Richard Rorty: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Going back to Rorty’s big book from 1979 reminds me of how much of a summation of Rorty’s philosophical project it is. It is also, up until the last section, bereft of the political baggage that would come to dominate his work soon afterwards. The meat for the analytics lies in its comparatively clear account of post-Wittgensteinian developments in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and epistemology. Rorty even engages with Kripke briefly to trash (rightfully) Kripke’s defense of dualism, and implicitly with it the entire strain of post-Kripkean metaphysics, in which we find people arguing over how many grains of sand constitute a “heap” and whether Mount Everest plus one atom is still Mount Everest. The correct answer is that language does not work (or “refer”) in this way, and Rorty’s marshaling of Quine, Davidson, and Sellars to make this point is quite convincing, even when the particulars are dubious. (E.g., one must first get past an oblique argument aboutinner sensations in order to reach the more general and forceful points about language and praxis.)

In the midst of this is one of the clearest accounts of the Myth of the Given, one of the core arguments of the philosophy of Wilfred Sellars. (Whether Rorty’s is one of the more accurate accounts is entirely up for debate.) I want to quote it at length because I think it is Rorty at his philosophical best. Rorty’s account is based on Sellars’ classic and impenetrable paper Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, which despite its fame, is far less known than it should be, at least in my experience. (I encountered it once in four years of analytic philosophy.) Rorty’s application of it in discussing “Pre-Linguistic Awareness” follows:

Children and photoelectric cells both discriminate red objects, but pre-linguistic children are thought to “know what red is” in some sense in which photoelectric cells do not. But how can the child know what pain is if all awareness of anything “is a linguistic affair?” Here Sellars needs another distinction. This time it is between “knowing what X is like” and “knowing what sort of thing an X is.” The latter involves being able to link the concept of Xness up with other concepts in such a way as to be able to justify claims about X’s. On Sellars’s Wittgensteinian view, in which to have a concept is to use a word, these two abilities are the same ability. It follows that we cannot have one concept without having many, nor can we come “to have a concept of something because we have noticed that sort of thing”; for “to have the ability to notice a sort of thing is already to have the concept of that sort of thing.” But to “notice a sort of thing is to notice under a description, not just to respond discriminatively to it. What, then, is it to know what pain is like without knowing or noticing what sort of thing it is?

It is just to have pain. The snare to avoid here is the notion that there is some inner illumination which takes place only when the child’s mind is lighted up by language, concepts, descriptions, and propositions, and does not take place when the child inarticulately wails and writhes. The child feels the same thing, and it feels just the same to him before and after language-learning. Before language, he is said to know the thing he feels just in case it is the sort of thing which in later life he will be able to make noninferential reports about….

There is no reason for Sellars to object to the notion of “knowing what pain (or redness) is like,” for this would only support the Myth of the Given, and contradict psychological nominalism, if there were some connection between knowing what pain feels like and knowing what sort of thing pain is. But the only connection is that the former is an insufficient and unnecessary causal condition for the latter. It is insufficient for the obvious reason that we can know what redness is like without knowing that it is different from blue, that it is a color, and so on. It is unnecessary because we can know all that, and a great deal more, about redness while having been blind from birth, and thus not knowing what redness is like. It is just false that we cannot talk and know about what we do not have raw feels of, and equally false that if we cannot talk about them we may nevertheless have justified true beliefs about them. What is special about language is not that it “changes the quality of our experience” or “opens up new vistas of consciousness” or “synthesizes a previously unconscious manifold” or produces any other sort of “inner” change. All that its acquisition does is to let us enter a community whose members exchange justifications of assertions, and other actions, with one another.

(pp. 183-185)

For me, this passage succinctly describes several of the great discoveries of analytic philosophy in the 20th century, beginning with Wittgenstein, and provides a proper groundwork for a philosophy of language. It is far from precise, but the force of the rhetoric makes its point.

Unfortunately, it is followed just a few pages later by a wholly unwarranted jump in logic, which is just the sort of thing that makes Rorty so maddening:

The moral prohibitions are expressions of a sense of community based on the imagined possibility of conversation, and the attribution of feelings is little more than a reminder of these prohibitions. This can be seen by noticing that nobody except philosophers of mind cares whether the raw feel of pain or redness is different for koalas than for us, but that we all care quite a bit about a koala when we see it writhing about. This fact does not mean that our or the koala’s pain “is nothing but its behavior”; it just means that writhing is more important to our ability to imagine the koala asking us for help than what is going on inside the koala. Pigs rate much higher than koalas on intelligence tests, but pigs don’t writhe in quite the right humanoid way, and the pig’s face is the wrong shape for the facial expressions which go with ordinary conversation. So we send pigs to slaughter with equanimity, but form societies for the protection of koalas.

(p. 190)

The irony here is that Rorty did not follow Sellars far enough in order to put “the idea of the having of pain” into the linguistic space of reasons, under which one certainly can imagine helping pigs out because they “feel pain,” and not just because they exhibit pain behavior. (This motivation is not a necessity, but “attribution of having of pain” definitely figures into vegetarians’ arguments just as much if not more than “cuteness” or “anthropomorphic behavior.”) I believe this to be another of Sellars’ crucial contributions to philosophy, and I find it puzzling and frustrating that Rorty did not utilize it. Rorty’s denial of this possibility amounts to a pathetic fallacy, and damages his argument quite badly. I suspect Rorty found this behavioralist argument to be more obviously persuasive than delving into the complexities of Sellars’ Myth of Jones and just ran with it.

Rorty, good and bad, in a nutshell.

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