Monday, December 29, 2008

"Metaphorical" vs. "Final" Language

I’d like to make a quick point here for the validity of religious language by appealing to a distinction Rorty makes about language, then in short pointing out where and why I feel he goes wrong.

In Rorty’s book, “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity”, he distinguishes (not directly) between two types of vocabularies or languages; First, what he calls a “Final Vocabulary” he defines as follows:

“All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest sefl-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. I shall call these words a person’s “Final Vocabulary”.

It is “final” in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, the user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force. A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as, “true”, “good”, “right”, and “beautiful”. The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, “Christ”, “England”, “Professional Standards”, “decency”, “kindness”, “the revolution”, “the Church”, “Progressive”, “rigorous”, “creative”. The more parochial terms do most of the work.”

On the other hand, Rorty defines Metaphorical Language as follows:

Although first, it should be understood the claim Rorty makes in my post just below, “Systemic Truth / Rorty”.

Rorty points out Nietzsche’s definition of “truth” as “a mobile army of metaphors”…
"...but in order to accept this picture, we need to see the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical in the way Davidson see’s it; not as a distinction between two sorts of meaning, nor as a distinction between two sorts of interpretation, but as a distinction between familiar and unfamiliar uses of noises and marks. The literal uses of noises and marks are the uses we can handle by our old theories about what people will say under various conditions. Their metaphorical use is the sort which makes us get busy developing a new theory… One should not think of metaphorical expression as having meaning distinct from their literal ones. To have meaning is to have a language game. Metaphors, by definition, do not…"

The issue I have here is simple, and of course (again) centers around my defense of religious language; Rorty would quickly reduce the whole enterprise of Christianity to a “Final Vocabulary”, and thus as such is bound to be justified only by reference to circular argumentation. Whereas in a general sense, Christians certainly do tend to hold to a static/final vocabulary relative to they’re beliefs, it does not stand (while looking at Christianity from a historical perspective) that it is not at the same time “a mobile army of metaphors”. Only when one takes the view that our current belief is not metaphoric can we reduce it to notions such as final vocabulary; I would suspect that the intellectual theologian, as well as myself, don’t have such static patterns of thought with regard to God, or Christianity. There may be certain principles that underlie Christian thinking, however the way in which we define those things, the way we talk about them, is certainly metaphorical (or so I'd suggest). Furthermore, the way we bring into the fray of our beliefs that which wasn’t there before constantly changes along side the evolution of our metaphors.

To put it another way, Rorty would reject Christianity not just on the grounds of being a so called final vocabulary, but as it implies an ultimate Truth or a means of getting in touch with a reality that exists “out there”. i.e. it is a means of certainty (the two are really the same). Rorty’s view of science (for example) is one that merely suggests, we’re not discovering truths which lead us closer and closer to the nature of the way the world is in itself, but merely developing new languages, through the formation of new metaphors, that are better suited to an ever changing world. However, this would be the same argument that I would employ for what religious language does.

So it seems to me a bit short sighted of Rorty to reduce Christian thinking in such a manner; although at the bottom I understand that his suggestion would be that God is akin to the sort of thinking which says there is a truth outside ourselves to be know, and thus rejects it also on those grounds. However I’ll come back with his same language and simply state that that is mere metaphor as well, that there is no reason that Christianity, in that sense, cannot fit into the framework of a neo-pragmatist world view…

There is no necessary need (as Christians), while in the process of redefining and changing our metaphores, to loose sight of where we began, in this case with Christ. And there is likewise no necessary need to continue to view God as some ultimate outside reality, or some fire burning within us, as neither of these views will change the principle target that Chritianity would aim for, e.g. freedom, love, so on. In this way, I'll let Rorty have his stance of Christian dogma and God as a means of certainty as something we can do better without (I completely agree), but again, there's no reason we need to ditch Christianity in the process of adopting a more pragmatic worldview.

(on a side note)
Rorty goes on to describe the “Ironist”, the sort of person that should replace the metaphysician (and once again, I find myself in agreement), he says:

The Ironist is someone who fulfills three conditions: 1.) he has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary he currently uses, because he has been impressed with other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books he has encountered; 2.) he realized that argument phrased in his current vocabulary can neither underwrite not dissolve these doubts; 3.) Insofar as he philosophizes about his situation, he does not think that his vocabulary is closer to reality then others, that it is in touch with a power not himself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearance to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old…”

The obvious question that comes to mind for me then, is how a Christian cannot at the same time be an ironist after Rorty? Is it not in the Christians best interest to be skeptical? To continually take new views of his beliefs in light of others? To redefine his/her metaphors; in affect assimilate ideas such as, acceptance of the homosexual community and they’re language practices? Isn’t it in the Christians best interest to constantly keep in mind “2”? And finally, isn’t part of Christianity not to judge others, not to consider them right or wrong, but rather to reflect upon one’s self? Is there any reason why the Chrsitian cannot be progressive in his metaphorical content?

I don’t know? I shall have to think about this some more.


  1. That's not exactly what Rorty meant by "final vocabulary."

    Before that, though, you accidently misquoted Rorty (I think your eyes accidently skipped down a line):

    "...but in order to accept this picture, we need to see the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical in the way Davidson see's it; not as a distinction between two sorts of meaning, nor [as a distinction between two sorts of interpretation, but] as a distinction between familiar and unfamiliar uses of noises and marks." (17)

    I'm not sure this effects your reading, since you had just read the original, but if someone hadn't previously read it, it really muddles the meaning. It is the distinction between familiar and unfamiliar.

    You say, "Rorty would quickly reduce the whole enterprise of Christianity to a 'Final Vocabulary', and thus as such is bound to be justified only by reference to circular argumentation."

    The "quickly reduce" comes from the feeling you got that Rorty's notion of final vocabulary is deployed as a weapon. It isn't, though; it is a new context to eliminate Platonic metaphysics, which Christianity is much bigger than. Note "all human beings." And the line-up of "parochial terms" strategically includes those he uses ("decency," "Progressive," "creative") and those he doesn't ("Christ," "England," "the Church").

    You wonder at the end why "a Christian cannot at the same time be an ironist after Rorty?" You wonder rightly because I suspect your sense is that there's an intense conflict in Rorty's line of thought otherwise. But Christians can. Rorty told a story once about a philosophy of religion course he taught once at Princeton. He put it together at the beginning with little pigeon-holes for different philosophies like "positivist, "existentialist, "pragmatist." What he found by the end, though, was that he couldn't really tell the difference between his existentialist (Tillich) and his pragmatist (Dewey) and ended up telling his students that they were pretty much the same.

    Rorty wouldn't have said that he "rejects" theism or God, or what have you. He was as against militant atheism as Dewey was. What he doesn't have, though, is "God" in his final vocabulary--he doesn't have philosophical arguments for this, or against theism, he just has never found "God" a useful voacable.

    Final vocabularies are something everybody has. He deploys the notion to try and get at the sense that we all, eventually, get circular in our arguments (as in the Begging post). In Rorty's thought, the proper distinction to focus on is that between nominalists/historicists and metaphysicians/Platonists. Ironists are a particular subset of the former, primarily found among intellectuals. Nominalists recognize their vocabularies as contingent and their arguments as, in the end if pushed far enough, circular because they aren't sure how to argue about some of the things they love, which they've always just found self-evident. Any argumentative structures we may build up around them are explications of that love and sense of self-evidence.

    Metaphysicians, on the other hand, think that lack of argumentative structure is not only bad (which it can be), but also always a threat to the love. So they build the structures to ground their love, thinking that by itself makes them better than non-builders. They also think their arguments are non-circular, usually because they are resting on a foundation (as opposed to those who haven't found these mysterious foundations).

    William James, I think, was an ironist Christian. He never was quite perfectly comfortable with belief in God, but wrote brilliantly in defense of it, likely because of those lasting doubts. Hey, look at the revelations about Mother Teresa and her lifelong doubts.

    The feeling I've been getting from you is that Rorty is exactly the kind of philosophic vocabulary you might feel at home in.

  2. Misquoted, your right, I'll have to fix that up. My copy is all marked up and shit - by someone who obviousy hated it, perhaps "B.S." just meant, "Back Soon" as he wanted to come back and review some finer points for his paper.

    I understand that Rorty isn’t deploying it as a weapon per se – to a certain degree I’m simply trying to reconcile my Christian beliefs in the face of Rorty’s pragmatism. If I can do that (at least in my own head) Christianity is on much stronger footing.

    And yes, I’m damn near sold on Rorty. PMN was good, but this book ties it all together rather nicely.

    (Side note 1)
    It almost seems to me that the difference between the Liberal Metaphysician and the Liberal Ironist is merely the difference between the Masculine and the Feminine… Contingency trumps that notion of course, unless you take the view of the masculine ideal as metaphor. But I’ll hold my tongue on that for now.

    (Side note 2)
    As I’m strong into Buddhism as well, I can’t help but see Buddhist views all throughout this. Heidegger said of DT Suzuki (I paraphrase) “If I understand this man correctly, this is what I’ve been trying to say all along.”
    As well, a Buddhist commentator would say of the world that it doesn’t come “parted”, “pre-differentiated”, “full of facts”, so on, and would definitely find the notion of final vocabulary appealing, not to mention metaphorical language – I’m talking about a commentator here of course. But I’ll hold those thoughts for a later date.

  3. On a side note Matt,
    what the heck, do you have Rorty memorized?

  4. Andrew, could you recommend a good starting point for picking up Rorty?

  5. James,
    Matt could probably better answer that question. I first picked up "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature", which I've read a few times, then I picked up "philosophy and Social Hope".

    Matt had recommended to me "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity", which I think is the best out of the three I've read, however out of the context of PMN, I think it would leave one wanting.

    I'll make it easy for you though - after picking up CIS at a college bookstore, I found a PDF online - which I've already downloaded. It's nice to have an electronic copy for search and reference of course.

    Contingency Irony & Solidarity

  6. I have taken the following from Ramburg's article on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and I'd like to hear your response to this:

    "Rorty's conversationalist view of truth and knowledge leaves us entirely unable to account for the notion that a reasonable view of how things are is a view suitably constrained by how the world actually is. This criticism is levelled against Rorty not only from the standpoint of metaphysical and scientific realist views of the sort that Rorty hopes will soon be extinct. It is expressed also by thinkers who have some sympathy with Rorty's historicist view of intellectual progress, and his critique of Kantian and Platonist features of modern philosophy. Frank B. Farrell, for instance, argues that Rorty fails to appreciate Davidson's view on just this point, and claims that Rorty's conversationalist view of belief-constraint is a distorted, worldless, version of Davidson's picture of how communication between agents occurs. Similarly, John McDowell, while also critical of Davidson's epistemological views, claims that Rorty's view of the relation between agent and world as merely causal runs foul of the notion that our very concept of a creature with beliefs involves the idea of a rational constraint of the world on our epistemic states.

    "However, critics are concerned not only with what they see as a misguided view of belief, truth, and knowledge, whether relativist, subjectivist, or idealist in nature. An important reason for the high temperature of much of the debate that Rorty has inspired is that he appears to some to reject the very values that are the basis for any articulation of a philosophical view of truth and knowledge at all. Rorty is critical of the role of argument in intellectual progress, and dismissive of the very idea of theories of truth, knowledge, rationality, and the like"

  7. On Rorty and Buddhism/mysticism, considering my continued fascination with Pirsig, it has been something I've spent some time thinking about. I don't have a lot of background in the mystic traditions, though, so it's not something I've ever felt prepared for. Rorty's references to mysticism have always been offhand, but they do pop up from time to time. For instance, in Rorty's earliest essay on Heidegger ("Overcoming the Tradition" in Consequences of Pragmatism) he takes up the issue of Heidegger's weird, seeming non-argumentativeness and the reasons philosophers have for rejecting him as a philosopher: "Heidegger's later style makes it easy to dismiss him as someone who has simply become tired of arguing, and who, taking refuge in the mystical, abandons the attempt to defend his almost-respectable earlier work." (41) Rorty, of course, doesn't think it's as simple as that (he doesn't go in for the "he's not a real philosopher" tactic).

    On getting into Rorty, James, I have a little post with some suggestions here. I actually call PMN neglectable there, at least for dilettantes, but who knows. My route through Rorty was so weird I'm not sure I have a good sense. But since you're very into politics, James, you might want to start with Achieving Our Country. Hearing Obama's rhetoric of hope, I couldn't help but feel as though the well-read, intellectually curious former constitutional law professor had perhaps run across it years ago and been touched a bit by it.

    Bjørn Ramberg is probably the best commentator on Davidson, and also one of the best (behind perhaps Robert Brandom and Jeffery Stout) on Rorty. Ramberg wrote an essay on Davidson and Rorty for Rorty and His Critics that Rorty, in his reply, said had finally helped him figure something out about Davidson that he had always had nagging suspicions about (the mental-physical distinction), and instead of countering Ramberg's criticisms of him, he was going to capitulate and try and firm up what he had said.

    On the actual issue the passage from Ramberg's article raises, it is taken up amazingly well by most of the philosophers in the aforementioned collection (Habermas, Putnam, Brandom, McDowell, Ramberg, etc.) and Rorty responds in an equally vital manner. The gist of what his response to the above bit would be to wonder why McDowell would care to add "rational" to (in Ramberg's summary) "our very concept of a creature with beliefs involves the idea of a rational constraint of the world on our epistemic states." From Rorty's point of view, the "rational" part doesn't particularly do anything, creates philosophical problems (though not problems for normal people in their normal epistemic states), and could be stricken without effecting anything (except philosophical realism). In Davidson's idea of triangulation (between person-community-world) Rorty thinks we have all the constraint we need--in one of my favorite lines, "'method' and 'rationality' are names for a suitable balance between respect for the opinions of one's fellows and respect for the stubbornness of sensation." ("Method, Social Science, and Social Hope" in Consequences of Pragmatism, 195)

    I've actually been kicking around some lines for a post about Rorty and argument, since Andrew has got me thinking about it again. I think he's very misunderstood on this point of his, though he didn't always help himself the best way.

    p.s. No, I don't quite have Rorty memorized. It was just the "nor the distinction between familiar and unfamiliar" that stood out like a sore thumb because that redescription of metaphor/literal is fairly central to his thinking (his most explicit essay on metaphor is in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth). I had to actually look it up to make sure he hadn't said something weird I'd never noticed before.

    p.p.s. I secretly do have every word he's written and said memorized and ready for immediate recall.

    p.p.p.s. Not really.

    p.p.p.p.s. But, yeah, seriously.

  8. Matt,
    You said:
    “Final vocabularies are something everybody has. He deploys the notion to try and get at the sense that we all, eventually, get circular in our arguments (as in the Begging post).”

    I do understand this, and I also understand that his position here is to eliminate Platonic metaphysics (although you have cleared some dust away for me on this). However, much of Christian thinking seems to follow the lines of just this sort of metaphysics, e.g. the whole idea of a definition for God that A.) he exists “out there”; B.) He’s “All Good”, “All Knowing”, and “All Powerful”, so on, not to mention the various literalist positions that Christians tend to adopt. (Christianity and Platonic metaphysics grew up together like brother and sister) It seems reasonable to assume that Rorty would reject these things, and so do I.

    It’s always been my intention (as I read any philosophy and post on this blog) to work out a means of preserving a religious vocabulary based in western Christianity. Again, I don’t believe definitions for God are useful, and I don’t believe that literalist views of Christ’s miracles are useful, and no doubt any views taken on these things that don’t consist of a metaphorical stance are never defensible. My rash assumptions made to “Final Vocabulary” were simply a reflection of a frustration (or realization) that indeed, Christianity resides to a greater degree in this realm (along with many of its theologians), but that it doesn’t have to be as such.

    Ultimately, my view of God is as conversation; I like Nietzsche’s line about truth through history as, “an army of metaphors”, as such I tend to the opinion that conversation about God throughout history is nothing more then working out the metaphor of God. The atheist always wants to attack static definitions for God, e.g. attacking the notion that Christian’s call God “good” by bringing up “the problem of evil”. And if we answer that this is a metaphor they may say, “a metaphor of what?” Which is again merely a tactic to tie something down and beat the crap out of it – in Rorty’s case he’s given me a few tools to avoid these hang-ups. In other words my approach to philosophy isn’t so much to understand that philosophers mind as much as it is to adopt his philosophical tools in support of a religious discourse as I believe that’s of the utmost importance.

    As I’m not finished with CIS of course, one of the things that currently has me flustered is Rorty’s adaptation of the principles of reducing cruelty and humiliation as it seems contradictory to his stance of not subscribing to a human nature. On the other hand this is exactly the rout a religious mind set should take; which is that of adopting a principle (handed down from Christ) that promotes love, understanding, freedom, hope, so on. When Christ says, “Believe in me” he clearly has principle in mind and not objective bullshit as in, believe in miracles and unreasonable bullshit – but of course the atheist always counters otherwise. As well, how can I argue for this (principle) without taking a side on human nature? Perhaps it’s as you say in part 3 of your begging the question post? There to, I’m sort of couching my belief in an authority without accounting for that authority, in which case I take the position that, one doesn’t have to believe me, or believe in Christ; however, does one value those principles? because if you do then you value the Christian point of view by default. In other words, the objective validity of “the source” isn’t so much important as the principles that lie behind a particular belief; the belief (in Christ, God) is to some degree a rhetoric that identifies oneself with a given community. The Ironist Christian (the theologian) would then be the individual who continually re-evaluates the metaphor of God, and in effect re-evaluates the openness of it’s social structure to include all people. For example there are many Christians who are in the process of accepting homosexuals in their communities, which is completely fitting with the underlying principles of Christianity and the Ironist…

    Finally there’s the problem that Rorty brings up in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” Pg. 88, the Inspired Theist… but I’ll leave that for now.

  9. PD,
    Matt fielded your question much better then I could have - so at this point I'll defer.

    Although I'll point this out:
    "Rorty is...dismissive of the very idea of theories of truth, knowledge, rationality, and the like"

    Relative to the notion of certainty, I'd agree - I'm dismissive as well.