Thursday, May 31, 2012

Discovering Rorty

Waiting for Rorty's "Pragmatism and Romanticism" to arrive via inter-library loan (it came right after I finished reading the paper, naturally) I searched online and found this. It appears to be a complete copy of Philosophy as Cultural Politics, and not a photocopy of someone's marked up copy either. So I was able to read the essay I wanted without waiting. (It surely isn't legal to put a book online like that, but I can't think of anything wrong with using the online version rather than a library copy, and being able to search using ctrl+f, and to cut and paste quotations, made my day.)

Two more discoveries I made:
  1. I agree with Rorty far more than I realized, and on ideas that are quite specific to him, such as his thoughts on poetry. I must have absorbed a lot from him without realizing it. Which makes me wonder how much I have absorbed from other people without realizing it or giving them credit. (I think I've said this before, but I'm still shocked by it.)
  2. He says things in this essay that could be very helpful to me in explaining what I mean when I talk about poetry. For instance, in comments here I used Dylan Thomas's description of the sky as "bible-black" as an example of poetry. It brings together two ideas that might otherwise have remained separate (that of  the Bible and that of blackness). Compare Rorty:
    It took imaginative genius to suggest that everybody make the same noise at the sight of blood, of certain maple leaves in autumn, and of the western sky at sunset. It was only when such suggestions were taken seriously and put into practice that hominids began to have minds.
    As for the concept “round,” it was not obvious that the full moon and the trunks of trees had anything in common before some genius began to use a noise that we would translate as “round.” Nothing at all was obvious, because obviousness is not a notion that can be applied to organisms that do not use language.
    I pretty much agree with everything he says in this essay, except the following:
    We shall never find descriptions so perfect that imaginative redescription will become pointless. (p. 109)
    How can anyone know this? As an expression of confidence I have no objection to it, but it sounds like a prediction about what is bound to be the case because of the way things are (known to be). And that sounds like metaphysics to me.
    On the anti-empiricist view, a view that I think Nietzsche would have welcomed had he encountered it, there is no difference between the thermostat, the dog, and the pre-linguistic infant except the differing degrees of complexity of their reactions to environmental stimuli. The brutes and the infants are capable of discriminative responses, but not of acquiring information. (p. 113)
    If the point here is about who or what can acquire information, then fair enough. But it sounds as though Rorty is making a claim about what dogs, thermostats, and infants are. I don't mean that they are made of different stuff (they are, but Rorty would surely concede that point), but the idea that the only important difference between a baby and a thermostat is that one is more complicated in its reactions to stimuli than the other sounds like something Mr Gradgrind would say. I hope that isn't what Rorty means, but if he does then I disagree.
    [T]o say that a dog knows its master, or a baby its mother, is like saying that a lock knows when the right key has been inserted, or that a computer knows when it has been given the right password. (p. 113)
    No it isn't. For one thing, as Rorty might agree, the first two are quite ordinary things to say, the latter two are not. Anyone who insists that dogs don't really know their masters is kidding, or doesn't know dogs, or doesn't know the meaning of 'know'. Dogs and babies are not inanimate, and this is not irrelevant. We can adopt that kind of perspective if we want to, for instance if we're doing physics, but otherwise it isn't a good idea. And it isn't anything like a view from nowhere or way to the truth, as Rorty of all people might be expected to agree. So, again, perhaps I'm misreading him here.

    With what, then, do I agree? I'll select a few key claims, although there is lots of good stuff here.
    reason can only follow paths that the imagination has broken (p. 105)
    To be imaginative, as opposed to being merely fantastical, one must both do something new and be lucky enough to have that novelty adopted by one’s fellows – incorporated into their ways of doing things. The distinction between fantasy and imagination is between novelties that do not get taken up and put to use by one’s fellows and those that do. People whose novelties we cannot appropriate and utilize we call foolish, or perhaps insane. Those whose ideas strike us as useful we hail as geniuses. (p. 107)
    I think I knew that I got this idea from Rorty, and it seems slightly fishy to me, a little too simple perhaps, but I still hold to it.
    Language is a social practice that began when it dawned on some genius that we could use noises, rather than physical compulsion – persuasion rather than force – to get other humans to cooperate with us. Language got off the ground not by people giving names to things they were already thinking about, but by proto-humans using noises in innovative ways, just as the proto-beavers got the practice of building dams off the ground by moving sticks and mud around in innovative ways. (pp. 107-108)
    It couldn't really have dawned on some genius that anything before there was language, but I suppose this is meant as a metaphor (or even a kind of joke). The second sentence sounds right though.
    [E]xpressions like “gravity” and “inalienable human rights” should not be thought of as names of entities whose nature remains mysterious, but as noises and marks, the use of which by various geniuses have given rise to bigger and better social practices. (p. 108)
    This is pretty much my view of rights, so perhaps I don't need to develop that view any more.
    Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” deliberately and explicitly enlarged the meaning of the term “Poetry.” That word, he said, “may be defined as ‘the expression of the Imagination.’” (p. 109)
    Rationality is a matter of making allowed moves within language games. Imagination creates the games that reason proceeds to play. Then, exemplified by people like Plato and Newton, it keeps modifying those games so that playing them is more interesting and profitable. Reason cannot get outside the latest circle that imagination has drawn. In this sense, imagination has priority over reason. (p. 115)
    I'll have to think about this, but it appeals to me.

    Finally, there's this:
    Ontology remains popular because we are still reluctant to yield to the Romantic’s argument that the imagination sets the bounds of thought. At the heart of both philosophy’s ancient quarrel with poetry and the more recent quarrel between the scientific and the literary cultures is the fear of both philosophers and scientists that the imagination may indeed go all the way down. This fear is entirely justified, for the imagination is the source of language, and thought is impossible without language. Revulsion against this claim has caused philosophers to become obsessed by the need to achieve an access to reality unmediated by, and prior to, the use of language. (pp. 106-107)
    Rorty has a footnote here referring to his paper "Wittgenstein and the Linguistic Turn," which I'll have to read. But this passage also reminded me of Avner Baz's new book. Lars Hertzberg quotes Baz as follows:
    I did not know then, as I do now, how thoroughly reinforced by theoretical presuppositions the resistance to Wittgenstein's (later) work had become. As I wrote this book, I found myself again and again discovering, often with the help of colleagues and friends, yet another layer of theoretical bulwark set against the philosophical approach I was seeking to vindicate.
    I think I'll have to read this too.


    1. I should read more Rorty. (And the Baz book is on my wishlist, too.)

      I wonder about this: "This fear is entirely justified, for the imagination is the source of language, and thought is impossible without language." In particular, I wonder about the last part, for reasons similar to your point about the dog knowing who its master is. Perhaps if the claim were modified to read, "and the form of thought typically valued by philosophers is impossible without language," then that would be alright. That, or grant that other animals, too, have imagination and language, insofar as they have the capacity to think.

    2. Good point, thanks. If you pretend to throw a ball so that your dog chases after it and then gets confused because it can't find the ball, why not say that the dog thinks you threw the ball? Alice Crary's "Dogs and Concepts" is very good on this kind of thing (as I recall--it's certainly very good, anyway).

      I think that language might be necessary for thought in the sense that we couldn't, or wouldn't, attribute thinking to dogs if we didn't have language. But then we couldn't attribute anything to anyone without language, since attribution involves language. Or is that wrong? I've just finished Jonathan Balcombe's book on the lives of animals and he provides pretty persuasive evidence that chimpanzees have what people call a theory of mind. That is, they behave as if they recognize that others are intelligent. We might say then that chimps attribute thoughts to others. But that probably isn't the best way to put the point (unless you're trying to undo anti-chimp prejudice, perhaps).

      I'm trying to think of something more to say about thought and language, but I can't do better than to agree with you that: Perhaps if the claim were modified to read, "and the form of thought typically valued by philosophers is impossible without language," then that would be alright. That, or grant that other animals, too, have imagination and language, insofar as they have the capacity to think.