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Notes on Rorty

A friend wanted me to take a look at Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida, so here’s what I think:

On the first page, Rorty introduces two options for thinking about physics, 1) The search for an accurate description of invisible things that cause the invisible world  and 2) A tradition of writers making commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of the Book of Nature. These are both undesirable in my view, but the second option is philosophically incompetent. If it were true, as he writes that physicists may not all be talking about the same thing, but rather only dialoguing with the history of physics, then he is asserting that it would be impossible for someone who had never heard of Newton to discover gravity, and/or that it would be possible for separate people to discover mutually exclusive conflicting laws of nature that were both true. One tradition in one part of the world could develop a physics which concludes that gravity exists and the other concludes that gravity cannot exist. I’m not seeing anything appealing about that, and I submit that it is the type of assertion that gives postmodern philosophy a bad name. The first option he gave is merely vague in that it seems to assume that physics cannot be made visible. Physics doesn’t have to refer to invisible forces, it can just be an instrumental method of managing what is visible.

Next, in discussing a similarly constructed fork in ways to understand philiosophy, Rorty writes

The first tradition thinks of truth as a vertical relationship between representations and what is represented. The second tradition thinks of truth horizontally-as the culminating reinterpretation of our predecessors’ reinterpretation of their predecessors’ reinterpretation. . . .

My response to this, as with his view of physics, is ‘bad’ and ‘worse’. To clarify his first tradition, Rorty says:

We can see philosophy as a field which has its center in a series of questions about the relations between words and the world.

I disagree here also. To say that philosophy is about words relating to the world is a sleight of hand maneuver. He is making a claim that philosophical ideas *are* words, rather than words being a way of communicating and thinking about ideas. We can have a philosophical discussion about words and ideas about the world, but words can have no philosophical discussion about the world. Words are signs. They don’t relate to the world unless we want them to.

Soon, Rorty gets to his would-be provocative thesis:

The reason why the notion of “philosophy of language” is an illusion is the same reason why philosophy-Kantian philosophy, philosophy as more than a kind of writing-is an illusion.

It makes perfect sense to me that someone who would mistake ideas about the world for mere words would also mistake philosophy for just so much page-filling ‘content’. When we mistake the map for the territory, the next step is to decide that the territory must be an illusion. Echoing Baudrillard’s next stage of the simulacrum, is the masking of the false assertion of philosophy as merely written words by pointing to the other inversion of the truth that philosophy may really be a tradition of philosophers talking about each other. Once you can convince the audience that philosophy is a something of a scam, then the fact that your assertion is nonsense can be made to seem to validate that. Rorty pretends to prove that philosophy could be fiction by arbitrarily placing his own fiction above philosophy.  This postmodern Liar’s paradox is, ironically logically consistent. “Philosophers are full of shit, and I am a philosopher.”

In his deconstruction of Derrida’s deconstruction of Heidegger’s deconstruction of Hegel, Rorty talks about Derrida’s distrust of Heidegger’s ‘fatal taint of Kantianism, of the Platonic “metaphysics of presence.” This ties back to what I have tried to do with multisense realism, which is to affirm the metaphysics of sense as the progenitor of presence, including the presence of re-presentation through language. While the postmodernist tradition admirably pokes holes in the Platonic-Kantian notion of ideal-noumena as a presence beyond all phenomena, it failed to identify its own hole-poking as an ideal phenomenon with pretensions to the noumenal. Yes, there is a problem with thinking of presence as an objective fact, but the problem goes away when we consider subjectivity and objectivity as dual aspects of the deeper aesthetic foundation which gives an expectation of sensibility to symmetric opposites. Rorty and Derrida are right for thinking that Plato and Kant were wrong about their objectivity being objective, but they are wrong for failing to consider that the power of consideration itself transcends all objects of consideration, including ontology and existence. I would invert Derrida’s observation that ‘There is nothing outside of the text’, since it is only consciousness which lends text a synthetic interior. In truth, nothing is inside the text, as nothing is inside the structures of the body…they are all surfaces exposed to public view.

Moving on a few pages (which I will sum up as yadda yadda), there is an interesting quote by Wittgenstein. “Sometimes, in doing philosophy, one just wants to utter an inarticulate sound.”. This gives me another hook into multisense realism, as it presents the differences between sense modalities as absolute. To utter an inarticulate sound is to try to make a cross-modal sensory conversion across modalities which are defined a priori as incommensurable. From the MSR perspective, this rather Zen idea of a one-hand-clapping sound is still missing the mark. There is one more level of understanding beyond the mystery of ineffability, and that is the realization that ineffability itself points to the common ground that all experiences share…the partitioning of aesthetic qualities and their reconciliation in the common sense intuition of expecting such partitions to be permeable somehow. By expecting to bridge the unbridgeable, we are pointing to the intrinsic commonality of all sensation and meaning in sense itself. If reality were only physics or information processes, there would be no unbridgeable signs as all signs would reduce to the same universal laws of mechanism. Synesthesia is too easy for a computer. Want to see music? Just push the voltage fluctuation through a video screen instead of a speaker. For a computer, there is no such thing as an inarticulate sound as all sound can only be the articulation of information.

I don’t have much to say about the rest of the paper. He’s talking about philosophy of language and the observation that there can be no final philosophical position. He has a point, but I think that the point is not worth the cost of sliding into the possibility of pluralism and relativism. Just because Newton was succeeded by Einstein doesn’t mean that they are equally complete descriptions of nature. Einstein picks up where Newton leaves off, not just because Einstein is having a conversation with Newton but because nature can be understood in progressively more powerful ways.

  1. January 2, 2015 at 4:06 am

    I’m somewhat agnostic on the physics question. While I would agree that gravity is probably fundamental, much of physics seems to be writing new narratives by explaining things in terms of old narratives. Modern gravity theories, the standard model, string theory, dark matter and energy, Higgs boson, all seem to be new narratives built on old narratives, and ones that might be completely different in an alternate physics.

    • January 2, 2015 at 1:16 pm

      I agree, as far as that the way physics is practiced ends up being that most of the time, but rather than considering that a way to ‘look at physics’, I would call it the way that any subject is institutionalized and even compromised by academic politics. To be physics ideally, what is produced should always translate into whatever physics model is being used, so that it’s never *just* a story but actually ties back to scientific demonstrations that can be reproduced anywhere.

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