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.

Wendell Berry On The ‘Real’ And The ‘Ideal’

In ‘The Loss of The Future’ (from The Long-Legged House, Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004 (1965), New York, p. 48) Wendell Berry writes:

One of the most damaging results of the loss of idealism is the loss of reality. Neither the  ideal or the real is perceivable alone. The ideal is apparent and meaningful only in relation to the real, the real only in relation to the ideal. Each is the measure and the corrective of the other. Where there is no accurate sense of the real world, idealism evaporates in the rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification. Where there is no disciplined idealism, the sense of the real is invaded by sentimentality or morbidity or cynicism and by fraudulent discriminations.

Berry seems to employ both meanings of ‘idealism’ here. It may be understood as ‘systems of thought in which the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on the activity of mind’ and, of course, ‘the practice of forming or pursuing ideals, especially unrealistically.’

Be that as it may, Berry is on to something here in his suggestion that the ideal–a kind of non-substantial, immaterial counterpoint to the real–acquires the form that it does because it is informed by our impressions of the real. (Plato thought of course that the sensibly real or the ‘apparent’ was informed by this ‘ideal’ as a kind of imperfect, incomplete, and prone-to-decaying manifestation of it.) Our sense of what the ideal is formed by a kind of extrapolation from the real; the ideal suggests in turn how the real falls short. In the second sense of the word, idealism informs us of possibilities and horizons and limits visible from our actual placements in the here and now; and in doing so, it lets us demarcate and circumscribe the immediately tangible and realized. The real in turn suggests what ideals we could possibly aspire to.

Berry’s claim that without an ‘accurate sense of the real world, idealism evaporates in the rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification’ is now clarified; here, our idealism becomes a kind of solipsism, uncorrected by any contact with the real; our ideals, always straining under the burden of their elevated rhetoric, now begin to fall apart; we seek and find confirmation within ourselves for their validity; with nothing substantial to map on, or be applied, to, the ideals become incoherent. An ideal aims to elevate the real world; with no sense of its ‘target of improvement,’ the ideal runs blind, and aground. (A reformer must know what he or she aims to reform; a prophet must have a sense of his potential flock, of what it is that is to be corrected; otherwise their sermons become mere fantastic ramblings.) Conversely, without the elevating ideal, we remain mired in ‘sentimentality or morbidity or cynicism’ because these offer us easy compensatory consolations in its place. Each is readily available at most turns in our lives; without idealism to draw us up and away from them, we are content to wallow in their depths.

Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

The Greek Alphabet: Making The Strange Familiar

In his review of Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s The Broken Road: From The Iron Gates to Mount Athos (eds. Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, New York Review Books, 2014) Daniel Mendelsohn writes:

His deep affection and admiration for the Greeks are reflected in particularly colorful and suggestive writing. There is a passage in Mani in which the letters of the Greek alphabet become characters in a little drama meant to suggest the intensity of that people’s passion for disputation:

I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips…:the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega,…Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear…. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire.

I first encountered Greek letters, like most schoolchildren, in my mathematics and physics and chemistry classes. There was π, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter; ω, the frequency of a harmonic oscillator and later, infinity in set theory; λ, the wavelength of light; θ, ubiquitous in trigonometry; Ψ, the wave function of quantum mechanics; Σ, the summation of arithmetic and geometric series; a whole zoo used to house the esoteric menagerie of subatomic particles; and many, many more. The Greek alphabet was the lens through which the worlds of science and mathematics became visible to me; it provided symbols for the abstract and the concrete, for the infinitely small and the infinitely large.

I never learned to read in Greek but the Greek alphabet feels intimately familiar to me. Perhaps the most familiar after English.

I first saw Greek texts in the best possible way: Greek versions of Aristotle and Plato in my graduate school library, intended for use by those who specialized in ancient philosophy. (These texts were in classical Greek.) I took down the small volumes from the shelf and opened their pages and looked at the text. It was incomprehensible and yet, recognizable. I could see all the letters, those old friends of mine: the α and the β used to denote the atoms of a language for propositional logic, the Γ of the generalized factorial function, the Δ of differences; they were all there. But now they were pressed into different duties.

Now, they spoke of ethics and metaphysics and politics, of generation and corruption; their forms spoke of the Forms. Now they were used to construct elaborate philosophical systems and arguments. But even as they did so, I could not help feeling, as I looked at the pages and pages of words constructed out of those particles, that I was looking at the most abstruse and elaborate mathematical text of all. It was all unknown quantities, an endless series of fantastically complex mathematical expressions, one following the other, carrying on without end. Yes, it was all Greek to me.  And yet, I still felt at home.

Steven Weinberg’s History Of Science Syllabus

A few years ago, on reading–perhaps in the New York Review of BooksSteven Weinberg mention his teaching an undergraduate history of science class at the University of Texas, I wrote to Weinberg:

Professor Weinberg,

[…] I believe you teach a class on the history of science at UT-Austin. I would be very interested in perusing your reading list for this class. Would it be possible for you to send me an electronic copy?

Weinberg wrote the following brief email:

My reading list consists of a set of collections of original sources, such as Heath’s Greek Astronomy, and Matthews’ The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy, and Plato’s Timaeus. I include some handouts, like xeroxed copies of pages from Ptolemy‘s Almagest, etc. I add Kuhn‘s The Copernican Revolution. [links added]

Because Weinberg did not send me an electronic copy of his syllabus, and because I thought he would have if he had had one, I did not persist in asking him for it. And I did not ask for any more detail about the unspecified portions of his syllabus. Weinberg seemed like a pretty busy guy, and I didn’t think he’d be interested in entertaining curricular inquiries from a perfect stranger. (Yes, I know, I was being a little star-struck by a Nobel laureate.)

It is hard to evaluate this syllabus in this incomplete state. Still, there is certainly philosophy in it, as well as some interesting original sources. (Matthews’ collection, for instance, makes available some brief excerpts from the writings of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton etc.) Some of Weinberg’s selections–because of their archaic language–are likely to be challenging for the modern undergraduate; the readings are definitely non-trivial and not light. It is, as might be expected, biased towards physics; there is little biology to be seen.  Of primary interest to me is that there is almost no ‘modern’ history of science in it: that is, no work by contemporary academic historians of science. Rather, Weinberg relies on ‘classics’ like the Heath collection, Kuhn, and primary works from the periods of interest (Almagest, the Matthews, Timaeus etc) I wonder if this disregard is because Weinberg distrusts modern academic treatments of the history of science, suspecting them of smuggling in illicit philosophical speculation into their ‘critical histories.’ Weinberg’s own skeptical attitude to modern philosophy of science might inform such a selection.

Unsurprisingly, almost all the readings above would function well in many philosophy of science classes. The Heath alone might be considered a historical supplement in a straight philosophy class, but it too, could feature in a more comprehensive ‘History and Philosophy of Science’ class–like the kind I had suggested in an earlier post on the philosophical education of scientists. The inclusion of the Timaeus is quite intriguing. It remains a rarely taught Platonic dialogue; in part, because of its style, which makes it not a particularly easy read but also because of its subject–cosmology.

I’m not going to take the liberty of suggesting additions to this syllabus largely because I don’t want to speculate about what might be on those unnamed ‘some handouts’, but it does seem to me that some supplementation with philosophy of science could turn this into a useful history and philosophy of science class.

Glaucon and the Basic and Advanced Polis, Contd.

Yesterday’s post on Glaucon and the preferred forms of the polis for him and Socrates  sparked off an interesting discussion on Facebook with Alex Gourevitch. I’m reproducing it here as Gourevitch’s responses are wonderfully rich and worth responding to carefully.

Here is the sequence of comments on Facebook, followed by my response last.


I still think it’s better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.


Indeed. I’m just not sure the inhabitants of the basic polis are pigs; that description matches the often rapacious, gluttonous inhabitants of Glaucon’s preferred state.


They are pigs because they will eat anything. They are easily satisfied. They lack culture and refinement, which you only have if you are leisured – which is what, I think, the reference to reclining on couches is supposed to be about. It’s not just about having lots of desires to satisfy, but time to reflect on and develop one’s desires. Of course, that requires a social surplus, and someone else to do the work, which is what introduces class relations. We go from being pigs to being wolves. So you must tame the wolves. That is the question of justice, I think, for Plato. But it’s one also defined by the circumstances of justice. Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus set up the problem in such a way that the only way to imagine a surplus necessary to sustain leisure and culture is by conquering others, taking their land, and enslaving them. At the time, that may very well have been correct – Aristotle says the same thing about why slaves are necessary (the tripods of Haphaestus, looms spinning themselves). But one can imagine other ways, like machines/technology, so that everyone can have that leisure to develop their tastes and participate in culture. Note, by the way, that the theory of justice that develops out of the original problem as Glaucon and Socrates set it up is an attempt to restore that natural harmony of the ‘healthy state’ but through rational principles. In fact, Glaucon wants to be convinced of the idea that it is better to perfectly just and perfectly unjust. So even he does not deny that there is something superior to the condition of the pigs to that of living with wolves. Don’t you think?


 Does Socrates’ description of the basic polis really sound like people who don’t have leisure? Sitting by the fire, drinking wine in moderation, roasting nuts? They aren’t eating just anything. They live in peace to old age too. Perhaps they work into their old age rather than retiring. So what? There is a false opposition set up here. If you don’t grant the opposition that Glaucon sets up little remains of the desire for the advanced polis, which as you note, brings war, class conflict, and the problem of justice and law. It is almost as if Glaucon didn’t pay attention to the description Socrates provides. I would agree with him (and you) if the state described by Socrates was indeed pig like: scrounging for roots, eating dirt, the hardscrabble life from birth to death. But that is not what Socrates has in mind.


Very interesting. I see the plausibility of your reading but I think it rests on overstating the hardscrabble life of the pig as the central issue. In Glaucon’s eye the key feature of the pig is not that it scrounges but that it is indiscriminate. I take that to be one of the oldest metaphors about pigs – they eat anything. The connection to leisure is then that in the primitive division of labor of the ‘healthy city’ everyone works, they have an occupation, but there is no leisure, no culture, and indeed no philosophy. It is only the original act of injustice, the primitive accumulation, as it were, that creates the leisured class, sets reflection in motion, and brings about a philosophical attitude towards the human condition. Of course, what we find upon reflection is injustice. And we can retrospectively appreciate what is harmonious and good about the healthy state, but it is still a state of pigs. It is a state of pigs not because they work from dawn until dusk per se but because there is no demand for leisure and culture, and that demand is not there because people are satisfied with what they have. Needs are limited to a ‘natural’ range, to what can be supplied through a very simple division of labor and a few objects. Everyone is happy to do their work and consume what they can. They are indifferent to the limted range of their lives.


I’m not sure the text supports the reading you attribute to Glaucon. He listens to Socrates’ description of the basic polis and calls its inhabitants pigs anyway, seemingly without having paid attention to the leisure that is built into it. Your reading, and his, only works if this ignored. I’m getting stuck on this point, because I’m willing to concede the rest of your points if indeed all that happened in the basic polis was mere adherence to occupations. Thus I don’t see the necessity for the ‘original act of injustice’ or the ‘primitive accumulation’ either. I would also find it strange that Glaucon/you term them pigs when given a description of their working days: Is no reflection possible while at work? Is no reflection possible by being in the moment of one’s daily activities? You identify ‘culture’ with the arts; I think I have a broader reading of culture that is more inclusive of a broader range of human activities, many of which are possible in the basic polis. And thus I don’t buy the ‘limited range’ view of the polis that you have. But perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that we have lost a great deal by preferring a state that includes class conflict and war. There’s something depressingly Nietzschean about this vision, as if war is the inevitable price we must pay for the fine arts.

More importantly, I think there is a fairly convincing argument to be made that Plato finds the basic polis, despite the attention he pays to the advanced polis, a morally superior one. Remember what he terms the life of the philosopher: unconcerned with material acquisition but only with the pursuit of the truth. The basic polis provides this without the temptations of the advanced polis. A frugal life is possible here without evoking our worst instincts; it can give us time for the pursuit of the truth without necessarily owning or consuming the ‘finer things’ that Glaucon thinks are possible in the advanced polis. Indeed, Plato’s philosophers would be unmoved by the material wealth of the advanced polis; the contemplative time provided by the basic polis is enough. The basic polis makes possible a society where laws and government might play a minimal role; it might be the kind of community anarchist political philosophies have in mind.  The rudimentary polis can get along without being  a state; the advanced polis has to be one. And I find it hard to believe that the state represents an advancement on the basic polis.

Note: My arguments above are not original to me. I read them many years ago in David Melling’s lovely little book on Plato, which I’ve often recommended to my students. I stumbled upon the book again recently and was moved to write yesterday’s and today’s posts in response.

Glaucon’s Porcine Preference for the Advanced Polis

I never particularly liked Glaucon. His responses to Socrates‘ description, in Plato‘s Republic (372 (a-d)), of the basic polis are a good reminder of why.

Socrates quoth:

First of all, then, let us consider what will be the manner of life of men thus provided. Will they not make bread and wine and garments and shoes? And they will build themselves houses and carry on their work in summer for the most part unclad and unshod and in winter clothed and shod sufficiently? And for their nourishment they will provide meal from their barley and flour from their wheat, and kneading and cooking these they will serve noble cakes and loaves on some arrangement of reeds or clean leaves, and, reclined on rustic beds strewn with bryony and myrtle, they will feast with their children, drinking of their wine thereto, garlanded and singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship, not begetting offspring beyond their means lest they fall into poverty or war?

What is Glaucon’s interjection?

No relishes apparently, for the men you describe as feasting.

Socrates recovers from the silliness of this and responds, gamely:

True, I forgot that they will also have relishes—salt, of course, and olives and cheese and onions and greens, the sort of things they boil in the country, they will boil up together. But for dessert we will serve them figs and chickpeas and beans,  and they will toast myrtle-berries and acorns before the fire, washing them down with moderate potations and so, living in peace and health, they will probably die in old age and hand on a like life to their offspring.

Glaucon’s response:

If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, what other fodder than this would you provide?

The ever-polite Socrates responds:

Why, what would you have, Glaucon?

The real ‘pig’ in all of this, Glaucon, respond:

What is customary; they must recline on couches, I presume, if they are not to be uncomfortable.

Waddaprick. The basic polis sounds pretty nice, especially when you consider that the kind of polis envisaged by Glaucon requires–as he admits a little later in the dialogue (373 (d-e)–the introduction of the doctor and the soldier. (Healthcare and the Military! Sound like budgetary problems to me.) The first occupation addresses the rash of diseases that will be caused by the ‘richer’ lifestyle of the more advanced polis–Socrates’ argument for the need for doctors in the advanced polis is an interesting anticipation of modern thinking about diseases of affluence. More perniciously, the advanced polis results inevitably in a desire for territorial expansion: the standing army with its budgetary demands and its endless conscriptions, its creation of wars, the scourge of human history, is a function of the mode of organization of the state it defends.

Glaucon disdains the frugal nature of the basic polis, seemingly unaware that the richer polis he has in mind is the one that will actually encourage porcine behavior.

Excerpted from: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. Available online at the Perseus Digital Library.