Richard Rorty’s February Comparative Literature lecture at UCLA prompted me to take a closer look at his best-known and most influential book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989, henceforth CIS), a work I had known chiefly through my wife Stacey Meeker’s article on Rorty’s utopianism in Anthropoetics 4, 2.
As might be expected after seventeen years and in a very different context, there were some disparities between the book and Rorty’s brief talk. The book’s elitism had been tempered by the idea that each person constructs her own unique set of “redescriptions” (Rorty insistently uses the feminine neutral, although he scarcely mentions a single woman’s thought or writings): “Anything from the sound of a word through the color of a leaf to the feel of a piece of skin can . . . serve to dramatize and crystallize a human being’s sense of self-identity” (37). In contrast, addressing himself to a group of Humanities professors, this self-declared disciple of Harold Bloom emphasized the distinction between “geniuses” (a word I had scarcely heard in the last fifty years) who “create new knowledge” and professors like us–here he included himself–who are assigned the humbler task of transmitting their creations to the younger generation, a role he christened “Mr. Chips.” (When asked by a young man in the audience why he himself had written so many books, Rorty had no pertinent answer.) His chief point, in the quasi-literal sense of something meant to prick the conscience of the listener, was that the fashion of “theory” that dominated literary studies until recently was an intellectual and pedagogical disaster; by persuading teachers of literature that they too were creators, “theory” had turned them away from teaching and interpreting to theorizing in often sterile and incomprehensible ways, thereby making the primary, genius-created texts less accessible to students than before. Rorty had devoted part of a chapter of CIS to an appreciative reflection on Derrida, not the philosophical Derrida of De la grammatologie but the “literary” one of La carte postale; he put this book, whose narcissism I find impenetrable, on a par with Proust’s Recherche du temps perdu as a unique recuperation of personal experience. I wonder if he would make the same comparison today.
I applaud Rorty’s lack of patience with “theory,” although I suspect that he would find GA’s claims still more outrageous. Rorty’s brand of postmodern pragmatism, for which the model attitude is that of the liberal ironist, always aware of the contingency of her own beliefs as of all modes of redescription, is incompatible with a mode of thought that grounds all cultural phenomena in a hypothetical originary scene. What I find most significant about Rorty’s philosophical stance is how transparently it displays the insufficiency of “philosophical” efforts to transcend metaphysics; the effect of ridding language of the intrinsic moral content that links it to the originary event is to cleanse metaphysics of its virtues while retaining its defects.
I have defined metaphysics as the mode of thought that conceives language as made up essentially of declarative sentences or propositions. Metaphysicians, who are not usually grammarians, are unconcerned with the relationship between the declarative and the “elementary forms,” the ostensive and imperative. Metaphysical thought cannot conceive language as emerging in a punctual moment of origin. For metaphysics, language does not “emerge” within the world at all; it is so to speak an invisible ether within which thoughts are transmitted. The metaphysical ontology of language becomes the foundation of the institution we call philosophy when it is transformed into an ontology of reality by means of Plato/Socrates’ hypostasis of predicate adjectives into “Ideas.” From the existence of the indexical concept of goodness, the fact that one can call something “good” for a given person in a given context, Plato extrapolates the conclusion that there exists a non-indexical Idea of the Good. In strictly logical terms, this is a non sequitur, but what Plato is really doing is extrapolating from the communal nature of language and the collective agreement on the meaning of words that it entails to the collective harmony of the originary scene, in which the sign was the instrument of reciprocity and unity. The “Good” of the originary scene and its evocation in sacrificial rites is indeed shared by all; the anthropological basis of Plato’s argument, however specious it may be in its own terms, is that the idea of “the Good” whose meaning we all share implies the existence of a collective state of affairs in which the Good was not just linguistically but substantially shared, where the “indexicality” of good-for-me and good-at-this-moment is irrelevant.
Rorty begins “Contingency,” the first part of CIS, with a discussion of truth; philosophers for whom science is the paradigmatic human activity think that “truth is out there” and must be discovered, whereas other philosophers (including himself), mindful that “the world as it is described by the physical sciences teaches no moral lesson” (a surprising and revelatory criterion), consider scientific “truths” just a set of “descriptions” of reality to put beside those of poets and political utopians.
GA’s definition of metaphysics is formulated in the “metaphysical” language of propositions, but its point of reference is a state of language that is not metaphysical. Critiques that fail to do this remain within the domain whose inadequacies they denounce. Thus it is not the reduction of language to the proposition, but the Platonic hypostasis of words into Ideas, the passage from the “in-here” of language to the “out-there” of the world that Rorty calls “metaphysics,” and that his philosophy attempts to refute in the most direct way possible, by denying that the anthropologically meaningful terms of language have any relevance to the world “out there.” Rorty is far from impugning the validity of the models by which both scientists and simple mortals attempt to make sense of the phenomena of the real world; Newton’s Law can be verified with every fall of an apple from the tree. But the predictive value of the Law in the world of trees and apples is not its “truth”; the phenomenon we call gravitation could arguably be described by other equations, using other concepts–for example, “the curvature of space-time.” Rorty insists on the difference between the world that “common sense” tells him is out there, and truth, which is a quality of human mental states:
We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. 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 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.
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 human beings–cannot. (5)
Certainly only sentences, or more precisely, propositions, can be true or false. Nor can our “vocabularies” or “language games”–the arch Wittgensteinian locution by which Rorty designates what used to be called our “world view”–be found “out there.” The metaphysician, in Rorty’s view, is one who believes that the world embodies the truths of language, that certain words stand in a privileged correspondence with certain elements of reality that captures their “essence,” so that redescription of these elements in another vocabulary is invalid, or at any rate, less valid. Rorty’s radical nominalism categorically denies the existence of any such accessible essences. But it soon becomes evident that this critique of metaphysics only makes things worse. Whereas philosophy from Plato to Kant and beyond found in the hypostasis of certain words a way of retrieving the “moral lesson” implicit in the originary anthropological function of language, whether as Socrates/Plato’s “Good” or as Kant’s “categorical imperative,” the radical separation of language from moral reality, rather than abolishing metaphysics, merely reduces it to its bare shell: a purely formal correspondence between language and experience, words and phenomena, with no mapping of things into words having any more ontological significance than any other. For Rorty, intellectual history is nothing more than changes in “the habit of using certain words”:
Rorty’s seriousness and lucidity make clear the anthropological basis for the epistemological flippancy characteristic of our postmodern era, which more subtle and perverse thinkers such as Derrida deliberately conceal. Language conceived as a pure “contingency” purged of its implicit moral content and reduced to “language games” can bear no essential relationship to the creatures who use it. This is the destiny of metaphysics, and of metaphysical anti-metaphysics, in the postmodern, post-war, post-Holocaust age. Reducing the history of ideas to a series of “changes of habit” is by no means the most extreme consequence of this impoverishment. Cutting off language from its originary ethical function makes it impossible to articulate the most basic distinctive features of human communication. Since language has no intrinsic relationship to the reality out there that it describes, there is no “objective correlative” connecting different speakers even when they speak the same language. Rorty follows Donald Davidson in describing linguistic communication between two people as the convergence of the “passing theories” each has of the other’s “noises and inscriptions.” My “theory” is not a hypothesis concerning the meaning of my interlocutor’s noises, rejected as a positivistic construct, but “a set of guesses about what she will do under what conditions.”
Since we know this other person is a (presumably female) human being, why is Rorty talking about mangoes and boa constrictors? As a way of emphasizing the strangeness of the Other, this is vastly inferior to Rousseau’s speculation, quoted in the preceding Chronicle, that when a group of humans encountered members of another tribe they would call them “giants” out of fear of the potential danger they represent–a danger quite different from that presented by snakes, let alone mangoes. For one thing, when we hear our new friend making “noises,” we naturally assume that they are phonemes constitutive of speech. The bas-behaviorist idea that language is a set of “noises” fails to take into consideration that the components of speech are phonemic rather than phonetic; they are forms, not raw sounds. That both she and I are busy making such noises is not a given of biological nature but something that links us as fellow humans and common possessors of culture, albeit of different varieties. It is curious that a few pages after describing language as occupying an ontological space all to itself where alone the category of truth applies, Rorty depicts language as just a bunch of sounds not fundamentally different from those made by chimpanzees or birds–or mangoes falling to the ground. Rorty never tells us what connection there might be between guessing what noises the lady will make and evaluating the truth-value of her speech, which is presumably composed of propositions. It does not occur to him that rather than “guessing what noises” the other would make, the way we would communicate on meeting would be to teach each other the words of our languages by ostensively pointing at different phenomena in our environment.
It is not surprising that Rorty’s non-anthropological view of language is accompanied by a categorical rejection of the sacred. The ambition of generative anthropology is to reach the point where the believer and the unbeliever share the same description of human reality; Rorty wants us “to get to the point where we no longer worship anything . . . where we treat everything . . . as a product of time and chance” (22, italics the author’s). I am not suggesting that we should worship anything; but to consider the human, as every good Darwinian must, as a contingent “product of time and chance” does not imply that insofar as we are human we can treat our possession of language and culture–and worship–as a contingency. We cannot improve on Aristotle’s definition of man as “the animal having logos“–Aristotle’s word for the noises we use to make sense of the world, and to which we attribute the entirely unnatural qualities of truth and falsity. Rorty is absolutely correct to insist that truth is a quality of sentences and not of the world, but because his conception of language does not allow him to hypothesize how this unprecedented relationship between human language and the world out there ever came about, he cannot conceive that the very existence of this relationship might entail consequences about the relationship of humans to the world, and above all, to each other. The “vocabularies” and “language games” we make use of to describe and redescribe the world are not dictated by external reality, but their origin in an event where their cognitive function is subordinate to that of deferring mimetic violence imposes on them constraints wholly invisible to Rorty’s mode of thought.
If the strange lady and I are able to create passing theories that allow us to understand each other, it is because we are fellow participants in what Rorty calls the “solidarity” of the human community, which can be traced back to the originary use of the sign to defer violence. After arguing in the second part of CIS that the “liberal ironist” embodies the exemplary attitude with respect to the “contingency” established in the first part, in the third and last part of the book, Rorty turns to this matter of solidarity. Having stripped metaphysics of the moral intuition that preserved its essential anthropological content, Rorty has no way of linking our power to construct propositions about the world to our need to maintain peace among ourselves while so doing. The only moral category he can find to ground human solidarity is the negative one of cruelty–the obverse of Rousseau’s positive category of pity, which draws us to sympathize with our fellow creatures except when our own well-being is in danger. Following Judith Shklar, Rorty equates the individual’s sentiment of solidarity with the human community, as if self-evidently, with the avoidance of cruelty (“the worst thing they [liberals] do”), as though this principle could substitute unproblematically for the morality implicit in linguistic exchange. Rorty gives no hint of the relationship between the common morality in which human solidarity is grounded and the linguistic bond whose pure contingency he was so eager to demonstrate in the first part, nor does he draw any conclusions from the fact that the irony with which he tempers propositional truth in the second part of the book is itself a hard-won corollary of the human logos.
Avoidance of cruelty is a highly unsatisfactory way to describe what the originary hypothesis refers to as the deferral of violence. “Cruelty” is a weasel-word, part “objectively” physical–pointing toward the body in pain as the concrete universal of what to avoid–and part purely verbal, since the word is irrevocably pejorative, containing a prejudgment that what it refers to is morally wrong. (This would be all too obvious if instead of Shklar’s “cruelty is the worst thing they do” Rorty had written, “evil is the worst thing they do.”) Instead of evoking a generative scene like that already present in Hobbes, where “cruelty” having been shown to have adverse consequences all around, its prevention is in the interest of the community as a whole, Rorty proposes two literary examples that purportedly reveal to us cruelties in our individual lives of which we are unaware. Thus just at the moment when we expect to be enlightened about the cruel choices that solidarity imposes on us–how to know when to wage war, how severely to punish criminals, whether torture is ever justified, what to do about abortion or assisted suicide…–imaginary particularities take the place of philosophical models. Whatever the potential benefits of reading Nabokov and Orwell, this recourse to literary texts, so typical of postmodern thought, is a sign of the dilapidated state of the metaphysical “prison-house of language” within which Rorty the philosopher resides.
When in conclusion Rorty does offer a philosophical conception of solidarity, it is as resolutely unanthropological as his conception of language. We cannot, Rorty says, take as given our solidarity with all humanity; we can only start with the “we” to which we belong and “keep trying to expand our sense of ‘us’ as far as we can” (196). There is nothing to argue with in this exhortation to overcome prejudice and “create a more expansive sense of solidarity than we presently have.” But Rorty seems blind to the fact that the “we” implicit in these very sentences is one that already includes “human beings as such,” or that as a philosopher he should be expected to offer an explanation for why he feels, and why he implies that we all, or at least, all “liberals” really feel, that in principle all human beings, even those we “instinctively think of as ‘they,'”should be included in our “we.” When I meet a lady in the forest, we both know that we share with each other, but not with a snake or mango, the capacity to use representations to defer violence, and that this shared capacity guarantees our equality as reciprocal exchangers of these representations. No doubt our common humanity guarantees only a virtual “we” that Rorty has every reason to exhort us to realize in practice, and no doubt the hostilities of religions, classes, ethnic groups, and nations cannot be wished away by a general assertion of human solidarity. But in the absence of a shared concept of “human being” that includes the anthropological basis for this solidarity, Rorty’s exhortations are merely expressions of personal preference. A sermon is not a philosophical discourse.
In this regard, it is significant that in its last incarnation in the book, the concept of “cruelty” has become “the question ‘Are you suffering?’ . . . the question of whether you are in pain” (198). The conflation of guilt for causing pain with the perception of the Other’s experiencing it is an example of victimary thinking that applies only to humans, in contrast with Rousseau’s pre-human notion of visceral “pity.” My apprehension that your pain may be the result of my cruelty is only possible because as human beings we share a common moral intuition that transcends animal “instinct.” It is because I already recognize you as my moral equal that your pain arouses my guilt, as a violation of our originary reciprocal status. Because Rorty’s concept of our common humanity has lost the moral content that the old metaphysics found in language, he can only evoke our mutual moral responsibility in Gödelian terms, as a necessary basis for discourse that can never be explicitly posited within it. We are exhorted to expand our “we” to the limits of humanity at the same time as we are told that until this is done, the very notion of “humanity” is without content.
Rorty’s text reveals the consequences for philosophy of the exposure and abandonment of the moral implications that had linked the metaphysical ontology of language to its anthropological origin. What we relate to in art is its ostensivity, its capacity for making its “noises and inscriptions” evoke a scene of significance in our imagination. Religion too helps us maintain our link to the originary ostensive sign, but Rorty’s book is one more indication that philosophy in the traditional sense can no longer do so. It is the aim of generative anthropology to restore our ability to think the ostensive basis of language and other forms of representation.