From the album, "No One's First, and You're Next"
In the beginning of Richard Rorty’s “Contingency Irony and Solidarity”, Rorty sets about the task of defining his core purpose, which is, building the philosophical framework for his “Liberal Utopia” – although, note that “philosophical framework” isn’t really fare to say, but I leave it as said. Of course, you can’t have a Utopia without some people, so Rorty draws us a picture of the sort of human being that would inhabit this utopia – the sort of person that would naturally bring to light the type of environment Rorty would like to attain. This person he calls the “Liberal Ironist”. It’s important then, to note just what it means to be a Liberal Ironist in the first place. Here, Rorty borrows his definition of a liberal from Judith Shklar who said:
“Liberals are people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do.”
On the other side of that phrase, he uses “ironist” to:
“…name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires – someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those cenrtal beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.”
Let me suggest, following this definition, that in order to acknowledge this sort of disposition, one must first acknowledge that other human beings have the ability to feel and suffer in the same manner oneself does. To put it in another way, one acknowledges that other human beings have cognitive and affective states which are to a high degree the same as ones own. i.e. we have feelings of love, pain, grief, sorrow, etc. This doesn’t mean that it has some justifiable basis, or that we can have certain knowledge of it, only that we in some manner acknowledge or grant it upon reflection. Rorty offer’s no examples of possible justifications, he only says:
“For the liberal ironist, there is no answer to the question, “Why not be cruel?” no non-circular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible.”
Taking all of this together, I see Rorty as either being highly calculative for some dubious purpose, extremely shortsighted, or both. I see him as taking advantage of the fact that 99.99% of his readers will rightly grant that and say yes, you’re right, we should not be cruel, and move on from that proposition - now (again) granted he doesn't suggest that we don't use our own justifications, but he certainly doesn't supply us with any beyond the proposition. It sort of reminds me of SyeTen B’s proof of a moral absolute by asking the question, “Would child rape be ok under any circumstance?” Here Sye went to an extreme case where 99.99% of people would agree with him. Next, they would likely not recognize a condition where such a thing would be OK, and conclude right along with Sye that morals are absolute. However, Rorty’s aim is different then Sye’s, and quite frankly Rorty was a highly intelligent and important figure of the 20th century, and Sye is just some d-bag. Nevertheless, I do see Rorty as taking advantage of us here – he seems to intentionally avoid any idea that he might believe other people to have cognitive/affective states. I say he’s short sighted because he’s ignoring the fact that prior to accepting his proposition we’ve already been conditioned to accept it, but not as a mere proposition. The problem comes down to the manner with which we’re conditioned to accept it, and Rorty avoids contact with those conditions.
Let me here offer an anecdote. One of the great things about being a man in my position with my interests is that I have two absolutely wonderful specimens to experiment on (well, that’s probably not the right way to put it, but we’re working for effect here), namely, my 4 year old boy and 7 year old girl; soon to be 5 and 8. You see the boy, who’s thoroughly male, will for whatever reason (perhaps he’s not getting the desired effects he’d like, or perhaps he’s conducting some sort of bizarre experiment) take his “Little Tike’s” hammer and blast his sister upside the head with it. Of course this produces the assumed effect, and from the other room all I here is complete silence, followed by my crying daughter. Oddly enough the one who comes crying into the room is NOT my daughter, but my son; the crying is always completely contrived. Following shortly is my little girl, and I ask, “Alright, what happened?” The boy will say, “I hit Kylie….” “And why did you do that?” I’ll respond. Now, often times he’ll just say, “I don’t know.” But sometimes he’ll actually come up with what he thinks is some valid justification, nevertheless I’ll tell him, “You don’t hit your sister.” being as stern as possible without showing anger. I poop you not he used to say, but doesn’t anymore, “Why?” The first time he said that, and subsequent times for that matter, I actually laughed; I mean come on, WHY?
Now at this moment I could rightly say, “Because we’re not cruel to other people.” But that would go over with, “Why?” yes, indeed, great question. You see with kids this age the same treatment has the same desired effect, and that is, always answer with a question of your own – you know, take the Socratic rout on his ass. So I say, taking the Little Tike’s hammer from his hand, “How would you feel if I hit YOU in the head with this hammer….?” He whimpers, looks down (has the look of defeat all about him) and typically doesn’t respond (it’s worth noting that my daughter always answers this question). To my son I generally fill in and say, how do you think your sister feels? And he’ll respond, with a whimper, “Mm-hhm.” Then I’ll tell him to go give her a hug, and tell her you’re sorry. The point here is simple; it’s fair enough to tell me as a conditioned presumably mature adult that we don’t be cruel, but I’m in some seriously hot water if I’m going to think my 4 year old will blindly accept such a notion. If I rather proceed with the assumption that my son has cognitive/affective states, and behave in a manner that causes him to reflect upon his experience (by asking, “How would you feel if….?”), he always understands what it is I’m getting at and as a result, certain behaviors don’t need to be corrected through punishment or authority. i.e. his short time in reflection is enough to correct his behavior, well, at least in the short term. Give a boy plastic power tools and he’s going to destroy everything in his path – it’s the cancer of being born with testicles I suppose.
So again, the whole idea that cruelty is the worst thing we can do is a fine enough proposition to hold to – and understanding that there is no noncircular justification is good enough as well. Certainly I should grant that Rorty never asks us not to say that (for example) our kids have cognitive/affective states for the purposes of getting them to reflect, but (again) he certainly stays as far away from those suggestions as he can. I say he’s calculating because if he were to make such a functional assumption, we could paste on him the idea that either, A.) Language is then a representation of those cognitive/affective states, or B.) Language is a reflection of those cognitive states. But I see no reason why that belief has to be any less functional then his simple proposition that we not be cruel. Functional, in this case, is exactly what his suggestion looks like – function based on prior condition of course. But in Rorty’s case, his suggestion doesn’t come packed with an understanding of why, from the standpoint of (at least) personal reflection (granting its circularity), but is just thrown out there for a certain function that is to this point undefined. It doesn’t care or take into account how someone may feel, it only cares about the environment that might be created as the result of adhering to such a belief. In this way, I find it a bit blind and short sighted and I’d be quite curious, had Rorty had kids when he was alive (maybe he did) what he would have told them.
Continuing on, Rorty says the following about creating a Liberal Utopia:
” It [a liberal utopia] is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, "They do not feel it as we would," or "There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?"”
Ahh, the sound of a scratching record in the morning – suppose I unpack. This seems like quite a careful piece of rhetoric that Rorty has crafted here as well. If solidarity is not “discovered by reflection” but created; is it perhaps “created by reflection”, or “created as the result of reflection”? How can it be created by increasing our sensitivity without some sort of reflection (I mean, aren’t we sensitive based on our own reflections)? Just what is Rorty skirting here? Again, he seems to be avoiding all prior conditioning on these matters, and taking advantage of the fact that his audience consists of adults who have prior assumptions. To paraphrase Rorty, He seems to be saying that we create solidarity by imagining that other people are fellow sufferers (i.e. suffer as we do), more specifically through that imagination we become aware of said suffering therefore our increased sensitivity to others needs and interests (as our own) reaches a point where it becomes difficult to marginalize them. But again, what he seems to have removed from the equation is the recognition of others suffering through reflection on ones own plight. In order to imagine that others suffer as you do one must reflect upon ones own suffering and ask, “how would you feel?” Sure enough solidarity is created, and not “discovered though reflection”, however one cannot pave the way for the creation of solidarity without first reflecting or imagining that people suffer as you do. From there I think it easily follows that solidarity is indeed created in the manner that Rorty would like to see it.
On the other hand, must we see that other people have cognitive/affective states, feelings and experiences as our own? To remove the idea that the recognition of suffering comes not from reflection, but from imagination, begs the question as to where this imagined idea comes from in the first place and why we should (or should have) imagine[d] it at all; although Rorty does in fact admit that there is no non-circular justification as to why one should not be cruel. Nevertheless, how could one ever hope to imagine such a thing if it was not first recognized in oneself?
On the one hand I do agree with the position that stays away from ideas like, “other people fall in love just as we do.”, all the while referring to the cognitive or affective condition of love – of course in this way we’re pulled into the appearance/reality distinction, and granting that behind our language is some sort of essence. Rorty simply stops at the statement, “we think that cruelty is the worst thing we can do.” without any further justification. Of course I agree with that, but my instincts (which I’d just assume do away with in this case) push towards the epistemological position which says “I know that that is true because I see it in myself.” Rorty may say, maybe that made sense (at some time and place), but try thinking about it this way. On the other hand (again), I could simply take the same functional position and state, “I believe that other people feel as I do, therefore I recognize that cruelty would the worst thing we can do.” I could then state that I have no non-circular justification for this claim and leave it at that. You could then still see may behavior, through language and action, etc. not as representation, but as certain habits of actions (in a specific case, between me and my boy)
I must say that I am somewhat resigned to the idea that we accept Rorty’s notion that cruelty is the worst thing that we can do, with no non-circular justification as to why that should be the case, but I’m suspicious of taking the statement on site. Between mature adults it’s fair enough to grant that we both pragmatically adhere to this belief, but you’re in a hopeless condition with your child if you think that sort of reasoning is going to fly. Simply teaching your child to grant such ideas is tantamount to ruthless church or state authority – granted though, I’m sure in Rorty’s case he wouldn’t rightly speak that way. Teaching your child to reflect upon their experiences is an important part of life.
To conclude, I don’t think it’s enough to simply say, “cruelty is the worst thing we can do”, as it short sights the conditions under which we may have accepted such a notion. Namely, it short circuits the idea that as people, we come to reflect on our own experiences, and grant (in a question begging way) that other people have cognitive and affective states. In believing this, we can still follow Rorty’s suggestion that beliefs are habits of action, and see our behavior (language and action) as manifest of this. I also think we can rightly hold to that thought without the muddy waters of certainty, Platonic distinctions etc.. We can easily state that as a result of that belief, it gives us tools to communicate in ways that affect others behaviors in a positive way, going beyond the mere suggestion of a proposition and avoiding any authoritative tone.
Let me jump ahead:
At Pragmatism and Atheistic Hope I found myself butting heads against Matt over the regurgitated mysticism of Joseph Campbell, specifically the idea that Truth (capitol “T”) transcends language. I’m almost embarrassed at this point to direct ones attention to the thread, but it can be found HERE. My initial contention was against the idea that the pragmatist should part ways with Campbell because the idea that Truth transcends language has implicit within it (or in the least can be philosophically turned into) the appearance/reality distinction – in other words this statement isn’t to suggest that standing behind language is some great Truth to be accessed. I had simply said, one shouldn’t in this case turn the metaphor into a metaphysic – which is a suggestion given by Campbell (quoted here) and made popular to my mind by Sam Norton. Specifically I stated:
“I don't think it would be right to consider Campbell a realist in this way, or to interprit him as wanting to access a fundamental underlying reality behind language per se. He quite agrees with the statement that one should not mistake the finger for the moon - which I believe is a call to not mistake the finger as representing. i.e. to take the finger for the moon, is to consider that the finger represents the moon. Or to put it another way, Campbell (as an idealist) would see words as tools, just as the pragmatist.”
But, Matt would counter:
“Because in regards to Andrew's defense of Campbell as no metaphysician, I have to grant that Campbell was not a philosopher, and therefore had no metaphysics to offer (not quoted above was a statement from me that indeed Campbell was NO philosopher, which is one reason we shouldn’t read him that way). However--that's not the question. As Andrew emphasizes, Campbell is all about metaphor and the question of his metaphors should be our very legitimate question. And in that case, I have to side with Leela that some of Campbell's metaphors are misleading. Suggesting metaphors that you can easily build a metaphysics off of (e.g., metaphors that lend themselves to the appearance/reality distinction) has to be pointed out as bad, whatever the intention of the producer. Campbell can cry foul all he wants, our only job is to wish he'd been a better poet.”
It should be noted that this really made me more frustrated then it caused me sit back and think – shame on me. Ideally I’d simply like to respond to this by saying; that it is misleading because it implies a Platonic distinction is going against the very idea of not taking the metaphor for a metaphysic. But the conversation didn’t really go that rout, and one can feel free to delight in the horror for oneself as I’m not going to quote any further.
The bottom line was, I wanted to keep my statement about Truth transcending language as a useful metaphor that; if understood correctly not only leads to the conclusion that what one finds is nothing, and that it’s just that “cognitive” realization that’s found (special note of the quotes). i.e. “when you’re done cutting wood, put down the saw and pick up the hammer.” Zen is life, and language is just one part of life, just one tool we use while traveling along its path. In this way, the statement that Truth transcends language couldn’t be more anti-Platonic when seen in the light of this personal realization…. But now I’ve just caught myself in a snare or two. On the one hand (using Rorty) I may be implying that language is expansionist (which is to say Romantic), i.e. that language as metaphor is “strange, mystic, wonderful” etc.. I could be seen as in effect saying that language has the capacity to “express a hidden reality that exists within us.” But that is not what I’m doing, exactly.
It’s important then, to draw out a few points relative to the metaphor/literal distinction made by Rorty:
“we need to see the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical in the way Davidson sees 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.”
“Davidson puts this point by saying that one should not think of metaphorical expressions as having meanings distinct from their literal ones. To have a meaning is to have a place in a language game. Metaphors, by definition, do not. Davidson denies, in his words, "the thesis that associated with a metaphor is a cognitive content that its author wishes to convey and that the interpreter must grasp if he is to get the message. In his view, tossing a metaphor into a conversation is like suddenly breaking off the conversation long enough to make a face, or pulling a photograph out of your pocket and displaying it, or pointing at a feature of the surroundings, or slapping your interlocutor's face, or kissing him. Tossing a metaphor into a text is like using italics, or illustrations, or odd punctuation or formats. All these are ways of producing effects on your interlocutor or your reader, but not ways of conveying a message. To none of these is it appropriate to respond with "What exactly are you trying to say?"
(CIS, Pg. 17 & 18)
First and foremost, I do in fact agree with this position on metaphor. What is key for me is the statement from Davidson that a metaphor does not have associated with it a cognitive content that an interpreter must grasp in order to get the message. After all, if we grant a metaphor such a reality, then we’re granting that behind language is some underlying essence and we’re right back to Platonic distinctions.
Rorty puts it best on page 19:
“The Platonist and the positivist share a reductionist view of metaphor: They think metaphors are either paraphrasable or useless for the one serious purpose which language has, namely, representing reality. By contrast, the Romantic has an expansionist view: He thinks metaphor is strange, mystic, wonderful. Romantics attribute metaphor to a mysterious faculty called the "imagination," a faculty they suppose to be at the very center of the self, the deep heart's core. Whereas the metaphorical looks irrelevant to Platonists and positivists, the literal looks irrelevant to Romantics. For the former think that the point of language is to represent a hidden reality which lies outside us, and the latter thinks its purpose is to express a hidden reality which lies within us.”
Of course, I do find it a bit peculiar that Rorty nails the Romantic for the use of the mysterious faculty called imagination, when above he says, “It [a liberal utopia] is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.” I digress…
That it is important to note that we should not see metaphor as having a cognitive content, does not mean that we cannot see it as having a cognitive effect (much like the cognitive effect it may have had on ourselves), like a slap on the face, or kiss on the cheek, so on. That we can at once say that, “Truth transcends language”, and to understand that in this instance that we should not turn this metaphor into a metaphysic, i.e. as Davidson states, “To none of these [this] is it appropriate to respond with "What exactly are you trying to say?" is to offer onto someone a moment of reflection, a moment for realization, a point of distance between themselves and what it is they aimed to grasp, a chance to put down the saw and pick up the hammer.
That Rorty accepts what Davidson is saying in the manner that he does, gives further force to the idea that he skirts recognition or use of the cognitive/affective. Which doesn’t mean that behind his insistence that we imagine people are fellow sufferers is his own personal reflection (held in recognized circularity) – but he certainly doesn’t seem to want to say it. To say with Rorty that beliefs are not representations, but rather habits of action; and to say that words are not representations, but tools, fits well with the idea that we believe cruelty is a bad thing (as seen by our actions), and well enough with the idea that we believe other people to be cognitive affectional creatures as we see ourselves – at the moment I’m not entirely certain that you can even separate the two. Seeing that the later is true doesn’t have to imply that we think our words are reflections or representations of our belief. Further, if we accept the later as a pragmatic stance, we can still see the light in the language of the mystics – we can see it’s use not as some reflection of our inner self of representation of something to be found, but as (perhaps) a suggestion to reflect upon ourselves, a moment to be alone – after a slap in the face, you may like a moment to savor the pain.
For the sake of summary and rephrase:
my main contention is simply; whereas I have no issue with Rorty’s suggestion that we take cruelty as the worst thing we can do, and that there is in fact no non-circular justification for that, I find it curious and to a certain degree dubious that he refrains from at least offering some suggestions. His attempt to steer clear of these suggestions (and in particular the idea of reflection) looks like an attempt to stay away from Platonism and Romanticism, but in turn makes him appear myopic and suspicious. I’d like to continue this in another post, and consider just what are the consequences (from a pragmatic stance) of believing the proposition “that other people have cognitive/affective states”. In what way can we consider this notion, all the while staying clear of Platonic and Romantic distinctions? In my post, “The Two Horns of Realism and Non-Realism”, I grappled with the idea that statements like, “I’m feeling spiritual”, or, “God gives me the feeling of…”, or, “I have a sense of the mystical” simply don’t make any sense from the Non-Realist perspective as they have no behavioral content save the stating of the metaphor itself. There as well, the statement implies the idea that what’s happening is a reflection of ones cognitive or affective state, i.e. that those states stand as an essence behind the metaphor – but such privileged access claims are hopelessly meaningless to me and others who are more interested in what that means in terms of ones behavior. At the end of that post I concluded:
“Does the non-realist position ignore the mystical component?” or is it that the mystical component is merely irrelevant? In other words calling ourselves mystics (and having mystical experiences) infers certain behaviors… Short of deeds and habits of action, saying that one has great faith, belief, and mystical connections is completely meaningless to anybody and everybody but oneself – as a result one should only consider it relative to deeds. What else do we have?
To suggest that there is something more to the mystical beyond a habit of action is almost to suggest that the morally upright atheist who donates money and volunteers his time is somehow feeling different then the faith based Christian who does the same…”
Short of personal statements about ones state of affairs, this still doesn’t cover the ground of mystical statements like, “Truth transcends language”. Does this imply a cognitive “getting it”, i.e. a content that must be grasped; a content which stands beyond language in some Platonic realm? Or can we say that it’s merely meant to produce an effect – an effect that is perhaps no different then asking my boy, “How would you feel if...”? Neither of these statements requires an answer either. As an effect, in time through thought and reflection, will bring one into adulthood and into a condition where questions like, “What is the Truth”, “What is the meaning of life” will no longer make sense and thus ceased to be asked. And reflections as in, “God gives me strength”, will be seen as merely conditions of that former recognition, and be coupled with behaviors that reflect those conditions – as in the absence of any ultimate questioning. Of course, that begs further questions that I’d like to explore further.
Can we functionally propose that people have cognitive states, without the implication that language represents or reflects those cognitive states? This is mighty sticky, and I see why Rorty avoids it. Not to mention, I’m wading through the waters of my old dilemma.
I’ll leave this hanging here for the moment, and pick it up in another post.