Robert Brandom, Reading Rorty.

 

If you visit a good school, you might find some big words written over the gate: words such as Truth, Reason, Knowledge, Understanding, or even Wisdom. If the school is old enough and in another country, you might find a mention of God, though this word may now be an embarrassment, or regarded as purely decorative, and if the word was once there, perhaps it has been erased and something secular substituted. But nobody would want to erase Truth, Reason, and the rest, would they?

 

Richard Rorty would. Like Nietzsche more than a century ago, he believes that these words have inherited the same illusory magic that once hovered around the idea of a deity. They are supposed to represent  something Big. They stand for an ideal: the accurate representation of reality. This reality functions in our minds as a sort of non-human authority, to which we have to answer, and compared with which we are always in danger of falling short. Yet  mankind must now realize that there is no such authority. Previously, even when the deity was swept away by the Enlightenment, Truth remained in its place, the last absolute_but now it, too, has to bow out, as the world-historical moment turns, and humanity continues its long journey to emancipation.

 

That journey, Rorty continues, was once regarded as taking us from ignorance to knowledge, or from darkness to light. But we should no longer hold such a view of our development, for “no area of culture, and no period of history, gets Reality more right than any other”. The best that the journey can accomplish is to cement the freedom to speak our minds, and to usher in ever-renewable vocabularies expressing new adventures in self-understanding. For words are tools, and the point of our utterances is not to answer to the Forms or to represent the intrinsic nature of reality, it is to meet our needs. Words are Darwinian adaptations, not for copying but for coping.

 

Once this is thoroughly understood, even the words on the school gate can be given a kind of use, although it is a poor shadow of what those who inscribed them there  intended. Demythologized, these grand terms serve only as what Rorty has called “wistful, top-level protestations of good will”. Polemically, however, they are available as weapons of reaction, when those who defend old vocabularies and old ways of life invoke them to repel any new kids on the block. (Rorty is well aware that this is how outraged defenders of what they take to be the real standards of Truth and Reason will fulminate against him, and he  enjoys the fulmination). But the principal  use of these words is as badges of social solidarity. We describe things as true when we agree with them, and we describe people as reasonable when their minds move in the same ways as our minds. When the words on the gate are read properly, therefore, we should not talk about the love of the truth but about the love of solidarity. The highest human good is conversation, and truth is what audiences let you get away with.

 

The collection of essays that Robert Brandom has assembled is but one of many books prompted by Rorty’s shocking, brilliant, and extensive writings on these themes. Its contributors are as heavy a bunch of hitters as could well be gathered, and Rorty’s responses to his critics display his extraordinary gift for ducking and weaving and laying smoke: he may have arrived at Paris, but he arrived there by way of Princeton, and it shows. The volume is also an indicator of Rorty’s significance, in the academy and in the culture at large. For his “anti-foundational” voice is not a lone voice. It is not even a minority voice. One hears it  across large tracts of the humanities. Rorty is just the militant tendency of contemporary pragmatism, the Hezbollah of our disenchanted culture.

 

Rorty likes to project the image of himself as leading a movement (“we pragmatists”), and he has generously hailed many of the philosophers here, such as Brandom, Davidson, and Putnam, as standing alongside him, demolishing the school gates. So it is nicely ironic to see them making their excuses, like nervous guests fearing that a revel has got out of hand. Rorty, a gentlemanly host, is wonderfully polite and patient with these excuses, while not concealing his conviction that they are basically worthless. In his own mind, philosophers who argue against him are typically trapped in ways of thinking (what he would call a vocabulary) that, he believes, should simply be abandoned.

 

For this reason, Rorty seldom really argues back. He has arranged things for himself so that he doesn’t have to do so. For he denies that philosophical progress comes about through argument. As he rightly reminds us, argument requires premises and conclusions that belong to the same conceptual family. Argument, it follows, is for conservatives. And real progress, by contrast, means “offering us sparkling new ideas or utopian visions of glorious new institutions”, disabusing us of our old routes of inference and feeling, enabling us to forget where we once were. It does not mean anything so flat as mere argument.

 

This is a pretty formidable defensive tackle. When anyone produces a good reason for rejecting Rorty’s views, he seems poised to say that his whole project is to transcend the logocentrism that endorses any such use of reason. A number of contributors to the present volume recognize this trap, and instead tackle pragmatism on its own ground, asking whether we could expect any good to come of some kind of <I>aprŹs<I>-truth culture. Jacques Bouveresse talks movingly of the plight of decent people in an intellectually rudderless Paris, where “we have some experience of what happens when rhetoric, the power of words, and the cult of personality prevails over reason, logic, and the rules of argumentation”. Akeel Bilgrami follows Daniel Dennett in warn against the comfort Rorty gives to the irresponsible and the subversive, to the bullshitters “prepared to speak or write in the requisite jargon, without any goal of getting things right nor even (like the liar) concealing the right things which he thinks he has got”.

 

Rorty’s retort is that he, too, can distinguish between the frivolous and the serious:

<CO begin indent>

That is a serious and important distinction. It is well exemplified in the contrast between the silliest, least literate, members of academic departments of literature and honest, hard working, intellectually curious, laboratory scientists_just as the distinction between self-righteous priggery and tolerant conversability is well exemplified by the contrast between the sulkiest, least literate, members of analytic philosophy departments and honest, hard-working, intellectually curious, literary critics.

<CO end indent>

The point that these virtues and vices are spread across all sections of the academy is surely right. But the point is also a dodge, because the real question is whether, in the <I>aprŹs<I>-truth culture, they are still virtues and vices. Rorty denies that love of truth is a special virtue by taunting his opponents that they have no way of telling who loves truth and who does not:

<CO begin indent>

What behavioural evidence is relevant? I doubt that there is more hope of accumulating relevant behavioural evidence here than there is when attempting to answer the question “Is he saved?” or “Does he love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind?” The question “Do you value truth?” seems to me as about as pointless as these latter questions.

<CO end indent>

 

Again, he has a point. We are apt to describe anybody as loving truth when they agree with us, both as to our certainties, and as to our doubts. But perhaps Rorty does not pause to consider whether, in the salons of pragmatism, into which truth is denied entry, the question “is he honest and curious?” must go the same way as the question “does he love truth?” And he does not pause to consider whether, while the question “does he love truth?” may indeed be intractable in general, it is highly tractable when the truth in question becomes concrete. If you have not committed a crime, you would prefer to fall into the hands of a police department which loves the truth about who committed crimes, and loves it more than just coping, by cosying up to the judges and juries who can give them a successful prosecution record.

 

 

II.                                                                  

 

Anyone wanting to protect the school gates should study the general rhythm of the interchanges here, for Rorty is a formidable opponent, and few of his critics do much damage. Typically, they start by saluting Rorty’s intellectual ancestors, and especially a great trio who ushered in our age of philosophical doubts about meaning, observation, and theory: Willard Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and Thomas Kuhn. They congratulate Rorty for a number of negative things that they all share: mostly, a dislike of old distinctions, such as that between defining a vocabulary and using it, or that between observation and theory, or between essence and accident, or thought and language, or fact and value. But then they draw back. Let us not go overboard, they say. There is still such a thing as getting it right and getting it wrong. You can say that Oswald acted alone when he did, or you can say it when he didn’t. You may want to know whether genetically modified crops are dangerous, and it requires biology and laboratory trials and experimental protocols to discover the answer, not crystal balls or current linguistic usages. We are not merely trying to get a consensus when we are trying to find what is true. We are trying to arrive at the facts.

 

Rorty replies that we should not belittle efforts to establish consensus. So, where the critic sees two possible goals (getting everyone to agree and getting at the facts) Rorty sees only one. There is no significant difference between convincing your peers and getting at the truth. “The guise of convincing your peers is the very face of truth itself”. But then what is left of facing the facts? Well, facing the facts is literally nonsense: we can face the Eiffel tower, but facts are not things with a place (if they were, as Wittgenstein remarked, we could move them; but while you could move the Eiffel tower to Berlin, you cannot move the fact that the Eiffel tower is in Paris anywhere at all). Facing the facts can only mean making judgements, and this is a social activity, enabled only by the rules that govern the language that you speak with your peers. By forgetting this, Rorty’s critics forget the philosophical heritage that they believe themselves to share with him. They remain slaves to one version of what Sellars called the myth of the given, which is the idea of the transparent, incorrigible, presence of individual fact in individual mind.

 

Rorty has made this counter many times, and he makes it again and again here. It is exactly parallel to the reply that Stanley Fish, a similar thinker, makes in his ongoing spats with Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin believes himself to be offering a specific conception of the right method for finding the legal truth, steering carefully between the arid desert of positivism (the myth of the given, in this instance the view that legal facts are transparently there in black-letter texts) and the licentious, anything-goes method of pragmatism or legal realism, which counsels judges to make law up according to the exigencies of the moment. Fish replies that each of these poles is a mirage, and so therefore is Dworkin’s advice on how to steer between them. The first is a mirage because any text needs understanding, or taking up to apply to the problem in hand, and this understanding will be the work of the judge’s mind, not of the text all by itself. The second is a mirage because any “judge” who pays no attention to statute or precedent has stopped judging, and has  started to do something else, such as parodying the whole institution. So Dworkin’s advice is about as valuable as the advice not to carry a baseball bat while playing tennis: law as integrity is no more a distinctive recipe for law than absence of baseball bats is a distinctive approach to tennis. Judges can only play according to the legal rules, which means attempting to gain the consensus of fellow members of the interpretive community by applying statute and precedent to the case at hand. Hence too there is no open space between “trying to find the right verdict” and “trying to convince fellow judges”. There is no difference that makes a difference.

 

This is a nice reply. It is so nice, in fact, that it raises the suspicion that a rather important concession has been made.  When Rorty first substitutes the goal of consensus for the goal of truth, we shudder at the outrageous image of someone valuing <I>aprŹs<I>-truth chit-chat in the coffee house above serious work in the library or the laboratory. It is this that is so shocking. But now it turns out that there is a qualification for membership of the coffee-house. The talkers in the coffee house are to be masters of the library or the laboratory, just as the legal interpretive community includes only masters of the constitution and of precedent.

 

It also turns out that we cannot achieve the consummation of consensus with them simply by mutual narcissism, each fixing our gaze on each other and chiming in with their sayings. For, in order to achieve consensus, both our gaze and that of our peers, must be fixed on the point in hand. If the issue is whether Oswald acted alone, the conversation must take place amid archives and news footage. If it is whether genetically modified foods are dangerous, it must take place in the biology lab. This is what is involved in being honest and curious_indeed, it is what is involved in understanding the issue in the first place. But having got this far, why not also describe ourselves as people who want to know what happened_or as people who want to find the truth, and a good thing too? Why demolish the school gate?

 

If Rorty feels entitled to say as much as he does, why can he not say more? Consider the virtues he does evidently regard as verifiable, such as curiosity and seriousness. We can imagine a community that can winnow out those who are not really curious, say, whether Oswald acted alone, or not really serious in their inquiry whether genetically modified crops are dangerous. Perhaps these dilettantes get their opinions from the newspapers, or reveal alarming tendencies to emotionally distorted or wishful thinking. Rorty describes such people as being “unconversable”_but they are only unconversable, of course, if the conversation is of a particular type. Bullshitters are typically voluble, and to some audiences readable. The “theorists” whom Alan Sokal exhibited as having no understanding whatsoever of the science that they loved to invoke in their writings had big enough audiences. The failure that they supposedly illustrate is much better located by words such as “incompetent” or “incurious”. But “incurious” just means not curious about the point in hand, that is, whether Oswald acted alone or whether GM food is dangerous.

 

Rorty sometimes tries to deflect this, suggesting that incuriousity denotes only a lack of receptivity to new vocabularies, as if, say, enjoying Finnegan’s Wake would be a recipe for a better history of the Kennedy assassination or a better  understanding of  GM food. But this is smoke, since it is a focused curiosity that matters. Similarly, “incompetent” means being unable to execute procedures for finding out whether Oswald acted alone or whether GM crops are dangerous. And if we can detect those people in this state, then the question stares us in the face: why can’t we say more? Why can’t we describe these people as having no concern, or an insufficient concern, for the truth, or an insufficient ability to find the truth? In other words, with proper attention to the notion of an inquiry, and to the notion of a community of inquirers, any remaining air escapes from the pragmatist balloon, and the circus leaves town.

 

This, indeed, is how Fish sees it: he believes that once we get this far, theory becomes irrelevant to practice, which goes on exactly as before. Rorty does not want to efface himself so quickly. He likes to imply that pragmatism really makes some practical difference, as we learn to oppose metaphysical prigs who suppose that reality has one true intrinsic nature, which only one final language, such as the language of theoretical physics, will represent. These prigs believe that there is a single Book of Nature, which true method will eventually read. When the philosophical going gets rough, Rorty frequently resorts to mocking this ideal.

 

But his mockery is only a way of making things easy for himself, because you do not need to subscribe to any such monolithic  idea of truth in order to honor everyday truth and love of particular truths. This is because there is every difference between the language you choose to use, and the truth or  the falsity of what you say with it. Consider the enterprise of mapping a tract of land. A tract of land does not demand to be mapped in any way at all. There is no Book of the Landscape, for the landscape has no voice. It is utterly silent about whether your map should show contours or geology or houses or temperatures or anything else. What you choose to put on your map depends purely on the use to which you will put the map. Up to this point, pragmatism and Darwinism rule unchallenged. But this is only half the picture. For once you have made a choice, there are things to get right or wrong. Once you have chosen what to do, it is as if the landscape indeed acquires a voice, and it certainly has authority, since your map-making must attempt to make your map answer to it. If you purport to show cliffs, but show none where there is one, then you have got the landscape wrong.

 

Rorty would prefer to say that the problem with your map is not one of how it represents the landscape or corresponds to the landscape, for those are metaphysically priggish terms. The problem, he wants to say, is just that users of your map are unlikely to cope very well. He fails to see that we do not have to choose between these things:  we can have both. Users of the map without the cliff will not cope well when they come to the cliff, and we can explain why. It is because the map, in respect of the cliff, misrepresents the landscape.

 

Rorty is unlikely to accept the cartographic analogy. Perhaps we can compare maps with landscapes, but we cannot compare our own best theories with the truth, since we have no access to the truth except in the terms provided by our own best theories. We cannot “stand outside our own skins”, as Berkeley saw in the seventeenth century when he said that an idea can only resemble another idea. Faced with this objection, it is natural to protest that sometimes we check our words not with more words, but with observation and prediction. But Rorty and his critics typically share a mistrust of those notions. They suppose that relying on them is too much like the positivist view of law, according to which black letters steer us independently of our own capacities to give them meanings.

 

This is the myth of the given, again. Rorty belongs to a generation of American philosophers who learned from Sellars that observation is itself a creature of language: your map determines how you see the landscape. So, they conclude, there is  nothing but maps, maps all the way down, and there is no independent access to anything mapped. The philosophy in this book, and much of it is of a very high quality, testifies to the difficulty of remembering that sometimes it is not maps but cliffs. It is ironic, therefore, that one of Rorty’s central pieces of iconoclasm is the death of epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, since it is precisely in that theory that these issues are fought. This is what epistemology is all about.

                 

 

                                                     

III

 

Justifying something to your peers is not the same thing as getting it right. It is a political achievement to make sure that wherever it matters, in science, history, law, politics, or ethics, the people to whom you need to justify yourself have their gaze pointed in the right direction, and so will only accept something when it is likely to be true. Like any political achievement, it needs careful protection. This explains why the words went onto the school gate in the first place.

 

Sometimes Rorty seems to recognize this, though it seems to clash with his ambition to demolish. At any rate, he remains fond of saying that if we look after freedom, truth will look after itself. In a free world, he seems to think, only the people with the library tickets and the microscopes eventually get into the coffee house. This might sound like Mill’s belief in the invincibility of truth_but Mill is much more the kind of stalwart who wrote the words on the school gate in the first place. Without those words it seems romantically optimistic to expect the achievement to sustain itself. Rorty has this optimism. He has a soft spot for Deweyan visions of the psalm of the people, as muscular workers stride shoulder-to-shoulder down limitless vistas into ever more glorious sunrises, which they greet with ever more creative vocabularies.

 

Lost in this Whitmanesque glow, it is easy to forget that there is no reason whatever to believe that by itself freedom makes for truth, any more than there is to suppose that labour makes one free. Freedom includes the freedom to blur history and fiction, or the freedom to spiral into a climate of myth, carelessness, incompetence, or active corruption. It includes the freedom to sentimentalize the past, or to demonize the others, or to bury the bodies and manipulate the record. It is not only totalitarian societies that find truth slipping away from them: the emotionalists of  contemporary populism, or the moguls of the media and the entertainment industries, can make it happen just as effectively. That is why Plato felt that he had to forge the vocabulary of reason and truth in opposition to democratic politics; and it is why it remains vandalism to rub the words off the school gates. Orwell thought this, and anybody worried about such things as the ideology of those who own the press, or the Disneyfication of history, should think it, too.

 

Rorty does hold political views, and he holds that there is a definite if subtle relation between his pragmatism and his political views. He is celebrated for recommending “liberal irony” as the proper standpoint on life, the liberalism being the doctrine that “cruelty is the worst thing we do”, and the irony arising from the knowledge that our vocabularies are transitory and contingent and always on the verge of obsolescence. Critics have been infuriated by the aestheticism or the weightlessness that Rortyan irony seems to suggest; but the more important point is that irony seems philosophically out of place in the philosophical situation that Rorty recommends.

 

Irony, in Rorty’s teaching, is supposed to follow on the realization that your vocabulary is always provisional, that better ways of saying things might come along one day_but it is hard to see why this ought to beget irony. Unless you are the victim of an <I>aprŹs<I>-truth cartographer, you do very well to take the map seriously when it says there are cliffs, even if you foresee future maps that do not bother about them. The hill-walker who finds this thought destabilizing, and takes an ironic detachment toward his map, is likely to do worse. It is hard to imagine, of course, how any future maps that do not indicate cliffs could be useful to walkers, but then it is hard to see how a successor vocabulary_say, one which does not talk in terms of suffering, or equality, or freedom or power or justice_could be of much use in politics. So I think that we can safely set the irony aside.

 

And irony aside, it is a little difficult to know what to make of the liberalism. A political philosophy that simply reminds us that cruelty is the worst thing that we do has not really got very far; and there is nothing especially liberal about it (are conservatives for cruelty?); and in fact it is doubtful whether Rorty really believes it in any case. In this volume he enthusiastically endorses a very different view advocated by Robert Brandom. This holds that “mere mammalian pain”_a phrase, I should have thought, that only trips off the tongue of people largely unacquainted with what it describes_does not matter in itself. Brandom holds that “pain, and like it various sorts of social and economic deprivation” have only a “second-hand” moral and political significance. They are important only because they distract people from the activity that really matters_the pragmatist activity variously described as “vocabulary-mongering”, or “contributing to the Conversation”, or indulging in “sprightly repartee and the production of fruitful novel utterances”. Pain matters because it incapacitates us for sprightly repartee! It turns out that cruelty is not the worst thing that we perpetrate. The worst thing is distraction.

 

There are very few really original ideas in moral philosophy, but this must surely be one of them. Its excuse, I suppose, is the fear of a Brave New World, in which comfortable zombies live their satisfied porcine lives. And similar ideas do have a philosophical pedigree, right back to Plato and to the last book of  the <I>Nichomachean Ethics<I>, in which Aristotle extols the virtues of the life of intellectual contemplation, which to most contemporary philosophers simply means conversation with the cork in. But even in his paean to contemplation Aristotle does not hold that beautifully beguiling the leisure of the theory class is the only measure of value, and distracting us from it the only measure of evil.

 

To get the full measure of that doctrine, imagine on the one hand spending your time as a victim of pain: think of a “mere” mammalian pain, or if that is too hard to imagine from the comfort of the armchair, put your hand on a hot stove. Imagine similarly a life of prolonged disease, starvation, humiliation, fear, and loss. And then imagine, for contrast, spending life doing quiet things that you might enjoy, such as gardening or golf. Now get yourself to believe that there is nothing to choose between them, since in each case there is the same distraction from vocabulary mongering and sprightly repartee. What a wonderful state of mind it must be_how Stoic, how lofty, how intellectual_whereby a visit from the secret police, or a cancer, or the loss of a child, is on all fours with more time as a couch potato. This is a world in which a walk round the concentration camp is no more disturbing than a walk round the course at Augusta.

 

I do not suppose that Brandom or Rorty really believe this inhumane doctrine. It is just that the abstractions take over, so that at a particular point in the Conversation it sounds like a sprightly thing to say. One cannot help feeling that this is only because we are in a political coffee-house with no very exacting standards of entry. It is not the sort of thing you could get away with in a well-ordered cartography school, or even a department of history, or politics, or literature, if literature includes Harriet Beecher Stowe and Dickens and Orwell and Primo Levi. It is not even something you should get away with in a philosophy department, provided that we can hold onto our gateposts.

 

 

Simon Blackburn is the Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His recent books include Think and Being Good.