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Monday, March 29, 2004

I love Richard Rorty

Here he is in full flower:
As I see contemporary philosophy, the great divide is between representationalists, the people who believe that there is an intrinsic nature of non-human reality which humans have a duty to grasp, and antirepresentationalists. I think F. C. S. Schiller was on the right track when he said that “Pragmatism….is in reality only the application of Humanism to the theory of knowledge.” I take Schiller’s point to be that the humanists’ claim that human beings have responsibilities only to one another entails giving up both represenationalism and realism.

Representationalists are necessarily realists, and conversely. For realists believe both that there is one, and only one, Way the World Is In Itself, and that there are “hard” areas of culture in which this Way is revealed. In these areas, they say, there are “facts of the matter” to be discovered, though in softer areas there are not. By contrast, antirepresentationalists believe that scientific, like moral, progress is a matter of finding ever more effective ways to enrich human life. They make no distinction between hard and soft areas of culture, other than the sociological distinction between less and more controversial topics. Realists think of antirepresentationalists as antirealists, but in doing so they confuse discarding the hard-soft distinction with preaching universal softness.

Intellectuals cannot live without pathos. Theists find pathos in the distance between the human and the divine. Realists find it in the abyss separating human thought and language from reality as it is in itself. Pragmatists find it in the gap between contemporary humanity and a utopian human future. In which the very idea of responsibility to anything except our fellow-humans has become unintelligible, resulting in the first truly humanistic culture.

If you do not like the term “pathos”, the word “romance” would do as well. Or one might use Thomas Nagel’s term: “the ambition of transcendence”. The important point is simply that both sides in contemporary philosophy are trying to gratify one of the urges previously satisfied by religion. History suggests that we cannot decide which form of pathos is preferable by deploying arguments. Neither the realist nor her antirepresentationalist opponent will ever have anything remotedly like a knock-down argument, any more than Enlightenment secularism had such an argument against theists. One’s choice of pathos will be settled, as Fine rightly suggests, by the reasons of one’s heart.

The realist conviction that there just must be a non-human authority to which humans can turn has been, for a very long time, woven into the common sense of the West. It is a conviction common to Socrates and to Luther, to atheistic natural scientists who say they love truth and fundamentalists who say they love Christ. I think it would be a good idea to reweave the network of shared beliefs and desires which makes up Western culture so as to get rid of this conviction. But doing so will take centuries, or perhaps millenia. This reweaving, if it ever occurs, will result in everybody becoming commonsensically verificationist—in being unable to pump up the intuitions to which present-day realists and theists appeal.

To grasp the need to fall back on reasons of the heart, consider the theist who is told that the term “God”, as used in the conclusion of the cosmological argument is merely a name for our ignorance. Then consider the realist who is told that his explanation for the success of science is no better than Moliere’s doctor’s explanation of why opium puts people to sleep. Then consider the pragmatist who is told, perhaps by John Searle, that his verificationism confuses epistemology and ontology. All three will probably be unfazed by these would-be knock-down arguments. Even if they admit that their opponents’ point admits of no refutation, they will remark, complacently and correctly, that it produces no conviction.

It is often said that religion was refuted by showing the incoherence of the concept of God. It is said, almost as often, that realism has been refuted by showing the incoherence of the notions of “intrinsic nature of reality” and “correspondence”, and that pragmatism is refuted by pointing out its habit of confusing knowing with being. But no one accustomed to employ a term like “the will of God” or “mind-independent World” in expressing views central to her sense of how things hang together is likely to be persuaded that the relevant concepts are incoherent. Nor is any pragmatist likely to be convinced that the notion of something real but indescribable in human language or unknowable by human minds can be made coherent. A concept, after all, is just the use of a word. Much-used and well-loved words and phrases are not abandoned merely because their users have been forced into tight dialectical corners.
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