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Lost and found in the archives

So I showed up at UC-Irvine a day early, because even though some of the Rorty archives were born digital, most of them were born analog, and I wanted to check them out.  (Note to distressed California taxpayers: there was no honorarium involved, and I paid for my extra night of lodging.  Just for the record.) About half of my talk dealt with blog discussions of Rorty’s work, like this one and this one and this one, on which I relied heavily.  I promised Dave Maier I would not make the mistake I always make, so, in a deconstructive spirit, I made it again anyway, but differently this time.

This time I merely claimed that human deliberations about Neptune and quarks and the cosmic microwave background radiation involve intersubjective agreement, but it’s intersubjective agreement about the not-human.  That doesn’t make it any more “foundational” than human deliberations about justice or beauty, but it does mean that when Neptune and quarks and the cosmic microwave background radiation are disclosed to us, we have to understand them precisely as entities which beforehand already were.  Just like Heidegger says in section 44 of Being and Time:

Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever—these are true only so long as Dasein is.  Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. . . .  To say that before Newton his laws were neither true nor false, cannot signify that before him there were no such entities as have been uncovered and pointed out by those laws.  Through Newton the laws became true; and with them, entities became accessible in themselves to Dasein.  Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.

I have been mulling over that passage for 25 years now, and that’s part of what my Rorty Story is about.  But first, let me make clear to Dave and everyone of like-Dave mind that in talking about these entities-which-beforehand-already-were I am not (as I said at the conference) indulging in any Stupid Realist Tricks.  First, I am not suggesting that physics is not a language, that it gives us direct unmediated access to the way the natural world would describe itself if it could; on the contrary, I keep harping on the cosmic microwave background radiation because (a) it’s really important, being physical evidence of the Big Bang, and (b) its discovery involved a Latourian network of scientists, wherein one guy realized that the inadvertent finding made by other guys just might be related to this other guy’s unpublished paper.  (Details.) Second, I imply no teleology, no sense that discoveries in physics are moving us somewhere progressively and incrementally, and that someday we’ll finally get it right once and for all; on the contrary, I strongly suspect it’s quantum turtles all the way down, in all the extant universes.  And last, I am not suggesting that the kind of knowledge we obtain from physics is a template for all other kinds of human knowledge, that it affords us a model of the way we could deliberate about justice or beauty if we just tried hard enough; on the contrary, I’m saying that it’s a highly specialized and ungeneralizable kind of knowledge that involves intricate interpretive protocols for understanding stuff that isn’t Dasein and doesn’t have Dasein’s interpretive protocols.  But the truths we obtain by means of those protocols will be truths only so long as Dasein is, because when Dasein disappears, nobody’s going to talk about “truth” anymore.

I hope that’s clear.  Because now it is story time.

So it’s the day before the conference, I have only four or five hours to work with, and I decide to look through a couple boxes of Rorty’s papers, lectures, syllabi, and notes from the 1980s and 1990s.  (I also decide to look through one box of juvenilia, just because.) I find some good stuff, and I incorporate it into my paper, like this fine example of what John Holbo (in the fifth link above) calls Rorty’s “rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective”:

we shall only get the full benefit of either Hegelian historicism or pragmatist anti-representationalism when we have become as insouciant about the question “did human beings have intrinsic dignity, and human rights, before anybody thought they did?” as we are about the question “did transfinite cardinal numbers exist before Cantor found a way to talk about them?”

Then I decide to start leafing through the correspondence files, looking for a correspondence theory of truth.  (That joke killed in the Poconos, folks.  I’ll be here all week.) It was a little like Abe Simpson’s rendering of Thomas Edison’s reading of the alphabet over the radio: I started with “A.” Then “B.” “C” would usually follow....

And in the B’s, I had a genuine authentic unheimlich moment.  I wasn’t surprised to see my correspondence with Rorty from 1994-95, which consists of a series of letters about Public Access in which Rorty chastised me for my dismissive attitude toward social democrats like Howe and Schlesinger and I insisted that The Disuniting of America, like Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue, was a hysterical book, and not in a good way, either.  It was nice to see all that in its very own sub-folder, but I remembered it well.  What surprised me was a stray item from 1985, a handwritten letter on three pages of yellow legal paper.  The letter appeared to be in my handwriting ... because it was! It was dated sometime in June 1985, and it was basically an agonized request for an extension on my overdue paper. 

I have no idea why Rorty kept it, but reading it was like the moment in Chamber of Secrets when Harry opens Tom Riddle’s diary and gets transported back to Riddle’s days at Hogwarts.  After taking Rorty’s Heidegger seminar that spring, I had the option of taking a final exam or writing a stand-alone paper.  The exam was by far the easier option, and one of the questions, “to what extent does part one of Being and Time advance a pragmatist theory of truth,” was an implicit invitation to go over our class notes from the first four weeks of class and say, “well, it pretty much does, just like Rorty says it does, see.” I didn’t want to do that, because I had my own little take on part one of Being and Time, but I wasn’t sure how to go about writing it down.

Well, now I was in dangerous territory—and the danger might be familiar to some of you.  I now had a late paper hanging over my head, and worse, it was a late paper for a Famous and Distinguished Professor.  I was 23.  Let me put it this way: the third link above is titled (by Holbo) “Dave Maier Tells You Interesting Stuff about Rorty.” It is indeed a very interesting post.  But I had no interesting stuff to say; I was quite convinced that there was nothing I could put into a paper that would be of any interest to Rorty whatsoever.  Week by week, that conviction deepened, as did my sense of dread.  So in June, just before Rorty left for a trip to China, I clenched my teeth (no, not really) and sat down to write a letter (a) sketching out my idea and (b) asking for an extension.

You know the genre, surely: crazed, anxious graduate student expounds on the details of a promising but never-to-be-written essay.  The first two and a half pages walk through the half-formed argument, in which I suggest that what Rorty took to be the “pragmatist” aspects of Being and Time (the categories of the vorhanden and zuhanden, or “present-at-hand” and “ready-to-hand”) are just setups for the real payload, the insistence that “truth” is a matter of “disclosure” (aletheia), and that one of the reasons Heidegger goes to such trouble to establish those categories is to persuade us that factual assertions, far from being the locus of truth, are mere present-at-hand entities that get stuff done.  This may sound like a pragmatist critique of positivism (which is no doubt why Rorty liked it), but it ain’t where Heidegger’s going; in sections 43 and 44, he’s going to show us that since assertions are not the locus of truth (as he has conclusively demonstrated), truth must something else, namely, the disclosure of Being specific to Dasein.

This much is probably obvious to Heideggerians, but give me a break.  I was 23.  The tricky part—the part on which I was stuck—lay in the realization that I was more or less saying that part one of Being and Time involves this elaborate performative contradiction whereby Heidegger argues logically and patiently (and laboriously, good lord) that argument is not where truth lives.  I had the idea that perhaps this might shed some light on the famous “turn,” which, for me, might amount to Heidegger saying (among other things), “you know, I’m not going to argue anymore that assertions are merely present-at-hand—I’m just going to go straight to aletheia and disclosure, and write sweeping accounts of philosophy since the pre-Socratics, meditations on Romantic poets and the phrase ‘it gives being,’ and a bunch of stuff about the clearing and the jug and the fourfold, so there.”

And that paper probably would remain unwritten to this day (with the world so much the poorer for it), had Janet not realized, some months after I asked Rorty for that extension, that she was pregnant.  “ZOMG,” I said (no, not really), “if we’re going to have a baby, I need to finish that damn Rorty paper.” My anxiety about the-entity-that-would-become-Nick quashed all my anxiety about the-entity-that-was-the-paper-I-could-not-write, and I wrote it in a frenzy over four or five days.  It turned out to be the last paper I would ever write out longhand before typing.  And it turned out, when I finally finished typing, to be fifty pages.  After stewing over the essay for months and months, I had become the Graduate Student From Hell, turning in my paper very late and very long.

If there are any graduate students reading this, do not do this.  It is bad.

But it was a formative experience.  Not only because it got me off the schneid, Heidegger-wise, but because it taught me how to manage anxieties: that is, by using real ones to dissolve pseudo ones.  “Merciful Moloch we’re going to have a baby so I have to finish this class so that I can finish my coursework so that I can write my dissertation and try to get a job” is so much weightier than “what if Rorty doesn’t like/ is bored by/ disagrees with my essay” that there’s no point wasting any time with the latter.  Priorities, people. 

Still, I can’t believe Rorty kept that letter.  I recognized the kid who wrote it, a leaner and squirrelier version of the person who’s writing this, but more important, I remembered that whole weird and directionless Charlottesville summer, working at the National Legal Research Group, not writing, breaking up my band (and then recording a posthumous album anyway), wondering whether I should stay in graduate school.

So I guess there’s a moral here, and the moral is that I have forgotten my umbrella.  No, wait, that’s not it.  It’s that you never know what’s going to wind up in the archives.  Even your crazed letter, “Dear Mr. Rorty [that is the custom at the University of Virginia, btw], can I have an extension because the dog ate my vorhanden and I stayed up late Being-with-others and overslept and I promise to turn in my paper precisely when I finish it which should be any day now sincerely yours,” might be in there, somewhere, for scholars of the future to wonder and snicker at.  You have been warned.

Liz Losh (who organized the whole thing) has a wonderfully detailed account of the conference, here, here, here, here, and here.  Many thanks to Liz for all her great work.  Ian Bogost’s version is here; his witty and provocative paper is here (.pdf, and w/o the great visuals).  And last but not least, it was totally awesome to meet Mary Rorty.


Posted by on 05/19 at 08:08 AM
  1. I strongly suspect it’s quantum turtles all the way down

    Quantum box turtles, if you please.

    Anyway, as far as a simple set of equations that we can solve with physical understanding, you’re probably correct that we’ll never “get it right.” I don’t think there are infinite layers involved, though, given that spacetime is ultimately discrete (a subject I often foam at the mouth about).  It’s just that we’ll eventually find that some stuff is too hard to calculate, no matter how hard we rack our branes.

    I promised Dave Maier I would not make the mistake I always make, so, in a deconstructive spirit, I made it again anyway, but differently this time.

    There, there.  It’s all right to accept that elementary particles have an objective reality, even if some of the more ardent advocates of same keep assuming metaphysical cows that are spherical.  After all, Dave Maier can obviously still use a computer, whether he accepts the independent existence of electrons or not.  tongue laugh

    And unheimlich?  Does that mean someone pumps your sternum like a bellows in order to lodge, e.g., chicken tikka in your windpipe?

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  10:04 AM
  2. Mmmmmmm, box turtles.  Surely there is an alternate universe somewhere in which I can get a license and a marriage certificate for my box turtle Eric.  Somewhere, over the ultimately discrete rainbow....

    And yes, the unheimlich maneuver involves an uncanny little squeeze that lodges food (e.g., chicken tikka) in your windpipe and makes you feel not-at-home.

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  10:54 AM
  3. Somewhere, over the ultimately discrete rainbow....

    You’d better hope it’s ultimately discrete, or word will get out about the box turtle marriage thing.  And then the Concerned Women for Focusing on American Families’ Marriages ... Coalition will be all over you, and not in a good way this time.

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  11:03 AM
  4. Don’t put that turtle in your mouth

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  11:07 AM
  5. DASEIN!!!

    Re-perusing Hei.’s SZ, a bright boy should perceive that the mysterious Herr Dasein’s more or less Aristotle’s Primum Mobile, tho’ stripped of the quaint categories, moved north to the Bavarian countryside, and, like temporality-speakin’, the army of Alex the Great’s been replaced by the...Wehrmacht.

    (serio, interesting reflection, Professor B.--tho’ I don’t think Hei.’s a pragmaticist, nor are the great prag.s like Peirce or James postmodernists, or Rortyians).

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/19  at  11:24 AM
  6. A friend I’ve had since high school recently sent me a small selection of letters I sent her between the ages of 19 and 25.

    They were so horrifying that I taped the package shut right quick.

    Posted by Flavia  on  05/19  at  12:30 PM
  7. Ouch!  Getting one’s Selected Letters, Ages 19-25 ... all I can say, Flavia, is that I feel your textual pain.  Way worse than putting a turtle in one’s mouth.

    And Ezra, Heidegger wasn’t any kind of pragmatist.  He didn’t think pragmatism even counted as philosophy—it was just more ontic, American, technocratic crap.  And not in the good sense.  So the question “to what extent does the first half of BT advance a pragmatist theory of truth” has a bit more bite than it might sound.

    Captcha:  real.  Finally, unmediated access!

    Posted by Michael  on  05/19  at  01:01 PM
  8. Michael: Thanks for sharing the links (I love the line describing Rorty’s speeches as “firebrand views delivered in the manner of Eeyore”) and your pregnancy-leads-to-ruthless-efficiency story.  Your story unheimliched me too: My deadline from Routledge was during the last trimester of my wife’s pregnancy—not a particular hardship until she was put on complete bed rest for complications involving Jack’s impending duodenal atresia (aren’t those kids with T21 trouble?).  So, much like you, I gave up caring and worrying and obsessing and procrastinating just to get the thing done.  It worked pretty well. 
    P.S. Finding out about the Rorty archive now makes me worry that (1) I will spend/waste quite a bit of time there and (2) my sophomoric emails will be visible to the world.

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  01:36 PM
  9. Okay, I’m not particularly up on these topics [Insert collective gasp of shocked surprise here], so beg pardon for being confused about the basics and sounding like a simpleton again, but:

    when we have become as insouciant about the question “did human beings have intrinsic dignity, and human rights, before anybody thought they did?” as we are about the question “did transfinite cardinal numbers exist before Cantor found a way to talk about them?”

    Are philosophists now actually insouciant about the latter?  If so, is the answer “yes,” “no,” or “irrelevant”?  (Transfinite cardinality is to me a better comparison to make than Neptune and the like, btw.) And is it being insouciant about the former to treat the answer as trivially “no”?  Ranger Brad, I’m a scientist; I don’t believe in anything.  But even though I think the former is actually a no, I pretend as if it’s yes, to try to live as if the world were as it should be.  Does this count as pragmatism?

    And off-topic, but mua-HA-ha-ha-haaaaaaa:

    Beginning immediately: QuantumBio Inc., headquartered adjacent to The Pennsylvania State University in scenic State College, PA, is in need of a post doctoral computational or early career Biochemist/Chemist or Xray Crystallographer interested in continuing his or her career within a dynamic, small-company environment.

    On the one hand, it would make it much easier to blog from inside Professor Bérubé’s house, and possibly get some footage of the elusive Janet Lyon in her native habitat.  On the other hand:

    (1) “scenic” State College, PA?  What’s next, claiming it has mountains?  Locating it in the Midwest?*

    (2) Oh, wait, it said “early career,” and I’m washed-up and almost dead.  Not necessarily in that order.

    (3) Senator Toomey?

    *I keed, I keed.  When I was looking at alternative graduate programs, I had to admit that Penn State was in a very charming setting, whenever there weren’t drunk students blocking the view.

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  01:43 PM
  10. pragmatism...just more ontic, American, technocratic crap

    That seems fairly accurate in regard to Wm James (and his followers), yet, as the pro-prag.s around these sites are probably aware of, that underrated wizard CS Peirce at times sounded quite idealist (in a metaphysical sense), did not care for nominalism in any form, and while quite well read in the sciences was not a Darwinian sort of materialist (Rorty doesn’t seem too hip to that reading of Peirce, then ...Rortyspeak puts some of us to sleep after a few paragraphs).  Then did Vati Heidegger even read Amerikans? unlikely.
    Hei. objected to the secular aspects of Hegel for that matter--.

    It’s a Liebe/Hass relationship with Heidegger, sir: agree with his opposition to technocratic/"ontic"/positivist or corporate BS (as with QCT), but oppose the endless jargon, the...wehrmacht-izing, and the mystification. Bastante

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/19  at  01:59 PM
  11. <i>If there are any graduate students reading this, do not do this.  It is bad.<?I>

    I must protest this a bit.  It seems to me that in the long run, your discovery revealed a great deal about yourself, that has been able to handle, over the long haul, matters requiring far more balancing between emotion and rationality. 

    Many graduate students find themselves in the chasm struggling to finish an important paper while fighting emotional battles with the worlds around them.  It is nearly a rite of passage; and one i think Rorty recognized and honored.  He didn’t keep the paper, he kept the letter.  It is either that… “and” that your story reminded many of us of our own critical grad school moments.

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  05:40 PM
  12. Well, Michael, it could have been worse. Hannah Arendt once had to ask Heidegger for an extension and looked what happened to her. (This joke also killed in the Poconos.)

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  07:30 PM
  13. Wow, what a great story (and what spyder said).  My only physical correspondence with Rorty was a letter from 1996 or so, which reads “Uh, hi, uh, I asked Akeel [Bilgrami] about this paper of yours and he said, ‘oh just ask Rorty for it, he’ll send it to you,’ so, uh, can I have it?” And so send it he did, with three others.  I doubt you’ll find that one in the archives.  BTW, I admire your guts for sending such a letter in the first place.  I always handed everything in on time (except the diss, which is another matter ...), but in order to do so I sometimes handed in crap.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  05/19  at  08:07 PM
  14. Whoops, I cut myself off.  Here’s the rest.

    As for the other stuff, thanks again for taking my rants in the right spirit, and I do think there’s hope for you yet.  I did have a good laugh at the idea that there are others of “like-Dave mind,” though.  Sorry, it’s just me for now! 

    It would be unappreciative of me not to reply in kind, but I better not do so here and now when there’s hockey blogging to be done.  And if there really is anything new there I’d like to see the paper itself at some point.

    Okay, one comment.  mds says: “It’s all right to accept that elementary particles have an objective reality, even if some of the more ardent advocates of same keep assuming metaphysical cows that are spherical.  After all, Dave Maier can obviously still use a computer, whether he accepts the independent existence of electrons or not.” That’s what I keep saying.  One reclaims the concept “objective” from the distortions of realist metaphysics by using it properly, not by treating it with kid gloves (or rejecting it entirely in favor of “solidarity").  Rorty almost says this too, in his reponse to Searle (see Truth and Progress, which I think I have wrongly called Truth and Freedom in one or more of those posts).  But not quite, or at least not convincingly.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  05/19  at  08:08 PM
  15. One reclaims the concept “objective” from the distortions of realist metaphysics by using it properly, not by treating it with kid gloves

    That sounds sensible to me [Insert collective sigh of relief here].  And I hope it was clear that I was using you in the computer example purely in goodhearted tongue-in-cheek fun, Mr. Maier.  Please don’t hit me with that fireplace poker.

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  09:40 PM
  16. “Dave Maier Tells You Interesting Stuff about Rorty.”

    Interesting preface to this post however: “I think literary studies folks should know more about Davidson.”

    Berkeley has never been the same, and without Rorty at Stanford, the balance would have been way out of whack in the bay area.  It may be in the dispersion of PhD’s from the two institutions in the last two decades that mark the real turn in California philosophy departments.  My own incomplete sampling over that time frame suggests that Davidson types at Stanford ended up in the mines of Silicon Valley, while the Rorty types at Berkeley made their way to UCSC and the CSU system (stating prejudice: one of my students who graduated from UCSC, copyproofs and edits PLATO entries for Stanford).

    Posted by  on  05/19  at  11:37 PM
  17. No worries mds, you were quite clear.

    And I do hope we can turn the conversation in a Davidsonian direction.  Eventually.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  05/20  at  01:10 AM
  18. I help to create archives, sometimes.  It’s part of the whole freelance librarian thing.

    I remember when I helped to set up an archive of local (mostly self-published) poetry chapbooks, then asked the librarian who’d run it if people could ever withdraw their earlier, more embarrassing works if they later found them embarrassing.  The answer was, of course, that they couldn’t.  So your archive story could be worse.  Your younger self could have donated the letter to the archive himself.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  05/20  at  10:19 AM
  19. Feyerabend, a fairly authentic philosopher (tho’ not quite the Heideggerian guru some mistook him as) worked at Cal for some time, pissing off the Tarski-ites and the pragmo-crats (as well as the stalinistas). Feyerabend was quite alive to the uses--and abuses-- of Truth by the industrial-scientific establishment, without thereby approving of PoMoCo. Then Cal-- or was it Steinford-- disappeared him and his ideas.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/20  at  10:30 AM
  20. I’m having trouble understanding what “realism” means here, such that everyone is against it. Although I don’t know what Dasein is, I think I agree with Michael’s three philosophical points here, and I always call myself a realist when it comes to disputes in the philosophy of science.  In one of the linked pieces, Dave Maier refers to Jerry Fodor as a realist of the sort that MB is opposed to, but I don’t think Jerry ever argued for teleology in MB’s sense that inquiry will come to a stop one day. Fodor certainly doesn’t think that physics is a model for all deliberation (although he does think that all scientific explanation invokes laws of nature). Nor does he believe in unmediated access to the world. So what does Rorty think a realist is, and are there any left?

    Posted by  on  05/21  at  02:32 AM
  21. I think it’s less a question of what Rorty thinks about realism than about what Dave Maier does:  on his reading, though, the enemy is actually dualism.  If I recall correctly.

    Posted by  on  05/21  at  06:21 AM
  22. Are philosophists now actually insouciant about the latter? ... Does this count as pragmatism?

    Since this comment thread will now no doubt be superceded by that of the insane clown known only as Yours sincerely, Mister Answer Man, I will consider Mr. Hound to have provided the answer to my questions.  Unfortunately, the answer is “Rutabagas.”

    Posted by  on  05/21  at  12:37 PM
  23. Non sequiturs??  That’s sort of daily fare at Cafe Prag., Doc Mds (the real serendipitous pragmatist around these parts was I suggest...Johnny Emerson.  Maier’s pretty much a Uncle meat materialist ala Dennett putting on his kinder-gentler schtick)

    Rorty (or postmods) tended to overlook the earlier pragmatists’ insistence on experimentalism and observables. James in fact said he was a radical empiricist.  Rorty probably writes on this somewhere, but the pragmatists while “anti-foundational” and against dualism, were not opposed to science at all, but concerned with..process, development, evolution, both Darwinian, and in terms of theories--not “is it True?, but “Does it function?”. (kids probably pay five grand for that lesson in Steinferd or Haw-vaahd).

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/21  at  01:15 PM
  24. As I mentioned above, I don’t want to interrupt the hockey blogging with boring stuff about hermeneutics and whatnot, but as mds points out, now that Mr. AM has superseded us, we have the thread to ourselves (muwah ha ha ha), so we can stretch out a bit.  dpm asked an excellent question just now so I’d like to try to respond to that if I may.

    First, I agree that “realism” has a ridiculous number of senses, so I should be careful about whom I smear with that label when.  Michael is right that I, rather than Rorty, am the one who brought Jerry Fodor into it, and that was probably a mistake in this context, given what dpm rightly points out about the latter’s views.  I sometimes use Fodor as a whipping boy because of his sheer cluelessness when it comes to the Quinean/Davidsonian tradition in semantics.  I do think that underlying Fodor’s bizarrely radical anti-holism is a metaphysical realism of some sort, but for now as an example of a “realist” take John Searle, to whose conception of “social reality” Michael appeals for his own purposes.

    Michael is also right that I find dualism the more central issue than “realism.” Here I follow Rorty, who after all promised that “anti-representationalism” was a way to reject the common assumptions of both realist and anti-realist.  I don’t think that any solution to the problem of the “objectivity” of, say, moral claims can stick unless it exorcises the residually (or overtly!) Cartesian mirage of “objectivity” in the sense of being one half of a metaphysical dualism between subject and object (one decidedly not exorcised simply by recoiling from “metaphysics” into materialism or empiricism).  A proper exorcism requires more careful planning lest the demonic quarry escape.  More on this below.

    In the philosophy of science, however, “realism” generally concerns the issue of whether we can infer from “we should accept the theory of electromagnetism because it has been sufficiently confirmed by empirical testing” to “there are electrons out there in the objective world independent of us, which we have hereby (by accepting EM) discovered (as opposed to invented).” People can reject “realism” so construed for rather different reasons: first, because metaphysical anti-realism is true, so we don’t want to so baldly affirm the existence of any entities “out there in the ‘objective’ world ‘independent of us’”, even those implicated in our best-confirmed scientific theories; or second, because metaphysical realism is true, and theoretical entities, qua theoretical, don’t meet the epistemological criterion for being real in this sense, given e.g. the issue of the underdetermination of theory by evidence or just general skeptical worries common to realists of this type.  Similarly, one could accept the inference, making one a “scientific realist,” without thereby committing oneself to metaphysical realism of the objectionable sort, by construing “objective” (or “independent") in a suitably metaphysically domesticated way.  In fact it has sometimes seemed that “scientific realism” so construed is itself a sufficient answer to the metaphysical issue (see 1980s-era Putnam for a good try at this).

    So the ontological status of theoretical statements and their referents in science strikes me as not our issue here, and in fact I don’t take a position on it one way or the other.  (I think a general answer is not available, it being a contextual matter.) This is why I don’t really see the point in our context of making Michael’s entirely correct points about the background radiation (my favorite part of that story is how P & W tried to get rid of that damn hum by getting on their hands and knees in their oversized ear trumpet and scraping out all the pigeon poop, which not surprisingly turned out not to work).  That the process of inquiry which led to the discovery of the background radiation was a Latourian network is really neither here nor there, as from my perspective once a language is involved (point #1), the (statements of the) Big Bang theory are on the same footing, metaphysically speaking, as “there’s a glass on that table” and (Michael’s example) “we should treat other people as ends rather than means.” In each case the way we figure out what they mean is inextricably tied up with (though not, per verificationism, to be identified with) whether they are true.  Unpacking that process of inquiry cum interpretation will (I claim, following Davidson) leave no conceptual room either for (metaphysical) realism nor for anti-realism (of whatever flavor: idealism, relativism, instrumentalism, etc.).  No room for conceptual dualism = stake through demonic Cartesian heart.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  05/21  at  05:21 PM
  25. Captcha: “added”:

    Rorty seems to think this too—thus his revisionary idealization of Davidson—but by my lights (and, as other sympathetic critics also say, by his own as well) he screws it up, even falling into anti-realism himself.  My general worry about Michael’s use of Rorty is that in using Rorty’s first-person-plural way of talking, rather than Davidson’s picture of semantic triangulation (in which mutually interpreting subjects see each other as manifesting a subjective perspective on a shared objective world, thus tying each concept to the other and thereby domesticating them), he concedes too much to metaphysical realists like Searle (thus the line about Stupid Realist Tricks) in order to carve out within that generally realistic picture a safely hermeneutic zone for moral and political questions.  I should stop here, but see my responses to Michael in the comment thread of this post for more if you need it.

    Interestingly, w/r/t Michael’s second point, it’s the pragmatist Peirce who brings up the idea of an ideal end to inquiry, defining truth and the real in terms of what we would believe then.  His point though is not so much the teleology of science, which seems detachable, as the properly anti-Cartesian point that the concepts of truth and reality cannot be made sense of independently of that of a community of inquirers.  Unfortunately by my lights Peirce’s actual formulation of this point leads to epistemological fallibilism, which alas leaves just the conceptual room for a fundamentally dualistic picture that we were trying to get rid of.  This last (as those comment threads show) is where a lot of people bail out and throw things at me, and I admit that it’s not immediately (or even mediately) clear why I think I need or even want to say this, and I won’t go into it here, thank goodness.  (But I still think so.)

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  05/21  at  05:23 PM
  26. Just wanted to say I enjoyed this post.  I turned in a dissertation today in your old PhD-granting department; RR had left long before I got here, but stories about him are still around.  Wrote—or as I came to think of it, “wrote down"—the last half or so of the dissertation in the past 6 weeks or so in order to take a job, and had a similar experience to your paper-writing one, the agonizing replaced by productivity under pressure.  Fan of Heidegger’s work, too, so this was fun reading. 

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    Posted by  on  05/21  at  07:18 PM
  27. Congrats to Scott. 

    In reflecting on the pragmatic side of philosophical lineage, i would consider the break betwixt the schools came with the rejection of Feyerabend at Berkeley in favor of Davidson (and Quine).  The Churchlands clearly are proteges of Feyerabend, and have made a significant mark in contributing to the rejection of quality applicants to UCSD, solely on the basis of the rigidity of their assumptions.  They have made several efforts to alter the overall curricula of UCSD itself in favor of their views.  They are absolutely brilliant scholars, helping frame the fields of neurobiology and the philosophy of conscious/mind, However if one is so inclined to study philosophy, there are other universities that are more open to Davidson, Searle, Rorty interests. 

    I may be wrong on this, but reading David’s post, i am drawn to think he regards himself as reflecting a neo-phenomenologist view, along the lines of those now leading consciousness studies at University of Arizona and at the Australian National University?

    Posted by  on  05/21  at  10:00 PM
  28. Hmm.  “Neo-phenomenologist” is not a word I use, nor do I know anything about “consciousness studies” at the schools you mention.  However, I do have some sympathy for (what little I know) about Merleau-Ponty, given his rejection of what he saw as the overt Cartesianism in Husserl—so perhaps there is indeed a link to be made there.  I do occasionally speak (following Bilgrami here) of the “first-person” conception of inquiry which I/we take to be the natural epistemological fit with Davidsonian semantics—and that term does sound a bit like phenomenology.

    This is made somewhat difficult, though, given the recent behavior of some people who *do* claim the phenomenological mantle.  I speak here of Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus, both of whom seem to be on the wrong side of a very complicated and hard to explain controversy with John McDowell about the idea of non-conceptual mental content (McDowell against, for quasi-Hegelian reasons; Kelly and Dreyfus for, for what they call phenomenological ones).  But I’m not sure if MMP himself has to take that doomed line.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  05/21  at  11:45 PM
  29. Thanks for clarifying.  I wasn’t sure so i asked.

    Posted by  on  05/22  at  01:30 AM
  30. The Churchlands clearly are proteges of Feyerabend

    They may have studied with him, but not so similar ideologically--. Feyerabend was not an eliminative materialist--he was pluralist in terms of his philosophy and politics (tho’ his writing usually misunderstood as primitive anarchism), but knowledgable in modern science (unlike postmodernists)--he studied with Bohr for some time I believe.

    QuineCo (to which Davidson belonged as well, with a few differences) and EM well suits the corporate-powers-that-be and scientific-research establishment anyway. PF seemed somewhat marxist at times and challenged the ideology of corporate-funded scientific research, of the academy itself--. Quine and his followers celebrated it. 

    --Searle’s not exactly a Quinean meat-machine and his arguments are usually coherent (ie superior to Rorty-wind), if obvious---but politically he’s a reactionary and opportunist, if not closet-nazi. Searle gives high-paid pep talks at silicon valley corporations; he’s quoted by Limbaughites and Sarah Palinites. 

    In effect, spyder describes the UC-bureaucracy’s shift to the right (Steinford was always right--still is, and Quine-Tech reigns supreme, even when given its PC gloss via Rortyians)

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/22  at  09:06 AM
  31. For David, here are some reference journals published through the universities i mentioned:

    Back in my early days, i was uncomfortable with the academy in which i found myself (UCLA) because my own thinking was not fitting within the more formal constructs of the time.  I chose a somewhat whimsical path linking “epoche” (Husserl’s term for suspension of most self-constructed epistemological thinking) with analytical evidence-based neuroscience (needless to say they didn’t have any of those fields we now find scattered throughout).  Indeed, i literally meandered through the founding (or at the very least proper naming) of the disciplines for which i was most interested.  Eventually i helped push a surprisingly great number of students into the west coast hotbeds of philosophical inquiry: Stanford, Berkeley, CSU Sonoma, UCSC, UCSD, CSU Stanislaus, etc.  { I am still very much surprised that Kant could remain so popular--hehee}. 

    Sometimes i wish i were 10 or 20 years younger, so that i could have enjoyed the expansive philosophical growth engendered by the advance of the sciences and more immediate communication technologies.  But it has never once ceased to fascinate me.

    Posted by  on  05/22  at  12:01 PM
  32. UC, Inc’s not about Kant--mo’ like, the mockery of Kant.  Feyerabend’s close to Kantian thinking, as was Rawls (to some degree).  Rorty/Davidson/Quine’s close to Ayn Randian ~(thinking). Alas, Spyder you mistake bureaucratic power for Reason.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/22  at  12:11 PM
  33. The Kant remark was sarcastic snark.... thus the hehee

    Posted by  on  05/22  at  09:08 PM
  34. My friend Liz Losh pointed me to this entry, and I wrote a response here, in case anyone is interested, in which I propose a more Kuhnian-inspired and to some degree Feyerabend-inspired interpretation of the truth of scientific propositions (taking some issue with the idea of “entities which before already were” --- while not entirely rejecting the notion of reference to “reality” --- but I don’t accept that individual assertions can be said to refer to reality by themselves, but only assertions taken together with their unwritten and unwritable paradigms, in the context of a larger social scientific enterprise):


    Posted by Mitsu  on  05/23  at  06:19 PM
  35. Actually Ezra, feyerabend was an eliminative materialist; his 1963 papers introduce the idea.

    Dave, I guess I have a better idea of where you’re coming from now, but I don’t understand why a belief in representations has to have anything to do with dualism. There’s a host of metaphysical concerns you have that I just don’t have, I think.

    Posted by  on  05/23  at  06:52 PM
  36. Feyerabend was still in his Popperian stage at that point was he not; by late 60s, he had rejected Popper (e.g. Against Method). 

    Feyerabend suggested that the two theories in question were incommensurable, but that nevertheless we ought to prefer the materialistic one on general methodological grounds. This radical view of the mind/body problem has been one of Feyerabend’s most important legacies. Even though Feyerabend himself seems to have given it up in the late 1970s, it was taken up by Richard Rorty and, more recently, by Paul and Patricia Churchlands.

    I suspect PF’s pluralism and anti-institutional approach, starting at least in ‘70 or so would not have allowed him to join the Churchland-Quine EM posse.

    What happens bio-chemically with the tongue, and then neurons when you mistakenly bite into a habanera pepper in the Kung Pao pollo has no necessary relation to your scream of CHINGADA--yet it’s not exactly meaningless, anymore than say your feeling sad while listening to Chopin or Bob Dylan is meaningless--and the neurologist’s account of the sensation of hearing music, or pepper-tasting obviously does not duplicate the experience.  And the late PF would agree, hopefully.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/23  at  08:43 PM
  37. About “metaphysics”: in a way, I do agree that I do have “a host of metaphysical concerns” not had by (say) scientists; but that can’t be the whole story. 

    Here are some revelant quotations I ran into just today, from the introduction to Hegelian Metaphysics by Robert Stern.  Stern is concerned not so much to roll back contemporary rejections of “metaphysics,” but to get clear on what they do and do not apply to (as this will naturally affect how one reads Hegel).

    Perhaps not surprisingly, pragmatists disagree on the matter.  Stern quotes Rorty’s unequivocal rejection: “The pragmatist . . . does not think of himself as any kind of metaphysician” (The Consequences of Pragmatism), xxviii.)

    But here’s founding pragmatist C. S. Peirce:

    “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics —not by any means every man who holds the ordinary reasonings of metaphysicians to scorn —and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticized metaphysics with which they are packed. We must philosophize, said the great naturalist Aristotle —if only to avoid philosophizing. Every man of us has a metaphysics, and has to have one; and it will influence his life greatly. Far better, then, that that metaphysics should be criticized and not be allowed to run loose. A man may say ‘I will content myself with common sense.’ I, for one, am with him there, in the main. [...] I agree, for example, that it is better to recognize that some things are red and some others blue, in the teeth of what optical philosophers say, that it is merely that some things are resonant to shorter ether waves and some to longer ones. But the difficulty is to determine what really is and what is not the authoritative decision of common sense and what is merely obiter dictum. In short, there is no escape from the need of a critical examination of ‘first principles’.” [CP 1.129]

    Here’s another one along the same lines:

    “Those who neglect philosophy have metaphysical theories as much as others — only they [have] rude, false, and wordy theories. Some think to avoid the influence of metaphysical errors, by paying no attention to metaphysics; but experience shows that these men beyond all others are held in an iron vice of metaphysical theory, because by theories that they have never called into question. No man is so enthralled by metaphysics as the totally uneducated; no man is so free from its dominion as the metaphysician himself. Since, then, everyone must have conceptions of things in general, it is most important that they should be carefully constructed.” [CP 7.579]

    Of course it all depends on how this goes.  As a pragmatist even Peirce counts as rejecting “metaphysics” in plenty of ways.  But I like those quotes.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  05/23  at  10:12 PM
  38. Peirce often seems undecided on rationalism vs empiricism, aka the Hume vs Kant match (some reports say it ended in a draw).  Kant was the sentimental fave (still is for conty. thinkers--and the religious), but Hume’s gambit did not lack a certain rational force, however troubling.  Most postmods and prags. have been unwilling to cop to the conclusions of Humean doubt (and DH’s descendants, including Malthus and Darwin, even Einstein and QM to a degree)--sort of poststructuralism, circa 1760--, or admit that Kant might not have defeated him.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  05/24  at  03:16 PM
  39. This is from an old friend of mine, and represents her way of dealing with paper deadlines in grad school.

    Posted by  on  06/04  at  09:41 AM





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