Rorty as a pragmatist has been taken to task three times already, and he has been found wanting as a philosopher of any pragmatism worth the name.  But what about his pretensions as a man of common sense?  What does he offer there for non-philosophers who might happen to read his work? He has specifically said that with “epistemological behaviorism” in its mantle, “philosophy will have no more to offer than common sense…about knowledge and truth.”  He has also said that “it is pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements, which dominate most of our philosophical convictions.”  So what about the “common sense,” “pictures” and “metaphors” supporting and giving context to the arguments in the book where these very claims were made?  What might a man of common sense gain from reading it, especially when it comes to appreciating the power of philosophy?

Well, given the comparisons, metaphors, and intuitions guiding the arguments in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the anus wonders why a non-professional philosopher would ever stop to take it seriously, much less get anything therapeutic or edifying out it.  This wonder comes up because on the back cover of the paperback edition, one reviewer actually praises it for accomplishing “the central task which a layman demands of the philosopher—that of providing a clear and forceful statement of what conclusions of general importance emerge from the tangled encounters of professional argument.”  Hmm, one professional philosopher…another professional philosopher…it sure sounds collegial.  But the anus has to wonder: did he even read the book?  In any case, the it begs to differ.

Any layman reading PMN will find herself slogging through virtually nothing but an array of insider’s professional arguments—novel and highly skilled arguments, to be sure, but to her they will remain an impenetrable morass.  But when that argument is depicted and made concrete with metaphors, intuitions, and ordinary comparisons, she will find herself wondering how a professional intellectual of any stripe could propose ideas so shallow, so banal and frankly, so dumb.  This will quite rightly undermine any faith she has in the less accessible parts of the book, and instead of seeing the virtue of professional philosophical work bearing fruit—and hence be willing to engage in similar work in any capacity—she will probably wonder how so much time and effort could ever be spent and still produce so little.

For starters, while simultaneously avoiding a fellow professional’s reliance on a metaphysical distinction (that between the ‘in-itself’ and ‘for-itself’) and illustrating the significance of his own (that of ‘altering oneself by redescribing oneself,’ one of the book’s concluding themes), Rorty has this to say: “the sense in which human beings alter themselves by redescribing themselves is no more metaphysically exciting or mysterious than the sense in which they alter themselves by changing their diet, their sexual partners, or their habitation.”

Now certainly, taking the professional metaphysics out of these (or any) decisions of daily life is progress, since a lot of professionals have written a lot of nonsense about them—nonsense no laymen would find any use for; just read Derrida or some other postmodernist on the body or sexual difference, for instance.  Hardship, indecision, joy, gratification and so forth—all these terms belong there, but definitely not professional metaphysics.  But what about this “redescribing oneself” itself?  What is a layman to make of it?  In other words, would a layman see any “mystery” or anything “metaphysically exciting” in that?  Would that sense have any bearing on what Rorty is driving at with his comparison?

Well, that entirely depends on what Rorty means by “altering” and “redescription”—and from what he says, he means at least a leveling down to the equivalency of not being “metaphysical” or “mysterious,” presumably professional or otherwise.  If he means something trivial like redescribing oneself as someone who likes the missionary position with one partner into someone who likes it doggy style with another, then sure, there is nothing particularly “metaphysical” and “mysterious” about that.  Likewise for changing one’s diet to eating fewer carbs for more organic produce, or for preferring apartments to condos or houses.  But if the reader has tried to remain open to the ostensible force of Rorty’s argument for redescription as an edifying re-narration, re-telling and re-evaluation—one that might be a worthwhile contribution to the “conversation of humankind”—then she is going to assume that he means something more than such trivialities.   She is going to think he means something life-altering.  And against this expectation she might think of some of the deeper alterations or redescriptions often encountered in daily life that have a decided metaphysical and mysterious dimension (Rorty, after all, has been calling himself a “pragmatist” all along).

For instance, what, she might ask, about the “mystery” and “metaphysics” of converting to Christianity, of finding one’s life and salvation in a relationship with Jesus? [1]  There is enormous redescription there; it is deeply transformative.  In fact, virtually everything in one’s life gets re-contextualized and, as it were, re-narrated and redescribed.  The current runs deep; the alteration goes to the core.  But being left to liken the “altering and redescribing” that occurs in such religious conversion to renting a new apartment or eating fewer carbs—as Rorty leaves the reader—well, that certainly doesn’t do anyone any good, since it instantly drains the spiritual mystery out of the best in religion, leaving it hard to fathom just what religion even taps into if it’s not the “metaphysical” and the “mysterious” aspects of the human condition, aspect with broad appeal.

Or consider another common tack.  Perhaps she might develop Rorty’s comparison and its underlying logic by considering something more akin to his main metaphor for what hermeneutics, aka his revision of philosophy, does.  What, for example, about the life altering redescriptions of psychotherapy?  Successful therapy is certainly edifying; it involves extensive redescription.  Yet the transformative power of overcoming a distressing or disabling mental illness will be both “mysterious” and” metaphysical” precisely to the extent that one doesn’t understand exactly how it happened, only that through a lot hard work it did.  If asked how—if really probed instead of just asked, say, like Socrates might probe—any honest layman will likely stop short of being able to explain it, and instead just come to recognize something mysterious and metaphysical about once having been so ‘one way’ while ill but now being so ‘another way’ while well.  In short, she will realize that it is metaphysical in that it defies the categories of explaining most of what she thought she understood about herself, as the very way of this understanding will have been transformed.  To liken either of these edifying, redescriptive transformations to just having sex with someone else (as though that too can’t be fundamentally transformative) or to just moving into a new apartment (ditto) drains both every day, common affairs of the “philosophical” meaning that just might represent two of the most metaphysical and mysterious experiences laymen have.

And this is being charitable.  One doesn’t even need to cite the stories, poems, or diaries where ordinary people, i.e. nonprofessional philosophers, find something deeply transformative, deeply mysterious, or deeply metaphysical in finding a new sexual love, moving back to a childhood home, or losing 100 pounds.  In fact, the intuitions behind the professional distinction between the in-itself and the for-itself would probably be far more agreeable to a curious layman who wants to stretch the mind with philosophy than the implied and leveling “just” that Rorty needs to make his point about self-altering redescription (for all their faults, the existentialists were good at describing meaning).  This is not to say that professional metaphysics is required to understand these experiences, or even desirable.  But it is to say that for the comparison he makes to make any sense and have any traction in his thought, redescription a la Rorty needs to be so shallow and so banal that no one would be interested in undergoing it, or even notice if they did.  In all the senses that are interesting, altering oneself through redescription requires and respects the mystery and metaphysical excitement lay readers are likely to bring to philosophy, even as they discover that professional attempts to explain or justify those intuitions are largely pointless.

So that’s what Rorty offers in the way of illustrating what’s probably the main lesson of the book for a non-professional philosopher– edification through re-narration.  In his use, it amounts little more than a trivial platitude about change.

But there’s more.  In order to point out the non-consequences of another view he deems likely to prove true—the development of a complete causal account of human beings, of one day being able to predict “in principle” every movement of a person’s body, including those movements of speech, expression, and writing (and since the brain moves, presumably thoughts and feelings as well)—Rorty has this to say:  “the danger to human freedom of such success is minimal.. brainwashers are, in any case, already in as good a position to interfere with human freedom as they could wish.”  Seriously.  Brainwashing is already as good as it is going to get, and knowing the causes of feelings, thoughts and behaviors isn’t going to make it any better.

Never mind his intervening point about the difficulty of determining the “initial conditions” of the causal sequence before thoughts and feelings are determinable, and therefore controllable; the underlying point about non-consequences is so dumb that the anus can’t even squeeze out an argument against it.  Can anyone imagine “in principle” working at company or living under parents, or with a spouse, or under a government with that kind of knowledge and power and not feeling controlled, miserable, or simply scared shitless?  “Minimal” danger?  To whom and in whose universe?  A so-called assurance like that, coming from a social liberal advocating for a less cruel and more tolerant democracy, reveals just how far a professional philosopher will go to stretch a point.  No boss or parent or dictator or cult leader or police interrogator could ever aspire for better than this supposedly innocuous causal knowledge, even as all have had to be satisfied with far less.  None of this is to say that such knowledge isn’t possible, only that if actual it is certainly dangerous in the wrong hands, out to the wrong uses—and the wrong hands will be reaching for it every day and in every way.  This much should be obvious to anyone.

One would think that for “conclusions of general importance” to anyone, comparisons and points like those just mentioned would be more robust and less, well, idiotic.  One would also expect that an illustration of the theory largely responsible for them—for professionals “psychological nominalism” and “epistemological behaviorism”; for laymen, ‘everything is language’ and ‘all language is relative’—would be better than an example so silly that even a 13 year old boy would discount it.

To clarify what he means by a Wittgensteinian “language game” dissolving questions of ostensible “ontological significance”, Rorty says that “the fact that a man is feeling whatever he thinks he is feeling has no more ontological significance than the fact that the Constitution is what the Supreme Court thinks it is, or that the ball is foul if the umpire thinks it is.”

Now a 13 year old probably has nothing to say about the Constitution or ontology, but he probably knows a lot about baseball, and he knows that a ball is foul if it lands outside the foul lines, and that the umpire is supposed to say it is foul when this happens, and not otherwise.  It would never occur to him to think that just because the umpire thinks the ball is foul, the ball is foul, for to be “foul” it has to be outside the lines first; that is why the umpire calls it.  And he would be right.  If he wanted to be a professional philosopher, perhaps he could make a career out of describing the ontological difference between a ball being foul and thinking it’s foul.  Or he could write article after article on Wittgensteinian “language games” and “forms of life,” contrasting them with metaphysical realism, or ontological relativity, or possible world semantics—just add all the “–isms” and jargon he wanted, and he’d be set.  He could even deliver a paper on how a medium like instant replay re-shapes the spectacle of sports in a society obsessed with media spectacles, or he could get all phallo-logocentric about balls and bats and male privilege, wondering why it takes three ‘missed balls’ to strike out in the game when in fact men have only two and still strike out a lot with their “bats” in real life (patriarchy beware!).  And all of it would be pointless compared to what he already knows: the ball is foul if it is foul, and the umpire makes an error if he calls it foul when it is not and doesn’t err when he calls it foul when it is.  The best “philosophy” he could do, if he were so inclined, would be to say that while true in a “language game” players obeying the rules are compelled to play according to the dictates of the arbiter of the rules, be that arbiter an anonymous no one or a specific someone, it still doesn’t follow that there are only rules and players and dictates.  These rules and such remain about something, and that something, mysteriously enough, both constrains the game (i.e. the ball is foul or it is not) and is constrained by it (i.e. “foul” remains a construction of where the ball lies).  For layman, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature would be an edifying, even worthwhile book, if it elaborated the paths that follow from a correct understanding of the umpire metaphor.  At the very least, no laymen reading it would be asked to accept the conflation that a ball is foul like the Constitution is interpreted, as documents that are interpreted and balls that land on the ground in plain sight differ remarkably even to the untrained eye.

These three instances should be enough to leave layman quite dissatisfied with what Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature offers as “clear and forceful statements” of “important conclusions” from professional argument, statements and conclusions about how philosophy is supposedly relevant for ordinary people.  But there is still more, and an anus’s most effective push is usually its last.

Just before laying out much of his main argument—again, psychological nominalism and epistemological behaviorism—Rorty offers this as both a conclusion and a guiding intuition: “we can note that the way in which a pre-linguistic infant knows that it is in pain is the way in which the record-changer knows the spindle is empty, the plant the direction of the sun, and the amoeba the temperature of the water.”

Now pause, reread, then resume.

Clearly, to the non-anal-lytic philosopher, there are several useless conflations here; in fact, there is one at every joint.  For living things with distance receptors differ in notable biological ways from those without them, and non-living machines differ entirely in operation on nearby objects than living organisms do in an environment, or acting on objects in that environment.  But the main idea, that infants are “aware” of themselves like mechanical devices are “aware” of themselves, or plants, or amoebas are “aware”…well, does the anus even have to push out an argument?  Obviously parents are as certain as they are correct that their infants are aware and sense differently than their cell phones stream Netflix.  (Jesus, does it have to go on…?).  So is anyone else who has ever bothered simply to observe an infant, or has had occasion to cause one pain.  Perhaps their first clue would be the facial expressions and reflexive movements nearly identical to those seen in both verbal children and adults when in pain.  Or perhaps it’s the look in their eyes—again, like verbal children and adults—indicating awareness of their surroundings, whatever sense of self and environment in apperception they may have.  Never mind that Rorty says “knows” instead of “awareness”.  For him, a psychological nominalist and epistemological behaviorist, all awareness of pain, of kinds, of objects, of particulars, of causes, of faces, of voices, of others, etc.—in short, anything known as differentiated and appreciated from a ‘blooming buzzing confusion’—is an entirely linguistic affair.[2]  So for Rorty, pre-verbal infants aren’t even aware of the people and things in their surroundings (for things and people are particulars, and that recognition requires language).  In fact, they probably don’t even have that loosely differentiated world as a ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ out of which to selectively discriminate and come to ‘know’ objects. [3]  They are aware and sense, i.e. they “know,” just like an amoeba or a plant or a record changer… It’s just plain stupid, and no oneno one but a professional philosopher with an axe to grind in professional epistemology—would ever condescend to take it seriously. [4]

What else needs to be said about infants and amoebas, unless it’s this: since Rorty fancies himself a pragmatist and maintains that philosophical argument is in the end nothing but ‘deploying marks and noises to get what one wants,’ it’s enough to say that conflations like that (and the rest mentioned so far) are as useless as their observations are blind.  Had scientists or anyone else proposed “psychological nominalism,” much less relied on it, we wouldn’t  know now what is in fact known about infant cognition, all of which, every last bit, points to how useless (read false) the theory really is.  The only people who’ve ever taken it seriously are Wilfred Sellars, who first proposed it, and the professional philosophers who’ve made a cottage industry out of arguing epistemological issues from it.  Laymen and everyone else already know better.

To a layman, any one of these four examples—or intuitions, or metaphors, or whatever else one wants to call them—is an disgrace, especially coming from a professional philosopher who’s made a career for himself as a down and dirty pragmatist insisting that there is nothing useful to say about truth and knowledge beyond what “common sense” already says there is; one who has tirelessly beat his fellow professionals over the head with these glib comparisons, banal metaphors, and outright ridiculous theories.  As far as the anus can tell, they pervade and determine all of Rorty’s work at the critical junctures, his enormous professional skill notwithstanding.  This is not to say that the horse he rides in on isn’t, in some respects, the right horse as much as it is to say that his style of riding is unimaginative, uninspiring and—in a word—vapid, not edifying.  Only fellow professional philosophers could be alternatively inspired or outraged by it.  To a layman with the skill to see through the marvelous dexterity and professionalism that dominates the book, both its destination and guiding lights are just immaculately polished bullshit.[5]


[1] Perhaps better examples of deeply transformative spiritual experiences could be offered, but this one is should resonate with enough to make the point.  Equally applicable, of course, would be no longer finding ultimate meaning in said relationship.

[2] The phrase comes from William James as a descriptor of what conscious experience is like absent the usual ordering and discriminatory powers of intentional directedness.  It may not quite be apt here, as pre-verbal infants clearly have intentional directness towards distinguishable objects.  But the underlying point should be clear enough.

[3] This likeliness can inferred from his criticism of Kant, for he says in another section that Kant unjustifiably assumes that a manifold is given but that unity is made, and that this fatal assumption undermines the entire argument of the first Critique.  Of course, for a psychological nominalist, unity, particulars and differentiation—including even awareness of them as such—is constructed or made, but Rorty goes further.  He denies that there is even a manifold to be taken up as potential objects or particulars to be known, ‘material’, as it were, for things distinguished or unity made.  As applied here, instead of granting that a pre-verbal infant is even aware of an undifferentiated manifold, he is committed to saying that there is neither a manifold nor awareness of one, any more than a juke box, a cell phone, or a plant has a given manifold of which it is made aware, one out of which it can ‘make’ or ‘discern’ particular objects.  So kudos at least for consistency between his criticism of Kant and his [sic] observation of infants, as stupid as the latter may be.

[4] One might try to save Rorty here by pointing out that the ‘mixing’ of “knowledge” and “awareness” he has in mind refers to the “awareness” that comes with having a proposition about ‘being in pain,’ such that one ‘in pain’ examines the proposition, “I am in pain,” as a proposition for which evidence and reasons can be given, that this examination yields, properly speaking, a knowledge of ‘pain’ of which one is thus aware.   This is essentially what he implies when he says that “psychological nominalism” is “not a theory of how the mind works” but is instead  a way of describing the introduction into an epistemic community, one where giving and asking for reasons is the norm (p. 187).  His emphasis on the possibility of “having a conversation” with 4 year-olds after this introduction, as opposed to not having one with pre-verbal infants before it, reinforces this view.

But even if this is so, it only changes the direction of the idiocy, as it were.  For committed to this interpretation of “knowledge” and “awareness,” Rorty would then have to say that adults are only “aware” they are in pain through the medium of propositional knowledge—an assertion just as stupid as saying that pre-verbal infants know they are in pain like a record changer knows the spindle is empty.  Psychological nominalism no more describes how adults become aware than it explains why pre-verbal infants don’t—and not just because adults and pre-verbal infants in fact know they are in pain in virtually the same way.   The only potentially interesting “truth” to psychological nominalism is that adults, as language users, can formulate propositions about the pain of which they are aware, whereas pre-verbal infants can’t.  Only “potentially,” of course, because that observation is not interesting at all, and it certainly isn’t philosophically relevant.

[5] For a technical discussion of “bullshit”, see H.G Frankfurt, On Bullshit.  The anus can’t find a comparable discussion of “stupid”.

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