David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2007

Ludvik Vaculik

As soon as you set down cognition in writing, it ceases to be true, for the vectors of truth have changed. There can be no fixed cognition, there is only an unbounded continuum of cognition, which keeps changing as it flows from mind to mind, and an uninterrupted continuum of subject and object. I am on the Earth –> I am the Earth –> I am the Sun…There is thus no idealism or materialism, because there is no reason for them in the phenomena which they attempt to explain. But there are butterflies pinned down in a poisonous box.

Just think! Give the same piece of information to a number of thinkers, and what happens? Each of them will present you with a different philosophy, since each had a mother and she either breast-fed him or not. And then he was either allowed to go to London or not. Schools of philosophy and influences? Yes, but also stomachs (ability to conform to regimes), penises (ability to create alternatives to revolution) and, last but not least, patience. The philosophy of a bald philosopher will differ from that of a bearded one as does bread from different bakers, even though they use the same flour.

“My Philosophers”

Occurrences at Owl Creek Bridge

The finale of The Sopranos was only the latest usage of a trope that has become a staple of American fiction since its popular inception in Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (If you haven’t read the story, go read it first.) The basic idea is that the main character is about to die or near death or half-dead, and experiences some sort of imagined fantasy, perhaps a wish-fulfillment that he or she believes to be real, until death cuts the fantasy short. In this fantasy, time may be hugely compressed, rules of physics may change, unlikely events may happen, explicit and heavy-handed symbolism of previous events may occur, and so on.

Bierce’s story is notorious on its own, but it’s since permeated popular culture. The entire baby boomer generation got exposed to it when a short French adaptation of Bierce’s story was aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone, revealing just how great Rod Serling’s debt to Bierce (and O. Henry) was. Serling’s heavy-handed and moralistic twist endings, which themselves share much with Golden Age science-fiction, have been even more of a determinant of what constitutes an “ending” to a popular story in American culture. (For a particularly bombastic example, see Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star.) And I do say American; while William Golding’s Pincher Martin utilizes the trope, it does so in a way that makes it less relevant, as the story reads as explicit allegory regardless of the reality of the situation, and the British Golding even seems to give the game away early by subtitling the book “The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin.”

Bierce did not come up with the general idea. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (whose structure was later appropriated by Alasdair Gray for Lanark) is a tale of a boy experiencing an afterlife that recapitulates his life and serves as a corrective, and I’m sure there are earlier examples. Bierce may, however, have come up with the idea to hide the conceit from the audience by restricting the audience’s point of view to that of the main character, so that fantasy and reality are not explicitly distinguished until the “twist” ending. (I don’t know of any antecedents, but please let me know if you do.) This changes the fictional game considerably, since the author’s goal is no longer to contrast the fantasy with reality, as with Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Secret Miracle”, but to blend the two sufficiently that the reader does not figure out that somewhere along the line, reality took a vacation. Consequently, the story must subtly shift to an even more limited point of view, something that Bierce cleverly invokes by shifting to the present tense at the very end of the story, just before the reveal. The trope has become so well-known that mysterious shows are often threatened with angry viewers should the “answer” be some half-dead state of fantasy. (Another favorite cliche: alien zoo!)

That “somewhere” at which point the reader and character leave reality is always weighted with symbolism. In Pincher Martin, it is the natural disaster of a shipwreck. In Jacob’s Ladder, it was a battle in Vietnam. In Mulholland Drive, it was a drug-fueled scene of masturbation and remorse for murder. In The Sopranos, it was going to sleep and dreaming in a moment of mortal danger and betrayal. In Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, it is simply the explosion of a bomb. Regardless, the fantasy that follows from thereon always involves some forgetting or cancellation of the transition point, not only in the sense of plot, but also in theme. The transition point comes to signify a terrible truth that the protagonist(s) would rather not acknowledge, and facing up to that truth cancels the fantasy. In Bierce’s original story, there is no character development: the twist stands alone as plot. But theme came to follow story, and the idea that reality would slowly invade fantasy to reveal death became the standard for the trope.

I could speculate that the prevalence of this trope represents some sort of theme of self-flagellation and masochism in American culture: the desire to delude one’s self and ignore unpleasantness, but an unwillingness to own up to one’s lies leading to increasing cognitive dissonance and eventual punishment. But one could also say that this is just as equally a self-congratulatory reification of the individualistic streak of American culture, in which the morality tale of the trope reassures us that we can never delude ourselves forever, and our minds will eventually know truth. Of the American examples above, Dick’s is the only one in which the morality tale of good and bad capitalists ultimately takes a back seat to metaphysical uncertainty. In the others, we all get our absolute knowledge and our moral certitude, as does the character. Our necks eventually snap. Next to the long history of the United States’s ideal of an individualistic, egalitarian culture and its continued refusal en masse to acknowledge the mostly continual failure of that ideal, the certainty of the ultimate “reveal” is a comfortable myth.

To be continued: next time, the eschatological and religious implications of the Owl Creek Bridge trope.

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.

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

Here I was about to write on Dante, and I hear that Rorty has passed away. Rorty is such a paradoxical and multifaceted figure that his death gives me cause to ponder my own philosophical orientations and biases. Even more than other analytic “slipstream” figures (my appropriated, tongue-in-cheek term for those analytics who headed, intentionally or unintentionally, towards an epistemological and hermeneutic rapprochement with continental developments: late Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Goodman, Putnam, Davidson, McDowell, and Brandom, all of whom owe some kind of debt to the American pragmatists, particularly Peirce), Rorty let himself abandon the analytic style and rigor and embrace far more historicist positions. And I feel this pull myself. But complicating this is the seeming existence of three Rortys. In roughly chronological order:

  1. the analytic “linguistic turn” Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, etc.)
  2. the pragmatic deconstructionist Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, etc.)
  3. the liberal populist Rorty (Achieving Our Country, late essays, etc.)

Even worse, the earlier Rortys continued to coexist with the later ones, although the analytic Rorty disappears mostly from the picture post-Contingency. The reason for this vanishing is that Rorty wisely realized that the post-Sellarsian philosophy of language was neither useful nor supportive of the relativistic pragmatic liberalism that the other two Rortys wanted to promote. Between the first two Rortys is Rorty turning his back on the analytic tradition and collapsing the lessons of Sellars and Quine into a roughly deconstructionist stance that Rorty inherits from Derrida, as well as an explicit embrace of historicism. There is little talk of sensing, mind, or language as practice in his later work, though clearly Rorty maintained enough affinities with his analytic forefathers to acutely criticize post-Kripkean analytic metaphysics. I am in great sympathy when in that article, he observes, criticizing Kripke-worshiper Scott Soames:

To my mind, the story of 20th-century analytic philosophy (including the role of Kripke in that story) is best told by highlighting questions about whether truth is a matter of correspondence, about what is and is not ‘out there’ to be corresponded to, and about whether there is any sense in which thought makes ‘direct contact’ with reality. So I regret that Soames’s history shoves these issues into the background. But perhaps correspondence is just my hobbyhorse, as necessity is his.

Couple “language” with “thought” and “truth,” and this is indeed my view of modern analytic philosophy as well. But even as he says this, his later work makes it clear that Rorty had lost interest in this question in and of itself, and was far more concerned with its implications and utility in political and cultural frameworks. His leap to an embrace of continental traditions is not surprising in this light, and his status as a maverick seems to be mostly due to this leap alone. His actual positions fit squarely into a deconstructionist (or “post-structuralist,” if you will) mainstream, with a little American flavoring. With regard to his treatment of meaning and language, Rorty’s actual separation from Derrida lies less in his ideology and more in the comparative clarity of his writing, which did as much to offer analytics a bridge to deconstructionist thought as it did to antagonize them towards it.

Perhaps it was this clarity that caused the third Rorty to evolve, in which he popularized his style even further and, most notably, wrote a little book called Achieving Our Country, celebrating Emerson and Dewey as models for a pragmatic politics. No matter that much of what he advocates in this book is unsubstantiable by Rortys 1 and 2. It was clear that after having embraced a heterodox liberalism under the guise of “liberal ironism” in his second incarnation, he was ready to put that into practice and drop the theory to attempt a concrete politics in the tradition of Dewey. Yet while Habermas attempted to ground such a liberalism in a dense, coherent account of intersubjectivity, Rorty seemed to have lost interest in fighting with other philosophers, and wanted to speak to the people. The book was not popular, though it earned an amusing rebuke from George Will in Time, who must have seen it as some sort of threat, or as a convenient strawman for attacking academia. That last point is particularly ironic, as Rorty #3 did indeed drop (or at least obscure) all of the relativist baggage that David “Black Panthers and Blacklists” Horowitz thinks threatens our nation. Some good it did him. In the late essays published (by Penguin!) in Philosophy and Social Hope, he is attacking Marx and criticizing philosophical leftists like Derrida for embracing Marxism, in between celebrating Forster and (again) Dewey.

Ironically enough, I see something of a parallel development in Derrida, who begins as an unorthodox but traditional Husserlian phenomenologist, then develops an aggressive deconstructionism in contrast to preceding structuralist trends, and finally ends his life advocating for the EU and Enlightenment values and making nice with arch-enemy Habermas in the name of liberalism. But Derrida never quite abandoned his audiences the way that Rorty 1 and Rorty 2 did.


There have been countless accounts of analytic vs. continental personalities, and I only offer this one on the
grounds that it’s purely anecdotal. (I use “continental” here as shorthand for the poststructuralist mainstream that holds sway in America: Derrida, De Man, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Agamben. No need to correct me on this point; I know.) But my experience has been that on assuming a position, analytics are far more likely to take it as truth to be put into practice, while continentals tend to embrace a position as justificatory rhetoric. For instance, the analytic incompatibilist determinists I know, who believe in no free will and no moral responsibility, seriously apply such beliefs in their daily lives: they picture people as robots to be corrected when they malfunction, and they have no patience with even the idea of revenge. Derek Parfit’s views on (lack of) personal identity, by his own admission, brought him great comfort in facing death. David Lewis, to cite an extreme example, truly believed in an infinite number of alternate worlds for modal purposes. (Indeed, another modern history of analytic thought could be the effect that rigidity can have in inflating pedantic disputes into highly unintuitive beliefs.) On the other hand, the continentals I’ve known have been far more likely to stick with what is, in effect, a foundationalist standpoint, and use philosophical works, appropriately or otherwise, to justify them. I have seen many continentals discourse on the indefinite postponement and deferral of truth and meaning, only then to proclaim the moral evil of the Enlightenment, capitalism, the United States, Europe, etc. One could blame Heidegger for being especially bad at this, but my unjustified suspicion is that the indifference to rhetoric falls out of the modern continental approach itself, just as the analytic approach produces its dogmatists. For whatever reason, Rorty’s “irony” came to dominate his view to the point that such a serious embrace of analytic metaphysical positions became anathema to him. Yet because he was in America or because he was outside the continental scene or because he just was like that, he failed to feel the urgency to dive into the continental pool.

Many of the figures mentioned above, despite my complaints, were brilliant and did remarkable work in analytic or continental philosophy. I think Rorty will be remembered for pursuing a more aggressive synthesis than most more than for espousing a particular position. I don’t necessarily see this as a fault, because I think his intent ultimately was not to stake out a singular philosophical position, but it does complicate how to assess his stature. Maybe because I am something of a philosopher, I can’t think of him as being as important as Habermas, Davidson, or even Derrida, even though I have problems with all three of them. If Rorty had had another fifty years, perhaps he would have produced a big book that would have been a liberal, anti-communitarian version of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue; more likely, though, he would have gotten involved in politics (as another of his spiritual compatriots, Charles Taylor, actually did). He would have made a good columnist for the New York Times, certainly a better one than the universally ridiculed Stanley Fish. (But there I go, shooting Fish in a barrel again….)

from Jose Donoso

The fact remains that Wenceslao, like my other children, is an emblematic figure: the most memorable, perhaps, of a number of boys and girls who, as in a Poussin painting, caper in the foreground, untraceable to any model because they are not portraits, their features unconstrained by any but the most formal lineaments of individuality or passion. They and their games are little more than a pretext for the painting to have a name, because what it expresses does not reside in those quaint games which merely provide a focal point: no, a higher place in the artist’s intent has been given to the interaction between these figures and the landscape of rocks and valleys and trees that stretches toward the horizon, where, in golden proportion, it gives way to the beautiful, stirring, intangible sky, creating that unabashedly unreal space which is the true protagonist of the painting, as pure narrative is the protagonist in a novel that sets out to grind up characters, time, space, psychology, and sociology in one great tide of language.

A House in the Country (tr. Pritchard/Levine)

A weird quote from a weird book by a weird genius of an author. This is one of his typically oblique attacks on “realism” in fiction, which (he says elsewhere) comes naturally to him, but is a lie. I will have more to say after I finish reading the book.

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