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Something I’ve been thinking about
I once spent a lot of time thinking about Richard Rorty’s work on Truth and Knowledge. Rorty’s point, ultimately, was that it isn’t much use using those words in their hard sense. The conditions you would need to say that something is the Truth, or that you really Know a thing, just don’t arise. In fact, Rorty thought the whole idea of “representing reality” was a big distraction. There’s no way to know if “electricity exists” is a better representation of the world than “magic exists” – we only know that “electricity” has been a lot more useful, lately, than “magic”.
Rorty’s approach worried a lot of people, and rightly so. If he’s not careful (and he often wasn’t), the Rortian approach looks a lot like vulgar relativism – not merely about morality, which threatens our ability to make moral claims, but about our ability to say anything about the world at large.
Here’s Rorty, with Samsonite brows:
I’ve been thinking about Rorty again lately because my brother, who I love, is in town.
My brother resides in a different epistemic universe to me. At first glance, it’s a neighbouring universe – we both call trees trees and think that vegetables are good for you. We each consider climate change an existential threat. We vote the same way. When we are back home and it rains, we both move, instinctively, outside, to where you can see the leopard print of the gums darken and the grass begin to stand up straight.
But for all that, we argue. The arguments are always the same: conspiracies theories; alternative medicine; the scientific method. I find myself uncomfortably defending the mainstream view. Our disagreements can be so severe (not in hostility, but in degree) that when they happen I feel hollow and alone; alien to and alien from the person with whom I’ve spent the majority of my life.
Our disagreements are so fundamental that I go looking, desperately, for things to agree upon. Yesterday, I figured I’d start from the beginning: Aristotle and the principle of non-contradiction.
Here’s the law, from Metaphysics:
It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect.
Let’s put that another way. If something is a, it can’t be not a.
My brother disagrees. He doesn’t give reasons for this belief – not even, as far as a I can tell, unsatisfactory reasons. He just denies that it is true.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, the book that underpins my philosophical attitude more than any other, Rorty speaks of a “final vocabulary”. Here he is, on page 73:
All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes… I shall call these words a person's “final vocabulary”. It is “final” in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.
(Recall Wittgenstein: “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do.”)
A hero for Rorty, and for me, is she who frowns at her own final vocabulary. Rorty calls this figure “the ironist”. She’s particularly heroic if she achieves three things:
She has continuing and radical doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses;
She realises that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts;
She does not think her vocabulary is closer to reality to than others.
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity provides a basis for action for those of us who would be paralysed by uncertainty. It is a roadmap for the political life Bertrand Russell had in mind when he said “one ought to hold all one's beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt.”
You can see immediately, I hope, what deep virtue Rorty is asking of the ironist. It’s one thing to maintain a healthy skepticism about your core beliefs. It’s another to recognise the circularity of arguments made in favour of them. But the third demand, the requirement that the ironist deny that the things she holds most dearly represent reality better than the beliefs of the fundamentalist Christians, or the insane, or the Nazis, has the ambition of a commandment. It asks not just for an endorsement of a Rortian pragmatism; it asks, on top of that intellectual move, moral courage.
What do we do with those with whom we share no final vocabulary? Rorty urges that we replace confrontation with conversation.
The distinction amounts to this: so long as we ignore that those with whom we disagree do not share our final vocabulary; so long as we forget that we cannot defend our final vocabulary except with that vocabulary; so long as we remain glued to the idea that language is about “representing” reality rather than helping us cope with it, we will remain in confrontation. We will fight and argue and our dialogue will end, our spades turned up.
Conversation means finding new ways to describe the vocabularies of ourselves and each other. It means “dropping the idea of getting at the truth in favour of the idea of making things new” (p. 78). It means framing the languages we disagree with not as false but as unhelpful, or unfruitful, or obsolete. It means re-describing the world in new, more useful, more compelling ways.
Rorty doesn’t have much to say about how to love someone with whom you no longer share a vocabulary. He is too optimistic about the powers of re-description. He doesn’t point out that it can feel as though that person has died. But I say that it does. I say that it is like being haunted. It is like watching fully-human body fade into a pale avatar; it is like having the body of person be familiar even when the person is not.
It should tell us something that this feeling is in the family of mourning. When we speak but are not understood, our world is not recognised. When we cannot understand the other’s vocabulary, we cannot recognise their world. It is as if each of us is a wraith.
When our words no longer land, no longer register, when our most foundational descriptions of the world no longer spark a look of recognition or a reflexive nod, then we find ourselves at the limits of our acknowledgement. We find ourselves standing across from each other, within reach, separated by everything.
Something to listen to
Take your time with this one.