“What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” From The Master & Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Great Feast Forgotten
Can the Great Feast of Knowledge save us from our worst excesses at this moment of political and reactionary ferment? I would like to think it could help. But it would require the regular diners to do their part and remind visitors of the customs of dining and etiquette practiced therein. The feast is at its liveliest and most heartening when everyone participating follows some basic guidelines.
Do tuck in! But remember not to shit in your plate. Piss in the corner. Punch the other diners for merely burping. Or take over the kitchen and enforce your own country’s god awful cuisine.
No, that will not do.
Here are some tips for decent feasting;
First of all, remember the critics! A good food critic is worth a thousand meals they say. Try the food for yourself as they might be utterly wrong in their judgments, but they are essential when evaluating a potential meal. The best of them provide unexpected insights, history, context, and appreciation for the hard work it can take to cook up a complex dish. And an insightful critic can help you avoid indigestion: A most common problem these days!
Secondly, dine with guests who know a surprising thing or two about the meal you’ve ordered. Always listen out for unexpected diners and see if you can hang with them for a while to learn more about ingredients and their origins. They bring variety to the monotony of the familiar and can make the real difference between a successful evening of dining, and a disaster of epic proportions.
Three, ask how the meal might be improved. Yes, you are entitled to your own opinion, and it may be you that surprises the company you’re in by offering up a refinement to the dish, reinvigorating a classic, or offer surprising innovation to alt-cuisine. Of course, you may also end up spouting bullshit, but here, someone will help you to note the bad odor in the air and change verbal percorso.
Fourth, don’t get stuck at the table. Move around, see what else is happening at the other tables and stop for a while to chat. The more social connections you build at the Feast, the more likely you’ll come back and dine further. It really is important to network you know.
Fifth (for now), pay attention to the quality of the ingredients. Sometimes the food has gone bad and you may not even realize it. Be sure to examine your plate carefully for signs of rotten food. Don’t be shy in sending your dish back to the kitchen if it’s clearly rancid. Do remember that some of the kitchen staff are new to cooking, and a bit of patience will be needed if they are to learn.
Sixth, don’t force others to eat when they are full. Remember digestion! To overeat, to eat too fast, to skip meals; these are all unhealthy eating habits and spoil the pleasure of dining.
Finally, try to share the conversation. Droning on about why your diet is the best of all and should be adopted by all the other diners is rude and presumptuous and most guests hate it.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, idling at the traffic lights waiting for part 1 to begin.
In a world of easy dopamine vices, it can be insightful to look up the meaning of words in a number of dictionaries and marvel at the variety of definitions given. Definitions that can at times be miles apart, unexpected, or differ in small ways that may be of upmost importance if precision were to determine the success or failure of a thing. This variety reminds us, in a small way, just how strong our tendency is to fix the world into easy categories, and simplistic definitions, and how much of a habit this is for us all. It reminds us how our simplification of the world causes us to miss its multiplicity, its complexity, its visible and invisible relationships, and the ever-present role of history in our present, even as we push on, trying to ignore or escape the past. For a word, as any linguist knows, tends to wriggle out of the boundaries within which it is placed; Take the word gay for example. And that’s just a word. How about a concept? Intelligence. Or philosophy or art? Post-modernism. A movement? Anti-racism. A religion? Buddhism. Or, how about that incredible mass of wriggly humans that we are, all wriggling together for thousands of years with varied pasts, presents, dreams and futures.
Such variety. Such a mix.
And yet, for some folks, too many of them actually, words, concepts, movements, people, and even the world itself, can be summarised rather simply, captured within a single phrase, narrowed down and placed inside a nice conceptual box, or even caught by a solitary word.
“Done and dusted,” they bellow. “Got that figured out,” they chime.
Really? One might reply. How interesting.
We could put this down to a number of causes. A lack of imagination might be one (if we were to be generous), intellectual poverty (if we were to be harsh), or epistemological immaturity: perhaps as a consequence of being waylaid in one’s learning, or as an expression of the joys of youthful ignorance (remembering that youthful ignorance can last a lifetime). It can also come down to a question of time in today’s frenetic and demanding world. We all need to know so much, and yet often lack the pace and rhythm of life to give knowledge the attention it needs, digest it slowly, reflect and mature our understanding turn information into more than mere data. Within the practising life, it would appear, all the same, that we have ourselves an eminently workable condition – learn, and learn some more, dedicate time throughout your life to learning well, make plenty of mistakes, fail, grow, keep on learning, and discover the limits of what you know, and then (and so importantly) the limits of what we know, all of us; including our favourite image makers and heroes.
Essentially, we might learn about epistemic humility and apply its principles liberally to every other imperfect human we come into contact with physically, through the pages of books, or the magical screens we spend some much time staring at these days. A learning that emerges from an increasing willingness to state, “I don’t know” and “I could be wrong” is a wondrous thing indeed. When shared generously to those we adore, or are infatuated with, it can be even more wondrous. From such learning, grace, tolerance, appreciation and patience might even begin to emerge: Much needed qualities today, as they have forever been. We might question the faith we tend to hold in the knowledge of others. We might even go further and inhabit the space of what ifs and dine out on the idea of the democracy of thought, the democracy of knowledge, and take a seat (often) at the Great Feast.
A fast track to greater human knowledge if ever there were one.
Socially, as in that mass of wriggly humans that make up any given society, the challenge of ignorance is rather different, and one that many consider and have long considered impossible. “Humans are too stupid”, the cynics say, “Too ignorant”, “Undisciplined”, “Trapped by their desires” the sceptics call out, “Caught in the moment”, “Distracted”, “Blinded by faith”, others still claim, and the list goes on.
And no doubt these things are true at times and in given circumstances.
But always, and forever more?
I’m not so convinced. I have a certain amount of faith in my fellow wriggly humans, but I would like to think it is not blind. If imperfection is at root our condition, then it is simply all a work in progress; but how easily we tend to forget this! And how easily we turn books into holy transmission, and teachers into prophets. From religion to politics, the behaviours are all too easily recognisable; the smell of the seduction of certainty is all too familiar.
And there is that issue of over-confidence in one’s current state of knowledge, and the warm glow of certainty that ideological capture brings. These two, when working in tandem with intellectual poverty, provide a recipe for anti-intellectualism to gain momentum and build to levels that our current “cultural” climate exhibits. Remember: ignorance can be a many worded thing. Possessing an appearance that would convince many that intellect and sharp minds are at play when in truth, to poke at the surface, is to find obfuscation, blind-faith, abundant belief, and untested assumptions chugging along rather happily.
As well as being linked to decades of failure in our education systems, and an insufficiently developed understanding of adult development, this mash up is increasingly linked to the politicisation of the collective imagination in a time characterised by polarisation and the assertion of ideological boundaries of being, behaving and naming; Three familiar traps that we all get caught by easily enough.
The massive polarisation we see around us, taking shape in different forms and permutations in societies at present, is something that we must all contend with. Some of us choose to do so passively, some of us actively, but very few creatively, and with a desire to transcend the dullness of conformity; either to the ideological entrapment on offer, or the reactive anti-stance that’s so tempting too. As a consequence the collective imagination is too often caught by obsessions that range from ideological conformity, to the dispersion of much needed mental energy dedicated to opposing what is imagined, rather than what is real: Twitter tantrums, Facebook fanaticism, Instagram idiocy, all plough our mental energy, time, and creative juices into the schizophrenic bucket going nowhere that is social media at its worse.
I am not immune to all this myself. Everyone’s at it, it seems.
The custodians of wise encounters with knowledge are not only sparse (they always were), but have now become a part of the problem, apparently, as the anti-intellectual thrust pushes away any of those voices that might shed light on capture and the madness of it all. The wise elders are part of the problem don’t you know.
“But what is this you speak of Matt? I simply can’t see what you’re worried about.” Some claim so, and I don’t doubt that for them this is true. But what must they avoid looking at and seeing to hold to such a view? What blinkers have been donned? What easy justifications are performed?
Which company is kept to enable such short-sightedness?
Things are far more complex than your reading allows for. Keep looking. It is both _______ and _________.
Ideological entrapment too often ends up being the collective form of our very human tendency towards simplicity, easy categorisation, over-confidence, and therefore imaginative poverty. And clearly social media is making this worse. Clearly it takes time and tolerance to avoid it, and effort to read with care, reflect, and say something worthwhile that won’t merely antagonise someone on one side of the polarisation aisle. And today, with polarisation building a pressing and oppressive force on the collective imagination in many pockets of society, this ideological blindness, or refusal to see beyond one’s often simplistic beliefs and uncritically held identity markers is being pushed ever more strongly and ever more deeply with myriad consequences that all sides seem loath to consider, let alone discuss. Those on the side of the good (aren’t we all), will usually do anything to maintain the myths that bind them to their cause.
Though perhaps you have found someone capable of avoiding this, and the doubt that lurks deeply in it all?
Perhaps it’s you? Well done.
Information bubbles, closeted online communities, and wilful dismissal of the other become an easy escape from the difficult reality of difference. Some of you reading this might be confused. What are you arguing for? Which side are you on? Whose ideological entrapment mate? As a diner at the Great Feast, how could I do anything other than insist we hear from many voices before reaching conclusions? How could I not wish to hear the critique offered by the many sides of the many discussions underway, including those that likely disagree with you reading this?
Who wouldn’t want to?
Unless you have something to hide, or something you simply refuse to see as a practitioner of intolerance (oh, aren’t we all?). What fears lurk underneath the insistence that others conform, and free thought be prohibited?
“Oh”, some say, “That’s just a tool of the alt-right”.
Really? Are you sure?
[A little bird whispered to me recently that all of these quick fire judgements bear the signs of undiagnosed misanthropy: that self-hatred’s all the rage these days it tells me. I have to think on this some more before deciding if she is a reliable whisperer. I suspect the misanthropy she chirps of is of a highly selective form.]
The political and social upheaval around us today is highly complex. From Italy to England, from Canada to the US, from Hong Kong to Australia, there is much afoot. And all of it is unfolding underneath the almost forgotten environmental change that threatens all life on Earth. The racial tensions in America are but one among an endless list of injustices and concerns spanning the entire globe. Can I stand with anti-racism in America? Yes. Must I renounce my capacity to think critically, question assumptions, investigate axioms, and think and act freely? No. Conformity is not freedom, but the mere exchange of one form of blindness for another. If I am forced to take a stand, it will not be with those ideologies that preach an eternal race war, or demand you take their side or else.
“But that’s not really happening” they say.
Really? One could reply. Have you been paying attention to the world out there? (Oh, I forget once again, we all struggle extremely hard to exit our information and informant bubbles these days, myself included).
One might even ask what ideologies are so delicate that they must insist others blindly conform to their worldview and turn a blind eye to criticism, or weaponise criticisms to justify their ideological machinations; a shitty little Machiavellian trick if ever there were one. “Oh”, some might respond. “That’s not what we’re doing. Can’t you see we are on the side of the good?” Kneejerk self-defence has long been known to cover over doubts, weaknesses in conviction, and mistaken views. Better to address those weaknesses through learning anew, discourse with divergent thinkers, analysis from near and afar, and change. But who might help you with that? Perhaps your critics, even if they are ultimately wrong.
To disrupt certainty is to open the way to learning. Where am I certain, and who did I borrow such certainty from? Now, there’s a question worth asking.
The Great Feast though should ultimately be our final destination. There we can locate our struggles in history; learn from the mistakes of the past, refine our understanding so that it speak more clearly to our time, and even envision a future where many possibilities might play out, both those we desire, and those our actions may lead to in a worst case scenario. It is the place where we might establish an ideology of epistemic humility in the face of such certainty, and where no matter the struggle, we might remain open to the many possibilities, insights, and views so that we may turn intellectual impoverishment into a many faced god immersed in a world of rich and ripe potentials, and not the black and white narratives of the impoverished dualism of Protestant ancestors. We need an ecological ideology that can help us face a globalised world of enmeshment and complex, intertwining histories, presents and potential futures.
If the most captured of folks were to take a look over their shoulder at human history, they might see that the list of evil done in the name of the good is very long indeed, and that increasingly polarised societies barely last for long and that as a wise man once told me, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. But it’ll never be as you imagined it.”
That said, the social turmoil we see is a sign of what many who are most vocal in pushing it claim it to be. I won’t deny that: A set of fights are underway against injustice everywhere you look, from Hong Kong to Baltimore, from London to Nairobi, a much need corrective to politics-as-usual is being sought, an outpouring of justified anger is taking place, timely protests against government are unfolding, a revolt against neo-liberal Capitalism and austerity, and the failure of the political elite to make society work for the many and not just the few has become more visible than ever before. This is all good. But, there is much more going on that your narrative misses, and there has never been an apparently benevolent story (or ideology) that was without darkness: and of course, the purer the claim, the more righteous the cries, the darker that darkness can end up being. The fact is, we struggle to know what it even means to truly be on the side of the righteous, or what it would take to stay there.
“But, we’re different” you claim.
Really? How can you be so sure?
Just as Brexit was a multi-headed symbolic hydra that too many folks were willing to attempt to capture in a single word, or single cause, and subsequently bellow such claims with such undeserved confidence, so to the protests in America are many things, as are the offshoot of them that is the British protests and statue tumbling, as are the reactions from different quarters in other countries. Claiming any of the events that make up the major political turmoil in the world underway are only the one thing we believe them to be is to put your blinkers on, strap ‘em tight and carry on regardless. It is to engage in voluntary ignorance, and boy do we have an excess of such volunteers at present.
I personally don’t believe we can afford to do this at this time. I believe that our greatest collective enemy is ignorance and that we must build a way forwards out of our habits of indoctrination into stupidity. Those engaged in the practising life have even less room for indulging the comforts of ideological enchantment, and dogged conformity to simplistic thought if practice is to be worth a damn. We need a concerted stance against anti-intellectualism: That which involves the refusal to see, and that which involves utter capture by narrow, impoverished visions of the world. Those caught in the latter often critique the first, but fail to even grasp they may be part of the problem too, let along apply their own critique to their own pet narrratives. The reasons for not doing that are endless of course, but the result is always the same.
It takes maturity, learning, and dare I say wisdom to do so, but if you can excuse away such a thought with your ideological apparatus, I am going to suggest you are a fully captured subject, and unlikely made it to this point in your reading of this text.
What’s next? Hyperrreality! Oh, boy are we in trouble…
This quote caught my eye and reminded me of your post, not sure the connection is really there. But it gives me an excuse to say hi and wish you the best.
Rorty raises a general problem of philosophy: “I see European philosophical thought as still dominated by the Marxist notion of Ideologiekritik, and by the romantic notion of the philosopher as the person who penetrates behind the appearances of present social institutions to their reality. I distrust both notions” (Rorty in Critchley et al. 1996).
Hello Mr Mark, Thanks for stopping by. I’m reading a nice little book on ideology from the Oxford Short Introduction series by Michael Freeden presently. A great series of titles if you don’t know them already. In this one, he provides an interesting critique of Marx and Engel’s view on ideology and the wonky subject of false consciousness, as well as a view on the history of the term. I think it connects nicely to your Rorty quote, so good intuition and timing on the quote. I remember Pepper complaining endlessly about Rorty though can’t recall why; perhaps it was something to do with relativism?
If you’re interested in my objection to Rorty, you can find it expressed briefly in chapter 2 of my book, “Indispensable Goods”.
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If someone claims Rorty is stupid, then I doubt they are saying much about Rorty. Accusing a pragmatist of relativism is a profound misunderstanding of pragmatism. For example, claiming that a table would still exist, even if all humans vanished, is exactly the type of “perspective from nowhere” that only a foundationalist would propose. Rorty tries to point out the intellectual masterbation involved in that type of reasoning. We are limited by language and those limitations allow for creativity. Nowhere does Rorty claim that language is independent of other mediums. He is simply observing that language is not neutral, as soon as you start talking about other mediums you are back entangled in language. Basically, Tom wants to harpoon Rorty because Rorty sees the risk of foundational projects. One of the key points to remember is that Rorty is speaking to would be philosophers. Those would be philosophers that are offended by Rorty usually have plans for telling everyone how they should think.
Thanks Tom. Good to see you putting out more of your work. I shall order myself a copy and avoid making the usual invitation to get you on the podcast to talk about it.
As I replied on my blog, if you read the book and still think it is worth a podcast, I can give it a shot.. I doubt I’d be any good at it, but if it’s dreadful you can always not post it. I imagine you’re well enough established that my droning on for a bit wouldn’t cost you too many listeners.
there’s no “Reply” button beneath your comment, so I’m responding here. You wrote:
> He is simply observing that language is not neutral, as soon as you start talking about other mediums you are back entangled in language.
Could you please explain why you see this as such a fundamental problem?
Here’s my take on this, via an analogy. We can only see using our eyes. Seeing is not neutral, either. What I see is not – and can never be – purely objective, the thing-in-itself. I can only see how an object appears to me as a subject with eyes that are constructed in a certain way and a mind constructed in a certain way and so on. Still, my perception is also not purely subjective, either. It tells me something about the objective reality we live in. That’s exactly what makes seeing so useful! For humans, even seeing is inevitably connected with language. But cats have eyes, too, and are using them to do things that are extremely useful to them. (And, presumably, they do not have anything comparable to our language ability.) Are you saying that a table isn’t real to a cat? Have you never seen a cat jump on a table?
Now, sure, all of what I just wrote is language. My question is: So what?
Do you really think Rorty has nothing to offer, that his perspective should be suppressed ? You have a worldview, if I point out limitations of it, you might like that or you might not. Do you want to be wrong? Do you want to have a paradigm shift in worldview – most people do not. What value do you get if the conclusion of our conversation is to say that Rorty is an idiot and you are right?
We would be better to try and understand Rorty from his perspective, once we’ve mastered his perspective then we will have developed another option, and perhaps also meaningful critiques of his perspective.
I did not say that language being a medium that is limiting and limited is a “fundamental problem”. It is entangled with our worldview, trying to pretend it is not could be a problem.
Often we think we know things and it turns out we don’t. For example, “We can only see using our eyes”. We can see with our ears too. People who have lost their vision have reported experiences like vision after learning to use echo location. Synesthesia also upsets simplistic models of how sensing functions.
You are already assuming there is a “thing in itself” and that is a language game. It is the same assumption Plato makes with the eternal realm. If you believe there is a ‘thing-in-itself’ then this shapes a great deal of your worldview. But unless you have another perspective (e.g. Rorty) you are stuck with your assumption.
What is “objective reality”? It is again only language that allows you to even come up with such a thought. One point Rorty is making is that whoever taught you there is an objective reality, could also claim to know things about it. If I tell you there is an objective reality, that I am a scientist, that we should “find” the knowledge about objective reality, is there any moral concern over what I use my socially funded education to research? Is it OK to do gain of function research on coronaviruses? a naive dualism between “facts” and “values” would support knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Do you really think I or Rorty are claiming that cats can’t jump on tables? I will hazard a guess that you want to believe I am making such a claim, so you can continue to be sure that you have the right answers.
The point is that by thinking “so what?” about these topics you “block the path of inquiry” as a good pragmatist would say. You only block your own path of inquiry, and you are welcome to do that. If you investigate Rorty’s perspective I assure you that you will realise just how irrelevant your critique about cats and tables is. If you have questions about Rorty’s perspective from his perspective, then that would be an interesting conversation.
I honestly don’t know if Rorty has anything to offer. I haven’t read him, but what I’ve heard about him doesn’t sound very promising.
No, I don’t “want to be wrong”. But if no one points out the limitations of my understanding, then how could I improve it, rather than continue to believe something that is wrong? This is the value I hope for in this conversation: Learning to better understand the world and better articulate my understanding of it. And maybe even helping others to better understand the world. Not talking with others would indeed – to use your phrase – “block my path of inquiry”. But I cannot imagine what that even means from your perspective. If you do not believe in an objective reality, then into what are you inquiring?
Can blind faith in the superior knowledge of scientists be abused? Sure, it can. But this does not change the fact that there is an objective reality that scientists work to better understand and interact with. Without such scientific knowledge, we could not build bridges or computers and the like. Like with the cats, I do realize you must know this, but what I cannot imagine is how you would explain how we do these things.
For you, “objective reality” can only be grounds for oppression. But for me, it’s the source of our freedom. I can not only – as you suggest – change my perspective by encountering new opinions held by other people. I can also run up against reality and come to better understand it by thinking about my experience. Again, I simply cannot imagine why one would want to deny this.
Yeah, the jumping on tables thing was perhaps an unnecessarily aggressive polemic. I won’t say that there’s no truth in your guess. Yet, you talk about wanting to be sure that I have the right answers like it’s a bad thing. 😉 Which answers are “right” is not decided – as is too often the case in school – by some teacher, but a question of what is objectively true. I am not saying we should just take some scientist’s word for it. I am suggesting that we can figure out how the world works for ourselves. (At least to some degree. We can surely not all be experts on every field of knowledge.) Of course, we can never be absolutely certain that we got it right and, as you say, often we do not. So, yes, we have to be careful not to think we already know everything.
But there’s something else I wanted to get at with the cats: You said above that saying that a table would still exist if all humans vanished requires a “perspective from nowhere”. I would agree that such a perspective cannot exist. My point about the cat was that it also has a perspective and could still jump on the table if all humans disappeared. It is _this_ that I took you to be denying and it seems just as absurd to me.
I’m not arguing for a “dualism between ‘facts’ and ‘values'”. I think we only ever do things for ideological reasons. But we can still uncover facts. They are always limited, never the whole truth, but true nonetheless. As Ray Brassier once put it: “We know that scientific theories constantly supplant and replace one another, and that if the history of science is anything to go by, even our best current theories will probably turn out to be fundamentally mistaken or deficient in some regard, much as their predecessors did. Some cite this as a reason not to invest science with any fundamental epistemic authority. I think this is an overreaction. The fact that our best current science will probably turn out to be only partly true does not license the conclusion that it is all wrong and that it has no authority whatsoever. There is a world of difference between something’s being partly true and its being all wrong.” (https://www.ny-web.be/artikels/against-aesthetics-noise/)
Rorty is one of the most influential philosophers of the late 20th century. To imagine he has nothing to offer would be quite a position to take. Have a look at the wiki page as a starting point – you should quickly notice he is not claiming there is only language.
If you “don’t want to be wrong” then why would I want to go against that wish?
“If you do not believe in an objective reality, then into what are you inquiring?” this already assumes that is must be a thing, that we must know what it is, before we can inquire into it. Maybe it would be extremely arrogant to believe that an ape that recently learnt how to cook is the ultimate measure of reality.
Nowhere did I write that objective reality can only be a grounds for oppression. I gave an example of a risk of foundational type attitudes. Then you turn that into a black and white statement – that nothing good could possibly come of studying objective reality. I guess you imagine I refuse medical care? I guess I must not use technology – especially not computers. Are you really making an effort to inquire or are you trying to convince yourself? How could that line of reasoning lead to anything useful.
You cannot possibly imagine why anyone would not want to adopt your perspective. I think this says more about your perspective than the people who have not adopted it. How could you know your perspective is the ultimate truth if you can’t imagine any other perspective? You can imagine that I grew up in the same materialist culture, learned the same stories at school etc. Imagine that I once believed what you believe. My formal education is in engineering, I do not need help to realise the usefulness of physics.
What is the fascination for the behavior of cats in fantasies where nobody is there to talk about it? A pragmatist like Rorty would probably walk away from this conversation, what is the practical use of your example – you intend to claim some ultimate truth because of a story you tell me about cats?
I am not saying that science can’t be useful, but to turn that into a debate about what is objectively true is a complete misunderstanding of Rorty’s point.
You state that there is an objective reality and that facts and values are entangled. This is a logical contradiction in your own terms. If your objective reality is run through with values and has no objective facts then what use is it? Why call it objective to begin with, and why not inquire into the consequences of calling it objective. There is some irony to having you use Rorty’s argument about the entanglement of facts and values to tell me that Rorty is an idiot.
If you have questions about the implications of pragmatism then I would be happy to help, I have researched it a little. But I cannot teach you what pragmatism is any faster or better than you could learn it by picking up a book. I have problems with Rorty’s philosophy, but they are immanent critiques. I am not going to defend Rorty as the Truth. But what I would criticise about Rorty would require understanding Rorty before my critique makes any sense.
It is humbling to see how bad I am at engaging in these conversations 🙂 Thanks.
Hi Mark, [I apologize in advance for the length of this comment!]
> “To imagine he has nothing to offer would be quite a position to take.”
you’re right and it was pure arrogance on my part. Because I firmly believed that his conclusion – which I see as essentially a form of antirealism, even though he does not, as you pointed out, deny the existence of a mind-independent reality – is wrong, I felt I did not even need to consider the details of his views and arguments. Now, I admit that I’m still biased against antirealism, but I realize that a discussion about it is important. At the very least, Rorty’s contribution may be that his work encourages a more sophisticated realism.
I’ve reread Tom’s section on Rorty in “Indispensable Goods” (Which I highly recommend, by the way!) and had a look at the Wikipedia page and I think I understand better now why you say my criticisms are irrelevant to Rorty’s view. I’ve also realized that it was probably a mistake on my part to speak of “objective reality”. I think it’s better to use the distinction Tom suggests between mind-dependent reality and mind-independent reality.
> “If you “don’t want to be wrong” then why would I want to go against that wish?”
Because I *do want* to better understand the world and have my incorrect beliefs pointed out to me. I think of this as a bit like that scene in the movie “Cast Away” where Tom Hanks’s character, trapped alone on an island, removes a rotten tooth with an ice skate and a rock. It’s painful, but better for you in the long run. In fact, your previous comment did bring about an experience like that in me, even after I’d already responded to it. You’ve helped me realize that I’ve only been paying lip service to the idea that I don’t possess the Ultimate Truth, but secretly did believe this, without quite realizing it myself. Had you not made an effort to tell me how I should (or, maybe you would prefer ‘could’?) think, then I might not have come to this liberating insight, at least not at this point in time.
> “Nowhere did I write that objective reality can only be a grounds for oppression.”
I guess we’ve both to some extent been seeing caricatures of the other’s positions based on our own projections. And I think we’ve both been somewhat sloppy in articulating our own views. I hope I can do a bit better this time.
> “If your objective reality is run through with values and has no objective facts then what use is it?”
I do not think that the mind-independent reality is “run through with values”. Okay, let’s see what Rorty has to say on this. From the Wikipedia page on Rorty:
> “Truth cannot be out there — cannot exist independently of the human mind — because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own unaided by the describing activities of humans cannot.”
I think I’m more or less in agreement with this. An important point is, however, that the truth Rorty talks about is perhaps not “out there”, but what is true and what is wrong nonetheless depends on what is out there. I think we only ever produce knowledge of reality for ideological reasons, but we can still produce knowledge that is “true”. This knowledge is a mind-dependent thing and we can never know mind-independent reality “directly”. Furthermore, this knowledge is, indeed, not a reflection of reality, but a tool for doing things in the world. This raises the question of how we determine which tools we should use. For Rorty, apparently, there is no answer. He suggests that it’s important that one “does not think [one’s] vocabulary is closer to reality than others” (also taken from the Wikipedia page).
This, I believe, is incorrect. I want to use an analogy from mathematics to illustrate this. Consider the reciprocal function f(x):=1/x defined on the strictly positive real numbers. I think that mind-independent reality is a bit like the point “(0,Infinity)”, which is of course not actually contained in the Euclidean plane. (And this will be important to my point. Perhaps we could also speak in terms of projective geometry, but I don’t see this as really relevant to the point I wish to make.) The graph of the function f is supposed to play the role of our knowledge of the world. What I want to get at is this: We can never reach mind-independent reality, but we can get ever closer to it. We only have our finite human constructions and all of them are “infinitely far away” from the Ultimate Truth. But still, we can, in some sense, get closer to it. The point (1/1000, 1000) is, in an intuitively obvious sense (at least, that’s how it seems to me), closer to the point “(0,Infinity)” than the point (1,1).
My suggestion is that, similarly, using two outdated paradigms as examples, Newtonian physics is “more correct” – closer to the point “(0,Infinity)” – than Aristotelian physics. What does it mean to say that it is “more correct”? It means that it is more useful. What does it mean to say “more useful”? My understanding is that “more useful” means that it allows us to do more things in the world. This is perhaps not an objective truth about mind-independent reality, but better understood as a feature of our relation to the world of which we are a part.
As I see it, this is a big problem with Rorty’s view. He cannot give meaning to the very term “more useful”, even though it is central to his view. (Correct me if I’m wrong!) This is not an “epistemological” problem: It’s not that we merely cannot tell, in a given situation, which worldview is more useful, because of some limitation of our thought. He cannot say what it _means_ for something to be useful – can he? (Full disclosure: I did not come up with this myself. This is what I take Tom to be saying about Rorty in “Indispensable Goods”. It seems true to me. Do you see an error in it?)
> ‘“If you do not believe in an objective reality, then into what are you inquiring?” this already assumes that is must be a thing, that we must know what it is, before we can inquire into it.’
This is not quite true. We always already have some sense of what reality is. It is a part of the culture we are born into. So, we don’t already know objective reality, but we already know some construal of the world. And we can improve this construal, precisely because there is a mind-independent reality that does not care how we construe it.
There’s still the question you raise: What is the practical use of the position I am arguing for? After all, it seems to be more or less sufficient, in the natural sciences, to work with modern physical theories (for example) because they are “useful”. Why do we need to speak about truth? I think that maybe this becomes much more important when we want to talk about mind-_dependent_ reality.
I want to try to explain this with an example. Let’s say that I am convinced that only romantic love can fill my life with meaning, but this mostly just makes me miserable, because I cannot find the “right” partner. Now, this might cause me to abandon my belief in romantic love in favor of something “more useful”. But if what is “more useful” is not something I have any way of deciding, then I will just blindly and coincidentally come to believe something else. Perhaps that what I really need is to be a successful tennis star. This may work out better for me or it may not. But on Rorty’s view, as I understand it (Correct me if I’m wrong!), I am really just a leaf blown in the wind of my paradigms. I can never consciously choose a paradigm that sounds promising, or consciously abandon my current paradigm because I realize that it produces suffering – for me or for others. What I am trying to get at is this: Rorty’s theory does not enable me to question if I should want the things that I currently want. However, I do believe, from personal experience, that this is both possible and important.
In other words, the practical use lies precisely in enabling the “Ideologiekritik” that Rorty says he distrusts.
But I want to repeat more explicitly the immanent critique from above: Why should we accept Rorty’s perspective on its own terms? If he is right, we could only accept it if we found it “more useful”, could we not? But, at the same time, Rorty’s perspective cannot even tell us what “more useful” means. Why should we accept something that cannot give us a reason to accept it, even on its own terms?
Furthermore, at the risk of sounding more aggressive than I want to, I would like to point out that neither I nor anybody else on this post has claimed that Rorty is stupid. You are the only one who keeps saying that. I admit that I did arrogantly assume that at least his views are stupid. But I was responding to a comment _you_ posted, not to Rorty. You immediately accused me of wanting to “suppress” Rorty’s perspective. Why do you begin to defend Rorty when someone asks you a question about your views? I mean this as an honest question, although the answer is perhaps none of my business.
This brings me to another question: You’ve asked me what I hope to get out of this conversation. I’ll turn this question around: What do you hope to get out of it? You say you don’t want to point out my errors, yet you defend a position and criticize mine. That is just fine from my point of view. But how is this consistent with the view you explicitly defend?
> “Imagine that I once believed what you believe.”
Please imagine that I currently do not believe what I learned at school. But I’ve realized that I lied above. It conveniently slipped my mind that there was, in fact, a time when I rejected the existence of (or, at least, the possibility of talking about) a mind-independent reality. Back then, I was desperately hoping that some Buddhist teacher could help me achieve a state of imaginary plenitude. It was perhaps the most miserable time of my life so far.
> “It is humbling to see how bad I am at engaging in these conversations”
This, at least, is something we both share!
Many thanks for your engagement! And I’m sorry about this ridiculously long comment. I hope it at least makes some sense.
That is quite a novel 🙂 But I admire your enthusiasm.
I’m not sure when, but my desire to be wrong and attraction to criticisms of the paradigm I prefer changed. I now find it a desirable experience to be wrong – after learning that I was wrong I am far better off than before. I guess this is why I was interested in SNB and Glenn’s non-buddhism. When something triggers us there is probably something profoundly unsettling to learn.
The position that you seem to prefer and seem to describe would be close to classical pragmatism. you would probably like later writing of Charles Sanders Peirce. I think you could drop the concern over realist vs anti-realist and not lose anything.
Rorty is associated with American neo-pragmatism. But you can be pretty sure he mastered classical pragmatism. Rorty basically wants to forget about metaphysics and epistemology rather than turning those into central concerns. That is an infuriating position for foundationalists.
Do you really think that Rorty can’t make choices that are preferable to him? Do you think you could become a tenured professor with that sort of attitude? Of course you can choose the best path of inquiry, you just can’t arrogantly proclaim that this is the best path of inquiry for everyone.
Rorty’s point is that you should not be looking to him or to his theory to tell you what the best choice for you is. You should continually be learning and challenging received wisdom – you should not become Tom’s disciple 🙂
I am not really interested in defending Rorty, his ideas are important and attacking his intelligence is a way of ignoring his ideas. I searched for Rorty in Tom’s book on Amazon and found “But I don’t want to ‘outsmart’ Rorty (anyone could do that)” You read Tom’s book and it only comforted you in ignoring anything that Rorty has to say. Books like that are not good books.
I said the attitude of not wanting to be wrong is a problem, because it often leads to pointless debates. You have shown that you really are interested in being wrong, you are even willing to admit it. Both skills are in rare display on the internet. I was trying to change the dynamics of the confrontational conversation. I am not Rorty and I am not Rorty’s views. I am interested in how, and even if, people can change beliefs through simple conversation, that is my main motivation.
The main difference between us is perhaps your belief in a pragmatic concept of truth (commensurable), while I am leaning more on a poststructural concept of truth (incommensurable). I’m more interested in pluralism and being able to alternate between perspectives. Adopting a realist view when working with realists just makes sense etc.
Unlike what a foundationalist might tell you, the world does not fall on your head when you adopt a pluralist position. Neither do you become an immoral imbecile incapable of political action.
I’m fairly sure my chiming in here is foolish–but then, I am an avowed imbecile!
One of my great concerns in my book is to overcome the kind of facile rhetoric employed above: to “google” or “search” something, find a half-sentence that, taken out of context, can be willfully misread, and then proceed to use that as an excuse to ignore a thinker completely. A common internet strategy, I know…and part of the reason I did not want an electronic version of my book or an index in it. I’d rather be completely ignored than be misrepresented as claiming things I do not.
In context, it would (I hope) be clear that my point is not at all what Mark implies, in order to dismiss my book as “not good.” He is doing what he is accusing Ian of doing with Rorty.
In context, it should be clear that I want to avoid the game of “outsmarting,” which of course anyone can in fact play–and Rorty has been the target of many “outsmartings” for half a century now (some well done, some not). What I want to do, as I explain in the second half of the sentence quoted, is to try to draw out the assumptions in Rorty’s work that are fundamentally part of most of our “common sense” way of thinking about the world. Such assumptions make Rorty seem more convincing than he ought to, because we don’t think to question them. So, even those troubled by his conclusions are often at a loss to figure out where exactly they disagree. The goal of my book as a whole is to encourage questioning of the assumptions we usually forget to even notice we are making.
Mark–I wonder if you might apply your approach to Glenn Wallis here: if the mere suggestion that Rorty might be wrong is so troubling to you, perhaps it would be good to investigate why? Like Ian, I was once of the belief that, to quote Rorty, we must “not believe there is a way things really are.” I was initially annoyed by Christopher Norris’s book “Against Relativism,” and Bhaskar’s book “Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom.” But they changed my position on this.
Well that is a surprise. I don’t want to outsmart Tom, nobody could do that. It must be frustrating to be willfuly misread. I guess the only advantage Rorty has is that he is less likely to read about it. If readers walk away with the opinion of Rorty that the only reader I know of has walked away with, then bravo for the rhetoric. But don’t doubt yourself for a second Tom, the book must be great. The readers are the problem?
Rorty’s position has issues, I’m not defending Rorty’s position. But trying to label him as a relativist is a profound misreading. Notice the sensation. If you criticized Rorty’s position while demonstrating an understanding of it, then we might even agree.
It is great that you now believe there is a way things are. I guess we can expect many material innovations and a general improvement in our lives, now that you have that figured out. I can’t wait to order on Amazon.
In the meantime if you can explain your concern over Rorty while showing some understanding of his position and without insulting him. And under 10 pages. That would be great. I’ve yet to be convinced by Rorty, so maybe you could do that.
It is good to be back in your good graces Tom. When I look at the world I really don’t see the threat of Rorty’s ideas taking over. The essentialism of modernity is alive and well. The pragmatists do not seem to have won that war.
To get over the relativism I suggest a little Mannheim.
I’ve tried to keep it a little bit shorter this time. I don’t know that I was all that successful, even though you don’t really seem to care about what I have to say anyway. Perhaps I’m also becoming an imbecile?
1. First, you tell me that I should try to understand Rorty’s position and that an immanent critique of Rorty would be interesting. But when I try do to do this, you suddenly say that you’re not interested in defending Rorty’s position. Thus, apparently, you don’t have to consider my argument at all. Convenient!
You are, of course, not obligated to respond to my argument. But, please, if you don’t want to consider what I have to say, then at least be honest and say it directly to my computer screen!
2. “You should continually be learning and challenging received wisdom – you should not become Tom’s disciple”
Your condescension here is palpable. Yes, I’ve learnt a lot from Tom and I think I can still learn a lot more from him. But don’t you think it is rather disrespectful to just casually suggest that I do not understand what I am saying and am merely parroting Tom’s views? You, on the other hand, have only told me that Rorty’s point is this or that, that I should do this or that, without providing me with a single reason, other than that Rorty, a tenured professor who has mastered and, presumably, transcended classical pragmatism, said it. How is this different from Buddhist teachers pointing at their credentials and their years of meditation experience to convince you that you should accept what they say without argument? If you cannot give me a reason, then why should I invest more time in studying Rorty? I see an argument against him, but none in favor.
I will turn around what you said about insulting Rorty’s intelligence: Propping up Rorty’s intelligence is a way of ignoring his critics. My point is not that Rorty is stupid. I don’t know how intelligent he was. Maybe he really was quite a bit more intelligent than I am; I think this is utterly possible. But what difference does that make to this discussion or the correctness of his position?
3. The question “Do you really think that Rorty can’t make choices that are preferable to him?” misses my point, which was about our ability to question _why_ something is preferable to us. It’s not about choosing according to our preferences, but, in a sense, choosing our preferences.
Furthermore, what does Rorty’s individual ability to choose have to do with anything? I was talking about the consequences that accepting Rorty’s views would have for us. That is, the consequences of really believing what Rorty says, which might in principle be contradicted by his actions. If you know Hitchcock’s film “Rope”, I mean something like James Stewart’s character’s realization at the end, that he never really believed – as shown by his actions, not what he said – the horribly elitist misanthropic things he always claimed to believe. (Please note that I am absolutely not suggesting that Rorty was a misanthropist. I merely find the example useful to illustrate the kind of phenomenon I’m talking about: a gap between proclaimed and actual ideology.)
4. “You read Tom’s book and it only comforted you in ignoring anything that Rorty has to say.”
As you suggest in your response to Tom, I do think that my at first thoughtless dismissal of Rorty is a problem with me as a particular reader. Like I said, I’m biased against the idea that we cannot talk about how things really are. Tom really does take Rorty’s position seriously, as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge of Rorty. Certainly more seriously than you are taking me! But I only skimmed that part on first reading, since I believed I already knew what was wrong with relativism. (You keep insisting that Rorty isn’t a relativist. But since you haven’t made an effort to explain this, I’ll keep using that word for now.)
However, if I hadn’t read Tom’s book, I would probably not have made any effort to better understand Rorty at all, or even engaged in this discussion in the first place. I would have simply stayed at the level of the kind of simplistic dismissal you subject “Indispensable Goods” to.
5. Tom’s discussion of Rorty’s position in “Indispensable Goods” actually has only 13 pages. Why not give it a shot? How do you know that Tom really is misrepresenting Rorty, as you claim? How do you know you’re not misunderstanding Tom?
I want to thank you once more for giving me this opportunity to engage in discussion. I have really learned something, I think, both about myself and about your position.
We are all imbeciles, don’t worry about that. It is interesting that you think I want to defend Rorty’s position. All I’ve said is that he is not a relativist and to claim that he is is misunderstanding his position. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to explore Rorty’s position than to play a game of you attacking it and me defending it? I guess we could do that, but I’m not convinced by Rorty’s conclusions.
I’m more for the idea of using epistemology. I don’t think Rorty would support my preferences, which is why I’m interested in his ideas.
I am not trying to convince you to agree with Rorty. I was just pointing out that you had misunderstood his position. You then did seem to invest in learning more about his position. Your criticism or alternative is close to classical pragmatism, that is not an insult, personally I would consider it a compliment. I’m not sure if you see the similarity? Do you agree ?
Rorty is interesting if you are a classical pragmatist because he develops that position in one direction.
The intelligence of Rorty is not the point (I agree). The only reason it came up is because it is unreasonable to ignore one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century claiming he has nothing interesting to say. (And of course the arrogant phrase in Tom’s book)
Regarding Rorty and relativism you might enjoy the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rorty/ I guess you know that site, but if you don’t it is a gold mine. Rorty says: In short, my strategy for escaping the self-referential difficulties into which “the Relativist” keeps getting himself is to move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics into cultural politics, from claims to knowledge and appeals to self-evidence to suggestions about what we should try. (TP 57) That epistemological behaviorism differs from traditional forms of relativism and subjectivism is easier to see in light of Rorty’s criticism of the notion of representation, and the cluster of philosophical images which surround it.
You might want to take a look at the sequence in this thread. I make a comment to Matthews post with a quote from Rorty. Tom jumps in to market his new book. The claim that Rorty is a relativist makes no sense to me, so I am less inclined to take Tom seriously. But if you are worried about people not treating Tom fairly and misrepresenting his position, you probably don’t know Tom, he is a master of that art. I try to be like Tom when communicating with Tom. He has a tendency to dismiss people who tower over him intellectually, so I think it is fair he gets to see both sides of that strategy. He is far higher up the ivory tower than me 🙂
The whole strategy of setting up other philosophies as targets of criticism and “winning” the debate in your own book is somewhat ridiculous. I think it is better to have a convincing position rather than to try to shoot down someone else’s. I’m just winding Tom up, no doubt he has interesting points to make if you are willing to follow him down the rabbit hole. But is that the most useful book I could read on Amazon? I look forward to listening to Matthew interview Tom, that could well change my attitude. I’ve learnt valuable lessons from Tom, unfortunately personal communication is not one of them.
Perhaps the value of Rorty for you and I is that he reminds us both not to make appeals to epistemological authority, whether that be “mind independent reality” or “tenure positions”.
1. “Wouldn’t it be more interesting to explore Rorty’s position than to play a game of you attacking it and me defending it?”
As I see it, this “game” you talk about is precisely what it would mean to seriously explore Rorty’s position.
2. “Your criticism or alternative is close to classical pragmatism, that is not an insult, personally I would consider it a compliment. I’m not sure if you see the similarity? Do you agree?”
This is not the thing that I found insulting. I don’t really know anything about classical pragmatism. But if, as you say, it just says what I already think, then I suppose there’s also no reason for me to study it.
The problem, from my perspective, is this: I have provided both an immanent criticism of Rorty’s position and an alternative to it – these are two distinct things, although you seem to conflate them. You liken my position to classical pragmatism, which you suggest Rorty has mastered. This, in turn, seems to suggest to you that my criticism of Rorty must be irrelevant, perhaps because you assume he simply must have known it and it didn’t convince him. Now, this may be true or false, but what about you? What do _you_ think about the immanent critique I presented?
3. “I don’t think Rorty would support my preferences, which is why I’m interested in his ideas.”
I would guess that the book “Indispensable Goods” supports your preferences even less than Rorty. Doesn’t that make its ideas highly interesting to you?
4. “I try to be like Tom when communicating with Tom.”
If you really believe that there is any kind of symmetry between Tom’s comment above and your response to it, then I would ask you to consider looking again. I see something completely different. Perhaps Tom has been more aggressive in conversation with you in the past. But isn’t that just an excuse to ignore what he is saying now?
5. “Rorty says: In short, my strategy for […]”
What I hear is this: Pay no attention to the mind-independent reality behind the curtain of practice! You say you’ve studied pragmatism a bit. Can you explain to me how it’s different?
But I feel like this discussion has run its course. I think that, for now, I’ve learned everything I can from this encounter and, maybe, you have too. But I hope we’ll meet again in the future!
6. Just one more thing. One for the road, if you like. Please consider that, maybe, thinking for yourself doesn’t mean believing whatever is convenient to you in a given situation. As I see it, it means both being able to give reasons to others for what you believe and seriously engaging the reasons others give you for what they believe.
To paraphrase someone we both respect: Kick out the jams, fellow human! And safe travels!