Richard Rorty, “Texts And Lumps”

The pragmatist concludes that the intuition that truth is correspondence should be extirpated rather than explicated. On this view, the notion of reality as having a “nature” to which it is our duty to correspond s simply one more variant of the notion that the gods can be placated by chanting the right words. The notion that some one among the languages mankind has used to deal with the universe is the one the universe prefers – the one which cuts things at the joints – was a pretty conceit. But by now it has become too shopworn to serve any purpose. – Richard Rorty, “Texts and Lumps,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1, p. 80

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990's.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990’s.

This is less a “review” of the article in question than it is an appreciation for a piece of writing that changed the way I think about all sorts of things. Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics; the short novel Waiting for the Galactic BusStephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life – I encountered Rorty’s essay at precisely the right moment in my life. Oddly enough, it was because I didn’t have much of a background understanding either of philosophical vocabulary in general, or the particular issues with which Rorty engages in this essay that I found something revolutionary here.

First, a brief sketch of the essay is in order. After an introduction in which he signals his major intention or erasing the assumed boundaries between the general disciplines of the natural sciences and the humanities, Rorty sketches a brief understanding of pragmatist theory regarding words such as “truth” and “objectivity”. In the course of the opening few pages, however, Rorty offers a reading of the late Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that I have since come to understand doesn’t exactly portray Kuhn’s thought so much as Rorty’s reading of Kuhn in the light of his understandings of William James and John Dewey. This, however, is less a weakness in Rorty’s larger presentation than it is a demonstration of one of the main themes of the essay: that rather than think of particular interpretations as “good” or “bad”, it is far more useful to consider interpretations as serving particular functions within a larger story one wishes to tell. To that end, Rorty’s reading of Kuhn, being not completely wrong, serves the purposes to which Rorty wishes to put it.

The bulk of the essay is a friendly discussion with E. D. Hirsch over what Hirsch insists are the clear distinctions of “meaning” and “significance”. As Rorty writes on p. 84:

. . . I think [Hirsch’s] distinction between “meaning” and “significance” is misleading in certain respects. My holistic strategy, characteristic of pragmatism (and in particular of Dewey), is to reinterpret every such dualism as a momentarily convenient blocking-out of regions along a spectrum, rather than as recognition of an ontological, or methodological, or epistemological divide.

Rorty goes on to develop this reinterpretation, using Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities” to tell a story of people looking at two unknowns, one a previously unencountered text, the other an unknown lump. What distinguishes how we come to understand what is in front of us isn’t something that inheres in either the text or the lump. Rather it is our choice of a particular set of tools for undertaking the task of understanding what it is we are encountering. One of those sets of tools might be called “chemistry”. Another might be “anthropology”. Perhaps “literary criticism” works well. It may well be the case that we choose “chemistry” to understand something we encounter because we are (a) chemists; or (b) we hold the belief that chemistry is the best method for such understanding. This no more privileges “chemistry” as a way of understanding than does the belief that “literary criticism” is not fit for our encounters with unknown lumps mean that literary criticism isn’t a source of human understanding. Encountering a text and insisting that “chemistry” is the best tool for understanding it isn’t being wrong; it’s picking up a welders mask and torch to do carpentry. Nothing more, nothing less.

Rorty’s larger philosophical project is to reinterpret the philosophical project in light of certain realities we understand to describe what it is to be human. First, we understand ourselves as radically contingent creatures both in terms of our restricted lifespan as well as in evolutionary terms. There is no reason for our existence, evolutionarily speaking. Yet precisely because Homo sapiens sapiens is a successful evolutionary species (so far) we have particular endowments that make us both survive in the competition for food and resources and thrive by continuing to reproduce. That some of these endowments include a particular set of tools we have come to call “knowledge” or “understanding” or “language” does not make any of these more interesting than, say, our upright posture and gait or our opposable thumbs. That some human beings wish that it were so and have constructed elaborate stories about why this is so does not make it so. Doing Rortian pragmatism, whether anti-epistemology or ethics, is nothing more or less than trying to find a place for philosophy in the wake of the radical understanding of ourselves as contingent creatures.

This same sense of radical contingency is present in late medieval nominalism, particularly its Ochkamist variety. Emphasizing the absolute supremacy and freedom of the Godhead, Ockham stripped the realist philosophy and theology of the High Middle Ages of its most powerful tool: It’s insistence that things that exist do so either because they reflect something Real (Plato) or because they participate in some Realness that connects like objects to like (Aristotle). Ockham would argue this is not only putting the cart before the horse; it’s assuming there are things calls “carts” and “horses” about which we can know anything prior to encountering particular instances of them (thus the term “nominalism” – it is in our naming of things they become real, rather than being real and the name being something that exists prior to our acceptance or even encounter). Because there could be nothing restricting or binding or otherwise creating necessity in the actions of the Divine, how is it possible that there might be “cartness” prior to the actual existence of the variety of things for which the word “cart” more or less fits well? Rorty is little more than a nominalist in a leisure suit.

In any event this Divine freedom precisely highlights the kind of God we Christians claim to encounter in the Incarnation: A God of love, of infinite patience and grace, the God of Election who in Jesus Christ pays the price necessary for reestablishing the creature’s relationship with the creator. Belief, then, isn’t a question of “truth” (“truth” for Christians is the person and work of Jesus Christ) or the proclamation of something eternal. On the contrary, belief is the possibility offered to we radically contingent, finite, limited, and sinful creatures. Whether it is in our proclamation, our confession, or our discipleship, we must face the reality of all our limitations as creatures.

The doors and possibilities this particular philosophical essay opened for me is difficult to describe now after so many years. When I first read this particular essay – certainly not understanding all of the references even as I understood the overarching concern – it was as if words were being given to me to say what it is I thought about the world, about our human place in it, and even about our faith as Christians. Over the decades, I have certainly become far more critical of particular parts of Rorty’s philosophical project; at heart, however, this particular essay opened up the possibility of speaking and living with a particular kind of integrity, best expressed in Karl Barth’s dictum that while we should never claim to know the truth, we should always live as if we did know the truth.

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2 thoughts on “Richard Rorty, “Texts And Lumps”

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