CLASH OF THE PRAGMATISTS
According to the conventional meaning, the pragmatic approach is aimed at practical solutions and characterized by a fair-minded and unbiased acceptance of whatever works. It’s exactly the kind of thing that doesn’t make one’s blood boil. It wouldn’t be entirely misleading to characterize philosophical Pragmatism in such terms but it’s not quite as superficial or as dull as that might suggest. Pragmatists have inspired many heated debates (found at www.moq.org) and, in the process of investigating the differences between Richard Rorty’s neoPragmatic theory of truth and the metaphysics of William James and Robert Pirsig, I found radicals, revolutionaries, a defector and a mystic or two. In this case, it’s easy to take Rorty’s advice, to drop our pretensions about objectivity and instead view the debate as a drama with good guys and bad guys (Rorty 1991, 79). In this case, there is an all-star cast, conflict among the characters and nothing less than the truth is at stake.
The plot is complicated by the fact that the Radical Empiricism of William James stands on its own and need not be married to pragmatism (Pirsig 1991, 363). Like James, Pirsig is both a Pragmatist and a Radical Empiricist, but the latter claims to have woven them together “into a single fabric” (Pirsig 1991, 365). The task of comparing their Radical Empiricism with Rorty’s theory of truth is further complicated by the fact that Rorty refuses to have a theory of truth, a position that has led David Hildebrand to the conclusion that Rorty’s anti-metaphysical view removes much of the significance (i.e. “constitutes an evisceration”) of the pragmatic view (Hildebrand 2003, 154). Fortunately, sorting out such matters is beyond the scope of this essay. Each of the players calls himself a Pragmatist and the disputes occur against that background, but the debate will focus upon their epistemological positions, their theories of truth or lack thereof.
Since Rorty’s view lacks an empirical theory per se, the best that can be hoped for here is an examination of the reasons behind his refusal. For that purpose, I will begin with a look at his essay “Texts and Lumps”, which was published as a chapter in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. After hearing from Rorty in his own voice some of his critics will be introduced. This preliminary drama will serve to set the stage for the final conflict, for his showdown with Radical Empiricism. For the latter, I will rely on James’ Essays in Radical Empiricism as well as Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila.
Rorty’s central concern in “Texts and Lumps” is to persuade the reader that philosophy is no more scientific than literary criticism. He’d like to convince the reader to erase that distinction. He suggests that it would be better to think of philosophy as a form of literary criticism, one that is different only because it serves a particular genre of literature and not because of it has any kind of primary status or special access to the Truth.
“When applied to literary criticism, pragmatism offers reasons why critics need not worry about being scientific’, and why they should not be frightened of the appearance of ‘subjectivity’ which results from the adoption of an untheoretical, narrative style. It suggest that we […] simply proceed to praise our heroes and damn our villains by making invidious comparisons” (Rorty 1991, 79).
It’s likely that Rorty would receive praise from critics and be damned by scientists for this assertion, but that’s a different battle. For the purpose of this essay, it is fortunate that Rorty begins his essay with “a general account of pragmatism’s view of the nature of truth and of science” (Rorty 1991, 79). Here is a relatively succinct description of his reasons for refusing to have a theory of truth, or rather for his view that none of us can have one. By looking at his largely negative points we can, at least, find out what kind of “God” he doesn’t believe in.
“Pragmatists say that the traditional notion that ‘truth is correspondence to reality’ is an uncashable and outworn metaphor. […] On this view, the notion of reality as having a ‘nature’ to which it is our duty to correspond is simply one more variant of the notion that the gods can be placated by chanting the right words” (Rorty 1991, 79-80).
In this same passage Rorty shows that only very simple assertions of a certain kind can produce anything like a correspondence to reality, using a cat on a mat as his example. Here we have a case where a common, solid, observable object can be located on another solid, observable object. It doesn’t take much to seriously complicate this situation. How can the same kind of correspondence apply when we say the cat is not on the mat? How can we get our assertions to match up with “other chunks of reality” when we speak of highly abstract concepts or talk about the things that give us pleasure? I think if Rorty sounds like a Positivist here it is only partly due to his background in the analytic tradition. It may appear, at first glance, that he is only saying objective truth can be had with respect to physical objects and that any sentences that venture beyond that are merely subjective, but Rorty is not done yet. Objective Truth is the god he doesn’t believe in, the god of his former faith. In the second part of his pragmatic argument he makes a case against factuality, against the so-called hardness of scientific truths.
“Here the pragmatist invokes his second line of argument. He offers an analysis of the nature of science which construes the reputed hardness of facts as an artifact produced by our choice of language game. We construct games in which a player loses or wins if something definite and uncontrollable happens. […] The hardness of fact in all these cases is simply the hardness of the previous agreements within a community about the consequences of a certain event” (Rorty 1991, 80).
Rorty insists that he is not merely confusing the data with its interpretation here. He agrees that the data itself is real and that “there is such a thing as brute physical resistance […] but he sees no way of transferring this nonlinguistic brutality to facts, to the truth of sentences” (Rorty 1991, 81). So it's not that he refuses to admit the distinction between the data and its interpretation. The problem is that there is no way to finally say which one of the interpretations is correct. Rorty uses Galileo’s eyeball as an example here. Light waves traveled through space and the telescope to exert pressure on that sense organ, or so the story goes, but question of whether or not this “fact” shattered the crystalline spheres is up for grabs. There are countless ways to interpret such things, some of which may have nothing to do with crystalline spheres or even waves of light. To those who would insist that something real had an effect upon Galileo’s retina, Rorty just shrugs. He says it’s “pointless” to demand respect for “unmediated causal forces” because we have “no choice” but to respect them.
This brings him to his conclusion about the possibility of having a theory of truth. For these reasons, he believes that we can’t have an “ideal empirical theory” because we can’t directly translate “the brutal thrusts of reality into statement and action” (Rorty 1991, 81). This is where he returns to the suggestion that philosophers and critics should just tell their stories, the ones with heroes, villains and “invidious comparisons”. It seems he’s not just giving us a reason to be comfortable with subjectivity. He’s saying that it’s all we can have. The brute facts by themselves are trivial. “In the case of texts, these forces merely print little replicas on our retinas” (Rorty 1991, 82). Like the light waves on an astronomer’s retina, the meaning of the data can be shaped in any number of ways and there is no way to strip it “bare of human concerns” (Rorty 1991, 83).
The thing to notice, for the purposes of our story about the clash of truth theories, is that Rorty is working within a subject-object metaphysical (SOM) framework even as he makes a case that it doesn’t work. Here we get the impression that Rorty’s universe is one big Kantian thing-in-itself to which we can never have access. We can never have the objective scientific truth of the Positivists, not even about objects. My hunch is that Rorty is like a man fated to marry his true love’s poorly educated little sister. His interest in a post-Philosophical culture shows that he thinks the best thing to do is make the best of his disappointment. This SOM framework will presently be discussed in some of the criticisms of Rorty’ view and the rejection of this framework, it will be seen, is central to the doctrine of Radical Empiricism.
There is support for both parts of this critique in David Hildebrand’s Beyond Realism and Antirealism: John Dewey and the Neopragmatists, where he gives voice to Hilary Putnam’s speculative charge that Rorty could not quite “shed the ideological vestiges of positivism, his philosophical roots” (Hildebrand 2003, 169). There he also makes specific reference to the “subject-object dualism” as the source of the problem for both Rorty and Putnam, as well as John Dewey’s New Realist critics (Hildebrand 2003, 185). He succinctly describes the landscape of Dewey’s time as suffering from the same SOM assumptions. “Realists and idealists assume that subject and object are discrete and then debate which term deserves first rank” (Hildebrand 2003, 27). His characterization evokes a debate that would have to be both circular and ridiculous, like twins fighting over which one of them has the best parents.
Putnam thinks Rorty’s position amounts to a relapse into “metaphysical realism” (Hildebrand 2003, 169). In his article“Rorty, Putnam, and the Pragmatist View of Epistemology”, Teed Rockwell says he would prefer to call it “Idealism in denial” (Rockwell 2003, 4). It does seem that Rorty is trapped within the assumptions that would usually lead a philosopher to choose one or the other, but in this case I don’t see him picking sides so much as giving up on such debates. He believes that history has shown that they never pay off. He wants to forget about trying to bridge the epistemic gap between subject and object, to give up the attempt to get them to match up in any meaningful way, and yet he remains unwittingly committed to the assumptions that have generated the gap. It seems he has concluded that there is a gap between subject and object but that it’s impossible to cross the gap. I believe this is what leads Rorty to commit an “illegitimate inference”, as Hildebrand calls it.
“Rorty’s zeal to dismiss certain aspects of the history of philosophy – such as the very possibility of any kind of representationalism – causes him to make an illegitimate inference from the unintelligibility of metaphysical realism (especially the idea that words have meaning by virtue of a fixed totality of things outside them) to a total skepticism toward any representation relation at all. This conclusion is unwarranted” (Hildebrand 2003, 168-9).
Hildebrand also quotes Putnam making a similar complaint against Rorty, saying that Pragmatism is only opposed to “a certain style of metaphysics” while Rorty would “get rid of metaphysics once and for all” (Hildebrand 2003, 167). Teed Rockwell spotted the same logical leap in Rorty. He doesn’t disagree with Rorty’s assessment that the traditional epistemological projects have failed. “But it doesn’t follow from this fact that therefore epistemology itself should be abandoned” (Rockwell 2003, 2). It looks like these complaints register different aspects or pieces of the same basic mistake. Each of them refers to Rorty’s apparent belief that the failure of epistemology is final. Rorty’s attitude seems to be that the goal of those failed projects was an impossible dream all along. Like immorality, the Truth is something we’ve imagined and hoped for despite the complete absence of any actual progress towards that goal. It’s pretty clear that Rorty would like to abandon the whole thing and simply change the subject. From his point of view, to continue with any such epistemological project would only be to so much dead-horse kicking.
I think this is why Rorty is so interested in reforming the poorly educated little sister. It seems that “solidarity” is something like a consolation prize for those who can’t have objectivity. His most famous slogans come out of this reform project. He describes the alternative to Truth as “agreement with one’s cultural peers” as a quest for intersubjective agreement and, as we saw in his “Texts and Lumps”, fearless subjectivity and good story-telling. “For Rorty, talk is all we’ve got” (Hildebrand 2003, 166). This relatively modest goal, as Rorty sees it, is based on “a no-metaphysics metaphysic” (Hildebrand 2003, 167). In fact, Rorty is a defector from Philosophy. He left it behind in 1982 and joined the Humanities department instead. As I see it, all this is a result of Rorty’s failure to escape the SOM assumptions. He insists that it’s useless to keep trying to get them to match up, but apparently he has not seriously entertained the possibility that there is something wrong with the most basic premise, that subjects and objects are discrete, that there is an epistemic gap between knower and known. This is where Radical Empiricism comes riding in to save the day.
Teed Rockwell says that Dewey’s Experience and Nature and James’ Essays in Radical Empiricism, “contain some of the best expressions of pragmatist metaphysics and epistemology, and ignoring them is to lose an essential part of the pragmatist worldview” (Rockwell 2003, 2). In the same paragraph, he also quotes Rorty describing these essential books, “as pretty useless, to my mind” (Dewey between Hegel and Darwin 1994, 320). Rockwell also quotes from page 59 and 60 of the same book where Rorty says, “James and Dewey, alas, never made up their minds whether they wanted just to forget about epistemology or whether they wanted to devise a new improved epistemology of their own. In my view they should have opted for forgetting” (Rockwell 2003, 4). This account makes it clear that Rorty might have been rescued by Radical Empiricism or by Dewey’s alternative to SOM, but apparently didn’t hear the offer. Maybe he thought no help was needed or that an alternative was impossible. In any case, it’s obvious that he did not see Radical Empiricism as a viable alternative.
I think Rorty’s refusal has something to do with the fact that this alternative is so weird. It defies common sense. At first glance it might even look like nonsense or madness. Maybe our heroes don’t ride to the rescue or engage in a shootout as in a western, but rather rescue Rorty from SOM in the same way that Neo rescues Morpheus from “The Matrix”. Science fiction is a more suitable genre for this story because Radical Empiricism says, “everything thing you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided” (Pirsig 1974, 126). In this account, Pirsig is both a revolutionary and a mystic and both roles are predicated on his critique of the subject-object metaphysical assumptions. As Hildebrand noted earlier, this is the assumption that Rorty and Putnam both failed to address so fueling the debate between the Realists and Idealists more than a few decades ago. It was the underlying problem with Dewey’s New Realist critics. Similarly, Eugene Taylor and Robert Wozniak have written an introduction to Pure Experience, the Response to William James, which is a collection of responses to Radical Empiricism when it was new. They tell us that this part of James’ work was “largely ignored or misunderstood” and that it was “sidestepped by his contemporaries” (Taylor and Wozniak 2000, 1).
“The fact was, nothing in their history had prepared Western philosophers and psychologists for radical empiricism. As reaction to his writings showed, it is exceptionally difficult to suspend our logical categories and see the immediate moment shorn of our labels of it. […] Yet we have in James’s radical empiricism a position that goes right to the heart of theWestern viewpoint, exposing its limits. In this he resembles, not chaos and anarchy, as some of his rationalist critics might have supposed, but more the position in Western philosophy of European existentialism and phenomenology, or the metaphysics of Far Eastern psychology …the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of co-dependent origination (pratityasammutpada); or Zen suchness (tathata)” (Taylor and Wozniak 2000, 9).
If these writers are correct, the problematic SOM assumptions go back much further than a century or two. We can’t exactly blame Descartes or Kant or even Modernity for this conceptual framework. It is at “the heart of the Western viewpoint”. This is consistent with Rorty’s view. He famously and repeatedly attributes the failed epistemological project to a persistent Platonism. James says it has been with us, “from Democritus’s time downward” (James 1912, 11). Pirsig also traces the problem back to the ancient philosophers and to the very structure of the grammar we’ve inherited from the “old Greek mythos”. By contrast, he says, “cultures such as the Chinese, where subject-predicate relationships are not rigidly defined by grammar, one finds a corresponding absence of rigid subject-object philosophy” (Pirsig 1974, 315-16). In any case, the point is simply that SOM is widely felt and long established. That’s why the alternatives seem so weird. But, as Pirsig points out, a person can get used to the idea and the lack of “weirdness isn’t the test of truth” anyway (Pirsig 1991, 98-99). So what, finally, is this weirdness all about? What is Radical Empiricism?
“To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced” (James 1912, 42). At this point I am forced to reverse myself and say that this doesn’t seem strange at all. If I understand it properly, this is an extraordinarily modest starting point. This is an exceptionally reasonable principle insofar as James is only saying that we ought not ignore any experience in our account of reality nor are we allowed to make up stuff. We can’t exclude any portion of experience nor should we posit abstract metaphysical entities or principles which are supposed to stand behind experience or act as the cause of experience. Things only start to get weird when it is seen that subjects and objects are among the suspicious metaphysical entities that Radical Empiricism would scrutinize.
“The second of James’ two main systems of philosophy, which he said was independent of pragmatism, was his radical empiricism. By this he meant that subjects and objects were not the starting point of experience. Subjects and objects are secondary. They are concepts derived from something more fundamental which he described as ‘the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories’. In this basic flux of experience, the distinctions of reflective thought, such as those between consciousness and content, subject and object, mind and matter, have not yet emerged in the forms which we make them. Pure experience cannot be either physical or psychical: It logically precedes this distinction” (Pirsig 1991, 364-5).
For Rorty, “nothing pre-linguistic is conceivable” (Hildebrand 2003, 186). He shares the view with many that the world as we know it is “text all the way down”. Interpretation is bottomless, so to speak. But that is exactly what Dewey and the radical empiricists are willing to defy. It hardly matters whether we call it “pure experience” as James did, the “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum” as Northrop did, the “whole situation” as Dewey did or the “primary empirical reality” as Pirsig does. A rose is a rose. The idea is simply that everything follows from that first and most basic experience. All the conceptual distinctions are secondary to that, are derived from that. We are not talking about some other realm or any kind of thing. And this is not meant to suggest that the world as we know it suddenly pops into existence the moment a subject conceptualizes it. We are simply taking about experience before one has a chance to think about it, before it has been interpreted by our conceptual schemes.
This pre-linguistic moment of experience has gone unnoticed as James says, because only “only new born babes” and people in extraordinary circumstances have access to pure experience (James 1912, 93). The infant also appears as an example in Pirsig’s explanations (Pirsig 1991, 118-9). The “unverbalized sensations” of experience are “identified and fixed and abstracted” into the shapes we recognize as the world of things (James 1912, 94). For adults, arguably like myself, these abstractions have been fixed for so long and are used so automatically and habitually that they are invisible. This habits of mind have developed and evolved over long periods and are inherited by us from the culture in the normal maturation processes, in the process of acquiring language in childhood. I think this explains why SOM has assumed such a powerful role in Western conceptions of reality. The radical empiricists are saying they are not reality, that SOM is a theory that doesn’t look like a theory. Its a metaphysical abstraction so old and pervasive that it has become common sense.
Dewey and Pirsig both think of themselves as Copernican revolutionaries and SOM is their pivot point. For Pirsig this “Copernican inversion” is aimed at SOM generally and scientific materialism in particular (Pirsig 1974, 221). Dewey, on the other hand, “characterizes his philosophy as effecting a Copernican revolution, this time upon Kant himself” (Hildebrand 2003,60). It seems they were working in different times, but were using some of the same terms and applying them to the same problem. James may not have invoked the famous astronomer, but attacks the Kantian subject as a fiction, humorously asserting that its all hot air. “Breath”, of the sort that comes out of one’s nose, he says, “is the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known as consciousness” (James 1912, 37). Pirsig concurs. “There is no empirical evidence for this assumption at all. It is just an assumption” (Pirsig 1991, 99).
These three pragmatists seem to differ very little on this point. Each saw the possibility of a new empirical theory as an alternative to the failed projects of SOM. Their perspectives are similar enough that a side-by-side comparison of one succinct quote on each of them could serve to paint something like a synoptic view of this metaphysical alternative.
“The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the ‘pure experience’. It is only virtually or potentially either a subject or an object as yet” (James 1912, 23).
“Dewey assumes that what is primary is a whole situation – ‘subject’ and ‘object’ have no a priori, atomistic existence but are themselves derived from situations to serve certain purposes, usually philosophical” (Hildebrand 2003, 27).
“When a subject-object metaphysics regards matter and mind as eternally separate and eternally unalike, it creates a platypus bigger than the solar system” (Pirsig 1991, 153).
In each case we see that subjects and objects them selves are not the problem. The trouble begins when they are taken beyond the realm of conventional concepts and turned into the pre-condition of experience, the pre-existing and atomistic entity that does the experiencing or the eternally separated ontological categories. The problem is when subjects and objects are seen as the starting point of reality.
As I read it, Rorty’s central thesis in “Texts and Lumps” is predicated on the existence of an epistemic gap between us and reality. The Radical Empiricism of James and Pirsig, by contrast is like Dewey’s empiricism. “No transcendental gaps are posited; we are of nature, live with nature” (Hildebrand 2003, 60). This has the magical effect of making some of the most serious problems of traditional epistemology disappear. It doesn’t give answers to old riddles. It simply dissolves the questions. “This obviates the need to argue for ‘access’ to reality by insisting that this access is something we find we already possess” (Hildebrand 2003, 154). Hildebrand was referring to Dewey in both of these statements but my contention is that it applies equally well to our radical empiricists. They are not saying that they’ve found a way to cross the gap between subjective experience and the objective world. Nor are they saying that it is an impossible gap. They’re saying there is no gap. This doesn’t deny subjects and objects, which are real enough as concepts. As a practical matter, the idea that we live in a world of objects distinct from ourselves is extremely useful. It is very handy in traffic, for example. They’re just saying that the gap created in that distinction does not cut us off from reality. They are saying reality is entirely pervious.
As you may have noticed, Rorty is the villain in this story. Everybody in the cast is a pragmatist of some sort and there are many reasons to be sympathetic with Rorty’s view, but they say a movie is only as good as its bad guy. I think the whole idea of truth as agreement among one’s cultural peers is a dangerous view. Mentioning Nazis at this point is likely to givethe impression that I’m a little too desperate for drama, but fascism is ethnocentrism gone wild. At best, truth by agreement would all but eliminate the marginal cranks, the hopeless dreamers and others who disagree with their cultural peers. In my opinion, the finest examples of humanity come from these ranks and any version of truth that excludes them has to be wrong. Those are the people most worth telling stories about, after all. They say people like happy endings so I’ll offer one last thought about the future. If Taylor and Wozniak are correct and Pirsig’s use of Radical Empiricism is any sign that they are, this epistemology may serve to unite the philosophies of East and West.
“When Zen teachers introduce students to nirvana (which the MOQ translates as the world of pure undifferentiated value) they do not do so with books and thesis. They sit the students in a room until their clutter of intellectual knowledge is abandoned (especially values judgments!) and the pure vision of the newborn infant is regained” (McWatt 2004, 83).
James, William. 1912. Essays In Radical Empiricism: A Pluralistic Universe. New York, London and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Company, ed. Henry James.1947.
Hildebrand, David. 2003a. Beyond Realism and Antirealism: John Dewey and the Neopragmatists. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Hildebrand, David. 2003b. “The Neopragmatist Turn”. Published in Southwest Philosophy Review, Vol. 19, no 1 (January, 2003).
McWatt, Anthony. 2004. A Critical Analysis of Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Liverpool. Unpublished.
Pirsig, Robert. 1974. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Bantam Books.
Pirsig, Robert. 1991. Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam Books.
Rockwell, Teed. 2003. “Rorty, Putnam, and the Pragmatist View of Epistemology and Metaphysics.” Education and Culture: the Journal of the John Dewey Society (Spring 2003). Accessed online 11/16/06 at users.California.com/~mcmf/rorty.html.
Rorty, Richard. 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Rorty, Richard. 1991. Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers. Cambridge University Press.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2001. Online entry for Richard Rorty. First published 2/3/01 and accessed on11/18/06 at plato.Stanford.edu/entries/rorty/.
Taylor, Eugene and Wozniak, Robert 2000 “Pure Experience, the Responses to William James: An Introduction”. Posted online by York University, Toronto, March 2000. Accessed 11/30/06 at psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/TaylorWoz.htm. (Originally published 1996. Pure Experience: The Response to William James (pp ix-xxxii). Bristol: Thoemmes Press.)
Please note that the copyright of this paper remains with the author who need to be contacted directly for permission to use this material elsewhere.
Another paper of David’s, “Fun with Blasphemy”, can also be found on Anthony McWatt's website here.
It now features the full “director’s cut” so don’t miss it!