Sunday, September 28, 2014

Richard Rorty on Contingency and Language

In the introduction and the first chapter, The Contingency of Language, of his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, p.3-23, Richard Rorty looks at the problem of how to reconcile private perfection with social justice.


In his introduction, Rorty observes that this problem that has found solution suggestions primarily in metaphysical settings (e.g. Plato, or Christianity in the self-realization of service) (p.xiii).

This historicist turn has helped free us, gradually and steadily, from theology and metaphysics — from the temptation to look for an escape from time and chance. It has helped us substitute Freedom for Truth as the goal of thinking and social progress. But even after this substitution takes place, the old tension between the private and the public remains. (p.xiii)
Rorty argues that the very attempt to unify the private and the public in a theory is the problem, that self-expression and justice do not need a unification anymore than a paintbrush and a crowbar do (his example) (p.xiv).
The closest we will lome to joining these two quests is to see the aim of a just and free society as letting its citizens be as privatistic, “irrationalist,” and aestheticist as they please so long as they do it on their own time — causing no harm to others and using no resources needed by those less advantaged. (p.xiv)
There are practical measures to be taken to accomplish this practical goal. But there is no way to bring self-creation together with justice at the level of theory. The vocabulary for self-creation is necessarily private, unshared, unsuited to argument. The vocabulary of justice is necessarily public and shared, a medium for argumentative exchange. (p.xiv)
The fallacy lies in the assumption that a unified language will allow us to speak about ourselves and about the necessary social reforms and their lack of solidarity. Both projects need doing and both projects have exemplars in the philosophical tradition, and taking the quests as something that needs unification produces an unnecessary antagonism.
We thereby become aware of our own half-articulate need to become a new person, one whom we as yet lack words to describe. The other sort reminds us of the failure of our institutions and practices to live up to the convictions to which we are already committed by the public, shared vocabulary we use in daily life. (p.xiv)
The one tells us that we need not speak only the language of the tribe, that we may find our own words, that we may have a responsibility to ourselves to find them. The other tells us that that || responsibility is not the only one we have. Both are right, but there is no way to make both speak a single language. (pp.xiv-xv) 
The claim to a single language is theological and metaphysical and fails the historicist's and nominalist's criticisms.
It [i.e. the exposition, RCK] sketches a figure whom I call the “liberal ironist.” I borrow my definition of “liberal” from Judith Shklar, who says that liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do. I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires — someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. (p.xv)
Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretic answers to this sort of question [e.g. “When may one favor members of one’s family, or one’s community, over other, randomly chosen, human beings?” RCK] — algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort — is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities. (p.xv) 
The historio-nominalist stance remains rare.
The ironist intellectuals who do not believe that there is such an order [i.e. a timeless one, RCK] are far outnumbered (even in the lucky, rich, literate democracies) by people who believe that there must be one. Most nonintellectuals are still committed either to some form of religious faith or some form of Enlightenment rationalism. (p.xv) 
This is the first time in this essay that Rorty identifies Enlightenment rationalism as metaphysical. It would be good to hear more about this, and Christopher Wells has published a reconstruction and critique of Rorty's stance, which refers to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature as the first text important for understanding this issue (a 300+ page monograph!). However, Wells makes it clear that the Enlightenment rejection of Rorty is powered by Rorty's replacement of Truth by Freedom; cf. (p.xiii) above.

Because Rorty argues for a general turn toward descriptions, from theory to narrative, which also means that the sermon and the treatise can be replaced by the newspaper article, the documentary, or the TV show, as vehicles of moral change (p.xvi).
It would amount to a recognition of … the fact that there is no way to step outside the various vocabularies we have employed and find a metavocabulary which somehow takes account of all possible vocabularies, all possible ways of judging and feeling. A historicist and nominalist culture of the sort I envisage would settle instead for narratives which connect the present with the past, on the one hand, and with utopian futures, on the other. (p.xvi) 
More important, it would regard the realization of utopias, and the envisaging of still further utopias, as an endless process — an endless, proliferating realization of Freedom, rather than a convergence toward an already existing Truth. (p.xvi)

Chapter I: Contingency of Language

In Rorty's reconstruction, the Enlightenment alignment with science as a quest for the Truth that could torpedo the social relationships of Western Europe, came to a head after the French Revolution, which definitely demonstrated that the social relations were a descriptive vocabulary that could be replaced, rather than a consequence of the Nature of God and of Man (p.3). With the rise of the Romantic era interpretation of art, which replaced the notion of imitation with the self-expression of the artist, politics and art took the place of the explication of the ends of community and individual, replacing religion, philosophy and science (p.3). 

Rorty seems to argue that the success of the sciences tricked philosophers into thinking that the sciences were doing more than offering descriptions of the world, somehow approximating its true nature, and were thus maintaining the Enlightenment alignment with science as the force for public improvement (p.3). Rorty argues that such a stance is insufficiently nominalist.
Whereas the first kind of philosopher [i.e. the one aligned with the Enlightenment program of rationality, RCK] contrasts “hard scientific facts” with the “subjective” or with “metaphor”, the second kind sees science as one more human activity, rather as the place at which human beings encounter a “hard,” nonhuman reality. On this view, great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens, just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of it for other purposes. But there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself. (p.4)
Rorty points to German Idealism as the only project that seriously tried to put science in its rightful place and treat it as an exercise in truth making rather than truth finding. Unfortunately, that attempt was half-hearted, because the criticism did not extend to German Idealism itself.
They [i.e. Kant and Hegel] were willing to view the world of empirical science as a made world — to see matter as constructed by mind, or as consisting in mind insufficiently conscious of its own mental character. But they persisted in seeing mind, spirit, the depths of the human self, as having an intrinsic nature — one which could be known by the kind of nonempirical super science called philosophy. This meant that only half of truth — the bottom, scientific half — was made. Higher truth, the truth about mind, the province of philosophy, was still a matter of discovery rather than creation. (p.4)
This was not radical enough, leaving too much truth to be ``discovered``.
What was needed, and what the idealists were unable to envisage, was a repudiation of the very idea of anything — mind or matter, self or world — having an intrinsic nature to be expressed or represented. For the idealist confused the idea that nothing has such a nature with the idea that space and time are unreal, that human beings cause the spatiotemporal world to exist. (p.4) 
We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out || there and the claim that truth is out there. (pp.4-5) 
To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that the truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. (p.5) [emphasis added, RCK] 
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 human beings — cannot. (p.5)
The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own. (p.5)
If we cease to attempt to make sense of the idea of such a nonhuman language, we shall not be tempted to confuse the platitude that the world may cause us to be justified in believing a sentence true with the claim that world spits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called “facts”. (p.5) 
Rorty warns that the confusion arises most easily when looking at the justification for holding a sentence to be true or false, rather than considering whole vocabularies. In looking at alternative sentences,
… it is easy to run together the fact that the world contains the causes of our being justified in holding a belief with the claim that some nonlinguistic state of the world is itself an example of truth, or that some such state “makes a belief true” by “corresponding” to it. (p.5)
When we consider examples of alternative language games — the vocabulary of ancient Athenian politics versus Jefferson’s, the moral vocabulary of Saint Paul versus Freud’s, the jargon of Newton versus that of Aristotle, the idiom of Blake versus that of Dryden — it is difficult to think of the world as making one of these better than another, of the world as deciding between them. (p.5) 
One cannot even recast the decision as a summation over the number of true sentences the individual vocabularies produce or verify and then picking the larger set.
… the fact that Newton’s vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle’s does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian. (p.6) 
The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. (p.6)
However, the switch between language games is usually not conscious or arbitrary, but rather a long-ranging development, as Rorty points out with respect to the acceptance of the idioms of Romantic poetry, Galilean mechanics or (via Thomas S Kuhn) the Copernican revolution in general (p.6).
Rorty points out that wanting to identify the property of a better or worse fit of a description with the world amounts to privileging some languages over others (p.6). But this temptation has to be avoided.

What is true about this claim [i.e. of the Romantics, RCK] is just that languages are made rather than found, and that truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences. (p.7)
[RCK says: I find this a vastly better description than saying that "truth is made".  That contraction is helpfully expanded in this form, though the "what is true about this claim" could have stayed outside, adding confusion, in my mind.]

What the Romantics expressed as the claim that imagination, rather than reason, is the central human faculty was the realization that a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change. (p.7)
However, for the same reason that science does not progress from one paradigm to the next without disruptions, the argument for the paradigm shift cannot be framed within established philosophical theory.
… philosophers should not be asked for arguments against, for example, the correspondence theory of truth or the idea of the “intrinsic nature of reality.” The trouble with arguments against the use of a familiar and time-honored vocabulary is that they are expected to be phrased in that very vocabulary. They are expected to show that central elements in that vocabulary are “inconsistent in their own terms” or that they “deconstruct themselves.” But that can never be shown. (p.8)
That is because established vocabularies are in fact self-consistent. And any attempt to argue for a shift devolves into the better/worse language argument, which is unhelpful (p.9).
Such arguments are always parasitic upon, and abbreviations for, claims that a better vocabulary is available. Interesting philosophy is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things. The latter “method” of philosophy is the same as the “method” of … revolutionary science (as opposed to … normal science). (p.9)
Though what takes place is a re-description, the re-description makes no claim to answer the same questions, rather it attempts to substitute new and purportedly more interesting questions for the old questions that were treated under the reigning vocabulary paradigm.

But it [i.e. the disruptive new philosophy, RCK] does not argue for this suggestion [of doing something else, RCK] on the basis of antecedent criteria common to the old and the new language games. For just insofar as the new language really is new, there will be no such criteria. (p.9)
Davidson’s treatment of truth ties in with his treatment of language learning and of metaphor to form the first systematic treatment of language which breaks completely with the notion of language as something which can be adequate or inadequate to the world or to the self. For Davidson breaks with the notion that language is a medium — a medium either of representation or of expression. (p.10)
In Davidson's theory, language is not a mediator between the self and the world, eliminating a host of problems that are otherwise unattackable. Rorty compares Davidson favorably to Wittgenstein in taking neither a reductionist nor an expansionist tack to language.
Both philosophers treat alternative vocabularies as more like alternative tools than like bits of a jigsaw puzzle. To treat them as pieces of a puzzle is to assume that all vocabularies are dispensable, or reducible to other vocabularies, or capable of being united with all other vocabularies in one grand unified super vocabulary. (p.11)
Among the impossible questions that this skips is questions such as
“What is the place of value in a world of fact?” (p.11)
“What is the relation of language to thought?” (p.12)
In lieu, Rorty argues that we should focus on the efficiency of the use we make of our tools.
“Does our use of these words get in the way of our use of those other words?” (p.12) 
The questions I have recited above are all cases in which philosophers … [have seen] difficulties nobody else sees. But this is not to say that vocabularies never do get in the way of each other. (p.12)
… revolutionary achievements … in the sciences, and in moral and political thought typically occur when somebody realizes that two or more of our vocabularies are interfering with each other, and proceeds to invent a new vocabulary to replace both. (p.12) 
Rorty gives the pre-Romantic Germany as an example from the arts, where for Hegel or Hölderlin, the vocabulary for the worship of Jesus and vocabulary for the worship of the the Greeks collided.
… the traditional Aristotelian vocabulary got in the way of the mathematized vocabulary that was being developed in the sixteenth century by students of mechanics. (p.12)
The gradual trial-and-error creation of a new, third, vocabulary — the sort of vocabulary developed by people like Galileo, Hegel, or the later Yeats — is not a discovery about how old vocabularies fit together. That is why it cannot be reached by an inferential process — by starting with premises formulated in the old vocabularies. Such creations … are not discoveries of a reality behind the appearances, of an undistorted view of the whole picture with which to replace myopic views of its parts. (p.12)
The biggest problem with the tool-analogy of Wittgenstein is that the creator of a new vocabulary, unlike a tool smith (p.12), has no idea what problem they are trying to solve at that point in time (p.13).

Davidson’s polemics against the traditional philosophical uses of the term “fact” and “meaning” and against what he calls “the scheme-content model” of thought and inquiry, are parts of a larger polemic against the idea that there is a fixed task for language to perform, and an entity called “language” or “the language” or “our language” which may or may not be performing this task efficiently. (p.13)
Davidson introduces the notion of "passing theories" (p.14), which are ad-hoc constructs that can be revised and updated as two people try to communicate with each other.
Davidson’s point is that all “two people need, if they are to understand one another through speech, is the ability to converge on passing theories from utterance to utterance.” Davidson’s account of linguistic communication dispenses with the picture of language as a third thing intervening between self and reality, and of different languages as barriers between persons or cultures. (p.14)
Think of the term … “language” not as the name of a medium between self and reality but simply as a flag which signals the desirability of using a certain vocabulary when trying to cope with certain kinds of organisms. To say that a given organism … is a language user is just to say that pairing off the marks and noises it makes with those we make will prove a useful tactic in predicting and controlling its future behavior. (p.15)
Eliminating the medium prepares the stage for eliminating the question of more or less befitting the description of some external reality.
To see the history of language, and thus of the arts, the sciences, and the moral sense, as the history of the metaphor is to drop the picture of the human mind, or human language, becoming better and better suited to the purposes for which God or Nature designed them …. The idea that language has a purpose goes once the idea of language as a medium goes. (p.16)
This also explains why vocabulary selection is not a choice, especially not an arbitrary one.
Davidson lets us think of the history of language, and thus of culture, as Darwin taught us to think of the history of a coral reef. Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and foil for new metaphors. This analogy lets us think of “our language” — that is, of the science and culture of twentieth-century Europe — as something that took shape as a result of a great number of sheer contingencies. (p.16) 
To accept this analogy [of language as a coral reef, RCK], we must follow Mary Hesse in thinking of scientific revolutions as “metaphoric redescriptions” of nature rather than insights into the intrinsic nature of nature. (p.16)
What is not intended with this is any notion of convergence of these redescriptions to a true or better description.
This account of intellectual history chimes with Nietzsche’s definition of “truth” as “a mobile army of metaphors.” (p.17) 
But in order to accept this picture ["of people like Galileo and Hegel" "in whose minds new vocabularies developed”, RCK], we need to see the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical in the way Davidson sees it: not as a distinction between two sorts of meaning, nor as a distinction between two sorts of interpretation, but as a distinction between familiar and unfamiliar uses of noises and marks. (p.17)
The literal uses of noises and marks are the uses we can handle by our old theories about what people will say under various conditions. Their metaphorical use is the sort which makes us get busy developing a new theory. (p.17)
Why it may not be immediately obvious what the advantages are that Davidson's theory of metaphor possesses, from the point of view of Rorty's theory the advantage is that there is no better or worse fit of a linguistic phrase for a description of a state. Thus, there is no "proper" use to which the metaphor is the "improper" use---a possibility that Rorty's theory has eliminated.
Positivist history of culture thus sees language as gradually shaping itself around the contours of the physical world. Romantic history of culture sees language as gradually bringing Spirit to self-consciousness. Nietzschean history of culture, and Davidsonian philosophy of language, see language as we now see evolution, as new forms of life constantly killing off old forms — not to accomplish a higher purpose, but blindly. (p.19)
What goes for revolutionary, strong scientists and poets goes also for strong philosophers — people like Hegel and Davidson, the sort of philosophers who are interested in dissolving inherited problems rather than solving them. (p.20) 
… the world does not provide us with any criterion of choice between alternative metaphors, that we can only compare languages or metaphors with one another, not with something beyond language called “fact”. (p.20)
The line of thought common to Blumenberg, Nietzsche, Freud and Davidson suggests that we try to get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything — our language, our conscience, our community — as a product of time and chance. (p.22) 

Bibliographic Record

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press) 1989.

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