was not a discovery about the nature of Taxation, but an expression of distrust in the British Parliament of the day.) There are no fast little arguments to show that there are no such things as intuitions – arguments which are themselves based on something stronger than intuitions. For the pragmatist, the only thing wrong with Nagel’s intuitions is that they are being used to legitimise a vocabulary (the Kantian vocabulary in morals, the Cartesian vocabulary in philosophy of mind) which the pragmatist thinks should be eradicated rather than reinforced. But his only argument for thinking that these intuitions and vocabularies should be eradicated is that the intellectual tradition to which they belong has not paid off, is more trouble than it is worth, has become an incubus. Nagel’s dogmatism of intuitions is no worse, or better, than the pragmatist’s inability to give non-circular arguments.

This upshot of the confrontation between the pragmatist and the intuitive realist about the status of intuitions can be described either as a conflict of intuitions about the importance of intuitions, or as a preference for one vocabulary over another. The realist will favour the first description, and the pragmatist, the second. it does not matter which description one uses, as long as it is clear that the issue is one about whether philosophy should try to find natural starting-points which are distinct from cultural traditions. This is, once again, the issue of whether philosophy should be – Philosophy. The intuitive realist thinks that there is such a thing as Philosophical truth because he thinks that, deep down beneath all the texts, there is something which is not just one more text but that to which various texts are trying to be “adequate.” The pragmatist does not think that there is anything like that. He does not even think that there is anything isolable as “the purposes which we construct vocabularies and cultures to fulfil” against which to test vocabularies and cultures. But he does think that in the process of playing vocabularies and cultures off against each other, we produce new and better ways of talking and acting – not better by reference to a previously known standard, but just better in the sense that they come to seem clearly better than their predecessors.

5. A Post-Philosophical Culture

I began by saying that the pragmatist refused to accept the Philosophical distinction between first-rate truth-by-correspondence-to reality and second-rate truth-as-what-it-is-good-to-believe. I said that this raised the question of whether a culture could get along without Philosophy, without the Platonic attempt to sift out the merely contingent and conventional truths from the Truths which were something more than that. The last two sections, in which I have been going over the latest round of “realist” objections to pragmatism, has brought us back to my initial distinction between philosophy and Philosophy. Pragmatism denies the possibility of getting beyond the Sellarsian notion of “seeing how things hang together” – which, for the bookish intellectual of recent times, means seeing how all the various vocabularies of all the various epochs and cultures hang together. “Intuition” is just the latest name for a device which will get us off the literary-historical-anthropological-political merry-go-round which such intellectuals ride, and onto something “progressive” and “scientific” – a device which will get us from philosophy to Philosophy.

I remarked earlier that a third motive for the recent anti-pragmatist backlash is simply the hope of getting off this merry-go-round. This hope is a correlate of the fear that if there is nothing quasi-scientific for philosophy as an academic discipline to do, if there is no properly professional Fach which distinguishes the philosophy professor from the historian or the literary critic, then something will have been lost which has been central to Western intellectual life. This fear is, to be sure, justified. If Philosophy disappears, something will have been lost which was central to Western intellectual life – just as something central was lost when religious intuitions were weeded out from among the intellectually respectable candidates for Philosophical articulation. But the Enlightenment thought, rightly, that what would succeed religion would be better. The pragmatist is betting that what succeeds the “scientific,” positivist culture which the Enlightenment produced will be better.

The question of whether the pragmatist is right to be so sanguine is the question of whether a culture is imaginable, or desirable, in which no one – or at least no intellectual-believes that we have, deep down inside us, a criterion for telling whether we are in touch with reality or not, when we are in the Truth. This would be a culture in which neither the priests nor the physicists nor the poets nor the Party were thought of as more “rational,” or more “scientific” or “deeper” than one another. No particular portion of culture would be singled out as exemplifying (or signally failing to exemplify) the condition to which the rest aspired. There would be no sense that, beyond the current intra-disciplinary criteria, which, for example, good priests or good physicists obeyed, there were other, transdisciplinary, transcultural, ahistorical criteria, which they also obeyed.

There would still be hero-worship in such a culture, but it would not be worship of heroes as children of the gods, as marked off from the rest of mankind by closeness to the Immortal. It would simply be admiration of exceptional men and women who were very good at doing the quite diverse kinds of things they did. Such people would not be those who knew a Secret, who had won through to the Truth, but simply people who were good at being human.

A fortiori, such a culture would contain nobody called “the Philosopher” who could explain why and how certain areas of culture enjoyed a special relation to reality. Such a culture would, doubtless, contain specialists in seeing how things hung together. But these would be people Who had no special “problems” to solve, nor any special “method” to apply, abided by no particular disciplinary standards, had no collective self-image as a “profession.” They might resemble contemporary philosophy professors in being more interested in moral responsibility than in prosody, or more interested in the articulation of sentences than in that of the human body, but they might not. They would be all-purpose intellectuals who were ready to offer a view on pretty much anything, in the hope of making it hang together with everything else.

Such a hypothetical culture strikes both Platonists and positivists as “decadent.” The Platonists see it has having no ruling principle, no center, no structure. The positivists see it as having no respect for hard fact, for that area of culture-science-in which the quest for objective truth takes precedence over emotion and opinion. The Platonists would like to see a culture guided by something eternal. The positivists would like to see one guided by something temporal -the brute impact of the way the world is. But both want it to be guided, constrained, not left to its own devices. For both, decadence is a matter of unwillingness to submit oneself to something “out there”-to recognise that beyond the languages of men and women there is something to which these languages, and the men and women themselves, must try to be “adequate.” For both, therefore, Philosophy as the discipline which draws a line between such attempts at adequacy and everything else in culture, and so between first-rate and second-rate truth, is bound up with the struggle against decadence.

So the question of whether such a post-Philosophical culture is desirable can also be put as the question: can the ambiguity of language ever really be taken seriously? Can we see ourselves as never encountering reality except under a chosen description-as, in Nelson Goodman’s phrase, making worlds rather than finding them ? This question has nothing to do with “idealism”-with the suggestion that we can or should draw metaphysical comfort from the fact that reality is “spiritual in nature.” it is, rather, the question of whether we can give up what Stanley Cavell calls the impossibility that one among endless true descriptions of me tells who I am.” The hope that one of them will do just that is the impulse which, in our present culture, drives the youth to read their way through libraries, cranks to claim that they have found The Secret which makes all things plain, and sound scientists and scholars, toward the ends of their lives, to hope . that their work has “philosophical implications” and “universal human significance.” In a post-Philosophical culture, some other hope would drive us to read through the libraries, and to add new volumes to the ones we found. Presumably it would be the hope of offering our descendants a way of describing the ways of describing we had come across-a description of the descriptions which the race has come up with so far. if one takes “our time” to be “our view of previous times,” so that, in Hegelian fashion) each age of the world recapitulates all the earlier ones, then a post-Philosophical culture would agree with Hegel that philosophy is “its own time apprehended in thoughts.”

In a post-Philosophical culture it would be clear that that is all that philosophy can be. it cannot answer questions about the relation of the thought of our time-the descriptions it is using, the vocabularies it employs – to something which is not just some alternative vocabulary. So it is a study of the comparative advantages and disadvantages of the various ways of talking which our race has invented. it looks, in short, much like what is sometimes called “culture criticism”-a term which has come to name the literary-historical-anthropological-political merry-go-round I spoke of earlier. The modern Western “culture critic” feels free to comment on anything at all. He is a prefiguration of the all-purpose intellectual of a post-Philosophical culture, the philosopher who has abandoned pretensions to Philosophy. He passes rapidly from Hemingway to Proust to Hitler to Marx to Foucault to Mary Douglas to the present situation in Southeast Asia to Ghandi to Sophocles. He is a name-dropper, who uses names such as these to refer to sets of descriptions, symbol-systems, ways of seeing. His specialty is seeing similarities and differences between great big pictures, between attempts to see how things hang together. He is the person who tells you how all the ways of making things hang together hang together. But, since he does not tell you about how allpossible ways of making things hang together must hang together-since he has no extra-historical Archimedean point of this sort-he is doomed to become outdated. Nobody is so passé as the intellectual czar of the previous generation – the man who redescribed all those old descriptions, which, thanks in part to his redescription of them, nobody now wants to hear anything about.

The life of such inhabitants of Snow’s “literary culture,” whose highest hope is to grasp their time in thought, appears to the Platonist and the positivist as a life not worth living-because it is a life which leaves nothing permanent behind. In contrast, the positivist and the Platonist hope to leave behind true propositions, propositions which have been shown true once and for all-inheritances for the human race unto all generations. The fear an d distrust inspired by “historicism”-the emphasis on the mortality of the vocabularies in which such supposedly immortal truths are expressed-is the reason why Hegel (and more recently Kuhn and Foucault) are bêtes noires for Philosophers, and especially for spokesmen for Snow’s scientific culture. “ (Hegel himself, to be sure, had his Philosophical moments, but the temporalisation of rationality which he suggested was the single most important step in arriving at the pragmatist’s distrust of Philosophy.)

The opposition between mortal vocabularies and immortal propositions is reflected in the opposition between the inconclusive comparison and contrast of vocabularies (with everybody trying to aufheben everybody else’s way of putting everything) characteristic of the literary culture, and rigorous argumentation-the procedure characteristic of mathematics, what Kuhn calls “normal” science, and the law (at least in the lower courts). Comparisons and contrasts between vocabularies issue, usually, in new, synthetic vocabularies. Rigorous argumentation issues in agreement in propositions. The really exasperating thing about literary intellectuals, from the point of view of those inclined to science or to Philosophy, is their inability to engage in such argumentation-to agree on what would count as resolving disputes, on the criteria to which all sides must appeal. In a post-Philosophical culture, this exasperation would not be felt. In such a culture, criteria would be seen as the pragmatist sees them-as temporary resting-places constructed for specific utilitarian ends. On the pragmatist account, a criterion (what follows from the axioms, what the needle points to, what the statute says) is a criterion because some particular social practice needs to block the road of inquiry, halt the regress of interpretations, in order to get something done.” So rigorous argumentation-the practice which is made-possible by agreement on criteria, on stopping-places -is no more generally desirable than blocking the road of inquiry is generally desirable.” It is something which it is convenient to have if you can get it. if the Purposes you are engaged in fulfilling can be specified pretty clearly in advance (e.g., finding out how an enzyme functions, preventing violence in the streets, proving theorems), then you can get it. If they are not (as in the search for a just society, the resolution of a moral dilemma, the choice of a symbol of ultimate concern, the quest for a “post-modernist” sensibility), then you probably cannot, and you should not try for it. if what you are interested in is philosophy, you certainly will not get it -for one of the things which the various vocabularies for describing things differ about is the purpose of describing things. The philosopher will not want to beg the question between these various descriptions in advance. The urge to make philosophy into Philosophy is to make it the search for some final vocabulary, which can somehow be known in advance to be the common core, the truth of, all the other vocabularies which might be advanced in its place. This is the urge which the pragmatist thinks should be repressed, and which a post-Philosophical culture would have succeeded in repressing.

The most powerful reason for thinking that no such culture is possible is that seeing all criteria as no more than temporary resting-places, constructed by a community to facilitate its inquiries, seems morally humiliating. Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognise it when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form “There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.” This thought is hard to live with, as is Sartre’s remark:

Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are.

This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together- the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.

A post-philosophical culture, then, would be one in which men and women felt themselves alone, merely finite, with no links to something Beyond. On the pragmatist’s account, position was only a halfway stage in the development of such a culture-the progress toward, as Sartre puts it, doing without God. For positivism preserved a god in its notion of Science (and in its notion of “scientific philosophy”), the notion of a portion of culture where we touched something not ourselves, where we found Truth naked, relative to no description. The culture of positivism thus produced endless swings of the pendulum between the view that “values are merely ‘relative’ (or ‘emotive,’ or ‘subjective’)” and the view that bringing the “scientific method” to bear on questions of political and moral choice was the solution to all our problems. Pragmatism, by contrast, does not erect Science as an idol to fill the place once held by God. It views science as one genre of literature-or, put the other way around, literature and the arts as inquiries, on the same footing as scientific inquiries. Thus it sees ethics as neither more “relative” or “subjective” than scientific theory, nor as needing to be made “scientific.” Physics is a way of trying to cope with various bits of the universe; ethics is a matter of trying to cope with other bits. Mathematics helps physics do its job; literature and the arts help ethics do its. Some of these inquiries come up with propositions, some with narratives, some with paintings. The question of what propositions to assert, which pictures to look at, what narratives to listen to and comment on and retell, are all questions about what will help us get what we want (or about what we should want).

No. The question of whether the pragmatist view of truth-that it is t a profitable topic-is itself true is thus a question about whether a post-Philosophical culture is a good thing to try for. It is not a question about what the word “true” means, nor about the requirements of an adequate philosophy of language, nor about whether the world “exists independently of our minds,” nor about whether the intuitions of our culture are captured in the pragmatists’ slogans. There is no way in which the issue between the pragmatist and his opponent can be tightened up and resolved according to criteria agreed to by both sides. This is one of those issues which puts everything up for grabs at once -where there is no point in trying to find agreement about “the data” or about what would count as deciding the question. But the messiness of the issue is not a reason for setting it aside. The issue between religion and secularism was no less messy, but it was important that it got decided as it did.

If the account of the contemporary philosophical scene which I offer in these essays is correct, then the issue about the truth of pragmatism is the issue which all the most important cultural developments since Hegel have conspired to put before us. But, like its predecessor, it is not going to be resolved by any sudden new discovery of how things really are. It will be decided, if history allows us the leisure to decide such issues, only by a slow and painful choice between alternative self-images.

Review of Lawrence Krauss – A Universe from Nothing

This is a review of Lawrence Krauss’s book ‘A Universe from Nothing’, the scientist in the previous post who argued against the philosopher Julian Baggini. Professor David Albert takes a far more opposing view to Krauss than Baggini does, so the argument is a little less one sided.

On the Origin of Everything

‘A Universe From Nothing,’ by Lawrence M. Krauss

Illustration by Andy Martin

Lawrence M. Krauss, a well-known cosmologist and prolific popular-science writer, apparently means to announce to the world, in this new book, that the laws of quantum mechanics have in them the makings of a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Period. Case closed. End of story. I kid you not. Look at the subtitle. Look at how Richard Dawkins sums it up in his afterword: “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”

Well, let’s see. There are lots of different sorts of conversations one might want to have about a claim like that: conversations, say, about what it is to explainsomething, and about what it is to be a law of nature, and about what it is to be a physical thing. But since the space I have is limited, let me put those niceties aside and try to be quick, and crude, and concrete.

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that every­thing he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he writes, “or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.” And what if he did know of some productive work in that regard? What if he were in a position to announce, for instance, that the truth of the quantum-mechanical laws can be traced back to the fact that the world has some other, deeper property X? Wouldn’t we still be in a position to ask why X rather than Y? And is there a last such question? Is there some point at which the possibility of asking any further such questions somehow definitively comes to an end? How would that work? What would that be like?

Never mind. Forget where the laws came from. Have a look instead at what they say. It happens that ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff. Newton, for example, took that elementary stuff to consist of material particles. And physicists at the end of the 19th century took that elementary stuff to consist of both material particles and electro­magnetic fields. And so on. And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

What on earth, then, can Krauss have been thinking? Well, there is, as it happens, an interesting difference between relativistic quantum field theories and every previous serious candidate for a fundamental physical theory of the world. Every previous such theory counted material particles among the concrete, fundamental, eternally persisting elementary physical stuff of the world — and relativistic quantum field theories, interestingly and emphatically and unprecedentedly, do not. According to relativistic quantum field theories, particles are to be understood, rather, as specific arrangements of the fields. Certain ­arrangements of the fields, for instance, correspond to there being 14 particles in the universe, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being 276 particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being an infinite number of particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being no particles at all. And those last arrangements are referred to, in the jargon of quantum field theories, for obvious reasons, as “vacuum” states. Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements ofelementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absenceof the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science — if we understand it correctly — gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise.

And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

David Albert is a professor of philosophy at Columbia and the author of “Quantum Mechanics and Experience.”

Philosophy Vs Science

I found this article on the Guardian website this morning and thought I’d publish it in full here for everyone to take a look at:

Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?

Philosopher Julian Baggini fears that, as we learn more and more about the universe, scientists are becoming increasingly determined to stamp their mark on other disciplines. Here, he challenges theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss over ‘mission creep’ among his peers.

philosophy science

Does philosophy or science have all the big answers?

Julian Baggini No one who has understood even a fraction of what science has told us about the universe can fail to be in awe of both the cosmos and of science. When physics is compared with the humanities and social sciences, it is easy for the scientists to feel smug and the rest of us to feel somewhat envious. Philosophers in particular can suffer from lab-coat envy. If only our achievements were so clear and indisputable! How wonderful it would be to be free from the duty of constantly justifying the value of your discipline.

However – and I’m sure you could see a “but” coming – I do wonder whether science hasn’t suffered from a little mission creep of late. Not content with having achieved so much, some scientists want to take over the domain of other disciplines.

I don’t feel proprietorial about the problems of philosophy. History has taught us that many philosophical issues can grow up, leave home and live elsewhere. Science was once natural philosophy and psychology sat alongside metaphysics. But there are some issues of human existence that just aren’t scientific. I cannot see how mere facts could ever settle the issue of what is morally right or wrong, for example.

Some of the things you have said and written suggest that you share some of science’s imperialist ambitions. So tell me, how far do you think science can and should offer answers to the questions that are still considered the domain of philosophy?

Lawrence Krauss Thanks for the kind words about science and your generous attitude. As for your “but” and your sense of my imperialist ambitions, I don’t see it as imperialism at all. It’s merely distinguishing between questions that are answerable and those that aren’t. To first approximation, all the answerable ones end up moving into the domain of empirical knowledge, aka science.

Getting to your question of morality, for example, science provides the basis for moral decisions, which are sensible only if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence. Without some knowledge of the consequences of actions, which must be based on empirical evidence, then I think “reason” alone is impotent. If I don’t know what my actions will produce, then I cannot make a sensible decision about whether they are moral or not. Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.

The chief philosophical questions that do grow up are those that leave home. This is particularly relevant in physics and cosmology. Vague philosophical debates about cause and effect, and something and nothing, for example – which I have had to deal with since my new book appeared – are very good examples of this. One can debate until one is blue in the face what the meaning of “non-existence” is, but while that may be an interesting philosophical question, it is really quite impotent, I would argue. It doesn’t give any insight into how things actually might arise and evolve, which is really what interests me.

JB I’ve got more sympathy with your position than you might expect. I agree that many traditional questions of metaphysics are now best approached by scientists and you do a brilliant job of arguing that “why is there something rather than nothing?” is one of them. But we are missing something if we say, as you do, that the “chief philosophical questions that do grow up are those that leave home”. I think you say this because you endorse a principle that the key distinction is between empirical questions that are answerable and non-empirical ones that aren’t.

My contention is that the chief philosophical questions are those that grow up without leaving home, important questions that remain unanswered when all the facts are in. Moral questions are the prime example. No factual discovery could ever settle a question of right or wrong. But that does not mean that moral questions are empty questions or pseudo-questions. We can think better about them and can even have more informed debates by learning new facts. What we conclude about animal ethics, for example, has changed as we have learned more about non-human cognition.

What is disparagingly called scientism insists that, if a question isn’t amenable to scientific solution, it is not a serious question at all. I would reply that it is an ineliminable feature of human life that we are confronted with many issues that are not scientifically tractable, but we can grapple with them, understand them as best we can and we can do this with some rigour and seriousness of mind.

It sounds to me as though you might not accept this and endorse the scientistic point of view. Is that right?

LK In fact, I’ve got more sympathy with your position than you might expect. I do think philosophical discussions can inform decision-making in many important ways, by allowing reflections on facts, but that ultimately the only source of facts is via empirical exploration. And I agree with you that there are many features of human life for which decisions are required on issues that are not scientifically tractable. Human affairs and human beings are far too messy for reason alone, and even empirical evidence, to guide us at all stages. I have said I think Lewis Carroll was correct when suggesting, via Alice, the need to believe several impossible things before breakfast. We all do it every day in order to get out of bed – perhaps that we like our jobs, or our spouses, or ourselves for that matter.

Where I might disagree is the extent to which this remains time-invariant. What is not scientifically tractable today may be so tomorrow. We don’t know where the insights will come from, but that is what makes the voyage of discovery so interesting. And I do think factual discoveries can resolve even moral questions.

Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is “wrong”, but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately “wrong”. In fact, I think you actually accede to this point about the impact of science when you argue that our research into non-human cognition has altered our view of ethics.

I admit I am pleased to have read that you agree that “why is there something rather than nothing?” is a question best addressed by scientists. But, in this regard, as I have argued that “why” questions are really “how” questions, would you also agree that all “why” questions have no meaning, as they presume “purpose” that may not exist?

JB It would certainly be foolish to rule out in advance the possibility that what now appears to be a non-factual question might one day be answered by science. But it’s also important to be properly sceptical about how far we anticipate science being able to go. If not, then we might be too quick to turn over important philosophical issues to scientists prematurely.

Your example of homosexuality is a case in point. I agree that the main reasons for thinking it is wrong are linked with outmoded ways of thought. But the way you put it, it is because science shows us that homosexual behaviour “is completely natural”, “has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts”, is “biologically based” and “not harmful” that we can conclude it is “not innately ‘wrong'”. But this mixes up ethical and scientific forms of justification. Homosexuality is morally acceptable, but not for scientific reasons. Right and wrong are not simply matters of evolutionary impacts and what is natural. There have been claims, for example, that rape is both natural and has evolutionary advantages. But the people who made those claims were also at great pains to stress this did not make them right – efforts that critics sadly ignored. Similar claims have been made for infidelity. What science tells us about the naturalness of certain sexual behaviours informs ethical reflection, but does not determine its conclusions. We need to be clear on this. It’s one thing to accept that one day these issues might be better addressed by scientists than philosophers, quite another to hand them over prematurely.

LK Once again, there are only subtle disagreements. We have an intellect and can therefore override various other biological tendencies in the name of social harmony. However, I think that science can either modify or determine our moral convictions. The fact that infidelity, for example, is a fact of biology must, for any thinking person, modify any “absolute” condemnation of it. Moreover, that many moral convictions vary from society to society means that they are learned and, therefore, the province of psychology. Others are more universal and are, therefore, hard-wired – a matter of neurobiology. A retreat to moral judgment too often assumes some sort of illusionary belief in free will which I think is naive.

I want to change the subject. I admit I am pleased that you agree that “why is there something rather than nothing” is a question best addressed by scientists. But I claim more generally that the only meaningful “why” questions are really “how” questions. Do you agree?

Let me give an example to put things in context. Astronomer Johannes Kepler claimed in 1595 to answer an important “why” question: why are there six planets? The answer, he believed, lay in the five Platonic solids whose faces can be composed of regular polygons – triangles, squares, etc – and which could be circumscribed by spheres whose size would increase as the number of faces increased. If these spheres then separated the orbits of the planets, he conjectured, perhaps their relative distances from the sun and their number could be understood as revealing, in a deep sense, the mind of God.

“Why” was then meaningful because its answer revealed purpose to the universe. Now, we understand the question is meaningless. We not only know there are not six planets, but moreover that our solar system is not unique, nor necessarily typical. The important question then becomes: “How does our solar system have the number of planets distributed as it does?” The answer to this question might shed light on the likelihood of finding life elsewhere in the universe, for example. Not only has “why” become “how” but “why” no longer has any useful meaning, given that it presumes purpose for which there is no evidence.

JB I don’t know whether it’s a virtue or a vice, but in philosophy there is nothing “only” about subtle disagreements! But given we’ve got as close as we’re probably going to on ethics, let’s turn to the difference between “how” and “why” questions.

Again, I agree with a lot here. I am unpersuaded, for example, by the argument that there is never any conflict between religion and science because the latter deals with “how” questions and the former “why” ones. The two cannot be so easily disentangled. If a Christian argues that God explains why there was a big bang, then that inevitably says something about God’s role in how the universe came into being, too. But I would not go so far as to say that all “why” questions can only be properly understood as “how” ones. The clearest example here is of human action, for which adequate explanations can rarely do without “why” questions. We do things for reasons.

Some very hard-nosed philosophers and scientists describe this as a convenient fiction, an illusion. They claim the real explanation for human action lies at the level of “how”, specifically, how brains receive information, process it and then produce action.

But if we want to know why someone made a sacrifice for a person close to them, a purely neurological answer would not be a complete one. The full truth would require saying that there was a “why” at work, too: love. Love is indeed at root the product of the firings of neurons and release of hormones. How the biochemical and psychological points of view fit together is clearly puzzling, and, as your aside on free will suggests, our naive assumptions about human freedom are almost certainly false. But we have no reason to think that one day science will make it unnecessary for us to ask “why” questions about human action to which things such as love will be the answer. Or is that romantic tosh? Is there no reason why you’re bothering to have this conversation, that you are doing it simply because your brain works the way it does?

LK Well, I am certainly enjoying the conversation, which is apparently “why” I am doing it. However, I know that my enjoyment derives from hard-wired processes that make it enjoyable for humans to tangle linguistically and philosophically. I guess I would have to turn your question around and ask why (if you will excuse the “why” question!) you think that things such as love will never be reducible to the firing of neurons and biochemical reactions? For that not to be the case, there would have to be something beyond the purely “physical” that governs our consciousness. I guess I see nothing that suggests this is the case. Certainly, we already understand many aspects of sacrifice in terms of evolutionary biology. Sacrifice is, in many cases, good for survival of a group or kin. It makes evolutionary sense for some people, in this case to act altruistically, if propagation of genes is driving action in a basic sense. It is not a large leap of the imagination to expect that we will one day be able to break down those social actions, studied on a macro scale, to biological reactions at a micro scale.

In a purely practical sense, this may be computationally too difficult to do in the near future, and maybe it will always be so, but everything I know about the universe makes me timid to use the word always. What isn’t ruled out by the laws of physics is, in some sense, inevitable. So, right now, I cannot imagine that I could computationally determine the motion of all the particles in the room in which I am breathing air, so that I have to take average quantities and do statistics in order to compute physical behaviour. But, one day, who knows?

JB Who knows? Indeed. Which is why philosophy needs to accept it may one day be made redundant. But science also has to accept there may be limits to its reach.

I don’t think there is more stuff in the universe than the stuff of physical science. But I am sceptical that human behaviour could ever be explained by physics or biology alone. Although we are literally made of the same stuff as stars, that stuff has organised itself so complexly that things such as consciousness have emerged that cannot be fully understood only by examining the bedrock of bosons and fermions. At least, I think they can’t. I’m happy for physicists to have a go. But, until they succeed, I think they should refrain from making any claims that the only real questions are scientific questions and the rest is noise. If that were true, wouldn’t this conversation just be noise too?

LK We can end in essential agreement then. I suspect many people think many of my conversations are just noise, but, in any case, we won’t really know the answer to whether science can yield a complete picture of reality, good at all levels, unless we try. You and I agree fundamentally that physical reality is all there is, but we merely have different levels of optimism about how effectively and how completely we can understand it via the methods of science. I continue to be surprised by the progress that is possible by continuing to ask questions of nature and let her answer through experiment. Stars are easier to understand than people, I expect, but that is what makes the enterprise so exciting. The mysteries are what make life worth living and I would be sad if the day comes when we can no longer find answerable questions that have yet to be answered, and puzzles that can be solved. What surprises me is how we have become victims of our own success, at least in certain areas. When it comes to the universe as a whole, we may be frighteningly close to the limits of empirical inquiry as a guide to understanding. After that, we will have to rely on good ideas alone, and that is always much harder and less reliable.