The Question of Becoming

What is Antirepresentationalism?

Antirepresentationalism, on Rorty’s account, ‘does not view knowledge as a matter of getting reality right, but rather as a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality’ (1). The account is in stark contrast to traditional representationalist theories of knowledge, which aim to show how our statements or representations of phenomena converge at one point thereby giving us an accurate picture of reality. Rorty seeks to pull away from offering an epistemological account of inquiry; in doing so, he also wants to flatten the epistemological differences between areas of inquiry as diverse as ‘theoretical physics and literary criticism’ (1). ‘It is unnecessary,’ he argues’ ‘to draw distinctions between explaining hard phenomena and interpreting soft ones’ (1). This levelling of difference makes way for a ‘sociological’ interpretation, and is part of Rorty’s strategy for rendering traditional distinctions such as objectivity and subjectivity obsolete. For whilst the representationalist believes that “we can select among our beliefs and features of our world picture some that we can reasonably claim to represent the world in a way to the maximum degree independent of our perspective and its peculiarities” (B. Williams quoted on p. 8), the antirepresentationalist argues that there is ‘no sense in which physics is more independent of our human peculiarities than astrology or literary criticism’ (8).

The antirepresentationalist account has come under criticism for its inherent ethnocentrism. Rorty himself admits this when he says that the antirepresentationalist view of inquiry ‘leave one without a skyhook with which to escape from the ethnocentrism produced by acculturation’ (2). The difference between Rorty and the representationalists is that he does not see this as entirely problematic; this is because he seems to have perhaps more faith in contemporary liberal culture, which ‘has found a strategy for avoiding the disadvantage of ethnocentrism’. (2) Liberal culture, Rorty tells us, is a willingness to be open to ‘encounters with other actual and possible cultures, and to make this openness central to its self-image’ (2). Critical to its suspicion of ethnocentrism is liberalism’s commitment to increasing such encounters, rather than on anything like possession of truth: ‘it suits such a [democratic] society to have no views about truth save that it is more likely to be obtained in Milton’s “free and open encounter” of opinions than in any other way’ (1).

Another criticism raised by representationalists is the view that antirepresentationalism is ‘simply transcendental idealism in linguistic disguise…one more version of the Kantian attempt to derive the object’s determinacy and structure from that of the subject’ (3). Just as he will be showing that distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity, realism and antirealism, collapse, so Rorty also urges the importance of showing that neither does thought determine reality, nor does reality determine thought, for ‘ “determinacy” is not what is in question…both of these claims, the antirepresentationalist says, are entirely empty. Both are pseudo-explanations’ (5).

Distinction between Realism and Antirealism

In contemporary debates from the twentieth century onwards, discussion has shifted from talking about the mind-dependence of material reality to questions about whether true statements stand in representational relations to non-linguistic items. This is a result of the linguistic turn. The distinction between realism and antirealism has shifted correspondingly. In one sense, the term antirealism has been used to mean the claim that there is no “fact of the matter” which true statements represent. In another sense, it has been used to mean the claim that no linguistic items can represent non-linguistic items. Rorty explains that ‘in the former sense [antirealism] refers to an issue within the community of representationalists – those philosophers who find it fruitful to think of mind or language as containing representations of reality’, whilst ‘in the latter sense, it refers to antirepresentationalism – to the attempt to eschew discussion of realism by denying that the notion of “representation”, or that of “fact of the matter”, has any useful role in philosophy’ (2).

The realist wants to hold on to the idea that non-linguistic items – material reality – can cause linguistic items to be used in the various ways that they are, both in terms of particular statements and in social practices as a whole. Whilst the antirepresentationalist is prepared to insist on the point that ‘our language, like our bodies, has been shaped by the environment we live in’ (5), she nevertheless denies that it is useful to ‘pick and choose’ among our beliefs to support the conclusion that this linguistic item corresponds to reality in a way that another item does not. Thus, she answers the representationalist sceptic’s fear that our minds or language could be “out of touch” with reality, whilst at the same time suggesting that ‘we throw out the whole cluster of concepts which are used to make us think we understand what “the determinacy of reality” means’ (6). As Rorty argues, this cluster of concepts (such as “fact of the matter”, “bivalence”) is dispensable to the antirepresentationalists because we have no way of figuring out an independent test of accuracy of representation which is ‘distinct from the success which is supposedly explained by this accuracy’ (6).

Whereas the realist holds on to the idea that we can somehow break out of our own language and beliefs to test the accuracy of our statements about reality – to adopt, in Putnam’s words, the “God’s-eye standpoint” – antirealists take this to be an impossible position, for we have no idea what it would be like to take such a standpoint: there is no other way to talk about true statements apart from through other statements. Here, Rorty also follows the lead of the later Wittgenstein in suggesting that we drop the representationalist presuppositions which are shared by both realism and idealism, in other words, those presuppositions that rest on ‘questions which we should have to climb out of our own minds to answer’ (7).

Still, representationalists claim that just because we can never know when we have reached a “complete” or “mature” physical theory is ‘no reason to deprive ourselves of the notion of “being off the mark”’ (6). Indeed, they claim that to think otherwise would be to adopt a “verificationist” standpoint, which is ‘undesirably anthropocentric in the same way in which nineteenth century idealism was undesirably anthropocentric’ (6). In Nagel’s words, to deprive ourselves of such notions as “representation” and “correspondence” would be to stop “trying to climb outside of our own minds, an effort some would regard as insane and that I regard as philosophically fundamental” (Nagel, quoted on p. 7).

Overcoming the Urge towards Transcendence

The attempt to stand outside of our humanity – to “transcend” our local contexts to corroborate a series of general principles once and for all, is a human need that antirepresentationalists think ‘culturally undesirable to exacerbate’ (8). They claim that we can eliminate the urge toward transcendence through a ‘suitable moral education’ (8) that raises people up from humility and obsequiousness to some higher order of reality or transcendent being. This is not to cut ourselves off from reality altogether, as the representationalists would suggest; rather, as Davidson argues, we are in touch with reality in all areas of culture, ‘in a sense of “in touch with” which does not mean “representing reasonably accurately” but simply “caused by and causing”’ (9).

Rorty is keen to assert this point against the representational sceptic, who, as we have seen, wants to criticise the antirepresentationalist as being out of touch with reality. He argues, for instance, that ‘from a Darwinian point of view, there is simply no way to give sense to the idea of our minds or our language as systematically out of phase with what lies beyond our skins’ (12). Moreover, he uses Davidson’s argument that we must assume that the beliefs held by other beings are largely true to support the claim that ‘we shall not take ourselves to have found such a coherent pattern unless we can see these organisms as talking mostly about things to which they stand in real cause-and-effect relations’ (10). This is all part of his principal motive, that is, to show ‘that we can still make admirable sense of our lives even if we cease to have what Nagel calls “an ambition of transcendence”’ (12).

‘Whatever good the ideas of “objectivity” and “transcendence” have done for our culture,’ Rorty writes, ‘can be attained equally well by the idea of a community which strives after both intersubjective agreement and novelty’ (13). That is, our traditional notions no longer help us in our goal of enlarging the freedom and opportunity of open encounters. Traditional notions such as “objectivity” and “transcendence” led to us asking questions about how to get in touch with reality; these questions, the questions that Wittgenstein considered to be no longer relevant, can be replaced with questions about the limits of our community, how we can expand our conversational community to include outsiders who might have new ideas that challenge our own and so on. Once we have completed this turn toward questions of intersubjectivity or solidarity instead of objectivity, we will leave behind metaphysics and epistemology, focusing instead on the political and social: ‘the important question will be about what sort of human being you want to become’ (13).

The Question of Becoming

The question of becoming takes two forms: the first is related to our public self and asks what communities with which we will identify. The second relates to our private self and asks ‘what should I do with my aloneness?’ (13). Becoming is intrinsically linked with our acculturation, and, more specifically, how we can transcend the limits of our culture or ethnos. We cannot do away with acculturation altogether, for it is through acculturation that we are alive to certain options as opposed to options which are trivial or optional. Rather, Rorty tells us, the best chance we have of transcending our acculturation is ‘to be brought up in a culture which prides itself on not being monolithic – on its tolerance for a plurality of subcultures and its willingness to listen to neighbouring cultures’ (14).

Thus, “progress” is not measured by the apparent accuracy of our statements about reality. Rather, our minds ‘gradually [grow] larger and stronger and more interesting by the addition of new options – new candidates for beliefs and desire, phrased in new vocabularies’ (14), in other words, precisely through increased contact with a plethora of other cultures. This is not a revolutionary move, but one that is aimed at reformation (14). Whilst Rorty considers that most of his leftist critics would agree with the brand of antirepresentationalism that he has been advocating, he does not think that they would follow him down the culture of liberalism that he identifies himself with. And yet, he writes, ‘I do not see them as having developed an alternative culture, nor even as having envisaged one’ (15). Rorty locates their desire for revolution in ‘an understandable rage at the very slow extension of hope and freedom to marginal social groups’ (16), but he does not think that this calls for more theory or more philosophy. Rather, he follows Dewey in advocating for a sense of ‘gradual change in human beings’ self image… the change from a sense of their dependence upon something antecedently present to a sense of the utopian possibilities of the future, the growth of their ability to mitigate their finitude by a talent for self-creation’ (17).