Getting The ‘Rorty’ In The ‘Putnam-Rorty Debate’ Wrong

In his essay on Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett writes of the ‘famous’ Putnam-Rorty debate as follows:

The crux of their dispute centered on how far to take pragmatism. [Richard] Rorty thought that the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality: There is the stuff we say, and then there is the actual world, and never the twain shall meet. We agree on certain conventions in order to function, but we’ll never arrive at anything like truth. Putnam meanwhile held to the idea, as he wrote, that “there is a way to do justice to our sense that knowledge claims are responsible to reality.” In other words, it was possible, as he saw it, to be a pragmatist without jettisoning truth altogether.

In ‘Getting Rid of the Appearance-Reality Distinction,’ Richard Rorty wrote:

Only philosophers take seriously Plato’s distinction between Reality with a capital R and Appearance with a capital A. That distinction has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. We should do our best to get rid of it.

If we did so, we should no longer wonder whether the human mind, or human language, is capable of representing reality accurately. We would stop thinking that some parts of our culture are more in touch with reality than other parts. We would express our sense of finitude not by comparing our humanity with something nonhuman but by comparing our way of being human with other, better ways that may someday be adopted by our descendants. When we condescended to our ancestors, we would not say that they were less in touch with reality than we are, but that their imaginations were more limited than ours. We would boast of being able to talk about more things than they could. [New Literary History, 2016, 47: 67–82.]

What this excerpt, and indeed, the title of the paper it is excerpted from, show is that Rorty did not think the “the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality”–rather, he thought that the notion of ‘actually connected’ and the ‘actual world’ was incoherent, that ‘reality’ was only of concern to those who believed in the separation between what we thought and the way the ‘actual world’ ‘really, really is.’ Rorty considered one of the primary planks of his ‘neo-pragmatism‘ to be the dismissal of any such separation and with it, a whole host of issues that were of interest to the ‘traditional philosopher’: the epistemological worry about whether our theories of the world were a ‘good representation’ of it, the gap and relationship between ‘world and word’, the realism-anti-realism debate, the nature of the ‘justification’ of our beliefs by the ‘actual world.’ The correspondence theory of truth and metaphysical realism are not false or mistaken theories for Rorty; they are just besides the point, the result of a philosophical mistake of sorts, set right by the dismissal of the appearance-reality distinction. The extremely reductive description above Rorty describes him, at best, as a kind of crude anti-realist, and Rorty was anything but.

Fascism And The Irrelevance Of ‘Truth’

Yesterday, a former student wrote to me, asking for clarification on something he had read in an online discussion group:

We [Fascists] don’t think ideology is a problem that is resolved in such a way that truth is seated on a throne. But, in that case, does fighting for an ideology mean fighting for mere appearances? No doubt, unless one considers it according to its unique and efficacious psychological-historical value. The truth of an ideology lies in its capacity to set in motion our capacity for ideals and action. Its truth is absolute insofar as, living within us, it suffices to exhaust those capacities. [From: Gregory J. Kasza, “Fascism from Above? Japan’s Kakushin Right in  Comparative Perspective,” in Stein Ugelvik Larsen, ed., Fascism Outside Europe (Boulder, Colorado: Social Science Monographs, 2001)]

My student asked:

What is being implied about fascism and ideology? What is being said from “fighting for an ideology means fighting for mere appearances?” Is the author implying that to the fascist, truth cannot be unquestioned and as a result, can potentially change?

I have not been able to procure a full copy of the paper so my remarks are limited to the excerpt above. In it, the speaker/writer claims that political and theoretical struggle for the fascists is not necessarily devoted to the pursuit of truth; a clash of competing ideologies is not a clash of competing truth claims. In one sense, a battle over ideologies, over competing systems of thought, is a kind of superficial battle for ‘mere appearances’–precisely because one ideology is not clashing with another to establish itself on the grounds that it is the ‘true’ or ‘correct’ one; but this clash becomes more than just a matter of appearance when we realize that the truth value of an ideology is independent of what the author terms its ‘psychological-historical value’; that the ‘truth of an ideology’ is found in its capacity to make us act. That is what of value to the fascist, the fact that a system of thought–theory–induces praxis, that it shortens the gap between the two, that it encourages those powers within us that make us act.

For the fascist then, truth is not the most important quality of a theory; a theory could be false in the conventional sense of ‘accurately corresponding to the actual state of affairs’ and yet still be a ‘good’ theory precisely because at a particular moment in historical time, marked by very particular material, economic, and political circumstances, it is able to get one class of political and social actor ‘moving’; it is able to make real this actor’s agency; it has found, magically, the key that unlocks access to a potential actor’s world-changing capacities. Theories of politics, according to the speaker/writer above, are theories of action; their value is judged accordingly. Do they make us act? To what ends? Are they effective? If the theory is effective in making us act to bring about the desired ends, it is a ‘true’ or better still, a ‘good’ or ‘useful’ theory. (This moving past the truth of a theoretical claim to its utility is a Nietzschean maneuver, visible in–among other places–‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘ and in many passages in Beyond Good and Evil.

Durkheim On The Pragmatist Conception Of Truth

Pragmatism’s much reviled ‘theory of truth’ received a sympathetic and yet critical and rigorous treatment in Émile Durkheim‘s little-known–to philosophers–Pragmatism and Sociology (John P. Allcock, ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1955.) As part of this treatment, Durkheim notes that:

If thought had as its object simply to ‘reproduce’ reality, it would be the slave of things, and chained to reality. It would simply have to slavishly ‘copy’ the reality before it. If thought is to be freed, it must become the creator of its own object, and the only way to attain this goal is to give it a reality to make or construct. Therefore, thought has as its aim not the reproduction of a datum, but the construction of a future reality. It follows that the value of ideas can no longer be assessed by reference to  objects but must be determined by their degree of utility, their more or less ‘advantageous’ character. [emphasis in original, p. 66]

Understanding the ‘aim’ or the objective of thought as the ‘construction of a future reality’ causes a reconceptualization of truth too; truth is not ‘mere correspondence’ with reality but rather some other recognition of the ‘value’ of an idea; the former is exclusively semantic, the latter is a richer notion, more complex than the simpler notions which preceded it:

[I]n rationalism truth is….necessarily placed above human life. It cannot conform to the demands of circumstances and differing temperaments. It is valid by itself and is good with an absolute goodness. It does not exist for our sake, but for its own. Its role is to let itself be contemplated. It is so to speak deified; it becomes the object of a real cult….’To soften’ the truth is to take from it this absolute and…sacrosanct character. It is to tear it away from this state of immobility that removes it from all becoming, from all change…from all explanation….instead of being thus confined in a separate world, it is itself…naturally part of reality and life….It poses problems: we are authorized to ask ourselves where it comes from, what good it is and so on. It becomes itself an object of knowledge. Herein lies the interest of the pragmatist enterprise: we can see it as an effort to understand truth and reason themselves, to restore to them their human interest, to make of them human things that derive from temporal causes and give rise to temporal consequences. To ‘soften’ truth is to make it into something that can be analysed and explained.

It is this ‘irreverence’ for, and ‘softening’ of, truth that allows pragmatism to make its most ambitious and ‘outlandish’ claims; it is what allows it to participate as a theoretical contributor to the sociology of knowledge; it makes comprehensible the ‘value’ of truth and its importance for us in our thought and action; unlike rationalism, which takes truth’s value as a given, pragmatism inquires into the role it plays in our theorizing and investigates whether the goods it promises are actually delivered or not.

Teaching Wittgenstein And Making The Familiar Unfamiliar

I’m teaching Wittgenstein this semester–for the first time ever–to my Twentieth-Century Philosophy class. My syllabus requires my students to read two long excerpts from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations; bizarrely enough, in my original version of that exalted contract with my students, I had allotted one class meeting to a discussion of the section from the Tractatus. Three classes later, we are still not done; as you can tell, it has been an interesting challenge thus far.

The style of the Tractatus is notorious for the difficulties it can create for the unprepared. Many students find it its terseness, its statement in quasi-mathematical form as a series of seeming definitions, lemmas, theorems and corollaries–as part of a presentation of a grand total of seven propositions–off-putting and abstruse. Yet others find in it a curious beauty, a poetic statement, stark and austere, pregnant with meaning and suggestion. The content of the Tractatus can be forbidding too. Many philosophical doctrines–the picture theory of language, the truth-functional account of propositions, logical atomism and the correspondence theory of truth, the verification theory of meaning, the ‘no-sense’ theory of ethical and emotive statements–may be found here, varying in their level of implicit or explicit statement. A special vocabulary is employed, and the meanings of many of the special terms of art employed–‘facts’ for instance–has to be unpacked carefully.

I have read Wittgenstein before, and indeed, did my dissertation with a logician, Rohit Parikh, who doubled as a Wittgenstein scholar. (This excellent paper by Juliet Floyd explores the several dimensions of his appropriation of Wittgensteinian themes in his work.) For several years during graduate school I attended a discussion and reading group, conducted by Parikh, which often veered off into conversations on Wittgensteinian themes. Years after I completed my dissertation, I realized that many of its fundamental presuppositions and descriptions bore a similar stamp. But, I never taught Wittgenstein.

Now I have. And so, yet again, I’ve been reminded of how radically different my relationship to a philosophical text or doctrine becomes once I’ve had occasion to teach the material. I read differently; I critique differently, trying to anticipate the ambiguities my students might encounter; I notice more in the text, I seize on more. And then, in the classroom, as I work directly through the reading with my students my relationship with it changes yet again.

Sometimes, my teaching has consisted of making a few opening statements, previewing the theories and theses to be presented, and then turning to the text to find their statements within. I invite students to point me to particular propositions that they have found thought-provoking and/or difficult. At times, I have read aloud sections in class, stopping to offer and receive–along with the class–explications and exegesis. I’ve used the ‘reading-aloud-in-class’ method before; in that case, for Leibniz and Kant. What I wrote then about that particular method of approaching a philosophical text still holds:

First, more careful exegesis becomes possible, and little subtle shadings of meaning which could be brushed over in a high-level synoptic discussion are noticed and paid attention to (by both myself and my students). Second, students become aware that reading the text closely pays dividends; when one sentence in the text becomes the topic of an involved discussion, they become aware of how pregnant with meanings these texts can be. Third, the literary quality of the writing, (more evident in Leibniz and Freud than in Kant) becomes more visible; I often stop and flag portions of the text as having been particularly well-expressed or framed. The students become aware that these arguments can be evaluated in more than one dimension: analytical and artistic perhaps.

This method is exhausting, and that is an understatement. There is the obvious physical strain, of course, but doing this kind of close reading is also intellectually taxing. There is more to explain, more to place in context.

Now, with Wittgenstein and Tractatus, I am struck again, by how the seemingly familiar takes on a little of its older novelty.